Wednesday, September 19, 2018


Upper West Fork where the little brookie was caught



Part one: We go fishing


The morning broke slowly, and the damp mists shrouded our progress up Bohemian Valley creek. It was as beautiful as it was quiet, the only sounds being the light adagio of woodwinds and muted percussion played upon the riffles; water music.

The tricos, or minute mayflies we were waiting for were quiet as well, for none were showing as we crept slowly forward, or sat with senses aware to sounds and taking in the surface of the water like a Shakespeare play… drama, or a lack of it to be exact. Some wise sage once said that there is no thing deader than a dead brown trout stream. Despite the divine spiritual beauty of the misty valley this morning, like a fog-shrouded church ruins, the trout were not having any. They just would not come out to play. No tricos showed for an hour, and no rising trout. Different fishermen would have placed an indicator on the leader, and attached a weighted nymph, but we wanted to play this game on our terms that day. As the years pass, it seems to become more and more important to just exist to witness the beauty of the rivers here in the Driftless, and part of the poetry in and on the rivers is to appreciate a few trout to hand, and the restraint to walk away happy with what the river gives you… a gift.

I did begin blind-casting a tiny size 22 trico dry fly just in case; a process not unlike playing the lottery without buying a ticket, and did manage to hook one small brown trout. Sometimes the number ‘1’ can be an existential victory. So we left the river happy. It had flowed in that valley for tens of thousands of years, and we would take up no more of its slow concept of time that day.

We stopped at Timber Coulee, the parent river, and another moss-bed incubator for the tricos, and progressed up a riffle as the sun began to warm the water. The tricos should be showing, but nature has her own rhythms, sometimes impossible to touch or feel, or interpret for a mere human soul. My friend of many years and adventures, memories and wisdom stored in the coming graying spotted a single rising trout, and covered him with a tiny caddis and caught him. The water-ghost was a brown trout full of coming autumn colors and fat. I took the lead up the 100-yard long riffle, but neither of us could raise a fish to a dry fly. So we left the river to its own terms… after all, we had both caught a single fish where there were thousands. Sometimes in life, a single sip of champagne tastes the finest when the glass is put down, and placed there to stay. You can watch the bubbles, and imagine the next sip, if there is one…

The next river we visited upon was the upper West Fork of the Kickapoo. This gem of the Coulee region saw some of the first stream rehabilitation work that brought the Driftless area to trout angling prominence. The sections we were on were near the very headwaters. Often a change in valleys and streams will turn the cards over, and all comes up flushes, aces, and royalty. This was one of those days. As dead as the Timber system was, the West Fork treated us well indeed. The change in venue brought multiple trout to hand including a 13 inch brown that took the fourth drift of a skittered caddis under the grass of an undercut. I rarely get to hear the small Hardy perfect reel sing like that, even my partner heard the ratcheting from upstream, and the little bamboo 4-weight ‘Princess’ rod bent in a crazy curve. Interesting karma, since the reel was a gift from him many seasons and fish ago.

The river was good to us, and we felt a part of it like an old friend of many promises kept. We continued upstream, joined now by an old sage of the Driftless who has forgotten more about trout on the fly than many will ever know. Now we were three. We located a pod of trout mixed in with Largemouth Bass, an interesting combination. The bass were washed down from Jersey Valley lake, the impoundment and dam at the headwaters, and were making their living right there in the middle of a cold-water trout stream. It was juxtaposition as extreme as one can get: like a clown at a Harvard philosophy conference on the subject of aesthetics and epistemology. We cherished the privilege. Herr Sage picked apart the pod of trout, while we practiced standing on our lines and tying complicated knots of the macramé variety in our leaders. Yes, there are those moments too. Anyone who says it never happens to them, either only wets a line in their mind, or is lying.

We futzed about for another hour with the bass and trout, and moved upstream to a section I had not been back to in four years. It was a section of some old improvements from the 1980s still tentatively clinging to life after all these decades and the great floods of 2007 and 2008. Structure in name only, but the riffles held brookies and some browns. There is a magic place in many streams, an invisible border, a magic gateway where one is catching brown trout, and then as if passing through a black hole with a single step, catching only brookies. We stood at the threshold, one leg with the Fario, and one toe touching the Fontinalis. The ice age lay ahead with fish as old as the rocks in the stream bed, unchanged since long before man emerged from a cave, carved a stick, and attaching a string of horsehair and a bone hook, went forth to angle.

It was time to go now. Time. I ran ahead to the top of a riffle where an icy feeder stream poured in from the north. I cast a dry fly up to where the two waters met and the fly disappeared in a ring. The brook trout was all of 7 inches long. I held it in my hand. Its body was almost transparent, like the mirror I passed through to get here held the solidity, and all was clear as ice where I stood: frozen with ripe berries of color… blues and reds and halos. I looked at it. It looked back. Our eyes met. I released it back to its home. My hand held its halo, its negative, its shadow. It felt cold as deep earth… cold as the waters born there. This was its home. I was just passing through.

Time to leave. Time…

Part two: The tempest

I awoke at 1:30 in the morning to a cannonade in the north. My tired eyes witnessed a firework show on the horizon. The windows rumbled with the unending timpani of thunder. It went on forever… I fell asleep as the rain danced on the roof and spattered on my brow through the open window, the curtains rising with the mistrals to tickle my cheek. It was subtle and beautiful, this violence of nature.

I awoke anew. My phone was going off with little pings and beeps. I grabbed it and began to sort through the warnings and awake to the realities of the aftermath. Upper Vernon county and areas received over 12 inches of rain. Jersey Valley dam had breached and failed. Timber Coulee valley and Coon Valley downstream were destroyed. Bridges were knocked out, people were scrambling for information, and what was coming was not good. A sobering by nature. A reminder. A flooding like we have never seen before. Early pictures resembled a muddy world war one battlefield with trees shorn from artillery fire. It looked like death… like war… like a painting by William Orpen.

The West Fork of the Kickapoo was devastated. The Kickapoo itself was beginning to flood and the upstream towns were being evacuated. Nobody knew how to get anywhere due to roads being closed. People drove for an hour zigzagging back to where they started… and it was all headed downstream toward me. At 4:30 the next morning, our town received evacuation orders. Fortunately, Soldiers Grove had flooded so many times in the past that the main street business section along the S-curve in the Kickapoo had been demolished and relocated to higher ground. I was high and dry too at the top of a hill in my little house, so I went back to sleep.

