Saturday, August 29, 2009

We are One!

Well, one year old…

It was one year ago today that I began this little effort at self-expression, examination, humor, rhetoric, short literature, and criticism. As usual, with anything I love, I overdo it. Ecclesiastes says “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

For those that think this blog was all planned out; not a chance. It just happened.

It has been a joy and inspiration for me to see like minded people comment and come together with appreciation for traditional fly fishing.

In the past year this blog has;

Said goodbye to a friend.
Examined why we fish.
Advocated for wild fish.
Fought for removal of a dam on our local river.
Openly criticized the attitude and direction of the next generation of fly fishers.
Offered five or six pieces of short fiction to inspire.
Showcased some fine tackle.
Stumbled around rivers, sometimes even catching a fish or two.
Thought about the disconnection from nature of modern man and its implications.
Wrote some original lousy poetry/prose.
Quoted some famous poets and authors in regard to fly fishing and nature.
Exhibited classic salmon and steelhead flies and their histories.
Criticized the modern tackle industry.
Praised the modern tackle industry.
Laughed at ourselves.
And many other subjects…too many to mention.

People often ask me what I write. I usually answer “Words…mostly words.”

One of the great joys of blogging is finding other blogs that are in the like spirit of yours. I have linked to as many as I can find that fit.

Some have wondered why I don’t try to run advertisements on this blog. The answer is that unless I have total control of the advertisements, I don’t want them here. Imagine a post about the philosophy of fly fishing sponsored by Sierra Trading Post. Doesn’t quite work does it? Art and literature should be free. If we work under constraints we lose something special.

Everything changes. This blog, which really had no direction, has sort of morphed into a place for the examination and appreciation of the art and philosophy of angling. I don’t know where it will go from here. I hope to continue to be both inspired and to inspire. I hope to continue to promote critical thought.

As usual, you comments are very appreciated.

Fly fishing does not matter a hill of beans in the long run, but the analogies we see in our angling pursuits can enrich the other aspects of our lives. I often think as fly fishing as “All of life is within the loops, if we will just look for it, we can find ourselves.” Original quote by moi.

So, I wonder what is ahead for this blog. Many excellent bloggers burn out after a year or two. I hope I am not one of them. Ideally, I would like to publish some of the finished pieces contained here. If there are any prospective publishers out there, I am for hire!

Perhaps if you will allow me to be overly romantic for a moment, I may quote Browning…

“Grow old with me… the best is yet to be.”

Thank you for reading... all seven of you ;)

The Classical Angler, Erik F. Helm
Happy birthday. Now go fishing!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some tales from a flyshop

A few tales from a flyshop:

I am a bit of a collector of humorous true stories of folly. My sense of humor can be rather ironic, or sardonic. Fictional stories of human foibles are always amusing, but when they are true tales… ah, now we have a real gem.

My time running a flyshop often included bizarre encounters with a variety of customers. There were those who took themselves way too seriously, individuals that would not listen, people that always asked me the same three questions, homeless people killing a few hours, customers who would never speak to me… well, you get the idea.

I don’t want to give the impression that all my customers were eccentric, indeed, most were wonderful persons, and I still call many ‘friend’ to this day. However, just like the stories of personal mishaps, strange individuals stick out in my mind like characters out of Chekov or Joyce.

Here are a few examples of those individuals and incidents burned into my memory.

Pedro and the line

In the department store that my fly shop was part of, we had an employee whose job title was “Cleaning.”
Pedro always smiled as he went about his tasks. He had the joy and innocence of a child. He also spoke little comprehendable English. He had been in the country for quite a few years, but only spoke Spanish and a few jumbled English phrases. Conversations beyond “Hello, how are you?” turned into comedies of errors.
One day, a customer came into the shop to have all 300 yards of his salt water backing replaced. I mentioned that it would take me a half-hour at least, and he decided to take lunch. “I will be back to pick it up at two o’clock sharp, my plane leaves for the Bahamas at four.” Two hours should be plenty of time I thought.

Half way through the process of removing the backing to an awaiting plastic garbage pail in the back room, I was called back into the shop to aid a customer. When I returned, the sight that greeted me was one of horror. There stood Pedro with the fly line all tangled in a heap by his pile of trash. “Erik… Que?” he asked, holding up the pile. “NO QUE!” I responded, rushing forward to grab the line. Alas, it was in a hopeless tangle. You probably wonder why I coiled the line into a cardboard box instead of using a line-winder. The company I worked for was notoriously cheap, and we had no line winder. Indeed, even the reel-winder was defective, and ran backwards.

Suffice it to say I was covered with terror sweat when I wound the last coil of line on the customer’s reel just in time for him to pick it up and drive to the airport. Untangling that fly line added a few gray hairs to my head.

Midwest cutthroat

Every once and awhile you get a person who is convinced that he or she is right about an observation despite being told by experts that they are incorrect. Such a customer walked into the shop one day and wanted to buy flies for cutthroat trout. “Where are you fishing?” I asked. The answer was on the warm water tributary of Lake Michigan that is our local river. He went on to explain that he had been fishing the day before, and he had spotted some fish that ran about four or five pounds spawning in the river. He had thrown every fly he had at them, but could not get them to eat. He described the fish as having a sort of red coloration to their pectoral fins. Finally, the light went on in my brain. “Those are redhorse,” I explained. “A kind of sucker.”
“They were cutthroat,” he argued. “I know my trouts!”

I didn’t argue further. He obviously “Knew his trouts.” Ever since then, it has been a joke to me when asked what I am fishing for, to reply “Wisconsin Cutthroat!”

Of glo-bugs and hoppers.

The most annoying time of the year for me was the season when salmon ran our river to spawn. Dark and nasty, these Chinook salmon were often covered with fungus. Their appearance in the river caused all sorts of fools to come out of the woodwork to attempt to catch them in only inches of water. The preferred method of ‘fly fishing’ for these boots is to use glo-bugs and split-shot.

Every phone call at this time of year was the same: “Are the salmon runnin?”
Every customer likewise asked the follow-up question, “What color glo-bugs are them salmon taking?”

Despite my best efforts to interest anglers in changing their tactics and using streamers, it was always the glo-bugs that sold.

So one day, when the 999th customer was explaining to me that the fish would only take pink glo-bugs, I said to him, “That’s not what the last guy said. He was catching them on grasshoppers.” The guy looked at me incredulously for a few seconds before I broke into a smile, and told him that I was just kidding.

He walked out the door with a bag of hopper patterns, despite my protests again and again that I was just kidding.

The bigwig.

Some people have an inflated view of themselves. This was obviously the case with one very prominent lawyer that was also a former bigwig with a prominent fishing and recreation organization. They say that fly anglers can be arrogant. How true that was became apparent when I approached this gentleman one afternoon to ask him if he needed any help. “Do you know who I am?” He asked with a rather haughty inflection.
“Do you know who I am?” I responded before I could catch myself. His eyebrows rose with incredulous shock at my lack of groveling.

I never saw him again.

The lawyer and the deceiver

The lack of chartreuse tying thread for deceivers led me to suggest to yet another lawyer that many tiers simply used white thread, and covered the head later with colored fingernail polish.
“Do you even TIE FLIES?” he asked.
“No, actually I just walked in from the street,” I responded. “That’s why I came up to you and asked if you needed any help with the thread.”

