Sunday, October 6, 2019
The Perfect Taper
A thought experiment
I just returned from a gathering of bamboo fly rod makers where I cast dozens of wonderful handcrafted rods, gave casting demonstrations, and participated in a nice panel discussion.
After these events, it is not unusual for me to go on a philosophical or thought journey as to what I learned or observed with no end in mind, and with enough twists and turns or detours in the path as there are synaptic junctions in my brain. This often results in a headache, and aspirin might be in order, or a visit to a psychiatrist.
In this case my reflections centered on the design of tapers for bamboo rods. Some discussions of the legendary rod builder Everett Garrison, a structural engineer who used an engineering and mathematical approach to try to achieve a chimeral concept of the perfect taper in a fly rod were juxtaposed in my mind with the final product on the rod racks outside. Each rod was different, and each was made by a different builder. No rod had the same aesthetics.
Would it even be possible to build the perfect fly rod, and what is perfection exactly?
What is measurable, and what cannot or should not be measured?
Where do engineering, art, craft, nature’s material, and casting meet or cross paths?
Can perfection be measured?
Where does the human element come in?
So many questions to explore… so enjoy this little thought experiment with me…
Lets imagine that there is an engineer working for years in his attic on the perfect mathematical model for taper design. One day he finally finishes testing and proofing all the math, and designs a computer program to reflect it. One simply enters the variables of rod length, line weight, number of sections, ferrule measurement, etc. into the program, hits the calculate button, and gets the results. Scrolling through the report schematics we now have calculated stresses, deflection numbers, measured diameters at intervals for planing, load calculations, and all the other myriad elements of structural engineering design right there at our fingertips. Charts and graphs display the performance of the rod too, so that we can visually see the calculation’s resulting perfection.
“Excellent,” mutters our engineer, and begins the long process of splitting the cane, and putting it through all his machines to bevel, taper, bind, heat-treat and transform the natural bamboo into a blank ready for hand finishing. Numbers guided the machines through their process, the cane being ground and shaved to the mathematically perfect model, while the human hand moved the pieces between the machines.
Finally, the guides were wrapped on, the varnish applied and let to dry, and eventually the rod was finished. It gleamed with perfection.
Our engineer took the rod out on his front lawn, attached a reel, strung up the rod, poured himself a half a glass of wine to celebrate the perfect rod, pulled out thirty feet of line, and with a grin… made the inaugural cast.
Alas, the puzzled and quizzical look on his face did not derive from the poor quality of the wine he sipped. Instead, it sprung from the rather unspectacular performance of the rod. He had expected bells to go off, epiphanies to form, and a piercing light to part the fogs and miasmas of past fly rod designs, but what he just experienced was rather anticlimactic.
He cast the rod for an hour, testing the flex with short and long casts and trying to get a feeling for what the rod was doing. It seemed to do everything moderately well…. but not
spectacularly. It had no real clunky spots or faults but also no real shining performance attributes. It was just sort of… fly-roddy in a non-descript mediocre way.
He went back inside and spent the rest of the week checking his engineering math and computer program, and finding no errors at all, re-entered the variable data, getting the same result.
Then he took the rod to his local fly-fishing club, and asked the members to cast it and provide their feedback. The following is a faithful recording of the often reluctant but mostly honest commentary:
“Beautiful to look at, but it doesn’t sing to me.”
“A little fast and slow at the same time.”
“A nice rod if you like Wonderbread…”
“It does everything right, but yet something is wrong…”
“It seems to have no real personality…”
“Reminds me of a punch we made at my frat house in college. We each added different ingredients and liquors until there were over 20 substances in that bowl. It got us drunk, but it tasted like gasoline.”
And finally… “I don’t get it…”
So what went wrong?
Well, from a pure engineering standpoint, nothing did. The measurements were perfect. It was what could not be measured by engineering and math, the myriad variables, the human element, the creative process, the lack of art and involvement, the clinically dry and romantically sterile approach that doomed the rod to failure.
What if he had succeeded? Where would we go from there? Is there life after perfection? Would perfection eliminate personality and diversity? Would uniqueness die under the dissecting table of science? I would ask him if I could, but I have never met science on the river. If I did ask science how he felt today, he would probably answer, “Rather methodical, thank you!”
Imagine a world where every fly rod was the same. It might make a good horror movie. It could be called ‘Perfection’ because only in the fantasy world of movies could perfection even exist.
Perfection is a human concept. It cannot and does not exist in nature. There is no perfect tree, perfect flower, perfect raindrop, or perfect human. Every object and individual is different in some way, shape, or form. So is bamboo. It is not a manufactured substance that can be predicted. It is a natural grass that is effected by the wind, moisture, rain, where it grows, when it is cut, and how it is stored. One could say that every culm of raw bamboo has character traits and personality. Now those are human attributes, but perhaps the human was missing in our perfect fly rod experiment. Humans can interpret, apply abstract concepts and even imbibe a fine crafted object with a little of their personality. Mathematics cannot. That’s not to say that mathematics and engineering should not be a part of the design, indeed they are necessary and vital, but with a human there to provide a touch of well… humanity and personality to the process. Machines do not create, humans do. Machines perform tasks and duplications. Human thought put them there.
And… of course… a machine will not be casting the finished bamboo fly rod, a human will.
Each of us has a different casting stroke, a different approach to casting a fly rod, and a different level of proficiency. There is no perfect cast as there is no perfect fly rod taper. Even our mood effects the cast… the mortgage is due… that was a beautiful sunrise… these trout are so frustrating… I better hurry because I only have an hour to fish… Gosh, I feel so relaxed…
Another variable that math and engineering can’t take into consideration is that as individuals with personalities, we each have preferences; likes and dislikes. One person’s concept of what he or she wants in a fly rod will contrast and differ with another angler. As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. That variety is the very spice of life.
If we did in effect achieve some sort of ‘perfection’ that would appeal to everyone’s differences, wouldn’t we instead have to first eliminate those differences first in the person and then in the product? We have been there already, it was the dystopia of soviet era manufacturing which gave everyone the same cars that barely drove, the same clothing in a shade of gray, and housing reminiscent of industrial chicken farms.