At nine in the morning I walked the 400 yards down the hill to look at the Kickapoo. There were five-foot standing waves where a beautiful park had replaced the site of the old town. Everything was wrecked, but we were all safe, Gays Mills downstream would not be so lucky. Built in a shallow bowl in a wetlands area of the Kickapoo, floodwaters rise there and slowly recede. The last remaining businesses on the main street got flooded. That had never happened before.

I looked across the bridge back in Soldiers Grove, across the raging brown waters filled with hay bales, trees, parts of silos, and other flotsam of wreckage. There is a little sign on a post with a red line marking the high water mark back in 2008. The entire sign was under water. I turned around and walked back home. I was land-locked for two-days until the floodwaters receded. Fortunately, nobody lost his or her life in this epic mess.


Part three: Reflections


It was a week later that I began to tour the damage. I stood in my own footprints near the headwaters of the West Fork, only my footprints, and everything else had been erased like the finger of God. Everywhere we had been fishing the day before was erased. It was as if a lahar had been through the valley. I didn’t know where I was. Only the hills and the road gave any orientation. Where the river slowly jogged back and forth turning and twisting as a stream should dance, it now ran in a completely new and arrow-straight channel fifty feet wide and ten feet deep. The finger of God. I stood with my friend and just stared. The silence was tremendous.

Thousand of hours, countless dollars and efforts in the shape of stream improvements… gone.

A small dead brook trout lay in the mud at my feet. Its eyes no longer looked back… they stared too, unfocused now.

Had I hooked and released the last fish caught on the upper West Fork? It mattered not except to mull in my mind the sheer fragility of life. In the mud and debris were written lessons in a script decipherable only if I closed my eyes. To be mindful. To appreciate the smallest whispers. To cherish gifts of nature and friends, to never take anything for granted… I am but a speck of dust before nature, before God if you like.

I haven’t been out fly fishing alone since. Now it is with a close friend or a client. Perhaps I am haunted. Perhaps I held eternity in my hand for a moment and touched it. I know that this too will pass. All things are ephemeral now. My senses are more aware. I feel as if I can smell time.

The last photo I took of the upper West Fork of the Kickapoo. Evening rise and mists.
Author’s note: Ephemeral means ‘transitory, transient, fleeting, passing, short-lived, momentary… It is also the root of the taxonomic name for the Mayfly, a favorite stream bred trout insect: Ephemera and Ephemerella. It seemed the perfect title to remind us to live in the moment, for all things are transitory.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Bibliophile to an Angle

Or an ode to books and the literature of fly-fishing

Author’s note: This is one essay that nearly defeated this writer. The examination of literature and themes of human expression as art and life through fly-fishing opened so many doors from expression, nature, curiosity, the human condition, the digital age, existentialism, and a hundred others that I started to get overwhelmed. This could be a book with two dozen chapters. A tome reflective of the human state of reading and not reading, of philosophy and the exploration of our humanity, achievements, fears, mortality, and everything else written down on the dozens of pages and notes I have taken in the last several months leading up to this actualization of putting pen to paper. Perhaps it can best be expressed as how it emerged, with interlocking and woven themes rather than chapters. Rivers flow and lines curve and so may words, if we are willing to read them. E.H. Summer 2018

When I was growing up, our house on the East Side of Milwaukee was full of books. Books sat on shelves, cascaded off cocktail tables, were piled on the floor, and carried in hand from room to room. For much of my youth my father sat engrossed in books, slowly smoking a pipe. Social gatherings often were occasions of passionate discussions of ideas and books, punctuated by booze and smoke. My father’s generation kept their minds sharp, even if their bodies were not always treated the best. Today sometimes I think we have come to the opposite problem: our bodies sacred, but our minds awash in a sea of data bytes, with no punctuation rooted-words to tie it all together.

As a curious child, I explored ideas with questions… pestering my parents to no end wanting to know the what, why, and how of everything. They had a set answer: “Look it up.” The search took place in books awash in dust and ideas, and often the journey was more important than the destination or answer, for it took one on diversions both small and large that opened the mind, and imprinted new thoughts or dimensions of perspective on a young mind. A transcendental journey away from the mundane.

My father found great wealth in books and was rich in ideas and knowledge. Indeed, late in his life he was at the home of a relative after a funeral, and was in an odd mood, as if he had been faced with his own mortality. One of the guests approached him as he stood alone quiet and reflective in the living room browsing through the shelves of books. “What are you doing?” the relative asked. “Looking at the books,” he replied, opening one briefly.

“Oh I hate books,” said the relative. “They cause dust, and I am allergic to dust.”

My father turned ever so slowly, and replacing the book gently and reverently in its slot, said “I would rather have dust in my lungs than dust on my brain.”

Thus, when it came time for his son to explore the world of fly-fishing, I naturally turned to books, and turned the first page in a lifetime journey.

The immortal Arnold Gingrich opened his literary exploration of the world of fly-fishing writing in ‘The Fishing in Print’ with the words:

“As Sparse Grey Hackle says, some of the best fishing is to be found not in water but in print. It follows that some of the best fishing partners are to be found not in life but in literature.”

A book, in its essence is a recording of thoughts and experiences, points of view and reflections. Stories, our stories… his story and history. Books allow ideas to be preserved in a timeless way… mirrors and windows through another’s eyes. They take us places we have never been, they augment dreams, and widen our world. They allow for exploration of ideas. Opening a book can be like an open-ended question: joy, fear, anticipation and validation… mortality and ecstasy captured through mere words on a page. Books are a lens into a different world, and an examination of the human experience… the human soul… the human story. Rivers are dividing points and joining points, moving water and flowing ideas and expressions… mirrors into introspection and perspective as words are.

When mankind placed pen to paper, and the written language emerged as a preservation tool, books were lovingly created and copied by hand. Even after the printing press was invented, cherished volumes were often kept under lock and key in vaults, so sacred and valued were the words. Libraries were the intellectual equivalent of treasuries… banks investing in or keeping knowledge. Words opened minds and that scared institutions such as the church, which spent much of their time and effort banning them and collecting them to file out of sight forever. Ideas can be dangerous. For us today they are free or nearly so. So free that we take them for granted, and don’t read them.

