Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Dream....

 It is official. I have resigned my position at Orvis, and will be moving to the driftless area of South West Wisconsin, a unique geological area full of spring creek trout streams. I will be starting a fly-fishing school featuring 2-day schools, Trout master classes, Casting instruction for all levels, and a guiding service. I am both excited and a bit scared... Muhammed Ali, one of my heros once said that if your dreams don't scare you, they are not big enough.... Dream big, and have confidence! To all my friends,... When I get settled, I will have a glass of claret waiting for you, some jazz from my collection, classical too, and some unique historic rods to cast at my new driftless fly-fishing home and Erik Helm's Classical Angler fly-fishing schools and guide service. Come visit me. I will wax poetic. Many have begged me to teach and guide, but due to my job, I could not be independent. Now the sky is the limit, and I hope some of my 3,000 plus former students show up for what could be described as Erik Helm's Opus. (nod to Mr. Holland (film)).
Here I will be. Soldiers Grove, WI. Cheers, and wish me luck! 414-331-9102 Erik.helm1@gmail.com
Erik Helm

Lots more to come including new essays, articles, a book, and the sky is the limit.... Help me out by spreading the word, and love to everyone!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Hidden Run

As I approached the river and turned my car slowly down the winding access road, my sense of anxiety grew. Would there be anyone in my hidden secret run? Would anyone trespass on my last privacy on the water? I was relieved to see the opening through the bushes marking the way to the river unguarded by another car, and carefully nosed mine into the nearby scrub a hundred yards short of the access point. I retrieved the magnetic sign I had made and attached it to the side of my car. ‘Biohazard! Feces collection and vector study vehicle’ it read. That should keep people away! I hopped into my waders and ran for the opening before anyone could spot me, dropping toy rubber rattlesnakes and spiders as I went. I would rig up the rod later on the river. Less time for somebody to spot me by the road and find my hidden run: my only sanctuary.

Then I woke up from the dream….

 For that is the irony… The hidden run does not exist. At least as much as it is truly hidden. It is there for all to see and is not secret, it only lies obscured by the lack of ability in reading water and breaking with common convention. Later that day I pulled into the hidden run. There were people walking their dogs on the road, and anglers driving past to other destinations on the river. Even if they found my hidden run, it would still be hidden for they would not fish it.

Why not?

On our tributaries to the Great Lakes and especially my local river, fly anglers pursue anadromous fish such as Steelhead and large Brown Trout the same way they pursue the salmon, that is in general one of two methods is used. The first is sight-fishing: find a fish spawning and fish to it until you catch it, frighten it off, or foul-hook it. The second method is even more productive. Dams and waterfalls have a habit of slowing the progress of fish up the river to spawn. Often they pool up or congregate the fish for several hours and even days. In some instances, the obstacle is too difficult or high to jump over at all, and the fish reach an existential and real dead end right there. Here is a good spot for lots of good catching. Note I didn’t say good fishing, that might be something different if we are sport fishing and not gathering for subsistence. Both of these methods place many fish on the end of an angler’s line, so they are the most productive method, if not questionable in a sporting sense. In this case, what is productive and common convention does one other thing: it prevents our metaphorical ‘Hidden Run’ from ever being discovered by the madding crowds.

Why? Because there are no waterfalls or dams, and only the top head of the pool may have the occasional odd salmon struggling to spawn with its back half out of the water. Beyond those obvious signals and signs, the water is a confusing tumble of boulders, riffles, pools, slack water and fast shoots. In other words, it needs interpretation or reading, it takes analysis. It takes more effort to find fish in holding water than to just shoot deer in a petting zoo. Opening that page opens the world’s longest book. A book and a study so rich with promise and eye-opening that hidden runs are suddenly everywhere, and this is the second irony, the hidden run both does not exist unless it remains hidden by lack of wisdom, and it exists everywhere afterwards when that knowledge is gained and placed into practice.

Still reading?

Lets give a few examples. In spring when the water is high on our tributaries, anglers walk the banks and almost always ask each other the same question like a ritual: “Have you seen any fish?” Last year I had a nice conversation with another angler in a parking lot while rigging my gear. He went down to a shallow riffle, wandered around the water looking down and peering for twenty minutes or so, and then left. I started working a sweet piece of water that fishes best when the river is high and clear. Twenty casts later, I hooked a screamer of a steelhead in the boulders at the tail out. The other angler had been within 50 yards of this water, but instead of unlocking the possibilities, began putting into operation the common convention of looking for fish. Then this spring two anglers were walking down the river in this very spot, actually walking through the good water when one of them recognized me and asked if they were in good water. “Is this featureless water O.K. too?” they asked. I looked at the run with a hidden Rosetta-Stone of little clues as to boulders and pockets, scallops and spits and told them that indeed they were in good water. Then after they left ten minutes later, I proceeded down the run and briefly hooked a fish exactly where they were standing.