Diversity comes from craft, from a lack of common approach, from ideas born and followed without being ironed to perfection. Wrinkles might just be a good thing.
The rods I cast that day all had different tapers. They all did something different. I loved the quirks.
One thing a pure engineering and math approach cannot do is add variations on purpose or by accident to a human design or purpose. If we did achieve one ‘perfect taper’, and had ten different rod builders build ten rods off the same taper, all ten would be different. That is because we are not machines… yet. That cyber A.I. nightmare is around the corner, and until it arrives, we are still in charge of the creative process.
Engineers may be searching for perfection, but on the other side of the fence, artists are working toward failure. Huh? Well, artists unlike mathematical models understand that in an aesthetic sense as well as in the properties of individual objects or creations, perfection is not just immeasurable, it also can’t exist. By working toward failure, the individual artist and craftsperson is always pushing the envelope by asking, “Why not this or that?”
“What would staggered ferrules do here?… Why do rods all have to be a common length?… What would happen if I did this?… What if I hollow-built the butt section?… etc.
These experiments not only give us diversity, but also often end up in failure. Failure fosters learning. Failure is also fearful. It takes an intact and secure ego to admit and even celebrate failure in the process of creative design.
In our ‘engineering only’ design-process, from start to finish there is little room for deviations.
These deviations are a human element of the artist. A painter for example has a blank canvas. He or she has a concept in mind and goes about capturing that concept as a painting which can evolve as it is being created. Many artists, craftspersons, writers, and composers will tell you that some of their best work evolved to deviate from the original intent. A bamboo rod maker that feels the material in their hands rather than pushing it only through machines may be in tune to the raw material. In other words, the bamboo might be in charge to some extent, of the evolution of the taper. It may be able to tell us what needs planing or shaving here and there. This might be more in keeping with crafting a fine casting fishing instrument out of a natural substance instead of conquering it or forcing our will on it with a pure mathematical model.
This is how all artist-quality musical instruments are crafted. There is an intensive process that involves adaptation in the horn or violin to achieve a unique and rich sound. That could be comparable to the vibrations in bamboo listened to by the rod crafter and interpreted into a fine casting instrument. One can’t really listen very well when machines are making noise.
Which brings us back to the very beginning and Mr. Garrison. Now before you poor readers of this philosophic detour off the deep end send me letters excoriating me for some sort of heresy against this fine rod-builder, let me say that Garrison made a great cane rod; one of the finest out there, and even if the search for the ‘perfect-taper’ may be illusory, we should still search for it. For in that search, the conversation continues. The language of that conversation being perhaps a bit more wine-enhanced and romanticized rather than mathematical… The ‘perfect-taper’ awaits… if we close our eyes we almost touch it.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Or… the road to perdition is paved with Wooly-Buggers…
Jr. Trout (proper family name Jr. Brown esq.) was a tad late arriving under the bank in the family domicile in time for his evening meal. As he nosed through the silt and rocks to munch vittles of fresh-water shrimp appetizer and awaited the main course of Hendrickson nymphs, his Grandpa eyed him suspiciously.
“Boy, you have been hanging out with those brook trout again haven’t you? Now don’t lie to me.”
Jr. kind of wiggled his fins in a guilty manner and looked askance at the old man. His grandpa was the oldest of the Brown clan in this part of the stream under the shade trees. He had scars on his back from disagreements with herons, and his fins were a bit worn with age. He was no longer the biggest fish in the pool, but he was the wisest, and all the extended Brown family looked to him for sage guidance.
“Sorry Grandpa, but it is hard to stay away ‘cause they are my friends. They even taught me a new game called ‘chase the tail’ today!”
“Son…” the old man began slowly with a frown, “I have told you before that those darn fish are no good for you. They are Yankees, and like Yankees, they hang around in gangs and get up to no good. Look at them there in the middle of the water just swimming around like they don’t have a care in the world. If they had any self-respect they would be in the shade being quiet, not doing acrobatics and water-polo where any darned otter or even uncle Fritz could make a meal of them.”
“Why do you call them ‘Yankees’ Grandpa?” Junior asked carefully.
“Because they are American Trout, boy! See their colors? Like the American flag; all gaudy in their red, white, and blue.”
“Catholics too I would bet, and just as catholic in their tastes… they don’t give a damn what they eat for heaven’s sake.”
“And we are Germans, right Grandpa?”
“Germans, Protestants, and gentleman too,” the wise one said, swelling up with pride and showing off his spots. “Just look at our colors… Like the German flag, gold, red, and black… quiet colors, respectful colors.” Like gentlemen, we Browns are not frivolous. We don’t play games, we shy away from bright places and street-corners, and we absolutely don’t eat wooly-buggers.”
“What’s a wooly-bugger Grandpa,” came the inevitable question.
“Well now, take a seat by this here rock, and I will tell you. Don’t tell your Mother or Father or they will get sore at me again for frightening you, but I think any Brown in this family should know a few things before they go out into the next pool. Served me well for years, even if I learned the hard way myself by making the mistakes I keep scolding you about.”
The old trout rested back on his little pile of gravel, and taking a caddis case from his pocket, began slowly chewing it as he always did when he was telling a story.
“You had a cousin named McSpotty once upon a time. Lot older than you. He was a distant cousin too from some island, on your Grandma’s side,” he recollected with a frown or a wink… it was often hard to tell the difference.
"This young trout got his name from the amount of spots on his side… all black and few red. He was wont to fraternize with those brookies, and even to tipple a bit of brackish water even at his young age. You couldn’t tell him anything or get any sense to stick in his noggin no matter how often we tried. He was always chasing the ladies, even the American gals that hung out in shallow water and had bad reputations. He went to worship on Sunday, but we never could find him for scripture during the week.”
“Well, McSpotty started to get a taste for exotic foods. I always blame those brookies for corrupting him, but he never would have come to trouble if he ate plain fare like us Continental Browns. He began to chase worms and leap at dragonflies like a hoodlum. He left home after a bit, and preferred the company of his new friends on the wrong side of the rocks.”
