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THE HUNT IS ON FOR OUTDOOR READING

BOOKS NEVER replace the real experience, but they are a sure solace and a pleasant reminder of our best days afield . . . when our worst days come to a welcome end.

And Christmas always offers a cornucopia of new titles -- good news for the avid reader, bad news for a hard-pressed reviewer. Here are a few of special interest:

"The Grouse of North America" by Tom Huggler ($29.95, Willow Creek Press) is a lavishly-illustrated guide to our "partridge" -- the sage, sharptail, blue, spruce and ruffed grouse, the ptarmigan and the lesser and greater prairie chickens -- all of them related, each and every sub-species fascinating in its own right.

Huggler has managed to not only pack a fair amount of natural science into this work, but a fair amount of adventure, yarning and how-to/where-to, as well.

I'd have liked to have read more -- it's a fast trip through. But wanting "more" is the mark of a compelling book. And this one is an excellent addition to any bird hunter's bookshelf, an absolute must for grouse enthusiasts.

You can also get an autographed, limited edition (complete with grouse feather bookmark), for $42.95 postpaid. Call Outdoor Images at 517-323-0868 and tell them you need it in time for Christmas.

"The Dry Fly, New Angles" by Gary LaFontaine ($39.95, Greycliff Publishing) is the first book this knowledgeable and innovative fly-fishing writer has produced since "Caddisflies" 10 years ago.

I think this may be very valuable to dry fly fishermen who are not 100 percent successful 100 percent of the time -- which means it could appeal to 98 percent of the fly-floating set.

And I suspect LaFontaine will set a few hackles on edge (pun intended) because, like his earlier books, it looks at the streams, the fish, the bugs, what was written previously about this interaction and then meticulously arrives at some new conclusions about what we ought to be tying on the end of our leaders and how we ought to be fishing it in each situation.

This weighty volume may be too technical for many readers, but maniac fly-tiers will love it, as will truly ardent fly fishermen.

For them, "The Dry Fly" has enough detail and is well-illustrated enough with R. Valentine Atkinson's photos and Gretchen Grayum's illustrations to get even these poor fanatics through the long, dark months before the streams are on-limits again and the trout start rising.

Fly shops and some fly-tackle catalogs carry the book. Or contact the publisher at PO Box 1273, Helena, Mont., 59624.

"Buck Fever, Deer Camp Cartoons" by Bruce Cochran ($12.95, Willow Creek Press) is simply the funniest book about deer hunting I've ever come across.

How funny is it? My wife, who has never been deer hunting and never seen a deer camp, rolled off the couch laughing.

"This is exactly what I imagine your hunting trips must be like," she said.

Cochran, USA Today's sports cartoonist, knows deer, deer camps and most of all, deer hunters. He's put them together here to produce a real gem.

"Whitetail Country," photos by Daniel J. Cox and text by John Ozoga, and "Mule Deer Country," text by Valerius Geist and photos by Michael J. Francis, are a pair of natural history books on deer well worth the $39.95 Willow Creek charges. I preferred the whitetail volume, which had a fine text and swell photos.

Willow Creek Press books are carried by the Walden and Dalton chains. The publisher has a toll-free order number, 1-800-336-5666, as well.

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