Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Cane Meditations

Cane Meditations

A song of the soul of the bamboo rod, the maker, and aesthetics… or perhaps, I drank too much Scotch again and let my mind wander far.

Author’s note: Thanks to Bamboo Fly Rod maker Joe Balestrieri for inspiring this piece. It is intended as an experience, not an essay. Nor is this a history of the Bamboo Fly-Rod. I will let that to other experts that are more knowledgeable. This is a piece like a strange brew. Something cooked up on the stove and never edited. I showed it several colleagues and suggested it needed a lot of editing and was surprised by the unanimous reply of “Leave it alone!”  So here it is, all stirred together and served over ice.

It began with a visit by myself and a prospective client to bamboo fly rod builder and eclectic artist Joe Balestrieri. It was a night filled with art, scotch, bamboo, fly-fishing lore, history, and classical music.

After we examined, wiggled, and discussed multiple rods the rare single-malt Scotch flowed and the conversation became oiled on the tongue much like the rich caramel finish on Joe’s rods. Balestrieri kept popping up to extract little notebooks from a large trunk that served as a cocktail table, and reading his thoughts about tapers and miscellaneous notes, quotes, and musings from the many years he has been crafting fine cane rods. There seemed to be no end of these little notebooks, each leading the conversations on little diversions as topics intermingled, and trains of thought were lost and re-discovered.

Somewhere in there, after a few glasses of single-malt, what Joe was trying to say started to emerge from the Scotch fumes. His thoughts and stories were bordering on the philosophical and metaphysical entangled with casting physics, art and aesthetics, Zen and poetry; all inextricably wound around the bamboo fly rod. It was one of those moments when one wishes he had a tape recorder, because those thoughts could never emerge the same way again. It was not unlike being present when a composer gets an idea, and scrambling to the piano, belts out some piece of genius, but never writes it down. Silences and pauses in his thought-conversation-musings were tense with anticipation and reflection of the meaning of his words, opinions and lore.

When I got home, I began to take notes of the evening, and in those notes some themes emerged, with each analogy or metaphor leading back to bamboo as a material, tapers, artistry, casting grace, personalities both of artists and art, and a natural comparison of a fine bamboo rod to a great musical instrument both in the sound, construction, and aesthetics. I began to see the rich glow in the lightly flamed cane and the color of the scotch as intricately related and fell asleep on the couch.

Then, in the next several months I took notes and began collecting ideas, some while fishing, some while walking, and others while reading the volumes of books piled everywhere in my home. Finally, those notes littered the cocktail table, flowed through the better part of ten pages in my writing notebook of ideas, and were found behind the couch while cleaning. I found ideas written on the back of shopping lists, on a receipt for gas, and finally put them all in one place and tried to make sense out of them. I wanted to write an essay, but this collection of inspirations, meditations, ideas, and outright nonsensical notations was too tangled up to be able to sort out properly. I decided to just write a piece like jazz would be written: with themes interlocking and exploring without any hindrance. Hope you enjoy it.

The sun peeked through the clouds late in the afternoon in May along the hills of Wisconsin and caught me sitting on the banks of a spring creek taking a wee rest and doing what comes naturally to me: thinking and reflecting. I was looking at a 6’ 3” modified Young midge taper built by Joe Balestrieri. I was captivated by how the sun, as it increased in brightness, revealed the endless glowing layers in the wood burl reel seat. I began to feel the warmth of the sun as a glow in the warmth of the bamboo…the depth, the richness of colors and their variations. Silk wrappings that were almost translucent. The soul of the rod showing through, whispering, “Cast me…”

Why was I sitting there staring at this rod when I should be catching fish? Because the rod and equipment are to me and to many of us an intricate and important part of how we approach the stream. For me, angling with a fly-rod has always been related to art. The beautiful loops of flyline, the graceful bits of fur and feathers, the beauty of nature as art itself… for man’s attempts at art will always be flawed compared to natures, the water itself always flowing and never asleep, always being born and dying at the same time in perpetual movement from rushing noise to the stillness of silence. When I sit and reflect on the little 10” wild brown trout that took a nicely presented cast on an olive fly hand tied by me in darker evenings encumbered by snow, I want the rod that presented the fly to be a part of the whole, and if we might see the whole process of fly-fishing as some kind of personal musical experience, then the leading violin – the rod – should be beautiful in itself. Oh, and the rod should be made out of nature herself as well: natural materials rich in character and potential… at lest on this small trout stream, where they best exemplify and personify grace.

And whether you fish with a cane rod from time to time, are an avid aficionado, a collector, or just fly-fish and saw a bamboo rod once, I doubt anybody could argue that this combination of fine wood, rich cane, nickel-silver and silk, hand-designed, hand made and loved is a beautiful tool, an aesthetic instrument worthy of a meditation streamside worthy of Marcus Aurelius.

Graphite rods may be beautiful too and great casting tools, but they lack the love and creation of an artist. They are like prints instead of paintings. There is something about the handcrafted object or tool like a fine shotgun or string instrument; it is unique. It has soul.

I never carefully polish and rub my graphite rods with a special cloth. They are like beer; a commodity. Sometimes I like to just sip a single-malt scotch. Not all the time though, or these little reflections might move from the mystic to the existential…

My Bamboo fly-rod was born on a hill in China with a unique type of grass that grows tall and straight commonly called Tonkin Cane. The legend is that as the cane grows taller the wind catches it and tunes it, strengthens it, gives it its unique character. Back and forth, the wind blows tuning the cane until it reflects it in sound, resilience, and motion. Tuned, like a piano or violin.

After harvesting and aging, it is selected by the craftsman or artist and split into strips. Many makers of bamboo rods believe almost mystically that the only way to build the finest rod is to use only a single culm or one plant to create the finished rod of six strips.

One culm: A family of 6 sides from the same plant… living together, used to each other, they grew up together, they know each other’s moves, nuances, and strengths. Each strip selected by the master’s hand bolstering the other’s weaknesses and augmenting the other’s strengths.
One culm, from the top of the hill where the wind blew them…. A harmony of six pieces. A Sextet of tuned wood, strings or fibers tight in harmony.

The pieces mean nothing individually, the rod comes together from the symbiosis of the six pieces guided by the craftsman…. Or the…


The maker is involved with his or her art in personality, in intent, in mood: an abstract coming together. The sculpture emerges from the clay and is dictated by the medium as much as the intent of the artist. The cane directs and influences the outcome of the rod as much as the artist maker’s intent. As much media as the maker’s art and intent, personality and moods, all come together in an entanglement, an elegant symbiosis of the physical and the artistic. My mother once remarked when I asked her what she was painting: an abstract, “I don’t know yet, I am waiting for it to come out.” What came out was unique, and beautiful.

 Combine that intent on the part of the maker with chance and the gift of the media itself and the artist’s ability to sense the cane’s personality and adapt to it, then add a special something… a touch if you will, something unexplainable that true artist’s have that allows them to create a true work of art. The Stradivarius effect. The gift of the artist. Garrison had it. All great artists and craftsmen do. Without that touch, without the ability to sense what the media or material wants to do, and work with it, not against it, and bring out the inherent properties as well as intent of the artist, the rod becomes just one painting among all the others: a collection of colors laid on the canvas a thousand, a million different ways…. Yet one is precious. One captivates the eye. One casts like an extension of your intent, kissing the fly where you only have to imagine it going.

You know one of these rods when you touch it. You can tell. It has soul. It has a personality all its own. All the others are just fly-rods.


Or just properties? ‘Properties’ sounds so un-romantic, so mathematical, so clinical. No! Personality it is! Let’s go forward with an anthropomorphism or two.

Each rod has a unique personality of its own. Regardless of the taper, it is an individual. It is one aesthetically. Each thousands of an inch carefully and lovingly shaved off in curls never the same twice. The personality of the craftsman is in the rod. His beliefs and theories… a portrait of the maker you may envision while you are fishing it. Subtle differences we grow to recognize, look for and appreciate. Character. Pick up a rod and cast it. Each time it is like a first date, or a first date remembered with faint recollection. The first cast is tentative… getting the feel, the second with more knowledge, the third with epiphanies and understandings. The rod has quirks like a personality too. You learn how it will react, what it likes, what it dislikes, what sets it off, how hard and in what direction you can push it. Pick up a second rod and give it a wiggle and a cast. This one is a brunette. A feisty Italian. It wants something different. More acceleration? Is she a sports car? Is it a da Vinci? A Caravaggio? Does it need and crave power like a Medici? Pick up a third rod and give it a play. This one is very different too. At first you fight it, trying to play a jig instead of smoothly stroking its strings. This one wants to play Mendelssohn. Feel it? Pianissimo. Close your eyes and get in harmony. Smooth, not staccato. What was going through the head of the maker while he shaved the strips, gently flamed the cane and polished it out? What music was playing in the background? Was it Verdi or Mozart? I cast my rods sometimes in the local park: Tuning up, playing notes on a violin, getting to know their personality and quirks so that when I am fishing I can make music with the trout.