Trout too:

The same quagmire of convention and ease of path taken also happens on trout streams to all our detriment. Often trout anglers concentrate their efforts of two distinct things in the water. LUNKER structures or artificial undercut banks providing cover, and riffles at the head of pools. Smart anglers too, for the riffle is a hatch factory providing broken water and cover, and the LUNKER structure holds the majority of fish in a given pool in most situations. However there are a lot of other targets out there. Fishing to a rising fish with a dry in the true English style will tell us where the fish intercept the bugs, but what about when they don’t? Do we pass by the log sunk in the side of the tail-out for the obvious ten-incher rising in the riffle above, or… would it be a good time to explore that water with our fly? If we never depart from our common path, we may never find new avenues of discovery and knowledge, and yes… pleasure. But that might mean taking that strike-indicator and bead head nymph that has been glued to our line for the last ten years, and placing on a Sawyer style lightly weighted nymph and working it actively and with thought and planning. On my local trout stream I have meet some great anglers, some characters, and everything in-between. Once during a hatch of mixed Hendricksons and March Browns, I came across two guys who were fishing prince-nymphs downstream on a dead-drift. They were working down the stream as I was working up. I greeted them politely, they told me they had not hooked anything yet, and I asked them if they had any mayfly imitations around a size 12. Nope, they both always have used size 12 prince nymphs with a split-shot or two. They continued on their way shackled by their own convention. The hidden run that day was all around in the air, and had wings.

If we walk the same path everyday we see the same scenery, only differently in hues, never a different view entirely, and if we follow the hatchery truck, always fish the same 3 flies, or ask everyone else what they do so we can ‘bah’ like sheep in the same language, the hidden run will remain locked tight. We have to get away from the dams and waterfalls, and think beyond the riffles.

Being skunked is part of the process of learning the keys to opening those doors to the hidden run, as is stubbing one’s toe or getting lost.

So what is the lesson or the take-away? Perhaps it is simply that by taking the path that leads to the initial success of fish caught consistently, and not breaking with that tradition at some point in our progression, we have taken a short cut to a closed book and a dark forest. In order to find the path again, we may need to go fishing and not worry about the catching. Then the discoveries amongst the little riffles and eddies may lead us to the hidden runs and the spaces between the notes where the music is sweetest. The funny part is that it has been there all along, but how fragrant is the flower when finally uncovered. Asking about the secret spot may bring answers, but finding one’s own will bring fulfillment.
The door is right there, and there is no footpath…. Just look out for my rubber rattlesnakes!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Paper Route... first job

This is not fly-fishing related, but I wanted to share this on my blog as it is humorous and easy to read and funny.... Please enjoy this!


When I was 12 years old, I got a paper route delivering the Milwaukee Journal to our neighborhood. My parents must have thought it might build character and teach responsibility. I wanted the route anyway, as my best friend Alex had one already, allowing him to buy more baseball cards than I could. Dad and Mom both encouraged me that employment would be fun, and told me stories of the jobs they had as youngsters, most of which started out with “When I was your age, I had three jobs that blah… blah.”

My dad accompanied me to the newspaper station for our area, and I signed up. My route would include two blocks of Downer and two blocks of Stowell Ave.

The way the system worked was that I would be charged by the week for how many papers I ordered. I would then collect the money from the residents, and any money that was left over after paying for the papers was profit. Essentially, we kids were private contractors.

We carriers received a huge yellow bag constructed of canvas designed to be worn over the shoulder. The Journal consisted of a daily addition, a midweek addition with advertising supplement, and a Sunday edition.

 The guy in charge of the local routes worked out of a shack next to a convenience store. He was a fat and disheveled guy in his 30s with greasy balding hair who probably saw his future differently than it now was. He compensated for his pathetic life by acting like the malevolent head of the carrier gang. He assigned the routes and determined the amount of papers you would receive and pay for, so getting on his bad side often meant that you would find yourself trying in vain to sell your extras by standing on the corner yelling “Paper” to passing motorists.  Many of the carriers hung out at the shack, trading insults and baseball cards. They were the bigger and older carriers, and none of us little kids were allowed to hang out with them. Summoned to meet with the ‘boss’, one would have to make his way slowly past the snickering carrier gang who added their snide comments as you meekly awaited his audience. When I first was assigned the route, the ‘boss’ told me that I would be taking over from a girl named Beth. She would show me the collection cards and take me on the route with her on her last day as an orientation. “You will really like her” he said, “She is a real cutie.” I called her and we arranged a meeting. When she set eyes on me she cried “Eww, it’s you!”, and walked off leaving the collection cards on the grass. That was the extent of my orientation. She knew me from school, and since she was a popular girl, and I was a popular target, she had reacted as child-society demanded.

 I was supposed to be able to have a job I could do after school, earn money to be put away for savings, and learn responsibility. Instead, I and increasingly my parents became enslaved by it.

 The daily additions were easy enough. One simply placed as many as one could carry at one time into the big yellow bag, and staggered off to fight the defective screen doors, viscous dogs, bullies, lonely elderly residents with dementia, and other hazards of the job. When I ran out of papers, I went home for more until the whole route was complete. I repeated this for seven days a week, 365 days a year. There were no vacations as a paper carrier. You might get a friend to cover for you in an emergency, but then you faced the consequences if your friend was less than attentive and forgot to deliver to half the houses, instead choosing to read comic books.

 I soon found out that the oft-portrayed icon of the young child on a red balloon tire bike, with a bag full of papers, dutifully delivering the daily news was a myth. Trying to ride my bike with the cumbersome yellow bag was nearly impossible. I would have to lean the bike over 45 degrees in order to balance the load. Pedaling at this angle proved futile. One solution I came up with was to hang the bag off the front handlebars of the bike. This worked as long as you didn’t have to steer or stop. Having to stop the bike at every house and get off to deliver the paper wasted time as well.

Now some carriers had mastered the art of folding the paper in a certain manner in order to toss it onto a porch while continuing to ride by on the bike. My experiments with this ended up with papers in bushes, a broken window, and spending hours chasing blowing pages down the street when they sort of exploded as they were halfway to their destination. I finally was able to master this folding with practice, but it was only practical one or two days a week, as the other days the papers were too thick to fold.