“One day there was a big commotion and splashing in the water. After a bit, some of your relations and me swam over from the bank to investigate. Your Cousin was nowhere to be seen. Story has it that there was something in the water that the Americans were chasing, but McSpotty got there first. From there it was hearsay. Some of those fish claimed that a giant hand came down from the sky and just scooped him up. Others said that he exploded all by himself. Anyway, he was never seen again. One old gal, the matriarch of the clan, by the name of Char or something like that, finally said that he had eaten a wooly bugger. None of us knew what that was at the time.”
“You can imagine that it put us off our food for a spell, and even the frisky fingerlings stayed close to home for the next week. Rumors as to what a ‘wooly-bugger’ was began to run their course among the youngsters, and even the old-timers began to tell stories.”
“Some said it was a ghost that appeared when the sun was high and the sand was shifting, others speculated that it was bigger than a beaver or a muskrat and only ate trout who missed church or lied to their parents. My own uncle Günter thought that they came with the rains, and lulled their prey to sleep with a song before they ate them.”
“Did you ever see a wooly-bugger yourself Grandpa?” Jr. asked with a shiver of his dorsal fin.
“I did see one once, not close-up like, but in the distance and in murky water. It was big and black and ugly, yet enticing. I felt my will tried as it shimmered and wiggled like one of those belly-dancers I read about once in my Pa’s magazines. I still shudder at that memory. Funny thing was, even with all my teaching and learning, my discipline faltered for a fraction of a second. I started to swim over to it when it just disappeared out of the water. Don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t have off and left. I might not be here now.”
That story made a bit of an impression on our young lad. For a month, he did all his schoolwork, and never swam in the shallows. However, as all boys are fickle, there came one day when his family was all out on some errand or another, and he swam over to find out what the brookies were up to.
At supper that evening, he claimed he had no appetite, and begged off his caddis soufflé. His Grandpa got suspicious.
“What’s that scar doing on your jaw there son? Have you been rubbing your nose on mussel shells again?”
“Mrrn…” was all Jr. could answer.
“Speak up boy, and come closer. Is that a hole in your mouth? You are getting a likkin if you got any body piercings. You know how we feel about that….”
“Well, speak up…”
“Mi mink mi mate a mooly mugger,” Jr. confessed with tears.
“No kidding. You don’t seem to have disappeared, so maybe it taught you a lesson. What did it look like?”
Jr. flexed his jaw a few times, shook himself, stood on his head, blew some water through his gills, and feeling a touch better, answered his Grandpa.
“Mit was morrible! First it looked big and black and ugly, then after I ate it, it tasted like hurting and changed to the hugest, most ugly thing I ever saw. It had a big floppy head and its fins were really long and pale. One of them had a long pole as big as this whole stream in it. I thought I was a goner for sure, but somehow I escaped!”
Grandpa stared long and hard at the boy…
“Now, seeing that you survived, how’s about telling me what you learned…”
“Hanging out with brookies leads to eatin wooly-buggers, and the road to perdition is lined with wooly-buggers!”
“Let that be a lesson to you son,” said the old trout. “Now come and finish your caddis, its getting cold.”
So…take a lesson from poor Jr. Brown. Stay away from those vagabond brookies. Keep out of the shallows. Eat your tiny bugs, and whatever you do, if you fly-fish, don’t have that extra glass of wine with dinner while looking out the window at the rains and flooded streams, it only leads to fables and parables… or wooly-buggers…
Monday, June 3, 2019
“You must really like to eat fish,” the friend of a friend says to me while sipping her latte.
“Um, well, actually I release most of the fish I catch,” I mumble, aware where this is inevitably going to end up.
“So, you like to fish, and you admit you like to eat fish, but instead you release them?”
“Well, see, it is all about nature, and beauty, environmental stewardship, appreciation of the fish and the river… See, fly-fishing is more than just fishing…”
Really, though, when it comes down to it, I reflect, it is just a simple game with rules that a four-year-old could grasp: Go down to lake or river with rod and reel. Catch fish. Repeat.
Being romantics, we always want to make more out of it. Take a simple essence and surround it with volumes of philosophy.
Make it into some sort of metaphysical and existential reflection and journey. Make it into a metaphor, and find life-lessons in it. Sit by the river pondering Camus. Assigning anthropomorphic qualities to things we see around us. Our flies are art, not craft we argue to ourselves, as if just accused anonymously by an upstart and impudent child. We’re not just fishing see… we are, well, experiencing some sort of primal harmony. “It’s all poetry,” we murmur out loud, even if the hypocrisy peeks its irritating head through a tiny doorway in our brain, reminding us that the last time we attempted to read Robert Frost, we fell asleep.
It just has to be more than a simple game of cat and mouse. We refuse any assertion that at times it can be quite easy. “Takes years and skill,” we argue to the trees while raising fish after fish with a fly that the carefully tied hackle fell off of on the first cast.
We have been caught by family members while lying in the filled bathtub with scuba gear, congratulating ourselves on the latest revelation or innovation in fly design. We have been admonished and punished by angry spouses when our latest attempts at dying hackle stained the sink a very interesting shade of blue-dun.
‘Normal or mundane’ folks refer to them as bugs, but we know better. They are Ephemerella subvaria. It makes a difference we reflect… Appreciation and knowledge and such.
There was once a time when we contemplated homicide as a careless Aunt referred to our cane fly rod as a “Fishing pole.”
We don’t just take a drink from the river, we sip of the essence of life, forgetting while we do so, that the last time we did this we ended up with the runs for a week.
What other kind of sport could so inspire, that we could be found late upon a cold winter morning, seated in front of the fireplace in the study, dressed only in a robe and our underwear, surrounded by tackle and fly-boxes, dreaming dreams of spring.
I once read somewhere that a newlywed bride told her friend, “My husband does not drink, smoke, or chase women, instead, he fly-fishes.”
Several years later, she admitted to the same friend that if it were up to her, she wished he did a few of those other things, and a bit less fishing.
“It’s complicated,” I try to explain to the friend of a friend; “It’s sublime.” Hearing those words from my mouth with the clarity of an out of body experience, I smile about how I am going to explain why it is ‘sublime’ to match wits with a creature with a brain the size of a match-head, attempt to fool it with a bit of old string and some smelly fur, and end up coming up short most of the time.
