Some old things refuse to die out. Outdoor books refuse to perish. The ones here refuse to go away because they are quite legitimately masterpieces, and because they represent a kind of continuity that you find in old things. Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy is the best rendering in any medium of what it’s like to be a kid who loves the outdoors. It’s also been in print, without interruption, since it was first published more than a half century ago. Some of the other books with that kind of track record are the Bible and the Works of Shakespeare.
This means that a kid picking it up for the first time today is probably the third generation to experience the magic of Ruark. I was in the first generation, and I envy that kid.
There’s magic in the printed page. Read on and find out. —David E. Petzal, rifles editor
It’s either a long short story or a short novel. And it’s not easy sledding. But it nails the heart of hunting as no one else ever has or will: “It was of the men, not white nor black nor red, but men, hunters with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and deer juxtaposed and reliefed against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest by the ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter…” —Bill Heavey, editor-at-large
Tom Kelly dictated Tenth Legion into a recorder while driving down the road, and his wife typed it up. He then paid a press in New York to print 500 copies, knowing that if he sold 200 of them, he’d at least break even. The book became what many hunters, me included, insist is the best commentary on turkey hunting ever written. —Will Brantley, hunting editor
Sooner or later you’re going to hear this, the most-oft-quoted philosophical underpinning for killing an animal. You should know in your bones what it feels like to live it: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” —T. Edward Nickens, editor-at-large
Robert Ruark’s collection of Field & Stream columns about a boy, his grandfather, and a childhood full of hunting, fishing, and life lessons on the North Carolina coast was first compiled into a book in 1953. It has remained in print ever since, and it’s now considered a piece of classic American literature. If you want to learn how to tell a good hunting story, this is where to start. —W.B.
Bill Heavey is the poet laureate of failure. He is also one of the two writers in the 120-year-plus history of F&S good enough to have the last page to himself, the other being Ed Zern. —D.E.P.
Before the modern era of specialization, outdoor writers were expected to do it all, and few did it all as well as Trueblood. He is still worth reading all these years later, especially about cooking in camp, where he gets downright eloquent when discussing the proper use of a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven. —Slaton L. White, deputy editor
Gene could write only one thing—short essays—but he made that his very own art form. Here he is at his best. —D.E.P.
No single book popularized the romance of safari than African Game Trails, Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 account of a 10-month adventure through present-day Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. The hunting party included half a dozen shooters, 250 local porters and guides, and three taxidermists from the Smithsonian, with the intent of amassing trophies for the U.S. National Museum, in Washington D.C. Today, only Roosevelt’s white rhinos remain on display, but 100-odd years later, Game Trails is still a ripping good read. —Michael R. Shea, editor-at-large
O’Connor’s luminous prose on a subject he loved, and Allen’s superlative art, form a magical combination. —D.E.P.
Capstick’s classic may not be a literary tour de force, and it may very well be a generous expansion of real-life events. But, nevertheless, no book so submerges the reader into the feeling of dangerous-game hunting. Some people call a spade a spade. Capstick calls it a god**** shovel. —M.R.S.
Ed wrote Exit Laughing, his back-page column for F&S, every month for something like 40 years, and was funny, or interesting, or both, every time. Miraculous. —D.E.P.
This book made me feel what it was like to love a dog years before I had a one of my own. And no book better captures the heartache of when that dog passes away. —JR Sullivan, associate editor
This isn’t a collection of stories about hunting, but about the connective tissues that bind hunters to the land, to each other, and to community. Wade through the dense dialect, and navigate the anachronistic race relations of the period, and you will never again feel the same with a shotgun in your hand. —T.E.N.
Though this book hasn’t yet stood the test of time like many on this list, Rinella has, in a relatively short time, introduced many new hunters to the outdoors with his honest, and appetizing, approach to killing, cooking, and eating wild game. —J.R.S.
Read any of his many books, all of which are characterized by a dry wit reminiscent of Twain but with McManus’s singular spin. Who else could write, “Smoked carp tastes just as good as smoked salmon when you ain’t got no smoked salmon”? —B.H.
In Bass’s long career as an essayist and magazine writer, he’s written about important environmental and conservation issues. And he can tell a damn good hunting story, too. But perhaps his greatest piece of nonfiction is this short book about his beloved GSP, Colter. It will make you feel things that you haven’t in a long time. —J.R.S.
Hill was, roughly, Superman armed with a longbow. He roamed from Alaska to Africa, and did it all half a century before anyone else. —D.E.P.
A death match between a Siberian tiger that has already killed one man and the government hunter assigned to finish him off. —D.E.P.
Larry was the Compleat Outdoorsman, and a gifted writer to boot. This is about a lot more than deer hunting. —D.E.P.
His first safari, and nearly 60 years later, still the best book on African hunting. —D.E.P.
