Monday, February 12, 2018

Gas Station Flies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Monday, January 29, 2018

The River as my Teacher

In the classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Dear Theo,

Authors note:


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

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



Dear Theo,


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What happened? We should be ashamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A portrait in miniature: Driftless trout streams

We slow down as our footsteps take us into the woods and up the valley where the stream gets smaller and more intimate. Stepping quietly, our senses detect the little music; tinkles of bells, murmurs of woodwinds, swirls of flutes, brush strokes both bold and exact.

It focuses the eyes and concentrates the senses. We are one in harmony with the stream. We are part of it. We stepped into its realm one foot in the element of water, one foot on earth, our minds in the air above and eyes in wonder, searching… heightened senses… spot a wild orchid, a water spider, watch a tiny brook trout explore a riffle in circles unaware you are now a part of its world. We feel welcome, not an intruder. The gallery opens for us…

They are intimate because we enter the portrait. We are part of it for a fleeting moment…

The streams are introspective. Dancing lights of water sparkle like little flashing mirrors and highlights provide the lighting to make the portrait glow. We are reflective now among the tunnels of valleys hidden among hills. We pause to strive to understand… to interpret.

We even seem to breath in miniature in order not to disturb this quiet song.

This art exhibit was not promoted, and the portraits so hidden that the show does not begin until we stop to smell a flower, or turn the artwork on its side to reveal its colors: Brown trout… toasted Amish bread with honey and raspberries with halos of ripe blueberries. Brook trout so colored that they seem out of proportion to size. How can such a bright canvas be hidden here? They are tubes of paint rolling along the cobble-palette at the bottom to be uncovered for a mere moment in time, splashed across our memory in bright strokes like a Van Gogh.

Is it a portrait or a landscape? Only the artist knows, and we may think we know his or her intentions, only to be confronted around the next bend, as the gallery changes anew.

The streams are awash with color and shadow, their features thrusting forth proudly in personalities captured in a mere sitting. A moment in time ageless now as they move from birth to death, from spring to confluence, only to sit again for a new portrait the next time we step into their studio and smell the colors of the foliage and water on the artist’s brushes sweeping gently like trees across the canvas of nature.

They will be there next time we visit, differently intimate and small, but with such art to kiss the senses each moment, around every curve, every cheek, lip, and riffle.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Eclipse of the Wet Fly


Of all the aspects and methods of fly-fishing, none stood so dominant and disappeared so fast as the wet fly and its fishing techniques. Look back to the book ‘Trout’ by Ray Bergman, one of the seminal tomes of the sport, and we find it opening at the very front with 9 pages filled with wet flies. Within 40 years of its publication, the wet fly in all its style, colors, and glory was eclipsed and disappeared like the passenger pigeon as newer nymph and bobber techniques developed allowing easier catching. Wet flies were banished to the lochs of Ireland and Wales from which they were born. Except… for people like me that are so curious that they can’t leave well enough alone!

Wet Flies on Hardy reel with my wet fly box.

For those that think that fishing with a wet fly is no longer a good way to catch trout, or inelegant, au contraire! It worked in the past, and it works just as well today… if it could emerge from the shroud of history. Not that there is much opportunity, for a trip to a fly shop and a query regarding a stock of wets might raise some eyebrows as very few or none are available, and the kid behind the counter may not even know what they are.

This is a shame, since all the thought and skill put into their development deserves another look. What about those gaudy colors one might ask? Well, see.. the developers of such flies as Greenwell’s Glory, Claret and Grouse, Tup’s Indispensable, Butcher, etc. designed them to be fished wet. When wet that yellow silk with a dark hook underneath turns the perfect olive. The claret becomes a wonderful glowing deep brown, and the oranges a fiery sienna. Wet flies can represent anything in the water in a swimming stage. Swung downstream they are a hatching nymph, pulsed and twitched a swimming nymph, and fished upstream an emerger. They are as versatile as they are beautiful. Those names that call from the past such as the Professor or Governor were lovely too. The lighter flies could be dressed with floatant and fished dry. Indeed, this is how the dry fly developed. The wet fly was first. A partridge and green, a wet fly without a wing known as a North Country wet due to it’s origin in Yorkshire makes a deadly caddis emerger in faster water. ‘Soft-Hackles,’ the category of fly that includes unwinged flies often hackled with soft grouse or partridge feathers have seen a resurgence in some circles due to their being championed and written about by Sylvester Nemes, but still seem to be a long shot to be found in an American trout fly-box.

In the past, and still practiced in the British Isles is the technique of assembling the “Cast.” This is an arrangement of a number of flies attached to a leader at different spacing and different arrangement. A point fly and droppers and dapplers: the arrangement of such and sequence leading to many scotch-fueled arguments and squabbles after the fishing was done. However, we don’t have to place 3 flies on a leader to fish a wet….

