Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fishing vs. Catching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anachronisms and Jeep antennas

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next for the ‘Anachronistic Angler’?

Monday, November 23, 2015

The enigma rod

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

Part One, the Phoenix rising

“I have a rod for you…”

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

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

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

What was this rod?

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

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

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

Part 2, the Phoenix fishing
On the Brule'

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

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

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

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

Part 3, Back on home waters…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Water Putting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you on the velvet green!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Cane Meditations

Cane Meditations

A song of the soul of the bamboo rod, the maker, and aesthetics… or perhaps, I drank too much Scotch again and let my mind wander far.

Author’s note: Thanks to Bamboo Fly Rod maker Joe Balestrieri for inspiring this piece. It is intended as an experience, not an essay. Nor is this a history of the Bamboo Fly-Rod. I will let that to other experts that are more knowledgeable. This is a piece like a strange brew. Something cooked up on the stove and never edited. I showed it several colleagues and suggested it needed a lot of editing and was surprised by the unanimous reply of “Leave it alone!”  So here it is, all stirred together and served over ice.

It began with a visit by myself and a prospective client to bamboo fly rod builder and eclectic artist Joe Balestrieri. It was a night filled with art, scotch, bamboo, fly-fishing lore, history, and classical music.

After we examined, wiggled, and discussed multiple rods the rare single-malt Scotch flowed and the conversation became oiled on the tongue much like the rich caramel finish on Joe’s rods. Balestrieri kept popping up to extract little notebooks from a large trunk that served as a cocktail table, and reading his thoughts about tapers and miscellaneous notes, quotes, and musings from the many years he has been crafting fine cane rods. There seemed to be no end of these little notebooks, each leading the conversations on little diversions as topics intermingled, and trains of thought were lost and re-discovered.

Somewhere in there, after a few glasses of single-malt, what Joe was trying to say started to emerge from the Scotch fumes. His thoughts and stories were bordering on the philosophical and metaphysical entangled with casting physics, art and aesthetics, Zen and poetry; all inextricably wound around the bamboo fly rod. It was one of those moments when one wishes he had a tape recorder, because those thoughts could never emerge the same way again. It was not unlike being present when a composer gets an idea, and scrambling to the piano, belts out some piece of genius, but never writes it down. Silences and pauses in his thought-conversation-musings were tense with anticipation and reflection of the meaning of his words, opinions and lore.

When I got home, I began to take notes of the evening, and in those notes some themes emerged, with each analogy or metaphor leading back to bamboo as a material, tapers, artistry, casting grace, personalities both of artists and art, and a natural comparison of a fine bamboo rod to a great musical instrument both in the sound, construction, and aesthetics. I began to see the rich glow in the lightly flamed cane and the color of the scotch as intricately related and fell asleep on the couch.

Then, in the next several months I took notes and began collecting ideas, some while fishing, some while walking, and others while reading the volumes of books piled everywhere in my home. Finally, those notes littered the cocktail table, flowed through the better part of ten pages in my writing notebook of ideas, and were found behind the couch while cleaning. I found ideas written on the back of shopping lists, on a receipt for gas, and finally put them all in one place and tried to make sense out of them. I wanted to write an essay, but this collection of inspirations, meditations, ideas, and outright nonsensical notations was too tangled up to be able to sort out properly. I decided to just write a piece like jazz would be written: with themes interlocking and exploring without any hindrance. Hope you enjoy it.

The sun peeked through the clouds late in the afternoon in May along the hills of Wisconsin and caught me sitting on the banks of a spring creek taking a wee rest and doing what comes naturally to me: thinking and reflecting. I was looking at a 6’ 3” modified Young midge taper built by Joe Balestrieri. I was captivated by how the sun, as it increased in brightness, revealed the endless glowing layers in the wood burl reel seat. I began to feel the warmth of the sun as a glow in the warmth of the bamboo…the depth, the richness of colors and their variations. Silk wrappings that were almost translucent. The soul of the rod showing through, whispering, “Cast me…”

Why was I sitting there staring at this rod when I should be catching fish? Because the rod and equipment are to me and to many of us an intricate and important part of how we approach the stream. For me, angling with a fly-rod has always been related to art. The beautiful loops of flyline, the graceful bits of fur and feathers, the beauty of nature as art itself… for man’s attempts at art will always be flawed compared to natures, the water itself always flowing and never asleep, always being born and dying at the same time in perpetual movement from rushing noise to the stillness of silence. When I sit and reflect on the little 10” wild brown trout that took a nicely presented cast on an olive fly hand tied by me in darker evenings encumbered by snow, I want the rod that presented the fly to be a part of the whole, and if we might see the whole process of fly-fishing as some kind of personal musical experience, then the leading violin – the rod – should be beautiful in itself. Oh, and the rod should be made out of nature herself as well: natural materials rich in character and potential… at lest on this small trout stream, where they best exemplify and personify grace.

And whether you fish with a cane rod from time to time, are an avid aficionado, a collector, or just fly-fish and saw a bamboo rod once, I doubt anybody could argue that this combination of fine wood, rich cane, nickel-silver and silk, hand-designed, hand made and loved is a beautiful tool, an aesthetic instrument worthy of a meditation streamside worthy of Marcus Aurelius.

Graphite rods may be beautiful too and great casting tools, but they lack the love and creation of an artist. They are like prints instead of paintings. There is something about the handcrafted object or tool like a fine shotgun or string instrument; it is unique. It has soul.

I never carefully polish and rub my graphite rods with a special cloth. They are like beer; a commodity. Sometimes I like to just sip a single-malt scotch. Not all the time though, or these little reflections might move from the mystic to the existential…

My Bamboo fly-rod was born on a hill in China with a unique type of grass that grows tall and straight commonly called Tonkin Cane. The legend is that as the cane grows taller the wind catches it and tunes it, strengthens it, gives it its unique character. Back and forth, the wind blows tuning the cane until it reflects it in sound, resilience, and motion. Tuned, like a piano or violin.

