Sunday, January 17, 2016

Matching the Hatch… sort of...

Matching the hatch… sort of. With apologies to Ernest Schwiebert


Bergman Plate of Dry Flies from 'Trout' and antique British rod with Hardy Bougle'.
 
Author’s note:
The following piece is a tongue in cheek approach to our human foibles and fly-fishing. Ernest Schwiebert wrote the bible on trout stream entomology and fly patterns, Matching the Hatch, and Nymphs, which contain great illustrations by the author, tales about fishing the bugs in storied places, and as scientific a study of Mayflies, Stoneflies, Caddis, etc. that ever has been undertaken in our sport. However, I have meet anglers on my journeys that were literalists, and like biblical literalists, often took things to a less than rational end. As many bugs as there are in nature, do we need every one in our fly box?

I had spent the last days of melting snow seated surrounded by books on the couch, and engrossing myself in the historic writings of the sages of fly-fishing upon aquatic insects, hatches, and flies to imitate them. Halford poked out from under a pillow. Skues resided lower down on the floor, where his nymphs plied the depths above the weeds of empty coffee mugs. Perched on the table were Flick and Gordon. Schwiebert rested neatly next to an ionic column candleholder higher than the rest. Swisher and Richards propped up each end of a stack of dirty dishes. Strewn over the lot were the efforts of the past weeks: nymphs and dry flies of all variety of styles, sizes and materials. This trout opener would not find me unprepared for any possibility.

Several weeks later all the lore and knowledge gleaned from those books stored in my cluttered brain, and my stream bag full to the breaking with the carefully crafted bits of entomological fur and feathers further to tempt the trout, I found myself on the banks of my favorite local stream. I sat and watched as several small brown trout ate some bugs in the riffles above me. I caught one of the tiny insects in hand, and muttered importantly to myself with a new air of wisdom, “Paraleptophlebia size 16 mahogany dun.”

I sorted through my boxes, now carefully labeled and arranged, and located one of the new exquisitely tied upright winged duns I had recently completed. I attached it to my tippet and crouching low, approached within casting range of the riffle and let out a long loop of line with an aerial mend, the fly dropping onto the water above the hungry fish and tantalizingly bouncing down to the waiting trout while riding high on the current. The first fish rose to look at the fly, and then calmly turned up its nose at the offending entrée, and ate a real bug. The next half-hour saw me change my fly down to a size 18, and then to a comparadun version, and then to an emerger, all without interesting a single fish. I caught another natural fly, and compared it to my imitations. If the famous Schwiebert himself had drawn and tied these flies, they could not have been a more exact simulacrum, down to the gray wings, precisely colored and ribbed body, and three tails. I could barely tell the difference until the real one flew off in a hurry to join its brothers and sisters and left me muttering imprecations.

I proceeded up the stream and around the next bend to see if the fish here would be a little more accommodating, but met with the same fate. One trout about a foot long swam over after eating one of the dainty mayflies and casually looked at me from underwater as if to say, “Give it up mister, we aren’t having any.”

Then I heard a splash and chuckle. A man was standing in the next pool and playing a fish. He was dressed in an old Elmer Fudd hat and wore a dilapidated mackinaw jacket. He was using an old sawed off hockey stick as a wading staff. As I watched, he released a nice trout and immediately hooked another one.

“Nice fish,” I called out. “What fly are you using?”
“Usin a brown one mister,” he replied. “Them trout are eating little brown bugs, so I use one of them brown flies to catch ‘em.”

He showed me the fly he had caught the fish on, and I was amazed and appalled all in the same glance. Here was some grievous sin against all those aforementioned great authors and fishermen whose writings and detailed studies of trout-stream entomology and fly-tying had haunted my slumbers these past weeks and months. It seemed to be tied on some old bait or worm hook. For a body it used an old brown rag, and the wing and hackle were twisted out of some giant brown chicken feather. It looked like something my neighbor’s dog spewed up on my doormat a few years ago after eating a dead pigeon and having a go at a heap of coffee grounds in the garbage can for an aperitif. The proportions were so far off, and the hook so much bigger than it should have been, that it seemed a parody to call it a fly. Then the old Elmer Fudd clone whisked his bent fly rod forward and the fly landed and disappeared in the swirl of another hungry trout. I went back to the car where I kept an emergency bottle of bourbon, and attempted save what I could of my own sanity.

Matching our little concoctions of fur and feather known as ‘flies’ to what the trout are feeding on is a great and important part of the game of fly-fishing. An elementary knowledge is necessary at least if one is to have any chance of fooling a wily fish with a morsel of food that instead has a sharp surprise hidden in plain view. When Mr. Trout wants a certain bug, he wants that bug only… or the theory goes… If he orders a grilled tuna sandwich with basil, feta cheese and dill mustard, and he instead receives a hamburger, nine times out of ten he will dismiss the offending sandwich in preference for his original order. In the remaining instance, he will eat the tablecloth, the hamburger and the waiter. There are times he may be so finicky that he will refuse every morsel of food not to his liking. Wrong size, wrong color, and wrong species… or right everything, but take it back to the kitchen anyway just to be irritating. This gourmet and selective feeding tendency has led to the study of fly-fishing entomology. Dozens of excellent books have been written on the subject, and if the reader ever has a case of intense curiosity or a need to cure insomnia, I suggest reading a few. One will learn in detail all the Latin names of the insects, their preferred dwelling places, their size, their life cycle with pictures and drawings of each of these, their color, their behavior, time of hatching (season – month – etc.) preferred time of emergence, sexual habits ( Hendricksons prefer blondes), and everything else one can read with interest and then forget or get helplessly muddled when on the water.

This entomological knowledge leads to a greater and more intimate understanding of the relationship between trout and their food, or just to more fish for the enlightened angler. At least in theory, because if we dare take the full-monty of fly patterns necessary to match the hatch on any stream in a given season, our poor brother of the angle would spend all his time seated on a rock by the stream sorting and indexing his flies and never wet his line. This is also known to the wise men of the English chalk streams as ‘Sporting Restraint.’