The greatest tribute to anything as far as human history is concerned is to capture it in art, and the written word, or literature, is one of the finest forms. It has been said that a picture paints a thousand words, but I would add that a word conjures a thousand pictures, for the human mind is not two-dimensional, and words trigger imagination. The finest angling books or literature are often not entirely about fishing. Indeed, they are about life seen through our experiences while fishing. The human condition portrayed in the garden of analogy. William Humphrey wrote one of the greatest stories about fly-fishing in ‘The Spawning Run.’ It is a story about fishing, but in between the words are our own foibles laid bare in the bushes of life down by the river. Thus, the finest books are often not simple how-to or where to go typing, but viewing life, nature, art and philosophy through fly-fishing. Our little sport might be unique, for more words have been written about it than any other sport. Ernest Hemmingway wrote his most simple and essential novel, a single tale of man and a fish… which was not about fishing, but about life, existentialism, and the bigger realms. The ideas were as large as the dialog was simple and child-like. These stories endure and are endless as the rivers. Ars Longa Vitae Brevis. The writers may be gathering dust, but when we open their books, we hear their voices. Words are immortal. They give us something greater to chew on. To taste and reflect on. To live through. A hundred books, a hundred lives, and one reader living it all.

Yes, and books are there for learning. There on the shelf, the bookstore, the library or the hearth mantle available and accessible to all, only for the boldness of curiosity to open the cover and open our minds. Why boldness? Because sometimes books make us question things… even ourselves, and critical thinking can be dangerous to the self-assured. I wonder often if zealots like Halford the dry-fly dogmatic read books with their eyes tightly closed. We have to be open to ideas and desire to see the world as other’s see it. That wider view can be frightening or enlightening, depending on the reader. A closed mind is a closed book. Learning through books is something we can all do. The history of the sport, and the varied experiences and perspectives is our education off the water, allowing us to enjoy the fishing at a greater level when casting in it. Casting our fly into books can be as rewarding as wetting an actual line.

Explore wit and wisdom with Lyons as he stumbles through the rivers, laugh with Volker, discover the inner humor in Skues, Lose a day with Negley Farson in ‘Going Fishing,’ explore the north-west with Haig-Brown, Fish the world around and gain a lens into entomology and history with Schwiebert. Sit at a table with Ritz and Gingrich at a fishing club with a salon-like atmosphere where ideas are born and drown in martinis, and fishing is only the seed for the larger expressions of the mind. Sparse Grey Hackle (Arthur Miller) wrote a book almost entirely not about fishing… or was it about fishing in the end? We have to go there to see. We have to feed our mind along with our body. When we do, we find out why we might have not wanted to fish with Hemingway, or the development of the Irish wet flies with Kingsmill Moore, what we have gained and lost in tackle, the joys and losses in the tussle with memorable fish, discover Yeats and his poetry about fishing and nature, explore the north woods with Gordon McQuarrie, and even find ourselves feeling so slightly sheepishly guilty for enjoying these explorations off the stream as much as our time with rod in hand. There in an essence, was the author’s intent.

Of course, books also have tangibility, a physicality of touch and feel and smell that is clinically absent in the digital world. Books are read by the stream, by the fire, in the company of valued friends and pets, with wines, and exotic cheeses. Books are like tasting a new food. They each have a flavor as varied as the natural world and the human personality. The human writer wanting to be more, to exist in a larger sense, and create something larger out of a simple act. To separate ourselves from the animals through art and sport. Books have a durability as well. Treasured and saved. A gift to be given to ourselves again and again, and shared with others.

The digital world of today exists for a nano-second and moves on. It is designed for short-attention spans, and cultivates and harvests them. Forums don’t explore ideas like books do, they race through inane subjects like what is the best five-weight rod?… they are there and gone again. Books are like a fine wine slowly sipped and enjoyed for its character, its very uniqueness. Scanning typed data is like drinking 100 thimbles of different wines with a toothpick. We remember and enjoy nothing. Ten minutes later we are all back where we started.

Books and ideas are not to be constrained to a formula: 1,500 words with a side bar map and travel tips. Writing by numbers. Books are the soul of creativity, allowing the author to say what they want, go where they want to go, without hindrance. We owe a debt of gratitude to editors and publishers such as Gingrich and Lyons for allowing and championing just that… even if a book on fly-fishing was not always a good monetary bet.

Literacy can be defined as not just the ability to read, but the act of reading.

Books are our constant companions too, as are the stories and ideas. We absorb them and they become part of our experiences on the river. Rounding the bend on a spring creek, one remembers a passage in ‘Reflections of Rivers Past’, or wading a big river, find ourselves recalling a dozen passages of the naked fear when the author discovers that nature and water are in charge, a force not to be tamed or taken lightly, but respected. The written words peek out of the attic of our memory when we share the joy of landing a fish with an author who in that moment, captured the feeling so eloquently. We remember the words: flow, caress, spray, leap, pull, twist, dive, thunder and roar, cascade, liquid fear, anticipation, loop, cast, etc. The reels scream, the rods bend, the fish tussle, the angler is in doubt, the line breaks… the fish is freed. Then on to the next bend…

Our rod is a mere extension to a foreign realm: an upside down world where life breathes in water and knows next to nothing about the air-breathing world above the mirror of the surface. Liken the fly-rod to a spire on a cathedral creeping closer to god. Hope and mystery dwell in the nether worlds of heaven and water. We can only touch them for a moment. Words can take us there, and bring us home safely too. Books and words kindle our imagination and extend our season as we read of the rivers and fish while snow falls and the dog sleeps a dreamless sleep like the trout do under the ice on a dark January evening. We are there too, along with the author. We catch their fish along with them, triumph along with them, and fail when they do, howling a barbaric YAWP! echoing across the canyon or valley with our existence, achievements, fears, and frustrations. Then sit and reflect with print on the meaning of it all. Why do we fish? Why is this important to us? What about fly-fishing is so fascinating that we can’t get enough to fill us? The reflections have been written a thousand times in a thousand different ways, all worth the quiet to read them. Why did the author labor to record them? Was it vanity? Was it that he or she felt what many of us do; that fly-fishing is an art performed in water, but perfected in words?

The debt of gratitude is not just owed to the publishers, but to the authors themselves. We can thank them for the vicarious pleasures, for the absorbed learning, for the pure joy, and time filled with ideas by just reading their books. There is no greater tribute.

