For nearly four decades, his lyrical columns for The Times brought readers to the banks of clear-running streams and the hushed glades of majestic forests.
Nelson Bryant, whose lyrical columns in The New York Times for nearly four decades chronicled his love affair with fishing, hunting and outdoor life, and made him the dean of outdoor writers in America, died on Saturday in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. He was 96.
His longtime partner, Ruth Kirchmeier, confirmed the death, at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He lived on the Vineyard, in West Tisbury.
From the mangroves of the Yucatán watching for green-winged teals to the grand ballet of fly-fishing on the Salmon River in Nova Scotia, Mr. Bryant’s often-poetic, first-person accounts took readers to many places, but perhaps none more so than the mythical past, when boys went fishing with their fathers, watched rainbow trout hover above the pebbles in a brook and learned that patience, cultivated during hours in a duck blind, was more than a needlepoint virtue. His insights appealed to many readers who had never set foot in woods or a stream.
Raised on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Bryant was a seaman, a carpenter, a ditch digger, a logger, a cook and a dock builder. He was also a Dartmouth College graduate and a reporter and the managing editor of The Claremont Daily Eagle in west-central New Hampshire for more than a decade in the 1950s and ’60s.
But he was never far from the hunting, fishing and outdoor life he had learned from his father, and his storehouse of field skills and lore were deployed in the sports section of The Times from 1967 to 2005, often in four or five columns a week, under the rubrics “Wood, Field and Stream” and later “Outdoors.”
Unlike news articles, columns reflect an author’s opinions and experiences, and Mr. Bryant, who often took his two sons on camping, fishing and hunting expeditions, offered readers not only his knowledge of wildlife and the rods, reels, lures and guns to bag it, but also insights into what his experiences meant to him.
“A duck blind is a marvelous spot for a good talk, because it encourages both intimacy and inspired storytelling,” he wrote about a hunt with his son Jeff in 2004. “There are occasions when the talk becomes so animated that neither inhabitant notices that a brace of mallards has landed among the decoys.”
After a hunt with his son Steve, he wrote: “Deer camp talk is almost always more animated and revealing than that encountered in fishing camps. The early darkness, the long, cold evenings, the smell of woodsmoke and the necessity to remain indoors together in the cabin create a primal intimacy.”
Challenged occasionally by readers who objected to killing animals and urged him to use a camera instead, Mr. Bryant responded by calling hunting “honorable” and noting that he ate what he killed. He suggested ways to prepare fish and fowl for the table, and illustrated columns with photographs he took.
With his white beard and weather-beaten face, an old pipe clenched in his teeth, he looked like a 19th-century seafarer: a big, sturdy outdoorsman who climbed mountains, portaged canoes and carried his load of guns and tents. But he was remarkably graceful in a trout stream, and his cast was delicate and precise — plop, into the distant pool where the rainbows lurked.
“Every sport has a supreme chronicler,” The Philadelphia Inquirer said in 1994. “Nobody has written about baseball like Roger Angell. Nobody has written about golf like Bernard Darwin. Nobody has written about boxing like A.J. Liebling. Nobody has written about the outdoors like Nelson Bryant.”
Nelson Steele Bryant was born in Red Bank, N.J., on April 22, 1923, to Nelson and Olga (Griffin) Bryant. His father lost a stake in a Jersey Shore hotel and later his Depression-era job as an accountant in Boston, and the family moved to West Tisbury in 1932.
The boy found himself in paradise. He attended island schools, went hunting and fishing with his father and grew up amid the idyllic beauty of the dunes and salt ponds, the marshes chattering with wildlife and the Atlantic pounding the pristine barrier-island beaches from Chappaquiddick to Gay Head. He would return to the island repeatedly over the years before taking up residence there again.
He enrolled at Dartmouth after graduating from Vineyard Haven High School in 1941, but when the United States entered World War II before the year was out, he enlisted in the Army, volunteered for parachute duty and on D-Day dropped into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne Division as the Allies invaded Europe. Behind enemy lines, he was shot in the chest; the slug hit a lung but no major artery. After recovering in Wales, he returned to the war and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war he was a deckhand on a schooner, working for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
He married Jean Morgan in 1946, and they had two sons and two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1989, and Jean Bryant died in 2012. Besides Ms. Kirchmeier, Mr. Bryant is survived by his sons, Stephen and Jeffrey; his daughter Mary Bryant Bailey; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter Alison died in 2009.
Mr. Bryant returned to Dartmouth and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1952. He began his newspaper career as a reporter for The Claremont Daily Eagle (now The Eagle Times) and from 1954 to 1966 was its managing editor. He also occasionally wrote outdoors columns.
Unable to make ends meet, Mr. Bryant quit the paper, returned to Martha’s Vineyard and was building docks to support a growing family when he learned that the author of The Times’s “Wood, Field and Stream” column, Oscar Godbout, had died. He applied for the job and was hired.
His first Times column, on Oct. 31, 1967, offered thoughts on pickerel vs. trout, and hints of the writer to come: “The thought of fly casting for a fish that bears a superficial resemblance to a snake may be more than some purists can stomach. Trout are beautiful and wise, pickerel are neither. However, a man cannot always chase rainbows.”
For many years, his columns were illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by Glenn Wolff.
Mr. Bryant was the author of “Fresh Air, Bright Water: Adventures in Wood, Field and Stream” (1971); “The Wildfowler’s World” (1973, with Hanson Carroll); “Outdoors,” a 1990 collection of his columns; and a memoir, “Mill Pond Joe: Naturalist, Writer, Journalist and New York Times Columnist” (2014).
In a valedictory in The Martha’s Vineyard Times in 2012, he confessed to being a romantic about the outdoor life.
“More than anything else, I wanted to be alone in the forest primeval,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to encounter another hunter. I enjoyed sitting on a rocky ledge looking down into the valley through which an enchanting trout river, the Dead Diamond, flows. I enjoyed sharing my backpack lunch with chickadees and chipmunks, then wandering so deep into the woods, I knew that darkness would fall before I made it back to the cabin.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.