Thursday, March 29, 2018

Medieval Redemption


Part the first: A malaise of history


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 But would they work….


Part the second: The anachronism goes forth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I was healed.

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