Our angling friend sees the fish feeding on the surface wildly and consistently one late August morning and, according to his acquired knowledge, (not his eyes) he postulates that the fish are feeding on tiny Tricos or Tricorythodes for those partial to the Roman vernacular. However, if we take this to its illogical conclusion by following these guides to the letter, we would need to identify if the bugs are Tricorythodes peridius, T. stygiatus. T. texanus, T. albilineatus, T. allectus, T. atratus, T. explicatus, T. fallax, T. fictus, T. minutus or possibly even… could it be… Tricorythodes absurdium?

In the long run it really doesn’t matter because any size 22 to 24 blackish sparse spinner pattern would mimic most all of these, and most importantly, as we remind ourselves after noting we are due for a visit to the ophthalmologist soon, we can’t see the tiny bloody things anyway.

I once knew a fine gentleman who tied up a couple of dozen of each of these flies in the nymph, dun and spinner stage. He waded into the water with his thousand flies and sinking into the muck on the bottom of the stream, was never heard from again. We miss him, but his hat, stuck on the bottom of the stream now marks a fine pool of trout.

Knowing the taxonomy of the bugs in general is certainly helpful, but when taken to extremes can become annoying, like the gathering in the back of the hall where the old fishing club holds its meetings, and when on any given evening after a meeting and a pint or three of beer may be heard more bad Latin then a prep school symposium on the translations of Caesar.
If you find yourself inserting ‘Ephemerella Subvaria’ into every other sentence as an affectation in order to seem wise while using a bad fake British accent, then you may become the guy at your company holiday party standing in the corner alone next to the potted plant and holding an empty glass.

We inherently want to know the reasons things happen. That oh-so-human character that leads us to study natural phenomenon and attempt to explain it. It is the character of curiosity that makes us human, brilliant, and flawed all at the same time. For always are we convinced that our new theory is the correct one. We propound that the sun revolves around the earth, various mythical beings created us and rule over our lives, that bad smells cause common diseases, and the best cure for that is by bleeding, personality and character is easily read by feeling the shape of the skull, bodily humors, etc. Certainly that is enough to make us shyly wince at our latest attempted explanation of why a trout likes Elmer’s fly and not ours. Wanting to know, however, has lead us to Gordon and Marinaro… to the great Catskill flies, and to the thorax variations. Wanting to know led anglers like Gary LaFontaine to don scuba equipment and discover that caddis emit gas bubbles that glimmer as the bug ascends, and many other discoveries and innovations that make our little sins committed on the stream so much more successful.

But… however scientific or grand our discoveries that lead to better bits of fur and feather, there is still the mind of the trout to contend with. To get to know the trout, we must get to think like him, and once in awhile after a particularly long day in our waders, even to smell like him too.
Perhaps feeding trout are like people ordering pizza. From across the room we know that they are eating pizza, but what kind? Is it a dun-variant pepperoni, or a spent-wing spinach and pineapple deep dish? There are so many crust and topping variations that the mind boggles at the possibilities. We can only make educated guesses by observation. Don’t take that to extremes either, or you might be like the guy who tasted some Blue Wing Olive mayflies to see why the trout liked them so much. I hear they went nicely with a light chardonnay.

Why trout refuse one fly and eat another that is better to their liking for some unseen reason might be explained by a guy watching the local football match on T.V. while drinking beers and eating a bowl of chips. He keeps subconsciously reaching for the chips and crunching them into his mouth again and again with about as much thought as capable in a trout brain the size of a pea, but when he accidentally reaches a bit too far and gets into the bowl of milk duds his wife placed there before Christmas, he hastily rejects the offending round ball out of instinct, and belching loudly, reaches for another beer instead.

Perhaps sometimes it might be O.K. not to know.
Sometimes the best thing to do might be to put our fly in the water…

Four anglers go fishing on a trout stream. One is a Catholic priest, one a philosopher, one a physicist, and the other the village idiot.
The priest walks on the water and asks the lord to choose him the right fly. He has absolute faith in the resulting choice.
The philosopher sits down on the bank and begins to contemplate the epistemology of bug knowledge.
The physicist starts examining and measuring the speed of the current, the roundness of the rocks, and the specific gravity of the water.
The village idiot puts on a fly and casts it into the water. In ten minutes he has limited out, and is back at his hovel cleaning the fish and stoking the fire to cook his dinner.

A silly little parable until we realize the poignant fact. The village idiot was the only one to actually place his fly in the water! As I tell beginning anglers, Pick a fly appropriate to the fish and conditions, tie it onto your leader, have confidence, and put it into the water. Those thousand flies in your boxes can never catch a fish, only the one in the water can.

That is not to say that an intimate knowledge of trout stream hatches and life cycles is not important, it is just that it is only one element of the game. Presentation and reading water being equally important among others. Your fly may be a perfect imitation of the bugs on the menu at the Cordon Bleu trout stream, but we also have to get them to the trout. I don’t know any epicurians of my acquaintance that show up to dine at the Ritz, and just read the menu.

Speaking of menus…
One thing stands out among the fly boxes of some of the best trout anglers I have ever had the pleasure to wet a line with. They use general patterns and a few more specific ones. General patterns match a number of insects of the same species… like the Adams, Gray Fox Variant or Hare’s Ear. One fly can manage a hatch of a size to either side of the imitation, and when this doesn’t work, then out come the specialty flies. When the trout are feeding and finicky, then we have to get fussy too.
Bob Blumreich, one of Wisconsin’s trout sages says (my paraphrase) “Flies should be suggestive of the real bug, but not exact. Exact imitations often don’t work as well as something that is the right color and the right size, but suggests the bug to a trout brain.”

Look at Al Troth’s superb pattern, the Elk Hair Caddis. Does it look like a caddis? Not unless we have a severe eye disorder or drank way too much scotch, but it does SUGGEST the size and shape of the bug with its tailless and tent-winged profile.

There are instances where one needs to carry a file cabinet of flies to be prepared. Still-water fisheries and spring creek trout are notoriously fussy, and often have a buffet of tasty morsels available to them. When this happens it might also help to have a psychiatrist as a fishing partner. The fish can be on emergers first and then switch to the duns, and then ignore both for something you can’t see. Meanwhile the largest spinner fall you have ever seen is occurring and the trout don’t care.