A new premium fly-rod made of space age plastics costs over $800 today. Most used ‘reader’ copy fly-fishing books can be had for under $20. With the used book availability of the internet, access to beginning a library has never been better. So for the price of one new fly-rod one probably doesn’t need anyway, we could purchase 40 books, and have a lifetime of experiences to enjoy, experiences we might never have without reading the travels of the authors: examinations of opinions we would never have been exposed to if we didn’t delve deep into the pages, history we may never have known and connections we never may have known existed without the words being recorded and bound.

There is another thing that we often find as an unexpected bonus by reading books. We discover ourselves.







Thursday, July 19, 2018

Innovations and Eclipses Part One

Waders and boots... a humorous look back and forward


A tongue in cheek look at advances in fly-fishing tackle and what was overlooked


The last 40 years or so has seen a plethora of new and better designs in equipment that allow us anglers to enjoy a day on the stream with much less fussing than before. We now have breathable waders, large-arbor reels, plastic no-maintenance fly-lines, rods that cast further and are more powerful, etc. Sometimes, as we leap into the stream of innovative new products, the older technologies slide by and fade out of memory, so it might be fun to set the way-back machine for laughter, and take a trip down parallel paths in time and take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in fly-fishing tackle, or what was innovated and what was eclipsed. First in a series…


Waders have come a long way from rubber covered canvas and nylon to new breathable laminates such as GoreTex. They are lighter and now actually keep you dry… imagine that.

Old style waders kept you dry too… from the stream… The inside was another matter. Often you had your own water source on the inside… in the form of sweat, which soaked your clothing and quickly turned so rancid that fly anglers of the day took up pipe smoking and cigars not for enjoyment, style, or even to keep insects away, but instead to mask the smell of old rubber and wet dogs.

However, like silk fly-lines, these things lasted forever, and could be repaired with a patch kit from a bicycle inner tube or even one from a Model T Ford. Chewing gum could plug holes in a pinch too. They came in only a couple of sizes: too big, and ‘could double as a tent’. They had an irritable habit of causing you to float since they fit so loosely and trapped air, and you had to fit them to yourself with a tight wading belt so as both to not look like the Goodyear blimp, and to prevent them from filling with water in case of an inevitable dunking. (You actually looked like the Goodyear blimp wearing a girdle anyway.) They sometimes worked better when suspending the angler upside down in the water.

The only plus was that they were somewhat functional (they were the only game in town) and durable as hell. So durable in fact that they lasted for years or decades, often providing the angler with unseen benefits as when the fetor that emanated from them attracted their own hatch of bugs… Even if despite the added benefit we wished they would die already so we could have the excuse to start over with a new pair…


The breathable revolution

Modern waders are constructed of laminates containing millions of micro-holes that let water vapor or perspiration out, but will not allow liquid water in. They are truly breathable and a great innovation saving us on warm days and on hikes in to the rivers. They are arguably the greatest innovation in fly-fishing since the advent of hooks with eyes.

Unfortunately, these micro-hole waders soon develop macro-holes in downright mysterious places that do allow water in. I seem to get about a year out of a pair before something begins to go wrong, but then, as a bonus, they only cost an arm and a leg. Seriously, $700 for a pair of waders? Do they come with a free trip to the Cascapedia?

Sometimes the seam tape falls off, allowing a nice showerhead to form inside. Sometimes the neoprene booties come apart or follow Erik’s first law of stream physics: Those things that are laminated tend to delaminate…

Holes often appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast, especially when you are searching for them using the factory recommended technique of filling the waders with flammable alcohol in a bathroom with the lights shut off while holding a tiny flashlight and standing on your head crouched under the sink.

I once had a new pair of waders from a noted top manufacturer that actually lasted two weeks. I took them out of the box to pack them for a trip, used them successfully for the 14-day excursion, and then when donning them again a week later, noticed that both legs were soaking wet. I filled the legs with water and they leaked like a sieve down both seams. I sent them back to the manufacturer, and a short time later a new pair arrived in replacement. Hooray! Until…

I wore the new pair the next spring and they seemed a wee tight. I looked at the label: size large… same as the old pair. I struggled to get into them vowing to stay off the doughnuts and then realized that it wasn’t me, but the manufacturer had changed their sizing. They gave way on a steelhead trip out west when I split the crotch wide open from the front to the back while wading. The resulting cascade of cold water onto the family jewels caused me to do a rather credible imitation of walking on water as I levitated to shore spouting invectives. The company replaced them again for free.

The new ones leaked after only six weeks, and the seam tape turned to ribbons. I gave up and bought a pair from a different company that were half the price. These were the best designed waders I have ever had, even if after one year the tape began to fall off the booties and I had to get the aquaseal out and begin repairs. They developed small leaks about the foot that despite covering with enough glue to make me look like the blob, continued to ship water. So… I bought another pair, and another, and another. At one point I had three pairs of these identical waders in various stages of sputtering leakage. I would rediscover the source of the leaks from time to time while juggling the pairs. I finally had had enough when one entire shelf in the refrigerator was set aside for opened aquaseal tubes. There was no room for beer. That did it! I threw them all out and started the process all over again.

Since then I have owned: Ultra light convertible waders that were the most comfortable I have ever owned, until I met with thorn bushes that turned them into ribbons… the laminate seemed to be made from some kind of Chinese toilet paper.

A pair of integrated boot-foot waders someone gave me where the boots collapsed rendering the waders unusable.

Waders with a zipper in the front… (The zipper leaked and then broke)

And finally…. Located in the basement in an old box of junk… A pair of old nylon waders from 20 years ago, all patched up. I took a tentative sniff and wrinkled my nose… nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought… ‘Forward into the past!’

They were more awful than I even remembered and smelled like a garbage dump in Bangladesh.

That is when I discovered wet wading. After all, if one is going to wet anyway, might as well be comfortable!

And then there are… The Boots

Boots are an essential part of a wading system. They provide that rather vital contact with the earth and stream bottom, and support and protection for your feet. They also protect the soft bootie of the wader. Boots should always wear out before waders do.

A friend has a pair of old Russell leather wading boots that he has used for over 30 years. They are still in fantastic shape, but then he does care for them a bit. After all those years they form to his feet perfectly and are as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. The felt is still in great shape, and they have been resoled once by the manufacturer. Back in the day all fly-anglers had to choose from was a leather brogue. These often had canvas and rubber parts as well and were secured to the feet first by straps, and later by laces. The leather absorbed water and had to be carefully dried and treated with oils and waxes. One often wore a stout pair of socks under them and over the wading bootie in order to preserve the integrity of the wader against abrasion and leakage. They needed a lot of maintenance, but lasted forever.