“Perhaps it is a journey in humility,” I reason out loud, remembering when arrogance kept us from talking to that guy with the spinning rod that was out-fishing us ten to one. Pride before the fall? Arrogance before humility, or humbleness only because of prior arrogance… More philosophy.
What other sport would have us attempt, via some hidden and unknown rosetta stone, to decipher and make sense of the many ill-written books on fly-fishing? Some being tomes of astounding tediousness and practically unreadable. What other sport would have us chuckle with the fine author Nick Lyons, as everything possible goes wrong and he falls in the river? Perhaps it is because we have been there ourselves. We may reflect back to the time when, on the subject of beauty and fly-casting, we attempted, in a local park, to show our spouse the inherent ballet in a properly made loop, only to have a seagull eat the piece of yarn we were using as a fly, and after taking out all the line, tangle it forever in a large oak tree.
“It’s complicated…” I mumble through current muffin crumbs, watching the departing back of the friend of a friend, and looking down at the spilled coffee, and the single word traced with it on the table: “Crazy.”
After much reflection, I have come to completely agree.
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
|Nasturtiums, a painting by my mother.|
Seamus lay on his side by the banks of the stream and took in the fullness of the May morning. Wildflowers were poking out their heads from amongst the grass and unfurling their colors. The valley was full of the yellow sun, and the resplendent green that only a spring day can bring; not quite green… a sort of yellow green… a youthful green, an infant green, a green of freshness. It gave him a feeling of innocence.
He was watching a long slow pool on the river shaded by a willow tree. Although he could not locate a single mayfly on or over the water, the trout were jumping into the air and performing summersaults in the air before slipping headfirst back into their freshet realm. He had never seen anything like it before. By twos and threes, the fish leapt into the air as if wishing to taste the surface world’s greening. A warbler provided a woodwind accompaniment from his perch amongst the bursting buds of the willow.
Seamus watched the trout for a few minutes, and pondered the ballet before him. In his hand was his father’s cherished H.L. Leonard bamboo fly rod. He turned his attention from his puzzle on the water to the handle of the rod. The cork was stained with long use. He could discern the imprint of his father’s thumb at the top end of the cork. He placed his thumb into the impression and closed his eyes, his ears still attuned to the splashes of the fish.
“Why do the trout jump?”
He thought about his father for a few minutes as the sun warmed his face pleasantly. What would he have said? He conjured a scene from his childhood in the old man’s study, a place of quiet and learning; a place of science and precision. His father stood looking at a book he had carefully taken out of the shelves buttressing the room, and easing down his glasses over his nose, was busy lecturing Seamus on the natural world. The question never was asked except in his imagination, but he knew the process of the answer would take him through anatomy, weather and barometric pressure, and angler’s streamside observations carefully recorded and now called into the courtroom to answer the question. Another book would be opened and another passage read, the author’s name preceding the quote, along with the date and the page number. Seamus would be expected to listen attentively as the case was made. His father was a lawyer, and the study in their large house in Dublin. Patrick McDermott esq. believed in science and logic, and it served him well in the courts. He would apply the same thorough analysis to this mystery of the trout. There would be a reason in the end. No mystery… but an uncovering of motive and resulting behavior. The fish would be subjected to the psychology of the individual and the group, and there would be a solution. The book would then be shut.
What that solution was, eluded Seamus’ daydreams for now, as ethereal as the memory of his father’s voice, and the smoke from his pipe as the vision dissolved in his head. He opened his eyes to the brightness of a flowering dandelion awash in bold impressionist brushstrokes of yellow and hints of orange; his mother’s favorite flower.
Mary McDermott loved God’s world and his works. She once told a young Seamus, (awash in stains from crawling through the grass and garden in the front lawn of their Dublin home), that “Dandelions were God’s paintbrushes.” He could see in his mind’s eye the ochre streaks on his boy’s pants held up with suspenders. He had felt that the stains were something bad; something he would be punished for, and had looked on his mother through tears of questioning guilt.
Whatever his mother said to him that day, and every other day she encouraged him or explained something, the focus would be God. Mary’s world was one of faithful contentment. There was a reason and a will behind every breath, every leaf that fell, every bird that sang, every bruise, and bloody knee; that of the Lord and his plan. We could not question with anger the stubbed toes of life, nor curse the road’s turns when they turned away from us, for man was the center of a plan in God’s garden, and there was a reason for everything; one that would include stories and fairy-tales and passages from the Bible as she combed his hair or mended his torn shirt. What the answer would be in the end would be sweet and simple, but remain a defined mystery. Her smile and the sense of comfort in that mystery was in complete contrast to his father’s academic approach, yet love and security warmed the young Seamus.
Mary would have said that the trout jump because it is God’s will. There would be a profound rightness and peace in her answer.
As Seamus’ eyes opened upon the banks of the stream, his left hand brushed against a tiny wildflower opening its purple petals to stare up at him. Purple was his little sister Rose’s favorite color, despite her name. She always wore a purple ribbon in her long strawberry-blonde hair as she followed him through his daily adventures. She was his favorite, and he was hers. She was as happy as he was inquisitive, his dark curly hair and brows contrasting with her round apple dimples and tiny white teeth. He made up stories for her full of knights and ladies, castles among the garden and frog princes at the edge of the little pond bordered with primrose. She listened and smiled… and always laughed.
He had visited her in her house in County Claire, married now and with a daughter and son of her own. The children taking them back to their youth in Dublin with their antics, and reminding them of stories they shared over a wine made with those dandelions of youth and crisp as their memories. Her smile and innocent exuberance had never changed. They had instead just grown larger with age and beauty.
Seamus recalled the day when he (ten years old and feeling ten feet tall and full of imagined manhood) had in response to a question posed by Rose as to why a lark, perching in a lilac bush was singing. He was doing his best to embody his father, and the answer was scientific and clinical; something about mating and territory. His voice filled with importance.
Rose had laughed and threw a handful of grass into his hair. She replied “No, silly! He is singing because he is happy!”
He opened his eyes. The trout were still jumping. Where science and religion only began to illuminate and uncover the beauty of a simple answer, innocence prevailed. She was right… the trout jumped because they were happy!
