Thursday, April 5, 2018

Home Spun


Homemade rod tube and reel case

‘Tis poverty alone, Diophantus, that awakens the arts; poverty is the very teacher of labor…’

Theocritus, from the Fisherman’s Dream: 3rd century BC


The other day an angler friend sent me a care package containing, among other things, a complete leader building kit consisting of dozens of tippet and leader spools sorted by diameter, and a leader gauge. I have not built full trout leaders for quite some time, but upon receiving such a generous gift, sat down to do a little experimentation. I started with taking readings on various leaders I have from the 1970s through the modern day, and by reading leader specifications from Bergman, Ritz, and others. After fiddling around with a pencil and paper and a tape measure, I came up with 2 very different formulas for a 9-foot 4x leader. I assembled them, coiled them in envelopes labeled with the measurements and dimensions, and set a book on top of them by error. Today I found them while moving the book they rested under. It being sunny, I thought it no better time to try them out in the yard on several rods. The jury is out yet on which design I like better, but the end-game is not the subject of this diversion, it is the journey…

For many fly anglers, especially of the older generation, thrift and necessity led to experimenting with equipment. Thrift because, well just that: many of us had little means at the time, and a dollar saved was a dollar more for gas money to get us to the rivers. Necessity because the extraordinary expanse of good tackle and options available today was just not around yet.

In talking to other anglers both contemporary and older than me, I was told stories which led to this theme being developed. There were consistencies in the tales of homemade fixes, invention, and experiment that led to critical thinking and a foundation in the sport. That led directly to innovations in product available today, but also created better anglers more connected to their sport. Whether it was thrift or necessity or both matters not, it led to the same learning process.

Let’s look at a few examples…

When one had a fly-line that was too bright or the wrong color, boiling red onionskins produced a colored liquid that dyed the line a more muted color of buckskin and olive. Onions were cheap, and you could fry them with some sausage and peppers afterward and have a nice dinner.

When fishing with a braided or furled leader, loops for connection were often not available. Orvis braided leaders at the time came with a hollow butt and instructions on how to strip the end of the fly line with acetone. One then attached the braided leader permanently to the fly line with super glue and a careful insertion of the line tip into the hollow butt of the leader. If you wanted to put on a sink-tip, you either needed to cut the whole affair apart and start over, or come up with some novel solution. Modeling clay rubbed into the braid would work great, but then it was near impossible to extract it. The solution was ingenious: toothpaste. One rubbed toothpaste into the braid of the leader and it sank nicely. If you wanted it to float again, just rub out the toothpaste in the water and treat it with silicone. It also had the side-effect of shining up the teeth of the trout. Nothing like a little impromptu dental care to help nature along!

When faced with a challenge, anglers overcame it the only way they were able to, by experimenting around the kitchen table and futzing their way to a solution through creativity.

Take my first sink tip for salmon and steelhead. I went to Reinke Brothers on Greenfield Avenue in Milwaukee, a business that has been in the same place since its founding in 1950. I remember going there with dad on the bus from our east-side home. It took two hours back in 1975. The place hadn’t changed much twenty-odd years later, and I recognized various pieces of rod-building accessories dad had used in building his fiberglass rods. I found a thirty-foot coil of lead core line with a braided outer surface. For three dollars, I purchased it along with sundry feathers and whatnot, and went home and constructed interchangeable sinking tips. I saved money, and I learned to whip braids and coat the line with pliobond. They worked great until the lead separated and flew out of the core in little pieces that hit you in the head on the forward cast, but I caught fish with them! It laid a foundation that enabled me in later years to splice fly lines and add loops.

My first fly rod was a blank purchased from the same store, and hand-assembled and wrapped at my kitchen table in my apartment. I still have it. It is a nice 8 weight. I learned so much by building it (with dad’s old rod making tools and components), that I built a second one. I think the whole kit and caboodle set me back 40 bucks.

Since I had no money at the time, my first fly-box was one I made from a piece of mahogany carved while sitting on the couch with no tools but a pocket-knife that was given me by my mom and purchased at my Grandfather’s hardware store, Theisen Brothers, in central Wisconsin sometime in the 1940s. The box worked fine, and I learned how to carve wood and why doing it on your couch might lead to an adventure with a vacuum cleaner.

wood fly box carved with pocketknife
We bent the available hooks we had with pliers in order to make them fit the intended fly patterns. We sewed fleece patches to the back of old ball caps to hold flies.

Last year I acquired my first silk fly lines. I am of the plastic generation, but curiosity and historical knowledge drove me to goof around with them. The initial process of mixing boiled linseed oil with turpentine and spar varnish and treating the lines while monitoring the relative stiffness, flexibility, and smoothness of the stages of transformation gave me a deeper appreciation of what it took at one time to just go fishing. The sheer amount of necessary preparations both before and after a day on the stream might put many of today’s anglers off their beer. It sure taught patience, and a reverence of and care of one’s tackle. Cane rods were rubbed down and dried before they went back into their tubes, and the silk lines had to be dried every night by removing them from the reel, and then treating them with mucilin in the morning. These little tackle rituals performed of necessity every day one went fishing were just part of the whole experience.

I am self-taught through experimentation, failure, success, and reading. I guess that was the way I was raised. Our home was always filled with books. Dad was an avid reader, as was mom. Dad was a classical pianist who was mostly self-taught, and even tuned his own grand piano, although in the invective-filled afternoons and evenings he sat on the floor with the whole keyboard action disassembled and by now getting a bit into the brandy, we wished he would just pay for a professional tuner. We were all autodidacts from a sense of curiosity, thrift, and necessity. I cherish that upbringing now here in 2018 when I needed a sign for my business guiding and teaching fly-fishing. Instead of just getting a sign painter to make one for me, I did it myself, and learned that this kind of reward from creativity can be exhilarating. It turned out quite nice.