Since the preponderance of water I fish for trout are spring creeks, I tend to carry a lot of flies with me. I used to use a vest, but got tired of constantly having to rummage in the pockets, and decided to utilize a stream bag instead. Then I reorganized all my flies by species and purchased several more boxes to store them in. As a result, I was both more organized and disorganized at the same time. Instead of rummaging around in pockets for boxes, I now rooted around in my shoulder bag for them, usually dropping a few on the ground from time to time. The bag was heavy too, causing my shoulder to hurt and slump, so I moved the strap to the other shoulder, causing that one to slump equally as bad.

Back on the stream, you fumble with your flybox while extracting a pattern and dump the whole shebang into the river, following it downstream with loud splashing and many cries of dismay, while every one of the artificial flies gets ingested by a trout smacking its lips for more. Your buddy asks from downstream which box you dropped. “Caddis box,” you answer, and then watch with horror and fascination as he ties on a caddis and collects all your flies one by one by hooking the very fish that just chowed down on your chum smorgasbord, and after carefully removing your flies from their lips, hands them back to you with a wink. This is called in better-educated circles “Matching the Catch.”

Maybe old Elmer knew something after all…
Maybe sometimes less can be more…

Funny, but if you contrast the approach of great authors and anglers such as Art Flick and Ernest Schwiebert, one may view the two great schools of thought, those of general suggestive flies, and of perfect imitations. Thankfully, this sport is big enough to allow for both. If the minor studies in entomology cause both clarification and obfuscation at the same time, we may remind ourselves that making things far more complicated than necessary for most people in the spirit and intent of explanation is one of the great aspects of this little hobby of ours. For some of us, knowing the Latin name of the bug, its sex, and exact size and color might add something to the game we play with the trout, and others of us might not care at all, preferring to fish a little olive bug when that is what the fish are eating.

So next time you run across someone sitting on the bank deep into study of a copy of the epic seven volume tome “Naturalis Insectora Stupendium,” and searching through his ten drawer chest fly box, you might want to have a few brown rag flies handy to give him. You may be doing him a favor.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tales from a Flyshop part two.



Tales from a flyshop part 2



X marks the Spot

Everyone likes an inside tip on where to go. After all, there are places to fish that are better than others. However, in our time-saving and time-starved technology shackled and over-busy world there seem to be more and more anglers that want to fish like it is an appointment in an electronic calendar. 7:00 am, Get coffee and bagel. 7:20 am catch steelhead, etc.

 
To this end, those of us in flyshops take an unending series of calls when anadromous fish enter our rivers. “Where do I go?” I usually try to give some vague but potentially strong advice like “Between this and that is a great stretch of water a mile long. Look for water between 2 and 6 feet deep moving at a walking pace, and have confidence in your fly. Put it in the water and fish.” If somebody had told me this 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of trouble and fussing. Once in awhile, somebody actually listens to this and I get to play the mystic hero-wizard who led the customer to a great day on the water, but nine times out of ten it is not enough. See, they want to know exactly where to stand, exactly where the fish will be, and exactly which one single fly will work. Reading water and the thousands of variables that make this sport more adventure than catching be damned, they just want to press a button, catch a fish, repeat. So I came up with an idea. I would find a rock in the water somewhere, paint a big red ‘X’ on the top, mark its GPS coordinates, and then give this map to those customers that wanted instant gratification. We could even place a bench on shore near the rock, and others could wait there turn to get to fish from ‘The Spot.’ For obvious reasons, this never made it to fruition, even if it would provide a barrel of laughs.

Measuring

We are all guilty at one time or another of the minor sin of over-estimating the size and weight of fish we just caught. These errors can be separated into two categories: Excited but honest mistakes soon corrected with the aid of a simple tape-measure, and those obstinate and multiplying miss-measurements that just keep on getting bigger every time the yarn is told.

It amazes me how many times I under or over estimate a fish. Weight and length seem sometimes always bigger in the water and lesser in hand. This may be why the great Don Zahner said that if God intended us to measure our catch, he would have given the fish bigger scales! That comes to mind when listening to the tales of anglers gesticulating with histrionics to the great demi-gods of fish they have landed, fish so epic they are as likely to exist as Santa Claus or Hercules. Apparently in this land of epic tales fish fall into two size categories: small and BIG! Thus if an angler lands a nice brown trout on a tiny spring creek, the fish will always be over 14” if it is deemed enough of a fish to tell the buddies about down at the corner bar. If it is a bigger western river or the fish is to be caught on streamers, it will never be under 20 inches. Fish smaller than that are all a lot smaller. Indeed no ‘tweeners exist. In this world of purple skies and fishing gods, fish miraculously metamorphose from a dinky 10 inches to over twenty pounds in a split second. The ten inchers only exist to provide meals for those epic fish and a prelude to the moment the excited angler wipes his brow, gulps down his beer, and lets rip a whopper of a tale.

I know this because I have to be the listener like the buddies at the bar, except that I am entirely a captive audience and without needed lubrication of the spirit kind. Then when it comes time for that 50 lb steelhead caught from ‘Stocker Creek’ to appear as a photo, one must politely smile and nod at the 10 pound fish in the photo. Only once did I venture a glib remark or try to suggest a new portable tape measure. A bloke was telling of epic angling in a creek so full of fish that those of us in the know call it ‘Retard Creek.’ It gets a run of small lake-run steelhead or rainbows so out of proportion to its size that anyone can catch ten or even thirty a day. Pools no longer than fifty feet might hold fifty fish. The weight of the fish he seemed to have caught would make them all world records, beating out the great fish of British Columbia on the Thompson, Washington’s Skagit, or the B-run fish of Idaho’s Clearwater. I asked for his autograph after a bit, and told him he had caught all ten of the world record steelhead. He never batted an eyelid at my attempt to bring a little reality to Oz.

Big Box Misadventures

Why pay good money for quality equipment set up by experts at a fly shop when you can just go down to the Hunters and Anglers Mega-Warehouse and get the same stuff for half the price?

This is why:

A customer came into the shop with a reel, line and backing he had purchased from one of these Big Box Stores (after this referred to as BBS). He wanted me to check the backing. I looked at it and it seemed to fill the large arbor reel to the correct point, allowing the line to fill the reel and leaving a small gap between the line-guard of the reel. “Looks fine to me” I said, handing the reel back to the guy. “Can you make sure?” He pleaded. “I am going down to Florida salt-water fishing and I want to make sure it is O.K.” I humored him by stripping off the flyline and examining the backing. What the hell was this? Thick and sticky line lay in my hand. ‘What is this crap?” I asked.
He brought out a spool now empty from his pocket “Fly Line Backing” it read.