Modern materials such as nylon and plastic replaced these older leather wading brogues and offered several advantages mainly in drying faster and being much lighter. The modern materials did not absorb water as readily. They also seem to be built to fall apart.

I have another friend that has a pair of Weinbrenner wading boots that are going on 15 years… not me though… my odyssey has been one of puzzling failures. I worked in the fly tackle industry for over 15 years, so I have seen some downright strange things.

Take sizing for instance. Shoes and boots are formed around lasts. These come in different sizes so that the appropriate size boots can be formed over them. Back when I made medieval footwear, I had every customer form a molding of his or her foot by wrapping duct tape around their foot while wearing an old sock. This assured a good model. American boot manufacturers had standard sizing for boots with only slight variances. When wading boot manufacturer was farmed out to China some odd discrepancies became apparent. I always stocked a few larger sizes in the fly shops I ran: size 14 and 15 to be exact. On several occasions I had professional basketball players as customers. They would attempt to try on the boots, but usually could not get them on. The larger sizes were too narrow. The Chinese it seemed, had no experience manufacturing footwear this big, and as I imagined it, used a local tall teenage kid for a foot model. Admittedly, most of those sizing problems have since been rectified, but years ago, buying a wading boot for anyone with wider or longer feet was an adventure.

Another advent of farming out the production was that of quality control. It is easy to spec the materials and construction design for a pair of boots, but if one does not have on-site quality control in China, strange things can happen. Take the case of a group of friends who found a deal on a major manufacturer’s wading boot (one of the best designed boot ever) at a discount outlet that sold overstock at cut-rate prices. They all thought they were getting a great deal. They each bought several pairs. I remember warning them that there was going to be something defective about those boots, and that the manufacturer had dumped a whole numbered lot at cost for a good reason. The reason was soon discovered. On a steelhead river in Washington State my friend donned his boots for the first time and walked into the water to make his initial cast. He never made it. He wondered what that white thing was that was floating slowly downstream of him, then he began to slip on the rocks. Yup…. The felt soles had fallen off after less than a minute in the water. Seems that the Chinese factory ran out of ‘#1 American expensive glue,’ and substituted something such as Elmer’s glue… which is water soluble.

Another innovation that is amazing is the replacement of felt by vibram and studs, or by soft rubber that grips the rocks. Felt is still the best all-around material for wading, but it has a few disadvantages. For one, it absorbs water and invasive organisms, and taking forever to dry, provides the perfect vector for spreading those unwanted flora and fauna. Felt is also awful for hiking on slippery mud banks or clay. They almost guarantee that at some point the angler will end up ass over teakettle and covered in mud. Snow adds another dimension as I discovered one day while walking across a field to a lake in late December, the snow packing on the soles and collecting exactly like making a snowman, and finally forming two foot high and two foot wide blocks on my feet which made me walk like the Frankenstein monster before I collapsed into a snow bank.

The process of getting to vibram soles with screw-in metal studs also saw some inevitable failures. Most of these quickly vanished from the market after the wild marketing claims didn’t live up to their hype. One boot had a neat sticky rubber sole that was used aboard ships to provide traction. They even worked on oil drilling platforms. What they didn’t work on were rocks. The sticky rubber shredded from the boots like eraser peelings. They never made it to market.

Lacing systems are another area of experimentation. Who of us wants to try to try to fumble and struggle while bent over with boots that require us to thread and tighten laces through 12 pairs of holes and catches? It might still be the best system, but some people who are overweight or elderly can’t manage. Enter Velcro the wonder system. It works great at first, allowing easy entry and exit of the boots, but when it becomes clogged with sand and dirt, will no longer function at all. Another great idea was a zipper in the side of the boot. I had a pair of these for awhile… thank god they also had laces, for the zipper seized up when it froze or got muddy, and soon just stopped working altogether. That leads us to the latest automatic lacing systems. These use wires permanently attached to the boots and a neat little circular winch that tightens them and loosens them on demand. They really work well. Until they don’t. Then one is facing the prospect of walking out of a canyon in the dark over sharp rocks for a mile back to the truck with one leg. Good luck finding a replacement system too. If you didn’t bring one with you, the Ma and Pa store in town won’t carry them, although they do carry boot laces!

This might be a good time to introduce Erik’s first law of equipment failure: It will never fail until you are in the middle of a rapids in 100 degree heat or a blizzard or a tornado, chased by meth addicts or a cougar, and have run out of water.

Most of the modern synthetic boots are marvelous and durable, but even I can’t tell the longevity and durability of a pair of boots by just looking at them, and given the quick time from development to market these days, caveat emptor. I don’t know whether going cheap and having low expectations or getting the most expensive and expecting them to last is the best plan. It all seems a crapshoot.

I give you my experience:

Boot #

  1. The soles fell off
  2. The soles fell off and the top surface dissolved into toilet paper
  3. They shrunk in the sun and I could not get them on again, even after soaking them
  4. The soles fell off
  5. The soles are fine, but the lace holes all pulled out and I had to use duct tape to keep them on
  6. The stitching seemed to be made from some sort of water-soluble material. They fell to pieces
  7. The soles fell off
  8. The zipper stuck and the soles fell off
  9. Invaded with fungus for some reason. Threw them away
  10. The jury is out…. Still wearing them and crossing my fingers.

  1. Go on ebay and look for leather 1970s era used boots. Take care of them and pray every night…

Yes… it is worth it to laugh at ourselves a bit and at our struggles with gear, and when it all comes down to push and shove, I love the innovation and choices out there as well as the ability to stay dry and sweat free, and the ability to wade with confidence without smelling like a garbage juice… I just wish with all the innovation… well… you know…

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dining with Mr. Fario



I met Mr. S. Fario, noted food critic and epicurean at a charming little restaurant near the Traun River in Austria. He was there to review the cuisine, and I was there to interview him for a book I was writing about fine dining.