Personality – character, originality. I like rods like this. They make the game more fun, the casting a fine art and not mere repetition. Some may say that all the great tapers in fly-rods have already been created. That is like saying that all the notes in jazz have already been written. Yes, they have, but not arranged, composed and played. There is where the artist and the caster come into play. Listen to Miles Davis. He is unique. Jazz improvisation drives the art. Tapers are the same way. Lengthening one taper or modifying the action here and there and we may get a rod that fails or one which is truly unique and may never be created again. Creativity and experimentation drive innovation. Without it, the notes would all be the same. Balestrieri has a rod that he still can’t recreate. It was an experiment, and is possibly the finest casting rod he has ever made. Born of Jazz Fusion, of improv, of moving off the path to uncomfortable new territory; the Mona Lisa rod, for that subtle smile will never be quite copied no matter how we try.

I have a friend who plays the trumpet professionally. We used to sit for hours listening to the characters inherent in the different horns from powerful and sharp, to soft and mellow. One for Jazz, one for Bach, one for Salsa, and everywhere in between. This adds some interesting twists to my fishing. If I have several tools in my rod bag and each does something differently, I can approach the water in a different way depending on my mood, the fishing conditions, the character of the stream, the bugs hatching or not hatching, and get a different piece of music or experience each time.

Without originality, art is dead and exists as a mutant called production.

Like my CD collection, I like my fishing eclectic. I may feel like listening to Steeleye Span or possibly Bach or John Coltrane. Sometimes it might be time for a little bourbon and turning the lights down low with Thelonious Monk. Without variety, life would be boring. Each rod has to played with in a different setting in order to satisfy curiosity.

Oh, and the rods are beautiful too. Did I say they were beautiful yet?

I look at fly rods on the shelf at the local flyshop. They all look more or less the same. Why do all the rods rated from 1-6 wt have the same half-wells grip? Why do all the 7-10 weight rods have a full-wells. What happened to the Ritz grip… the cigar, the swelled cigar? Why do my cane rods each have a different grip? Because the maker put thought into it. This rod sings at 30 feet with a DT 4 wt. Lets shave the grip down a bit at the end of the palm and provide a surface at the front for the thumb to push on. Thought and intent contribute to the originality in a bamboo rod. One has invisible silk wraps, the other deep red ones. One a maple burl seat, and the other a fine French walnut taken from a gunstock from the 1800s. Character as diverse as wine, once we educate our palette, the world opens before us. A fine cane rod is not just a tool, it becomes a work of art embodied with the love of the maker and a piece of his or her life in the time to hand make each piece. Garrison melded raw material, not just assembled. Wood spacer, color of cane, wraps of silk, contrasting colors, cork grip, not out of a box. Deeply flamed or roasted, baked and sanded. Light and dark or variations. Where are the nodes spaced. Why? Look at the signature on the rod. That is unique too. The last thing the artist does is put his name on it. He may have made hundreds of rods before he felt that the product was up to his standards and signature, the rest of them given away or turned to scrap. Block printing or cursive? Pen or brush?

Art is original, not a print. Prints might sometimes be worth more, depending on the artist, but an original is one-off. Balestrieri believes that each rod is unique, and the maker is too. The finest cane rods ever built have been made by some local artist working in his basement at midnight listening to Bjorling sing Italian arias, or in his garage eating twinkies wearing his old pajamas. A Young rod is not a Garrison or a Leonard or a Dickerson or a Payne. Each of those artists and dozens more were leaders not followers on taper design. Each had a different method that today people argue about on internet chat rooms and often forget that each of these artists was making it up as they went along for the most part. Painting by numbers would be dull at best.

Each of these makers also fished. They each fished differently and fished different waters. They had different theories about casting that show as traits in their tapers and rods. I like that. I want to get to know a bit about who made my rod and why they made it. Was it planned or an experimental accident? I listened to the stories that night at Balestrieri’s home. How does he fish? How does he cast? I looked around his home. Modern art. Abstract. Aesthete. Classical music and Jazz. A touch of the oriental. Woods of different hues. Angles. Clean, uncluttered. Eclectic furniture. Fishes the trout streams of the East. New York.

I look around me as I write this at home. Antique carpets and furniture. A statue of David, clutter everywhere. Dust. Art on the walls from floor to ceiling. More clutter. Books strewn everywhere. Neglected plants. Jazz. I fish differently too. Different waters in different ways. The roll-cast king. The clown who falls in the water. Man who stares at rods.
This human element adds so much more in the rod and the fishing.

Then there is the fishing….

For many of those that fish with bamboo, the rod is like a fine wine that makes everything taste a tiny bit richer and more alive; the fish become bigger and more treasured, turning the mundane into the exquisite. The trees more vibrant and the water more wet. A smaller slice of life seems to make us more content. We slow down in their rhythm. We appreciate things more. We feel. We feel our pulse quivering into the rod, waiting for the bend, the cast, the release of tension.

Bamboo fly rods are meant to be fished after all, not just looked at. That may be the defining break between mere craft and art, the art is achieved with the bend of the rod when the intent of the maker comes together with the rhythms of the caster and the river. The beauty of a fine instrument is in its being played. Beauty meets practice and utility. As the music on the water progresses, we can feel the movements of a symphony from the first notes of the grass bending in the wind, establishing the tune, to the development under the plane where the long curls make the harmonies, and the ferrules are fitted, to the finishing processes and finally the conclusion where it all comes together on the river with a delicate and elegant loop of line and the touch of a fly on the water.

When playing a fine instrument or casting a great bamboo fly rod one can struggle from time to time. This comes from not being in tune with it, of fighting it. When we are in tune it should feel like an harmonic chord. You have to feel the touch on the strings or rod and press it just right to make it sing. You feel the resonance when you hit it right and the visual grace of a beautiful loop is the reward. Each rod has its own resonance. You have to know how to play it. Smooth casting. Feel. The rod does the work. Feel its soul or personality, from parabolic to progressive. Each caster’s stroke is different and the rod needs to respond to the angler’s touch and intent. The rod is alive and lives in the hand of someone in symbiosis with it.

Fishing with bamboo can be like an experiment in a jazz riff too. Each rod will perform differently given the situation on the river: roll cast, long cast, tiny cast, reach mend, etc. Jazz is always different each time it is experienced. It is a constant change in progress within a framework. Pop music is like mass-production rods. The message is obvious, not intricate as in bamboo. “Oh Baby Baby, Wanga wanga boom boom”… we get the message. How can anybody not get it? It is delivered almost as an insult to intelligence like marketing.

Bamboo has an intricacy that makes us slow down and listen: to be aware… to cast and think. Fly-fishing is a thinking game. Sometimes we are not in tune with the rod and we have to change ourselves. In that ability, that will and effective change in approach and getting in tune with the river, the rod, the fish, and the moment we become more mindful. It makes us better anglers. Pop breeds thoughtlessness, which can be good too, but cane seems to breed reflection.

In that reflection, both of our thoughts and approaches, and the reflections of the water itself lies our souls as anglers. If we take the cane rod in hand, pause on the side of the river for a moment and squint our eyes, we might get a glimpse of it once in a great while. If you do, listen closely and you might hear the birth of the whole process. It will just be a whisper of potential in the wind as the branches and grasses bend in harmony. That moment and a wild trout might make the finest wine in the world. Sip it while you listen to Parker or Monk. The conversation is not complete. The tapers never the same twice. The loops of line wizened and aged in the past and reaching out to touch the future...
Thank cane for that!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A fly and an artist's conception, a tribute

I tied this fly many years ago, and it has gone though some revisions, but the concept stayed the same. This is the Orange Racer, an original pattern for steelhead and salmon that I fish from time to time. I love the curves in this fly, like a sleek fish or... I don't know. It just speaks of speed like the Rush song 'Red Barchetta'. It was featured on a tying episode of Outdoor Wisconsin in 2003. Here is the recent tribute by the artist Jeff Kennedy.
Here is the fly and its artistic interpretation by Jeff.
I am humbled and very honored to have this artist paint one of my flies! Enjoy!
Jeff's artwork adorns T-shirts, wine bottles, magazines, etc. He is one very talented artist of fly-fishing and more!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Still Life with Fly Rod

I am fortunate to have recently acquired a new hand-made cane rod by the master Joe Balestrieri. It is a modified Paul Young Princess taper, a 7' for a 4 wt with a wet fly tip and a dry fly tip. It has a lovely parabolic action that casts beautifully! I thought a little photo montage was in order with a few of my thoughts on the subject. Enjoy! Joe's rods can be found here: Redwing Fly Rods
Quotations Copyright 2015 Erik Helm 

A bamboo fly rod is unique, like a fine musical instrument. One must smell it, touch it, listen to it, and get to understand what it is in its essence. Only then when one casts in graceful symbiosis with the rod, will one make the most exquisite music.

Cane rods are like a fine wine. They are not intended to be consumed in quantity, but sipped and savored. The line rolls off the tip with the same personality as a wine rolls off the tongue and thus stimulates the taste buds. The shape of the line going out can be compared to the aftertaste of a wine, each having hidden aesthetics.