The stuff was the same cord that I use to sew leather when making rod-tubes. It is commercially called ‘Simulated Sinew.’ It is strong as heck but heavily waxed for tight purchase on the leather. This BBS actually sold, marketed, and used it for backing, quickly filling up the customer’s spool with a grand thirty feet. The first fish he caught in the salt would have stripped his line and carried it to the horizon…. Especially since the knot used to attach the backing to the fly line was a common granny knot, and the backing was not secured to the reel in any way. I rigged up his reel properly, charged him nothing, but made him promise that he would never go back there to save a few bucks.

Erik’s old equipment broker and free appraisal services

Mention fly-fishing to any twenty people at random, and ten of them will have some ‘fly rods’ and stuff that belonged to their uncle Zachary or Grandpa now ‘somewhere’ and worth a lot of money.
All of these people end up in my flyshop sooner or later I swear.
The most common are the guys with crooked and bent old production dime-store cane rods that the hopeful antique owner intends to allow him to put in the new swimming pool and deck on his house. They never actually ask me to appraise the rods, but just want me to “Look at them.” Now I love all antique tackle, but I also am running a business selling new tackle… or trying to. Convinced that the treasure discovered in the attic is the Mona Lisa of fly rods, they are usually disappointed when I tell them to hang it on the wall.

Many rod outfits brought in are in curious states. I have had fly rods with spinning reels on them loaded with fly-line, 8 wt rods with 5 wt lines and vice-versa, rods with old rubber and bakelite handles that melted to my hands when I picked them up, rods with repairs obviously conducted under the influence of alcohol and inappropriate tools, entire rods assembled from incongruous rod sections belonging to separate rods, rods that when assembled, fell apart in my hands, elderly widows with their dead husband’s entire collection of tackle, and my favorite of all: Automatic Reels.
What were we thinking when these were made?

Most of these are in a sad state of rust and dust when they are brought in to have new line placed on them. Always trying to be accommodating, I have literally had several of these explode on me while stringing on new line, and have had to pick bits of broken springs out of my beard and hair.
That reminds me of a guy who came into one of the shops on Christmas Eve at 4:30 pm. We closed at 5, and he wanted to use his coupon, which would expire that day. He produced an old cardboard box with a rusty reel full of dead spiders and spider eggs, and wanted new line. What the hell was he thinking? It was Christmas Eve for Santa’s sake, and we wanted to go home already. “What is the weight of the rod?” He didn’t know and hadn’t brought it along. I sold him a six-weight line and loaded it onto the reel afterwards thoroughly washing my hands of dirt and dead spider parts. Merry Christmas!

Odd Rodkins!

One couple came in to show me their new rods a custom rod builder had made for them. I had taught them a beginning fly-fishing class, and they wanted equipment. Instead of purchasing entry-level gear from me, they “Knew Someone” who built custom rods, and would have him build them each a rod. ‘Custom’ was fitting in an ironic sense. They unwrapped the rods for me to see, and I was overwhelmed by the powerful smell of varnish. Lovely wood reel seat spacers accompanied a plastic bait casting handle and multi-colored wrappings worthy of a toddler with a new box of crayons. The rods themselves were 6 feet long and seemed to be spinning rod blanks. Here was a true ‘Custom’ rod indeed. One third spinning rod, one third bait caster, and one third fly rod, and entirely covered from tip to butt in varnish.

I need a few flies…

This is a curious phenomenon…. Customers often come in and tell me they are planning a trip to a dream destination and river in Montana, Wyoming, The Bahamas, etc. They need a few flies for the trip. I make suggestions after asking the necessary questions, and they come to the counter with… 4 flies.
No, not a dozen of 4 patterns, but 4 flies…. For their trip… for their trip to that great dream destination… filled with epic fish… for a week…. In the wilderness…
4 flies.
4 bloody flies.
One fly to get dropped in the river, one to get lost before they get there, one to stick in the tree behind them, and the last one… the magic fly… to break off on their first fish.
Despite my attempts at good-natured advice as to the proper equipped angler, they often leave the shop with only those 4 flies.

Broken rods!

The true bane of existence for anyone working in a fly-shop are broken rods. I like to say there are two kinds of anglers; those who have broken a rod or two, and those that soon will. It is just a fact of life with brittle long skinny sticks like this. I rather think I could amend saying to more fully represent reality… “There are two kinds of anglers; those that having broken their rod, will gladly pay a small warranty fee and get a new rod in return, and the kind that blame me for breaking their rod.

Well, not always me specifically… often it is the manufacturer that gets blamed as well. So how did I get to be the blame fall-guy? I was there to receive the anger and frustration of the customer…therefore my fault. It always mystifies me how people seem to destroy their rods. I have broken a few, and with only one exception, it was my fault. I fell on two of them, one while tumbling on wet clay and the other when loose rocks slid out from under me. Never did I blame the person who sold me the rod. These guys crack me up. Most of the breakage happens when neophyte fly-fishermen foul hook salmon that are making their spawning run up great lakes tributaries. Big fish hooked in the fins, long brittle rods, and anglers that don’t understand how to let the fish run and wear itself out results in lines waiting at the door at opening times with sad or angry looks and a rod tube in hand.
I asked one guy whose rod had broken on landing a king salmon what tippet and leader combination he was using. “Huh?” he answered. It turns out he was tying straight 20 lb. Mono on his line as a leader. No wonder his rod broke.

