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.


  1. Lord does that bring back memories... When I was guiding I met a few interesting persons myself. your recollection of the steelheader and his one-weight brings to mind a particularly savage confrontation. I had a client on the Togiak that insisted on fishing a four weight for silvers despite my not so gentle suggestions. He hooked and played a silver to death, which was OK since we needed shore lunch, but when the next fish went airborn it was obviously one of the Togiak's rare hot-rod Rainbows. I grabbed the fellow by the shoulder and yelled break that (explicative deleted) fish off! He gave me a startled look then palmed the reel and jerked the rod. Whoops! I can say with some authority that a four weight Orvis TLS takes less than eight pounds to fracture. The guy was standing there stunned and the fish was still on and horsing around, so I reached out and grabbed the line, breaking the leader. My client then looked at me and said "you broke my rod!" GRRRRR!

  2. Permaskunk,
    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed them.
    Good story. This is why I cringe at the thought of guiding.
    Have you read my little funny essay on guiding?

  3. Hee hee! Just read your piece on guiding, and really, it's not that exaggerated. To add to the list of fun activities, imagine rolling out of your tent at three AM to run off a bear that is eating your boat... Picture a fellow who looks like one of the Soggy Bottom Boys (slightly in-bred, kinda wild around the eyes, hasn't trimmed his beard or bathed in three months,) clad only in boxers, boots and a headlamp carrying a shotgun. Let us not forget the mosquitoes for which Alaska is justifiably infamous. Maybe I better stop there since I am sure the image is all too clear.
    The thing is, by far the largest percentage of my clients were very nice folks. But I don't really remember many of them! It must be a human trait, the real chumps are the ones we remember most clearly.--AJ

  4. Erik,

    What a great experience it was working with you in your flyshop! It was great to be around for a few of those stories; your memory is quite vivid. I won't forget the gentleman with the Hardy Perfects either.

    Salmon goon - "Are the salmon running?"
    Erik - "Yes."
    Salmon goon - "Where are they?"
    Erik - "In the water."

  5. Erik,

    I have to go change, I just soiled myself from laughing my ass off! This is priceless, thanks for sharing.


  6. Jeff,
    At least you were not wearing waders...

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. A great and entertaining read Erik. Thanks for sharing it on SOF


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