When my mother began her painting in Wisconsin in the 1940s, she attended Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. Her teachers were among the noted Wisconsin artists of the 20th century, as she became as well. They focused on foundation first. The students were taught to mix their own mediums, create resins and rabbit glues, and blend all sorts of toxic mixtures to allow them to paint with oils on a board in the styles of the old masters. Mom had a basement full of what looked like apothecary bottles with faded hand lettered labels, but they would allow her to prepare any surface for any medium of painting at will, and not be dependant on the availability of store-bought materials. Of course, thrift also played a part here for both my parents and many of the anglers who we owe so much to were children of the great depression, where money was tight or non-existent, and everything had to be made from scratch or modified… thus homespun.

In that foundation that was laid by experimentation, reading and soaking up knowledge, and trial and error, expertise was born, in angling, art, and life. Here is an excerpt of a biographical piece written about my mother just before she passed.

“In a way, (Mary) Helm is glad she never got an art degree. Learning from books on her own time gave her the freedom to explore many different styles. She alternately jumped form pencil to pastel, from pastel to watercolor, watercolor to oil and back again. Helm is also surprised at the ignorance of students who have had more educational opportunities. "I would mention something and they (the students) had never heard of it. I was surprised how little they really know about art."

Early 1940s self portrait by Mary Theisen Helm
That is locked into my memories as each weekend she returned from her job at the university with armfuls of books for both her and my dad. They spent their weekends learning. It cost nothing but time.
Time is a thing we had in the past too. Time was there to make the most of since all the time-saving devices and technologies had not been invented yet, and so thus we had more time for ourselves. The great irony of the information age… Our assets as sportsmen, tinkerers, homespun naturalists and armchair philosophers consisted of energy and time along with a few cherished tools of the trade.
Back in the day, most flyrods were labeled with a set of 2 numbers such as 5/6. The reason as explained to us was that the rod would take either a double-taper five or a weight-forward six line. Correct. However there is also another hidden reason. Most anglers had only one rod. The situations where people went on a fishing trip with a selection of 7 rods at their disposal were limited to the very few. A fly-rod had to be able to fish for panfish for the freezer, trout on both smaller streams and large, and even chuck bait for perch and bass. The angler in order to make this work often carried two spools for his or her reel with two separate line sizes. One had to slow down or speed up the casting stroke in order to make this work, and anglers were more connected to their gear at an essential level due to necessity. It made them more aware of what they had, and how to make it work, even if it often required a few modifications at the kitchen table involving glue, wax, boiled onion skins, or even a sewing needle.
Today we have at our disposal an ever-expanding assortment of arguably better tackle available, and definitely easier to use and set up. It is designed to take any futzing or modification out of the equation. The new influx of anglers, especially after the movie ‘A River Runs Through It’ came on the scene are able to get to the fishing and catching much faster. However, that often led to what I experienced at my 17 years of running fly-shops: a certain disconnection from one’s gear. It was common to have an angler not know what weight rod he had when wishing to purchase a new line, or not know how to attach a leader or sinking tip. Although the new gear and systems made it so much easier, the lack of necessary preparation and knowledge gained led to a lack of foundation. If something went wrong, they did not know how to address it. The purchased solutions of ease only worked if it included no interaction with the angler outside of the actual fishing.
This is why the anglers in the past, and older ones still present, are able to cope with many more variables. They remember the days of placing a safety pin or two in their fly vest to ‘come in handy some day’. That could be a motto for a whole generation…
Thrift and necessity led to experimentation. Experimentation led to knowledge. Knowledge in theory and application built upon itself to allow adaptation. Adaptation made us better anglers and more connected to our tools. Homespun may have itched a bit, but it was cheap, available and durable… and we made it ourselves and patched it as it wore. We didn’t just buy a new rod when the old one started to wear, we learned to re-wrap guides and varnish the thread wraps, we built leaders from scratch.
Speaking of leaders, I wanted a spool of nylon for building them back around ten years ago. I had none at my shop for the very reason that nobody bought the ones I had, and I had to sell them for ½ off. Even tippet material sales dropped off, because it was easier buy a new leader than to re-build one. That explained the reason a customer came in and told me that his leader was defective because the 9’ 5x contraption would not fit through the eye of the hook. I asked to look at it. It was a leader butt 2 feet long and looked like rope. On the explanation given, he replied, “What’s tippet?”
Tippet might be the direct link between us and the fish, but in the background, behind the scenes and present in shaded lamps seeing us bent over a task late of a summer evening before the morning fishing, that necessity of using one’s hands and minds provides a greater link still. That of homespun knowledge.


Copyright 2018 Erik Helm, of Classical Angler



Thursday, March 29, 2018

Medieval Redemption


Part the first: A malaise of history


Adventures and thought journeys all have beginnings, even if sometimes we have to trace them back to their source like following meandering braids on our rivers. Our thoughts and reflections are often like our waters, changing with every bend in the channel and never flowing straight.

 This small journey began with the re-reading of Ernest Schwiebert’s book one of his two volume ‘Trout’; specifically his excellent and scholarly work on the history of fly-fishing. I had progressed to the chapter detailing the period of the middle ages in England and the famous ‘Treatyse on fysshyng wyth an angle’ by Dame Juliana Berners from 1496 when some chore or another distracted me. Later that day I was looking at an online video of fly-fishing, and something began bothering me. It was same theme I have written about from time to time: the ‘new’ world of fly-fishing and how somehow the reverence, the history, and the art have become whitewashed with a drone-like sameness. Every angler wears a flat brim ghetto ball cap, and except for color variation in gear, look like clones of each other. The flies were all ‘tactical’, with jig hooks and tungsten beads. They looked like miniature Christmas tree ornaments.

 Now I shouldn’t look at things that bother me, but often it is so prevalent that it is unavoidable. I saw it on the water a week before when the clone army visited a stream I was fishing, and I got a look at the new tactics. What was cool to them looked to me like a group of Shriners riding about on miniature motorcycles, each dressed the same and running in circles on the river. I stopped to talk to one, and somehow got on the subject of flies, and proclaimed that we had a lot to be thankful for in the writing of Ronalds and others. “Who” he asked?

 See, that made it worse, for now not just the art was gone, but so was the history…

 And that was what was finally bothering me: the utter eclipse of the history of the sport by runaway modernism driven by identity and marketing, with a dose of poor attention span and lack of curiosity thrown in for good measure. My inner peace was not at one, not flowing evenly.