I get guys coming in with 5 wt rods shattered on salmon. What were they thinking? The poor fish hooked in the ass and jumping down the river followed by a tangle of line and the tip section of a five-weight fly rod was heard by one piscatorial-eared passerby to exclaim “I was just trying to have sex!”
and on it goes…

Fishing Reports

Want an accurate fishing report? Good luck. See us at fly-shops have to be part fiction writer and part social-psychiatrist to put together a report.
Here are several examples and translations:
Fishing: Great
Someone caught a fish yesterday, there are fish in the river, the river is not completely blown out, that rumor about the escaped alligator is only partly true, the truck filled with gasoline crashed and exploded downstream from the last hundred yards of river, so there are still fish to be had, The river has not completely dried up, although it is 100 degrees out, fish can still be had at dawn and dusk, etc.
Fishing: Good
That fire you read about wasn’t near the river, it WAS the river. Don’t go. Stay home. Be very afraid.
See, these are for profit operations, and they profit from you going fishing and visiting their shops. They are not going to tell you that you have a better chance of taking a trophy trout from the river Styx with a dry fly in the pitch darkness while being rowed to Hades by the devil himself, then catching a fish in their river! If they say the fishing is just So-so, you might want to consider a game of ping-pong instead.
Then come all the inherent problems with rating the fishing. What is “Good” after all? To one angry angler complaining about our fishing reports “Good” was not good enough. He caught two wild brown trout @ 10 - 11 inches each on a dry-fly from a local creek. See, I would consider that “Good” fishing… apparently he didn’t. He wanted to catch numbers. That numbers problem is why tributary fishing reports for salmon and steelhead are often very relative. “Good” refers to when an angler has a near 100% chance to catch dozens of fish. “Great” refers to when while gearing up at the car, a errant salmon trying to jump the water falls accidentally lands in you car, upsets a grocery sack of spices onto itself, guts itself, and then flips onto the hot manifold and begins baking nicely.
“Just O.K.” is when you have a decent chance of landing a fish if you actually have some skills. That way when somebody who can only cast 10 feet and is more than half-drunk enters the river, they won’t come in your shop afterwards bearing firearms and complaining about your misleading reports.
Its all about setting and managing expectations, and the setting of those expectations is often beyond one’s control.

Beginners and experts

I maintain that there are only two kinds of fly fishers: Beginners and experts. Beginners have never caught a fish. Experts have caught at least one fish. Give me the beginners every time.
Think that is a Tongue In Cheek observation….
Meet the cast of the “Experts Club,” all experts in their own minds…
One guy didn’t know a Blue wing olive was a mayfly. He thought it was a midge. He was ‘guiding’ several other anglers at the time.
Another guy didn’t know the difference between a salmon and a steelhead, although by his own accounts, he had “Caught thousands of ‘em.”
One gentleman seemed to correlate 5X tippet and leader with 5 lb and 5 wt. He thought you could only use 5 lb. Test tippet with a 5X leader because his rod was a five weight.
Another guy complained that his new rod he bought from us ‘sucked’. He said that it didn’t cast right. He told us he used the same line on his other rod and it worked fine. This rod was a 9 wt.. His other rod? A 4 wt. “Nobody told me,” he complained. He told us that he had been fly-fishing for over 20 years.
One old codger thought that the WF designation on a fly line stood for “Wrinkle-Free” He was planning on ironing his fly line to get the kinks out.



Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fishing vs. Catching


To the casual angler these concepts might be the same, so why an essay on fishing vs. catching? Because they are different. Fishing can be equated to a symphonic journey. There is the opening theme, explorations of the theme and digressions, building on the theme and tension and the final release of that tension at the end which leaves one feeling exhausted and fulfilled and refreshed all at the same time. Catching is just the final act. We miss the whole process, the whole experience. Only part of the music is heard.

 
But isn’t catching the ultimate aim? Isn’t that what the game is about? To answer that we might want to think about why we are standing in a river with a long pole in our hand fiddling with bait made of fur and feathers and not fishing with a net.

The act of fishing is a hope in itself. If the journey is long and obstacles are overcome and anticipation mixes with temporary defeats, oh how much joyous when we bring the fish to hand.

The little problems of fly-fishing constitute so much of that journey. How do we get a fly to that fish tucked under the tag alders? How can we make that cast across conflicting currents? Is this the right fly? Would an emerger be a better choice? Why didn’t that fish eat my fly? What kind of bird is that? These intensely absorbing little problems are the meat that makes the sip of wine at the end taste so much better. Enjoy the whole meal, not just the desert if you will.

What if we were fated like Theodore Castwell to catch a fish on every cast? We would be in hell much like old Ted.

Predictability is the enemy of variety, and variety is the spice of our angling. NOT knowing what is around that next bend of the river is as important as knowing what fly the fish are taking. The inability to predict results and the dilemmas that arise make us think and reason, speculate and form theories, which change every time the river bends again.

We are involved in the hope for a bright connection, not just connected without connection like Mr. Castwell. If the fishing is good, we need to judge how much is ‘Enough.’ If we don’t, we may become drunk with reward and no longer taste the wine.

I hooked my largest fish of the year on a bamboo fly rod resurrected from the dead by an expert restorer. It is a unique rod to say the least. It may be one of a kind and the maker was an eccentric genius. I fought the fish and got a jump out of it… enough to tell that it was a chrome female steelhead with just a hint of rose around the cheek. Then the fish got off. I smiled and walked off the run, leaving it to my two partners. I had sipped this exquisite wine and tasted enough. Another time I hooked and landed a beautiful fish in Idaho, and spent the rest of the time on the run eating wild blackberries at riverside.

Was I slowing down, or just sucking the marrow out of life without as the quote goes “Choking on the bone…?” Perhaps both, for they are related.

The anglers I enjoy fishing with the most appreciate time on the water without qualifications. A few fish may equate a great day, as does seeing an eagle, making a memorable cast and hooking an especially difficult trout of only 10 inches, enjoying a good apple and sandwich on the bank, or simply being happy for someone else to express joy at catching a fish.

The word ‘Memorable’ stands out to me here, for when I close my eyes and begin to drift off to sleep, I never see the fish, only the beautiful scenery and the water. Those memories are what we are out there for, not just numbers of fish.

But then there IS the catching element, and without it the journey would rather lack a conclusion, however scenic and memorable that journey is. If we got skunked all the time, we would be in a different little corner of hell than Mr. Castwell, but just as bothered. Getting skunked can also be a good thing, for it wets the appetite. We will get them ‘Next time!’ When that next time comes the wine tastes just a little bit sweeter.

So I will be fishing tomorrow. Catching? That remains to be seen… but I will savor the day nonetheless.

Anachronisms and Jeep antennas


Recently I have come into possession of a 1950s vintage British Loch fly rod ten feet long and made of tubular steel. That’s right… tubular steel. Heard nothing good about this material? Heard that it was an evolutionary dead end in fly-rod materials? So did I. Until I cast this thing. Perhaps tubular steel might be worth a second look.