In fact, the oldest technique to fly-fishing may be the wet-fly swing. Funny, but that was eclipsed too, banished to the world of spey flies and rods. I keep having to explain it to anglers on the stream. No, drag is good! Just cast it across and swing it down below you. Control speed and depth by leading or following the fly with the rod tip. Add mends and experiment with casting angles. How many today could identify the Leisenring Lift? This is the moment the swung fly becomes tight and begins to rise in the water column: a sure sign to the trout that this bug is alive and needs to be eaten! A single wet fly fished on the swing or actively can be deadly! Tied on a larger hook such as a size 8 heavy wet hook, they can represent even a baitfish. One can fish them just as we fish a modern streamer.

It isn’t only the flies and how they were fished that were eclipsed and then relegated to the ash bin, but also the amazing art of tying the wet fly. The blending of dubbings and colors takes up whole books, as does correct feathers for winging and the proper colors of floss. The techniques of hackling a wet and how to reverse and hump a wing, correct proportions, and dubbing blending are an important aspect of the art of fly-tying, yet few people would even know where to start.

The ironic thing is it is easy. Tying the flies is comparatively easy, and fishing them is simple as well.

You don’t need any special equipment either. I like fishing heavy and long old wet-fly rods with sloppy action because I think it is fun, but any rod will work. Add a small sink-tip or sinking poly-leader to your line if you wish.
British tubular steel wet fly rod with a nice brown trout caught swinging a wet fly.

It might open angler’s eyes to a whole ‘new’ way of approaching the rivers and streams, but first we have to overcome the prejudice of unpopularity. G.E.M. Skues and Kingsmill Moore rusting away in some attic…

It makes no sense. The wet fly is still viable… Possibly even more so today when generations of trout have never seen its like on the stream…


Perhaps it is time to get a little wet…

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Well Bought and Well Worn

One of Frosty's old fly boxes with 1920s Monatague rod and Hardy reel.

This year I went on my first deer hunt. I inherited from my Father a beautiful Steyr Mannlicher model ‘M’ bolt action with rich wood stock and fine bluing. He may never have shot it, and it certainly had never seen the field. I put on dad’s old hunting boots and took along a pair of wonderful Swarovski binoculars he used for bird watching for many years. After 3 hours of sitting in the cold on the last evening, the deer season ended without a shot being fired. I got up with numb legs and made my way down the hillside back to the cabin. Halfway there I had to step over a series of logs. Since I had limited feeling in my feet, my right boot caught on the obstruction and I took a header, putting a scratch in the rifle.


Back at the cabin after a dinner of wild game I showed the scratch in the rifle to my compatriots. “Good,” one of them exclaimed… “Now it is used and a real hunting rifle.”

I pondered on that a bit and then began a discussion on equipment and tackle for hunting and fishing. The theme that was developing was one of choosing one or two special pieces of gear, using them well, and caring for them.

Back home, I met with the son of Frosty Stevens, a fly-fisherman back in the day on the northern Wisconsin streams such as the Wolf and the Peshtigo. He and his wife made the 3 hour journey from home to make the gift to me of Frosty’s tackle including framed trout prints, his vest, and his beautiful hand-made wooden trout net among other things. It was a very special moment. They wanted the memories to continue with someone who could truly appreciate it. I was and am grateful and humbled. In the course of discussions, we discovered that his old fishing partner was Carl Blomberg. Carl’s son was Ron Blomberg, who married my mother’s cousin. We said at the same time ‘Six degrees of separation.” A connection had been made.
Frosty's wooden net. Hand made by Harry Baumann

As I examined the gear, I noticed one thing right away. The gear was well worn and cared for. The flies were used and little bits of tippet were still tied to several. They were arranged meticulously in old metal boxes, and most were hand-tied locally. The rods had dirty grips and sets to them. The leader wallets were worn at the edges. Frosty owned tackle that was among the best one could buy back in the day. It told a story of a man who was passionate about his sport, and the small collection of tackle was well maintained and well used. He chose his gear carefully, and from examining the knots and whatnot, I realized that here was a man who knew what he was doing, and did it very well indeed.

This is why I love old fly-fishing gear. It has a legacy. It seeps of history and encounters on the river and stream, and its owner’s personality and soul are part of it now.

Later that day I was looking at used tackle sites online, and I noticed something. So much gear had been purchased and was now for sale that was very lightly used and practically new. That led to some reflection on a bygone era in America and the modern world.