Of course, my dumb bike was not exactly up to par either. A neighbor had given us a black Huffy 3 speed from the 1940s with two of the three gears stripped. It must have weighed over 50 pounds, and had survived a collision with a car. In a feat of inspiration bordering on the lunatic, I spray-painted it day-glo orange, trying to make it look like the expensive road bikes at the local bicycle store. It ended up looking like a cheap science fiction movie prop.

 I finally abandoned the bike idea and instead used a rusted toy wagon with no handle, which I pulled with a length of old rope I had attached. I don’t remember where the dilapidated wagon was obtained from, but it must have made me look like the Oliver Twist of newsboys.

After a short period, the wagon must have finally fallen apart, and I moved on to the use of an abandoned shopping cart. Now this was the way to go! I could carry most or all of the papers in one shot. The problem with the shopping cart is that it had one of those funny wheels that one can only find on shopping carts: a sort of free-spirit wheel that always wanted to go its own way. I would make progress down the street, only to suddenly lurch into a tree or a curb.

 All these trials could be tolerated and overcome if it wasn’t for the dreaded Sunday edition. Instead of being an evening paper like it was on weekdays and Saturday, the Journal on Sunday was a morning paper. I rose every Sunday to the alarm at 4:30 am, and complete darkness. With bleary eyes, I dragged myself down the stairs and to the curb, where unbelievably large and heavy piles of bundled papers had been deposited. In the pre-dawn silence I half carried, rolled, and shoved the bundles up to our house.

The Sunday paper was unique in that not only was it ten times the size of a daily paper, but it also had to be assembled by the carrier. First, I had to cut the bailing wire that bound the stacks of papers together. Unlike my fellow carriers, I didn’t have my own wire cutters, but had to borrow Dad’s, promising each time that I would put it back properly in its slot on the peg-board above his workbench. The bailing wire had a habit of being twisted too tight, thus ruining the first and last paper in the bundle. I then had to sort the sections one by one into complete papers while sneaking a read of the comic strips, all under the dim 40-watt bulb in the overhead hall light. (We wouldn’t want to waste electricity, right Dad?)

Once assembled, the papers would be piled ten at a time into my big yellow bag, and I would stagger off into the darkness, leaning and lurching with the weight. Once rid of my load, I would return home to get another ten papers etc., until the route was complete. I think I had over eighty houses, so that more than eight trips would be needed. As soon as I got halfway through the first block my body reacted to the shock of being awake by letting me know I had to go to the toilet. When this happened, I hid the papers in the bushes, and ran bow-legged for home.

It was bad enough in normal conditions for a 12-year-old boy to carry 70 pounds of papers eight times through the neighborhood, but when the weather acted up, it could really get tricky. One of the worst things about rain or snow was that as the papers inevitably became moist or wet, they gained weight until you felt like you were delivering bowling balls.

Several Sundays saw the neighborhood covered in newly fallen snow a foot or two deep. At this point, the shopping cart and bag were abandoned in favor of my sled. Mom and I duly dragged the sled through the snow, piled full of papers and covered by garbage bags against the weather. It was early in the morning, so the walkways were not yet shoveled, making every house an Alaskan expedition. It also was hard to move when you were wearing three or four layers of clothing, two coats, and covered in snow.

Some of the residents, accustomed to reading their paper at a certain hour were intolerant of delays. They would stand in fuzzy slippers and a robe, holding steaming cups of coffee just inside their cozy doorways, and watch me trudge through waist deep snowdrifts trying to make it to their door.

On one of these arctic adventures, my mom was pulling the sled when it toppled over. She slipped in trying to catch it and lay on the street calling out in pain. What a way for Mom to spend her day off.

I did get Dad out of bed to help me once, but he complained so much, and made me so miserable that it was easier to do without his help.

Nobody at the Journal had warned us that the whole family would have to get involved. They also could have warned us that the filthy little rag-a-muffins selling papers in the movies were filthy because they were covered in newsprint! Not a day passed when I didn’t come home from the route badly in need of a bath. They also could have mentioned that continued use of the heavy news-bag would cause curvature of the spine. For years during and after my paper route I habitually walked with a conspicuous tilt, and always had to be stopped during school scoliosis tests and gawked at by the nurses. All this for less than twenty dollars profit per week.

One of the most interesting things about my paper route were the residents themselves. Our neighborhood was full of eccentrics.

There was the old woman with memory problems that lived in a huge home filled with antiques. She was forever misplacing her checkbook, and always wanted to offer me booze when it was cold. She needed help to fill out the check, and I was often there for an hour or more, helping her locate the checkbook or her purse (was it in the freezer or the closet?), and trying to politely refuse endless offers of brandy. (I was twelve at the time.)

There was the control freak that insisted on balancing his accounts and his checkbook in front of me while I waited to be paid, the lawyer who waited outside in his bath robe for the paper in winter while drinking a beer, a kind old woman with a little dog named ‘Jasu’, a psychiatrist who always tried to tell me what to do, and several people who always answered the door acting as if they were expecting the cops. Several residents I never saw at all. Their papers mysteriously disappeared from the doorstep of their homes as if by magic.

Most everybody was friendly until collection time.

