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by W. E. R. Byrne
Tale of the Elk is a classic history of one man's love affair with the Elk River. Historian Ken Sullivan calls the book "West Virginia's answer to Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It." Bill Byrne was an attorney who "practiced law in Charleston when he had to, and fished the Elk when he could." He traveled up and down the Elk - which in that day ran free and undammed to Pocahontas County - and made friends every inch of the way. Byrne tells the stories of his native friends who lived along the Elk River. He also tell the tales of some prominent West Virginians of the era, many of whom were his fishing buddies. According to Sullivan, you may learn more about this period of West Virginia from these words, overheard in camp and canoe, than from most history books.
Charleston, WV - Quarrier Press is pleased to announce the re-release of Tale of the Elk, released for the first time in almost 70 years as a hardback.ï¾ Tale of the Elk is a compilation of articles written by full-time fisherman and part-time lawyer Bill Byrne; his articles first appeared between 1927 and 1931 in West Virginia Wildlife Magazine. The articles were compiled and published as a book in 1940. Byrne's stories chronicle rural life in West Virginia in the 1920s from the perspective of men who lived to fish and tell fish tales.ï¾ ï¾ ï¾
Author Bill Byrne was born in 1862 in Fort Defiance, Virginia. His father was a Confederate officer in the Civil War; after the war his family moved to West Virginia. Byrne attended school in Wheeling and Charleston, worked as a civil engineer, and studied law with his uncle, Supreme Court Justice Homer A. Holt. Byrne was admitted to the bar in 1884 at the age of 22.ï¾
Byrne's love of the Elk and his book have cast a wide net over many devoted fans. Ken Sullivan, Director of the WV Humanities Council, writes:ï¾ "Tale of the Elk is a classic-West Virginia's answer to Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It. Byrne was an old-time sportsman, who took it seriously. He practiced law in Charleston when he had to, and fished the Elk when he could.ï¾ He looked dubiously upon a lawyer if he didn't fish. He speaks with great respect of the families native to the river, the Carpenters and others. The names of his fishing buddies read like a Who's Who of prominent West Virginians of the era-Senator John Kenna, industrialist Johnson N. Camden, and others. You may learn more about them here, overheard in camp and canoe, than in most history books."ï¾ ï¾
Mack Samples, author of Elk River Ghost and another Elk aficionado writes:ï¾ "I grew up on the banks of the lower Elk River . . . When I first read Tale of the Elk I was so taken with Byrne's description of the headwaters of the magnificent river that I had to go see it for myself. During the course of the past thirty years I have returned to its pages again and again. Whether you grew up on the Elk or have never heard of it, this book is a great read."
The annotated passage below from the chapter "The Dry Bed" tells of one of Byrne's Elk River adventures:ï¾
". . .in jumping from rock to rock in the bed of the Middle Fork, I got a terrible fall, sustaining a severe injury to my right knee, the pain from which was so intense as to make me deathly sick for the space of about fifteen minutes, and a fit subject for the ambulance and hospital, had any such been available. Being miles from any habitation, and fearing inaction and resulting stiffness would be the worst thing possible, I decided to try to make the trip across [the mountain] that nightï¾ . . . by 10 p.m. I was 'all in' and no mistake. Bill [Hamrick] built a campfire and soon had ready a good supper of trout, bread and coffee . . . Bill hurried away to [fish] the river, after inquiring if I would join him. But for the first and only time in my life I was compelled to renege . . . [Instead I] selected a rather concave or scooped-out place for my bed . . . I was almost instantly dead to the world . . . About 4 o'clock in the morning I was rudely awakened by a violent shake and a voice - 'Get up, I say-man, you'll drown!'ï¾ When I realized what all the fuss was about, the rain was pouring down in torrents upon my upturned face, my body half submerged in the water which had filled the trough-like place in which I was lying, and Bill was standing over me with a fine string of brook troutï¾ . . .[W]e rekindled the fire, before which we both lay down in wet clothes and slept for several hours. And here let me take occasion to remark that a fellow will not take cold on a fishing trip, although he wear wet clothing all day and sleep in wet clothing all night."ï¾ ï¾ ï¾ ï¾ ï¾ ï¾
Byrne's passion for fishing and friends, his humor and warmth, and his love of life are immediately evident. Byrne began his chronicles of his adventures on the Elk in 1927; his book follows its namesake river from its headwaters to its mouth in forty-nine chapters. Tale of the Elk captures the physical beauty and political climate of the times, usually with Byrne's signature sense of humor. W.E.R. Byrne was stricken with pneumonia at his beloved "Camp at the End of the World" on the Elk, and died December 11, 1937, at the age of 75.