Plastic rods of the same model all look the same and cast the same. Imagine how boring the world would be if women were the same way.

There is something about a rod made from natural materials of bamboo, walnut, silk, and natural oils. The rod seems to have more depth, as one can look at it and almost see through to its soul. It has a richness and luster lacking in any materials made by man.

Art is not to be found in commodity. It is found in the personality of the maker which is infused into the finished product, of which he or she is proud, and almost doesn't want to let go of. Art comes in small and quiet places. It cannot exist where there is noise.

There is no other joy in angling as satisfying as when we catch a trout on a fly we tied, with a hand made rod, in a place where we had to find by ourselves, with our eyes and feet and mind.

If angling is the contemplative sport, as Mr. Walton would have us understand, that contemplation should not be on the final destination, but upon the path that led us there. Let that path not be the easy one nor the commonplace, but one of inner discovery and learning, for that much the better when the fish is finally brought to hand.

Scotch and bamboo rods should be well aged, and enjoyed together.

Let the fly that graces the end of your line not be an insult to the fish.

Each bamboo rod has a unique resonance, like a cello. It can be felt in the cast as the cello sings to Bach.

Don't fight a bamboo rod. After all, the bamboo is a grass, and all grass is impervious to wind. As the wind sings, the bamboo bends. reflect on a gentle breeze on a warm summer evening offering a coolness with a slowly rising and falling breath, and the rod will be yours to command.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Forgotton Valley

The Forgotten Valley

Author’s note:
There are moments that often stand out for sensory overload, where feelings, smells, and sights of an uncommon kind come together to form an impression so real and compelling that we never forget them. The less commonplace the experience, the richer the memories, even if sometimes the fascination stems from a sense of horror.
The name of the town in this story has been changed, and the cause of its decay and feral collapsed architecture and inhabitants is mere conjecture and fantasy, as are a few of the descriptions perhaps artistic embellishment, but the place exists as described still, and the images and perceptions are real. We found it on a fishing trip.
Erik Helm, 2015

I can’t remember exactly what led us to abandon the great trout streams of Wisconsin’s Driftless area to pursue a rumor, but I expect that the chance to encounter large Smallmouth Bass in their pre-spawn run up small streams could have been enough. Whatever the impetus, now long forgotten, Joe had the truck pointed south through the rolling valleys and was waxing on as only he can do, of the promise of trying to recreate an encounter he had shared with a friend ten or so years before.
Each spring Smallmouth would swim up the Wisconsin River to the Grant River, and on up into a small tributary called the Rattlesnake to procreate. He and the friend had had an incredible day catching huge fish on light fly rods, and we were now rattling toward Grant County in the extreme southwest of Wisconsin trying to defy the laws of probability and catch the lightning strike a second time. This time I was along, and as Joe says… I am “Strange Luck,” because something out of the ordinary always happens when we fish together.

As we drove on the county highways through rural Wisconsin the landscape began to change. The lush valleys and hills full with vibrant greens and yellows and bursting with a sense of spring Botticelli would have captured in a painting began to fade slowly to a more somber mix of browns and tans, with wheat fields predominant. Towns seemed smaller and farther apart the closer we came to our area of destination, and the traffic of mixed pickup trucks and scattered Amish Horse Carts fell off to nothing as the bare hills rose and fell around us, and the landscape became more monochrome and sparse. Both Joe and I have fished the areas of eastern Washington and Oregon where one might think he had been transplanted onto the moon, so alien is the landscape and so desolate, and we both commented on the similarity as we rose to the top of a series of rolling hills and began a decent.

On the hillside in the distance was an odd sight for this bucolic area of Wisconsin. It seemed to be a mass of abandoned and rusted-out cars, some by their shape to date back to the 1940s and 50s. What was odd was the complete lack of newer cars in the pile of a hundred or so littering the hillside. Also puzzling was the fact that there was no road surrounding the hill, and we speculated that maybe the road had been left to return to dust as the cars had sometime in the past… but why on a hillside, and not down in a valley where most communities too poor to dispose of hunks of old metal would conceal them? Why put them on a highly visible hill?

We began a decent into the valley to the south of the abandon cars. As we drove toward the bottom through wildly winding roads the valley became narrower and darker, and the vegetation that poked out of the hillsides abutting the county trunk road was nearly leafless and grew at odd twisted angles like it had gone mad seeking the sunlight. A small creek ran along one side of the road in a ditch. We figured it as a tributary of the river we were looking to fly-fish, and grew anxious with anticipation like two kids.

An instant later, the scrub-brush and hillsides opened up without warning or expectation and we found ourselves in a small town. In both of our memories the initial shock and wonder as we traveled the two blocks of the main street occurs in a slow-motion kind of flashback. At least that is how we describe it today.

I was looking past Joe to the left when a scene out of the poorest of the poor coal towns of West Virginia popped into view. A car was beside the road, kind of slewed in a front yard at an angle and buried up to the windows in dried mud. What color it may have been I have no recollection, but it was mostly rust colored now. The windows were missing, and feral plants were growing at random out of the inside. The whole vehicle gave the impression of being there awhile, buried alive except for the crown of plants now growing out of its upholstery and the mud filling it.

Standing on top of the roof of the car was a tall emaciated man in filthy jeans and a dirty and torn white tank-top. He had greasy looking waist long light hair in a braid or ponytail. What he was doing on top of the car with a long metal pipe in his hand we will never know. He never looked at us as the truck rolled slowly past. Then we spotted the dog, which also ignored us. It was a mangy and shivery mongrel chained to the derelict car. It looked to be half Coyote and half terrier. Where it stood and twitched, the ground was bare of grass, as if in its eternal confined pacing, the cur had worn what might have passed for a sort of front lawn into a dirt farm. The house itself was a dilapidated clapboard single story of failing paint and warped paneling. It too was buried several feet in dried mud, and old plastic milk cartons replaced a rotted and fallen front porch as a stoop to the elevated doorway. The only thing new looking was an American Flag on a pole off the left front of the house and fluttering in front of the broken windows that had old stained cloth stuffed into the cracks and holes.

Next to this initial sight and again on the left side of the road as we slowly rolled on with mouths agape, leaned what must have been the city hall. Built out of stone and mainly intact, with an inscription with a date of 18?? above the door, it looked to be no longer in use. The leaning seemed to be caused by the cliff and hill rising directly behind the structure. It had encroached on the rear of the building and caused it to lean forward into the street.
On the mantle above the door below the date was a single word, ‘Dodtown.’

“I don’t remember this, said Joe. I don’t remember any of this being here. I would have remembered this!” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “Maybe you took a different road last time?” I half asked and stated. “Must have” he smiled with eyebrows raised. “This is a mess! What the hell is a town like this doing here in this valley where it must flood every year? Who built this here… and Why?”

Those were the questions in mind as the old Ford Ranger rolled on and we both looked to the right side of the main street. Here was a new squalor to be seen. A decayed sort of tavern and general store stood there with about half of its white paint missing. Parts of it sagged here and there, but the sign above the door still was half lit displaying a ‘Hamms’ beer logo speckled with dirt and dead bugs. Three Harley bike gang guys in leather gear looked at us as we passed. They were seated outside the building on an old bench drinking beer out of a can.

We came to the end of the road and turned left to climb back up a steep valley road. Most of the houses here had visible flood damage and mud, rock and brush was piled about. Each house had a little culvert and bridge leading to their yard off the road so that water could flow down to the bottom of the valley. These houses looked a bit better kept. Old tires had been painted and used as planters and attempts at gardening, including some blooming flowers among the feral weeds grew out of them. Several more vehicles were buried here and there at the side of the road. As we climbed out of the valley, one or two houses looked very well kept, with new shutters, and fully green and mowed lawns. Lights showed behind windows without any panes missing. Children’s toys were scattered in the yards.

We reached the top of the valley and the full force of the sunlight made us squint. We stopped the truck at a crossroads and wondered aloud again, what we had just encountered. Whatever Dodtown was, it certainly had a shadow hanging over it. No sunlight seemed to penetrate to the center, and we discussed our impressions that as the elevation descended, so did the decay and squalor.

We turned to the right this time and followed rural county trunks looking for the road leading to the Rattlesnake, and after awhile, located one that Joe thought he remembered well, with some prominent markings in the form of a high limestone cliff and an old white building with an antique tractor in the yard. We followed this road for awhile, traveling slowly with the windows open looking out over the wooded valley sloping down either side of the road for a sign of the river as we descended. As the road neared the valley floor, the walls of the cliffs and hills crept nearer again and it became darker. In front of us were rows of yards on both sides of the road. Chain link fences were strewn and piled on each other and covered here and there with piles of rock and mud debris. The houses here were either pre-fabricated or single-story clapboard and all were small. The yards were overgrown with wild brush and strewn with abandoned appliances, bathtubs, rotting cars, destroyed furniture and dust. Several people were shambling or leaning in the yards, and they stared with vacant eyes as we passed. The road opened up, and to our amazement, we rolled into Dodtown from the opposite direction, stopping at the only intersection in town. We both turned our heads and looked at each other with an expression of mock horror. “This is getting downright creepy,” I said out loud.