I never saw that guy again either. I have got to work on my people skills.

What weight is it?

The sheer number of fishermen that came into the shop looking to buy fly line and yet not knowing what weight rod they had was simply baffling. I kind of wondered what kind of goofy setup they were fishing with. Which leads us to the next customer…

The lawyer and the backwards line.

More lawyers. It is not my intent to pick on lawyers, but I knew that these customers were lawyers because they told me so.
Me: “Hi, can I help you?”
Them: “I’m a lawyer.”
To this day I am unsure if this was supposed to be some kind of warning, or simply an introduction. It reminds me of a giant grizzly wandering wild the woods with a wooden placard around his neck that reads “Bear.”

Two gentlemen in suits came into the shop during the lunch hour on a Friday, and I approached to see if I could help, or simply direct them to anything.

“Were lawyers.”

The taller lawyer explained that he was an ‘expert’ fly fisherman, and that he was going to take his friend fly fishing for the first time on a trout stream.

This situation is very difficult to handle. The novice or beginner will often overlook advice in favor of his buddy’s. The ‘expert’ buddy doesn’t want to be contradicted, so I was often forced in these situations to stand back as poor decisions were made on the novice’s behalf.

Sensing from body language that I was not wanted, I remarked that the reel that the ‘expert’ was holding was quite nice and “May I see it?”

“Help yourself’” he said.

I noticed that the line badly needed cleaning, and after getting his permission, I started stripping it off the reel. It seemed to be some sort of level two or three weight line. Then, after fifty feet of line lay at my feet, it got a lot fatter.

“What weight line is this?” I asked.
“Five weight. My spare reel. Gonna lend it to my buddy here.”

Please forgive me dear reader. I could not help myself.

“You know,” I began. “The fly line is on backwards.”

He looked up, and realizing that I had effectively removed his mantle of ‘expert’, mumbled “I guess that’s why it never cast right.”

While I reversed the line and cleaned it, the novice listened to his friend’s advice with, if I read his facial expressions correctly, a bit of apprehension.

Match the hatch (cork handle)

A very accomplished local fly fisherman came to me one day with a rod to send back to the manufacturer. This was a service that we offered free as a courtesy, and was a weekly occurrence.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
He pointed to a deep hole in the cork handle, and told me a story.
Apparently, he was fishing the rod when some sort of insect decided it was time to hatch… from the cork of his rod! It squirmed its way out of the cork, hatched, and flew away, leaving behind the large hollow home of his larval stage.
On the line entitled ‘Defect or issue,’ I wrote. “Bug hatched from cork. Please replace.”
I often wonder what the manufacturer thought when they got that one, but sure enough, they replaced the rod. Wonder where the cork-eating bug ended up…

Fly reels and bourbon don’t mix

Calmer heads prevailed when a guy who was obviously stinking drunk came into the shop spitting with anger at the Orvis Battenkill reel that he had bought from us. My colleague Bill handled the situation perfectly. I, on the other hand, was in favor of placing the reel far up his anal region.

His complaint was that the reel spool was scraping and bent. This, of course, was due to the fact that he had clearly fallen on it in a drunken stupor, a fact that he never told us. His anger should have been directed inward, as it was obvious that he was at fault. There are some people in this world for which any sense of personal responsibility did not exist. Here was a prime example.

Bill calmed me down, placated the customer, and motioned me into the back room to escape the booze fumes as well as replace the reel. He then bent the reel back into shape with his bare hands. Returning to the customer, he told him that he had replaced the reel with a new one. The goon was drunk enough that he probably could not see properly to determine that it was the same reel, and had enough of a distorted sense of time to not notice that it only took us five minutes to ‘replace’ the reel. He yelled a few more threats our way about defective expensive gear and then staggered out of the shop. We never saw him again. Thank God.

“Its on sale!”

Human psychology is a funny thing, especially when it comes to sales.
Like most retail establishments, I held an annual sale. In this case, it was a store-wide sale in all departments. It attracted all kinds of goofy bargain hunters. Early on, I found that if you reduced the price of something far enough, it would sell. I sold two trout priests at 70% off to a guy who didn’t fish and had no idea what they were. A pair of size 13 wading boots that were discontinued sold to a short woman that wore a size seven. When I stated that I thought that they would never fit her, she exclaimed with big eyes “But they are on sale!!”

Old flylines placed in a discount bin always sold as well. An ancient seven weight level line found in the back room sold to a guy who was intending to fish for bonefish. I did try to explain that it would not work, but it WAS ON SALE!! He bought it anyway. His expensive dream vacation to Belize would be torpedoed by trying to save twenty bucks on a line.

Getting rid of spare spools became a chore. I had a whole shelf of discontinued spools in the back room. I finally put a sticker on each spool that read “Was $900.00… Now only $15.00!!”
They sold like hot cakes. Elderly woman purchased them as gifts. If you got one, then I am truly sorry.

“You know… a spey line!”

One of my customers came in one day to show me the incredible ‘deal’ he had purchased in the bargain cave of a local big-box sporting goods store.

It was a two handed spey rod that he paid fifty bucks for. He had an old Pfluger reel to go along with it.
“What weight line did you get for it?” I asked, observing that the rod was marked as a 6/7.
“You know, a spey line,” he answered.
I looked at the line. It was a long belly 10/11 weight.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Might make a good weed-whacker,” I replied, handing the rod and line back to him.

This is a funny local phenomenon. People here seem to take great pride in a bargain without realizing whom they are speaking to. Kind of like a guy who sits for hours in a doctor’s office in order to show the doctor how much money he saved by performing his own surgery using an old pair of sewing scissors.

Saving money can lead to wasting money if you are not careful.

I learned this the hard way when in sixth grade. I pestered my mom to bid on an ancient trumpet in the school’s blind auction. For ten dollars, we took the thing home. I thought I was pretty smart. I already had a nice student trumpet, but for only a few bucks, I now had another one. Then I took it to the local musical instrument store. The brass expert examined it and handing it back to me, explained all the myriad defects. Just repairing the valves would set me back by six months of paper route earnings. “What should I do?” I asked him.
“Make a lamp out of it,” he replied.

Or a weed-whacker…

Ultra-light brain

A customer came in one day looking for a one-weight rod. Due to lack of sales in super heavy or ultra light rods, I did not stock any one-weights. The guy was disappointed, and told me that he used a one-weight for all his fly fishing. I though he was referring to trout, but when he took me over to the bragging board, sure enough, there were several photos of him with large steelhead.
“Wow, that must have been some fight,” I said.
“Yea… it took me an hour to land it, and by the time I got it to the bank, it had died.”

The gentleman

I got the call at home on my day off. My coworker Eric was excited. “Wait till you see what this old guy left on your desk!” he said.

The next day a large bag greeted me that was filled with ten or twelve Hardy perfect reels in various sizes.
The customer wanted new lines placed on all the reels and spare spools, and for me to tighten, adjust, and fix any defects. Who was he? Who was this guy with such a collection? Who was this who trusted me to service his reels?