I wonder who came up with the idea of sending twelve-year-old kids to people’s doors to collect on debts. Isn’t this a thing best left to big guys in leather jackets named ‘Lefty’? I certainly was not what one could expect in the enforcer category. After all, I was only twelve, and weighed less than 75 pounds. I certainly was not the best businessman, and was intimidated by some of the residents as well as being lazy, so often the amounts owed included several weeks or even months of delivery. At collection time, few of the residents actually had money in the house, or their spouse had their checkbook. Perhaps I could come back later or on Saturday? I wasted an incredible amount of time trying to find residents who were actually at home and had money to pay the bill.

I received lectures from the residents to collect more often, and to that effect went out at night to knock on doors to see if I could catch people at home.

It’s funny how the tune changes sometimes. The same people who lectured me on collecting more frequently happened to live in houses that suffered mysterious electrical lighting failures as soon as I rang the door buzzer.

I had an effective way of dealing with these customers. When it came time to deliver the Sunday paper, I would open the outer screen door, and trap the paper at head height between the doors by quickly shutting the outer door. When the customer opened the inner door, he was greeted with a shower of pages onto his feet.

Of course some customers never paid, and were duly reported to the Journal for collections. I never did get my books balanced perfectly, and left the route still being owed money.

I saved just about everything I made on the route not because I was thrifty, but because my parents had enforced it. I obtained a savings account at the University Credit Union when I was about ten, and most all of the money I made selling greeting cards or on the paper rout went into it. I paid for half of the cost of my trumpet, and the entire cost of a later competition target rifle. I may have missed the thrill of squandering my earnings on candy and comic books, but I did learn to save. I also learned a lot about life, the people that inhabit it, and all the trials and tribulations of earning a buck the hard way.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Symbiosis and Grace: A tale of two fly rods.

2 DaVinci rods top. Bottom Para 15. Writer's log and pen while writing this mess.

Author’s note:

This is an essay based on reflections. Essentially, it is what might be considered a rod ‘Shoot-out’ in the modern slang, but nobody gets injured, and there is no violence. It is an examination of character and personality of inanimate objects with some allegory, analogies, and hints of anthropomorphism thrown in for clarification or explanation, or even accidental obfuscation. My approach to this and writing style is not common and may be considered enigmatic. I certainly hope so, for thought is not always linear, and writing should not always be either. The style might be read a bit like interrupted poetic prose spattered with philosophy and nonsense randomly but with intent and design not unlike a Jackson Pollack painting. Sometimes it might seem that I am searching for something without putting my fingers on it, only to have an epiphany a few paragraphs later, and detour yet again. Sometimes I wonder what people must think when they attempt to get through these little diversions of mine, but then I might deem it the highest compliment and praise if someone reads this and it spurs thought…. For thought is what I am after…after all….

These reflections were written at local parks while casting and taking notes and day-dreaming, a process I referred to once in an essay as ‘Water-Putting’. I would hike 4 miles, then go the quietest location I could find, set up the rods and begin taking endless notes and exploring ideas while casting. I hope you enjoy it!


The two fly rods explained

Both fly rods are 2 piece, 8 feet long, and take a 5 weight line. That is where the similarities end, for they are as different as air and water. Both rods were built and ‘interpreted’ by Joe Balestrieri, the cane whisperer and bamboo rod builder at Redwing Fly Rods, and a great friend. I acquired both rods this year, after having hand-built a leather rod tube to accommodate them, and purchasing a rare pre-war Hardy Perfect reel with an ‘agate-up’ line guard to balance the rods. I even made a leather reel case for the Hardy as well, long before either rod was a reality. Either a lot of thought and planning went into this, or a bit of insanity….. most likely both.

The rods are a DaVinci, and a Young Parabolic 15. Here are their histories.

The DaVinci, or the ‘Symbiosis’ of the title is a fusion of bamboo and graphite. Following the designs of Charles Ritz of the Vario-Power series of rod which married a bamboo tip to a fiberglass butt, Pezon & Michel of France built a rod with a cane butt section and a graphite tip in 1990 to 1991. The fact that little is known about this rod has little to do with performance, only with popularity, or a lack of it and a corresponding lack of understanding. It may have been a little too much of a diversion for the average angler, too much to chew on, and not understood at all, or the concept of fusion itself may have been seen as heretical. More on that later… Joe also leant me his personal DaVinci rod he built so that I could test cast and fish with it. It is a nine-foot for a six-weight line, and appears in the photo as the rod with the skeletal grip, another idea borrowed from the late Paul Young, the expansive idea-chaser and bamboo rod builder from Detroit Michigan. Balestrieri also used a modified Ritz grip on the rod in addition to the skeletal reel seat, blending the best of borrowed ideas and mixing them together to make a different flavor of rod. Sometimes the best tasting pasta dishes are assembled by scratch, and with only ingredients on-hand and in the mind, as I found out when Balestrieri cooked me a Sicilian bacon, white sauce and asparagus dish when I picked up the rod. He pulled that dish out and improvised. It was divine!

Since I mentioned Paul Young, the second rod is one I wanted Balestrieri to make for me. I wanted an all-around trout rod of around eight feet or so and for a five-weight line. What he came up with was a lightened Paul Young Para 15 taper. Instead of casting a six-weight line, as the original rods did, this one cast a true five beautifully. The name ‘Para 15’ comes from the ferrule being 15/64th in diameter. Para is short for ‘Parabolic’, which is fly-rod gibberish to attempt to explain a taper that bends mostly nearer the grip, and often has a stiffer tip. Parabolic rods thus are ‘regressive’ in taper, as they stand convention on its head by bending far down the blank. The most parabolic of the parabolics, rods like the Para 15 and the Princess, also by Paul Young, have a fluid slow action that flings the line out there without effort much like a slingshot.