After harvesting and aging, it is selected by the craftsman or artist and split into strips. Many makers of bamboo rods believe almost mystically that the only way to build the finest rod is to use only a single culm or one plant to create the finished rod of six strips.

One culm: A family of 6 sides from the same plant… living together, used to each other, they grew up together, they know each other’s moves, nuances, and strengths. Each strip selected by the master’s hand bolstering the other’s weaknesses and augmenting the other’s strengths.
One culm, from the top of the hill where the wind blew them…. A harmony of six pieces. A Sextet of tuned wood, strings or fibers tight in harmony.

The pieces mean nothing individually, the rod comes together from the symbiosis of the six pieces guided by the craftsman…. Or the…


The maker is involved with his or her art in personality, in intent, in mood: an abstract coming together. The sculpture emerges from the clay and is dictated by the medium as much as the intent of the artist. The cane directs and influences the outcome of the rod as much as the artist maker’s intent. As much media as the maker’s art and intent, personality and moods, all come together in an entanglement, an elegant symbiosis of the physical and the artistic. My mother once remarked when I asked her what she was painting: an abstract, “I don’t know yet, I am waiting for it to come out.” What came out was unique, and beautiful.

 Combine that intent on the part of the maker with chance and the gift of the media itself and the artist’s ability to sense the cane’s personality and adapt to it, then add a special something… a touch if you will, something unexplainable that true artist’s have that allows them to create a true work of art. The Stradivarius effect. The gift of the artist. Garrison had it. All great artists and craftsmen do. Without that touch, without the ability to sense what the media or material wants to do, and work with it, not against it, and bring out the inherent properties as well as intent of the artist, the rod becomes just one painting among all the others: a collection of colors laid on the canvas a thousand, a million different ways…. Yet one is precious. One captivates the eye. One casts like an extension of your intent, kissing the fly where you only have to imagine it going.

You know one of these rods when you touch it. You can tell. It has soul. It has a personality all its own. All the others are just fly-rods.


Or just properties? ‘Properties’ sounds so un-romantic, so mathematical, so clinical. No! Personality it is! Let’s go forward with an anthropomorphism or two.

Each rod has a unique personality of its own. Regardless of the taper, it is an individual. It is one aesthetically. Each thousands of an inch carefully and lovingly shaved off in curls never the same twice. The personality of the craftsman is in the rod. His beliefs and theories… a portrait of the maker you may envision while you are fishing it. Subtle differences we grow to recognize, look for and appreciate. Character. Pick up a rod and cast it. Each time it is like a first date, or a first date remembered with faint recollection. The first cast is tentative… getting the feel, the second with more knowledge, the third with epiphanies and understandings. The rod has quirks like a personality too. You learn how it will react, what it likes, what it dislikes, what sets it off, how hard and in what direction you can push it. Pick up a second rod and give it a wiggle and a cast. This one is a brunette. A feisty Italian. It wants something different. More acceleration? Is she a sports car? Is it a da Vinci? A Caravaggio? Does it need and crave power like a Medici? Pick up a third rod and give it a play. This one is very different too. At first you fight it, trying to play a jig instead of smoothly stroking its strings. This one wants to play Mendelssohn. Feel it? Pianissimo. Close your eyes and get in harmony. Smooth, not staccato. What was going through the head of the maker while he shaved the strips, gently flamed the cane and polished it out? What music was playing in the background? Was it Verdi or Mozart? I cast my rods sometimes in the local park: Tuning up, playing notes on a violin, getting to know their personality and quirks so that when I am fishing I can make music with the trout.

Personality – character, originality. I like rods like this. They make the game more fun, the casting a fine art and not mere repetition. Some may say that all the great tapers in fly-rods have already been created. That is like saying that all the notes in jazz have already been written. Yes, they have, but not arranged, composed and played. There is where the artist and the caster come into play. Listen to Miles Davis. He is unique. Jazz improvisation drives the art. Tapers are the same way. Lengthening one taper or modifying the action here and there and we may get a rod that fails or one which is truly unique and may never be created again. Creativity and experimentation drive innovation. Without it, the notes would all be the same. Balestrieri has a rod that he still can’t recreate. It was an experiment, and is possibly the finest casting rod he has ever made. Born of Jazz Fusion, of improv, of moving off the path to uncomfortable new territory; the Mona Lisa rod, for that subtle smile will never be quite copied no matter how we try.

I have a friend who plays the trumpet professionally. We used to sit for hours listening to the characters inherent in the different horns from powerful and sharp, to soft and mellow. One for Jazz, one for Bach, one for Salsa, and everywhere in between. This adds some interesting twists to my fishing. If I have several tools in my rod bag and each does something differently, I can approach the water in a different way depending on my mood, the fishing conditions, the character of the stream, the bugs hatching or not hatching, and get a different piece of music or experience each time.

Without originality, art is dead and exists as a mutant called production.

Like my CD collection, I like my fishing eclectic. I may feel like listening to Steeleye Span or possibly Bach or John Coltrane. Sometimes it might be time for a little bourbon and turning the lights down low with Thelonious Monk. Without variety, life would be boring. Each rod has to played with in a different setting in order to satisfy curiosity.

Oh, and the rods are beautiful too. Did I say they were beautiful yet?

I look at fly rods on the shelf at the local flyshop. They all look more or less the same. Why do all the rods rated from 1-6 wt have the same half-wells grip? Why do all the 7-10 weight rods have a full-wells. What happened to the Ritz grip… the cigar, the swelled cigar? Why do my cane rods each have a different grip? Because the maker put thought into it. This rod sings at 30 feet with a DT 4 wt. Lets shave the grip down a bit at the end of the palm and provide a surface at the front for the thumb to push on. Thought and intent contribute to the originality in a bamboo rod. One has invisible silk wraps, the other deep red ones. One a maple burl seat, and the other a fine French walnut taken from a gunstock from the 1800s. Character as diverse as wine, once we educate our palette, the world opens before us. A fine cane rod is not just a tool, it becomes a work of art embodied with the love of the maker and a piece of his or her life in the time to hand make each piece. Garrison melded raw material, not just assembled. Wood spacer, color of cane, wraps of silk, contrasting colors, cork grip, not out of a box. Deeply flamed or roasted, baked and sanded. Light and dark or variations. Where are the nodes spaced. Why? Look at the signature on the rod. That is unique too. The last thing the artist does is put his name on it. He may have made hundreds of rods before he felt that the product was up to his standards and signature, the rest of them given away or turned to scrap. Block printing or cursive? Pen or brush?