He shook my hand as we were seated, and smiled through thin lips. He had thick glasses that gave his watery eyes a bit of an ichthyoid appearance, and his skin was strangely spotted. He wore a tyrolean hat with feathers, and a modest gray suit. Altogether Mr. Fario’s appearance didn’t live up to his fearsome reputation as one of Europe’s most discerning reviewers of fine food. Asked what his first name was, he only replied “Sal.”

The waiters and staff at the establishment seemed to already be aware of who he was, and there was a scurry of activity at our table as the menus were proffered and the wine chosen. Fario ordered a bottle of Riesling and began to scan the menu. He decided to begin with a fish soup for the first course. When it came, the aroma preceded it. Rich with potatoes, onions and a rich fish stock, after one sip I fell in love with it. Not Fario however. For some reason he sent it back to the kitchen proclaiming that it was a touch too warm. A few minutes later a second bowl arrived, but after sniffing it, Fario sent it back again claiming this time that it was too cold. I ordered another bottle of wine, since this meal seemed to be going into interesting places. Fario was one quirky fellow.

He summoned the waiter again before I had even finished half of my soup and changed the order. For some bizarre reason, Fario ordered fresh peas, stipulating over his glasses to the hapless waiter that he receive 36 peas in total. Murmurs and whispers could be heard coming from the kitchen as the staff hurried and improvised to cater to the noted critic’s whims. A plate arrived with the peas, and Fario smiled at their freshness and began counting them: precisely 36. “Excellent!” he proclaimed as he handed the plate untouched, complete with the full complement of peas back to the waiter. “Sir?” the puzzled waiter exclaimed quietly. “May I enquire if there is something wrong?” Fario stuck his nose in the air with a rather casual but haute expression and answered “ These are excellent peas… very fresh and firm… however, I never eat peas that size on a Tuesday, only smaller ones… We shall have a salad instead.”

I took a couple of swallows of the wine, and began taking notes in secret on the back of a little matchbook. There would never be enough space, but square in the middle, I wrote the word ‘Enigma’. This was one very odd food critic. I began to feel sorry for the chef and the wait staff: if a review were to be written by Fario, who would know what to expect at this point.

The salad arrived, and Fario began to pick at it, studying each piece and flicking it onto the tablecloth as the nervous waiter stood by and sweated. His bowl clean, Fario reached across the table and picking one of the flowers from the centerpiece vase, ate it delicately, making sounds of appreciation the whole time. “Very tasty and aromatic salad!” he stated out loud. “Now we shall have the Frankfurters.” “Sir?” the startled waiter exclaimed. “We don’t serve Frankfurters, they are not part of our menu…”

“Well,” Fario said, rising in his seat to his full height, “I want Frankfurters, you know… Vienna sausages, hot dogs, wieners… that is what I want now, so go make them for me.” “I will just have the roast please,” I said, trying to add some distracting diplomacy to this lunatic scene. The waiter whispered something to a young lad in an apron that was hovering near the door of the kitchen, and the youth ran out the door of the restaurant and around the corner to the local butchers. “Er… h-h-how would you wish us to prepare your sausages Herr Fario’” said the waiter in trepidation. “Gently boiled with currant jam,” was the improbable answer. I was just happy to have my roast, and not to share in this bizarrely selective and downright strange diet that my companion insisted on. He seemed to like the sausages when they arrived, but told the waiter he preferred them boiled in the currant jam, not boiled separately and served with the fruit preserve. I began on the second bottle of wine…

He now ordered a small pate de foie gras de hopper to cleanse his palette. He wiped his mouth with his napkin after the first bite, and sniffing the napkin with flared nostrils, sighed in pleasure. He then consumed the napkin slowly chewing it while rolling his eyes upward. He ignored the rest of the foie gras.

I excused myself before dessert, claiming a pressing appointment, and thanking him for his time. He dismissed this with a smile and a flick of his hand. On exiting the restaurant, all the eyes of the staff followed me with a pleading and helpless look. The last thing I heard was Mr. Fario asking the now defeated waiter how the sautéed rooster balls over vanilla ice cream was.

I would bet my shorts that he sent it back and changed his mind.

What a gourmet, a gourmand, a picky fussy particular persnickety creature is Mr. Fario. Never wanting what he likes, never liking what he has, always eating what is not on the menu, a demanding snobbish little fish of a man.

The review written by Mr. Fario regarding the restaurant on the Traun gave it 4 stars… a rave review indeed. He noted that the salad had an almost floral quality and the napkins were particularly fresh.

Next week I will dine with Ms. Fontinalis, she likes everything…

Author’s note:

For those that are wandering but not completely lost, Fario is the name of the common German Brown Trout… Salmo Fario to be complete, or Mr. Salmo Fario to those of us brotherhood of the angle who ply the waters offering this epicure our whole fly-box of patterns in utter defeat, only to have him swim over and begin chewing on the shoelaces of our wading boots.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Stand

The Stand


Short Story Copyright 2018, Erik F. Helm


Author’s note: This is fiction. The settings and background are historical, but the events were inspired by a stand of pines on a small stream full of wild brook trout here in Crawford county in the Driftless region of Wisconsin.


Part One: The Cutters


My fly-fishing partner Henry ‘Heck’ Bounty and I had made our way upstream through a road-like cut, the bushes and grasses scrapping and plunking off the underside of his old Ford pickup. We were in Crawford county Wisconsin fishing a pristine stream for brook trout, and the day was overcast and cool, the trout cooperative, and the scenery immense but quiet and bucolic, as farms gave way to hills, and valleys carved by flowing waters twisted and wound, separated and joined, offering eagles overhead, wildflowers, and a gentle humming of bees.

The path we were following curved uphill to the headwaters of the creek through a narrow opening in a valley, and the hills rose on both side as the temperature slowly dropped and the sound of flowing water burbling and trickling provided a counterpoint to the wheels crunching on gravel and vegetation.

We had spent the morning catching native trout up to 10 inches, as wild and old as the land when the glaciers covered Wisconsin, but missed this corner of the state, preserving towering vistas of limestone, and a land full of rivers. Heck decided to drive to the source of the creek to provide shade for our lunch, and to show me the springs that formed this little gem of a stream that he had fished since he was a little punter so many-many summers passed.

He stopped the truck at the end of the cut, and we set up a little camp table under a large shade tree, and began making sandwiches and pouring the cool beers. As we ate and poured the hissing cold beer down our parched throats, I looked into the distance at the top of the valley where it merged with the surrounding hills and remarked at the enormous stand of white pines dominating the view.