He was happy too, he thought aloud, as he bit off the fly at the end of his leader, never having wet a line that morning, but instead gathered wildflowers in his wicker creel for a love somewhere that awaited that perfect innocence he now felt.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
A repost from a vignette written years ago... Enjoy! one fine romp through fly-casting and why most everyone won't ever practice.
I was walking in the park the other day, as I am known to do from time to time, day-dreaming of trout rising and the possible relationship between squirrel behavior and the plots of Verdi’s Operas (there isn’t any), when I stopped before the little par-3 golf course, and specifically, before the putting green. There stood a group of guys and gals wearing acceptable golf attire and endlessly practicing their putting.
That gave me an inspiration, and after concluding my walk with more useless speculation as to why overweight middle-aged men are irresistibly attracted to loud farting motorbikes, I ambled back to the car, where in the trunk sat a nifty glass fly rod and a reel complete with line and an old leader. “Putt away you St. Andrew’s dreamers,” I thought aloud to myself, “I will join you on the Itchen…er… Itchy Grass River,” as I swatted a mosquito on my ankle.
I placed three trout (twigs rather of the birch or char variety) at different distances and conjured the spirit of Charles Ritz as I played with rhythms and thumb pressure and timing, and the fly (a piece of a nearby convenient gum-wrapper) landed as close as I could make it to the targets. I had done this for half an hour, and was getting ready to leave, when a guy walking his dog asked me the dreaded question... “Are you catching anything?” “Just practicing for senility” I quipped, causing him to tighten the leash on rover a bit and curl an eyebrow as he walked just a fraction faster and changed directions to take him and his canine companion away from me all the quicker.
I had become “That Guy.” You know the one or the type. The guy with the long beard who plays the bagpipes near the kite-flying area: the idiot dressed up as a mime who stands dead-still outside a shop window posed as a mannequin for hours: or one of those train-spotters who everybody fears will start talking to them about trains.
Yet, as I pondered in that park, fly-anglers should do this. They should be seen on ponds and rivers practicing with the long rod; line making graceful loops so that their time on the river is filled more with reflection and less with frustration. Yet, I am the only person I have ever seen doing this. That might be due to too much time at the tying vise or the fact that my glasses might need updating, but I don’t think so.
Years ago it was common in any park with a lagoon or pond to house a casting club. England and France had them in spades and so did America, especially during the Great Depression and into the 1950s where they were a family outing and a cheap source of recreation. The great fly-casters were formed here, especially in organizations such as the Casting Club of Paris, or the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in San Francisco. The Golden Gate club still exists, but most of the local groups sedately casting away in local parks and sipping beers on weekends withered away as their members died off and younger generations never went out doors or suffered from maladies such as Digital Flu, or Too Busy Disorder.
Awhile back, another avid fly-fisherman and I seriously discussed starting a casting club. We would meet, it was postulated, at a local park on the river, and each caster would bring a rod and a bottle of wine and some cheese. Cigars would be welcome. It was to be a fraternal men’s group. A place where lies could accompany clarets, plumes of smoke, and loops of line. The idea of each bringing fine cane, glass, and graphite rods to share and try out reached a snag when a local doctor, who considers himself a great fly-angler was handed a rod by me to try out and immediately began major malpractice on it. Yea, that’s what I needed. “Sorry about the rod Erik… it just seemed to break mysteriously.”
I imagined who would show up at the group. Ten people at first and a fine time would be had by all, and then seven and finally four… two being tournament casters sporting 19 foot graphite lances and shooting heads and competing against each other (and the rest of us who couldn’t give a shit). The other guy would be some codger with a crooked Orvis Battenkill or Wright McGill who never fished and drank all our wine. The final two would my friend and I who would become more and more aware that Oscar Wilde’s famous quote that “I would never be a member of a club that would have my likes as a member” might apply here. Even if it worked out, I mused, it might just turn into an elongated casting lesson for free, which is part of my day-job anyway. I still might try to organize a club like this, but am aware that it might become the world’s most misanthropic and lonely men’s club.
I thought back to the 12 years or so that I had taught for local clubs and organizations at their annual casting clinics and picnic. Inevitably as the picnic progressed, more and more people wandered into the open fields and knolls to cast their fly-rods, but as I began the formal tutorial, I would be left with only the true beginners, as the rest of the established club members would rise in unison like a pod of German Browns to the scent of cooking bratwurst and foamy hops and retire back to the riffle of the picnic tables, leaving me to do whatever it is that an instructor does with 20 new casters.
Don’t get me wrong, I like teaching beginners the best. Wide eyes and good listening skills result in good casters and less bad habits, unlike the guys in the clubs who would demonstrate the same fatal flaws I tried to break them of for the past ten years to no avail.
When I did manage to cast with one of the regular members, they always offered the same caveat or excuse. “I am not a really good caster,” they would proclaim, and then slink away to ensure that their handicap would not be rectified anytime soon. I was puzzled. Then one of the older and wiser fellas told me that “They didn’t want to look bad, and were embarrassed by their casting.” Aha… and how silly. Then why was I there to teach a casting class, if the majority of casters were too shy to learn? Was fishing a game of lies? Were those tales told at club meetings where the 50 foot cast using 6X tippet and a size 22 midge hooked a 20” brown trout best absorbed after a martini so dry it confounded the senses? Should Old Rusty’s tale include instead a foul hooked chub with a botched roll-cast and a size 10 Adams? I took a sip of scotch and feared to tread there for obvious reasons.
Yes, we don’t want to make fools out of ourselves. Perhaps that is why fly-fishing is a solitary sport. Our tales and treasured literature sees us tangling our line around gorse-bushes, inventing new choice invectives, splashing our line on the water and scaring away all the fish, and finally catching the smallest fish in the river once our dry-fly accidentally sank. We look around sheepishly and see if anyone noticed, and straighten up a bit when we find ourselves all alone. Nobody saw us thank dog… now back to hooking bank side brush or festooning trees with little ornaments.
Contrast that to the golf course. Here stand parties of golfers progressing forward on the links, all in open view. Here your foibles are in full-view to all. Slice that drive and hit your Boss’s elderly crippled mother in the noggin and you might want to take a look at that Peace Corps brochure. Botch that 15 foot putt ten times for a quadruple Humphrey Bogie and your face will be so red that you could take the place of the flag on hole # 19, that being the clubhouse after your sixth gin and whoopee. So golfers are far more serious than fly fishermen? Either that or they are more sensitive to embarrassment. For anglers are serious about their sport too. Yet they would rather be eaten by zombies than spend ten minutes twice a week in the back-yard solving their problems.
