Thursday, July 19, 2018

Innovations and Eclipses Part One

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


The breathable revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are… The Boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give you my experience:

Boot #

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

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

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

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dining with Mr. Fario



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note:

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Stand

The Stand


Short Story Copyright 2018, Erik F. Helm


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


Part One: The Cutters


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Part Two: The Interloper


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Thursday, April 5, 2018

Home Spun


Homemade rod tube and reel case

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

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


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

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

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

Let’s look at a few examples…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 Erik Helm, of Classical Angler



Thursday, March 29, 2018

Medieval Redemption


Part the first: A malaise of history


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 But would they work….


Part the second: The anachronism goes forth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I was healed.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The changing aesthetics of our tools


Found object wanderings and reflections…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I missed the beauty.

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

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

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

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

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

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