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There are 60 million fishermen in the U.S. but, some would say, only one Compleat Angler. Al McClane, 68, is silver-haired now, but in his polymath's knowledge of fishing he is for the ages. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of his McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide, which is one of the alltime bestselling sports books and certainly angling's ultimate authority.
All the same, until he was reminded of that anniversary on a recent morning at Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, it had slipped McClane's mind. That so auspicious a milestone should go unremembered would not surprise those who know McClane, a man of innate modesty.
At the time, McClane had other priorities. He had waited since the start of the week for the wind to drop so that he could head out to Robinson's Bight. Finally, the weather had turned sweet, and less than an hour after tying on a feathery creation vaguely reminiscent of a shrimp, he was into a beauty of a bonefish. After 20 minutes of fight, it weighed in at 11� pounds, a trophy fish—especially when caught on the fly rod. This would be the bonefish of a lifetime for an ordinary angler. "Marvelous," McClane said. "Perfect!"
It turned out, though, that he was not rhapsodizing about mere size. The savant had taken over, the fish biologist. It was the eyes of the bonefish that fascinated McClane. "Look at that layer of adipose tissue covering them like goggles, keeping out the mud and the sand when the bonefish is foraging for crabs or shrimp," he said. McClane had caught innumerable bonefish, but it was as if he was seeing this anatomical feature for the very first time. In his soft voice, there was genuine enthusiasm, a kid's wonderment.
There was a time, of course, when McClane's encyclopedia did not exist, when nobody could say, "Let's look it up in McClane's." Indeed, research shows that this Dark Age lasted until the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1965, when, at the since-departed Abercrombie & Fitch store on Madison Avenue in New York City, the big book was launched at a publisher's party. "The manuscript," McClane recalls, "had been spread out all over my home in Palm Beach, Florida, for 10 years. I had to have a big wooden box made to ship the first 6,000 pages to the publisher.... The cabbie asked me if I had a body in it when I lugged it out of LaGuardia airport."
The completed 1,057-page first edition of the Standard Fishing Encyclopedia contained more than one million words—some commissioned and edited by McClane, but most his own. Back in 1965, the encyclopedia cost $19.95; the current, second edition—which is entitled McClane's New Standard...—has 1,156 pages and costs $75, the U.S. edition, that is. The Japanese version required twice as many pages in translation and sold out at $600 per copy.
The precise number of copies the book has sold in all its versions is hard to establish. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, the publisher, has changed hands four times since the encyclopedia was first published. But Frederic S. Cushing, a retired vice-president of corporate marketing for the publisher, reckons that sales of McClane's passed the million mark in hardback in 1985.
And while it begins less than dramatically with the entry Aawa (the Hawaiian name for the black-spot wrasse), and finishes up with a definition of Zooplankton, the overall effect of the book is comprehensively magisterial. Yet its genesis was almost accidental. McClane had been asked to produce a book to be entitled 100 Best Fishing Spots of the World. He soon realized that the way to research the book was to go fish them for himself. He has the type of mind in which every piece of information he acquires seems to raise a new question to be answered. Finding answers to those questions has taken him all over the world since his encyclopedia was first published, but McClane's fishing journeys—and the panache he brought to them—commenced much earlier....
It was 1931, back when the Long Island Rail Road trains from New York City switched from electric to steam locomotives just outside of the village of Babylon, N.Y., for the completion of their 125-mile run to Montauk, the town on the easternmost point of the island. There was an unscheduled stop on the bridge outside the Babylon station where the engines would be changed. But on this particular summer's day, bored commuters in one car were diverted by the sight of an eager nine-year-old boy who was hanging halfway out of a train window. He had with him a casting rod rigged and ready to start catching bass the minute he could jump off the train and run to the shore of nearby Argyle Lake.
The youngster realized something the rest of the passengers did not. The train had stopped right on the old wooden trestle bridge that spanned a stream feeding Argyle Lake. And cruising the pool right under the bridge was a three-pound smallmouth bass. "So I leaned out of the window," McClane recalls more than half a century later, "and I wiggled a bass bug at the fish and it hit. When I finally hauled it through the window, all the people in the car were cheering and clapping."