Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tales from a Flyshop part two.

Tales from a flyshop part 2

X marks the Spot

Everyone likes an inside tip on where to go. After all, there are places to fish that are better than others. However, in our time-saving and time-starved technology shackled and over-busy world there seem to be more and more anglers that want to fish like it is an appointment in an electronic calendar. 7:00 am, Get coffee and bagel. 7:20 am catch steelhead, etc.

To this end, those of us in flyshops take an unending series of calls when anadromous fish enter our rivers. “Where do I go?” I usually try to give some vague but potentially strong advice like “Between this and that is a great stretch of water a mile long. Look for water between 2 and 6 feet deep moving at a walking pace, and have confidence in your fly. Put it in the water and fish.” If somebody had told me this 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of trouble and fussing. Once in awhile, somebody actually listens to this and I get to play the mystic hero-wizard who led the customer to a great day on the water, but nine times out of ten it is not enough. See, they want to know exactly where to stand, exactly where the fish will be, and exactly which one single fly will work. Reading water and the thousands of variables that make this sport more adventure than catching be damned, they just want to press a button, catch a fish, repeat. So I came up with an idea. I would find a rock in the water somewhere, paint a big red ‘X’ on the top, mark its GPS coordinates, and then give this map to those customers that wanted instant gratification. We could even place a bench on shore near the rock, and others could wait there turn to get to fish from ‘The Spot.’ For obvious reasons, this never made it to fruition, even if it would provide a barrel of laughs.


We are all guilty at one time or another of the minor sin of over-estimating the size and weight of fish we just caught. These errors can be separated into two categories: Excited but honest mistakes soon corrected with the aid of a simple tape-measure, and those obstinate and multiplying miss-measurements that just keep on getting bigger every time the yarn is told.

It amazes me how many times I under or over estimate a fish. Weight and length seem sometimes always bigger in the water and lesser in hand. This may be why the great Don Zahner said that if God intended us to measure our catch, he would have given the fish bigger scales! That comes to mind when listening to the tales of anglers gesticulating with histrionics to the great demi-gods of fish they have landed, fish so epic they are as likely to exist as Santa Claus or Hercules. Apparently in this land of epic tales fish fall into two size categories: small and BIG! Thus if an angler lands a nice brown trout on a tiny spring creek, the fish will always be over 14” if it is deemed enough of a fish to tell the buddies about down at the corner bar. If it is a bigger western river or the fish is to be caught on streamers, it will never be under 20 inches. Fish smaller than that are all a lot smaller. Indeed no ‘tweeners exist. In this world of purple skies and fishing gods, fish miraculously metamorphose from a dinky 10 inches to over twenty pounds in a split second. The ten inchers only exist to provide meals for those epic fish and a prelude to the moment the excited angler wipes his brow, gulps down his beer, and lets rip a whopper of a tale.

I know this because I have to be the listener like the buddies at the bar, except that I am entirely a captive audience and without needed lubrication of the spirit kind. Then when it comes time for that 50 lb steelhead caught from ‘Stocker Creek’ to appear as a photo, one must politely smile and nod at the 10 pound fish in the photo. Only once did I venture a glib remark or try to suggest a new portable tape measure. A bloke was telling of epic angling in a creek so full of fish that those of us in the know call it ‘Retard Creek.’ It gets a run of small lake-run steelhead or rainbows so out of proportion to its size that anyone can catch ten or even thirty a day. Pools no longer than fifty feet might hold fifty fish. The weight of the fish he seemed to have caught would make them all world records, beating out the great fish of British Columbia on the Thompson, Washington’s Skagit, or the B-run fish of Idaho’s Clearwater. I asked for his autograph after a bit, and told him he had caught all ten of the world record steelhead. He never batted an eyelid at my attempt to bring a little reality to Oz.

Big Box Misadventures

Why pay good money for quality equipment set up by experts at a fly shop when you can just go down to the Hunters and Anglers Mega-Warehouse and get the same stuff for half the price?