 History is important to me, and it should be more respected, studied and cherished, if not even acknowledged more in our sporting… in my opinion. I just had to add those last three words, because we all have opinions, and one of mine, for what it is worth, is that if we don’t know where we have been, and how we got here today, we face the danger of a lack of foundation to guide where we are going… thus the jig-head ‘flies’ and desire to compete by catching more fish than anyone else, and prick every lip in the river to prove something to ourselves and others that should not even have to be proven.

 Peeking back into Schwiebert, I looked at his excellent illustrations of Berners’ flies and had a moment of epiphany. History. I would go back in time once again…

 I am no stranger to this, with a degree in history focused on ancient and medieval history, I had also been an avid medieval recreationist, fighting battles in armor, making armor, leather boots, doing illuminated manuscripts, embroidery, Celtic knotwork, etc. back in the day.

 So this would be my revival of a sorts, a cleansing of my soul of disturbances and corruptions. I would purify and free myself by tying and fishing simple medieval flies.
My medieval flies with materials and montage

 I had the picture in my mind as I sat down at the vise. I rooted through old boxes of detritus and odds and ends, and located a box of antique wet-fly hooks in size 12. Then I opened a box filled with dyed wool. Years ago I had purchased a large square of merino wool from Royce Dam, noted fly-tyer who passed away this spring, and had undertaken to use old Veniard dyes to color them. I dyed up dozens of patches in every hue in the rainbow, and also dyed the kitchen sink, parts of the floor, my hands, and even part of the toilet. I had enough wool dubbing for an army of a hundred tyers, and a cleanup project with bleach and scrubbing. No experiment is ever without its little mishaps.

 These English flies of the late 15th century were a ‘departure’, at least historically, from the standard silk-bodied flies in use at the time. I put ‘departure’ in quotes because our understanding of history is often like a team of one-eyed, myopic, opinionated professors trying to describe a picture with only seven pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in front of them, and the other 93 missing. No doubt, wool-bodied flies had been in use in regions where wool was abundant in Europe. After all, one used what one had from sheep sheared and birds falconed or fowled. There were no catalogues, or rather very few mass printings, since the press had not yet been on the scene for all that long, having been just invented in 1439, and dedicated mostly to religious subjects. Even Herter’s didn’t have a catalog in the 15th century, although old George might have claimed that he was around at the time, obtaining silk cuttings from ancient tapestries for dubbing mixes, or trading for Carolingian period French daggers (East German surplus) which he would pawn off as the greatest hunting knife ever… but I digress…

 I then located some silk floss, and a large package of various small patches of soft-hackle hen, rock partridge and grouse feathers, and was ready to go. The flies are as simple as they get, and that simplicity seemed in keeping with the cleansing process and journey. Floss is tied on, wool dubbed and spun on, the silk ribbed through, and two simple wings attached at the head, reversed or not. Three materials and a hook became an elegance in miniature, a subtlety of classic beauty without any baroque attributes of flash or flair.

 I spun up three variations: a fiery brown fly with yellow floss ribbing and a mottled brown soft-hackle hen wing, a yellow fly ribbed with olive and receiving a dun wing of hen, and finally, a dark olive fly ribbed with black and using mottled grouse for the wing.

 I was set, and as I made plans for the next day’s fishing, I assembled a bamboo fly-rod, and furled leader, and placed the flies in an old metal spring Perrine fly box.

 But would they work….


Part the second: The anachronism goes forth


 The day dawned sunny and cold and I decided to wait until the old thermometer hit 45 degrees and the afternoon sun had time to heat up the water. I fortified myself with medieval tea (cheap English Tetley’s), and a strong dose of hot soup that had been the fridge since the 100 years war. (more like two-weeks, but it was a bit old for vegetable soup…) I threw the gear into the car, and hesitated a moment looking at my old 13th century sugarloaf helm I used to fight in, and after musing a moment, thought it might be a bit shiny and bright for the prevailing conditions, and also might land me in the local asylum if anybody saw me fishing in it. I donned Dad’s old Irish hat instead, and placed a few of the new (old) flies in the band of tweed.
Not quite appropriate...

 The water was in spectacular condition: clear as a bell and with good flow, but the sunny skies made this upstream effort with a wet fly and no indicator kind of a leap of faith. I selected the olive fly, tied it on and began fishing anyway. I was lacking in control of the fly in its drift and had no contact at fifty feet distance, and the sun prevented me from getting closer. That and the splashy rises and midges in the air led me to switch to a dry and fish properly for the conditions. I caught a few fish and missed more by the time I finished the run and walked upstream to the next piece of water. I again tied on the medieval wet, and after it got ignored through the rises, clipped it off again and went with the midge dry. Perhaps this experiment was a bit silly after all. Five hundred year old flies might be pushing it, even for me.

 I continued to fish up the runs taking the odd fish on long casts in the clear water, and considering it a successful venture anyway since catching wily trout on long casts and light tippets using size 22 dry flies is an accomplishment any day of the week, even though it was not my mission this particular day.

 It began to cloud up a little to the south with dark gray cumulus legions advancing slowly, but the sun in its evening waning was still lighting the water. I should have known what was happening before it happened. A fish turned on my midge and ignored it. Rises were still sporadic, but my fly was now the strange ugly kid with warts that nobody talks to. Then I spotted a fly that seemed to be a little different than a midge. The clouds in the sky triggered a clearing of the clouds in my head as I realized I was in a light hatch of tiny blue-winged olive mayflies. Switching flies, I hit a nice ten-inch brown full of color that took down the tiny olive with an audible smacking of the chops. Then the wind picked up and I ran out of water as the sun crept behind the trees. No more risers. I had a bit of a walk back to the car, but since it was the witching hour and owls were beginning to announce the coming hunt, and the light was now fully off the water, I decided to put the olive and dun medieval fly back on and swing it downstream in the classic wet fashion dating back to the dawn of the angle.