Art is original, not a print. Prints might sometimes be worth more, depending on the artist, but an original is one-off. Balestrieri believes that each rod is unique, and the maker is too. The finest cane rods ever built have been made by some local artist working in his basement at midnight listening to Bjorling sing Italian arias, or in his garage eating twinkies wearing his old pajamas. A Young rod is not a Garrison or a Leonard or a Dickerson or a Payne. Each of those artists and dozens more were leaders not followers on taper design. Each had a different method that today people argue about on internet chat rooms and often forget that each of these artists was making it up as they went along for the most part. Painting by numbers would be dull at best.

Each of these makers also fished. They each fished differently and fished different waters. They had different theories about casting that show as traits in their tapers and rods. I like that. I want to get to know a bit about who made my rod and why they made it. Was it planned or an experimental accident? I listened to the stories that night at Balestrieri’s home. How does he fish? How does he cast? I looked around his home. Modern art. Abstract. Aesthete. Classical music and Jazz. A touch of the oriental. Woods of different hues. Angles. Clean, uncluttered. Eclectic furniture. Fishes the trout streams of the East. New York.

I look around me as I write this at home. Antique carpets and furniture. A statue of David, clutter everywhere. Dust. Art on the walls from floor to ceiling. More clutter. Books strewn everywhere. Neglected plants. Jazz. I fish differently too. Different waters in different ways. The roll-cast king. The clown who falls in the water. Man who stares at rods.
This human element adds so much more in the rod and the fishing.

Then there is the fishing….

For many of those that fish with bamboo, the rod is like a fine wine that makes everything taste a tiny bit richer and more alive; the fish become bigger and more treasured, turning the mundane into the exquisite. The trees more vibrant and the water more wet. A smaller slice of life seems to make us more content. We slow down in their rhythm. We appreciate things more. We feel. We feel our pulse quivering into the rod, waiting for the bend, the cast, the release of tension.

Bamboo fly rods are meant to be fished after all, not just looked at. That may be the defining break between mere craft and art, the art is achieved with the bend of the rod when the intent of the maker comes together with the rhythms of the caster and the river. The beauty of a fine instrument is in its being played. Beauty meets practice and utility. As the music on the water progresses, we can feel the movements of a symphony from the first notes of the grass bending in the wind, establishing the tune, to the development under the plane where the long curls make the harmonies, and the ferrules are fitted, to the finishing processes and finally the conclusion where it all comes together on the river with a delicate and elegant loop of line and the touch of a fly on the water.

When playing a fine instrument or casting a great bamboo fly rod one can struggle from time to time. This comes from not being in tune with it, of fighting it. When we are in tune it should feel like an harmonic chord. You have to feel the touch on the strings or rod and press it just right to make it sing. You feel the resonance when you hit it right and the visual grace of a beautiful loop is the reward. Each rod has its own resonance. You have to know how to play it. Smooth casting. Feel. The rod does the work. Feel its soul or personality, from parabolic to progressive. Each caster’s stroke is different and the rod needs to respond to the angler’s touch and intent. The rod is alive and lives in the hand of someone in symbiosis with it.

Fishing with bamboo can be like an experiment in a jazz riff too. Each rod will perform differently given the situation on the river: roll cast, long cast, tiny cast, reach mend, etc. Jazz is always different each time it is experienced. It is a constant change in progress within a framework. Pop music is like mass-production rods. The message is obvious, not intricate as in bamboo. “Oh Baby Baby, Wanga wanga boom boom”… we get the message. How can anybody not get it? It is delivered almost as an insult to intelligence like marketing.

Bamboo has an intricacy that makes us slow down and listen: to be aware… to cast and think. Fly-fishing is a thinking game. Sometimes we are not in tune with the rod and we have to change ourselves. In that ability, that will and effective change in approach and getting in tune with the river, the rod, the fish, and the moment we become more mindful. It makes us better anglers. Pop breeds thoughtlessness, which can be good too, but cane seems to breed reflection.

In that reflection, both of our thoughts and approaches, and the reflections of the water itself lies our souls as anglers. If we take the cane rod in hand, pause on the side of the river for a moment and squint our eyes, we might get a glimpse of it once in a great while. If you do, listen closely and you might hear the birth of the whole process. It will just be a whisper of potential in the wind as the branches and grasses bend in harmony. That moment and a wild trout might make the finest wine in the world. Sip it while you listen to Parker or Monk. The conversation is not complete. The tapers never the same twice. The loops of line wizened and aged in the past and reaching out to touch the future...
Thank cane for that!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A fly and an artist's conception, a tribute

I tied this fly many years ago, and it has gone though some revisions, but the concept stayed the same. This is the Orange Racer, an original pattern for steelhead and salmon that I fish from time to time. I love the curves in this fly, like a sleek fish or... I don't know. It just speaks of speed like the Rush song 'Red Barchetta'. It was featured on a tying episode of Outdoor Wisconsin in 2003. Here is the recent tribute by the artist Jeff Kennedy.
Here is the fly and its artistic interpretation by Jeff.
I am humbled and very honored to have this artist paint one of my flies! Enjoy!
Jeff's artwork adorns T-shirts, wine bottles, magazines, etc. He is one very talented artist of fly-fishing and more!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Still Life with Fly Rod

I am fortunate to have recently acquired a new hand-made cane rod by the master Joe Balestrieri. It is a modified Paul Young Princess taper, a 7' for a 4 wt with a wet fly tip and a dry fly tip. It has a lovely parabolic action that casts beautifully! I thought a little photo montage was in order with a few of my thoughts on the subject. Enjoy! Joe's rods can be found here: Redwing Fly Rods
Quotations Copyright 2015 Erik Helm 

A bamboo fly rod is unique, like a fine musical instrument. One must smell it, touch it, listen to it, and get to understand what it is in its essence. Only then when one casts in graceful symbiosis with the rod, will one make the most exquisite music.