 
The rod is slow and very full flexing as one could expect. One feels the bend into the grip. It has a nifty little classic metal and rubber butt cap to allow the lower hand to perform some or most of the casting work and provide a fighting base.

So, if we think about it a bit, what we effectively have here is a switch rod, allowing both single-hand and two-hand casting techniques. Interesting. The rod has an agate stripping guide and tip, and is painted to look like bamboo. In the 1950s this would have been a less expensive alternative to cane, but with all the trimmings of a top of the line rod. Gee, but isn’t the switch-rod a modern thing? Nope.

Casting it is an exercise in slowing down and feeling the rod. When one gets it right, the line flies out, the rod doing all the work.

Back after WWII, the British commandeered surplus jeep antennas, and turned them into fishing rods. These non-purpose built tubular steel rods were rumored to be pretty awful, as one can well imagine. This rod is as far from a jeep antenna as one can get… although I did pick up the BBC on it the other day casting it near some overhead power lines…

What makes me sit and wonder though, is the forgotten possibility of tubular steel. After all, this rod is incredible, and that is with 1950s technology and alloy development. What would a modern rod made of this material cast like?

What next for the ‘Anachronistic Angler’?

Monday, November 23, 2015

The enigma rod

Fritz Schreck 8' 1" 6 wt rod and old Hardy reel with Irish salmon doubles


Part One, the Phoenix rising


“I have a rod for you…”

Thus it began the night before I was to drive up to the Bois Brule’ river in the pine and birch forests of Lake Superior to fish for steelhead. Packing and final preparations such as shopping for supplies and groceries would have to wait. I got a call at work from friend and bamboo rod guru Joe Balestrieri, and when he found out that I was driving to the Brule’, he uttered those prophetic words.


Dusk found me at his home, where he awaited with the rod and a reel spooled with a flyline. “I think you may like it, and nobody can appreciate it anyway, so I want it to go to a good home,” he said as he was taking it out of its green bag and putting it together. “Fish it.” “It might break, I dunno… It’s a Swiss Schreck 8 foot 1 inch.” “What….Who?” I thought. “Schreck? Geez, that means ‘Horror’ in German.”

He cast it effortlessly and handed it to me. “I think she is a 6/7,” he stated while sipping what he referred to as a Finnish Martini (Vodka and apple-juice). I picked up the rod and easily threw a tight loop of line 50 feet. I was surprised and shocked at how easy it was to cast a graceful loop with this rod. I pulled out more line and cast a tight 60 feet and the line cranked the reel at the end. “What the hell?” I stated out loud. “Did you tweak this rod?” “What the hell is this… What did…. How?” He was chuckling as we hurried to the safety of his den as it began drizzling. After a few glasses of his Spey-Side single malt that had more peat taste than bog-water, and long conversations on hand-made musky plugs, fly rods, angling, theory, art, aesthetics, literature and what-not, he bade me farewell to the Brule’ and I went on my way home with the windows open to hopefully dissipate the bog-smell from my person.

What was this rod?

It took awhile and a bit of searching before I could put together a provenance. Balestrieri had received the rod as part of some vague trade/acquisition involving a reel from some guy in Italy. The rod was made by a Swiss rod maker named Fritz Schreck, who, according to Rolf Baginski’s book on European bamboo, was a self-taught craftsman with quite a loyal following in Europe itself. He made rods under the ‘Kingfisher’ logo, and was noted for his taper design by trial and error, and for his eccentric way of using only the power-fibers of the cane, and assembling as many as 36 strips to make each section, instead of the common six strip method. Balestrieri had found some Swedish maple burl for a reel seat, and used it to compliment the odd but lustrous way each of the 36 pieces were flamed a different shade in the heat-treating process, making for long running lines of intricate blending of chocolates, coffees and caramels. He described the state of the rod to me as “A tomato-stake” when he got it. The reel seat and cork were past dereliction and some of the splices in the rod needed fixing.

Here was something new to me, and fascinating. A little-known rod-maker hardly seen or represented in America had crafted this fine instrument, and it had traveled from Italy to Balestrieri, who lovingly restored it, offered it for sale, and since nobody seemed to want it, sold it to me. It was back from the dead, complete with new rich brown silk wraps and a new bigger stripping guide, and destined to make music again on the water.

I placed it in my car in the morning, paired with a hangover and a Hardy Bougle’ mk IV 3 ½” reel. This was the “Use the good China” reel I had written about 7 years earlier after I found it in my reel bag nearly un-fished after I almost dinged it on a boat frame once. It was too valuable to fish… Then I was listening to a radio story where a woman was telling the tale of her mother’s good china which she had found preserved and safely put away after her passing, and decided to actually use it, unlike her mother. “Use the good China” became a symbolic phrase for sucking the marrow out of life, for using the good reel, and not collecting things to be used only once or twice on special occasions, but to brighten our every day lives with their use. So the Phoenix rod, back from the graveyard of an Italian closet buried under old shoes and the “Use the Good China” reel would be paired up. “Fitting,” I thought to myself as I arranged all the clutter of the trip in the trunk and back seat of the Volkswagen.

Part 2, the Phoenix fishing
On the Brule'


There would be no prettier place anywhere where I would go to baptize this new rod than ‘The river of presidents’. The lower Brule snakes its way through a canyon filled with a wild forest, grouse, and wolves. Their howling can accompany one through the woods on a late-exit from the river. On the drive up, I spotted a bull moose in a swampy field filled with cranberry bogs and springs feeding multiple river systems. A good omen, and a rare sight for Wisconsin.

I was alone on day one, for my friend was not to arrive until the following afternoon. I slept in the car that night, the cries of distant wolves haunting my sleep. The next morning broke bright and sunny, and I headed upriver to a smaller and narrower reach of the Brule’ and assembled the rod, geared up, and got on the water. Here I was, fishing the Schreck, and clearly completely out of my mind. There were somewhere in the river, steelhead pushing 30”, and I was using an 8’ 1” restored tomato stake and a reel with almost no drag at all. “Well, Carpe Diem damn it!” I thought aloud.

