January 5

Book Review: ‘The Contest’

James Hurley’s novel on fly fishermen is set in a fictional Maine town.

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Fly fishermen think they are better than everyone else. They take one of the early hunter-gatherer occupations of bringing home food and turn it into not only a sport, but an art. They consider themselves closer to nature than people who don’t fish at all, as well as people who fish with spinning gear or live bait.

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BOOK REVIEW

“THE CONTEST.” By James Hurley. Islandport Press. 248 pages. $22.95.

They tie or buy flies that not only fool fish into thinking they are edible, but are beautiful works of art in themselves.

“The Contest” by James Hurley is a novel about fly fishermen, and fly fishermen’s high opinion of themselves is central to the plot.

The action takes place in a fictional small Maine town that is probably in the Lovell-Waterford area, and on an unnamed river that flows through the town, right by Crossing House, an old inn.

The narrator, Benedict Salem and called BS and/or Ben by his friends, discovered Crossing House while returning to his home in Massachusetts after an unsuccessful fishing trip in parts of Maine farther north, met innkeeper Bill Cahill, and fell in love with the inn, the river and the town, eventually moving there to eke out a living as a writer.

Ben, Bill and other town residents form the Samuel Tippett Fly Fishers club, named after a former owner of Crossing House who was responsible for stocking the once barren river with brook trout and brown trout.

All is going well until Ben writes a fishing column in which he claims the Deerhair Caddis is the perfect trout fly. Other STIFFS (the acronym for Samuel TIppet Fly Fishers) criticize his choice, and after much liquor flows, the arguments get heated. The result is the creation of a contest to determine the best fishing fly.

The 10 club members all pick their choice for perfect fly. Five pick dry flies, designed to float on the surface of the water, and five pick wet flies, which imitate small fish or underwater insects. Those selections created a separate event, of dries against wets.

But as the contest proceeds over three days, the battle expands to include who are the better fishermen and, perhaps, the better people.

The contest changes the men taking part in it, changes the way they fish and think about fishing, and even changes how they think about themselves, each other, morality and life itself.

Fly fishermen will enjoy this book, especially during the winter when they can’t get out on the water. Hurley, who lives in western Massachusetts, describes fishing techniques, how flies work to deceive fish and the best places in a river to find fish. Those passages alone will keep fishermen entertained and transport them to the streams of their minds.

The conflicts among the fishermen go well beyond fishing, involving how people deal with conflict, change their personality when the competition heats up and change it again when things go seriously wrong. Those changes will be interesting to anyone.

All of the contestants, including the narrator, have personality quirks and their own demons that they deal with, and these come out in the contest.

But fly fishing is central to the novel. While fly fishermen (I am one) will find this novel enjoyable, people who do not fly fish may find it the fishing parts dull.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:tomatwell@me.com

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