Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Off the beaten path

There is something about exploration that satisfies the soul of the angler. We spend a lot of time trying our best to come to an understanding of a familiar stretch of water, and often lack the simple fortitude to go off exploring an unknown piece of river or stream. Part of our unwillingness is due to habit, and part due to the uncertain reward at the end. What is over there in that field stretch: a 20-inch brown, or an angry bull? What is back there in the woods: a swamp, ticks, mosquitoes, brambles, or… all of the above and fish that have never seen a fly?

The other day I drove a ways to a spring creek, only to find the parking areas and pullouts each contained a vehicle. I rigged up anyway, and decided that instead of following another angler, I would go downstream into the woods and explore. A small deer path lead into the tangled undergrowth. As I progressed slowly, the ground turned to a morass and sucked at my boots. Wild rose bushes and black raspberries scratched my arms, and I scrambled over fallen trees and branches. I began to perspire. After only a couple of hundred yards, the woods became impassable. I crossed the stream and progressed at the edge of a farmer’s field. Much better. I should have thought of that before! I re-entered the woods where a rusted hulk of a tractor was slowly returning the earth, and spotted the stream. Riffles and microstructure were everywhere.

One thing kept crossing my mind: there were no footprints. The mud banks lush with skunk cabbage and the occasional trillium were untouched. Nobody had been here. Sitting on a rock to take it all in, it became apparent why. The stream was choked with fallen wood, and the bank side bushes and trees reached out to create a maze of hazards over the water. Perfect! I heard a rise as I strung up the little seven-foot rod. Looking ahead into a tiny rock-jumble and riffle, the trout were eating something with gusto. They were coming unglued and jumping out of the water for a few sparse hatches of March Browns and Blue-Winged Olive mayflies.

I tied on a big size 12 Catskill style March Brown and began to have a ball. These fish had never seen a fly. They would repeatedly hit and miss the fly until they became hooked. This little stream is fished to death. In any other section, a single mistake would put down the entire pool. I had found a piece of paradise.

The fishing was not that easy though. With the tangled mess overhead and around me, I had to take inventory before each stroke. Roll casting and little spey casts proved the ticket. The fish were not big, but they made up for it in spirit. All this and not another soul, and yours for the taking but for a little mud, sweat, and briars.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Pride of ownership

As fly fishermen (and women), we tend to somehow reach a stage where the aesthetics of equipment becomes important to us. There is something about releasing a well-earned fish, sitting on the bank and taking it all in while looking at our rig and thinking “What a damn fine sport this is!”

The rich history of fly reel makers is overflowing with little gems. Hardy, Pfluger, Young, Sharps, Abel, etc, etc. Commercial makers have wowed us with winches both big and small; complicated and simple as a spring and pawl. I was lucky enough to view the reel collection at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Vermont a year ago, and just about lost it in a romantic and nostalgic overload while looking at Vom Hoffe, Bogdan, Walker, and early Orvis reels, including the original unfinished CFO prototype designed for Orvis by Stan Bogdan.

These works of mechanical and functional art have been disappearing as manufacturing cost rise, and the consumer tastes change to high tech reels. Some major manufacturers such as Hardy still offer high-end reels such as the new perfect that are still made in England, but the costs of making small batch productions have driven the price up enough that the major players are now competing with the cottage bench-made craftsmen.

Last year I received my first hand-made reel directly from the maker, and right at riverside. William Olson presented me with a long awaited bench-made S-curve salmon reel with gear and pawl drag. My hands shook as I opened the leather reel pouch and looked at a complete beauty. The machining marks were carefully hand polished out of existence, and every surface was lovingly rounded. The extra care he takes and his pride in producing a reel that the owner will cherish was evident in every curve and surface.

Then I turned the crank. This reel does not just click, it barks. The simplicity of the system of gear and pawl and the wide chamber for sound guarantee the owner that he or she will be heard when a fish pulls out line. I got to hear the reel (number 36) sing multiple times last fall when fishing with William, none more memorable though then the last evening of the trip before I had to pack up my gear I hit a nice wild hen steelhead with my full dress Argyle salmon fly and old #36 played out a wild little concerto to send me on my way home.

There is just something about a hand-made item that speaks to us. Human hands touched, designed, formed and finished the piece. It is personal in some way. That makes a difference to some of us.

So, here is a toast to all the craftsmen who, like William, place a bit of their souls in each and every creation.