Ernest Schwiebert, in his book Trout Tackle 2 told us that Young preferred his Para 15, and that perhaps it was Young’s favorite rod. Schwiebert himself commented that the Para 15 was “Perhaps the finest all-around trout rod in my collection.” That says a lot as Schwiebert owned countless bamboo rods from all the great makers, and fished them all over the world, and wrote about them as well in his stories and his histories of tackle and technique.

The rod Balestrieri built for me is similar to a lightened regressive taper Para 15 Young called the ‘Keller’. This rod is the ‘Grace’ in the title.

Before I break out the bottle of wine and begin waxing poetic, these two rods are perhaps the finest casting fly-rods I have ever had the privilege to hold or own, but for very different reasons; thus the point of the explorative reflections.


Getting to know you…


DaVinci, as in the great Leonardo, was the great historic artist he is considered both because of his divine talent and exquisite beauty of touch in capturing the human figure, as well as his diversity in designing and drafting war machines, civil engineering tools, castle and town layouts and defenses, etc. His explorations were incredible. His sketches are exquisite in their subtle strokes and detail, and almost casual in their greatness. They leave the average artist dumbfounded.

 The rod named after him may have had its name taken as a tribute to the fusion of the classical paintings and the drafting drawings. At least it would be nice to believe so. I use the term symbiosis to describe the rod as in two parts working together to achieve what each by themselves, could not achieve alone. For no two materials anchor the far bookends of opinion, puritanism, zeal and stubbornness in fly rod design and casting; bamboo of lore, and graphite of pure energy. One made of natural fibers bending in the wind, and one mastered by man and melded by alchemists out of carbon; Each material having supporters scoffing at each other. Bamboo fanatics will never admit that graphite is a viable material at all, and often call rods made of carbon fiber ‘Plastic’ just to raise a hackle or two. Graphite proponents call cane rods ‘Buggy-whips’ and dismiss cane as short-distance over-priced affectations. Cane nuts have started internet forums where they endlessly argue about nuances so obscure that to the layperson who wanders by and innocently trespasses on their lofty comfort and security with a perceived blasphemy of a question, they must seem like a bunch of model-railroad fanatics involved in a street fight to settle the issue of which gauge track is better.

These two sides are so polarized around performance versus classicism, that when some eccentric artist or craftsman one day makes a rod of both materials combined it must cause silence, and then cries of anger and blasphemy. How dare you disgrace cane with graphite you heretic. Heresy! How dare you mess up my graphite power tool with the addition of that dumb wood butt-section? Now it weighs 1/32nd of an ounce more and I can’t cast. So erupted the Capulets and the Montagues, yet Romeo and Juliet lay still bound together in brash reality right there in front of us. And they loved…. They loved without prejudice. They loved completely, with all of themselves.

So the DaVinci may never be accepted. Its dichotomy is too extreme. It angers the purists, and adulterates the puritan. The Capulets and Montagues war and rage and argue and fight… The experts will tell you that any fly- rod like this will be a disaster….

Until you cast it. Then the true duet begins, like a love song from West-Side Story, Bernstein’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s play… Romeo and Juliet in the modern age. These materials compliment each other amazingly. The cane butt pulls the weight closer to the grip, causing the rod to feel lighter in hand and more responsive. The cane bends near the butt, causing the rod action to be very powerful but semi-parabolic in nature. The graphite tip on my rod is longer than the butt section, and creates a unique property of a lack of deflection. Therefore, the best of two materials come together. The graphite tip is also lighter, reducing the overall weight of the flyrod, and preventing what often happens in bamboo rods; the tips become too heavy, especially in weights over 5 or lengths over 8 feet.

It took no time at all to understand this rod. Step up to the plate and swing. She takes all you can give as long as you are smooth. It is not a close distance rod, instead it wants some gas. I first fished it on a small spring creek where I was hampered by brush, and the rod did not like it. I caught fish, but I continually had to make the rod do things it didn’t want to do. Under 20 feet it didn’t want to load right, but when moving to a larger body of water it ran free. This rod does not want to be confined. With a cigar grip, a unique burned cork butt, and bright red wraps, it stands out as the convertible sports car in a field of sedans.

Only once, did I really step on the gas and run it full out, and the entire fly line went out and the backing banged the reel. Yet… it didn’t sell. Nobody understands it. Sad. Blasphemy! Heretic! Or… symbiosis? Just ask Romeo and Juliet! On second thought, don’t do that, it kind of ended badly for them. Perhaps peanut butter and jelly might be a better analogy. Yet… of Shakespeare’s plays, what is the most popular? Yes. The dichotomy.

I taught a fly-casting class for a Trout Unlimited chapter this summer using the DaVinci rod, and although everyone seemed to think it was interesting, watching people look at the rod and wiggle it was not unlike the tale of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. If I hadn’t owned it and cast it, I would be in the same boat. One guy asked, “Why did you bring that rod?” I thought… “Why not?”. Sometimes it seems to be my place on earth to be the odd one who makes us all question things by doing everything contrary to conventional wisdom, and making it work.


Unlike the DaVinci, the Para 15 is a difficult gal to figure out. She is the demure one seated alone on the settee at the dance. She is not the most desirable or flashy of the girls, she has an understated quiet grace, part Greek with a quiet smile and classic cupid lips, but if you want to take the time to know her, she is the keeper, and the one you want to spend the rest of the night dancing with. Just don’t step on her toes… she hates that. Grace is demanding of respect. She is complicated despite being straightforward. She seems quirky at first. If you cast her right with smooth movements, she rewards you with an elegant loop and bend like lips slowly curving into a beguiling smile.