 It was like a bomb went off in the water. The biomass of hatching olives were still present as emergers, even if the few hatching adults were blown off the water. The trout were cruising just under the surface picking off the swimming nymphs. I looked at my fly in the water and a light bulb went on. The soft hackle wing folded back along the curved semi-translucent wool body like an emerging wing of dun or gray to match the overhead clouds. The fly looked perfect as it swung, and I was unprepared for what was now happening. Every cast was tapped by fish, mostly not hooking themselves, splashing on the fly, bumping it and eating it too. I began to pick up fish on every other cast, mostly little punters, and I made my way downstream, taking a large step between each cast across and down the river. The technique was as simple as the fly was. It was working!

 When I got to the pool I had the most faith in, I immediately hit a slightly nicer brown and landed the lip-hooked olive diner with a smile. I thought, “Well, I did it!” Enough was enough, just time for one more cast or two…. After all, the old now chewed up medieval fly had just landed more fish than the rest of the day put together…

 The fly was struck as it turned the corner and tapped again. Thinking it a small fish pecking at the fly, I twitched it in the water and was surprised when it was jolted down, and the fly line was yanked out of my hand as I set the hook and the reel began playing out line. The fish ran down the length of the run with the old Orvis 1980s CFO reel protesting its age with a grizzled gravelly complaint. What had I hooked? The flash of honey and butter in the water as the fish turned to run back upstream made my jaw drop. It fought like Jack Dempsey, all dogged and bruising as a brown trout should be, and put a heck of a bend in the cane rod. When I landed it, I marveled at its colors. This guy was the big honcho in the pool, all one foot plus of him. He fought out of all proportion to his size, and crowned the day for me. I felt the clouds clearing from my soul, and the sun winked its last rays through the pines and hills, as the cleansing melted off the concerns and I clipped off the fly. I had done what I came to do. Prove that a simpler world can exist, and that something used in the middle ages could still catch fish, and even do a better job of it than all the rest of the day’s efforts. A blob of shredded wool on a hook with a torn up scraggly wing twitched and swung looked like a bug to him. All the technical innovations were absent in the fly. There was no hype, no noise… it was pure.
Five hundred year old flies still work!

 There was one more pool to go before the car, but I had enough of a good thing, and never re-tied. In that moment, it struck me. Restraint.

 Dame Juliana wrote about restraint and moderation along with her flies, methods of building a rod, and angling back in 1496. That and a new appreciation of history and simplicity went with me into my sleep picture as the night coolness descended and I dreamed of trees, and otters, and old flies come new again.

 I was healed.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The changing aesthetics of our tools


Found object wanderings and reflections…

I was going through my old Orvis super tackle pack vest the other day looking for something or other, when I opened one of the pockets and pulled out an old pocketknife. It was a Shrade old-timer model with three blades. At first I thought it was one I placed in the vest, but then as I examined it, I realized that it was in there all along, and belonged to the former owner that I inherited the vest from. The blades were a bit rusty after all the years, so I opened it up and gave it a quick pass with the Arkansas stone and some honing oil. I then sat and reflected that it belonged in there, and so placed it right back in its pocket. It will come in handy for the hundred things small pocket knives come in handy for, most of which can’t be predicted. This was just like my first pocketknife my dad bought me from the Downer Avenue Hardware store back in the early 1970s. That knife is long gone today, but it was cherished back in the day, and a big event for a kid, as I imagined all the amazing things I could do with it, most which would either get me in trouble, or were a bad idea in the first place.

In looking at this knife, it began to symbolize and aggregate a series of thoughts I had been having about the evolution and changes to our tools for the outdoors, fishing and hunting in particular…

I had recently visited a Cabelas store to poke about, and found myself in the hunting and gun area, where there was a knife display. There were still some simple pocketknives on display, but they were outnumbered by far with what I guess could be referred to as ‘Tactical knives.’ These all had several things in common. First, they looked dangerous… even outright gruesome. No bone or horn handles here, just plain utility of black plastic and stainless steel. They looked like something that would be at home butchering a small herd of Jurassic creatures, and if push came to shove, much of the neighborhood. They were half hunting utility knives, and half combat weapons.

I strolled over to the rifle rack to see what they had, and yes, there were still a few classic bolt-action rifles in the mix, but in general, 80% of what they carried were plastic stocked facsimiles of military combat weapons.

Then, while waiting at the bank, I picked up the stack of magazines on the side table and found a recent edition of Outdoor Life. As I thumbed through the pages looking for actual content, (what the heck happened to content?) I began to realize how completely things had changed since that day when Dad gave me my first knife.

Call me dim, or call me Rumplestiltskin, but sometimes I can’t see the bigger changes like the proverbial forest from the trees until confronted with the time to waste looking at things I don’t really want to see. The magazine I browsed through was so different from those I read back in the day, and the biggest changes were to those of our tools, and how they were portrayed being used.

The aesthetics had shifted so far as to baffle me. It was actually difficult to recognize some of the fishing rods as fishing rods. They looked like power tools. Also, somehow large trucks, chewing tobacco, and camouflage clothing crept in on every page accompanying ads for items as diverse as lip balm, or adult diapers. It all had a certain look, a certain aesthetic that sold a way of life. It hit you in the face. All things were POWER, BAD, RUGED, DEADLY. I turned back to the cover to make sure I didn’t pick up a survivalist magazine by accident. Nope.

Arriving home, I opened the mailbox to find a new fly-fishing catalog, and encountered similar themes. There was a new reel named ‘Assassin’, and some of the rods looked like odd struts for racing bikes that somebody had adorned with corporate logo bumper-stickers. There was a new fly rod named ‘Badass’. I wondered what had happened to ‘Goodass?’

Well, label me a luddite, but I was confused.

Everything changes. Consumer products most of all, as our generational outlook shifts and wishes to establish its unique identity, and distance itself in an unending quest from the past generation. Identity is the foundation of marketing. I pondered whether marketing and product design and aesthetics were leading us or following us. Were the changes utility, or a mirror of our collective outlook on the world. If the later is the case, it might be a little disturbing.

I guess I missed the beauty.