This time while driving through the town, the taciturn and vague figures we saw stared at us. Perhaps they were used to strangers driving through town on their way somewhere else, but they could spot a foreign car or truck as it went through a second time, perhaps up to no good or ‘spying’ as we speculated further. We pulled out of the valley once again, and turned in the opposite direction, finally locating a sign pointing us down Rattlesnake Road. “This has got to be it,” Joe exclaimed with assurance, turning down yet another winding path and descending slowly downhill.

Well, of course the reader already knows what happened next. After five minutes of wooded hollow we emerged at the bottom, right smack in the middle of Dodtown again.

This time Joe stopped the truck and got out. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked with a smile half hiding real concern. He answered, “I want to see what is in there,” as he pointed to the old store with the Hamms sign.

I slowly got out of the truck, wondering as I did so, if this was going to be something I told my children about twenty years in the future as the “Time when…” What? I could only speculate as we walked to the front of the building now empty of bikers.

I stopped at the door of the place, my feet crunching peeled paint chips against the rotting wood of the stoop. There was a screen door, but it had only the remnants of a screen at the edges where they were rusting away. There was no doorknob or lever, but an old piece of electrical wire thick in gauge was twisted through the hole the knob must have occupied in better times long past.
I slowly opened the door inward and we stood in the doorway blinking, for however the lack of light at the valley floor, the interior of this place was darker still.

Old faded curtains of questionable color over dusty windows and one naked bulb provided the light for the single room. Against the wall on the right was a bar of sorts and a number of mismatched wooden chairs faced it. Behind the bar were arrayed an amazingly eclectic spread of goods attached to pegboard or lying on shelving: rubber boots, hip waders, shovels, kitchen cleaner, bib jeans, hand tools, saw blades, knives of every variety, cans of oil, etc, competed for space on the crowded back wall. A mounted fish above the counter could either be a trout or a carp; it was so covered in tobacco smoke, one couldn’t tell. A fat middle-aged woman sat on a tall crate behind the counter, her mouth full of something she was slowly chewing. She had on overly tight sweat pants and a massive T-shirt that doubled as a sort of dress or cover-all. She had no shoes on. Joe and I slowly made our way to the bar or counter and sat down a few spaces away from a guy in dusty and smelly overalls with long stringy hair and a stained NAPA parts ball cap. He was drinking a bottle of grape soda. I asked what the place had to drink, and the woman answered “Beer or soder, Whatchoo wan?” “Two cans of beer.” Joe said, looking at me when emphasizing the word ‘Cans’.

She bent over an old ice cooler set against the back wall, pulled out two cans of Old Milwaukee, and set them unopened on the counter. “One dolla.” she spit out. As we paid, I noticed the guy at the counter looking at us. “Soups O.K.” he said, “if your hungray…” “Its otta can too,” he added pointing to his own bowl of vegetable soup. “All there is anyway…” “Them’s above wont look nohow neither.” He added cryptically with a glance. “Let’s go outside and drink these I said to Joe, as he nodded.”

As we turned to go to sit on the bench out front, we saw an elderly woman mumbling to herself at the only table. She was smoking a pack of unfiltered Pall-Malls through her remaining several crooked teeth, and seemed to be playing cards. The odd thing was that there were only two cards. She kept dealing them to herself, turning them over, and cussing to herself repeatedly. She looked up for a heart beat and her eyes were red and surrounded by gray shadows. The other two had similar eyes I noted as we opened the door and took a deep breath of air.

“Cheers!” I said to Joe, as we first wiped off the tops of the beer and opened them. That’s when I noticed that my hands were really dirty; almost gray-black with a powder residue. I poured some beer into them and tried to wipe them on my pants, but it only half helped. Joe’s hands were similarly dirty, but neither of us could get them clean by wiping them. It was if they had been covered in oily graphite. “This place is filthy!” I said out loud, and poured my remaining beer on the ground with Joe following suit. “Even those bikers just drank their beers outside and got out of town.” We got into the truck, and after consulting a map, which we should have done an hour ago, located the correct route out of Dodtown and into the next valley over which held our smallmouth bass river.

We turned onto the original road we drove in on and turned up the only side road we had not yet driven on. It began to climb out of the valley.
The last impression I had of Dodtown was perhaps the worst. As Joe downshifted and we drove past a series of run-down and dilapidated hovels, I spotted a yard with long poles and ropes strung up. Hung on these ropes were the carcasses of numerous coyotes and deer with their throats cut, bleeding out. A thickset and meaty man with wild black hair peered at us as we past. His eyes were surrounded with gray like a cadaver, and they burned bloodshot and red as he held swaying in his hand a bloody hatchet.

When we found the river at last, the first thing we did before even gearing up, was to attempt to wash our hands. It took a few minutes to clean them of the gray soot, and we noted that we both had a funny dull metallic taste in our mouths. “Probably that old stale beer.” We stated with dismissal.

The fishing was awful. The banks of the little river were collapsed and eroded, and trees and debris were jammed at every bend. Joe caught exactly one smallmouth, I hooked a diaper lodged against debris on the bottom. We noted that the great floods of 2008 had destroyed this area far worse than we thought. That was why those cars were buried back in town. In two years, nobody had even tried to remove them. To add insult to injury, I fell down the muddy bank like a hippo and rolled into the water, causing us both to chuckle.

“Hell of a fishing trip,” I quipped. Joe smiled. “Always is when you and I get together.” Joe answered smiling.

We drove back out of the valley and turned onto the main state highway back toward the Driftless area trout streams and Joe’s cabin. The road took us through the largest town in the county, and after stopping to fill our bellies with a greasy burger, I spotted a building next to the post office with a sign stating it to be the county historical society.

“Let’s go in and see if we can’t find out more about that town and Valley.” I suggested.
The neat interior was covered in historical photos and maps. Rows of books and old bound newspapers sat neatly indexed behind the counter where we were met by an older thin woman wearing a light blue dress and horn-rimmed glasses who instantly smiled and asked if we needed help.

“We just came from driving through a small valley with an odd little community called Dodtown.” I stated, “and we wanted to see if we could find out more about it, and what its history was… and what happened there.”

She raised her eyebrows and looked at us with a wry smile. “Dodtown huh?”

“Yea, we would appreciate any information you could give us.” “We are just two fly-fishermen, but that town made us curious.”

“I have some coffee I just made, let me get you a cup and come sit down at the research table in the main library.” She asked.

Returning with two very welcome cups of hospitality, she set them before us, and taking a sip on her own, began to tell us the tale.

“It was a lead mining town founded back in 1830. There used to be two large loads or veins of ore right in town in the cliffs and running into the hills. It grew quite quickly to a population of almost five hundred people, mostly miners and their families. Cornish, Welsh, Norwegians, and some Germans and Poles mixed in. The veins were rich with lead ore, and they were easy to work as well. The miners drove their tunnels following the ore straight into the hills. Money rolled in, and for a time Dodtown was the fastest growing community around, and one of the wealthiest too. They built a road right out of town to carry the ore to smelters. It is abandoned now and blocked by an old dump filled with rusting cars.

Around about 1941 the ore began to run out. There was always plenty of lead in that valley, but the lead in the soil was almost impossible to remove, so when the veins began to dry up, the people followed suit and moved on… or most of them did.
I guess there were two types of people then, and two choices too. Those that chose to get out of town, and those who chose to stay. In all, the town lost two-thirds of its population in three years. For awhile the people who stayed did O.K. with cottage industry and what was left of the mining on a vastly diminished scale. By 1950 Dodtown was pretty much forgotten. People seemed to avoid the few residents, who grew increasingly insular, inbred, and suspicious of outsiders. The flooding didn’t help. God knows why anyone would construct a town at the bottom of a massive drainage area and flood plain, but I guess the founders were mainly concerned with ore extraction and not much else. The fortune extracted left Dodtown along with the owners of the mine and the few wealthy citizens when they left. I have newspaper articles from that time where people up here referred to Dodtown as ‘Floodtown,’ and ‘Poverty Hollow.’

It was in the 1960s that the state and county began to expand social welfare programs, and those workers that visited Dodtown came away with a look of concern and alarm. The census takers too had a hard time trying to make out the actual population. Knocks on doors went unanswered. Did you notice how shy and retiring the Dodtowners are? Not bad people, but strange. People thought there was something wrong with them too. They seemed to be underweight and developmentally disabled. They looked sick.

A few years later, in the late 1960s, some Dodtowner brought a sick child to the county hospital. The girl was lethargic, and was slurring her speech. Her eyes were sunken and red too. The doctors puzzled over her until a blood test revealed elevated levels of lead four times the acceptable maximum. That began an investigation in the county of well water and soil samples, and what they found was shocking. All the flooding had washed the mine tailings of lead dust down to the bottom of the valley and in addition to fouling the wells, had become so prevalent that one could get a coating of lead dust just walking about or digging in the dirt. Nothing would grow there either, except weeds.