I remember the moment I began practicing in earnest and became a better caster as a result. It was during a fly-fishing event I was working at a local shop. One of the reps, a tournament caster took an 8-weight rod and threw the line into the backing with grace and little effort. He then offered me the rod, but I begged off saying that my arm hurt. Rather it was my ego that suffered contusions that day, for I had strength, but no grace, and poor timing at best. The next day found me at the park, fly-rod in hand. I have a nearly perfect forward cast today, but a back cast that several master casting instructors still puzzle over, frowning and wondering why it works at all. I continue to learn on the water and on the grass. Some day I will be a caster worthy of the river, but for now, there are still situations on the water that confound me, and if fly-fishing isn’t a game of problem-solving and challenges, then I will hang up my rod and my pen and horror of horrors… take up golf.
As I tell new fly anglers, “Nothing you can do will improve your fly-fishing fun and fulfillment more that learning to cast proficiently.” Not necessarily far, but at 30 feet. Pick-up and lay-down, roll, steeple, side-arm, reach, etc.
So if you hook your friend in the ear on your errant back-cast, the ensuing verbal conflagration might serve you well in remembering not to drop your rod tip or break your wrist. It also might serve as a reminder that you might want to join me at my lonely post as ‘That strange guy standing in the park and fishing in his mind’. The putting green awaits, and practice makes perfect… or perhaps less of a quadruple Bogy on the stream. But then you might have to bring a new tape-measure to the river with you to measure your success rather than the extent of the stretch of truth told over a 12 year old… err.. 6 year old, err… 6 month old scotch. Errr… cheap bourbon.
See you on the velvet green!
Thursday, March 21, 2019
The Rejuvenation (copyright Erik Helm 2009) reposted for your enjoyment... Top ten vote getter!
Author's note: Ever go to a fishing club meeting? So many of them seem like an excuse to get away from the wife and eat and drink and tell lies to the same old farts that have gathered together for so many stale years.... well... here is one club that never saw what was coming!
As Richard listened to the speaker from the Fish and Wildlife Department address the room on the subject of PH levels in area streams, he slowly looked around at his fellow club members. Al had melted into his chair, his pipe intermittently disgorging a cloud of smoke. Henry’s head was slowly nodding forward as sleep took his eyes and brain. Cuthbert was picking at his fingernails as always, and Ed was attempting to show he was paying attention by hitting himself between the eyes repeatedly with the eraser on his pencil.
This brought to Richard’s mind the same problem that had been bugging him for the past six months. The fly-fishing club had become stale. Boredom plagued the members. Richard had attempted to encourage new subjects from speakers, had pushed a membership drive in order to infuse new blood, and tried to interest the members in outings to new places, all to no avail. The club seemed to be happy with the status quo, however sleepy it was. Ennui.
Thinking back on the last several meetings and outings, Richard sighed as he recalled Al’s fly-tying seminar. Al was a good tyer, Richard had to admit, but for some reason, Al limited his fishing to three patterns: a pheasant tail-nymph, an elk-hair caddis, and an Adams. He tied them all perfectly, but that is all he tied. Richard had wondered more than once if his constraint in fishing the three patterns had anything to do with the fact that those flies were the only patterns Al had ever learned to tie. He also seemed to recall that at the last tying seminar the club held only three months ago, Al had demonstrated the same three flies.
Then there were Henry’s outings. Usually around half a dozen of the club’s members would take part in a group fishing day on a local stream. This April it had been Muskrat Creek. It was always Muskrat Creek for trout, or Custer Park Pond for bass. The members would begin arriving late in the morning, put in a desultory few hours of fishing, and then retire to a local watering hole where Al would tell them about his three flies, or Peter would talk about the time he almost met Jack Hemingway.
The outings had originally been intended as mentoring sessions for newer anglers. However, since there had been few new members in the last seven or eight years, the fishing days became more of a day to get away from the wife for a few hours. What few new members there had been mostly faded away within a few meetings, and never returned.
Therefore, as president, that was Richard’s dilemma: how to infuse new energy into the somnambulant angling club.
Last meeting he had booked a local guide who had a slide show on fishing for Atlantic striped bass from shore. One of the club members, Richard could not remember exactly which one, had followed up the presentation by asking the guide how the tactics he described might be applied on Custer Park Pond. Richard had cringed in embarrassment.
The speaker from the Fish and Wildlife Department had finished and departed, and the lights had been turned back up. Chuck, the club secretary and treasurer, was yawning and wiping sleep from his eyes as he began the formal part of the meeting: reading the minutes and taking care of new business, of which there usually was very little indeed.
She walked in carrying an old canvas rod bag in her left hand, her scent and legs preceding her.
The silence was so complete that Richard could hear Al’s pipe clatter to the floor.
“Hi!” she said with a sweet smile revealing a set of perfect teeth and full lips. “Is this the Peterborough Anglers Club?”
It was in the way she said it. There was no hint of shyness, just clarity and confidence. Her name was Ann, and she was spending her summer with an Aunt before returning to Boston to complete her master’s degree.
She was six feet of Boston Brahmin breeding and curves, topped off by long wavy red hair and green eyes. Her purple skirt flowed as she moved to find a chair and settle in. The green cable-knit sweater she wore complemented her perfectly.
Ann was looking to find some fly-fishing nearby, and had brought her grandfather’s seven-foot Payne bamboo rod with her for the summer. She told the club that she fished the Catskill region from time to time, but had not been on a stream for the past three months. Was there any chance of trout fishing nearby?
Richard sat in his car at the pullout of Muskrat Creek and watched with a wry smile as the club fished. It was seven a.m., and fully two dozen members were in the creek by now, following Ann slowly through the riffles. Henry seemed to have lost his limp, and left his wading staff back in his car. Cuthbert had a new hat, and was wearing it at a jaunty angle. Chuck had broken out his Bogdan reel, something he said he would never do. Richard grinned as he heard Al explaining to a member how to tie a Quill-Gordon as they walked down to the stream.