Cane rods are like a fine wine. They are not intended to be consumed in quantity, but sipped and savored. The line rolls off the tip with the same personality as a wine rolls off the tongue and thus stimulates the taste buds. The shape of the line going out can be compared to the aftertaste of a wine, each having hidden aesthetics.

Plastic rods of the same model all look the same and cast the same. Imagine how boring the world would be if women were the same way.

There is something about a rod made from natural materials of bamboo, walnut, silk, and natural oils. The rod seems to have more depth, as one can look at it and almost see through to its soul. It has a richness and luster lacking in any materials made by man.

Art is not to be found in commodity. It is found in the personality of the maker which is infused into the finished product, of which he or she is proud, and almost doesn't want to let go of. Art comes in small and quiet places. It cannot exist where there is noise.

There is no other joy in angling as satisfying as when we catch a trout on a fly we tied, with a hand made rod, in a place where we had to find by ourselves, with our eyes and feet and mind.

If angling is the contemplative sport, as Mr. Walton would have us understand, that contemplation should not be on the final destination, but upon the path that led us there. Let that path not be the easy one nor the commonplace, but one of inner discovery and learning, for that much the better when the fish is finally brought to hand.

Scotch and bamboo rods should be well aged, and enjoyed together.

Let the fly that graces the end of your line not be an insult to the fish.

Each bamboo rod has a unique resonance, like a cello. It can be felt in the cast as the cello sings to Bach.

Don't fight a bamboo rod. After all, the bamboo is a grass, and all grass is impervious to wind. As the wind sings, the bamboo bends. reflect on a gentle breeze on a warm summer evening offering a coolness with a slowly rising and falling breath, and the rod will be yours to command.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Forgotton Valley

The Forgotten Valley

Author’s note:
There are moments that often stand out for sensory overload, where feelings, smells, and sights of an uncommon kind come together to form an impression so real and compelling that we never forget them. The less commonplace the experience, the richer the memories, even if sometimes the fascination stems from a sense of horror.
The name of the town in this story has been changed, and the cause of its decay and feral collapsed architecture and inhabitants is mere conjecture and fantasy, as are a few of the descriptions perhaps artistic embellishment, but the place exists as described still, and the images and perceptions are real. We found it on a fishing trip.
Erik Helm, 2015

I can’t remember exactly what led us to abandon the great trout streams of Wisconsin’s Driftless area to pursue a rumor, but I expect that the chance to encounter large Smallmouth Bass in their pre-spawn run up small streams could have been enough. Whatever the impetus, now long forgotten, Joe had the truck pointed south through the rolling valleys and was waxing on as only he can do, of the promise of trying to recreate an encounter he had shared with a friend ten or so years before.
Each spring Smallmouth would swim up the Wisconsin River to the Grant River, and on up into a small tributary called the Rattlesnake to procreate. He and the friend had had an incredible day catching huge fish on light fly rods, and we were now rattling toward Grant County in the extreme southwest of Wisconsin trying to defy the laws of probability and catch the lightning strike a second time. This time I was along, and as Joe says… I am “Strange Luck,” because something out of the ordinary always happens when we fish together.

As we drove on the county highways through rural Wisconsin the landscape began to change. The lush valleys and hills full with vibrant greens and yellows and bursting with a sense of spring Botticelli would have captured in a painting began to fade slowly to a more somber mix of browns and tans, with wheat fields predominant. Towns seemed smaller and farther apart the closer we came to our area of destination, and the traffic of mixed pickup trucks and scattered Amish Horse Carts fell off to nothing as the bare hills rose and fell around us, and the landscape became more monochrome and sparse. Both Joe and I have fished the areas of eastern Washington and Oregon where one might think he had been transplanted onto the moon, so alien is the landscape and so desolate, and we both commented on the similarity as we rose to the top of a series of rolling hills and began a decent.

On the hillside in the distance was an odd sight for this bucolic area of Wisconsin. It seemed to be a mass of abandoned and rusted-out cars, some by their shape to date back to the 1940s and 50s. What was odd was the complete lack of newer cars in the pile of a hundred or so littering the hillside. Also puzzling was the fact that there was no road surrounding the hill, and we speculated that maybe the road had been left to return to dust as the cars had sometime in the past… but why on a hillside, and not down in a valley where most communities too poor to dispose of hunks of old metal would conceal them? Why put them on a highly visible hill?

We began a decent into the valley to the south of the abandon cars. As we drove toward the bottom through wildly winding roads the valley became narrower and darker, and the vegetation that poked out of the hillsides abutting the county trunk road was nearly leafless and grew at odd twisted angles like it had gone mad seeking the sunlight. A small creek ran along one side of the road in a ditch. We figured it as a tributary of the river we were looking to fly-fish, and grew anxious with anticipation like two kids.

An instant later, the scrub-brush and hillsides opened up without warning or expectation and we found ourselves in a small town. In both of our memories the initial shock and wonder as we traveled the two blocks of the main street occurs in a slow-motion kind of flashback. At least that is how we describe it today.

I was looking past Joe to the left when a scene out of the poorest of the poor coal towns of West Virginia popped into view. A car was beside the road, kind of slewed in a front yard at an angle and buried up to the windows in dried mud. What color it may have been I have no recollection, but it was mostly rust colored now. The windows were missing, and feral plants were growing at random out of the inside. The whole vehicle gave the impression of being there awhile, buried alive except for the crown of plants now growing out of its upholstery and the mud filling it.