I don’t know why those people are still there. Goodness knows enough agencies have tried to force them to move out, offering cash buyouts for the flood plain issues on their properties, and serving evictions based on unsafe and downright lethal pollution of lead, but over half of the inhabitants stayed on. Today it is, pardon the expression, our little ‘Piece of Appalachia.’ Sad. Every year the population decreases by a few people, and nobody replaces them. Should be a ghost town in ten years or so. In many ways it is now. None of those people really ever come up here anymore. I wonder what they eat for Pete’s sake. Some of them are so distorted that they can’t walk right anymore and seem to just shamble and drool. Lead poisoning is nothing to take lightly”

We thanked her as we left, and wondered at our chance encounter with a piece of history and decay.
“Next time I get to choose where to go fly-fishing.” I said to Joe.

“Nah,” he replied, “Then it might not be quite the adventure.”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Bell Curve of Fly-Fishing, a life (and gear) Journey

There is a famous story I like to tell from time to time about a day on the water Joe and I spent with a young guy we had never fished with before.

We were rigging up in a parking lot when this guy, obviously very excited (you could almost hear him vibrating, and his boots where hovering an inch off the ground) asked us to check out his fly boxes to see if the patterns were O.K. He extracted four large streamer boxes stuffed to the brim with flies. “Do you think these will be enough?” he asked genuinely. I took my eyes away from tying knots and fiddling with my bootlaces and took a wider view of him. He was covered in gear from head to foot, and looked like a tackle merchandising display. He had (I am not making this up), a backpack full of equipment, an attached chest pack to hold even more, and anything that wouldn’t fit there, like say… a spare set of fondue forks, or a muffler repair kit, or two thousand more flies, were stuffed into a fanny pack. He wore a base layer, a puffy outer layer for warmth and had a rain jacket attached to his backpack just in case. He reached around to try to find something in the backpack, a spare reel or something else he didn’t need, and nearly toppled over.

I looked over at the bushes our equipment was leaning against. We each had one box of flies, mine stored in a battered and dented aluminum clip box, Joe’s bamboo spey rod with 1918 Perfect reel, my short 12’6” light graphite spey rod with an old sort of St.George or Dingly reproduction. We each had an old fleece jacket, mine sporting food stains and a hole, and Joe’s with not much nap left after 16 years in Alaska. My Filson jacket had seen better years too, probably when America still made cars that worked. Other than the rods, all our equipment together would fit into this guy’s backpack. Looking back at him again, he was still trying to find something or other, and had begun to disgorge an entire tackle shop onto the grass. We had to wait for him by the river.

I began to ponder this, and came up with a definition for this phenomena of acquisition of gear and the amount we carry with us, and how we approach the fishing, ‘The Bell Curve of Fly-Fishing.’

All we need is a little trip down memory lane to see it in effect, and how it emerges.

When we took up the sport of fly-fishing, we most likely purchased a rod and reel first. We went fishing with a few flies and wet-waded until, as our next purchase, we bought a pair of waders. Then a vest came into the picture, and with it lots of pockets for more stuff, and we began to fill the pockets. Then we added a pack for additional gear, and slowly, but with great fortitude, went about acquiring things to fill it. Once that was done, we realized we had become a bit silly. After all, why carry that box of poppers on the trout stream when we didn’t need it? So, we bought another sort of pack and vest thing to store the warm-water gear, then the salt-water gear, and the steelhead gear too. One day we went into the closet where all the rods were stored in their cases and attempting to root around and find a jacket we hadn’t seen in awhile, managed to disgorge the rod tubes and send them clattering over the floor. Picking them up while uttering oaths, we found, to our horror that we had over 30 fly-rods in there, several of them duplicates, and one which we swear we never saw before.
How the heck did this happen?

New stuff is fun, and as equipment advances and technology and innovation allow us to be (in theory at least) more efficient and comfortable, we tend to buy into this. The pack replaces the vest or vice-versa, a new stiffer rod replaces a rod which was stiffer than the one before, we get a new titanium floatant holder to save 1/16th of an ounce, little sticky dots with fly pictures on them to tape our tippet against our reel, and an aquatic entomology kit that leaks formaldehyde onto surrounding objects. We acquire a new large-arbor reel, because it is shiny, a nifty sink-tip storage and sorting bag, a cool large rigid rod and reel case, and a smaller case which (how cool is this?) fits neatly into the larger case so that now we can be even more organized. We drink the marketing Kool-Aid and buy a bunch of leaders with built in rubber shock absorption which cast like a drunken bungee jumper. We add to these furled leaders, braided leaders, mono leaders, fluorocarbon leaders and a nifty case to separate all those leaders.

We try to be prepared. We carry a can of bear spray in our vest, even though there are no bears on the river we are fishing. Same thing for that box of kitchen matches. That way when we trip and fall, the bear spray can go off while the matches flare, and we can have a really good ‘No shit, there I was’ story for the guys down at the corner pub when they ask you what the hell happened to your hair and eyebrows. Besides, if there actually was a bear, in your panic you have about as much chance of actually dousing yourself with bear spray as you do in squirting Old Smokey.

We want to look like we are fly-fishermen. We want to look cool and hard-core. That’s why, with all that new stuff we just bought, we look like every other fool on the river, identical hat worn just such a way, the new ‘in’ rod, newest puffy jacket, and one eye cocked toward everyone else on the river, wondering if we are doing it right and looking cool. This is called ‘Individuality’.

We want to catch more fish too. That’s why we have all this stuff isn’t it? The ads promised us more fish… That is why we have the new pocket fly steamer, the portable cigar humidor and the heated mat for our wading boots. We want to catch more and bigger fish, so we buy the magic beans. Years ago I was giving a seminar of presentation and technique when one of the audience interrupted me and said “Hey Erik, can you kind of skip to the part where I can learn to catch more fish?” I thought that was what the seminar was all about, but I forgot the instant gratification powder at home. Well, if it isn’t technique, reading water, presentation, casting ability etc. that advances us to a state of ‘fishiness’ where we can pull an Atlantic salmon out of a desert, or a bluegill out of our ear, it must be something else? Something that takes no learning, and leads to profit and you parting with your wallet, but without, and this is the key, expending time and energy gaining wisdom. Could it be….MORE STUFF?

Is that why I have all these rod cases and gear cascading around my feet and rolling around on the floor?

We have reached the apex, the zenith of the Bell-Curve. Everything is down-hill from here.
This usually begins rather subtly, often inadvertently. We may be digging through a pack or vest in the trunk of the car while gearing up for an evening on the water, and spying something poking out of a pocket, can’t remember the last time we used it or indeed, even needed it. We take it out and leave it behind. That’s a dangerous move folks, because there is no stopping the downsizing when it starts. We begin to ask ourselves “Do I really need this?” remembering suddenly how we hated our Dad saying that to us when we had something in our hand at the variety store. We begin to give things away to newer anglers and friends. We throw things out. (Gasp!) Yes, those rubber band leaders get consigned to the trashcan. One day while pausing, out of breath and on rubber legs, while climbing out of a river canyon, the cigar humidor, the fly dots, and the portable steamer go cartwheeling into the bushes. We sell a few rods here and there too, wondering why anyone would ever need nine 6-WT fly-rods. We move three large plastic bins of fly junk to the garage for eternal banishment, but make sure to label each box ‘Old Underwear’ so the spouse won’t peep into them and than start something best not started at all.

This is the Bell Curve, a journey where less becomes more, then more, and then less and less, and then less but more. This can relate to gear, approach to fishing, hours spent fishing, etc. That final less but more part may be the key to understanding in whole our place in the curve, and then we can proudly claim the title ‘Wise old fart.’

I should explain this by breaking it down and making it needlessly confusing and obfuscated, so here goes…

If fly-fishing is a journey analogous to life, then the analogy works well with the stages of life. Imagine the stages of childhood, a young man, marriage, new home and children, grandchildren, a rummage sale and moving to a smaller home, and finally moving in with the children in old age. The things we acquire and our outlook, the breadth and shape of our world vision, expansive or myopic are in a curve. Our world begins so small with explorations of the carpet and crawling under the table, expands to its apex in middle age, and finally we are back to examining things in a smaller scale, this time the couch and searching for the T.V. remote. Fly fishing is like this too. Gear is only part of it, so is approach. At first we are just overjoyed to fish, then as we progress, we want to catch more and bigger fish, do it in exotic places, do it in specific ways, etc. Finally when the curve returns back to near the starting level, we may re-discover that first rod and an old box of flies, and instead of buying a new in-vogue hat, just sport the one that the dog chewed on, even if it has a hole in the brim. We might troop not to the rivers of Tongo-Tongo to pursue elusive Big-finned Farting Fish, but down past the rotting shed to the farm pond where we began, and find out that less can be more, and a Bluegill can provide an afternoon’s good sport. And if the farmer sees us and sniggers at our dilapidated, stained and chewed hat, we can mutter “I don’t give a damn.”