It turned out that he was a customer that years before had brought me a hardy reel to get a line placed on, and remembered that I had fixed the handle on his reel, and washed, cleaned, and oiled it for no charge. He had a better memory than I did.

When he came in to pick up his reels he was well dressed and had manners of a European gentleman. I had saved him some money by cleaning one line instead of replacing it. He thanked me kindly and profusely.

It was an honor to meet him, and an honor to service his reels.  His sincere thanks still resonates with me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Rest is Noise

Recently, while exploring fly fishing blogs and adding to this sites collection of preferred links, I started pondering what I and others were adding to our sport. Then while browsing further an answer slowly came to me:

The rest is just noise.

Sounds arrogant, doesn’t it? Read on…

The early exposure I had to fishing and hunting literature was by reading back issues of Outdoor Life from the 1960s and 1970s that my father collected and saved. In those days, short stories, both fiction and non-fiction, and adventure tales actually had substance. People actually read back then. Substance and quality were appreciated more than flash, and people had attention spans long enough to digest a two thousand word article. Twitter would have been laughed at.

I remember lying on my dad’s bedroom floor for countless hours imagining what mountains must look like, or what I would do if I were treed by a grizzly. The short stories were imaginative also. They had a way of engaging the reader and drawing him into the story. In my imagination, I traveled the world fishing, hunting, and exploring.

Then I lost track of the natural world as I grew older and pursued other things.

When I took up fly fishing, I began to read everything I could get my hands on. I subscribed to multiple magazines, bought how-to books and destination guides, and began reading John Gierach, Nick Lyons, Seth Norman, Thomas McGuane, Roderick Haig-Brown, etc. Here were real treasures.

After awhile, the magazines began to bore me. There was a conspicuous lack of substance and quality writing. They were all flash, or ‘noise’ if you allow me. The articles began to repeat themselves: “Hopper Tunity!”, “Midge Magic!”, “Five-weight shootout.”, yada, yada, yada… They seemed to be written by the same people that produced motor-sports magazines. Pictures replaced words. I would eagerly turn to an article, misled by the front cover blurb into thinking it was going to be a feature story, only to find some sophomoric and cursory treatment.

So, I dropped the subscriptions, and began to collect old magazine articles from the 1970s again.

Then I began this blog, and discovered like-minded persons out there that wanted and demanded quality. They keep blogs on fly fishing as varied as our fishing is. Conservation, wild fish, history, literary reviews, fine quality gear, river journals, and adventure tales are covered with taste. Here was a whole new world.

Browse down the links on the right side of this blog.

The Quiet Pool, where Shane often covers conservation and details Oregon’s trout and steelhead fisheries. He writes beautifully, and is a traditional angler with respect and reverence.

Singlebarbed, which is some of the most humorous and yet very inciteful writing on the subject.

Cutthroat Stalker, where Scott writes about his favorite trout and their habitat, as well as excellent literary reviews on the subject of fly fishing.

Dr. Andrew Herd’s exhaustive history of fly fishing site. I get lost here for hours at a time.

Colin Innes, who keeps the very important research site Vintage tackle and Salmon Flies of Aberdeen. A source of original research and history painstakingly and lovingly assembled.

Tony, who created the site Stream Thought about fishing and thinking, complete with book reviews, trout science and more.

Eccles over at Turning over Small Stones is an Englishman living in Pennsylvania. He writes deep meditations and observations about our sport.

Jeff Kennedy and his fly paintings and drawings is another site dedicated to fine art. Jeff is a professional illustrator who paints beautifully.

The Angler’s Life List, a site dedicated to wild salmonids.

Tom Chandler at the premier site The Trout Underground never fails to inspire or call our attention to something interesting or important.

These are just a few examples of what is out there somewhere. Each site has several things in common that tie them together. First is quality content. Second would be some artistry. This can be in many forms. The third is respect and passion. On these sites and many others that I have yet to discover, one can find gems of writing, art, philosophy, and thought that are often missing from many other blogs and publications. I found these sites through accident, as well as other blog links, and comments on this blog.

I have not linked to the large commercial fly fishing blogs. I am tempted to, but then comes a post full of foul language, boasting, or some other odious trait that I doubt if readers of The Classical Angler would appreciate. The bigger something gets and the wider the circulation, the more scrubbed over or dumbed down the content has to be in order for it to sell.

So, for those that long for the days when the Art of Angling Journal showed up in their mailboxes, or who cannot wait for the new Gray’s sporting Journal to arrive, these blogs will help fuel your fire between hookups with epic fish. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Lore of Fine Gear

The lore of fine gear

Many of us that fish with flies love nothing more than to touch, discuss, and dream about the fine tackle of our sport. Meet another angler on a stream, and the talk will assuredly turn to gear sooner or later. We ask each other: “What rod is that?” “Which fly are you using?” or state our appreciation of the other’s fine fly reel. In winter when the snow and cold threaten to overwhelm us, conversations around a warm fire in a study discuss the finer points of gear and pawl checks, and the big one that got away. Cognac, a fine cigar, a Leonard rod…

What is it about the equipment of fly-fishing that so appeals to us? Is it something to do with being men? Is it similar to a bunch of guys admiring power tools?

The equipment itself has very few concrete properties: metal, wood, thread, etc. We assign or ascribe the romantic characteristics ourselves. Aesthetics. So, there are inherent properties vs. ascribed properties and human imagination. These work together with our sense of history and adventure to form what we feel when we look at fine tackle. I call this lore. Lore can be defined for our purposes here as the process of ascribing abstract properties and romantic notions, nostalgia and learned history to concrete items.

How would different people or creatures react to viewing a beautifully tied fly? A non-fly fisherman might see a metal hook with feathers and fur attached, and have some slight sense of intended use, but that is all. A space alien might ponder the utility of the object to the human race as an anthropologist would. A cat might wonder if it is worth its time to chase the thing. A fish might see something that triggers a feeding response.
Therefore, the uncarved block views the gear of fly fishing in an innocent and ignorant way. They may recognize some inherent aesthetic beauty, but cannot without extensive experience relate abstract qualities to the equipment. They would be incapable of placing the objects in proper perspective within their lives. Romance could not then be assigned or imagined. Lore would not be felt.

Human beings have a natural sense to appreciate beauty of form. Most people, even having little exposure to art or architecture, would appreciate a sculpture by Michelangelo, a painting by Vermeer, or the classic lines of an ionic column. This might be true of a full dress salmon fly or a Quill Gordon, but most would say “It sure is pretty, but what is it?” Knowing the intended use and the tradition behind it allows us to ascribe romantic properties.

Then comes the act of anthropomorphism, or assigning human-like traits, qualities, or even sex to our equipment. Reels sing, loops sizzle, rods dance, and we refer to our rod as ‘she’ or ‘he.’

We are not alone in our desire to find lore in our equipment. Upland game hunters have fine double guns, bait-casters a myriad of exotic plugs, and fencers their fine foil, epee’ and saber.

Would we have it no other way? What if an object was just that… an object? With no assigned aesthetic qualities, characteristics, romance, or lore? What a boring and sterile world we would live in. A sort of dream-deprived state. All romance dead. An Orwellian world of pseudo sensory deprived autism.

Romance, legend, lore, and tradition all enter our conceptualization of our sporting experiences, both real and imagined. The equipment becomes part of the story. Our story. His story. History.

