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Nymphs Volume 1:  The Mayflies by Ernest G. Schwiebert

A Review By Dave Votaw


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I confess, when Joe Cornwall asked me to review this book I didn't know Ernest Schwiebert from Albert Schweitzer.  I'm a lifelong fisherman but relatively new to fly fishing, and my lack of knowledge about the sport shows.  When Joe handed me this 10 pound brick of a book, I thought, "Cool, I like aquatic bugs, this should be interesting.”  In a former life as a grad student, I'd even attempted to teach some entomology, and Joe no doubt actually believed me when I'd told him about this ancient history of insect study.


Looking at Schwiebert, I fully expected something dry and text book-like, similar to those books from university work some 35 years ago.  Nothing could be further from the truth - Schwiebert is a joy to read, albeit a little heavy to haul around or even read in bed; you need to sit at a desk to properly enjoy this huge book.


Schwiebert himself was a man of immense talent.  Reading this book one would think him a biologist, but he was not, at least in the formal sense.  He held Master's degrees in Art and Art History, two PhDs in architecture, and taught art and literature at Princeton while practicing as an architect. Schwiebert was a founding member of Trout Unlimited, and his first book, Matching the Hatch, published in 1955, gave fishermen one of the most widely used fishing lines known the world over. Schwiebert died in 2005 and this second edition was finished by his wife and son; the first edition was published in 1973.


Schwiebert's intent with both editions was to publish the entomology for successful trout fishing.  The second edition contains 16 chapters, the first five discussing "the genesis of modern nymph fishing," and the following 11 reviewing the specific mayfly genera.  Each chapter begins with and includes several interesting quotes from renowned fly fishers and/or poets and authors, both contemporary and ancient.  Interspersed among the technical information, biology, taxonomy, color plates and fly recipes, are fascinating anecdotes and tales from Schwiebert's fly fishing experiences and those of his friends and acquaintances.  Unknown to me was the tremendous controversy nymph fishing and Schwiebert's views created within the community of traditional fly fishing, early advocates being labeled "nettlesome free thinkers," even though stomach evidence from those early days when all fish taken were killed indicated that greater than 90% of a trout's diet came from under the surface.  Real fly fishermen fished dry flies only; nymph fishing was heresy, "a breach of logic and polite manners." Schwiebert labeled this old school ‘dry fly only’ thinking as the "theocracy of the chalk stream Vatican!"  Clearly in the early decades of the 20th century anglers on both sides of this "issue" took it pretty damn seriously.


Following this entertaining presentation of the history and evolution of nymph fishing, Schwiebert launches into the 11 chapters on mayfly nymphs.  The detail in these chapters may be more than the average fly rodder wants or needs to know; as noted, each contains appropriate quotations, fishing stories, detailed life histories and metamorphosis, illustrations drawn by Schwiebert of course, classification, popular names, conditions that lend themselves to nymphing, and multiple fly tying recipes for the species being discussed.  Regarding classification and identification, Schwiebert is very exact in naming the nymphs by their proper scientific nomenclature rather than the "mindless vernacular umbrellas" such as blue-wing olives or sulphurs.  Praise for Schwiebert's prose pales in comparison to the words themselves.  The fishing anecdotes that begin and end each chapter, including the scientific discussions, make the reading enjoyable and nothing like the text book I expected.  Here, as an example, is the introduction to Chapter 7, the Nymphs of Hexagenia and Litobrancha:


“The melodic notes of whip-poor-wills came from the hardwood benches across the Pere Marquette.  The river whispered through its corridor of cedar sweepers, and I could the see the silhouettes of skeletal white pines on the high cornice of the Clay Banks.  The night was hot and still, with a sliver of Michigan moon lying on its back.”


And from Chapter 15, the Swift-Water Stenonema and Stenacron:


“The loss of the second large trout had allowed me to leave something personal in the depths of Hendrickson's, a quicksilver talisman I had touched briefly and failed.  Knowing it was there made the river seem different; its secrets were quietly rendered more tangible.  Sometimes, failure remains more indelible than success.  The river still holds such bright secrets in its heart, perhaps in every one of its storied pools, and the pulse of any angler quickens at such thoughts.”


Nymphs Volume 1:  The Mayflies (ISBN 159228499X) is available from The Lyons Press for $60 and is highly recommended.  Volume II on the stoneflies, caddisflies, lesser mayflies, dragonflies and damselflies, and miscellaneous orders will follow.

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