Tales of a Traveling Librarian Angler

by James Thull


It was a warm sunny day, humid for Montana, but mild for Uganda; I was standing on the bank of the White Nile River fishing for Nile Perch (and anything else that was interested in buying what I was selling), and I was about to be lunch for a 12-foot crocodile. As is normal for most anglers, I was focused on the water looking for holes, watching my casts, seeing how the current was flowing, and taking in the beauty of Africa. It is a magical place; despite my recent journey where I caught malaria and had my wallet stolen, I still love it. There is truly no place like it. The culture, sites, and wildlife are amazing; what makes Africa so special are the people. They are beautiful and filled with kindness as well as generosity. When I speak with people who have visited or lived in Africa, they always say it’s the people that make it such a wonderful place. This viewpoint was confirmed recently during an interview with Pat Hemingway who was a big game hunter there for decades. 

Anyway, back to being on the other end of the fishing experience… i.e. the bait! I was paying attention to the water, but not what was happening right in front of me. My attention was diverted mainly because I was trying to cast out into the pools and eddies in hopes of hooking an exotic species to add to my list. Suddenly my guide, who was on a small rise maybe 20 feet behind me, started yelling at me to get away from the water. In a scenario resembling a deer stuck in the headlights, I stood with my rod in my hand wondering what he was possibly so excited about. A word of advice here if you are ever fishing on the banks of a river in Africa and your guide starts frantically telling you to do something, do it without hesitation! I slowly backed away from the water with a nonchalant slow step clearly unaware of any imminent danger nearby. In retrospect, I was like the person in the horror movie you yell out loud at to run from the zombies who strolls along like they were not about to have their brains munched on… I am guilty of being the person who does the yelling as well. I think this habit was picked up from my mother who would yell at the screen every Sunday during football season as she tried in vain to provide the Green Bay Packers with the advice needed to win the game. 

My guide was next to me in just a few seconds; by the pull on my shoulders and urgency in his movements, I finally realized there was something to be concerned about. After we got maybe 12-15 feet from the water’s edge, which happened very quickly thanks to his keen eye and willingness to rush into the fray and save me, he pointed to the water about five feet in front of where I was standing. There, just like you see on the discovery channel, was a crocodile with his eyes and nostrils above the water. He had a disappointed look, similar to one you have when your burger falls off the paper plate at a picnic right into something not worth brushing off in order to eat anyway. The crocodile watched us while we stared back; after a few moments he realized the jig was up and seemed to just sink beneath the surface and disappear. Perhaps he was just waiting for another chance or decided my lifelong diet of Hostess products, Fruity Pebbles, and Coca Cola made me an unappetizing prospect. I was certainly shaken but still managed a few more casts. I did, however, stay a bit further from the water’s edge and soon lost my appetite for the angling that day altogether. I was too focused on what was creeping up on me to be interested in landing a fish. 

What placed me in the wilds of Uganda on the menu for a crocodile you ask? Well, I am the Special Collections Librarian at MSU Bozeman. Itravel in order to collect interviews for our Angling Oral History Project. I have been to six of the seven continents (missing Antarctica) and 60-plus countries collecting the stories and knowledge of anglers, writers, guides, scholars, and fisheries biologists, so your MSU library can help preserve the culture of angling on a global scale. I have been lucky enough to get a line in the water occasionally and caught fish on all the continents I have had the pleasure visiting. In my wanderings, I have landed Rainbow Trout at 13,000 feet in the Andes, Pike in Ukraine, Nile Perch on Lake Victoria, and my claim to fame: a Giant Mekong Catfish larger than the one Jeremy Wade caught in Thailand. 

The MSU Library Angling Oral History project was started just over four years ago after Bud Lilly, local angling legend, told me a story about taking an elderly man in poor health fishing when he was guiding in the early 1980s. The man had trouble walking and could not see very well, but he could still cast a fly rod. After Bud directed the man where to cast, he hooked and landed a Brown trout on the Madison River. As Bud was releasing the fish, he noticed the man taking his rod apart; he told him the fish were still rising and they could try to catch more. The man looked at Bud and simply said “No, that is the last fish I am ever going to catch.” 

The story struck me and made me think about what fishing means to me. Like the man in the story, it is important to me and something I’ve done my whole life. One of my earliest memories is my mother taking me to a fishing tournament held at Stephenson Island on the Menomonee River which serves as the border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was maybe four to five years old and fished bait with a bobber. The idea was to catch some small rock fish, but I must have had my line set to low and was fishing the bottom, which allowed me to catch a dogfish. I remember thinking I was snagged on some rocks at first, but I knew there was life on the end of my line once the fish started to pull. After what seemed like a prolonged battle, I landed a dogfish approximately 18-24 inches long; at least that’s what they said it was, though it could have been a carp or some other bottom feeder. Regardless from then on, I loved to fish. I loved the mystery of the water, this life-giving force that held so many secrets beneath its surface. How deep? How fast? And what creatures lived there?  I think that’s what I still love about it today. While you can sight fish in clear water, learn to read water, and know where fish are likely to be, it is still a mystery that will always surprise you. 

The oral history project was created with the idea of capturing the angling memories of people like Bud Lilly; and Bud and his wife Esther were some of the first people I interviewed. I worked to develop the project with Paul Schullery, a renowned local angling writer and our library’s scholar in residence. We developed the initial set of questions and determined, when appropriate, we should ask a secondary series of questions of all subjects interviewed to add value over time; for example, I have at times interviewed non-anglers so asking them what fishing means to them does not make sense and the questions are waived. Generally, the participants have been asked questions about threats to angling, if they have witnessed climate change, what fishing means to them, how they got started fishing, changes they have seen, what concerns they have for the future, the importance of national parks and public lands, and if they have a fishing story they would share. The base questions, as we refer to them, have now provided primary source data on the health of waters, invasive species, climate change, the culture of angling, common concerns anglers share, etc. from nearly 300 participants in 65 countries on six continents. All of the interviews are housed in an open access database available to anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection. 

The project has allowed me to travel the world collecting knowledge that MSU has formed into an amazing body of research for anglers, climatologists, biologists, and all sorts of scholars the world over and occasionally also allowing me a chance to get a line in the water. While I collect the interviews, I need to note the real work is done by folks like Jim Espeland who built our database and Brandon Watson who works to make sure the interviews work and are web ready. In addition, we have had some amazing student workers like Max Wellman who has been with the project for several years and even stayed on after graduating. 

Of course, the crocodile adventure is not my only tale to tell. There was a too close for comfort run in with a tiger in India, losing a fishing spot to a hippo on the Zambezi River, and getting way to intimate with a spider the size of my face in Cambodia. If you are interested in hearing more about my travels, the oral history project, or our collections at MSU library, please drop me an email or arrange for a tour. We’d love to show you what we are doing to preserve the history and culture of angling. Additionally, I always love to talk about the ones I have landed and the ones (like me in this story) that got away.