To be fair, it was the film adaptation that inspired so many people, including me, to pick up a fly rod for the first time. But Maclean’s prose deserves all of the credit. The writing is, at times, impossibly beautiful and feels effortless—much like a perfect fly cast. And the final sentence will stay with you, always. —Colin Kearns, editor-in-chief
With his fiction, McGuane has rightly secured a place among the great American novelists, but this slim collection of essays makes a convincing case that he might be our greatest living fishing writer, too. The 33 essays that comprise The Longest Silence chronicle the breadth of McGuane’s evolution as an angler, from learning how to fish to stalking permit in the Keys, each written with power and poise. The greatest shame of The Longest Silence is that it’s McGuane’s only book dedicated solely to fishing. —J.R.S.
I’ve had friends who don’t live on the East Coast question my obsession with chasing migratory striped bass. But several of them have taken my advice and read On The Run. As soon as they were done, they’ve all said, “I get it now.” In the book, DiBenedetto follows the migrating stripers from Maine to North Carolina. Though he fishes the entire way, this is not a fishing journal, but, rather, an account of the anglers, plug builders, and conservationists he encounters along the way—and their varying degrees of insanity and obsession. —Joe Cermele, fishing editor
This is probably the best book ever written that connects the dots between moving waters and the human soul. Leeson writes with such grace and candor, one cannot help but relate with him. The Habit of Rivers ultimately reaffirms everything you love most about fly fishing. —Kirk Deeter, editor-at-large
Man vs. nature? Man vs. himself? The one that got away? Yes, yes, and you’ll have to read it again (you did read it when you were a kid, didn’t you?) to figure out the last. Either way, Santiago’s epic struggle with a giant marlin, alone in a rowboat off the coast of Cuba, with only a handline between him and the fish, will make you feel silly for fretting about the tensile strength of your $400 fly rod. —Mike Toth
One could argue, with good reason, that no one person has done more for flyfishing literature than Nick Lyons. His imprint, the Lyons Press, has published seminal flyfishing books new and old, including The Habit of Rivers by Ted Leeson and Selective Trout by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, helping revive interest in the genre. But Lyons will be best remembered for Spring Creek, a mediation on a Montana fishing hole that’s both plainspoken and poetic, insightful and amusing. —J.R.S.
“The eight-pound tippet held like a stout steel cable,” marvels Montana trout guide Rainbow Sam, after his client hooks and winches in a dead body in the Madison River. That one sentence from the opening scene proves that F&S field editor Keith McCafferty’s premier mystery novel sits squarely at the intersection of real-life, hard-core fishing experience, and captivating who-done-it storytelling. —M.T.
Babb has a sharp, wry style, and a real gift for zipping illustrative phrases like roll casts. This is a classic for lovers of pure nature writing, spanning from the woods of Maine to the wilds of Patagonia. —K.D.
Robert Traver is the pen name of the late John D. Voelker, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice who also famously wrote Anatomy of a Murder. Trout Madness is a “fishier” more pathologic tale of a lawyer who follows a manic passion for trout to the edge. —K.D.
In case you haven’t read it, I won’t spool the ending. But suffice it to say the shark’s demise in Benchley’s novel is less dramatic than Chief Brody saying, “Smile, you son of a b***h,” before putting a rifle round in an air tank. Regardless, if you call yourself a Jaws fan, you have to read the novel. Though you will have to suffer through a love affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife, you also can’t beat descriptors like bones being “crushed to jelly” when the shark is having a human snack. —J.C.
Any Gierach book could have made this list (especially Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing), but Trout Bum is what set the “everyman” tone and created a cult following for the guy who made it somehow respectable to celebrate the absurdities that go with flyfishing. —K.D.
Even though the long-standing largemouth bass world record has been tied since Monte Burke’s Sowbelly was published, it still captures the drive of the trophy bass-obsessed angler better than anything else ever in print. Frankly, I’m not exactly a devout largemouth angler, but I devoured this book in just a few nights. From hunting the record on ramshackle boats in Cuba to growing it in a tank, Sowbelly takes you on a journey that any fisherman will enjoy. —J.C.
These stories of how anglers tackled the greatest beasts of the ocean will not only spin your mind, but also sadden you that some of these species don’t exist in the same numbers they once did. —K.D.
Many writers have used flyfishing as a metaphor for life’s vagaries and occasional moments of grace, but few have done it with the descriptive power, or the understanding of the healing powers of a cool mountain stream, or the pure joy of watching a trout rise to a dry fly, as Middleton. —S.L.W.
A collection of true Southern stories about squirrel hunters, coonhounds, and, yes, catfish noodlers. I dare you not to enjoy the hell out of this book. —C.K.
Some find it unreadable, which may oddly befit a book cited as the “most American” of novels. In short, an obsessed whaling captain is really pissed off at the white whale that ate half his leg. The beast obviously messed with the wrong dude. Long before Bruce Willis, there was Ahab. “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness…” —B.H.