Yes, that can lie in the eye of the beholder, but I do think that a classic wood-stocked rifle with beautiful bluing, a pocketknife or fixed blade with rich wood or horn handles, and a fly-rod that actually looks like a fly rod are beautiful tools of the outdoors. There seemed to be no beauty in the black plastic and stainless world, for it contained not just utility, but a perceived technology and newness with more than a hint of ‘Badass’ thrown in for good measure. A technological look was better. Our tools of the trade had to look space-age now. They had to be dangerous.

The language had changed as well. We no longer seemed to be experiencing nature, but instead to be at war with it. Dad fished with a fly called a ‘Professor’ or a ‘Governor’, not a ‘Street Thug.’

There was always was a ‘Look’ to the outdoor sportsperson, from the fishing vest and bucket hat with lures dangling, to the felt shirt, tweed, pipe, and etc. that passes today for classic or old or outdated or silly. However, there was no required look in the past. We all dressed for the outdoors within a certain accepted boundary, but we were not yet pressed from the same mold or else not ‘Cool’. It seemed to me as I looked through the magazines that today, the new aesthetic was the ‘Look.’ That was more important than the deer or the fish, the skill, or the experience. I looked at an ad for a saltwater fishing trip and was instantly aware that if I were to attempt to embrace the new look, that I would not know which way to correctly cock my ghetto flat-cap, or which gang signs to flash as I held up the fish. If I did try, I might be like somebody’s aged uncle who, after imbibing too many martinis at a house party, attempts to perform hip-hop, causing everybody to excuse themselves, or stare at a house plant while grimacing in embarrassment.

But then… I am not the target market. Thinking people who like to read and research tend not to buy-in as readily. We seem to question things more. “Why is this better?” “What about this thing that has worked for years?” With knowledge of the outdoor sports and its history of gear, we can make refined choices, and more and more I see a push-back to a simpler time and an appreciation for both utility and ‘classic beauty’. Perhaps the growing legions of people who are turning away or back feel that marketing and the new gear have finally gone too far, and their intelligence is insulted, or maybe it is because we no longer listen to the noise, being too busy using the gear we have in outdoor pursuits to take the time to ponder if we are up-to-date or cool. When one stops looking in the mirror, a certain freedom can develop…

As a craftsperson I appreciate fine leather, wood, and natural materials. Waxed cotton instead of nylon, etc. Back in the day my father did too, and instead of trying to distinguish myself or differentiate myself by embracing the newness of generational change and marketing, I use what he and his generation left to me. Classic gear. Rooted in aesthetics, beauty and simplicity and not affectation, but also in a simple thrift. My old Pfluger Medalist or Hardy Perfect reels works as well today as it did when dads and uncles were fighting the Germans, and the guns they purchased when home and settled are still providing meat for the freezer. I hunt with Dad’s old Steyer and Browning today.

Just like the old pocketknife I discovered in the vest. Sharpened up a bit and polished, it will relive a boy’s adventures and dreams some fifty odd-years later. It still looks beautiful, and too boot… I actually recognize what it is. It may not be new, cool, or badass, but then… neither am I.



Thursday, March 15, 2018

Art is naked

This came out this last January as I wrote some sophomoric text or typing.. (writing vs. Typing...) on my website. I just needed to break free... and this emerged... Enjoy!

Art is Naked


Reflections and journeys in art and self-expression. A letter to myself.


Don Quixote by my mother Mary Theisen-Helm


Art is naked. Art is as naked and sensitive as we were the moment we were born. Fragile and at the mercy of a cruel world. Cold and bright and new and scary. Art is baring our souls to the world with no armor. Art is so fragile. Such a risk. Art is dangerous. Art is a hope for acceptance and joy, but a fear of rejection while naked on a stage. Art is bright, art is dark. Art is both a reflection of ourselves, and of how our expression is excepted. Mirrors upon mirrors…


Showing our inner-most thoughts and self-expression. Throwing it out there to be laughed at or… even accepted from time to time. The barriers and shields of life.. our shrouds of common existence laid bare and waste. Self-expression, putting out your inner self and fragility…


The birth of art is naked too. It exists alone, must be created alone driven by creativity bordering on madness.


Innocence of ideas uncorrupted by any other person or outside influence… of any critique.


The dangers of conformity. The voices in our heads or in others that want to change us. To make it all understandable. To be so unique as to be absurd… forced to find a voice that is not yours… or to conform to a common grouping… a classification.. you are an X artist or a Y artist. The unique but fragile voice like a child’s quavering first attempt to sing. Don’t quash it.


Without some sort of mental illness or psychological aberration, art could not exist.. the world would be black and white and boring and tasteless.  Albert Camus wrote : “If the world were clear, art would not exist.”


Dangers of listening to critique. Dangers of non-acceptance or ambivalence. Learning to put on soul-armor and masks. Self examination after criticism or non acceptance. Self-loathing and the decent into despair. The Van Gough effect? Putting down the brush and pen and picking it up again because you have to. Creativity and the need to get it out. Alcohol fueled ideas and paper and canvasses crumpled, crushed concepts reborn later in new joy and clarity.


The small acceptances along the way. A kind word like a feast… like light into a dark room. Warmth on a cold gloomy day. The flowers that bloomed in your head as you walked in the hills, blossoms of ideas in shades of seasons.


Of those who don’t understand and our wanting to explain or alter our art to make it more accessible. Our final acceptance that most people couldn’t ever appreciate the subtleties in a C├ęzanne landscape and move their lips when or if they read Yates.


It began with the realization of who you are. I spent my youth along side my classical pianist father, and my prolific and amazing mother who’s painting brushes dripped in colors of unending talent. I was always creative, but spent so much of my life trying to be someone I wasn’t. A success. A business guy. A corporate clown. Only to have a mid-life crisis, give up my job, my career, my life, move clear across the state to a small rural town and wallow in the joys, successes and fears of creating art. The risk is naked too… It was born long ago when telling a story around the dinner table. My cousin told me I should write these things down… so I did… Badly at first. Then with more clarity and gaining a voice… I never had my father’s ear, or my mother’s brush. Instead… in the middle of my life, I discovered a pen in my pocket.


