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SOUTH OF MONTANA, EAST OF IDAHO: McCafferty enjoying life as a novelist

Author Keith McCafferty reads an excerpt from his latest novel, ‘Cold Hearted River,’ on Friday at the Powell Branch Library. Author Keith McCafferty reads an excerpt from his latest novel, ‘Cold Hearted River,’ on Friday at the Powell Branch Library. Tribune photo by Don Cogger

Field and Stream scribe blending a love of mysteries, fly fishing

It was during an assignment for Field and Stream magazine a few years back when Survival and Outdoors Skills Editor Keith McCafferty decided to finally write that novel he never quite got around to starting.

“I like to tell people that before there was Bear Grylls, there was me,” McCafferty said, laughing. “I was the guy they would drop off on the top of a mountain, how to survive in the winter.”

This particular assignment found McCafferty on a three-night survival exercise in the wilderness in late November. The first night, he would sleep in a debris hut, which was basically “burying myself in the dirt and pine needles,” he said. If he survived the first night, he would be granted the use of a 4x6 foot tarp, to use as he saw fit. The third night, if he could manage it, he could build a fire and build a shelter with what primitive tools he had.

“I survived the first night, which was miserable,” McCafferty recalled. “The second night, I’m wrapped up in that tarp, and in the middle of the night, I had to pee. So I kneeled over to the side of the tarp, and I ended up peeing on the tarp. The rest of that night, I’m wrapped up in that tarp, and it was then I thought, ‘You know, I’m getting too old for this. I’m going to write that novel I always wanted to write.’ That really gave me the impetus to start that first book.”

An inauspicious start to a career as a novelist, to be sure, but one McCafferty enjoys regaling audiences with on book tours at libraries and book stores across the West. The longtime outdoors writer and avid fly fisherman was at the Powell library last week, part of a Park County tour of libraries to promote his latest book “Cold Hearted River.” McCafferty held court for more than an hour, sharing stories and photos of his long and distinguished career at Field and Stream, as well as reading from his new novel, the sixth in the Sean Stranahan Mysteries series.

I’d never heard of McCafferty or his books until a quick visit a couple of months ago to Legends Bookstore in Cody (though I’d unknowingly read quite a bit of his Field and Stream stuff over the years). Featured prominently in the same section as the Walt Longmire and Joe Pickett books, I picked up the first entry in the Sean Stranahan series, ‘The Royal Wulff Murders,’ more out of the curiosity of discovering a Montana writer I’d never heard of than anything else.

I’m glad I did. Now midway through the third book in the adventures of Sean Stranahan, the series has quickly become one of my favorites, so I was excited to learn McCafferty would be paying Powell a visit.

Turning a love of the outdoors into a career

One of McCafferty’s earliest dreams as an outdoors writer was to become the fishing editor of Field and Stream. As a boy in southeastern Ohio, he devoured the writings of Al McClane, the man who held the job McCafferty coveted and who was considered one of the world’s most authoritative fly fishermen of his time.

“Al McClane was my hero,” McCafferty explained. “... He seemed larger than life — there was even this delicious rumor that he was a Cold War spy at one time. From the time I was 20, or even younger, my desire was to meet Al McClane, impress him, marry his daughter and take his job as fishing editor.”

One of the ways a young McCafferty hoped to impress his hero was by emulating an impressive bit of fly casting.

“[McClane] could do something very few people could do,” McCafferty said. “He could take a 90-foot fly line and cast the entire line without a rod; he would do it just with his hands. I learned how to do that, and that was how I was going to impress him.”

Sadly, McClane passed away just as McCafferty’s career at the magazine was beginning; the two men never had the chance to meet.

“I was a young contributing editor at Field and Stream, and McClane was sort of the editor emiritus. He was slowly stepping down from his duties of writing a column every month,” McCafferty said. “I was supposed to meet him, it was being arranged through Field and Stream, and they all knew how much he meant to me. He died unexpectedly a few months before I was going to meet him.”

In short, McCafferty says, he never met Al McClane, never had the chance to impress him with his fancy bit of casting, never married his daughter and never took his job — though he gave that last part a heck of a run.

“I came close,” he said, laughing. “I ended up writing 1,500 or so articles for Field and Stream, an absolute ton of articles.”

From journalist to storyteller

True to his word, McCafferty began work on the first book of the Stranahan series shortly after his adventure with the tarp. The key to writing the first book, according to McCafferty, was to surround himself with characters “that I would like to hang around with.”

“In a way, it was a little bit of a break for me from magazine writing,” he said. “And I wanted to create a character that would see the West with new eyes. I also wanted to paint a picture of the changing Rocky Mountain West. ... The big, empty counties in Wyoming that Craig Johnson and C.J. Box write about are disappearing. I wanted my character to see this country with fresh eyes.”

In Sean Stranahan, McCafferty has created an interesting protagonist: A fly fisherman, painter and former claims investigator from back East, lured to Montana by the trout and a desire to escape a failed marriage. He soon discovers a knack for stumbling into adventures. (One character describes him as the “kind of person who would step into [poop] even if there was only one horse in the pasture.”) Stranahan also surrounds himself with a colorful cast of characters along the way — all while pursuing his love of fly fishing.

Did McCafferty base Stranahan on himself?

“Only in the sense that he’s a fly fisherman — and my son is an artist as well as a fly fisherman,” McCafferty said. “But some of the other characters are more directly drawn from people in real life.”

Drawing inspiration from a legendary source

Set in northwestern Wyoming, “Cold Hearted River,” is a departure for the author in that its premise derives from a real-life mystery. In the book, Stranahan finds himself searching for a steamer trunk once belonging to Ernest Hemingway, filled with the legendary author’s fishing gear. Adding to the intrigue is the possibility of Hemingway’s unpublished work hidden in the trunk.

What’s fascinating is the trunk actually existed. McCafferty heard the story from Hemingway’s son Jack — an occasional fishing partner and fellow writer at Field and Stream — as the two fished the Thompson River in British Columbia many years ago.

They landed a steelhead and as they shared some schnapps and hot chocolate, McCafferty worked up the courage to ask Hemingway what his dad would have thought of fishing the Thompson.

“I had never broached his dad’s name, because Jack was his own person,” McCafferty said. “He used to say, ‘I grew up the son of a famous man and then the father of famous daughters.’ He said his dad would have liked the idea, but then he told me the story of the lost steamer trunk.”

According to Jack, the elder Hemingway lost his desire for fly fishing after a trunk filled with all his gear was stolen from Railway Express in 1940. McCafferty said he hadn’t thought of the story for years until his wife, a journalist for the Bozeman Chronicle, began working on an article about “searching for Hemingway in Yellowstone country.”

“He [Hemingway] spent so much time there outside of Cooke City,” McCafferty said. “My wife said, ‘You should work this into one of your books.’ And that’s what I did. The story was sort of handed to me.”

McCafferty was initially hesitant to write the story, lest readers think it nothing more than an attempt to cash in on Hemingway’s legacy.

“When you have such a larger than life person like that, you run the risk of, if you don’t pull it off, you sort of make a fool of yourself,” he said. “I was hesitant, but then I thought, ‘Nah, it’s too good a story.’”

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