S.A. Neff Jr. visits Montana with passions of angling, bookbinding
October 3, 2018
In the fall of 2011, S.A. Neff Jr., loaded up his van and made the nearly 2,000-mile trip from western Pennsylvania to Montana. With a self-professed love of exploring rivers, Neff had heard from a friend about fishing on the Boulder River and wanted to try it out for himself.
An angler since 9, Neff visited several area ranches to try and get permission to both fish and camp, but he was initially unsuccessful. Finally, he visited the home of Bob and Connie Sims, who owned a ranch on MT Highway 69. Bob game Neff permission to fish, but told him he wanted no part of him camping on the property. Neff recalls Bob telling him that he would make a mess. Finally, Neff was able to convince Simms to allow him to stay for a single night where he stayed in a very simple setup in his van.
"I've been staying ever since," Neff said.
After making the trip three straight years, Neff who is 80, would miss a couple years of the long voyages out west, but would return earlier this month where he spent a few weeks fishing local waters.
Along with his seven decades of fishing, Neff also has a collection of over 3,000 angling books and considers himself a "piscatorial bibliophile".
And when he is not fly-fishing in Montana, the Catskills in New York or western Pennsylvania, Neff is busy working hard as an accomplished bookbinder.
His first trip to fish in Montana was in 1965 and he would do so intermittently until the 1980's when his favorite places became too crowded. He then would spend his time in the west fishing and camping on a ranch in Wyoming for 13 or 14 years before eventually making his way back to the Treasure state.
Neff originally heard about the fishing in Montana from a former Pittsburgh resident who had moved to Belgrade and said there was a lot of information flowing back and forth between the two states.
Neff would first start fly-fishing at the age of 15 and in 1964 made a trip to Ireland with an interest in finding rivers with a lot of insects. During his six-week trip he would speak to a lot of people about moving to Ireland. A graphic-designer at the time in Pittsburgh, Neff felt he needed a change and would eventually make the move in 1966 and took a job working as a designer for Irish Television. He spent three seasons of fishing in Ireland before he moved back to the United States and once again spent time fishing in Montana.
It was during his time in Ireland, that Neff would become interested in the traditions, history and literature of fly-fishing and began buying books. His oldest book that was printed in Paris dates back to 1554 and features woodcuts of fishes. The collection also includes books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Neff said the collection is not only about the development of fly-fishing over 500 years, it shows the development of angling bookmaking. His large collection features books with woodcuts, wood engravings, copper plate engravings hand colorings.
With an ever-growing collection, in late 1981 Neff thought he would like to do some repairs on his books and was told by a friend that you just don't grab some Elmer's Glue – you have to have direction. He would soon start attending workshops presented by a local bookbinder. Neff was 44 at the time and knew he couldn't go to school and had to continue working, but eventually joined the Guild of Bookmakers and attended four or five of their seminars. Neff said he is an autodidact and taught himself the art of bookmaking.
He has tied flies on a professional level and has made his own rods for 50 years doing both with hand and eye skills
he said come to him very naturally.
Neff will spend around 40 to 50 days fishing a year and spends the rest of his time bookbinding. He said fishing can be a distraction to the binding, but it is necessary to get away for a while.
Neff takes great passion in his binding and fondly remember a conversation he once had with a publisher.
"He said just don't bind a book. Make it into a miniature museum and I really took that to heart," he said.
Looking back to when he first heard of Montana, Neff remembers it being famous for fishing, something he still considers true, although he would say "maybe too famous." He is also worried the business of fishing is destroying angling.
Neff can remember his first trip to the state with a group from Pittsburgh and all the people wanting to go to the same river at the same time. He would rather fish by himself, always with a camera. By 2001, he had over 35,000 35-millimeter slides, almost all identified.
Neff, who likes to fish in what he calls a traditional way, enjoys making a connection on a natural basis with the valley, stream, fish and insects.