Creativity is a joy in itself. Mom would finish a painting and move on to the next idea, seldom stopping to sign or frame it. I understand. It just has to come out…. Art for Art’s sake and creativity for creativities sake is not sin or vice.


The ups and downs. The self-doubts. The heights of joy unparalleled when revisiting a creation of art and finding it perfect… at least to our minds… and just being pleased with a line drawn or written…. For the moment.. the moment is naked too.


Living for that moment….


And the confidence….


To put it out there, structured how you want like a piece of jazz only ten people will ever understand…


And meeting some of those people…


Art is life. Life is living. Living is art. Art is home.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Gas Station Flies

Gas Station flies on hand made leather fly box cover and Wolf-River rod circa 1975.
A number of years ago I drove to the Brule’ river in far northern Wisconsin, passing through towns on the way that held memories of youthful vacations. I had not seen this landscape in almost forty years. Back in the day, the mid-1970s to be exact, our little family of three and our defective Volvo would take an annual vacation by driving to see relatives ‘Up North.’

‘Up North’ was a catch-all phrase for going somewhere rural where men went when they wanted to re-visit what it meant to be a man: away from the city… a place of muskies and trout, deer and cabins. To a ten-year old boy it was something exotic fed and conjured by elders in tales punctuated by beer and smoke with the spreading of hands and arms in measurement. My ‘reality’ of Up North was absorbed and simmered gently during the timeless hours of childhood summers reading Outdoor Life and listening to Dad. When I closed my eyes I saw rivers, smelled pipe smoke, heard winds through pine trees, and imagined groups of men wearing red and black checked wool hunting jackets.

For my mother, Up North meant time to spend painting landscapes and visiting local art and craft shops. For my father, it was a time to re-visit his dreams. He was an armchair fisherman and outdoorsman, so most of his dreams would be unfulfilled. Much later in life, I came to learn that perhaps a man with dreams is already fulfilled…

In those summers sitting and listening to him talk of the north woods, names began to be whispered: Brule’, Namekagon, Wolf, and Peshtigo. These were rivers of legend, and I can still hear Dad’s voice as we peeked through the birches and pines in our first and only glance at the rushing holy waters of the Wolf River. Maybe just attending this church by visiting was as good as participating in the worship or fishing. I never will know for sure, but Dad lowered his voice to a whisper when pointing out a rising trout to a wide-eyed and eared ten-year old. We never fished, but what I caught that day will be with me always.

As I drove through the towns again, I was out of place in time. My snapshot of Up North was decades old. I couldn’t believe how much it had changed. Most of those small hardware stores, and mom and pop places had been replaced for the most part with a plastic sameness as Kwik e Marts grew like cancers on my memories.

Back home some time later, I was going through old fly-boxes owned by a Wisconsin fisherman. Many of the flies were patterns I didn’t recognize, and with my penchant for history and old-things, that takes a bit of doing. When I say ‘Old’ it is rather relative, for most of these flies were purchased and fished during my lifetime, in fact in the very period of those youthful vacations. Old is relative, but I was alarmed by the amount of gray in my beard this morning when I shaved; like rust on those hooks of those flies… 

These flies were not commercial patterns in the strict sense; they were ‘Gas-station flies.’ They were not perfect by any standard, yet some of them were. Tails were often too long or short, wings too bulky, materials set off-kilter, and heads too obese. They would never make the quality test of a modern overseas fly company today.

Maybe that is a good thing. Today flies are tied in an almost clinical perfection in Asia and Africa by people who have never seen a trout stream. That kind of perfection can be flawed in economy of scale. How many hundred dozen do you want? Regional patterns and local ties like I held in my hand slowly disappeared or became scarce in that economy. These were unique and like a mirror in time. They held a place on a map…

Back when these flies were created, every great river had a local shop. I am not talking about a modern fly-shop in any sense. These shops were often places that sold gas, bottles of cold pop, flasks of brandy and bourbon, and sporting tackle. They were small operations run by locals. In a rural economy back then, they could exist on a shoestring, or maybe by selling a few shoestrings.

When one left the city and drove Up North, one always stopped at the local shop to fill up the Buick, add a quart of oil, pick up a needed item forgotten or worn-out, and to find out the local forecast for the fishing conditions and see what ‘They were biting on.’ The guy you went to talk to always knew your name as you knew his. Norm or Stumpy would be behind the counter. The flies that were working would be in a cardboard tray on the counter. They were tied by guys that fished the river every day. They knew exactly what was working, and the patterns were made up on the spot. “The Woodcock Special’ may be a great stone-fly imitation, but it could also be because somebody’s brother shot three woodcock last week. These people hunted. Other than a few materials such as the hooks, floss, and hackle, the materials used most likely saw the front porch of a hunting cabin, and spent a few weeks in borax and salt. The flies smelled like wood-smoke and deer hair. You purchased a half-dozen of each and clipping them into the tin fly-box, knew that you had the hatch all figured out because you trusted an authentic local expert.


That word summons so many images and feelings in me as I close my eyes… because I was there. I may just have been a little punter, but little punters have big eyes. What I saw and experienced as I walked through these local ‘Sporting-goods’ stores was real, authentic, rural, honest, local. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was breathing in history along with the dust. Yes… dust. Much of the shelving was covered with a fine powdering of dust. It lay on the boxes of muck-boots, the barrel of nets, and on the tackle that was timeless. I have grown to like dust. Dust is the most authentic thing of all, for all life is made of it. To a modern retailer, these places would need a massive cleaning and refit. There were no merchandising standards other than “The hip waders are in the back aisle under the shotgun shells.” Fish mounts and old bowling trophies sat or hung crookedly. There was no product rotation, so as a kid, I could always find an old Daredevil spoon or cap-pistol that was priced sometime in the past decade, and would be cheap enough for a pestered parent to buy. If you asked for something, the owner would furrow his brows, ask his wife, and she would root through an old box and find it. It was like a kind of magic. Muskie plugs and bucktail streamers appearing out of the primordial lost spaces of dust. The clutter was beautiful…

The fly-fisher never used all those local flies, but it was always a part of consideration and good conduct that one made a purchase of a few things to support the local store. The excess flies got stored away and now sit in front of me along with a fiberglass fly rod made locally for fishing the northern Wisconsin rivers. It is an odd rod by today’s standards…


Standards that have in time made these purpose made rods look obscure…. but they weren’t.