Standing on top of the roof of the car was a tall emaciated man in filthy jeans and a dirty and torn white tank-top. He had greasy looking waist long light hair in a braid or ponytail. What he was doing on top of the car with a long metal pipe in his hand we will never know. He never looked at us as the truck rolled slowly past. Then we spotted the dog, which also ignored us. It was a mangy and shivery mongrel chained to the derelict car. It looked to be half Coyote and half terrier. Where it stood and twitched, the ground was bare of grass, as if in its eternal confined pacing, the cur had worn what might have passed for a sort of front lawn into a dirt farm. The house itself was a dilapidated clapboard single story of failing paint and warped paneling. It too was buried several feet in dried mud, and old plastic milk cartons replaced a rotted and fallen front porch as a stoop to the elevated doorway. The only thing new looking was an American Flag on a pole off the left front of the house and fluttering in front of the broken windows that had old stained cloth stuffed into the cracks and holes.

Next to this initial sight and again on the left side of the road as we slowly rolled on with mouths agape, leaned what must have been the city hall. Built out of stone and mainly intact, with an inscription with a date of 18?? above the door, it looked to be no longer in use. The leaning seemed to be caused by the cliff and hill rising directly behind the structure. It had encroached on the rear of the building and caused it to lean forward into the street.
On the mantle above the door below the date was a single word, ‘Dodtown.’

“I don’t remember this, said Joe. I don’t remember any of this being here. I would have remembered this!” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “Maybe you took a different road last time?” I half asked and stated. “Must have” he smiled with eyebrows raised. “This is a mess! What the hell is a town like this doing here in this valley where it must flood every year? Who built this here… and Why?”

Those were the questions in mind as the old Ford Ranger rolled on and we both looked to the right side of the main street. Here was a new squalor to be seen. A decayed sort of tavern and general store stood there with about half of its white paint missing. Parts of it sagged here and there, but the sign above the door still was half lit displaying a ‘Hamms’ beer logo speckled with dirt and dead bugs. Three Harley bike gang guys in leather gear looked at us as we passed. They were seated outside the building on an old bench drinking beer out of a can.

We came to the end of the road and turned left to climb back up a steep valley road. Most of the houses here had visible flood damage and mud, rock and brush was piled about. Each house had a little culvert and bridge leading to their yard off the road so that water could flow down to the bottom of the valley. These houses looked a bit better kept. Old tires had been painted and used as planters and attempts at gardening, including some blooming flowers among the feral weeds grew out of them. Several more vehicles were buried here and there at the side of the road. As we climbed out of the valley, one or two houses looked very well kept, with new shutters, and fully green and mowed lawns. Lights showed behind windows without any panes missing. Children’s toys were scattered in the yards.

We reached the top of the valley and the full force of the sunlight made us squint. We stopped the truck at a crossroads and wondered aloud again, what we had just encountered. Whatever Dodtown was, it certainly had a shadow hanging over it. No sunlight seemed to penetrate to the center, and we discussed our impressions that as the elevation descended, so did the decay and squalor.

We turned to the right this time and followed rural county trunks looking for the road leading to the Rattlesnake, and after awhile, located one that Joe thought he remembered well, with some prominent markings in the form of a high limestone cliff and an old white building with an antique tractor in the yard. We followed this road for awhile, traveling slowly with the windows open looking out over the wooded valley sloping down either side of the road for a sign of the river as we descended. As the road neared the valley floor, the walls of the cliffs and hills crept nearer again and it became darker. In front of us were rows of yards on both sides of the road. Chain link fences were strewn and piled on each other and covered here and there with piles of rock and mud debris. The houses here were either pre-fabricated or single-story clapboard and all were small. The yards were overgrown with wild brush and strewn with abandoned appliances, bathtubs, rotting cars, destroyed furniture and dust. Several people were shambling or leaning in the yards, and they stared with vacant eyes as we passed. The road opened up, and to our amazement, we rolled into Dodtown from the opposite direction, stopping at the only intersection in town. We both turned our heads and looked at each other with an expression of mock horror. “This is getting downright creepy,” I said out loud.

This time while driving through the town, the taciturn and vague figures we saw stared at us. Perhaps they were used to strangers driving through town on their way somewhere else, but they could spot a foreign car or truck as it went through a second time, perhaps up to no good or ‘spying’ as we speculated further. We pulled out of the valley once again, and turned in the opposite direction, finally locating a sign pointing us down Rattlesnake Road. “This has got to be it,” Joe exclaimed with assurance, turning down yet another winding path and descending slowly downhill.

Well, of course the reader already knows what happened next. After five minutes of wooded hollow we emerged at the bottom, right smack in the middle of Dodtown again.

This time Joe stopped the truck and got out. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked with a smile half hiding real concern. He answered, “I want to see what is in there,” as he pointed to the old store with the Hamms sign.

I slowly got out of the truck, wondering as I did so, if this was going to be something I told my children about twenty years in the future as the “Time when…” What? I could only speculate as we walked to the front of the building now empty of bikers.

I stopped at the door of the place, my feet crunching peeled paint chips against the rotting wood of the stoop. There was a screen door, but it had only the remnants of a screen at the edges where they were rusting away. There was no doorknob or lever, but an old piece of electrical wire thick in gauge was twisted through the hole the knob must have occupied in better times long past.
I slowly opened the door inward and we stood in the doorway blinking, for however the lack of light at the valley floor, the interior of this place was darker still.

Old faded curtains of questionable color over dusty windows and one naked bulb provided the light for the single room. Against the wall on the right was a bar of sorts and a number of mismatched wooden chairs faced it. Behind the bar were arrayed an amazingly eclectic spread of goods attached to pegboard or lying on shelving: rubber boots, hip waders, shovels, kitchen cleaner, bib jeans, hand tools, saw blades, knives of every variety, cans of oil, etc, competed for space on the crowded back wall. A mounted fish above the counter could either be a trout or a carp; it was so covered in tobacco smoke, one couldn’t tell. A fat middle-aged woman sat on a tall crate behind the counter, her mouth full of something she was slowly chewing. She had on overly tight sweat pants and a massive T-shirt that doubled as a sort of dress or cover-all. She had no shoes on. Joe and I slowly made our way to the bar or counter and sat down a few spaces away from a guy in dusty and smelly overalls with long stringy hair and a stained NAPA parts ball cap. He was drinking a bottle of grape soda. I asked what the place had to drink, and the woman answered “Beer or soder, Whatchoo wan?” “Two cans of beer.” Joe said, looking at me when emphasizing the word ‘Cans’.