For when the curve returns to a point somewhere where we are comfortable with our gear, our approach, and instead of having all those ambitious plans all mapped out for us, instead just let our feet lead us where they want. Somewhere in here, we may also recognize something we missed while the curve did its thing… Fun.

Then we can break free of the curve, the desire to constantly prove something and acquire more stuff, and discover freedom.
Freedom is the ability to honestly say, “I don’t give a damn.”

I went though the curve myself. I remember a dozen or so years ago taking the first drive across the country to fish for steelhead in Washington State. I made a list of stuff to take which included a giant backup box of 100 hand-tied steelhead flies, a backup rod which was never used, two pairs of jeans that never got worn, a sportcoat, (Have no idea what I was thinking there), 27 pairs of underwear and socks, camping gear for a brigade level campaign, and gobs of other crap. I know what I took because I recorded it in a notebook, and every year crossed off the stuff I didn’t use. By 2013 the list of gear fit on one page and physically into a large roller duffle and a carry-on bag. This suffices for two weeks. That first trip was for only one week! Sometimes I wonder that I didn’t include a pith helmet and safari jacket on that first trip.

Then last year I was fishing on a local river for smallmouth bass with a 20 year old fly rod and a reel that was missing most of its teeth in the gear mechanism. I landed a nice fish, sat on a log and pulled off my hat. I bought a wax cotton canvas sort of cowboy hat with a huge brim two years ago because I am getting older and I don’t want skin cancer. It has been through rainstorms and seen copious sweating, and the wax has sort of formed an alliance with the sweat and merged into a sort of goo stain intermingled with squashed bug remains. It used to look like a western hat, but now looked like something Clint Eastwood’s horse trod on and for added effect did his business on. Lil Abner would be jealous of this hat. “Well, it’s functional anyway” I thought, “Besides,” I added as an afterthought, “I don’t give a Damn!”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Classic flies, art and obsession


I have been spending quite a bit of time at the vise this early winter playing around with new and old renditions of classic fly patterns, especially salmon and steelhead flies. I had intended to spend this time filling up missing slots in fly-boxes for trout and bass, but instead kept coming back to the creative and artful flies instead. Then the other day a friend asked a question regarding how long it took me to tie these patterns, and a discussion ensued regarding the ‘why?’ aspect to tying and using these little works of art vs. utilitarian flies, and I began to ponder this a bit.

To me there is a certain elegance to full-dress Salmon Flies, Scottish Spey flies, Dee Flies, classic steelhead and salmon hair wings and feather wings as well as Catskill Dry Flies. They just speak to me. There is an inspiration in tying and fishing these flies that adds so much to the sport for me that they have become an essential part of my approach to fly-fishing and even become ingrained in my identity. Offering the fish a piece of art that took time and patience to create, and that contains a little piece of my soul underlies at least to me the sporting concept. The fly helps to elevate the act of simply fishing to a more profound experience.

This started years ago before I became an accomplished tyer. I remember tying salmon flies out of inappropriate materials and bad hooks right off the bat when I first began fly-tying. I looked at magazines, and seeing photos of Thunder and Lightnings and Silver Doctors, Rusty Rats and Blue Charms, wanted to able to create these myself. It was like running before learning to walk, but I learned a lot in the process. In the passing years, I found that tying on a beautiful fly gave me more confidence even if that was all in my mind. I threw out most of those first flies after a time, because they looked like a cat spat them up.

I produced several segments of the history and tying techniques of these flies on television and began to amass a vast collection of books on the subject. In all, I became rather obsessed. Mixing that obsession and creativity and passion gave me an outlet that along with writing, I never knew was in me before. I guess I fell in love with tying beautiful and complicated flies.

So I wanted to take some time here to share this passion, and examine the world of tying and fishing these flies through my eyes.

In essence, the fishing fly is a creation of fur and feathers designed as a lure to catch fish. They represent things that fly and swim in nature. That clinical definition is just the dust jacket on a proverbial book so big it could consume a person for a lifetime, or in my case… did.
I view the fly as an essential ingredient in the Art of fly-fishing. Imagine standing in a beautiful piece of water and attaching to your leader a fly you invented, one made up of dozens of materials and hours of effort. Think of the anticipation of catching a fine fish on that fly for the first time… Then imagine the fly is instead, a San Juan worm for example and the romance is gone like someone dumped cold water on it.

Sometimes the very pinnacle of the art is not the glory shot of the fish, but the whole journey there including fly-tying and presenting proudly a beautiful thing.

Flies and fly-tying are part of the complete game or art of fly-fishing, as important to our imagery and actual pursuit as casting, beautiful rivers, fine reels and rods, antique equipment, and ephemera. I like to sometimes sit on the bank and take a wee rest while contemplating my rod and reel and fly. I often
then get inspired to place the kit somewhere in the foreground and take a stunning photo of the river. I have been known to place flies on a stump, artfully arranged and try to capture their presence with a camera in hand.

Little touches make all the difference. A finely tied spey-style Green-Butt Skunk, with properly tented wings and proportions; the red tail sitting at a jaunty angle and nearly meeting the humped wing of white goose shoulder, the long hackles stirred by a whisper of breeze. The tinsel tag and ribbing done flawlessly. Fishing with an upright winged Catskill classic during an March Brown hatch and being entranced at the way the little fly bounces and floats just right on the surface.

Someone asked me recently if I had to choose three flies to fish with for a given river, which ones would I choose? I thought about it for awhile, and said “I would choose not to go fishing if that were the case.” Perhaps that may seem a bit much, but the fly itself and how it speaks to me, what it represents, and its aesthetic qualities mean so much to me that to exclude this aspect from my
fishing would be like listening to a piano concerto of Rachmaninov done on a kazoo. Let’s just say that the fly has become for me an essential part of the approach to fly-fishing, and at this point in my life and fly-fishing career, the approach seems more important than almost anything else.

Classic flies are not always the ‘best’ flies, but what is ‘best’ is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, the purpose is to catch a fish, but then that can be accomplished with worms, spinners, crank-baits, or just a hook with some Christmas tinsel and troll-doll hair on it. I think that utility in the modern
materials and synthetics had added a ton to the tyer’s art, and the possibilities at the vise and in the water. In some cases the modern fly can and will outfish a classic. But what classic? Take an egg-sucking leech, a ubiquitous fly if there ever was one, and essentially a woolly bugger with an egg as a head, and effective as hell. Yet, if look hard enough in books we find a classic called the Beauly Snow-Fly, a more complicated and elegant dressing designed to do the same thing. Often these old flies are over-looked in importance and usefulness.

I once read an article where the author poised the question in his title, “Is the Catskill Dry-Fly dead?” The obvious answer is No. Indeed, the newer thorax ties perform better in certain waters, and give us a new and better profile of the bug to a fish’s eye. They are simply another choice for us as anglers. That does not mean that the history of everything from Thaddeus Norris, to Theodore Gordon through Marinaro and Flick can be tossed out the window. No sir!

Look at a photo of flies tyed by Syd Glasso, Dave McNeece, Warren Duncan, etc. Ponder what went through their mind as they created each one for a specific purpose. Those flies shine through history and are as bright and worthy today as the day they were conceived. Stare at an original Quill Gordon in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Vermont, and wonder at the segmentation effect the
quill has, and wonder how Gordon managed to get the hackle to stand up perfectly given the poor feathers he had to work with compared to today. Look at an original mounting plate of American wet flies by Mary Orvis Marbury and behold the colors. I find this stuff fascinating. These flies speak to you. These are icons to our sport.

Fly-tying is an art. Yes, the repetition of tying can be defined as a craft, but the technique and inspiration are an art. After all, we don’t frame these pieces of fur and feather for nothing. Since the beginnings in the foggy mists of the history of this sport all flies have been handcrafted: tied by human hands with only a few essential tools. Man has not devised a machine sensitive and precise
enough to tie a fly. It takes soul. Machines have no souls. It takes the dedication of years of learning, experience, study, and experimentation with technique and materials to become a good fly-tier. Medieval journeyman and attic tiers with a bottle of sherry and an idea. Experimenters and dreamers. Setting wing proportions on a Hendrickson, the body and wing construction on full-dress salmon flies, dying and spinning your own wool dubbing, working with materials, mounting jungle-cock so that it does not twist, etc. all learned over countless hours and applied to perfection to produce a fly worthy of the fish we pursue. The time taken in finding just the right Plymouth Rock feathers to allow the perfect Rusty Rat to be formed. It weaves a thread of labor and love throughout the casts, rivers, and fish.

Buying utilitarian flies at a shop can be like eating fast food. Chances are the tier probably has no real clue as the intended use of the fly other than “Fishing.” Tying a finely crafted fly is like cooking a fine meal. First, the procurement of ingredients, then the assembly under carefully measured conditions, and finally the delight of tasting and enjoying the home-cooked meal. An epicurean delight vs. a fast food burger. Time spent laboring and learning, and the food tastes better for the labor involved, as the fly has more value to us for the sweat and time we took to learn to tie it properly. Not to denigrate store-bought flies, but they will never compare in inherent involvement and immersement in the little game of chase and catch with the fish than using a fly we tied ourselves.

