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.