Fishing The True Cast Trout Talk

A tribute to Chris Santella…

Chris Santella was the ultimate gentleman, great angler and incredible writer.

I’m sure he’s already on the ultimate sequel.

The fly-fishing world is a little bit less “adventurous,” and quite a bit less “literary” now, because we recently lost one of the purest, most inspiring writing voices the sport has ever known.

Chris Santella gracefully succumbed to cancer at the age of 61 on May 23. I chose those words carefully, because Santella never “lost” anything—he fought… he won… he taught… he inspired… and most important, he was a role model, a great friend and one of the most genuinely caring people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing and working with. I know many others who feel just the same way.

Chris’ breakthrough project was a simple—yet genius—concept titled, 50 Places to Fly Fish Before You Die. That led to sequels, not only in fly-fishing, but also golf, diving, sailing, and other adventure sports.

But to say he was tied to a formula would woefully understate his immense range. Having studied at Middlebury and Yale, then moved to raise a family in Portland, Oregon, Chris could handle any assignment, from biographical profile to travelogues and how-to tips. He was great with prose, but even greater with substance. What Santella had to say in his books—from essay collections to a novella called Belgian Flats that will be posthumously released in the coming months—added to his contributions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, had a massive impact. 

Chris Santella

But that is not what I will remember most about Chris, nor will I remember most our collaborations at TROUT magazine and elsewhere. What I’m going to remember most, and cling to with grateful appreciation, is what a genuinely good man… honest, caring person… devotee to wild places… and true friend he was to me and many others.

We first met on a junket to fish on Kodiak Island in Alaska. We’d been given seat assignments for a flight from Seattle to Anchorage, and I drew the middle seat. I’m still deathly afraid of flying (go figure) but Santella swapped seats with me to give me the aisle, then charmed the flight attendant into giving us free drinks on that bumpy flight. Days later, as we were catching steelhead by the bushel on the Karluk River, I was throwing a pegged bead as he quietly swung streamers to equal effect, and without a harsh word, he opened my neophyte eyes to the concept that “how” can and should matter much more than “how many.” 

A couple years later, he got an invite to go fish in Ireland, and he brought me along. Him, to write a story for the New York Times, and me to tag along for Field & Stream. We didn’t catch many fish, but we golfed along the way, and we made our stories. He also gave me more “gimme” putts than I truly deserved.

Not long after Ireland, Santella dragged me along on another press trip—this time to the fabled Atlantic Salmon mecca of the Ponoi River in Russia. As (poor) luck would have it, my luggage got lost in the transfers between Detroit, Amsterdam and Helsinki. I had a choice to make—fly on the charter into Russia to fish or wait for my luggage. I chose to go fishing, of course, and flew into Russia with only my backpack with a camera, a laptop, six pairs of underwear and a bottle of Scotch I bought at duty-free. When the uniformed female officer in Murmansk asked me if I had anything else to declare, I simply said, “That’s how I roll.”  She stamped me through, and Santella and the guides in camp loaned me enough gear to help me make it through the week.

Chris and I nearly had as much fun golfing as we did fishing.

I naturally stayed in touch with Santella in the years after, and even prodded him into writing stories for TROUT magazine. He’d pitch an angle, and I could never say no. He always delivered, ahead of deadline. One time, as I was passing through Portland for other reasons, we met up for lunch, and after, he insisted on taking me to Powell’s bookstore. He bought me a copy of The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, just because he thought I should read it. He was right.

Several months ago, Chris told me he had gone on a fishing trip to Alaska and experienced blurred vision in an eye. He went home to Portland and discovered that it was caused by a cancerous tumor. The prognosis wasn’t good.

Because Chris knew his time was short, he invited me and our mutual pal Conway Bowman, as well as a cadre of other fishing friends, to a last soiree on a river that meant a lot to him—The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. The profundity of that wasn’t lost on me… the man who wrote Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die had chosen to revisit one of his most favorite stops. When all is said and done, the Henry’s Fork may indeed be the most representative “heaven on earth” place to fish for trout, anywhere in the entire world.

But sadly, we didn’t make it. And that’s how tributes like this end up getting written instead.

I wish I’d have had the chance to see him again. But I’d already been rewarded so much through this friendship.

Chris inspired my adventurous spirit.

When I heard the news that Chris had passed away, I was sitting on a bench along the River Test in England. It occurred to me, right then, that I probably wouldn’t have been at that place, at that time, were it not for the adventure spirit my friend had inspired in the first place. And within minutes… the most amazing mayfly hatch I’d ever witnessed ensued. I shed a few tears, and then smiled, and I fished. It affirmed a belief that everything happens for a reason, and I hoped—actually, I honestly felt—that Santella had found peace.

And now I hope that he’s working on the ultimate sequel… catching the fish, wading the cool clear waters and pausing from time to time to scribble thoughts in his notebook.

The 50 Best Places After