Parabolic rods are like this. You may hate the rod one second because you are pushing it too hard, and then the next second, when you smooth out your stroke and come into agreement with the rod, it rewards you. There is no wiggle-room in this rod. Either you are going to play beautiful music together, or you are going to make one god-awful racket and end up on the floor frustrated and tangled up in your own underwear. The rod sets the tempo, not you. Unlike some graphite rods that you can push, mold, and change to your ways, this Para 15 will not budge. So… after getting over a few tailing-loops and some frustrated casting, I closed my eyes and cast. I was not leading the dance, the rod was, and I opened my eyes to an epiphany. I felt it first in my arm and hand as the bend of the rod came alive so very subtly, and then witnessed the loop as 50 feet of line gracefully uncoiled and the reel quacked out a few more inches in protest. I cast it again with the maker, and while talking to him and not paying attention to my casting stroke, he said, “That was a perfect cast!” I had taken myself out of it, at least my conscious mind, and let my soul or unconscious take control. Joe laughed, and I did too. This Para 15 wanted no part of my thoughts, it only wanted what it’s soul’s essence desired. Pure smooth strokes. Don’t think, just feel….

This quirkiness is why some people never like parabolic rods. If you have an inflexible casting stroke and cadence, and you perform a tango even when the dance is a waltz, the rod will not make the adaptation, and will punish you. This ability to get to know the personalities of unique rods fascinates me. The changes I have to make as a caster in order to make the rod perform allow me to become a better caster because I am listening, not doing the talking.

The Para 15 requires patience. The style of casting that just seemed to gel includes a bit of Charles Ritz in his High Speed-High Line approach along with a smooth long travel on the back cast starting low with the tip to the ground, then smoothly accelerating forward and stopping however gently before lowering the tip. A powerful stop to create a tight loop made the rod do strange things, and I had to let it be in charge again before I understood again that it demands smoothness. Any noise or abrupt movements will shock it and it will stop singing for you. It took some time before I got to really understand the Para 15 since the flaws in casting came not from the rod, but from me.

This rod will perform up close and at distance, so it is more versatile than the DaVinci, and it might be hard to scratch together an argument against it as the finest all-around trout rod ever. I still struggle at distance with the rod though, but only in park-casting distances, because despite all the tales of 90 foot casts, for most situations a 60 foot cast is quite far, and a more realistic average distance on big water might be 50 feet, and the Para 15 is dead on at 40 and 50 feet, repeatedly hitting the same leaf at distance while simulating dry-fly accuracy. However, like most of us, one man’s meat is another’s poison, and after trying an overly heavy old double taper line on the rod, I put on a weight-forward 5 weight line and the rod sang an aria of its own. That is another important aspect to fly-rods. There is no such thing as the right line out of the box. I have rods rated for a seven that I cast with a six, and rods rated for a 4 that I cast with a five. Another caster might like the exact opposite. Balestrieri and I fooled around with one of his finest rod creations several times in succession with different lines often getting wildly different results before he grabbed a silk line that was actually a bit heavy, and after my prediction that it would only make it more confusing, the line flew out and hit the junipers at the edge of his property. We just looked at each other and smiled.

We have to give the rods different foods, if you will, and see how they react. A casting stroke more powerful might mean a lighter line or not. I tested or ‘fed’ my rods a variety of lines, many no longer in production.

Like my analogy to the dark brunette Greek and Italian classic like Cecilia Bartoli the opera mezzo-soprano, the Para 15 has a quiet and subtle beauty. It has a cork reel seat, not a deep polished wood. This is in keeping with the rods of Paul Young who was known to be a bit of a nut on saving weight and often sacrificing aesthetics in favor of performance. So this rod has no fancy ball gown, only an Italian green silk wrap. It is simple like an Italian feast of grapes, bread and wine taken in a Sicilian field in the hills and true to the roots and character of the maker Balestrieri.

The differences in these two rods always lead my mind to stray to music again. If these two rods were performing artists, how would they differ? Why, with as much character difference as they do in casting. Vladimir Horowitz the fiery Russian pianist would love to pound the keyboard of the DaVinci, while he would probably break the Para 15. Alfred Cortot, the poetic interpreter of Chopin and Debussy would love the complicated and quiet intricate rhythms of the Para 15, while he might find the DaVinci to be too brutal to make music.

I was doing research the other day for this article and became fascinated with bamboo collectors use of the term ‘Experimental’. The term was used to describe the DaVinci, as well as Paul Young’s rare but vaunted Princess, a regressive 7 foot for a 4 weight line of which very few were built. Critics seemed to imply that a taper that was not popular or of which few were made constituted an ‘Experiment’ in a connoted derogatory sense. Apparently, experiments that sold were acts of genius in contrast. Certainly the Princess and the DaVinci ideas were not failures due to their lack of casting brilliance, but perhaps the deviations of these rods might make us read the ‘Experimental’ critique as better defined as “I don’t get it….” That led me to include the CD cover for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, songs so beautiful and full of life yet profane, as a part of the montage photo heading this piece of experimental prose and fly-rod reflection. I thought it fitting, and I wanted to thumb my nose at convention, especially by those that collect rods and argue about them, but when it comes down to it, have no clue where the rod’s soul lies.