Ask yourself this: why does it infuriate you when someone refers to your fine early 20th century bamboo trout rod as “That fishing pole?”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Some flies of the summer runs

Some flies of the summer runs

I love to fish classic Dee flies. They have a grace and charm unequaled in the world of flies. Dee flies are large winter dress flies tied on very long hooks, so application as a summer fly is limited. The solution is to reduce the fly. Here are three Dunt Dee flies. Two have white wings and one a more traditional turkey wing. I used dyed black golden pheasant feathers for the hackle, and wound in forward of the dubbing as one would in a hairwing. The reason for this is that with a shorted shank hook, it is difficult to place materials without becoming over-dressed. You know… overdressed! Like wearing a suit, three T-shirts, two rain jackets, and a top hat crowned with a sun-visor. Summer flies should be dressed lightly. The dubbing for the bodies is Angora goat and SLF blended, twisted in a dubbing loop, blended again, and wrapped forward. The hook is a size 2 salmon iron.

Then we have the muddler. A number of years ago Royce Dam, 1994 FFF Buszek award winner for lifetime achievement in fly tying explained to me what was wrong with most all commercially tied muddlers. A muddler is a simple pattern designed to ride in or just below the surface film imitating some sort of small baitfish. To achieve the effect of a baitfish outline, deerhair is spun to form a head. The original muddlers were fairly lightly dressed, but in subsequent versions the deer hair began to be packed tight in several stages to form a tapered head. Deer hair floats. Additional deer hair increases floatation. What the modern muddler did was to effectively become a sort of mini Dahlberg Diver. In order to sink the fly, tying companies added weight.

Royce told me that the original muddlers had a single turn of deer hair for a head, and were NOT trimmed. One had to very carefully stack the hair prior to setting the head, and then carefully make just one single flair and spin of the hair. The resulting muddler sort of pushes water while being free to sink if a heavy hook is used. I tied this one more as a waker on an Alec Jackson hook. I have been using this fly for awhile to test it, and it seems to perform as designed. Thanks Royce!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The ‘Fishing’ Trip

Copyright 2009 Erik F. Helm

The theme of a fishing trip where there is no fishing to speak of sprang to mind one day as I was taking a walk. I had been on many strange road trips as a young man. Some of the odd-balls and their less than reliable death traps of vehicles stick out in my mind. There was the VW bus that carried a friend and I from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania driven by an eccentric older acquaintance that pounded the gas pedal to the accompaniment of Jethro Tull. The bus lurched forward down the interstate as we slid backward and forward on the floor. A fellow competitor’s father piloted my first trip to a rifle match several states away. The green Chevy Vega we all rode in had to be started with a screwdriver, and the upholstery was all torn up. Going over a bump, the rear of the car would hit the road, causing sparks to fly. Then there was the story of a friend of mine who was accompanied on a fishing trip to New Mexico by a guy who brought along fifty tons of gear, but could never locate or use any of it.

I once drove all the way across the state of Wisconsin to fish a spring creek, and had actually gotten to within one mile of the water, when a huge thunderstorm suddenly struck, causing massive flooding and washing out parts of the road. Timing…
In my younger days, I also discovered why baked beans and cheap beer should not be combined the night before getting into waders.
All these trip disasters are often remembered as vividly as the best fishing days on the water, and are retold around the campfire with a sort of pride. I thought I might place them all together, and have them driven by a guy I know that owns a truck that… well, you will see. I think we all know a character like him.
Erik Helm, August 2009

He had been after me to go fishing together for so long that I could not remember a time when he was not suggesting some road trip or another. I had finally acquiesced, which explains my befuddled state at 4:30 on a cold morning as I wrestled with the coffee maker. We had been friends since high school, though I frequently lost track of him for a few years at a time as he single-mindedly pursued some new adventure in hopes of making a living. Adventure. That was a pretty good way of describing Zeke. When he was born they not only broke the mold, but also sent the pieces into outer space. He would blow into my life for a visit, all fired up about one thing or another, full of inspiration and followed by a cloud of chaos. Susan was polite to him only out of respect to me, but could only take him for short periods. She applied to him the description of Lord Byron, the poet: “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” As I sipped the scalding coffee, I remembered his gold panning venture, the emu egg farm, his lawsuit against a local cafĂ© for not serving apple pie, and the scheme for importing Chinese-made tubas which turned out not to have any valves. One thing was for sure; Zeke could never be described as ‘boring.’

Why I agreed to this fishing trip was due as much to my sense of guilt as his persistence. Why I had put it off for so long was due to my stodgy need for order in my life, and the threat he posed to that very sense of sanity. I sighed with apprehension as I walked out to the garage, making my way through the false light of dawn over the mountains. Muddler creek was just across the state border, and over the continental divide as well. Assembling my fly tackle in the dark garage, I heard a low rumbling and scraping approaching on the highway. Some dark spot with a single headlight was making a cloud of dust as it turned into our drive. The dark spot quickly became a pickup and plywood camper. The vehicle was a local legend. Zeke had named it ‘Grendel’ after the monster in Beowulf, and it was rumored to be as temperamental. It was gray, brown, and rust in color. Which color it was originally was anybody’s guess. I was not looking forward to my baptismal trip in this beast. “Hey!” Zeke shouted as he leapt out of the driver’s door with a flourish bearing a hammer. He opened the hood and began banging on the engine block. Grendel coughed, spit, and finally was silent. A blue cloud of oil fumes drifted back to envelop all three of us.

“How you been?” Zeke asked. Dressed in bib overalls and a stained red Hawaiian shirt, his six-foot athletic frame was topped off by wild brown hair and a beard that would make the Amish proud. “Pretty well, thanks… and plan on staying that way” I replied. “That thing safe?”
“Grendel?, oh hell… she’s as fine as the day she was… well, she’s all right anyhow.”
“Got everything?”
“Rod, reel, line, lunch, fly boxes, coffee… yup, pretty much” I checked off.
“Let’s go then.”

I grabbed the door handle, noticing at the same time that the running board was held up with bailing wire. Opening the door, I was hit with an odor of stale coffee, oil, and skunk.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Zeke shouted, headed toward the open hood with a screwdriver. “Hit a skunk a week ago… hard to get rid of the smell.” I pushed aside the debris on the seat to take up its residence on the floor with empty beer bottles, wet paper bags, and other trash. ‘Floor’ was sort of a kind word to use, since plywood covered large rusted holes, and prevented me from falling out the bottom of the truck. Zeke was poking at something in the engine, when Grendel sputtered to life with vigor, and began lurching forward toward the firewood lean-to next to our garage. I saw Zeke leap nimbly to the side just before the truck plowed into the structure, effectively stopping it, while sending me to the floor, and collapsing the lean-to. His face popped into the window with a grin. “Have to start her by jumping the engine with a screwdriver. Have any plans to tear down that shed?”
“Not really.”
“Well, I saved ya the work” he stated through a smile while hopping into the cab.