The rod performed flawlessly, especially with over-head casting. It threw without any difficulty a 7’ sink tip with a large green-butt skunk tied spey-style. It could perform spey-casts too, although it got tricky with a rod that short and a sink-tip and large fly. The rod and I got to know each other that day. I slowed down a bit in my casting, became smoother. I began to bond with the rod. I sat on a rock and looked at it in the bright sun. Not a gaudy rod, but rich with somber hues of memorable scotches and morning teas. A rod built for a purpose. Sea trout? Grayling? A workhorse. It did everything I asked of it within reason, like a fine shotgun that just mounts to your shoulder and swings like an old friend. Pick up the line.. backcast… put it down… and the rod was accurate as an arrow too!

Last year our little crew was visiting with two young fishermen from Minnesota late at night in the motel parking lot, when after enough lubrication for the tongue and 3 days fishless one of them solemnly brought forth the following phrase, “The Brule’ is beautiful, but she is a cruel woman.” This could sum up all my trips here for steelhead, where a swung fly, despite all the beautiful water, just has a hard time connecting with the fish, despite my long steelhead experience, or those of friends who she has enticed to her waters and dismissed with a turn of face and a wry smile. However, I would be guilty of sacrilege worthy of being tarred and feathered if I were to fish a nymph or pink plastic worm thrown with a bobber and split shot on that holy place, or with the new rod. We left after 3 days of hard fishing, knowing the river a good deal better, including why not to follow me when I think I find a deer trail, and having a wonderful time altogether…albeit fishless.

Part 3, Back on home waters…

Storms followed me back from the Brule’ the whole way, and by the time I was back at work, the skies were dark with rain, and the rivers coming up in flow. The first opportunity I got, I was in my local Lake Michigan tributary armed with the Schreck rod and a new sense of hope and expectation… and wind.

It blew. 30 mph gusts and sustained winds of 15 to 20 mph greeted me as I got my feet wet. Oh hooray. Perfect place for a bamboo rod. Up-stream winds too. I had to use a sling-around modified Belgian cast in order not to hook myself in the ear. I had to wade closer in order that my fly would not land upstream of me. Leaves littered the water. Every cast seemed to hook a leaf. If I dangled the fly in the water it collected leaves as the fall winds cleared oaks, maples, elms and willows of a color palette rich in frustration.

I took out of my old rusty Altoids tin a blue and black tube fly dressed in the wing and body to resemble an Atlantic Salmon fly. It was the choice not to resemble a leaf, and offer a big enough target in the optical-saturated water.

The rod performed beautifully given the horrible conditions. I still had to wade closer to the taking lies than I wanted, but found with a 25-30’ cast I had perfect control to steer the fly around in the bubble line and boulder bottom. I yearned to catch a fish, lake run brown or steelhead alike, either would be fine. I was like an anachronism out there in the river. Nobody does this... a bamboo rod and a big classic fly fished on the swing for big fish. I felt like I was summoning ghosts of the past as the winds whispered and wailed with imagined voices, and shadows raced across the water.

Then it happened… or something did. I had a tentative grab on the terminus or dangle of my swing. Instinctively I did nothing. Another little pull. It was definitely a fish, but since the river had king and coho salmon in it, I was afraid to set the hook, lest I foul hook a decaying salmon. Finally the loop of line pulled out from my rod hand, and the reel turned a few clicks. Aha! The ‘Aha’ turned out to be a small 19” steelhead. I set the hook, and was off to the races. The little male couldn’t really go too far in this water, so after a short battle and a screaming reel, my little Schreck rod bent and unbent and easily landed the fish, my heart beating a touch faster now.

What a hell of a rod. A true one of a kind, possibly the only one in North America… and I had baptized it ten minutes from my home.


The rest of that great day was spent in love with the rod, but frustrated with the fish, due to either the optical saturation of leaves in the water, the bright sun, or a combination of factors, I kept getting very tentative grabs like a steelhead coming for the fly, grabbing it, and then dropping it during the turn. I had six of these non-hook-ups in all, one which pulled out drag on the reel, and when I set the hook, found nothing but empty water. I just couldn’t seal the deal until evening, with dusk falling, I waited out the tentative grab again, and when I set against only a speculation of feeling, was hard into a steelhead which went upstream and airborne, causing the reel to sing an aria and the rod to take a deep bending bow to luck, to provenance, to history. “I have a rod for you…”

I stood looking at the fading sunset now painting the horizon a deep pink matching the sides of the steelhead I just released, and thought about the chain of events that found me here with a smile on my face, with a rod I never had heard of, and even if I had, never would have understood without casting it. A rod from Italy made in Switzerland by an eccentric genius reborn in loving hands and restored by my friend to bend again in the wind and on fish. What a journey.




Saturday, August 29, 2015

Water Putting


 
I was walking in the park the other day, as I am known to do from time to time, day-dreaming of trout rising and the possible relationship between squirrel behavior and the plots of Verdi’s Operas (there isn’t any), when I stopped before the little par-3 golf course, and specifically, before the putting green. There stood a group of guys and gals wearing acceptable golf attire and endlessly practicing their putting.

That gave me an inspiration, and after concluding my walk with more useless speculation as to why overweight middle-aged men are irresistibly attracted to loud farting motorbikes, I ambled back to the car, where in the trunk sat a nifty glass fly rod and a reel complete with line and an old leader. “Putt away you St. Andrew’s dreamers,” I thought aloud to myself, “I will join you on the Itchen…er… Itchy Grass River,” as I swatted a mosquito on my ankle.

I placed three trout (twigs rather of the birch or char variety) at different distances and conjured the spirit of Charles Ritz as I played with rhythms and thumb pressure and timing, and the fly (a piece of a nearby convenient gum-wrapper) landed as close as I could make it to the targets. I had done this for half an hour, and was getting ready to leave, when a guy walking his dog asked me the dreaded question... “Are you catching anything?”
“Just practicing for senility” I quipped, causing him to tighten the leash on rover a bit and curl an eyebrow as he walked just a fraction faster and changed directions to take him and his canine companion away from me all the quicker.

I had become “That Guy.” You know the one or the type. The guy with the long beard who plays the bagpipes near the kite-flying area: the idiot dressed up as a mime who stands dead-still outside a shop window posed as a mannequin for hours: or one of those train-spotters who everybody fears will start talking to them about trains.