Even Stash, the oldest member in his late seventies, had a spring in his step, and had finally managed to stop dropping his rod-tip as he cast.
Richard shook his head in laughter as he reflected on all his attempts to rejuvenate the club, only to have the answer walk right through the door in the form of a feminine fountain of youth.
The next three months sure would be fun, he thought aloud as he pulled on his better pair of waders.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Copyright 2019 Erik Helm: Short Story, Fiction, Humor
|Oh thou sinner!|
The parishioners to the Lutheran church in the town of Brule’ Wisconsin were a grim lot that Sunday when that memorable day happened. The motley congregation filed in silently, and sat with bloodshot eyes and sweating foreheads upon the notoriously uncomfortable pews that wobbled as one sat down, and creaked when one moved. Old Toivo’s hair had been combed and scrubbed, but was already coming astray with his twitching. The Paulson family, all 14 of them, were in the front with the patriarch, Linus Paulson trying to busy himself with the missal, his hands shaking from a wee too much brandy consumed at the Saturday festivities the evening before.
As the Pastor, Fr. Larsson panned his vision over the assembling devout; he reflected that today’s sermon was overdue. He blinked his rheumy eyes and nodded with a smile to Leena, the oldest of the worshipers, covered from head to toe in black lace. There were moans and coughs coming from the back, where the less pious and roughest sinners and recalcitrants of the area were packed together and fidgeting. Funny, Fr. Larsson thought to himself, how they always pack to the front and to the back, and leave the middle like an empty purgatory inhabited only by a few ghostly figures. Yes, they all were suffering the after-effects of potent potables. He could even smell them from the pulpit. So be it. The lord moves in mysterious ways.
Fr. Larsson looked at his watch, and then at his trembling hands. “Never again!” he mumbled under his breath, as he thought back to the bridge, and the birth of today’s sermon.
There was a conspicuous silence as the congregation followed Fr. Larsson out of the clapboard church, and shook his hand with a greeting and forced smile. As the parishioners broke into family groups and retired home to Sunday dinner or to Michael's tavern, the later a little guiltily, the questions were murmured, “What had made him do it?” After all Fr. Larsson was as fond of his spirits as he was of the holy variety. Didn’t he come every evening to Michael’s for a wee drop of something medicinal already smelling if he had gotten into the sacramental wine? Didn’t he toast them and their families, and even perhaps before leaving, sometimes even buy a round? Sure, didn’t he carry in his jacket pocket a bottle with no label half-filled with some sort of medicine against the cold fitted with a cork stopper? What had filled him with such brimstone and gall as he railed against alcohol and sputtered and spat the words from Proverbs and Ephesians at them? Was it hypocrisy now… or was it…? The thought of a repentant temperance-pastor and crusader gave them all a bit of a thirst, and the talk turned to what was to be done… if anything… or would it all just blow over in time?
Of delirium tremens and canoes
Ralph and Jake arranged their gear in the canoe carefully in order to prevent an imbalance. Duffle bags, picnic basket, cooler, and their fly tackle were strapped down as the sun rose over the birches and fir trees surrounding Stone’s Bridge landing. The two intrepid adventurers from the cities would be taking their first spring fishing trip down the Brule’ River for trout, and the May weather was perfect. Almost too perfect, Ralph thought to himself while glancing at the robin’s egg blue of the sky and the already warm morning sun. Perfect weather for a canoe trip, even if the fishing might suffer a bit.
There were a few splashes downstream against the weed beds as the trout showed themselves hungry and in pursuit of the mayfly nymphs that were climbing the waving fronds and hatching into little sailboats upon the glassy water. They launched the canoe after rigging up their fly-rods and pushed off, each taking turns at the paddle as the other cast to likely spots. The smooth flow carried them downstream slowly, and everything seemed to be in a nice rhythm that morning with the birds singing and swooping over the water, the splashes of trout, the whisper of fly-line making loops through the air, and the gentle hissing of the Brule’ as it wound its way sedately down toward Lake Superior.
Each angler began catching a few brook trout, and an occasional brown trout on the flies supplied at a local hardware store, and tied in a back room by a character called ‘Feather Betty,’ who also served the town as a sign-painter and local gossip. The trout sure liked her flies. They switched off on the paddle a few more times before rounding a bend and deciding to break the lemonade bottles out of the cooler. The May morning had blossomed into one of those rare spring days when the heat of the sun finally breaks through the wet of March and April and the foggy and cold memories of winter to release the denizens of the north woods from their many months of slumber. God it felt good!
Ralph handed a cold bottle of lemonade to Jake and they both drank deeply and dreamily. After the first mile or so of river, and six nice fat trout in the cooler wrapped in an old towel, they were casting lazily now, and more interested in just enjoying the spring day. A pileated woodpecker flew across the river and a kingfisher chattered, a young doe poked her head through a stand of cedars and drank from the river, and Jake spotted an otter slithering along the edges of the water. They began to get a hunger up for the cold fried chicken and summer-sausage and cheese sandwiches sitting in the wicker basket, but the only place to beach the canoe was up ahead a mile or so on a little sandy shore which offered a rustic public landing. No worries though, as the two anglers let the canoe float with the current, only keeping it straight by an occasional gentle stroke of the wooden paddles. Ralph even took off his shirt, and Jake let his bare feet dangle over the side to tickle his toes in the liquid mirror of the Brule’
Our two heroes were having a beer after lunch when Jake looked downstream and spotted an ominous dark cloud on the horizon. It is well known in those parts that Lake Superior, that greatest of the Great Lakes, with surface temperatures even on a sunny warm May afternoon under 40 degrees, is more than capable of making its own weather. Mariners more experienced with wizened eyes and calloused hands will head to a safe port rather than tempt fate with this inland ocean when the swells and clouds gather. Unfortunately when on a river…
“Hey Ralph,” Jake gesticulated with a shaky index finger, “Looky there!”
They stared at the advancing dark mass as the wind began to pick up, and came to the swift conclusion that they had better get the heck out of dodge as fast as the boat would take them. “How far is the takeout,” Ralph asked as Jake folded the river map. “About two miles… but river miles mind you, and there are a few rapids and ledges ahead of us.”