We turned down the highway and ‘hit the road’ in a metaphorical sense. Zeke had rigged up an old 8-track player and had taped it to the dashboard. It never seemed to bother him that a tape was permanently stuck in the player and repeated Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’ endlessly. He began telling me of his latest idea, shouting over the music. “Herbal Viagra… juniper berries. What gives gin it’s reputation. Make a fortune!”
“Oh good…patent medicine. Well, just don’t drink your own snake oil” I jested sarcastically.

To describe the epic journey over the mountains and the continental divide would make a likely subject for Homer. Suffice it to say that the view was beautiful, but any aesthetic joy was shrouded by fear, as I realized that Zeke was the worst driver I had ever seen, and that Grendel had a damn good chance of falling apart altogether. I clutched the door handle so hard that my hand cramped. Zeke seemed to drive by the theory that he could save wear and tear on tires by having at least one of them spinning over thin air as he negotiated blind curves at twelve thousand feet. At one point, the truck’s engine began coughing. Zeke bade me grab the wheel as he got out and began galloping along side of Grendel, pouring a bottle of ‘Old Crow’ into the gas tank. “Damn bitch. She got the taste for booze when I ran outa’ gas in Wyoming a year ago. Had to burn a bottle of moonshine just to get to the next town. She gets ornery if she don’t have it for awhile.” He tipped the last inch down his throat while climbing back in, and the bottle joined the debris field at our feet. “Hey, looky there!” he said suddenly, pointing to a homemade tombstone and plastic flowers along side the road over a precipitous drop. “Guess somebody didn’t steer too good!” The morning coffee and the ancient crusty doughnut Zeke had provided me for breakfast began to slowly make their way upwards as I felt my panic rising. “Don’t worry bud, I ‘been doin’ this for years and I ‘aint dead yet” was his reassurance. “Have some circus peanuts,” he offered, holding out a large bag of the vile orange marshmallow concoctions. Begging off, I mused that of anyone over five years old that I had ever known, Zeke was the only human being that actually liked circus peanuts. “Good with beer” he explained, popping the top on a warm can of lager. Just then, Grendel topped the divide and began to descend the other side. The descent was as fast as the ascent was slow, and the truck lurched around hairpin turns as Zeke wrestled the wheel from side to side. “Gotta get them brakes fixed one of these days” he explained.

Dawn had just broken when we pulled off the highway and made our way down a dirt road to the river. Zeke was explaining global weather patterns and human migration in the early middle ages despite my attempts to distract him. Stopping the truck, he performed the ritual of hammering on the engine to get it to stop. I had to pry my hand off the door handle as I literally fell out of the truck. The silence and sound of the river now emerged from the history lectures of Zeke and death groans of Grendel. It was not a large river, but every hundred feet contained a small riffle. Hatching insects broke the water surface tension in these riffles, and the trout would be waiting. Zeke opened the back of the camper and handed me my rod tube and backpack. He then began rooting around in the back, tossing objects out the rear and onto the ground, all the while muttering to himself. “Shit! I’m sure I threw the reel in here somewhere…” “Zeke, you have got to be kidding,” I said. “Are you sure?” “Yup, looked everywhere. No reel.”
“Well, lucky for you that I always bring a spare five-weight reel and line just in case.” I opened up the backpack and pulled out the canvas bag containing my fly reels. “You can use my spare, but be careful with it, will you?”
I noticed the problem the second my fingers found the reels. I had grabbed the wrong bag. I never do things like this. I always am more than prepared. My wife even refers to me as “Captain O” for organization. It had to be a fluke… or destiny. Chaos followed Zeke around like the four horses of the apocalypse. Maybe his karma was stronger than mine. It made no real difference now I thought, as I pulled the two salt-water reels with nine-weight lines out of the bag. Oh good… nine-weight reels and lines with five-weight rods. This was going to be an adventure; like using .357 ammo in a .22. “Oops…” I shrugged at Zeke.
“No problemo bro! I once used a tin can as a reel. This will do just fine,” he said through a mouthful of circus peanuts while popping open another beer.

We rigged up the rods with the outsized reels, barely coaxing the line through the guides.
“We will have to go easy on the casting stroke,” I said, as my rod bent back and forth wildly like a drunk.
Donning hip boots, we closed up the truck, and began to walk down to Muddler Creek. There were small insects hovering over the first riffle. “Blue wing olives,” I whispered to Zeke. We both tied 5X tippet to the end of the 20 pound salt water leader, and tied on little parachute olive flies. “Go ahead, Zeke offered, you’re up first.”

I crept into position downstream of the riffle and brought the rod back for the cast. The little rod overloaded and hit the water on the back cast. I flopped it forward with as much grace as a cannon ball, and sent the little fly towards the riffle. Then the tip section of the rod fell off. “Shit!” I grabbed for the section as it lay in the water by my feet. I spotted a splashy rise at the same time in the riffle, and raised the butt section of the rod. A trout was firmly attached to the little fly, wiggling and jumping. As I tried to play the fish with the two sections of rod in my hands, my feet became entangled in the line and I pitched forward into the river. Coming up sputtering, I heard wild laughter coming from a prostrate Zeke, who had fallen over with mirth, legs wildly kicking the air as he giggled and guffawed. There, suspended from my hat and dangling from the line was a ten-inch trout. It wiggled back and forth in front of my face with what I swore were curious eyes as if to ask “What in the heck just happened?”

“Okay smart guy, your turn,” I said to Zeke as he recovered from his laughter, tears running down his cheeks.

The second he put down his beer and entered the water, the mayflies disappeared. I don’t mean that they just stopped hatching. No, they simply vanished. In their place were an empty riffle and the sound of thunder.
“Where did that dark cloud come from,” I asked rhetorically as lightning flickered and the wind picked up.
Zeke was already headed back to the truck with rod, circus peanuts, and beer in hand, when it began to rain.
“I thought blue winged olives LIKED nasty weather. What the heck happened back there.”
“Bummer man. That’s all, just a bummer.” he philosophized. “Bad JuJu.”

The temperature had dropped by what seemed like twenty degrees, and both of us had forgotten our rain jackets in the truck. My teeth were chattering by the time I arrived soaking wet. We both were seated in the cab a few seconds later, watching the rivulets of rain run down the windshield. “What now? I asked.”
“I’ll get Grendel started and then we run the heater and get warm.” He opened the door and ducked into the rain, screwdriver in hand. A few moments passed, and Grendel gave a single belch of life, accompanied by a short refrain from ‘Locomotive Breath’. Then there was silence.

I waited a few minutes before opening my door and shouting into the downpour. “Zeke! Hurry up!
Hey Zeke! Zeke?…”

As I got out of the truck, my foot found purchase on the running board for only a second before the bailing wire broke, spilling me to the ground. Wet, muddy, and by now in a foul mood, I got up and went around to the front of the truck, squinting through the rain to see. Zeke lay semi conscious directly in front of Grendel, a blackened screwdriver clutched in his hand.
“Wow, man. Now I know what being electrocuted feels like,” he said while slowly sitting up. “My hair hurts.”
Sticking a metal object into a truck battery while soaking wet was bad enough; the brown streak that escaped the rain by running under the truck was worse. A mountain lion. “Oh shit.” We both said together.

So there we both were. We spent the next two hours shivering in the rain huddled together in front of Grendel, and unable to move. I was so cold and hungry that I even accepted the offer of a circus peanut.

