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Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate

Patagonia, 2020, 416 pages, $30 hardcover ISBN: 978-1938340864

Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate

I have long been an admirer of Mark Kurlansky’s writing. He has a talent for taking a seemingly mundane topic, sometimes an everyday object, and through his unbounded enthusiasm and dogged research, rich with detail, turns subjects like cod, salt, or paper into best-selling books named Cod, Salt, and Paper. In Salmon, he takes a topic that is more exotic to most people and gives it the Kurlansky treatment his fans have learned to expect. Covering both Atlantic and Pacific salmon, the book ranges from personal experiences to historical detail to environmental research and the lifestyle of commercial salmon fishermen.

After many years of poring over Kurlansky’s books, I was surprised and delighted to discover that he has been a lifelong fly fisher. Nowhere in his other books do you get even an inkling of this passion, so discovering this book was like a bolt out of the blue. However, if you expect a discourse on the finer points of Skagit heads and grain weights you’d better look elsewhere. Kurlansky loves fly fishing, and loves salmon, but his appreciation for fishing seems to be more of a counterbalance to his eye for detail in other parts of his life. In a podcast I did with him, he told me he doesn’t even know what kind of two-handed rod he owns, and his favorite fly is the McGinty—for God’s sake.

He details the problems both types of salmon suffer, and makes a perceptive point that they are the indicator species of our planet. Salmon occupy both the terrestrial-dependent, freshwater ecosystem, and our oceans at critical stages of their lives. So, the human-induced insults they suffer pretty much cover the gamut of what we’re doing wrong. In fact, in one very depressing paragraph he lists “a longer list of actions that need to be taken to save the salmon”—and then goes on to list 16 issues, which include everything from climate change to eliminating hatcheries to dams to fossil fuels to preventing homes and trails placed near riverbanks. As befits a polished journalist, he does not resort to histrionics, but calmly maintains that “if we can save the planet, the salmon will be all right.”

Unlike most Kurlansky books, which are typically sprinkled with a few halftones or sketches (he’s also an accomplished artist), Salmon is lavishly illustrated with expansive color photography and some exceedingly illustrative historical photos and drawings. There are even numerous salmon recipes sprinkled throughout, gleaned from his travels around the globe to research the book. Some of them are quite exotic; others are everyday home recipes for people who live and work in salmon country.

Students of fly-fishing traditions won’t obtain many new insights on the history of sport fishing for salmon. But that’s not what the readers of this magazine would be looking for anyway. Like me, I think that most fly fishers are more interested in non-familiar nuggets like the day-to-day routine of small-scale commercial salmon netters, the salmon of Japan, or that the return of Atlantic salmon to Irish and Scottish rivers is almost entirely hatchery supported. Or why those expansive vistas of the Scottish Highlands are not natural, but have been cleared to promote easier grouse hunting—to the detriment of salmon rivers.

Salmon is rich in details, and a love story by one of the world’s foremost journalists.

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