‘Small in the Eye of a River’

Posted 10/17/23

Although the name Frank Mele has appeared in this column on more than one occasion, his renown has been associated with the water releases legislation and bamboo fly rods. 

That being said, …

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‘Small in the Eye of a River’


Although the name Frank Mele has appeared in this column on more than one occasion, his renown has been associated with the water releases legislation and bamboo fly rods. 

That being said, I don’t believe Frank received all the accolades he deserves. 

Frank was more than an environmentalist, conservationist and fly fisherman. Born of Italian immigrants, in Rochester, NY, Frank attended the Eastman School, where he studied the violin and viola. By the age of 18, he became a member of the Rochester Symphony. Later he performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and studied with Arturo Toscanini. Then at some point in his career, he taught at the University of Kansas. So he had a storied career as a musician and teacher of string instruments. 

Yet despite all of his expertise as a world-class musician, his heart lay in the Catskill Mountains and the famous trout streams that flowed from their peaks. It was in those mountains, in the hamlet of Woodstock, where Frank entertained students of the violin and viola, tied flies and wrote his stories. 

In my view, Frank was one of the best, least known, popular fly fishing writers of his time. Two of his stories, “Story For A Month” and “The Inheritance,” appeared in the Quarterly Review of Literature. Not a publication where your average writer’s work is showcased. 

Then in 1973, Crown Press, through Nick Lyons, published “Polpetto,” Frank’s novel, which featured  an Italian laborer looking for romance. “Polpetto” is the Italian word for meatball, and is the name of the main character. 

Subsequent to those publications, almost all of Frank’s writing was dedicated to fly fishing. In that same year, Nick Lyons included “Blue Dun” in “Fisherman’s Bounty,” an anthology of fishing stories. That piece was an accounting of Frank’s obsession with the mythical characteristics associated with natural blue dun fly-tying capes. Some called it a minor masterpiece. Blue dun hackle is used to tie Hendrickson and quill Gordon dry flies, as well as rusty spinners. Frank preferred the sheen provided by natural blue dun hackle when compared to the much cheaper dyed feathers. 

At least one of Frank’s stories appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal. In its 1979 summer edition, Gray’s published Frank’s piece “Once in a Blue Dun Moon.” That story was an accounting of the historic beginnings of fly fishing in ancient Rome, while the legions ravished the land. Although that story was fiction, fly fishing can be traced to Claudius Aelianus during second-century Rome. I’m guessing that Frank had knowledge of old Claudius, and based his story on ancient Roman history. 

Given all the short stories and the novel “Polpetto,” I believe that Frank is best known for his little book, “Small in the Eye of the River.” That edition was privately printed in Chiloquin, OR in 1988. “Small in the Eye of the River” is a collection of short stories about some of the mysteries and finer points of fly fishing. The volume contained six stories and essays. It was updated in 1996; three stories were added and the title changed to “Small in the Eye of a River.” That edition was published by the Lyons Press. Nick Lyons wrote the introduction for both editions. I wrote the afterword for the 1996 version. Both books included “Blue Dun” and “Once in a Blue Dun Moon,” which were previously mentioned, plus “A Fishing Tale,” “The Masters,” “A Phoenix for Dan” and “Thoughts on Fly Fishing.” The 1996 version added “Saint Theodore’s Jacket,” “Farewell to Fly Fishing” and “The Mayflies.”

Of that collection of stories, “The Mayflies” is my favorite. It is the tale of a love affair that the main character (Franco) had with the wife of a well known western New York industrialist. According to the author, Franco was introduced to the lovely wife, Lyris, one evening by Pierre, Franco’s violin instructor. From what I read, it seemed obvious that while she was married, Lyris’ thoughts of love drifted elsewhere. As a result, Franco and Lyris had a brief affair, but because of circumstances, could not be together on a permanent basis. 

This story had a very melodramatic and sad ending. And frankly, I’m not sure whether “The Mayflies” is true or not. But knowing the author over the many years that I did, it very likely was. 

And I can tell you, from many years of experience reading a great deal of the literature written about fly fishing, there is no other book quite like “Small in the Eye of a River.” Frank’s style of writing is more esoteric yet refined than that of others. His stories show extraordinary imagination and perception about our sport that few others do. 

“Small in the Eye of a River” is a small book, merely 150 pages. Trade editions of the most recent volume are available at reasonable cost. Publication of each edition included a small number of slip-cased, limited editions, inscribed by the author. I was fortunate to get a copy of each, which I treasure, and re-read frequently. If you can find one of those, you’ll likely pay a handsome fee. 

So if you are a fly fisher who likes to read prose that’s out of the ordinary, I highly recommend “Small in the Eye of a River.” You will not be disappointed. 

Frank was inducted in the Catskill Fly Fishing Center Hall of Fame on October 7.

Frank Mele, Fly fishing, Catskill Mountains


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