This rod is a seven footer for a seven-weight fly line. Short and with authority. It was designed and built off a Fisher glass blank by a man who owned a local shop like this. It was and is the perfect tool for the rivers it was born on. It was designed for brushy rivers with big trout and sweepers and log hazards. Throwing big size 2 hex nymphs on the Bibon marsh at night and catching alligators of brown trout as long as your arm while keeping them out of the rushes and cattails? Here is your rod. This wasn’t the Missouri river, and not all rods had to be 9 foot 5 weights. This was a specialty rod. When we look at the history of fly-fishing, we see as we descend the map a growing myopia of fishing culture, equipment, and tactics. These were grown locally and fed on long studies and days a field. The Letort and her micro-terrestrials and the rods to match. The Au Sable and the midge rod and long boat. The Wolf and her huge trout and deep rocky runs grew the large weighted stoneflies that made the rod in front of me a necessity. Each local fishery grew in myopia then, there was no internet, and thank god for that, for if there was, Marinaro, Fox, Flick, and the other local experts would all be told that they were doing it wrong… Instead, the local tackle and flies grew in a vacuum of sorts. The river grew the fish, which grew the fishermen, who grew the fly patterns and tackle, which became part of our history and culture. Yankee ingenuity at its best.

When we hold one of these flies in our hands, we must be aware that there was experimentation here and serendipity. They were purpose-built by a tier who lived in a small cabin and traded them for gas and cigarette money. That kind of small economy and craft is what made America rich…. not monetarily, but culturally. These flies are a time machine, with rusty hooks, faded colors, and hackle chewed by bugs and fish alike, small pieces of gut and nylon attesting to memories made on the rivers. The rivers grew all of this. We are all children of rivers.

A fly is an artificial deception to the trout, but also a word that means to travel through the air. This spring, a few of these that are in better condition will do just that at the end of my rod, a fresh leader, and a fresh perspective into local history. The honesty of knowledge that led to their creation in less complicated times will still deceive the fish, but my memories from those childhood travels through the Gas station sporting-goods stores will never deceive me or fade. The hooks on these old flies may need sharpening a bit, but my memories are as sharp as ever. I can still smell the pipe-smoke and the dust….. I can still see the Wolf River through the pines and hear Dad’s voice… whispering.

Dedicated to my Father and all the other dreamers back in the day, To the moms and pops that ran these small shops, the flies and tiers, and to Joe Balestrieri, and Bob Blumreich who remember… Up North.
Copyright 2018 Erik Helm


Monday, January 29, 2018

The River as my Teacher

In the classroom

I was beginning a day on the stream teaching a trout master class to another angler when he turned to me and asked “What is the agenda for today?”

I replied with a smile that we ‘Were going to let the river determine the agenda.’

I paused a moment…. What had come out of my mouth? After all, I was the teacher today, or was I? I decided to go with the flow, so to speak, and told the fellow angler, “I am the interpreter…. The fly-fishing translator to help solve the little challenges the river presents to us.”

“The river is the curriculum, and the course will change with every bend.”

 After a successful day presenting casts and techniques to open up the hidden doors I reflected… “We all get stuck in ruts, but if we lack an agenda and just follow the river, it will take us into uncharted halls of higher learning.”

 I learn every day from my teacher… the river. It is my professor of ease and difficulty, of frustration, surprise, and problem solving. The waters are my classroom. I decided to follow my new philosophy on the next solo outing.

 Instead of having an agenda, and rigging up at the car, I placed no fly on the line and simply went down to the side of the stream and sat awhile. What would I learn today? The next few hours would be an open book with the chapters hidden, and the solutions and morals to be discovered. . The problems were there – the solutions are the challenge for me to solve.

 I decided to fish every inch of water, and not pass up a challenge. How would I get my fly into a tangle with overhead cover hiding an undercut bank? I asked the teacher, but he just murmured back at me. I had to find the solution. After getting caught up several times, the solution occurred to me; get out of the water and walk around the obstacle and approach it stealthily from the upstream side. I was awarded with a feisty little brown trout that ate a dry fly presented with a modified roll cast with my body hidden by a bush. Only the tip of the rod ever showed over the water.

 In the next run a new lesson began. This one included a large trout cruising in shallow water slowly circling and eating some sort of bug. Here I had to solve the menu as well as the presentation. I placed on an ant and shot my back-cast into a bush behind me. The lesson was clear: take inventory, and don’t get your nose so far into the book that you lose sight of the big picture of the exercise. I nodded to the teacher and pressed on.

Here was a long riffle with a single big fish rising at the head of it. It required a 50 foot cast with a left reach-mend. I was up for the challenge. I stepped forward and stripped out line and the fish stopped rising. I had placed a foot into the tail of the pool and the small fish holding there had panicked and swum helter-skelter up the run and put down the big fish. I smiled at the lesson and began to move on when I spotted a beautiful orchid growing at streamside. Here was a part of the new lesson I failed to appreciate. Take time to smell the roses. I sat on the bank and closed my eyes. A few minutes passed as I listened to the river and the breeze in the trees, the warblers and a kingfisher calling and singing. Then I heard a ‘Slurp.’ Yes, grasshopper… here was another sublime side-lesson the teacher reminded me of. Taking time to pause resets the trout, and quiets their fear. I made a good cast and missed the strike. At least I had a shot.

The lessons continued into the evening. I learned: why it is important to tie one’s bootlaces properly, not to try to wade through quicksand, when to pass up the little fish for a single shot at a nice trout. When to use a bow-and arrow cast with a weighted streamer in a tangle, when to slow down, to eliminate my shadow, and when to by-pass a problem and come back to it later.