“Those pines mark the very headwater springs of this valley and her braided streams,” Heck reminisced. “There is a story in that stand of pines, something very few people know anymore, more local folklore than actual history, but the historic part… well… that is for the record. It’s the other part that my grandfather told me one evening when we were camping in this very spot. I probably have forgotten some of the details, but the essentials… well, those are too powerful in image ever to forget. If you have a like for a good story, I can provide one for you right here, as we rest… that is, if you are up for another beer.”

I nodded in contentment as well as with curiosity. Another cold beer would go down well, sipped slowly with a background story. As the breeze gently shook the leaves overhead, I nodded and slowly sat back in the camp chair, closing my eyes.


“Those pines mark the end of the logging road, or the remains of it that we drove in on” said Heck. “Back in the day, 1931 to be exact, this hill, and all the surrounding hills were covered in old growth white pines. Many of these towns in the county were lumber towns. The valleys grew tobacco, and the hills provided lumber, floated down the Kickapoo River to towns like Soldiers Grove, which back when logging was big before the civil war, was named Pine Grove. The logs were sawed up into lumber and shipped off to the cities. These hills probably re-built parts of Chicago after it burned in the great fire. Anyway, some of the hills were still covered with the last of the pine growth in the 1920s and 30s, but logging them presented a problem, as no access roads existed, the hills were steep, and the individual stands of trees were small. The last of the logging was delayed for many years until it became economically viable for some company or another to come in and cut. The streams in this whole area were often warm and full of silt and suckers back then due to the bare hills where the logging occurred. The floods began around that time too, as the Kickapoo was and is a relatively small and very crooked river, and the rain that used to be absorbed by the forests just ran off the hills and through the row-crops and tobacco fields carrying mud and rock and too much water for the river to carry. Nobody knew any better in those days. The very land the towns were founded on was destroyed by the town’s livelihood. The fishing was poor too; except for this hidden valley and its old growth pines and wildflower and prairie grass. There were only a few farms up this way, and all of them hardy Germans and Norwegians. There was only one dirt road in and out. Grandpa Bounty and his friends used to drive up here on Sundays after church for a picnic of fresh bread, fried chicken and freshly caught brookies. He is the one who told me the story of the valley, and the little war that was fought here. That conflict is why those pines remain standing to this day.”

I took a long sip of the refreshing beer, and continued to listen, alert to his every word, and nuanced expression.

“In 1931 a logging company began driving a road up the valley toward the pines. There were no conservation groups in those days, and permits were easy to come by. The first inkling that anyone had that these hills were to be logged was probably when the graders showed up with the bulldozers and dozens of men. Anyway, nobody asked the locals. They cut all summer until they removed most of the pines on the south hills, and then moved up here in the early fall. That’s when the troubles began. The company had about fifty workers, mostly town-folk, some of them local, but many not. They had a base-camp at the bottom of the valley with a mess tent, and even cabins for the workers. My great uncle Thomas was the carpenter that built some of the cabins and all the outbuildings.”

“The company had cut about an acre of pines beginning by the oxbow of the stream at the bottom of the hill when things began to go wrong. The first occurrence was that the saws all went dull overnight. It didn’t delay them much, as they had sharpening tools, but the company had to bring in more saws and equipment as the problem continued. There was even a local lawsuit that never went anywhere when the company tried to sue the hardware store that supplied some of the saws. That went on for over a week, and very little was cut down in that time. Eventually the problems grew. Some of the dozers and the trucks broke down after a few hours of morning activity. The mechanic they had with them to service the equipment couldn’t locate any problem, until a local guy who worked at an auto-shop took one of the engines apart. One of the dozers was missing all the ball bearings in its transmission. On further inspection, the other vehicles were similarly troubled by missing bearings, and even one of the cars belonging to the work-foreman had every bearing removed from it overnight, even in the wheels, and no sign it had been done. Every time something happened, it happened in darkness overnight. At first the company turned inward and looked for sabotage within their ranks. A logger who was half-indian nearly got hung, until one of the mechanics pointed out that it was physically impossible for anyone to soundlessly remove bearings from vehicles, especially in the darkness and timeframe of overnight. Rumors and murmuring began amongst the workers, and some speculated that this was the work of spirits of dead Indians from the Black Hawk war. How else could the impossible be explained?”

 “Soon enough the equipment and vehicles were overhauled and fixed, and the men went back to work. It was a Monday morning when the crew was ready, but before breakfast was even served, some of the guys noticed little ornaments hanging from the trees, and all around the camp. Hundreds of four-inch long little mayflies constructed from a strip of birch bark curled in the back, and with duck-feather wings tied in with a blade of dried grass were suspended from the trees by tiny vine-cuttings, and moving with the morning breeze. The foreman ordered the things removed, but several of the workers had had it, and left with their equipment, and the rest silently grumbled over breakfast. Their pay was based on the amount cut by each crew, and since nothing much was being cut, no pay was being earned. Smelling trouble, the company foreman gave each worker remaining the equivalent of two-weeks pay to compensate them. The company also hired a retired sheriff and two local hunters to provide security and investigate the strange happenings. Each guard was armed, and the company provided a hefty bounty if they could catch the culprits, for by now, the men and the bosses were convinced that a whole range of natural and supernatural enemies and boogie-men were behind the sabotage.”

“ The next morning brought new mayhem. The guards were up half the night patrolling, but retired when by three A.M. nothing had happened. At dawn the cook came out of his cabin and was welcomed by animals all over the camp. Skunks and raccoons were everywhere. Small piles and trails of corn mush and sardines mixed with raisins intended for breakfast crisscrossed the camp, and the animals were following the trails devouring the free bounty. Two workers got sprayed, and the cook, armed with a frying pan, was bitten by a ‘coon when he tried to wade into the fray frantically swinging at the animals. As he was being bandaged, the guards examined the food-store shack, which they assumed he had left unsecured. The padlock was intact, and no footprints or sign of entry was discovered. One thing was certain though; someone or something had crept into camp, and without leaving any trace, had once again brought the work to a stop. The retired sheriff demanded the key to the lock from the injured cook, and upon opening the storehouse, was greeted by dozens more of those little mayfly creations dangling from the ceiling.”