The soul comment leads me back to the more mundane word ‘Character’, and why I wrote this piece in the first place. I have cast some poor rods in my time, but more often than not, a decent rod with thought behind the taper and intent and purpose behind the design that at first might not speak to me will often reveal itself when I am not trying or thinking. That is why I built the Romeo and Juliet analogy and “Getting to know you…”.  One has to spend some time with a fly-rod in order to find out what makes it tick…. Far more than is given in any magazine “Rod shoot-out” I have ever read.


Conclusion ad nauseam…


So the Para 15 is the finest rod I have ever cast…. Or is it the Da Vinci? Both? Neither? Or is the point of ever trying to assign a score to a delicate object like a fine cane rod like trying to rank the finest painters and musical artists in a list….? An impossible task, and one that is perpetrated every day. Instead, art history teaches us that comparison and contrast is an exercise in itself. Not pointless, but leading to thought and more respect and a deeper appreciation of the intent of the object itself.

On the other hand, we could just go out and catch a bunch of fish. I like to think it can be more than just that…. It can be art if we let it be. Casting and rods can be like the fine instruments and music they were intended as. Just add a glass of fine claret, turn down the music, pick up a fly-rod and close your eyes.




Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Teaching Fly Casting

Here is a video taken live of me teaching and explaining the basic fly-casting stroke. Enjoy!


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Happy Fathers Day to all Dads!

Fishing with Dad

Fishing with Dad: Photo from @ 1975 or so

Most anglers and fly fishermen in particular have had the tradition of this great sport handed down to them by their fathers. My friend Rob’s father tells a neat story about fly fishing in Michigan when Rob who was all of eight or nine years old was perched on a rock casting, and Sylvester Nemes came past and remarked that the kids casting skill was better than his fathers.

Many of us cherish those memories of our fathers, from the first time we were shown how to bait a hook and cast, to the time we finally caught a fish bigger than Dad’s was, and the look not of envy but of pride on his face.

My memories are just as fond, but in a more ironic way.

My father loved to dream about fishing, but rarely fished. He taught me how to bait a hook with a worm, set the bobber and catch panfish. He taught me to clean the fish. He also taught me that he was not to be bothered for the morning bite. I fished alone in the mornings, as Dad would never get out of bed. Dad and I only really fished on vacations. These were supposed to be the time when mom could get away from her soul crushing job, and immerse herself in nature and paint and sketch while staying with friends ‘up north’. For Dad, these vacations took on a safari like expedition status.

The vacation planning would begin with my mother securing time off of work. After the dates were set, Dad would begin assembling the baggage train near the doorway of our house. Like everything else involving Dad, this took time; in this case weeks, with long speculation and daydreaming while smoking his pipe, and was over-meticulously planned. He gathered: hunting boots, hiking boots, casual shoes, two fishing rod cases containing a dozen of his hand built rods, two tackle boxes, a large box of fishing reels, two safari jackets, several hats including a pith helmet, several large fishing nets, four duffel bags of clothing, etc. Enough gear for an expedition to the Congo. My mother took some watercolor supplies and a change of clothes. I had one fishing rod and a small duffel bag.

That was Dad. Everything was overdone, over planned, analyzed to death, and had to be perfect.
He hand built spinning rods that were pieces of artwork, with gun stock French walnut inserts, elaborately wrapped guides, and guide spacing that was based upon complex mathematical models only known to him. He owned the best reels that money could buy, and a large collection of lures and sundry equipment. Despite this, he very seldom fished. When we did fish together, after I was about nine or so, the fishing sessions were inevitably memorable…but in the wrong way.

I couldn’t wait to go fishing the first morning of the vacation, but had to wait for Dad, as the fishing rods were locked in the car. On the pond was a boathouse with a pier from which we would fish. We stood on the little pier and cast spinners to the trout. I caught my first rainbow trout that day. Before that occurred though, there were the requisite disasters that seemed to follow us wherever we went. On an errant cast, I hooked Dad in the leg, the treble hooks embedding deep in his pants. It’s amazing that worse didn’t occur with the two of us crowded onto the tiny end of the pier. In order to get the hooks out he had to take off his pants. We stood on the end of the platform while I tried to free the hooks from his trousers, which were now around his ankles. I used needle-nose pliers and finally got the hooks free but left a sizable hole in the pants. By this time, both of us were entangled in the fishing line, and I dropped his pliers into the water. I was never to hear the end of this. The proximity of sharp objects, Dad’s anxieties, and a small boy crowded onto a pier had reached critical mass. At times like this, I was at the mercy of his entire wrath, as Mom wasn’t there to try to interfere and thus get criticized for always “Defending the boy.” On a positive note, I learned a lot of new words that day.

Several days later I went along on a shopping expedition with Mom and her friend and Dad was left alone to fish. When we returned, he proudly showed off a stringer of five beautiful rainbow trout. One of them was the biggest I had ever seen up to that point. It was almost hard to believe. Dad seemed such a fumble-klutz at fishing that it was an entirely new feeling to see him as a hero.

