Finding Joe Brooks

Greg French welcomes a definitive fly fishing documentary

Anyone who has read my books will know how much I admire the American writer Joe Brooks, and how much he influenced my own writing and travels, especially through his wonderful 1972 book Trout Fishing. Now his great nephews Joe Jr and Mike have released the definitive documentary on his life. 

Finding Joe Brooks is a gripping and candid account of a wonderfully flawed man – a selfish bar brawler who left a trail of emotionally wounded women in his wake – who nonetheless rose above his past to become the most influential and respected fishing writer in America. 

Joe Brooks was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1901 (when there were only 10 miles of paved road in all of the US) and died of a heart attack while fishing his beloved Nelson Creek in Montana in 1972. In between, he lived a boy’s-own adventure like no other. 

As a teenager he was a sporting prodigy. He started university at Princeton, but lost his way at age 18 when his father died. He married a socialite at age 24, but the marriage was dissolved in 1929, mainly due to Joe’s alcoholism. Then came the Great Depression. 

In Ontario, Canada, in 1937 Joe ‘graduated’ from one of the earliest programs for alcoholics, and channelled his energy into fly fishing, which gave him enough sense of purpose to stay out of trouble. He joined the Coast Guard during the war, and afterwards began writing a fishing column in a Maryland paper. The timing couldn’t have been better, with hordes of soldiers returning to a newly vibrant
economy and seeking to reacquaint themselves with the American outdoors. 

In 1947 Joe attended an outdoor writers conference in Florida, where he met Mary Ainslie, Ontario’s Director of Travel and Publicity, who was soliciting writers to promote outdoor travel and tourism in her province. They married, and by all accounts Mary became pivotal
to stability in his private life and the development of his professional life. He soon began writing for iconic national magazines, including Field and Stream and Outdoor Life. 

Joe pioneered fly fishing for striped bass, and after visiting Cuba became highly influential in the promotion and development of saltwater fly fishing.

In 1955 he was invited by the great Argentinean fly fisherman Jorge Donovan to visit Patagonia, where he revolutionised the local fly fishing scene. On his return home he appeared on the ground-breaking television show, The American Sportsman, where he showcased Patagonia to American and global anglers. At this time, he began using his influence to promote sustainable harvest, championing the then-new concept of catch and release. In Michigan in the early 1960s he helped establish Trout Unlimited. Then he discovered Montana and began promoting fly fishing there.

Finding Joe Brooks is a triumph of disciplined and artistic editing. The historical stills, many in black and white, are fascinating, the modern cinematography of Cuba, Patagonia and Montana is spectacular, and the talking heads — the likes of Lefty Kreh — are articulate, insightful, humble and above all, highly entertaining. 

This is an important film that should be compulsory viewing for anyone with a love of fly fishing. Because it is a deeply human story rather than a dry history, you won’t be able to extract yourself from the screen. Moreover, you’ll probably learn more about the development of our sport than you ever thought possible.

Finding Joe Brooks runs for 1 hr 18 m.
Rent ($12.99) or purchase ($34.99) from www.joebrooksfoundation.org