She bent over an old ice cooler set against the back wall, pulled out two cans of Old Milwaukee, and set them unopened on the counter. “One dolla.” she spit out. As we paid, I noticed the guy at the counter looking at us. “Soups O.K.” he said, “if your hungray…” “Its otta can too,” he added pointing to his own bowl of vegetable soup. “All there is anyway…” “Them’s above wont look nohow neither.” He added cryptically with a glance. “Let’s go outside and drink these I said to Joe, as he nodded.”

As we turned to go to sit on the bench out front, we saw an elderly woman mumbling to herself at the only table. She was smoking a pack of unfiltered Pall-Malls through her remaining several crooked teeth, and seemed to be playing cards. The odd thing was that there were only two cards. She kept dealing them to herself, turning them over, and cussing to herself repeatedly. She looked up for a heart beat and her eyes were red and surrounded by gray shadows. The other two had similar eyes I noted as we opened the door and took a deep breath of air.

“Cheers!” I said to Joe, as we first wiped off the tops of the beer and opened them. That’s when I noticed that my hands were really dirty; almost gray-black with a powder residue. I poured some beer into them and tried to wipe them on my pants, but it only half helped. Joe’s hands were similarly dirty, but neither of us could get them clean by wiping them. It was if they had been covered in oily graphite. “This place is filthy!” I said out loud, and poured my remaining beer on the ground with Joe following suit. “Even those bikers just drank their beers outside and got out of town.” We got into the truck, and after consulting a map, which we should have done an hour ago, located the correct route out of Dodtown and into the next valley over which held our smallmouth bass river.

We turned onto the original road we drove in on and turned up the only side road we had not yet driven on. It began to climb out of the valley.
The last impression I had of Dodtown was perhaps the worst. As Joe downshifted and we drove past a series of run-down and dilapidated hovels, I spotted a yard with long poles and ropes strung up. Hung on these ropes were the carcasses of numerous coyotes and deer with their throats cut, bleeding out. A thickset and meaty man with wild black hair peered at us as we past. His eyes were surrounded with gray like a cadaver, and they burned bloodshot and red as he held swaying in his hand a bloody hatchet.

When we found the river at last, the first thing we did before even gearing up, was to attempt to wash our hands. It took a few minutes to clean them of the gray soot, and we noted that we both had a funny dull metallic taste in our mouths. “Probably that old stale beer.” We stated with dismissal.

The fishing was awful. The banks of the little river were collapsed and eroded, and trees and debris were jammed at every bend. Joe caught exactly one smallmouth, I hooked a diaper lodged against debris on the bottom. We noted that the great floods of 2008 had destroyed this area far worse than we thought. That was why those cars were buried back in town. In two years, nobody had even tried to remove them. To add insult to injury, I fell down the muddy bank like a hippo and rolled into the water, causing us both to chuckle.

“Hell of a fishing trip,” I quipped. Joe smiled. “Always is when you and I get together.” Joe answered smiling.

We drove back out of the valley and turned onto the main state highway back toward the Driftless area trout streams and Joe’s cabin. The road took us through the largest town in the county, and after stopping to fill our bellies with a greasy burger, I spotted a building next to the post office with a sign stating it to be the county historical society.

“Let’s go in and see if we can’t find out more about that town and Valley.” I suggested.
The neat interior was covered in historical photos and maps. Rows of books and old bound newspapers sat neatly indexed behind the counter where we were met by an older thin woman wearing a light blue dress and horn-rimmed glasses who instantly smiled and asked if we needed help.

“We just came from driving through a small valley with an odd little community called Dodtown.” I stated, “and we wanted to see if we could find out more about it, and what its history was… and what happened there.”

She raised her eyebrows and looked at us with a wry smile. “Dodtown huh?”

“Yea, we would appreciate any information you could give us.” “We are just two fly-fishermen, but that town made us curious.”

“I have some coffee I just made, let me get you a cup and come sit down at the research table in the main library.” She asked.

Returning with two very welcome cups of hospitality, she set them before us, and taking a sip on her own, began to tell us the tale.

“It was a lead mining town founded back in 1830. There used to be two large loads or veins of ore right in town in the cliffs and running into the hills. It grew quite quickly to a population of almost five hundred people, mostly miners and their families. Cornish, Welsh, Norwegians, and some Germans and Poles mixed in. The veins were rich with lead ore, and they were easy to work as well. The miners drove their tunnels following the ore straight into the hills. Money rolled in, and for a time Dodtown was the fastest growing community around, and one of the wealthiest too. They built a road right out of town to carry the ore to smelters. It is abandoned now and blocked by an old dump filled with rusting cars.

Around about 1941 the ore began to run out. There was always plenty of lead in that valley, but the lead in the soil was almost impossible to remove, so when the veins began to dry up, the people followed suit and moved on… or most of them did.
I guess there were two types of people then, and two choices too. Those that chose to get out of town, and those who chose to stay. In all, the town lost two-thirds of its population in three years. For awhile the people who stayed did O.K. with cottage industry and what was left of the mining on a vastly diminished scale. By 1950 Dodtown was pretty much forgotten. People seemed to avoid the few residents, who grew increasingly insular, inbred, and suspicious of outsiders. The flooding didn’t help. God knows why anyone would construct a town at the bottom of a massive drainage area and flood plain, but I guess the founders were mainly concerned with ore extraction and not much else. The fortune extracted left Dodtown along with the owners of the mine and the few wealthy citizens when they left. I have newspaper articles from that time where people up here referred to Dodtown as ‘Floodtown,’ and ‘Poverty Hollow.’

