He was fishing's Renaissance man, his talent flashing like a muskie spoon. He walked past the boundaries of fishing, a leader into the unknown, inventing as he went. Writer, fly-tier, artist, photographer, explorer no one in angling history was ever wiser, more resourceful or more visionary.
He was my friend.
We fished across the world together, from the virgin shallows of the Abacos where no man before him had wet a flyline, to the wild reefs of New Guinea and the desert lakes of North Africa.
In Norway Al and I were filming an Atlantic salmon show for ABC's American Sportsman series. Plagued by a bad weather, we were holed up for several weeks before we caught enough fish to make a show. As our long wait for the sun wore on the crew began grumbling about the local food. So Al went to the local market and made a few purchases. That night our spirits were lifted as we feasted on a variety of dishes from Italy. I will never know how Al was able to put together one of the memorable meals of my life in a country that didn't know a wedge of provolone from a bowl of minestrone. Al was a master at the stove, typewriter and the fly-tying bench.
If I couldn't be with him, I followed him in "Field & Stream."
As the magazine's fishing editor from the late '40s into the '80s, his spare prose which would usually bear an exotic dateline was always alive, like the places where gamefish swim. Rich and honest and clear, one of his columns was the closest thing to a day on the water. But he not only put you there, he taught you in ways so subtle you hardly noticed.
He was truly famous.
His columns were read around the world. Kings, queens, generals, presidents and movie stars sought his company and usually he obliged. Yet he was just as comfortable with us ordinary souls. He especially liked other writers, particularly the young ones with the talent and insight to keep the light burning after he moved on.
He didn't like fishing tournaments.
Fishing with Al involved many things. But never was it about angler against angler. Through his discerning eye, fishing had nothing to do with competition or with manhood, for that matter. Al had seen war and understood manhood as something deeper than a bass lake.
Yet no one ever fished with more passion.
It was a passion driven by science. Al McClane was a full-blooded, sheepskin-carrying ichthyologist. He studied fish like Galileo studied the stars or Freud the libido. As fellow columnist and humorist Ed Zern once remarked, Al left "no tern un-stoned" in his investigations of the world beneath the surface.
Al was ahead of his time.
While other writers were content to catch fish, Al examined their movements and habits at eye-level, wearing a wetsuit and carrying a camera in a waterproof case. While other writers took the easy routes, Al often went alone and blazed a new trail in a new ocean or lake or river. If catching bonefish and permit on a fly was not Al's invention, he saw it early, wrote about it often and sold it to the world.
Al's biggest gift to us was the mother of all fishing reference books.
Entitled "McClane's Fishing Encyclopedia," its 1000-plus pages were 10 years in the making. Beautifully packaged, the book is the Britannica of angling; there's not a fish worthy of catching that is not profiled. Contributions from dozens of experts on every aspect of angling: rod-making, fly-tying, boat-building, smoking, cleaning and cooking replete with hundreds of four-color photographs, drawings and paintings arrived in the bookstores in 1965 and cost $19.95. Now, after a number of revisions, it is still available, but the price has changed a bit. Still, at more than a hundred bucks, it's worth every centavo. It belongs in the library of every serious angler. Like Al's columns in F&S, his opus magnum provides the most richly detailed window of the greatest sport ever invented.
So, here's a toast to the most Compleat Angler and companion I ever wet a line with, or shared a meal. My memories are richer for knowing him.
Tight lines, folks.
In January, February and March 2002 CITGO's In Search of Flywater will air Sundays at 8:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2, and reair Thursdays at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.