The smile of recollection is shadowed suddenly. "I went back there the other day," he says. "The Argyle stream is just a little trickle. There's a gas station above the bridge and what looks like a permanent oil spill under it. But it was a great fishing spot in the old days...."
The old days. Albert Jules McClane was born on Jan. 26, 1922, in Garden City, N.Y., barely over the New York City line in Nassau County. "I fished at Rockville Centre, Baldwin, Massapequa, Amityville, Babylon," he says, sounding like an LIRR stationmaster calling out stops on a commuter special. "For a nickel and a dime you could set on a bus or the LIRR and go anywhere. There was a wonderful pond at Baldwin—it's an endless housing project now—but then the yellow perch were gigantic. And pickerel!" But even such exotics as the comet-tailed Japanese goldfish that McClane remembers catching in the Bronx River downstream from the Botanic Gardens would not hold the young McClane for long.
When he was 15, McClane left home.
"Well, not exactly," McClane insists. "The truth is, I moved out independently. The 1930s were not great years for a family's finances." So McClane found himself in the little Catskill town of Margaretville, N.Y., earning his way by digging postholes for a power company. Margaretville was not too far from the East Branch of the Delaware River and he began writing free-lance articles about fishing the area. He sold the first one when he was 16. There was enough of a market for his outdoor stories to pay for a year at Cornell University. He left Cornell in 1942 for the army and that same year, he was invited by mail to become the fishing editor of
Field & Stream
. It took him a while to get round to responding; the letter finally caught up with him in a foxhole in Normandy, where he was serving as a sergeant with the 398th Automatic Weapons Battalion, having hit Omaha Beach a few days after D Day, June 6, 1944. McClane was eventually transferred to General George Patton's Third Army, and in the fall of 1944 he was wounded in the shoulder, leg and knee at Luneville, France, 60 miles short of the German border. The wounds, he says, "were not enough to get me sent home but just to qualify for a lot of aspirin." So it wasn't until 1947 that McClane, back in the States, finally called
Field & Stream
and said, "Hey, about that letter? Here I am." It still amazes him that nobody laughed.
McClane was installed as fishing editor—and was fired almost immediately, "because I walked across the street for a cup of coffee," he says. But Eltinge F. Warner, the magazine's publisher, rehired him later the same day, and for the next 30 years McClane's articles were a staple of the magazine.
"Oh, the fishing was crazy," he says. "There were the Jeep rides across the llanos in the dry season in Venezuela with my wife, Patti, as we headed to the Orinoco for peacock bass—living off the land, with quail and duck everywhere." And occasionally the McClanes ran into revolutions—in the Belgian Congo in 1959 and again, several months later, in Cuba—but McClane survived with �lan. He recalls, "I had the misfortune to arrive in Havana, in an old DC-3, just as Fidel Castro was taking over the place. There were half a dozen P-47s sitting on the runway, loaded for bear, 500-pounders under the wings. Lord, I thought, something is wrong. But I ended up at the Nacional Hotel, a guest of Castro."
Given such a stock of stories, one is tempted to pigeonhole McClane as little more than a macho adventurer. That would be a serious error. As McClane talks, you discover that he shared a New York apartment with Robert Frost and Parisian hangovers with Ernest Hemingway. And he was trained as a seafood chef by none other than the late Charles Ritz.
In the Bahamas, even before guide Maitland Lowe had completed tying up his shallow-draft skiff, McClane was asking, "Ever tried a bonefish butterflied out?" The visitor looked aghast, having spent a lifetime being told that the aptly named bonefish is about as tasty as a mouthful of steel screening. McClane was not to be deterred. "Marinated for a few hours in lime juice, then baked—we'll try it before the week's out."
America's Compleat Angler, of course, would do the cooking himself. Ritz, his culinary tutor and the owner of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, was the greatest French fly-fisherman of his generation. McClane first met him on the banks of the Risle, a trout river in Normandy. Hemingway frequently fished the same river and, as McClane recollects, one day Ritz said, "We have to start a club." And so, with Hemingway and McClane as founders, the Fario Club was born. The name comes from Salmo fario, the Victorian scientific appellation of the salmon trout (now known as Salmo trutta).
For the three decades the Fario Club was in existence (1947-77) it might have been the greatest blast in the history of fishing. At its zenith, it had 300 or so members, and they came from all over the world for an annual meeting at the Hotel Ritz, a three-day affair for which Ritz closed his hotel dining room to all but club members. "Oddly enough," McClane says, "Charlie didn't like living in hotels. He didn't even like staying at the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan. So I put him up in my apartment. I'd be out all day, and there Charlie would be in the kitchen, cooking something up. I really had no interest in cooking then. But Charlie said, 'The next time you come to Paris, I'm setting you to work in my kitchens at the Ritz.'