Suffice it to say that eventually it stopped raining enough for the big cat to feel comfortable leaving its shelter. Either that or the oil dripping from Grendel finally got to it. Either way, we got the ancient truck started and headed for home.

The return trip was rather quiet, and Zeke seemed to drive a bit slower and more carefully after his brush with electricity. Grendel was not so complacent. She developed a rattle that threatened to drown out the 94th repetition of ‘Locomotive Breath’, and began to belch black smoke. “Just a second,” Zeke said, stopping the truck. He went in the back and rummaged around, emerging with a pint bottle of some bluish liquid. “Home made Viagra,” he said as he poured the solution into the gas tank. Grendel seemed to like the stuff, because she made it all the way over the continental divide and to within one hundred feet of the state line before she blew a tire. I sat cross-legged by a sage bush as Zeke coaxed another retread tire onto Grendel. All the while the sign announcing the state line hung overhead like the sword of Damocles.

We turned into my drive an hour later.

“We have to do this again,” Zeke said, as I retrieved my backpack and rod tube from the pickup.
“Sure, someday…” I replied as he pulled away, Grendel belching and rattling. Someday…
“When hell freezes over…” I muttered to myself as I wondered how long it would take to wash off the bad karma that was Zeke. One thing was for sure; if and when he blew into my life again, he was sure to have a different vehicle. Grendel could never last that long. Or could she?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sucking the marrow out of life

I found this little gem yesterday while editing some of my work to submit for publication. It was written in late 2008, and predates some other essays touching on the same themes. Kind of interesting to see ideas emerge. I don't know how to classify the piece. It is not an essay or vignette, more of a train of thought prose. Not polished at all. Rather raw. I wanted to edit it, but decided that it needed to stand on its own. E.H.

Sucking the marrow out of life.

I have been thinking about Thoreau lately. As I talk to people these days I am struck more and more by the fact that they don’t know where their food comes from. They don’t know a river from a stream. They are against hunting and fishing while eating factory farm food and chemicals. They don’t know what a turnip is. They can’t identify birdcalls. They are afraid of rain. They have never gone out on a cloudless night and sat in a field watching the stars. They have never spent an hour eating black berries in the wild. They have not lived.

Children no longer look at clouds.

Our society shelters us to such extent that the average 20 year old today could not survive in the world of the 1930s. Nature has become a stranger, and man has built walls removing himself from his environment.

The best days I have had in life have involved adventures. Not adrenaline surged gnarly DUDE maxed out, but more like quiet discoveries alone in nature: being stuck in a river during a rainstorm, getting lost in a mosquito infested swamp while trying to explore a tiny trickle for wild brown trout, rowing a river after dark, collecting a leaf sample or a wildflower, finding a great horned owl. In other words, prying under the rocks of life to find out what is under it all.

A day where I don’t get muddy is a day wasted.

A friend of mine who I am quoting anonymously wrote:

“I just like it better knowing what it’s like to be alive. Truly alive. Scared, cold, sweaty, tired, sore, somewhat lost in the woods. Chasing, on foot only, that elusive mule deer or elk with longbow and arrow. Steelhead with classic methods…..Even better when the mood strikes to run with a hand-made cane rod, silk line, and hand made fly reel.”

Perhaps it can be thought of as living closer to life. Grow your own food, cook your own meals, hunt, fish, be inquisitive, know what lives under that rock, get wet and muddy, wear a strange hat, take a book into the woods, eat an entire meal made up of things growing wild, peer into holes, stick your head under water and look around, build a shelter and stay the night in it, build a fire from scratch, perhaps even go an entire day without touching an electronic digital device.

The best apple I ever ate came from a wild apple tree happened upon during an autumn walk.

To know the wildness of nature… to be uncertain… to be afraid but calm.
To know the cycles of life and death.

To slow down.
To look.
To listen.
To learn.

To know restraint.
To smile at a sound or a smell of nature.

To go against the crowd.

To live… to really live!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Fly Shop and the General Store

The Fly Shop and the General Store
Copyright 2009, Erik Helm

Although this story is a piece of fiction, it is based on my own observations. Fly shops, and indeed many retail establishments today seem to all look alike, kind of like fast food restaurants for anglers. They carry much of the same product, and seem to be arranged by the same person. Everything is in perfect rows and logos are everywhere. Contrast that with shops or stores that are more unique and have charm, such as the Redshed Flyshop in Peck Idaho, the old Angler’s Roost in new York, or even a general store, and I at least, yearn for a time when everything was not made ubiquitous. Bill Schreiber built the fly shop that I worked at and finally took over, and he cultivated a different look and feel. ‘Quaint and interesting’ might have been descriptions applied. ‘Unique’ certainly was. I also remember the joy of going into small town hardware and general stores in northern Wisconsin, and finding curious fishing lures from twenty years ago still on sale along side cap guns and toy bow and arrow sets. Places such as this are like miniature museums in their way. Nostalgia? Perhaps… but I still get all funny inside when I find a special place like this. A place where I can root around and find the odd item, chat with interesting and eccentric shop keepers, and waste a few hours apart from the plastic sameness of our modern world. I usually emerge with stuff I don’t need, but might in time become part of a memory.
Erik Helm, August 2009


It was what I call a ‘slow trip’.
I was meandering around some public waters on a fair to middling Atlantic Salmon river for a few days, not expecting much else but scenery and the odd fish, but the whole fishing experience seemed more important than numbers of fish as I grew older. I had hooked a nice fresh hen of around ten pounds or so, watched some eagles nest and fish, and drew a few sketches of the river that might make a subject for a nice watercolor.

The mid-day heat was not conducive to fishing, so I drove to the local town to augment my food supplies and perhaps see a bit of late 19th century main street architecture. The town was all I could have hoped for. Ancient brick facades with faded painted advertising on their sides stood in rank like forgotten soldiers. The ads were for products ridiculously outdated: chocolate soft drinks from the prohibition period, dubious patent medicines guaranteed to either cure you or kill you, and curiously named hair tonics. The street was only a block long, and was festively decorated with flowers and somewhat tattered flags. A lone dog wandered across the empty street near an old fire station. A few cars were parked here and there, mostly concentrated at the end of the block where a newly painted sign announced ‘Fly Shop.’

At the local grocery store, I purchased a few tins of soup, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of cold lemonade. The girl behind the register was as pretty and shy as the town itself.

I then made my way towards the end of the main street towards the fly shop. I love a good fly shop, and have been known to lose all track of time while fondling the various gadgets and gear of our obscure sport. The fly shop stood apart from the rest of the town in that it was newly constructed in the fashion of a log home. It was the only new structure on the street. Large inviting windows filled the front and were filled with tackle, while the only neon sign in town welcomed ‘Open’.

As I opened the door, the first thing that hit me was the cool breeze of the air conditioning. It smelled of fresh plastic, mothballs, and potpourri. A large flat screen television hung behind the counter playing some sort of fishing video that flashed boldly forth with glory shots of fish and anglers. It reminded me of a rock video, complete with an irritating hip-hop accompaniment. “Hey, like, can I help you?” offered a twenty something stereotype wearing a ball cap with a stylized toothy fish skeleton. “Thanks, but no” I replied, “Just poking around.” “No problem, Dude” the kid said, “but make sure to, like, check out the new flies we have and stuff.”