My father loved to fish. At least he loved to dream about fishing and collect tackle. He rarely actually went fishing. He read books on spin fishing, and purchased or hand built the best equipment with God only knows what money. Somehow though, in his meticulous study, he missed some of the simple fundamentals. When fishing with a spinning reel one opens the bail (control arm) thus freeing the line for a cast. In order to prevent the line from free spooling at this point and creating a tangled mess, one places a finger on the line and traps it against the rod or reel. Dad overlooked this. On a later vacation to Wisconsin’s Door County, we were fishing together and Dad repeatedly made casts that went nowhere and created a bird nest of line. At these times I was employed to help by holding either the rod or the line while he cursed and blamed, constantly stating “ I am going crazy” and sweating profusely. The tangles kept getting worse until they covered the reel, rod, and us. Monofilament was everywhere. Everyone took turns trying to help him, but it was to no avail. My Uncle Jerry, a Benedictine priest, and our driver on this trip even had his patience tried. He went swimming to escape the mayhem. Mom tried to help too, but finally went off alone to paint. The rod ended up getting broken, probably on purpose. I can still feel the tension in the air, and smell the frustration and terror sweat as it fell from Dad's brow.
It’s funny. I loved to fish too, but after these vacations, I never fished from age 15 until I was in my mid-30s. I often wonder if the traumatic imprints had something to do with that.

Dad’s hand built rods may have been works of art, but they hardly ever received use, even given our proximity to Lake Michigan. Dad’s fears and anxieties all but prevented him from ever venturing out on his own. Instead he amassed tackle and sat day dreaming about it until vacation time came along. He collected hundreds of back-copies of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, but hated to leave the house for fear of getting his shoes muddy, getting wet, or getting eaten by mosquitoes. My mom and I thought he should have magazines entitled “Indoor Life” instead. When he did venture outside into nature, he dressed like someone attempting a parody of an English explorer from the 19th century. He would don special boots, safari jackets, and a pith helmet.

So, here’s to you Dad, in a loving but tongue in cheek way. Happy Fathers Day. Wish you were still here with me, disasters and all. I will wear your Irish hats in tribute, but will try not to tangle the line around myself and fall in.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A nice tribute Thank you!


I first became aware of the writing of Erik Helm through Speypages.  

He “penned” what has become one of my all time favorite posts.  My favorite because of the writing style and the content, both of which are entertaining, hilarious, and true.  Superb, as we truck drivers say. It should be required reading for anyone stuck in the quagmire of information about fly fishing and Spey casting/ fishing in particular.  This is not proper “blogging” technique but I copied and pasted the post below because, like I said, its required reading…

I dunno… Perhaps I have been in the two-hand or ‘spey’ casting thing too long or perhaps long enough to know that a line closely approximate to correct should be able to be cast fine by any given rod. This pseudo-science and new thirst for the magic bean through calculations, measurements, Euclidian geometry, etc. Has me puzzled at best. More and more I believe that this little corner of the sport is being over-complicated by people giving advice based on little experience, dogma relating to strong personal preferences, and for a disregard for the joy of just going out there and casting. We used to get by with windcutters just fine, then better lines came along. Good. Then came the pseudo-science of running-lines and matching heads which at first was fine, but has now evolved. or devolved into such a miasma of obfuscation that it is a wonder that people are even not more confused. Long ago I simplified my approach and fishing gear, and it paid off. I spend less or no time fussing and futzing, and just cast and swing. Perhaps there is a lesson here in simplification, time put in on the great rivers, learning by having your a$$ handed to you, and a bit less attention paid to marketing hype and the new ‘magic bean’ rod, line, vortex technique, etc.
Then, somewhere in the mix of learning and time, things simplify themselves, and we may pay less attention to the noise, and more time just enjoying the cast and swing, regardless of the line, rod, matching hip pack, running line para-physics, etc.  – Erik Helm

The only thing he forgot to say, and I’ll say if for him, was BAM!  Because Erik appears on every front to be a gentleman, which isn’t true about everybody on the internet, and he most likely does not say such things.
Eric Helm casting lon belly line popped
Erik Helm casting a true Long belly line.  Photo Courtesy of Erik Helm
I ran across the above photograph of Erik casting a really long line and had to have it for this site.  It could easily be titled “Effortless casting”.   When I see someone casting a very long line with ease I know that they have put in their time and know what they are talking about.  I’d studied his posts on Speypages, surfed around and landed on his blog too, and read a few posts of his on social media, but he keeps a pretty low profile, so you have to hunt around a bit to discover the genius behind the man. I was willing to do a little bit of digging after seeing the photo above.  Yes, he is a FRSCA certified two handed casting instructor.  What does that mean?  In short, to me, it means he can make the above cast left handed too.  He knows what he’s talking about.  So I explored The Classic Angler to find out more.
His writing is excellent.  He gives writers like John Gierach,  and McMannus, a serious run for their money and, speaking entirely from a hunt and peck point of view, his name is easier to spell.  His oeuvre proves intelligent, insightful,  funny, real, and true.  In fact its so true that in this day and age it might occasionally be overlooked because people on the internet sometimes think they need to know stuff that they absolutely do not want to know!  Google search:   Which sink tip should I buy? Answer?  Blah, Blah centric balance 55% to 45% ratio, blah, blah  RHW to FHW ratio of 60% to 40%.  Huh?  You lost me at the first Blah!  So if your suffering from internet paralysis by analysis you will feel much better if you read anything by Erik Helm at The Classic Angler such as….
~Look for water between 2 and 6 feet deep moving at a walking pace, and have confidence in your fly. Put it in the water and fish.” If somebody had told me this 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of trouble and fussing. ~ Erik Helm, Tales from a Fly Shop-Part Two.

~He showed me the fly he had caught the fish on, and I was amazed and appalled all in the same glance. Here was some grievous sin against all those aforementioned great authors and fishermen whose writings and detailed studies of trout-stream entomology and fly-tying had haunted my slumbers these past weeks and months. It seemed to be tied on some old bait or worm hook. For a body it used an old brown rag, and the wing and hackle were twisted out of some giant brown chicken feather. ~

Thank you!