Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Line Behind the Fly: The Curious Case of Ernest Hemingway

by Peter Nardini

Hemingway began fly fishing as a young boy

Part of the great privilege of working for a museum is the constant discovery, or re-discovery, of an exciting piece of history and the access to learn more about it. This one, however, was hiding in plain sight in our very own Leigh H. Perkins Gallery. In the gallery sits a lightly used Hardy Fairy fly rod, with cork still in impeccable shape, that was owned by one Ernest Miller Hemingway. The letter accompanying it paints perhaps the perfect picture of one of the greatest writers of our generation. It is common knowledge that Hemingway was an avid outdoorsman, but the literary man's man refused to fly-fish for trout. This is not because he was in pursuit of bigger gamefish, such as the giant marlin he so eloquently depicted in The Old Man and the Sea. This is also not to say that he gave up his childhood passion of fly-fishing altogether; he fished for other species on the fly, mainly saltwater. Rather, the reason he gave up fly fishing for trout is all thanks to a common snafu... as discussed by his son in this 1972 letter to Field and Stream Magazine.

It reads:

To  Whom it May Concern,

This rod, a Hardy Fairy, one of only two surviving items of trout fishing tackle, owned by my father the late Ernest Hemingway, is the one with which he fished on the lower Cottonwoods section of the Big Wood River on the one occasion that he trout fished here in Idaho. It and another rod, a John James Hardy in poor state of repair, were the only items of trout fishing tackle he had with him when he first came to Sun Valley in the Fall of 1939 along with reel and lines and few flies. The other items have since been lost and the balance of his tackle trunk full of flies and other tackle items were lost the following year by the Railway Express Company. (This date is to the best of my knowledge). He was very discouraged by the loss of his accumulation of many years and never trout fished again except for the one occasion mentioned above. The Hardy Fairy was always one of his favorites and with it he fished wet with Hardy Corona lines and a St. George reel, tapered gut casts, usually with two or three flies. His favorite three fly cast was a Woodcock Yellow and Green, for a dropper, Shrimp fly in the middle and a worm fly or Coch-y-bondhu for a tail fly. I hope that whoever bids on this rod successfully will give serious consideration to giving it, or having his estate give it eventually to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. 

Very Sincererely,

John H. N. Hemingway

The leisure equipment of a literary master
Hemingway was famous for using the "Iceberg" technique where his words on the surface were only a front to the hidden world of real hopes, fears, and feelings that his characters were experiencing. As with many things in Hemingway's life and literature, this letter also leaves so many questions to be asked. What made him change his mind agree to go trout fishing one more time in Idaho? Where did his lost equipment end up? One thing is for sure, however, the attendant that lost his luggage probably received one of the most eloquent talking to's in the history of talking to's (our condolences).


  1. New Mills Fun Fishing Pond is perfect for the novice, young or old! Fun for all the family, whether you have fished before or not and don’t worry, we´ll supply everything you need and show you how to catch and take home that elusive first fish.

  2. I have read your article very attentively really this is very informative article. I love your article. Thank you very much for sharing this article.

  3. nice bLog! its interesting. thank you for sharing....
    fishing tackle 

  4. Great article, based on the letter it seems he was rather bummed about losing his flies! Thanks for sharing the piece of history with us.