The shop was full to the brim with product segmented in like types: rods over there, fly bins poised at easy height, glass cases full of new shiny reels with colorful anodizing, an entire wall of fly fishing clothing lit individually by track lighting, pontoon boats suspended overhead, shelves of fly lines and accessories, a rotating display of aggressive looking polarized sunglasses, towers of leaders and tippet, and framed photographs of fish and trophy mounts. Above all, there were logos. Signs popped out everywhere, proclaiming the latest and greatest manufacturers, many which were new to me. The shop kid was busy ringing up a middle-aged man in a business suit who had a pile of purchases at the counter. I whistled inwardly when the total was given. I thought I might like a new pair of woolen socks, as some of mine had seen better days and were a bit war weary. The pair I found on the meticulously organized clothing wall was quite nice. They should be for fifty dollars I thought as I put them carefully back. I looked at the fly rods next. They were the best that money could buy. Expertly designed and light in the hand, they reminded me of colorful little performance sports cars lined up for sale. The only problem was that they were all the same. The local shop in my hometown carried the exact same rods. Placing two rods of the same line weight and length side by side, Only the manufacturer logo differed. The reel seats, guides, and even the graphite color were similar.
Turning to the fly bins, I found the display with the ‘must have’ flies for the local river. I read the display a second and third time to make certain, as I recognized none of the featured flies. These flies were constructed of plastic and tinsel, rabbit strips and flash, and sported names such as ‘Metal magnet’, ‘Ron’s killer’, and ‘Neon seducer’. I suddenly felt out of place and claustrophobic. Turning to leave, I bumped into a display rack of T-shirts bearing the slogans ‘Zip my fly!’, ‘Chrome member’, and ‘Salmon slayer.’

The heat that hit me full force as I exited the shop was welcome and appreciated.

I was walking back towards the car, when I passed a store with a neglected look. A weary sign proclaimed ‘General and Hardware store’. Paint peeled off in strips where there was paint, and a lazy dog slept next to a worn welcome mat. The place looked like a Norman Rockwell print that had been left in the sun for a hundred years. The display windows were full of dust, paint cans, a ladder, an old bait-casting rod, a faded American flag, several ancient copies of Popular Mechanics, and quite a few dead flies and moths. A hand printed sign hanging from a nail read ‘ Fishing tackel and bait.’ I smiled at the misspelling.

As I opened the door, a smell of dust and paint thinner mixed with rubber and pipe tobacco wafted out at me. Past the dimly lit aisles sat an old man at a counter piled up with odds and ends and papers. Indeed, he seemed to be buried in the debris of his business. He peered up from his newspaper, and looked at me curiously through coke-bottle glasses. “Can I help you, Sir?” he inquired. “Good afternoon.” I greeted. “I am just killing time and poking around… not looking for anything in particular.” “Whell,” the wizened man drawled out, “ If you’re not looking for anything special, you are bound to find it here. Take your time, nothing moves very fast in this store, especially the merchandise.” He chuckled at his own joke, and busied himself with his newspaper.

My eyes were slowly adjusting to the difference in light level, and as they did the store and its curiosities emerged. The shelving was hand made from whatever scrap had come to hand in God only knows what period. They were covered with mysterious boxes, Filson and Woolrich checkered shirts, denim bib-overalls, steel-toed work boots, rubber hip boots, bins of nails and screws, tins of grease, pinwheels, and other ephemera. At the end of the first aisle were hats that were out of place in time. Straw sun hats, woolen ball caps with built-in earmuffs, fedoras, and pork-pie hats were hung from a makeshift display of old wire coat hangers twisted together. Proceeding casually to the next aisle, I stirred up a cloud of dust that danced in the dimly filtered rays of the sun that shown through front window. In front of me were toys. Die cast farm implements and miniature tractors, plastic animal collections, boxes of army-men, dolls in country dresses, cap guns, metal lunch boxes, Indian head-dresses with crooked feathers, and rubber tomahawks, among other amusements, were lined up in no special order. Directly underneath was a shelf full of old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books mixed in with well-fingered comic books. I sniffed the delicious aroma of aging paper and ink.

At the very rear of the store was a vast wall of pegboard dedicated to fishing tackle of all kinds. Spinning and bait casting rods were mixed together. Old level wind reels sat upon their cardboard boxes. Wooden plugs and wire leaders were tangled together. Silver minnows dangled from a peg, and dardevle spoons and Mepps spinners hung from cardboard. Plastic or bubble-wrapped merchandise was conspicuously absent. Over in a corner of the pegboard was a shelf of fly reels. Automatic reels: Pflugers and Shakespeare models sat oiled and ready. A fiberglass fly rod stood along side an early Fenwick graphite model. Oiled braided lines spilled out of their tins, their lids askew. A container of Mucilin leaked onto a box of tying supplies. Galvanized tins held split shot, and cardboard cards held little bags of hooks. Off to the side, half obscured by an old wicker creel, was a stained off- white cardboard display of flies. I held my breath as I moved closer. They were full dress salmon flies. I removed the whole display card and read the inscription. “Hand tied Salmon flies by Hardy Brothers, England” it read. There were a dozen or so remaining on the card. Each was held by a single staple that enveloped the hook. There were Jock Scotts, Green Highlanders, Silver Doctors, and Thunder and Lightings, all probably tied sometime in the nineteen-fifties. I had indeed found an unexpected treasure, just as the proprietor had predicted. Written in black crayon on the top of the card were the words ‘Salmon flies - .50 cents each.’ I decided the true place for these flies would be in the water in time for the evening bite, so I walked slowly to the counter.

In front of the counter and to one side was an authentic red and white metal Coca-Cola cooler, filled with frost and returnable shorty bottles of Coke. Another cooler partially covered with a slab of wood stood nearby, with a hand-made sign proclaiming “Nightcrawlers, ten for a quarter.” On the counter near the old cash register was a display of pocketknives, and I remembered my father purchasing a Barlow knife for my tenth birthday just like the one displayed. I opened the cola cooler and set a bottle on the counter along with the card of flies.

“Found something, eh?” the proprietor chuckled. “That’ll be six dollars and a quarter.” He wrote up the receipt by hand. “Not much call for old flies like them anymore. Not since that other new fishing shop opened. Hardware don’t sell too well nohow…that super-mart on the highway takes most of that now.”

“Been awhile since I have been to a store like this,” I said. “Brings a smile to one’s face.” “Yea… he he… times don’t change too much around here, got no reason too.”
“Thank you for that” I said, offering him my hand.
“Say mister,” he muttered, scrunching up his great white eyebrows in concentration, “You fishin’ the river for salmon?”
I nodded affirmatively, telling him I was camped near the public water.
“I haint fished it in awhile ‘cause of my gouty leg, but I can tell ya about a secret hole.” The old man proceeded to describe a hidden spot between known beats. A little ledge-rock outcropping hidden underwater that, unless you knew it was there, would never seem to be fish holding water.

As I emerged from the old building with its sagging porch and sleepy dog, I saw a European sports car pull away from the fly shop, the back seat loaded with new gear.