Passing up those challenges and whatever the river serves up to us is like choosing the same math problems that you already know the answers to from a book, and calling it education. Even as a ‘teacher’, I was still learning: learning with every cast and footstep. To close my eyes, to open them, to listen to the river…

Learning by breaking the habits of our common approach, and letting the fish and the river determine what we do… We must mirror the problem with a response or solution, not force our own preferred solution on the equation. Four plus four does not equal six, so why do all of us, me included often try to present a ‘six’ for the solution to diverse problems? We may be fishing a bobber and a nymph, and an opportunity presents itself that may call for a change in the proffered answer...  a dry fly or a change in position and a streamer… Do we change the answer to fit the problem and put on a proper fly for the water… or do we try to force the answer to be ‘six?’ Let the teacher tell you… listen.


My final lesson appeared to me as the sound of distant thunder rumbled… when to go home. The bell had rung… school was over for the day. What would tomorrow’s lessons be?

When we stop learning, we stop breathing. I took a deep breath of the smells of the forest, and smiled. Thank you teacher.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Dear Theo,

Authors note:


I was reading a large volume on the history and artwork of Van Gogh and enjoying his letters to his brother Theo, when the name struck me…. What if Vincent was a fly-fisherman, and he wrote a letter to his brother Theodore Gordon? What if there was a bit of anachronism or time juxtaposition? What if he explored the world of art within fly-fishing… what if he was a bit mad….

There is a lot to be interpreted or contemplated in the themes Vincent touches on in his letter. Enjoy!



Dear Theo,


I hope this letter finds you well. Yes! I am working again! I am in the middle of going a bit mad tying colorful buck tail streamers. New colors! Glorious. I start with a picture in my mind, and then use the blending of the fibers to produce my palette and create a composition as a fly! Why? you are asking as you read this… Well, you know me. Always detouring on the path…. Distracted by beauty.


After all Theo, this spur of creativity is your fault! Remember when we sat on the bank of the Neversink, and after you had hooked and landed that 3 pound trout, you took your rod down and we sat sipping absinth and discussing the entanglements of art and angling?

That set me thinking Theo. Often I no longer sleep now.

Why fly-fishing my brother? You used the word “Grace.” I don’t think that begins to penetrate the issue. Fly-fishing is essentially an art, and artful in its expression. The casts are graceful, the line curves like a model’s curves and sinuous. The flies are pieces of craft, but if you take it like I do, they are an expression of the angler and his or her spirit and approach to the water. That rod of yours, the newer one you tied those dozens of exquisite flies in trade for is art too…. At least you make it so. My strokes are too forceful… too violent.

But I am sitting here in my room obsessively creating these new flies that the world must take notice of after I am gone because I have to. And because I can. I am free here Theo! Free to create without any snarky looks or turned up noses. I am free to make something deserving of the fish we caught that day! They are beautiful. Don’t they deserve the best I can do?

Art, they told me in a class was an expression of God. I would add nature too, for what is man’s best effort in art except a flawed imitation of divine nature? Prometheus unbound? Or a humble tribute? Nature is the canvas on which we paint this sport. Nature underlies it all, and man’s understanding of nature is exhibited by naked fear and expressions of joy.

But Theo, I often wonder in the dark if my creations will ever be appreciated beyond this little asylum of four walls… because art may be dying. Perverted by the materialism I used to rage against at the pulpit.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that day on the river Theo, and in your corner of the world you may not be exposed to the relentless ‘progress’ of the sport, but let me rage a bit… and yes… I did eat something yesterday. Don’t worry.

See… aesthetics in this fine sport somewhere down the line got replaced with pure technology. Beauty was forgotten. People use rods with giant blazons of corporate logos on them in wild colors that are disparate. They put bobbers on their leader and lead split shot and everything is now made out of plastic. “New” equals better now, seemingly without any reserve, precedent, or understanding. Aesthetics have been replaced by raw utility and pushed with an attitude that frightens. Have you heard of the “Inter-net.” There are moving pictures on there! I saw them! There were people with fly-rods or something like fly-rods jumping out of flying machines with parachutes accompanied by a god-awful noise worse than this new dissonance! At one point they ate a monkey and did a dance while holding up trout and doing some sort of ritual involving shoving it at us and making funny faces!


What happened? We should be ashamed.

The trout are painted by God Theo, who are we to perform heresies and tarnish his work?

There is something brutal here. I get the impression, even if I don’t understand it, that the sport has become pure social status and no longer about nature and art.

I saw an advert for a new fly rod promising that it would make me catch more fish. That would like a tube of paint that promised me I can produce a better painting.

I miss the clarity Theo. It all seems so confusing. I don’t recognize it anymore. Subtlety seems to have disappeared. Silence overtaken by non-stop stimulation. I don’t think people catch a trout anymore, instead they conquer it.

I know you worry about me in this little room, so I walked to the stream on Monday and went fishing, and what a clarion day it was, for without the noise in my head of the marketing and materialism and the posing, I drank deep of the purity, the essence of fly-fishing.

See, when I look at a piece of music or art, I don’t just see a bunch of people jumping around to audible tones, or colors and lines on a canvas. I look for a deeper meaning. Something beyond or beneath the surface of the stream or of simple perception. I caught a beautiful trout as the stars began to fill the sky and the setting sun set fire to the world. It was a conflagration of madness and divinity! Then I looked down and saw the dainty fly with rich colors of red and green and yellow. Primary colors Theo! Primary thoughts! Down to the essence. A rod, a reel, a line, a leader, a fish, and what God gave us to appreciate this small thing we do and embellish it with aestheticism and expression, with interpretation bold and subtle. It is simple, but so much more… an abstraction! I sat down and watched the sun set and drank that bottle you sent to me last week. Thank you again! The moment just spoke of art, and alone with nature there was no other to defile it with measurements of efficiencies or commodity. Art was all around me. The trout splashed in agreement as my simple rod with no adornments bent and bowed to a greater artist that we can ever explain. The spots on the trout glowed in brilliance.

The rent is due in a week, but don’t worry, something will come up. I can always trade some of these new flies for some bread and cheese…

Don’t worry… and be well Theo. I feel on the edge of a breakout. That accident with the fly-tying scissors was just an isolated…..