This sacrifice of time and energy at the vise is part of the game too. So is offering the fish a beautiful fly. Not only have we paid our dues in time preparing for the fishing, but also we respect the fish we catch by presenting the best fly we can tie. This takes time. We all go through a process of learning in tying that has to consist of pure time at the vise: like practicing the piano. Repetition and perfection combine with inspiration and passion when we finally get that fly right after so many failed attempts.

I recently realized that I had sacrificed my entire dining room to tying space, and the mess I have created in the past years may never be equaled or undone. My clothing is often festooned with stray bits of feather and fur. Just add some tinsel and I could masquerade as a Christmas Tree. I was talking to a wife of a customer of mine who has taken up fly tying, and she was commenting on the mess he makes when tying. I reflected out loud, “Every man needs to have a private place where he can be creative and make a mess. Besides, it could give him an excuse to buy you a new vacuum cleaner…”

It has been said that more words and books have been written on the sport of fly-fishing than any other sport (This author apologizes to be included in the guilty verbosity), and perhaps more books regarding flies and their tying and use have been written than any other subject within the sport of fly-fishing. After all, only so much can be written about casting, even if I believe it is an
art with endless possibilities, it is inherently three dimensional, and notoriously difficult to describe without resorting to props and analogies. Flies, on the other hand offer an immediate visual and aesthetic reward. The grace and sweeping curves of a speyfly, or the perfect set of wings and proportion on a married wing Salmon Fly can be appreciated by anyone. It is this universal appeal that leads the classic fly to become the visual symbol of our sport.

Anglers have collected books on flies and tying for ages. Copies are treasured and read and re-read from Art Flick to Kelson. Famous and classic flies have taken on a kind of ‘lore’ all by themselves. Authors such as Chris Mann have spent hundreds of hours researching and drawing salmon flies. Artists such as Jeff Kennedy spend hours just drawing and painting flies. These works adorn wine labels now. Collectors have saved and treasured old turn of the century catalogues from Hardy Brothers showing all the flies tied in their factory in England. A framed plate of flies by a Salmon Fly tyer can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Students of the sport study the history of flies, the  history and biography of those that tied and or documented them. They fill their time off of the rivers and streams with the non-physical pursuit of fur and feathers. Some people I know spend all their time in tying flies, and no longer really fish at all. It can be that absorbing. We aficionados of the classic fly could almost be classified as suffering from a kind of mild asperger’s syndrome akin to train watching. I recently acquired a few treasured fly history books from a used book store. The proprietors thought I was nuts as I giggled and danced, holding the books to my chest and smiling benignly but foolishly.

( I have to take a break from that last run-on paragraph to peruse my own meager collections of books on flies and discover that I have far more than I thought, especially focused on Spey, Dee, and Salmon flies as well as ornithology, history, and a lot of dust, bookmarks with cryptic notes, and pieces of tying materials creeping out of their spines. I find them on the couch, the coffee tables, the book-shelves, lost among the bins of materials, and on top of the refrigerator for some reason. I note that nowhere is there a book on the wooly bugger. I guess one could write a book on the poor lowly wooly bugger, which would be interesting for the first few pages, and then begin to read like…well,
like a book on a wooly bugger. Kind of like a three-volume set on the history of the ping-pong ball. Charming, but if you checked it out of your local library you might want to check behind you for men in white coats carrying a straight-jacket and being followed slowly by a short yellow school bus.)

Back to that comment about the classic fly and symbolism, it strikes me that it is a testament to how important the fly is as a symbol of our sport. The image conjures a certain elevation of fishing from pure recreation to the lofty world of aesthetics. It is as if the very image adds some verisimilitude or weight of substance to an otherwise bland offering, as when an article on loch fishing in Ireland begins with a fine photo of a Jock Scott Salmon Fly followed by the author describing mooching techniques with bait. The beautiful fly is a badge of refinement, and something to catch the eye. It also can be a symbol without substance behind it. I can’t even to begin to think of all the outfitters,  shops, guide services, etc. that use a classic fly on their logo but never on the end of their line. (Knowledgeable angler to guide… “Wow, is that a Gray Fox Variant in your hat?” Fly-Fishing Guide…” Huh -- Whatsa?” Now why is that?

Perhaps it lies in the inherent difficulty in tying these flies, as well as the need for innovation to not just add to, but eclipse. Perhaps it is ignorance. Who knows? But when that guide wanted to place a fly in his hat to cement his identity as to what he believed a guide on said river should look like, he reached into the past and pulled out a gem that would be as much at home on the end of his line as in his hat.

There is a certain inherent pride in ownership and craft when a fish is brought to hand on a fly one tied oneself. It is kind of similar to the icing on the cake. I vaguely remember in the mists of my past that first feeling, and remember when flies that I was so proud of at the time (which to my eye today show a sort of embarrassingly sophomoric innocence like a copy of a Vermeer portrait done in crayon) were mounted with a photo of the fish and treasured on a wall somewhere.

The fly-fishing outfit I work at held a photo contest recently called “Slammin Salmon”. A tongue in cheek light-hearted contest based around the best angler picture of spawning Great Lakes King Salmon that often resemble rotting corpses. The only rule was that it had to caught on a fly. We had already juried the contestants when at the 11th hour, someone dropped off a last photo. Here was a
teenage boy holding up a bright salmon, and sporting a smile so proud with accomplishment that it would make any parent’s heart melt. He was awarded the 1st prize. When posing for a picture with his winnings, a fly-box stuffed with salmon and steelhead flies, he said, “What was the best of all was that I caught the salmon on a fly I tied myself!” There it is. He had handcrafted a dream from
various bits of marabou, chenille, bucktail and hope in his basement seated at a little table in the washroom. He won the prize, but the most exciting aspect of the whole experience to him was that he caught the fish on a fly that he himself tied.

There is one drawback to using finely crafted beautiful flies: losing them in bushes and trees. This happened to me this past October when I miss-judged a cast, and placed a nice Blue-Bear salmon fly into a tree on the Brule’ river while swinging classic flies for ghosts. I finished the run with a different fly, and wading up to meet my friend Joe, mentioned with chagrin the lost fly while pointing it out to him. “What a great place to lose a fly! he said” I looked at the bejeweled speck of blue and gold and black hanging off a low branch in the Nipponese hole on the Brule’ and smiled agreeing. He was right of course. Like an ornament meets a burnt offering I had left a colorful sacrifice to the beauty of fly-fishing in one of the finest pieces of water I have ever swung a fly in Wisconsin. It might hang there still, but nevertheless, I will always see it there in my memories like a monument to the river.

Thus, I raise my glass in a toast to art. “May your flies be as beautiful as the places you fish!” Ars Longa, Vitae Brevis!

Copyright 2014 Erik Helm

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Short Game

The Short Game

Casting a fly rod with grace at distance is one of the greatest joys of this little sport of angling with a fly. We all like to cast free and far. We like a wide-open dream of a river with few obstructions to hinder our casting. We like an open playing field where we won’t spend half the time slogging through brush and picking our flies out of trees. These places do exist, and are a joy to fish, but they seem to attract the vast majority of crowding we see on our waters. If we want to get away from the madding crowds, or discover what the other 90% misses, we may have to choose some less mythical and idyllic locations. These may be smaller waters or even those great waters once the grasses and bankside vegetation reaches over our heads. We may be forced to restrict our movements and casts while simultaneously widening our perception and opening our minds. What we find there may make all the little Lewis and Clark exploring worthwhile. Hidden gems of water where the fish have never seen a fly.

Enter the short game.

One of the most overlooked aspects of fly-fishing is playing the short game: short casts to tight quarters or complicated waters where only a short cast will allow the fly to remain in the window of opportunity long enough to attract attention and be eaten. Casts that allow us to enter the woods and sneak a fly under a bramble filled bank where the fish are eating fallen ants; casts in tight quarters that can reach out to 50 feet without a back cast; vertical casts that can place a fast sinking streamer into a back-eddy next to a current seam where you know the biggest fish in the river is busy making its living, and where a longer cast would have your line on the water caught in the current and drag the fly out of the zone before bullwinkle can eat it.

