Salmon Writer Art Lee Dies at 76


Aug. 3, 2018

By Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times News Service

Art Lee was a fly-fishing virtuoso, writer, guide

Art Lee, a writer and guide who described the sylvan joys — and the sliest tricks — of fly-fishing to generations of trout and salmon anglers, died on July 25 at a hospital in Middletown, New York.

He was 76.

Lee suffered a heart attack in his home in Roscoe, New York on July 22 and was taken off life support three days later, said Galen Mercer, an illustrator of Lee’s books.

Lee, in his pursuit of fish, championed streamside tactics over entomological science.

In an age when the sport was growing more technical, he argued knowing where fish hide, stalking them without spooking them and casting to them perfectly were more important than carrying hundreds of flies to imitate the exact insects on the water.

In 1982, reviewing Lee’s first book in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote: “I wish I had had Art Lee’s ‘Fishing Dry Flies for Trout’ when I began fishing. Lee, a field editor for Fly Fisherman magazine and one of the more reputable young flycasters in the country today, takes us by the hand and leads us through a series of baby steps from the art of ‘reading’ a stream to the craft of netting a large trout.”

For years, Lee offered advice in nearly every issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

In 1982, Lee invited former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to accompany him on a salmon-fishing trip to the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec.

Carter is considered to be the best flycaster to have ever occupied the Oval Office.

The trip was filmed as an episode of “American Sportsman,” an ABC television show, hosted by Curt Gowdy, that followed celebrities as they hunted, fished, kayaked white water, went hang-gliding and so on.

Later in life, Lee paid attention to fishing’s technical aspects and wrote an entire book about one knot.

The protagonist of the book, “Tying and Fishing the Riffling Hitch,” is not a formed knot, but a technique of adding an extra couple of loops, or “hitches,” before cinching.

The hitches go behind the eye of a standard hook or through the thin plastic tubes that make some salmon flies resemble minnows.

If tied just right, they make the fly “riffle,” or skitter along the water’s surface, leaving a V-shaped wake that taunts salmon into striking.

Anglers can argue endlessly over whether the hitches should cross atop or below the hook’s shank, but Lee settled the question: They should instead be on whichever side of the fly faces the fisherman when its head is pointed upstream.

Born on May 4, 1942, in White Plains, Arthur Christopher Lee Jr. was the son of Arthur C. and Florence (Scott) Lee, both real estate brokers.

The family owned a house in Columbia County, New York, and Lee’s father taught him to fish. “But our father was the kind of fisherman who threw night crawlers into local streams,” said Lee’s brother, George, so he learned dry-fly-fishing from a local ornithologist.

After a stint at Union College in Schenectady, New York, Lee joined the Marines and became a photographer for them. He was later a reporter for The Schenectady Gazette (now The Daily Gazette) and The Times Union in Albany and a fundraiser in Washington for the American League of Anglers.

He and his wife, Kristin (Best) Lee, moved to Roscoe in the 1970s — it calls itself “Trout Town, USA” — where they became a freelance writer-photographer team.

Their house overlooked the famous Junction Pool, where Willowemoc Creek and Beaverkill River meet.

Kristin Lee died in 2016. Art Lee is survived by his brother.

Mercer lived with the Lees as a young man, and Art Lee often described him as “the son we never had,” George Lee said.

On assignment for National Geographic and other magazines, the Lees fished everywhere: Canada, Iceland, Argentina, Russia, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

“But there were lots of times when we were living hand to mouth,” Mercer said.

In 2010, Lee was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Catskill Flyfishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, New York.

In an article about the induction, he was described as the only fisherman to have caught the biggest Icelandic salmon of the season five times and the only writer to have articles in 106 consecutive issues of the quarterly Atlantic Salmon Journal.

Long regarded as an eccentric, Lee had up to a dozen cats in his house and books and papers piled so high that he had to thread narrow paths through them.

But, until he became reclusive in recent years, he was known for spending hours teaching others to fish and telling fish tales — many of which, in further evidence of his eccentricity as an angler, were true.

But never short.

“No conversation with Arty,” his brother said, “ever included the words, ‘I shall be brief.'”