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Charley Waterman was born on a family farm near Girard, Kansas, on December 6, 1913. Neither of his parents had any interest in angling, nor was their farm located anywhere near a noteworthy fly-fishing venue. But Charley, whose mother was determined that he would learn to read at an early age (for which generations of outdoorsmen owe her a debt of gratitude), was reading newspapers and an August, 1914, issue of National Sportsman by the age of two. He kept the magazine for the rest of his 91 years as a souvenir of his boyhood outdoor writing aspirations.
His angling addiction was brought about by the farm-pond bluegills he cranked into a leaky rowboat on a steel baitcasting rod. In the early ’50s, after stints as a teacher, book salesman, reporter, professional wrestler and private detective, Charley and Debie (his wife and fishing partner of many years) followed his literary dream to Florida, where bonefish reportedly swam 70 mph and celebrities were actually trying to catch 100-pound tarpon on fly tackle. The two haunted the Everglades backcountry for half a century, learning it like Seminoles and mastering saltwater fly-fishing with brand-new Wonderods. At the time, Charley’s articles were in demand, and in his search for new subjects he hooked up with noted angler Joe Brooks in the Keys. That connection led to a lifelong friendship and a love affair with bonefish, which provided new fodder for Waterman readers. Charley often said he’d be quite satisfied if all he could cast to were brown trout and bonefish.
I never saw Charley cast anything but fly-tackle, and he avidly pursued most game fish with it, from barracuda to billfish, along with many species that are not usually thought of as fly rod quarry. He and some chums pioneered American shad fly-rodding on Florida’s St. Johns River and became the object of some derision by conventional trollers of the day. Now, throngs of fly casters line the river’s banks for the annual spawning runs.
Charley was one of the most astute and inquisitive observers of nature and outdoor sport ever to pound typewriter keys; that, combined with his one-of-a-kind sense of whimsy, led to what many consider the finest sporting literature of its era. Everything most anglers have learned through a lifetime of trial and error is right there between the chuckles in Charley’s books and magazine articles.
He wrote 19 books in all, and most of them are collector’s items today, with coffee-table editions fetching the price of a barstock fly reel. Charley received the highly revered Excellence in Craft award from the Outdoor Writers Association of America in 1977, and he’s remembered for The Fisherman’s World (1971), Modern Fresh & Saltwater Fly Fishing (1972), Fishing in America (1975) and — still the definitive reference on recreational fishing — A History of Angling (1981).
But the most riveting tale of all is Charley’s autobiography, Times and Places, Home and Away. Waterman fans will find it well worth the effort to search out a copy. Readers who have kept their subscriptions renewed will recall that Charley was a charter contributor to this and many other outdoor magazines, his byline having appeared in virtually every North American sporting journal of the last half century. He may well have been the most prolific outdoor magazine scribe of his time.
On January 12, 2005, Charley’s typewriter fell silent. He will long be remembered as one of the most respected, knowledgeable, witty and beloved outdoorsmen ever to take up the pen. His legacy is in the thousands of pages of fascinating outdoor adventure he left us for all time.
A memorial to honor Charley will be on display at New Smyma Beach, Florida; a refurbished PT F-3 patrol boat like the one from which he photographed WWII combat in the Pacific. Debie Waterman has requested that contributions in Charley’s honor be made to: PT F-3 Refurbishment, Boy Scout Troop 544, PO Box 770789, Orange City, FL 32774.