The two quickly packed up the picnic basket and cooler and pushed off downstream, this time with both men at the paddles, and using big strokes.
The front hit them and knocked them back upstream and toward the left bank after just half a mile was covered. The wind howled and the sun was suddenly shrouded from view. The temperature dropped by 30 degrees in a minute. They both knew they were in trouble.
As the front passed overhead, the winds died down just enough to allow the now worried friends to make progress down river. The trouble was that it was difficult to keep the canoe oriented properly. If it tacked just a little it caught the upstream wind and turned sideways. They began to fight every bend in the river when it started to rain.
Ralph asked Jake to hand him the green duffle bag. It contained his spare clothes and a sweater and rain jacket. He also told Jake that he had better put on his slicker as well.
“I didn’t bring one…” Jake said with slumped shoulders. “It was so nice out that I never thought to bring anything else but jeans and a shirt.”
“We can share,” Ralph countered, shaking his head. “I have a spare poncho in the duffle.”
Jake continued his furious paddling, propelling the canoe forward through some tricky ledges and fallen cedars. There was the sound of a zipper opening followed by a lingering silence behind him.
“What… what does that mean…?”
“It means, my dear intrepid partner, that I grabbed the wrong duffle bag.” “The one with the sweaters, socks, and rain gear is back in the trunk of the car.”
“Umm… okay… so riddle me this… what is in that duffle?”
Jake turned away for a moment and twisted to look back as Ralph produced a large blob of colorful cloth.
“My kids costumes for the school play,” he explained, holding up what looked to be several clown outfits.
“What play?” Jake asked haltingly.
“Snow white and the Seven Dwarves,” was the reply.
“And, we have here Dopey and Grumpy.” “My wife sewed them out of wool and felt, so at least they will be warm.”
“I’ll take Grumpy,” Jake stated. “At least it fits my mood.”
They back-paddled into a little eddy against the bank, and dropping the little coffee-can filled with cement that served as an anchor, quickly donned the too-small costumes. Jake looked at Ralph and started laughing, realizing that he had to be a mirror image in his Dwarf-suit. A huge gray fake beard that was integrated into his tall felt stocking cap hid Ralph’s face. Built into the side were huge fake ears. His arms stuck out from the costume from the elbow down.
“What?” Ralph asked with a smile.
“You look like… I don’t even know how to describe it!”
“You too, but even if we look like clowns, nobody will ever see us, and we are sort of warmer…”
They pulled the anchor and continued downstream, the drizzle soaking the costumes.
Before twenty minutes passed, Jake pulled the canoe over again, steering towards shore.
“What’s up?” Ralph asked.
“My hands… I can’t feel my hands anymore… they’re freezing.” “Hold up a bit, I have an idea!”
Jake rummaged around under the costume and triumphantly produced a small mason jar filled with a clear liquid.
“Moonshine!” “I bought it from an old Scot in the parking lot of the gas station.”
“You’re not going to start drinking?” Ralph queried in alarm.
“No, this is pure alcohol.” “We can burn it in one of the tin cups with a little cloth to act as a wick.”
Well, as ideas went, it might have been a desperate one, but it worked. Jake tore off and twisted a piece of his costume cuff and placed it into the tin cup, covered it with the moonshine, took a sip for good luck, and using his Zippo lighter, touched it off.
“I don’t see any flame…” Ralph commented as Jake rubbed his hands over the cup.
“It’s alcohol, the flame is invisible.” Jake replied, as both of them began to heat their hands over the impromptu fire.
They left the cup to burn out by itself on the center cushion, and shoved off downstream, their hands now toasty-warm. They had the bridge in sight as they rounded a bend in the river. The takeout was a couple of hundred yards past the old bridge. They would make it after all. That is when Ralph, in the rear seat, began coughing. Jake turned to look just as the old seat cushion, made of foam rubber and vinyl burst into flames and spewed black smoke that enveloped the canoe. The tin cup had toppled over and spread the burning alcohol. They began beating at it with their paddles, trying to put out the fire, and causing the now out of control canoe to spin in circles.
Fr. Larsson stood in a melancholy mood against the rail of the old bridge and took a swig from the nearly half-empty bottle of the best the still in Iron River could produce. He flavored it with crushed juniper berries from the bushes growing in front of the sacristy. One thing was nagging at him, and he came here to clear his head. He had no sermon ready for this Sunday’s high mass. It was bothering him, and so he was drinking and watching the river flow, letting his thoughts float away… looking for inspiration.
From under the bridge came a sound of swearing and banging, and the smell of burning brimstone. Emerging directly below him, Fr. Larsson, to his horror, imagined he saw what looked to be four clown-devils shouting at him and dancing around in a large fire that floated on the river. He closed one eye… now it was two clown-devils. He smelled the burning, and heard the incantations of the devils as they shouted. “Jesus!… Holy Christ!… Damn!" chanted the figures as they spun downstream slowly and out of sight.
Fr. Larsson took a long swig from the bottle and splashed some across his brow. He then made the sign of the cross, and heaved the bottle far into the river. Whatever he had seen, it couldn’t be real… or could it? Whatever the truth of that vision was that he saw on the river that day, one thing could be sure… if it was caused by the shakes… the D.T.s or by temptation, he would not touch a drop ever again! He crossed himself again, and wobbling back toward town, began to get an idea for a sermon after all. “By God, I’ll give ‘em hell, I will!” he shouted to a confused grouse perched above him in a tree. “By God I will!”
Sunday evening saw a certain lack of jocularity in the patrons of Michael’s tavern. The jukebox wasn’t playing, and the dice-cups were all alone at the end of the bar, silent. Silent too were the usual suspects seated at the bar and at the few tables, nursing small tap beers and looking sorry for themselves.
The door opened and the pastor stood there blinking. He walked slowly forward, his hands behind his back, acknowledging the silent nods with a tip of his head. He sat down slowly at the bar.
By now every eye was half-downcast in a sort of shame, but half-trained on Fr. Larsson, waiting for what might transpire. The silence lasted a full minute.
“What the devil are all you starin at? Haven’t you ever seen a repentant man before? Fr. Larsson bellowed.
“Get everyone what they want, and make mine a double!”