Short casts, short or long casts in tight situations. They both offer reward. They offer a way of approach to new and familiar waters both big and small that offer a world of perception which grows bigger and wider as it grows smaller... a widening of the senses and possibilities.... proverbial stones stepped over now have to be scrutinized before we pass, for they may hold a doorway unseen to the soul of the fish and the river...
Once one’s mind is opened to all the possibilities of the short game you may never look at water the same way again, and music will become the space between the notes. You may find yourself amazed at all the waters and possibilities that you passed by, intent on riffles, undercut banks, deep pools, and other obvious structures of fish habitat, and missing the little things just at your peripheral vision.
These small things require a slow and planned approach with a cast of the proper distance to allow the fisher not to be seen, and allow the fly to hit the target with precision and with the proper presentation desired. This can often occur at 6 to 15 feet.
Several weeks ago I fished a new stream my old friend Bob told me of. I had caught a few browns in the first few pools and was about to step around a sharp and narrow corner to see what lay ahead when I glanced at the little tail-out I was about to place a precarious foot into. There on the far side of the river half hidden under overhanging grasses was a cleft of rocks with a space of no more than a foot long between them. The rocks were softball sized. The water was swift at my feet, so if I wanted to hit that little pocket and find out what lives there I needed to creep up on it. If I cast from where I was standing, the fly would most likely both hit the grasses and immediately drag due to the fast water accelerating as the river shallowed in the terminus of the pool. I snuck into position diagonal to the little pocket and flicked a quick sidearm steeple cast that placed the hopper I was fishing at the cleft with a splat! The cast was no more than ten feet. A brown trout came flying out of the cleft, made a wild grab for the hopper, and missing, went back down his hole, changed his mind again and changing direction and rocketing downstream into the fast water, engulfed the hopper. With only the leader out of the rod tip by now, the fight was short but sweet. The fish ate the hopper at my feet.
Sitting down on the bank with one foot in the cold water, I reflected on this situation and the hundreds of others like it that make up the micro-world of rivers and streams. There was no other way to catch that fish. I had simply done what was necessary to get a fly to what I saw as possible holding water, and what was necessary was an accurate cast of under a dozen feet.
On another small spring creek in the same area, I was making my way through a wooded portion full of deadfalls and flood damage, when I almost stepped on a tiny possibility created by a downed tree. The little creek poured under the log and white foam bubbled against the wood. The creek was shallow, but the hole created by the plunging water was the perfect living room for somebody. I had no room to cast due to branches, and the little hole was right at my feet anyway. Even if I had the room to place a nice cast into the little hole, I would not have control of my fly unless I used the shortest cast possible. With the leader out and nothing more, I splatted a size 12 catskill March Brown/Hendrickson conglomeration on the surface of the tiny pool and steered it with the rod tip held high until it came within a few inches of the downed limb. Out of nowhere a nice 13” brown trout appeared as if by magic and ate the fly. He was darkly colored from his months or years of dwelling in the darkness under the log and making his living picking off bugs that drifted down the stream and against his dining room. It was as if the little pool were a mirror and the wood branches and log the frame of a picture-perfect scenario of small stream angling. It was all possible because I had begun to think in smaller terms, and in the proverbial book of reading water, had realized that some of the best content was found in the marginalia.

Worlds of possibility like this exist everywhere, we just have to learn to slow down and think in order to see them. My good angling friend Joe calls it “Hunting.” ‘Stalking’ might be the better word, but it all came to me on my home waters whilst fishing the tiny headwaters. This creek of ice water seeming still melting off the glaciers that formed the geology of the region is so small as to at first appear laughably unfishable.
It was by watching Joe break down the water and then returning on my own and simply walking up the banks of the tiny rivulet pausing every few yards to sniff out the structure that may hold a trout that I learned this game for the first time. Epiphanies are memorable, and I still recall that moment when I realized that if the cover and depth offered any probability of holding a fish, then there was probably one there. If it didn’t come out and eat, I could stick my rod tip into the little cut, slot, etc., and see what lives there scurry out. I had to creep up on the crystal-clear water by hiding behind saplings and brush, spot the target area, see what the water was doing, and plan an approach. Bow-and-arrow casts offered the only solution to the tangles of brush, and the need for pin-point accuracy in the sometimes foot wide channels in the watercress, or dinner-plate sized depressions next to an undercut or log. My rod would span the entire creek here.
This discovery changed my perspective and outlook on all rivers. I wanted to discover what I was passing by, and what I was missing. I began to slow down. Before I placed a cast into the top riffle, I looked at the whole pool and read every piece of current and structure looking for the hidden within the unseen.
Then, when I found myself on a sizable freestone river fishing for smallmouth bass, I began to break down the water very differently then I had before. I love to cast, and the habitual cannon of a 6 wt rod I used to fire big casts across the river and present flies to the bank got left in the car in preference of a lighter full-flexing rod that could both cast at distance, but more importantly, cast a large fly with accuracy with ten feet of line out. I still fired casts to the fells, cuts, and rock gardens on the banks, but I also began to approach some structures from a shorter distance using less line and controlling the fly much better. At a spot that I had fished from a raft two weeks before due to higher water, I waded and put the short cast and line control theories to a test.

When fishing from the raft, my casts to the downed log and short dark pool directly under the log were ineffective. My fly kept being pulled away by the current no matter what I did. By getting right on top of the spot and using a short cast, my big sculpin/crayfish fly was able to dance right under the wood where a nice 16” smallmouth ate it with gusto. A week later I returned to the stretch of water and watched two fly anglers stand within ten feet of the structure and cast to the shallow riffles in the middle of the river where they were having a ball landing small riffle bass. They never saw the marginalia. It was like looking at a before and after picture of myself. As I sat on a boulder and tied on a fly I reflected on all that I missed these years of angling, and thought how humbling but joyful the process of discovery and learning can truly be.
On a different piece of water on this same river islands of limestone and others of earth and rock covered by woods cause the water to form braids. Three separate channels form and reform, only to deviate again, split into more braids, and finally reform into the main river. I had fished the smallest of these braids only once or twice before, and was unimpressed. Now I made my way down into this cover rich and over-hanging branch choked portion and approached it like I was fishing a spring creek. What I had not seen before became immediately obvious. There was structure everywhere. I simply could not fish it before due to having a rod that would not bend with a short cast, and not having realized that such micro-structure could hold big bass. In the next two hours I had the time of my life steering crawfish patterns next to logs and undercuts, kneeling and flopping my fly over downed trees and hearing the splash of a fish eating my fly without ever seeing it. I used single-hand spey casts to keep my line out of trees, splatted the fly with no more than the leader out when necessary, bow and arrow casting, roll-casting, steeple-casting, and doing anything possible to get my fly in the right place and slow it properly. I made casts up. Throw it between the two branches while pulling down on a third branch to allow a field of fire and pop the fly forward. I caught fish. I caught some very memorable fish. They came out from cover and any deeper and slower part of a pool and clobbered the fly just like a trout would. My rod bent dangerously to the cork as I tried to keep these sluggers out from the salvation of tangles that they so desperately wanted to go back into.

A word about casting and gear. In an essay regarding slower or softer fly rods, I touched on the subject of what they allow one to accomplish on the water. Many rods used for fly-fishing these days are made to be fished on big western rivers where big casts are necessary every day. Unfortunately these super-stiff rods are also intended to be used for the very type of situations I have been describing. That is like using a drill-press to hammer a nail; not the best tool for the job if you will. In order to play the short game, the rod needs to bend with ten feet of line out. That doesn’t mean it still can’t cast far, although if distance is the intent, then a soft rod might not be the best for everyone. All my rods for use on small streams and brushy closed in situations where the short game is a necessity are full-flexing. I place a line on them of the appropriate weight to allow me to cast in close as well. That might take some experimentation, and even over-lining a rod might be in order.
We are all taught to cast on a straight plane, stopping the rod high on the back cast and stopping again on the forward cast to allow the line to loop horizontally and fire straight forward. For the short game, we have to throw that book out the window. The structure of the water and confined area determine the cast we must make, and we need to think on this a bit before simply firing out a cast that gets tangled in overhead branches. Roll-casts and spey type casts shine here due to their use of line on the water to form a loading loop on the backcast and not get caught up. Steeple casts are necessary to hit a dime at your feet, and flicks and flops take the place of double-hauls. The artistry is not in the beauty of the cast, but in the utility of getting your fly where it needs to be and keeping it there long enough to be eaten.
Leaders may have to be adjusted as well. I go shorter in order to allow control and ability to bow-and-arrow cast with just a foot of fly-line outside the tip. Save the long leaders for wide-open spaces.
One inherent problem in the short game is landing of the fish. This poor creature just ate what it took for a giant meatball sandwich with extra cheese, and has just felt the pull of the hook and the panic. We have to have a plan. Approach the water. Find the mini-holding lie. Plan the cast. Then plan what you are going to do if you actually hook something. Do you have sufficient room to move? Can you play and coax that fish out from beneath an undercut without getting your rod and line helplessly tangled in the brush. Can you jump or run to another position quickly to allow angles to be applied? Is there a safe place open enough to cradle the fish and unhook it? Before disaster strikes, have a landing plan.

The short game is both sight-fishing and not sight-fishing. It is as different from fishing to rising trout in a wide gravel riffle as one can get. You are not looking for a fish, You are seeing what possibilities exist in the form of cute little situations, and then just flicking your fly in and seeing what happens. The sight-fishing part is in being able to discern the infinite possibilities the short game offers, and take advantage of them through ‘seeing’ the space between the notes. Close your eyes and pause. Take slow breaths of clean air. Listen to the sounds of the water and the creatures that live abound it. Hear the wind in the trees and a hoot of an owl, the chatter of a kingfisher, and then open your eyes again to a new world.