Glory of the Silver King
Doctoral student completes legendary book by Texas writer that documents the rise and fall of tarpon fishing
by John Davis
Silver and sleek like a torpedo, they’re a bit too bony to eat.
But man, do they fight.
The Texas tarpon has worked its way into the state’s fishing lore for more than a century. In 1903, Charles F. Holder advocated adopting the silver king-sized prize as the state’s saltwater fish in his book, “The Big Game Fishes of the United States.” Franklin D. Roosevelt even made a trip to the Texas coast to try his hand at catching one.
And near the end of his life, Texas newspaperman, novelist and avid outdoorsman Hart Stilwell sat down to pen a book on the remarkable fish. He died in 1975 before he finished, and his manuscripts sat on the shelves of the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State University.
That is, until a doctoral student in the Literature, Social Justice and the Environment program at Texas Tech University’s Department of English took up the challenge of finding the elusive compositions that had become almost as legendary a tale as the great fish itself.
More than 35 years following Stilwell’s death, “Glory of the Silver King: The Golden Age of Tarpon Fishing” is finally complete and available from Texas A&M University Press.
Brandon Shuler said he’s a seventh-generation Texan and third-generation Texas fisherman. His family, one of 300 original clans to settle the Lone Star State, makes a living as fishermen on the Gulf Coast.
Meet the Editor
Brandon Shuler is a doctoral student in the Literature, Social Justice and the Environment program in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.
Listen to Shuler read an excerpt from “Glory of the Silver King.”
Learn more about Brandon Shuler on his website at brandonshuler.com.
Also an avid conservationist, Shuler served as a fishing guide for six years before he decided to earn his doctorate at Texas Tech. Shuler said he had heard of Stilwell’s unfinished book when he was 12 and had even encountered one of the drafts. Because of Stilwell’s Texas roots and contributions to literature, Shuler decided to finish Stilwell’s novel for him.
Born in 1902, Hart Stilwell wrote articles for newspapers across Texas as well as for Esquire, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield. He was a contemporary of Texas writer and folklorist J. Frank Dobie. Stilwell wrote three novels and two nonfiction books in his career before his death.
Finishing Stilwell’s novel was a daunting task, Shuler said. Though he never met him, he did have a working knowledge of the man’s style from his magazine articles.
“It is a lot of pressure,” he said. “I have been a Stilwell fan. I write in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, and Stilwell wrote for both of those. And what he did, what really helped me was some of the stories that are in ‘Glory of the Silver King’ he had written as stand-alone articles for Outdoor Life in the ’40s and ’50s. So, I did have a model to look to and find that voice and how he was telling the story. As far as an academic goes, I wanted to make sure that I maintained his voice and made sure there was authorial intent as much as possible. So yeah, there was a ton of pressure to make sure that I did that.”
For one, Shuler said he came across four versions of the book within the collection. He had to choose which of the chapters seemed most complete.
“They had four manuscripts of ‘Glory of the Silver King,’” Shuler said. “And as you read through all four manuscripts, it was the same book, but it was four drafts, and he was changing it. He hadn’t finished because he passed away before he finished. I wasn’t sure which version he was going to stick with. So when I got to that point, and I was editing it and collating this project, I said, ‘you know what? I really need to get in touch with the family.’”
Shuler said he had to get permission from them to edit and publish the book anyway. He talked to Stilwell’s grandson, Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, who sent him two more manuscripts. Luckily, one of them had a fairly complete version of the last two chapters.
To finish the last chapters, Shuler said he began by taking the completed final two chapters from the collection and the two chapters Stilwell’s grandson had sent him and applied editorial theory to figure out which lines would have most likely remained in the finished product.
“What I did was I looked at the other chapters and their drafts to figure out what was cut and what was kept and tried to keep the voice as true as I possibly could to Hart Stilwell,” he said. “That’s how the final book ended up.”
Atlantic tarpon, or Megalops atlanticus, are prized by anglers not only for their size, but also for their spectacular leaping ability and fight.
The book reminisces about the height of the tarpon fishery in Texas during the 1920s and ’30s. That’s when Stilwell was first introduced to tarpon fishing at Port Aransas. Once common, Megalops atlanticus in the Gulf of Mexico became a prize for anglers. Easily caught at the time, fishermen would take a picture with their catch then throw the fish away.
By the ’60s and ’70s, Stilwell was at the end of his fishing career, and tarpon had disappeared. In his lifetime, he literally watched the rise and the decline of the tarpon fishery. While the population, which survived after the dinosaurs, is starting to make a rebound, catching one in Texas waters still is a rare occurrence.
Found in salt and freshwater environments, their pseudo-lung swim bladders allow them to breath in various types of brackish water. Because they are not a valuable food fish, little is known about their geographic distributions and migrations.
Texans are lucky to see one today.
Shuler’s informal research estimated that about 100 Texas anglers can say they’ve ever caught a tarpon out of the 2.6 million registered saltwater fishermen in the state.
“The beauty of this manuscript is you get to see the rise and fall of the tarpon fishery,” he said. “But you also get to see Hart offering solutions to fix this. Unfortunately he didn’t see it in his lifetime. Why this called to me was really the conservation ethic that Hart Stilwell has in this book. And he has throughout his whole lifetime talked about how we need to conserve our wildlife. What really called to me and what really pulled me the most, everyone kept telling me, ‘You are the modern-day Hart Stilwell.’ As far as my conservation effort goes, we pair very much.”
Shuler is editor of “NewBorder: Contemporary Voices from the Texas/Mexico Border” (Forthcoming Texas A&M University Press) and currently is editing the letters of J. Frank Dobie and Tom Lea in “Whispering Like a Mountain: The Selected Letters of Tom Lea and J. Frank Dobie” (Forthcoming University of Texas Press). He also is author of “Tom Lea: An American Life” (Forthcoming Texas A&M University Press).
John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.