As an outdoor writer, there’s no greater frustration than to write about what you think are “cutting-edge” flyfishing techniques, only to crack open this book and realize Merwin, F&S’s former fishing editor, who passed in 2013, was all over everything we’re still trying to figure out, 25 years ago. Man, do I miss that guy. —K.D.
This one cuts right to the chase, because if you don’t know what trout eat, why they eat it, and how they eat it, it’s pretty darn hard to catch them. Whitlock is, hands down, the greatest fly innovator of the past half century, and he also happens to be one of the most gracious and kind gentlemen in the sport. —K.D.
Another classic that really helps the angler understand the quarry, so you can react to what the fish tell you, rather than trying to impose your will on them. Not having this in the library is a notable omission. —K.D.
Don’t be fooled by the quirky, almost comic book look of the Curtis Creek Manifesto. This book packs more practical, easily digested “how-to” info into each page than any other. —K.D.
This is the original “graduate school” course on chasing smart trout—which usually happen to be the big trout. And it covers tactics applicable to both Eastern and Western rivers to boot. —K.D.
Rosenbauer taught many of us to fish through his many Orvis books. His best may actually be his latest, which also looks beyond the basics into the more advanced challenges and scenarios. —K.D.
Beginning with Aawa (don’t ask) and ending with zooplankton, McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia was, in the days before Wikipedia and the internet, the go-to reference for anglers of all stripes. In the halls of F&S’s editorial offices, you often heard someone say, “Look it up in McClane’s.” It was, and is, the last word on all things piscatorial. — S.W.
This book is the reason we now say flyfishing writing falls into two categories—the “how-to,” and the “why.” The River Why is a fun, often humorous, novel that highlights the sanctity of steelhead as a force for self-discovery. —K.D.
A season-by-season, species-by-species flyfishing classic. What stands out in A River Never Sleeps is its conscience: Flyfishing is art, but that art depends on fragile resources. —K.D.
Uncle Robert was one of the great shots of his era, and a wonderful writer to boot. Head and shoulders above all other scattergun books. —D.E.P.
I have a sneaking hunch Carmichel knows more about this than anyone, and it shows here. Timed hath not dimmed its lustre. —D.E.P.
Ol’ Elmer was born as the frontier was ending. He was a natural storyteller, and led a life that most of us would envy. —D.E.P.
Much of the machinery has changed, but not the principles behind it. Unlike the other people who pontificate on guns, Page could actually write. —D.E.P.
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter (and occasional F&S contributor) C.J. Chivers is the greatest living war reporter, and The Gun is no doubt among the greatest books dedicated to a single firearm. It’s the epic of the AK-47—not a hunting rifle, sure, but any modern rifleman would be hard pressed to put this book down. —J.R.S.
Read Next: David E. Petzal’s Reading List
This collection of essays by ecologist, forester, and hunter Aldo Leopold earned its well-deserved place in the canon of sporting literature for its eloquent argument for a new “land ethic” that drives our relationship with wildlife and healthy ecosystems. But don’t let it’s important subject matter and reputation as required reading intimidate you. It’s also a beautiful book, lighthearted, and full of the joy that we sportsmen can find all around us. Reading it will not only make you think, it’ll also put a smile on your face. —Anthony Licata, editorial director
For those trying to figure out just what Alaska means—to Alaskans, and to all those who dream of Alaska—this 1976 magnum opus is a deep well of good water. —T. E.N.
This book of quasi-fictional dispatches reads like transmissions from another world. The standout section is the “The Log Jam,” a series of sparse, loosely interlinked tales of people who work and live—and often meet their fates—along a river. But there is beauty here, too. Few but Lopez could write, “To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.” —J.R.S.
CAMPING & SURVIVAL
The movie adaptation of James Dickey’s short novel made certain sounds—like pig squealing and dueling banjos—part of popular culture. But the book is arguably more terrifying than the film, culminating with the scene of Ed killing a hillbilly rapist (who’s armed with a rifle) with his recurve. It’s enough to make a man pack a Glock and three extra magazines on every fishing trip. —W.B.
Short, scary, and sad. Here’s what happens when you take on Mother Nature unprepared. —D.E.P.
Glass was mauled by a grizzly and deserted by the two trappers who were to stay with him until the end. How he survived is a great American epic of endurance. —D.E.P.
I don’t know whether Kochanski coined the term or not, but it, and his book, have come to mean surviving with the absolute minimum of gear. This is still the Bible on the subject. —D.E.P.
The books is much scarier than the movie. If you go willingly on a boat smaller than the Queen Mary after you read this, you’re braver than I. —D.E.P.
A superlative writer, Cookman died at tragically early, but left us a book that’s so entertaining you’ll love if even if you can barely boil water. —D.E.P.
The best book on Custer and the Little Bighorn, and one of the best books on the Indian wars and the Western frontier. Nothing else like it. —D.E.P.