My grandmother owned a Singer sewing machine. A treadle model of all metal, it was used for years and years converting the older boys pants into skirts for the girls, sewing dresses, and endlessly patching and fixing things. For all I know, it most likely is still being used. It was probably an expensive model, and for a family raising ten children on one income in rural central Wisconsin, it was an investment. They had bought the best they could afford, used it well, and cherished it. They oiled it, tightened the belt, and polished it. It gave back in functionality by clothing the whole family during the Great Depression. Parallel this to fly-fishing gear and look at Frosty’s equipment and we see the same themes. Well chosen equipment, cared for and used. The purpose of the tool was more important than the quantity owned. Collectors would be laughed at.

If the limitation of owning a few pieces of fine tackle instead of 20 rods ever occurred to people like Frosty, it would be a foreign concept. One used what one had. Skill in the outdoors and reading and learning made up for limitations. If one had a hard time casting, he or she didn’t just sell the rod and buy a new one hoping that skill could be purchased, instead they went fishing and learned to use the gear they had.

Trout I caught this fall on Frosty Steven's old H&I Tonka Prince, his CFO reel and his line.
Contrast that with today. In our consumer-driven world things are commodities; their souls stripped by mass production, they no longer mean the same thing to us. They no longer carry the years and the memories in their dents and scratches, their worn pawls and gears. People buy and sell things in a never ending quest for the magic bean, buying into the concept that new equals better. Can’t shoot straight? Better buy a newer gun! On and on it goes.

Maybe it is time to take a trip back in the philosophy of commodity. There seems to be an emerging movement of downsizing and the craft movement is giving us special hand-made things that are beautiful and have character like Frosty’s wooden net. They used to call any of us that showed up on the stream with battered and well-worn gear “Old Timers.” I think that should rather refer to the philosophy of use rather than our physical age. “Buy the best you can afford, and choose it well. Educate yourself on and in the sport. Take care of and cherish the gear, and hand it down to the next generation with scratches and memories.”

My dad’s hunting boots which he never used are now muddy and need to be cleaned. I think I will leave the mud on, but polish them a bit and treat them with wax. A day one comes home without muddy boots is a day wasted.

We all have to pass through some day. I would like to go in style, with my boots worn, my vest patched, my reel scarred, and the cork on my rods well worn with memories of a life well lived.


Monday, November 13, 2017

The Wisdom of Grasshopper Bridge


Sometimes not catching fish can spur observations that lead us deeper into understanding the world of trout and nature itself. That was the case one late summer day full of allergies, sneezing, and sunshine when a friend and I stopped at a tiny spring creek where a bridge runs over it.


When we got out of the car on that hot day, we immediately noticed that we were scattering grasshoppers. They were everywhere. An inch long and green, they bounced off our legs as we walked to the bridge to observe the water. Sure enough, trout were rising below the bridge, presumably feasting on the hoppers.


I quickly geared up and went downstream to work my way up to the bridge. I tied on a hopper and placed a cast among the fish. It went ignored. Puzzled, I began to vary the presentation: splatting the fly, dead drifting it, twitching it… all to no avail. My friend, watching from the bridge above, quickly caught a grasshopper in his cupped hands, and dropped it over the side of the bridge. GULP! A trout came shooting off the bottom as the natural insect hit the water and ate it with enthusiasm. I cast again. No dice. I changed flies. No luck. My friend dropped another hopper into the water. SMACK! A foot long brown feasted on the dainty morsel. I couldn’t get a grab. What was going on?


Then a car came slowly over the road and a local farmer drove over the bridge. The hoppers sunning themselves on the road scattered in a chaotic panic, many of them flying into the car, careening off the abutment, and falling in the water. The feeding frenzy that followed was a sight to see. I threw my hopper into the melee, but it got ignored again. This was a puzzle that needed some thought! I climbed back out of the water and joined my friend on his perch on the bridge. There we dropped more hoppers in the water, which were eaten like Oliver Twist going at his gruel. Interesting….


We went over to the other side of the bridge. The water was quiet on the upstream side. I cast a hopper into the pool and immediately hooked a nice brown trout. The puzzle was beginning to come together. The hoppers that fell off the bridge on either side were washed to the downstream side where they were quickly examined and eaten. The fish living on that side were so use to hoppers that they had become highly discriminating; counting the legs and measuring the size while examining the color of the bugs in a millisecond before eating them. The fish on the upstream side were not so discriminating, and could be fooled with an artificial fly. We experimented with our little hypothesis a few more times, and sure enough, the upstream fish were game, while the downstream fish were college-educated.


Getting back into the car and driving to a different section of river, we discussed and debated what we had learned. Perhaps it was not just the trout and the hoppers that provided us with lessons, maybe it was taking the time to observe and think on the stream while getting skunked that was the lesson in itself.


These years later, reflecting on the lessons of Grasshopper Bridge, I don’t remember the fish that well, instead, I remember the joy of learning. Those memories spur me these days to take more time out to observe and enjoy everything about this sport of fly-fishing. A sport that occurs among the wonders of nature, which if we make the effort to appreciate them, can often be much bigger than the fish.