It was in the 1960s that the state and county began to expand social welfare programs, and those workers that visited Dodtown came away with a look of concern and alarm. The census takers too had a hard time trying to make out the actual population. Knocks on doors went unanswered. Did you notice how shy and retiring the Dodtowners are? Not bad people, but strange. People thought there was something wrong with them too. They seemed to be underweight and developmentally disabled. They looked sick.

A few years later, in the late 1960s, some Dodtowner brought a sick child to the county hospital. The girl was lethargic, and was slurring her speech. Her eyes were sunken and red too. The doctors puzzled over her until a blood test revealed elevated levels of lead four times the acceptable maximum. That began an investigation in the county of well water and soil samples, and what they found was shocking. All the flooding had washed the mine tailings of lead dust down to the bottom of the valley and in addition to fouling the wells, had become so prevalent that one could get a coating of lead dust just walking about or digging in the dirt. Nothing would grow there either, except weeds.

I don’t know why those people are still there. Goodness knows enough agencies have tried to force them to move out, offering cash buyouts for the flood plain issues on their properties, and serving evictions based on unsafe and downright lethal pollution of lead, but over half of the inhabitants stayed on. Today it is, pardon the expression, our little ‘Piece of Appalachia.’ Sad. Every year the population decreases by a few people, and nobody replaces them. Should be a ghost town in ten years or so. In many ways it is now. None of those people really ever come up here anymore. I wonder what they eat for Pete’s sake. Some of them are so distorted that they can’t walk right anymore and seem to just shamble and drool. Lead poisoning is nothing to take lightly”

We thanked her as we left, and wondered at our chance encounter with a piece of history and decay.
“Next time I get to choose where to go fly-fishing.” I said to Joe.

“Nah,” he replied, “Then it might not be quite the adventure.”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Bell Curve of Fly-Fishing, a life (and gear) Journey

There is a famous story I like to tell from time to time about a day on the water Joe and I spent with a young guy we had never fished with before.

We were rigging up in a parking lot when this guy, obviously very excited (you could almost hear him vibrating, and his boots where hovering an inch off the ground) asked us to check out his fly boxes to see if the patterns were O.K. He extracted four large streamer boxes stuffed to the brim with flies. “Do you think these will be enough?” he asked genuinely. I took my eyes away from tying knots and fiddling with my bootlaces and took a wider view of him. He was covered in gear from head to foot, and looked like a tackle merchandising display. He had (I am not making this up), a backpack full of equipment, an attached chest pack to hold even more, and anything that wouldn’t fit there, like say… a spare set of fondue forks, or a muffler repair kit, or two thousand more flies, were stuffed into a fanny pack. He wore a base layer, a puffy outer layer for warmth and had a rain jacket attached to his backpack just in case. He reached around to try to find something in the backpack, a spare reel or something else he didn’t need, and nearly toppled over.

I looked over at the bushes our equipment was leaning against. We each had one box of flies, mine stored in a battered and dented aluminum clip box, Joe’s bamboo spey rod with 1918 Perfect reel, my short 12’6” light graphite spey rod with an old sort of St.George or Dingly reproduction. We each had an old fleece jacket, mine sporting food stains and a hole, and Joe’s with not much nap left after 16 years in Alaska. My Filson jacket had seen better years too, probably when America still made cars that worked. Other than the rods, all our equipment together would fit into this guy’s backpack. Looking back at him again, he was still trying to find something or other, and had begun to disgorge an entire tackle shop onto the grass. We had to wait for him by the river.

I began to ponder this, and came up with a definition for this phenomena of acquisition of gear and the amount we carry with us, and how we approach the fishing, ‘The Bell Curve of Fly-Fishing.’

All we need is a little trip down memory lane to see it in effect, and how it emerges.

When we took up the sport of fly-fishing, we most likely purchased a rod and reel first. We went fishing with a few flies and wet-waded until, as our next purchase, we bought a pair of waders. Then a vest came into the picture, and with it lots of pockets for more stuff, and we began to fill the pockets. Then we added a pack for additional gear, and slowly, but with great fortitude, went about acquiring things to fill it. Once that was done, we realized we had become a bit silly. After all, why carry that box of poppers on the trout stream when we didn’t need it? So, we bought another sort of pack and vest thing to store the warm-water gear, then the salt-water gear, and the steelhead gear too. One day we went into the closet where all the rods were stored in their cases and attempting to root around and find a jacket we hadn’t seen in awhile, managed to disgorge the rod tubes and send them clattering over the floor. Picking them up while uttering oaths, we found, to our horror that we had over 30 fly-rods in there, several of them duplicates, and one which we swear we never saw before.
How the heck did this happen?

New stuff is fun, and as equipment advances and technology and innovation allow us to be (in theory at least) more efficient and comfortable, we tend to buy into this. The pack replaces the vest or vice-versa, a new stiffer rod replaces a rod which was stiffer than the one before, we get a new titanium floatant holder to save 1/16th of an ounce, little sticky dots with fly pictures on them to tape our tippet against our reel, and an aquatic entomology kit that leaks formaldehyde onto surrounding objects. We acquire a new large-arbor reel, because it is shiny, a nifty sink-tip storage and sorting bag, a cool large rigid rod and reel case, and a smaller case which (how cool is this?) fits neatly into the larger case so that now we can be even more organized. We drink the marketing Kool-Aid and buy a bunch of leaders with built in rubber shock absorption which cast like a drunken bungee jumper. We add to these furled leaders, braided leaders, mono leaders, fluorocarbon leaders and a nifty case to separate all those leaders.

We try to be prepared. We carry a can of bear spray in our vest, even though there are no bears on the river we are fishing. Same thing for that box of kitchen matches. That way when we trip and fall, the bear spray can go off while the matches flare, and we can have a really good ‘No shit, there I was’ story for the guys down at the corner pub when they ask you what the hell happened to your hair and eyebrows. Besides, if there actually was a bear, in your panic you have about as much chance of actually dousing yourself with bear spray as you do in squirting Old Smokey.

