Maynard Reece died recently. He was 100 years old. Most reading this have never heard of Reece, who was a wildlife artist from Iowa whose professional peak was perhaps 50 years ago or more.
Reece's passion was waterfowl and he won the Federal Duck Stamp competition five times, a record. His artwork was featured in national magazines. He was a lifelong conservationist who an Iowa newspaper columnist said belongs on the state's mythical Mount Rushmore as one of its most historically important citizens.
He was in the panthenon of early wildlife artists, like Minnesota's Les Kouba.
I never met Reece. Never talked to him, although I tried (more on that later.) Yet Maynard Reece has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and will continue to be for as long as I'm on this Earth.
It's all about a book.
In my possession for as far as my memory stretches has been a green, hard-covered book titled "Fish and Fishing." It was published in 1963 as a Better Homes & Garden-branded book, three years before my birth. It was my dad's, presumably purchased through one of those "book clubs" that used to be advertised in outdoors magazines. You'd purchase five books for one low price and then be on the hook to buy a book or two a month for a defined period, like the old Columbia Record Club.
The book, which rudimentarily covered every aspect of freshwater fishing in the U.S. with chapters like "Where to Go Fishing," "How to Catch Fish" and "How to Clean Fish" was, for a young guy who loved to fish at our family's cabin and dreamed of bigger and more wild adventures, was a treasure trove of information and instruction.
Hour after hour were spent flipping through the pages, reading about exotic fish like the Arctic grayling or the Dolly Varden. There were photos of families fishing from a houseboat, fly fishermen casting in mountain streams and anglers holding up catches of walleye, perch and crappie.
There was even a picture of some fancy-cooked fish like trout amandine and planked stuffed walleye with Duchess potatoes. I asked my Mom if she could make the latter. She continued to pan fry all of our catches.
The book, as simple as it was, opened up my imagination to all the possibilities of fishing.
But the gem of "Fish and Fishing" — and the reason I've continued to page through it regularly, even as I approach my 54th birthday — are the illustrations. About 100 detailed, color paintings of North American freshwater fish — from bluegills (common) to alligator gar (exotic) and everything in between.
They were done by Maynard Reece, as were other illustrations in the book including charts of fishing lures and detailed habitat paintings of where to find specific species of fish. The fish illustrations included a page of text and a map showing the species' distribution and local names.
Reece's artistry opened a world unbeknownst to that youngster all those years ago. And on certain days, particularly in the dark of a Minnesota winter, they continue to spark the imagination of a much older man.
From the striking golden trout to the bowfin (known around these parts as dogfish), Reece painstakingly painted every detail of every fish with remarkable accuracy.
The book is art. At least to me.
Only recently, I searched online for other copies of "Fish and Fishing" and discovered one that included a near-perfect dust jacket showing a smallmouth bass leaping out of the water to grab a Hula Popper lure. It was painted by Reece, of course. I bought the book for $15, just for the cover.
The jacket described how Reece "climbed mountains, paddled through swamps, endured Arctic cold, and traveled over 50,000 miles through the United States and Canada to portray fresh-water fish for Better Homes & Garden Fish and Fishing book. To insure authenticity in his paintings, he caught his own fish and sketched them 'on location' before they lost their natural colors."
The guy caught all the fish he painted. I mean ...
A profile of Reece in the Des Moines Register in 2016 said the artist and his wife had two children by the time he was researching his fishing books and that made for some interesting adventures in the late 1950s.
"He spent weeks traveling the country to catch the fish and then paint them," the Register article said. "He set up his painting 'studio' in the back of his Plymouth station wagon, ran down to the water to catch the fish and put it on a stringer, then return to the wagon to paint it. About every five minutes, he said, he would have to run back down and pull up the fish, look at it and go back to paint more. The fish, he said, changed color out of the water, 'and I’m a stickler for accuracy.'"
The result was a jewel for those who love fishing and are lucky enough to own a copy of Reece's book.
Books are funny in that way. They can become a part of a person's life. Sometimes they are novels, sometimes they are biographies, sometimes they are illustrated fishing books.
When I told my wife about finding a dust cover for my copy on the internet, her response was:
"You've had that book with you as long as I've known you."
That's been more than 25 years.
It will remain with me for 25 more and beyond, if I'm lucky enough to be hang around that long.
That might've made Maynard happy. When asked what he wanted to accomplish with his art, he once said, "I hope that they will get an interest in wildlife and in nature and once they get an interest in it they will be more anxious to conserve it. That’s what I hope people will get out of my paintings. An appreciation of the natural world around us so they’ll try to save it."
I tried to contact Maynard a few months ago through someone who works for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and knew him. Reece was nearly 100 then and through a family member I was told he no longer did interviews. After what I'll admit was some minor pestering, one of Reece's sons agreed to talk with me.
Then COVID-19 hit and the idea for a Fargo-based column on Maynard Reece went by the wayside. Then came the news Reece died July 11.
If I could've talked with Maynard or his son, I would have thanked them for the book and told them how much it's meant to me.
"Fish and Fishing," though far from high-brow literature, is a place I still go to learn and to dream. The paintings, especially, still inspire and excite me.
For that I owe its author and illustrator.
Thank you, Maynard Reece. You've enriched my life. May you rest in peace.