Yet, as I pondered in that park, fly-anglers should do this. They should be seen on ponds and rivers practicing with the long rod; line making graceful loops so that their time on the river is filled more with reflection and less with frustration. Yet, I am the only person I have ever seen doing this. That might be due to too much time at the tying vise or the fact that my glasses might need updating, but I don’t think so.

Years ago it was common in any park with a lagoon or pond to house a casting club. England and France had them in spades and so did America, especially during the Great Depression and into the 1950s where they were a family outing and a cheap source of recreation. The great fly-casters were formed here, especially in organizations such as the Casting Club of Paris, or the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in San Francisco. The Golden Gate club still exists, but most of the local groups sedately casting away in local parks and sipping beers on weekends withered away as their members died off and younger generations never went out doors or suffered from maladies such as Digital Flu, or Too Busy Disorder.

Awhile back, another avid fly-fisherman and I seriously discussed starting a casting club. We would meet, it was postulated, at a local park on the river, and each caster would bring a rod and a bottle of wine and some cheese. Cigars would be welcome. It was to be a fraternal men’s group. A place where lies could accompany clarets, plumes of smoke, and loops of line. The idea of each bringing fine cane, glass, and graphite rods to share and try out reached a snag when a local doctor, who considers himself a great fly-angler was handed a rod by me to try out and immediately began major malpractice on it. Yea, that’s what I needed. “Sorry about the rod Erik… it just seemed to break mysteriously.”

I imagined who would show up at the group. Ten people at first and a fine time would be had by all, and then seven and finally four… two being tournament caster sporting 19 foot graphite lances and shooting heads and competing against each other (and the rest of us who couldn’t give a shit). The other guy would be some codger with a crooked Orvis Battenkill or Wright McGill who never fished and drank all our wine. The final two would my friend and I who would become more and more aware that Oscar Wilde’s famous quote that “I would never be a member of a club that would have my likes as a member” might apply here. Even if it worked out, I mused, it might just turn into an elongated casting lesson for free, which is part of my day-job anyway. I still might try to organize a club like this, but am aware that it might become the world’s most misanthropic and lonely men’s club.

I thought back to the 12 years or so that I had taught for local clubs and organizations at their annual casting clinics and picnic. Inevitably as the picnic progressed, more and more people wandered into the open fields and knolls to cast their fly-rods, but as I began the formal tutorial, I would be left with only the true beginners, as the rest of the established club members would rise in unison like a pod of German Browns to the scent of cooking bratwurst and foamy hops and retire back to the riffle of the picnic tables, leaving me to do whatever it is that an instructor does with 20 new casters.

Don’t get me wrong, I like teaching beginners the best. Wide eyes and good listening skills result in good casters and less bad habits, unlike the guys in the clubs who would demonstrate the same fatal flaws I tried to break them of for the past ten years to no avail.

When I did manage to cast with one of the regular members, they always offered the same caveat or excuse. “I am not a really good caster,” they would proclaim, and then slink away to ensure that their handicap would not be rectified anytime soon. I was puzzled. Then one of the older and wiser fellas told me that “They didn’t want to look bad, and were embarrassed by their casting.”

 Aha… and how silly. Then why was I there to teach a casting class, if the majority of casters were too shy to learn? Was fishing a game of lies? Were those tales told at club meetings where the 50 foot cast using 6X tippet and a size 22 midge hooked a 20” brown trout best absorbed after a martini so dry it confounded the senses? Should Old Rusty’s tale include instead a foul hooked chub with a botched roll-cast and a size 10 Adams? I took a sip of scotch and feared to tread there for obvious reasons.

Yes, we don’t want to make fools out of ourselves. Perhaps that is why fly-fishing is a solitary sport. Our tales and treasured literature sees us tangling our line around gorse-bushes, inventing new choice invectives, splashing our line on the water and scaring away all the fish, and finally catching the smallest fish in the river once our dry-fly accidentally sank. We look around sheepishly and see if anyone noticed, and straighten up a bit when we find ourselves all alone. Nobody saw us thank dog… now back to hooking bank side brush or festooning trees with little ornaments.

Contrast that to the golf course. Here stand parties of golfers progressing forward on the links, all in open view. Here your foibles are in full-view to all. Slice that drive and hit your Boss’s elderly crippled mother in the noggin and you might want to take a look at that Peace Corps brochure. Botch that 15 foot putt ten times for a quadruple Humphrey Bogie and your face will be so red that you could take the place of the flag on hole # 19, that being the clubhouse after your sixth gin and whoopee.

So golfers are far more serious than fly fishermen? Either that or they are more sensitive to embarrassment. For anglers are serious about their sport too. Yet they would rather be eaten by zombies than spend ten minutes twice a week in the back-yard solving their problems.

I remember the moment I began practicing in earnest and became a better caster as a result. It was during a fly-fishing event I was working at a local shop. One of the reps, a tournament caster took an 8-weight rod and threw the line into the backing with grace and little effort. He then offered me the rod, but I begged off saying that my arm hurt. Rather it was my ego that suffered contusions that day, for I had strength, but no grace, and poor timing at best.

The next day found me at the park, fly-rod in hand. I have a nearly perfect forward cast today, but a back cast that several master casting instructors still puzzle over, frowning and wondering why it works at all. I continue to learn on the water and on the grass. Some day I will be a caster worthy of the river, but for now, there are still situations on the water that confound me, and if fly-fishing isn’t a game of problem-solving and challenges, then I will hang up my rod and my pen and horror of horrors… take up golf.

As I tell new fly anglers, “Nothing you can do will improve your fly-fishing fun and fulfillment more that learning to cast proficiently.” Not necessarily far, but at 30 feet. Pick-up and lay-down, roll, steeple, side-arm, reach, etc.

So if you hook your friend in the ear on your errant back-cast, the ensuing verbal conflagration might serve you well in remembering not to drop your rod tip or break your wrist. It also might serve as a reminder that you might want to join me at my lonely post as ‘That strange guy standing in the park and fishing in his mind’. The putting green awaits, and practice makes perfect… or perhaps less of a quadruple Bogy on the stream. But then you might have to bring a new tape-measure to the river with you to measure your success rather than the extent of the stretch of truth told over a 12 year old… err..  6 year old, err… 6 month old scotch. Errr… cheap bourbon.

See you on the velvet green!

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.
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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…

Artist.

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.

Personality?

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!