Newly Released Footage Captures Aldo Leopold Fly Fishing Trip

Recently, I was excited to discover rare video of Aldo Leopold at a fly fishing camp. At about the same time, the University of Wisconsin Press released my book on the history of the Leopold Memorial Reserve, Living a Land Ethic: A History of Cooperative Conservation on the Leopold Memorial Reserve. Readers of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac know this site well, as the home of the Leopold family’s famous shack. Living a Land Ethic traces the roots of an innovative yet little-known conservation agreement among five landowners. Signed in 1967, the reserve agreement put in writing a commitment among neighbors to continued ecological restoration and protection of the shack area from development. The two principal stewards of the reserve were the Leopold and Coleman families, who later founded the Aldo Leopold and Sand County Foundations. The Leopold Foundation was formed by the five children of Aldo Leopold, while the Sand County Foundation was founded by Reed Coleman and his mother Catherine.
During the course of my research, an unexpected event was encountering four reels of film footage from the late 1920s taken by Reed Coleman’s father Tom that included the video footage of Aldo Leopold fly fishing and camping in northern Wisconsin (see While a short three-second portion of the Leopold footage was included in Green Fire, the 2011 documentary of Aldo Leopold, few people I talked to were aware of the existence of entire reels of film. In the interests of preservation, the original reels were immediately donated by Sand County Foundation to the University of Wisconsin Archives, along with other reserve documents and artifacts. The film is currently being copied to a high-resolution digital format. One of the reels, however, was already duplicated on a mini-DVD tape, allowing me to get a partial preview. Not surprisingly, upon viewing the tape, I discovered that Tom Coleman mostly recorded family events such as Christmas or the July 4th holiday. It was also evident that he enjoyed filming wildlife and outdoor adventures with family and friends.
Out of fifty minutes of film on this copy, I found three minutes that included Leopold. This segment also featured Leopold’s sons Starker and Luna, who looked to be in their early- to mid-teens. Upon further analysis of the surrounding landscape, Leopold biographer Dr. Curt Meine believed the footage to be from northern Wisconsin in the late 1920s, shortly after enormous quantities of white pine and other timber had been clearcut from the Upper Great Lakes region. Meine subsequently reviewed Leopold’s diaries (available online courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation at and determined from the people present, their estimated ages, and the background landscape that it must have been a 1927 trip to the Lily River in the Nicolet National Forest northwest of Green Bay.
Coleman’s son Reed watched the film and identified the other person in this clip (visible in waders at minute two) as his father Tom. From conversations with Coleman and Meine, the sequence was determined to be of Tom Coleman in the driveway of the Coleman’s house in Madison (in foreground), then of Aldo Leopold fly fishing, followed by Leopold cooking flapjacks over a campfire. The final clip shows someone’s hand stuffing a creel with small trout and fern fronds.
This confirmation of film details provides viewers with the rare opportunity to watch the video and read Leopold’s corresponding diary entry. (To see the original diary entry and a transcribed version, click on and scroll down to the bottom of the page.) From the diary, I learned that the video was part of a four-day trip to the Lily, a tributary to the Wolf River. The Wolf is now famous for whitewater rafting and other recreational opportunities that its clear waters provide.  After a day fishing the Lily, Leopold, his brother Carl, and Tom Coleman decided to try another nearby river, concluding that “the big Lily is about the prettiest stream we have ever seen but contains only small fish.” Their new location yielded plenty of fish but not many more large ones, as the final trip tally was “47 trout, 7-11 inches, mostly 7-8.” The end of the video, with an unidentified person packing fish in a creel, confirms the small size of the fish.
For full literary effect, I have found it most interesting to read the diary entry alongside Aldo Leopold’s essay “The Alder Fork—A Fishing Idyl” from “June” in Sand County Almanac. Readers of the Almanac will see how such diary entries played a role in him drafting an essay for his final literary masterpiece. It has been well documented by Curt Meine and others that Aldo wrote many drafts of his essays, allowing him to polish his writing of the same passages over a series of months and years. In this case, the overlap between the two experiences is clear. Leopold’s ode to the Lily River at the end of his diary entry bears a strong resemblance to “Alder Fork,” down to the distance driven (“two hundred miles of hot, dusty road,” according to the Almanac essay). Given the similarities between the two pieces, the Lily River trip must have been part of a rich suite of fly fishing adventures that together informed “Alder Fork.”

Blog entry by Stephen Laubach, author of Living a Land Ethic: A History of Cooperative Conservation on the Leopold Memorial Reserve


said on Friday, October 31st, 2014

Fascinating footage--thanks for sharing this!  I've been to the "shack" a number of years ago and it was very inspiring. . . 

said on Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

You're welcome Randy! Sand County Almanac does take on new meaning with the chance to see the land first-hand. Let me know if you're ever back this way and I'd be happy to give a tour.


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