“One wonders what must have been going through their minds, since none of the sabotage acts seemed capable by human hands. The whole crew and the guards became jumpy, and arguments and fights began to break out. The foreman even ordered one of the truck drivers to load all the liquor supply and the cases of beer for the workers and take them away for storage somewhere. He was taking no chances. That evening saw silence in the camp, and as the workers smoked after dinner, many of them brought out knives and began sharpening them. The guards retired in shifts, with one guard being on patrol at any time that night. The cabins were locked and secured that evening.”

“The final meltdown began the next morning. The retired sheriff woke up just before dawn to relieve his junior for the watch. His holster containing his colt revolver was draped over the bedpost near his head. When he reached for the belt to strap it around his waist, the holster disgorged a dozen of those little hand-tied mayflies. His gun was nowhere to be seen, and the door was padlocked from the inside… The funny thing is that the guy had seen service as a sheriff for something like 20 years down here and had seen it all, from murderous drunks, knife-fights, car crashes, farm implement accidents, bar-fights, and whatnot, but he had never encountered a foe that crept in on the pre-dawn mists, and had no face, no name, and left no footprints. He and the hunters turned guards just up and left the camp. He never spoke a word to the foreman. He just looked at him with a long stare, and shook his head slowly as he turned to leave. He never did collect any money or pay.”

“The driver that carried all the booze and beer away was never seen again, although there seemed to be a few rather oddly jubilant local family picnics in the area for the next few years… All in all, the crew was only in camp for less than two-weeks. After the beer and guards left, the workers followed, until the only remaining workers were two old stoic Norwegians, the boss, and a truck-driver. They took turns sawing one tree at a time for a few days until they were halfway through a tree and the saw stopped with a metallic grating noise. Thinking that the tree was ‘spiked’, an old trick used against loggers where large nails and railroad spikes were hammered into trees to cause the saws to fail, the tree was attacked by axes until it fell. The source of the obstruction proved to be a metal strong-box, which was quickly recognized as the pay safe for the operation. There were no hollows in the tree, and no way in hell that it could in reason have gotten in there. Departing for camp, the four of them visited the office, where sure enough, the safe was not in the locked desk, but instead found inside the live pine tree. The money was not missing, but a single one of those eerie little mayflies sat on top of the cash inside the locked box.”

“Well, that was it. The camp broke the next morning without further incident, leaving the final pines shading the headwater springs untouched to this day.”

I whistled low, popped the cap on another cold beer, and leaned back in the chair as the afternoon clouds darkened and the sound of the rushing waters of the headwaters seemed to increase not in decibels, but in clarity and intensity. One could hear voices in them, if one took the time to listen.

“Did anyone ever find out what or who was behind this?” I asked.


Part Two: The Interloper


“Good question…” Heck replied with raised eyebrows and a quizzical expression.

“There was an investigation by the Sheriff of the county, but nothing came of it. Officially, the case was closed with a note that the most likely cause was a disgruntled worker or two. They worked them pretty hard in those days.”

“Unofficially, my Grandpa figured it out. He was fishing one day when he ran into a tall thin fellow on the creek. The guy was fly-fishing with a bamboo rod he made himself, and with hand-tied flies. He introduced himself as Earl. Grandpa ran into him several times and they talked. Evidently the guy was some sort of educated gentleman from back east… college and so forth. He owned a large cabin in the woods at the top of the hill above the springs, and hunted and fished in the surrounding land. Now Grandpa was a farmer, but he was also a reader, what you might call a self-educated man, always with a newspaper or book and a slow pipe to smoke while he read in the evenings. Somehow he and Earl got to talking, and Earl invited him back to his cabin.”

“As he described it, the cabin was full of interesting stuff. A large library, a wine cellar all home-made, bottles of herbs, and antique firearms and even a wooden long-bow. He had artwork on the walls too. Not just everyday Saturday Evening Post cutouts badly framed, but actual art from Europe and back East. He served grandpa imported cheeses and home-baked bread and venison sausage and he talked of his love for the poetry of Robert Service while a phonograph played opera, La Boheme he remembered it as. That sort of thing was kind of unheard of back then. Some guy living in the woods who was educated and cultured, and who turned his back on the world. Apparently he was also some sort of armature magician too, for while several bottles of wine disappeared legitimately, Earl also made several vanish into thin air and then made them appear again. Who knows why he turned his back on society, or what made him pull up roots and move to a hill in Crawford County, my Grandpa never did find that out.”

“What made your Grandpa think it was him?” I asked.

“It was those little mayfly things that gave him away. See, Earl had a sort of thing… a mobile I think you call it, full of dozens of those birch bark, feather and grass legged mayflies hanging from the ceiling over his table. Every time the breeze blew in, they danced up and down and twirled. Earl said he liked to watch them late in an evening. Said they reminded him of spring on his little stretch of river.”

“Did your Grandpa ever report him, or tell anyone?” I asked.

“Nah…” Heck smiled… “Nobody would believe him anyway, but he only told dad and me, and that was after a few pulls of local whiskey. See, Earl did some good for the valley. Those pines are still there because he took a stand. He single-handedly defeated a logging company, and did it all non-violent. Other than the damage to equipment and the bite the cook got from the raccoon, nobody ever did get hurt. He haunted that valley and those hills himself. He was a one-man conservation group. How the heck he did it nobody will ever know, but Grandpa always referred to him as ‘special’. That magic he knew must have been special too, but anyone who read as much as he did, and knew about math and architecture, plants, and built all his own tools and fly-rods, and the cabin too probably knew a thing or two most men don’t know, and never will. Most folks can’t think beyond their own nose, much less imagine things and ways that may exist beyond our little mundane world.”

“That is one amazing story… too bad there is no real evidence that it was true.”

Heck smiled and turned to me. “Come on, I will show you something. Just a short hike up the hill.”

 We slowly ascended the steep incline in the shade of the pines, passing the springs and seeps that formed the creek, and found ourselves in a sort of clearing near the top of the ridge. At the center amongst the raspberry bushes and cow parsnip were the foundation remains of a wood cabin. Hanging from a small apple tree next to the ruins were a dozen or so of those little hand made mayflies, looking fresh and newly created, and blowing in the breeze like they were dancing.

 “Earl must have left several years after that stand he took. Nobody ever saw him again anyway, Grandpa included. He may have left those 85 or so years ago, but part of him, that special part must never have left. Something of him is still here, looking over his pines and the creek, a sort of river-keeper spirit… and watching his little mayflies… dancing into eternity.”






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