We want to look like we are fly-fishermen. We want to look cool and hard-core. That’s why, with all that new stuff we just bought, we look like every other fool on the river, identical hat worn just such a way, the new ‘in’ rod, newest puffy jacket, and one eye cocked toward everyone else on the river, wondering if we are doing it right and looking cool. This is called ‘Individuality’.

We want to catch more fish too. That’s why we have all this stuff isn’t it? The ads promised us more fish… That is why we have the new pocket fly steamer, the portable cigar humidor and the heated mat for our wading boots. We want to catch more and bigger fish, so we buy the magic beans. Years ago I was giving a seminar of presentation and technique when one of the audience interrupted me and said “Hey Erik, can you kind of skip to the part where I can learn to catch more fish?” I thought that was what the seminar was all about, but I forgot the instant gratification powder at home. Well, if it isn’t technique, reading water, presentation, casting ability etc. that advances us to a state of ‘fishiness’ where we can pull an Atlantic salmon out of a desert, or a bluegill out of our ear, it must be something else? Something that takes no learning, and leads to profit and you parting with your wallet, but without, and this is the key, expending time and energy gaining wisdom. Could it be….MORE STUFF?

Is that why I have all these rod cases and gear cascading around my feet and rolling around on the floor?

We have reached the apex, the zenith of the Bell-Curve. Everything is down-hill from here.
This usually begins rather subtly, often inadvertently. We may be digging through a pack or vest in the trunk of the car while gearing up for an evening on the water, and spying something poking out of a pocket, can’t remember the last time we used it or indeed, even needed it. We take it out and leave it behind. That’s a dangerous move folks, because there is no stopping the downsizing when it starts. We begin to ask ourselves “Do I really need this?” remembering suddenly how we hated our Dad saying that to us when we had something in our hand at the variety store. We begin to give things away to newer anglers and friends. We throw things out. (Gasp!) Yes, those rubber band leaders get consigned to the trashcan. One day while pausing, out of breath and on rubber legs, while climbing out of a river canyon, the cigar humidor, the fly dots, and the portable steamer go cartwheeling into the bushes. We sell a few rods here and there too, wondering why anyone would ever need nine 6-WT fly-rods. We move three large plastic bins of fly junk to the garage for eternal banishment, but make sure to label each box ‘Old Underwear’ so the spouse won’t peep into them and than start something best not started at all.

This is the Bell Curve, a journey where less becomes more, then more, and then less and less, and then less but more. This can relate to gear, approach to fishing, hours spent fishing, etc. That final less but more part may be the key to understanding in whole our place in the curve, and then we can proudly claim the title ‘Wise old fart.’

I should explain this by breaking it down and making it needlessly confusing and obfuscated, so here goes…

If fly-fishing is a journey analogous to life, then the analogy works well with the stages of life. Imagine the stages of childhood, a young man, marriage, new home and children, grandchildren, a rummage sale and moving to a smaller home, and finally moving in with the children in old age. The things we acquire and our outlook, the breadth and shape of our world vision, expansive or myopic are in a curve. Our world begins so small with explorations of the carpet and crawling under the table, expands to its apex in middle age, and finally we are back to examining things in a smaller scale, this time the couch and searching for the T.V. remote. Fly fishing is like this too. Gear is only part of it, so is approach. At first we are just overjoyed to fish, then as we progress, we want to catch more and bigger fish, do it in exotic places, do it in specific ways, etc. Finally when the curve returns back to near the starting level, we may re-discover that first rod and an old box of flies, and instead of buying a new in-vogue hat, just sport the one that the dog chewed on, even if it has a hole in the brim. We might troop not to the rivers of Tongo-Tongo to pursue elusive Big-finned Farting Fish, but down past the rotting shed to the farm pond where we began, and find out that less can be more, and a Bluegill can provide an afternoon’s good sport. And if the farmer sees us and sniggers at our dilapidated, stained and chewed hat, we can mutter “I don’t give a damn.”

For when the curve returns to a point somewhere where we are comfortable with our gear, our approach, and instead of having all those ambitious plans all mapped out for us, instead just let our feet lead us where they want. Somewhere in here, we may also recognize something we missed while the curve did its thing… Fun.

Then we can break free of the curve, the desire to constantly prove something and acquire more stuff, and discover freedom.
Freedom is the ability to honestly say, “I don’t give a damn.”

I went though the curve myself. I remember a dozen or so years ago taking the first drive across the country to fish for steelhead in Washington State. I made a list of stuff to take which included a giant backup box of 100 hand-tied steelhead flies, a backup rod which was never used, two pairs of jeans that never got worn, a sportcoat, (Have no idea what I was thinking there), 27 pairs of underwear and socks, camping gear for a brigade level campaign, and gobs of other crap. I know what I took because I recorded it in a notebook, and every year crossed off the stuff I didn’t use. By 2013 the list of gear fit on one page and physically into a large roller duffle and a carry-on bag. This suffices for two weeks. That first trip was for only one week! Sometimes I wonder that I didn’t include a pith helmet and safari jacket on that first trip.

Then last year I was fishing on a local river for smallmouth bass with a 20 year old fly rod and a reel that was missing most of its teeth in the gear mechanism. I landed a nice fish, sat on a log and pulled off my hat. I bought a wax cotton canvas sort of cowboy hat with a huge brim two years ago because I am getting older and I don’t want skin cancer. It has been through rainstorms and seen copious sweating, and the wax has sort of formed an alliance with the sweat and merged into a sort of goo stain intermingled with squashed bug remains. It used to look like a western hat, but now looked like something Clint Eastwood’s horse trod on and for added effect did his business on. Lil Abner would be jealous of this hat. “Well, it’s functional anyway” I thought, “Besides,” I added as an afterthought, “I don’t give a Damn!”