That evening, I celebrated with a cigar the beautiful buck salmon that I caught and released in the out of the way ledge-rock run the old man had described. It took one of the little Green Highlanders from his store almost casually, and then went berserk, leaping all over the river.

Sometimes the best that life has to offer comes behind an old crooked door, or in a musty box. It is given or sold to us by people as odd as a Dickens character. I would have it no other way.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Estabrook Dam Repair or Abandon Order issued

One small step for man, one significant leap forward in the fight for clean waters and fish. To newer readers, I and others have been personally involved in pushing for dam removal.

Estabrook Dam deadline set

State orders Milwaukee County to fix or abandon structure

After years of neglected maintenance, state officials have ordered Milwaukee County to repair or abandon the ailing Estabrook Dam.

The Department of Natural Resources ordered the county on Tuesday to fix or tear down the aging structure on the Milwaukee River.

The DNR gave the county a deadline of Oct. 1, 2010, to hire an engineering consultant to provide information about whether the dam can be fixed or rebuilt.

The DNR also told the financially troubled county it has until Jan. 28, 2011, to make a final decision.

The DNR found numerous deficiencies during inspections in 1994 and 2004, and over time, an ever-growing pile of debris and garbage has pressed against the structure and threatened its integrity.

Some work and repairs have been made over the years. This summer, wooden timbers on one area of the structure were replaced with the help of an anonymous donation.

But dam safety experts at the DNR have concluded that the work to date has been inadequate.

Repairs could cost as much as $12 million, according to an estimate by a working group of county officials. The group estimated the cost of tearing down the structure at about $2 million.

County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, whose district includes the river upstream of the dam, wants to see the dam repaired.

He said the cost of repairs could be far cheaper - about $2.4 million. One reason for the cheaper option: Repairs would be made so that water levels in the reservoir behind the dam would be dropped in the winter so ice doesn't press against the structure.

But DNR officials said all dams that need to be repaired in Wisconsin are required to meet standards to withstand the weight of ice.

Still, Lipscomb said that he is troubled by the years of county neglect, which could mean the loss of the 100-acre impoundment that's been a feature of the river for more than 70 years.

"I think it's irresponsible," Lipscomb said.

County Parks Director Sue Black did not return phone calls on Wednesday asking for comment.

The dam lies on the northern end of Estabrook Park and was built in the 1930s. A complicating factor is that river sediments above the dam are contaminated with industrial pollutants known as polychlorinated biphenyls.

Environmentalists and conservationists have pushed for removal, saying it would add another free-running stretch to the river. They point to the North Avenue Dam, which was removed in 1997. Water quality and habitat have greatly improved since then.

But residents above the dam want to see it remain intact, arguing the loss of boating and the lake-like character of the river would reduce property values.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hand made fly reels by William Olson

Hand made fly reels by William Olson

I first met William Olson on a river in the Pacific Northwest in 2004. Rob and I were driving out of steelhead camp towards a mid-day run through a pool, when we spotted William. Rob stopped the car and mentioned that this guy makes his own reels. Sure enough, William was kind enough to show us his reel. It was a classic American s-curve handle model similar to the reels made famous by Vom Hoffe and Bogdan. The first thing I noticed is that every surface was perfect and polished to perfection. There were a few small screw holes that were not filled in, but I was told that he was still tweaking the design.

A few years later I had the privilege of fishing with William. His new reel design was coming along, and I got a demonstration of the most perfect buttery disc drag I have ever felt. In 2008, William decided to go into reel production full time. He designed and built a gear and pawl version of his reel that was a work of art. I had the privilege of hearing it when a chrome hen smashed his waking bomber and flew all over the river. The sound was unique, loud, and clear. William has an infectious laugh and smile, and I almost thought I could hear it in the reels’ singing.

Since then, William has continued to develop and tweak his reels to the finest tolerances and performance. He is a true perfectionist, building one reel at a time, and spending countless hours hand finishing it.

The reels are not cheap, but nothing that approaches art really is. The years that William has spent pursuing steelhead and Atlantic salmon around the world show in his functional and beautiful designs. He puts his passion into every reel.

William’s reels can be ordered through my products site here.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Walking in urban nature:

I love to take walks. Apart from the joy of exercise, walking in urban nature settings can be a joy of observation and discovery.

I was a lucky child. My father took me on long walks. On these walks to local parks, he would stop and explain to me how to identify trees by their bark, leaves, and fruit. He pointed out wildflowers. He taught me to see things that most people would never see. We watched birds and animals. He taught me to listen and how to be quiet. At night, he showed me the stars and the planets, pointed out constellations, and told me some of their stories and myths. In short, he installed in me a curiosity that grew as I did.

As a child, I was always the one peeking under things, poking into bushes, tasting berries, smelling blossoms, and looking for four leafed clovers. I had my own magnifying glass.

Fast forward many years and I am still on that same walk. A book on birds in one pocket, a curious leaf I gathered in the other. I am passed by joggers with cyber-attachments to tell them when they have achieved maximum heat rate efficiency, and wires in their ears to drown out the sounds of their own footsteps. Shaved head bikers with sunglasses roar by on motorcycles, living the consumer culture rebel dream. I walk on the grass, where nobody but the occasional dog or sunbather strays. All of humanity tends to stick to the pavement when possible.

There are others like me. Occasionally I will spot someone walking and pausing, looking into a tree, or watching a cloud. Once, a few years back, I was looking at a woodpecker through my binoculars, when a couple stopped and asked me “what I was looking for.” I answered “The meaning of life.”

I am going for a walk. Where to, I do not know.
Won’t you join me?

The Fisherman

The Fisherman

by William Butler Yeats

Although I can see him still.
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It's long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I'd looked in the face
What I had hoped 'twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.
Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down-turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, 'Before I am old
I shall have written him one
poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.'

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Modern man removed from nature

Those of you that follow some of my writings know that I often ponder observations into philosophical daydreams. One such line of thought came to me the other evening as I cast in a local park on the water, and observed the interactions of people with nature.

Modern urban humans are so detached from nature’s rhythms, forms, flora, and fauna that they act like tourists from another planet.

Approaching a river, they look like deer hypnotized by headlights. They look at the water, and then begin to throw rocks and every conceivable object into the river. It is as if the river is a foe or a danger to them.

They ask me if there are fish in the river, and I reply by asking if there are any birds in the sky. Overhead, the clouds and birds slip by, unobserved. Cedar waxwings dine on insects over the river in an exuberant dance. A falcon dives on some ducklings and misses. A great blue heron spooks out of the water and croaks as it flies into a nearby willow. An owl hoots. Only I seem to notice.

Nearby, at the top of the park, elderly Russian immigrants pick mulberries and black raspberries. The American families amble by with cell phone and I-pod, ignorant to nature’s bounty. Food for them comes in a plastic container.

We seem to have conquered nature so completely and removed ourselves from it that it mystifies and even frightens us. Mothers cuddle their children away from the dangers of curious squirrels, girls run screaming from dragonflies, and teenagers smash anything they can reach.

A small boy spying a deer, tells his mother that it (the deer) looks kind of like the ones in his video games. His mother, busy text messaging, walks into a tree. A twelve-year-old asks his father what those funny things are in the water. (Ducks)

I wonder where the free-range humans are?