This is why:

A customer came into the shop with a reel, line and backing he had purchased from one of these Big Box Stores (after this referred to as BBS). He wanted me to check the backing. I looked at it and it seemed to fill the large arbor reel to the correct point, allowing the line to fill the reel and leaving a small gap between the line-guard of the reel. “Looks fine to me” I said, handing the reel back to the guy. “Can you make sure?” He pleaded. “I am going down to Florida salt-water fishing and I want to make sure it is O.K.” I humored him by stripping off the flyline and examining the backing. What the hell was this? Thick and sticky line lay in my hand. ‘What is this crap?” I asked.
He brought out a spool now empty from his pocket “Fly Line Backing” it read.

The stuff was the same cord that I use to sew leather when making rod-tubes. It is commercially called ‘Simulated Sinew.’ It is strong as heck but heavily waxed for tight purchase on the leather. This BBS actually sold, marketed, and used it for backing, quickly filling up the customer’s spool with a grand thirty feet. The first fish he caught in the salt would have stripped his line and carried it to the horizon…. Especially since the knot used to attach the backing to the fly line was a common granny knot, and the backing was not secured to the reel in any way. I rigged up his reel properly, charged him nothing, but made him promise that he would never go back there to save a few bucks.

Erik’s old equipment broker and free appraisal services

Mention fly-fishing to any twenty people at random, and ten of them will have some ‘fly rods’ and stuff that belonged to their uncle Zachary or Grandpa now ‘somewhere’ and worth a lot of money.
All of these people end up in my flyshop sooner or later I swear.
The most common are the guys with crooked and bent old production dime-store cane rods that the hopeful antique owner intends to allow him to put in the new swimming pool and deck on his house. They never actually ask me to appraise the rods, but just want me to “Look at them.” Now I love all antique tackle, but I also am running a business selling new tackle… or trying to. Convinced that the treasure discovered in the attic is the Mona Lisa of fly rods, they are usually disappointed when I tell them to hang it on the wall.

Many rod outfits brought in are in curious states. I have had fly rods with spinning reels on them loaded with fly-line, 8 wt rods with 5 wt lines and vice-versa, rods with old rubber and bakelite handles that melted to my hands when I picked them up, rods with repairs obviously conducted under the influence of alcohol and inappropriate tools, entire rods assembled from incongruous rod sections belonging to separate rods, rods that when assembled, fell apart in my hands, elderly widows with their dead husband’s entire collection of tackle, and my favorite of all: Automatic Reels.
What were we thinking when these were made?

Most of these are in a sad state of rust and dust when they are brought in to have new line placed on them. Always trying to be accommodating, I have literally had several of these explode on me while stringing on new line, and have had to pick bits of broken springs out of my beard and hair.
That reminds me of a guy who came into one of the shops on Christmas Eve at 4:30 pm. We closed at 5, and he wanted to use his coupon, which would expire that day. He produced an old cardboard box with a rusty reel full of dead spiders and spider eggs, and wanted new line. What the hell was he thinking? It was Christmas Eve for Santa’s sake, and we wanted to go home already. “What is the weight of the rod?” He didn’t know and hadn’t brought it along. I sold him a six-weight line and loaded it onto the reel afterwards thoroughly washing my hands of dirt and dead spider parts. Merry Christmas!

Odd Rodkins!

One couple came in to show me their new rods a custom rod builder had made for them. I had taught them a beginning fly-fishing class, and they wanted equipment. Instead of purchasing entry-level gear from me, they “Knew Someone” who built custom rods, and would have him build them each a rod. ‘Custom’ was fitting in an ironic sense. They unwrapped the rods for me to see, and I was overwhelmed by the powerful smell of varnish. Lovely wood reel seat spacers accompanied a plastic bait casting handle and multi-colored wrappings worthy of a toddler with a new box of crayons. The rods themselves were 6 feet long and seemed to be spinning rod blanks. Here was a true ‘Custom’ rod indeed. One third spinning rod, one third bait caster, and one third fly rod, and entirely covered from tip to butt in varnish.

I need a few flies…

This is a curious phenomenon…. Customers often come in and tell me they are planning a trip to a dream destination and river in Montana, Wyoming, The Bahamas, etc. They need a few flies for the trip. I make suggestions after asking the necessary questions, and they come to the counter with… 4 flies.
No, not a dozen of 4 patterns, but 4 flies…. For their trip… for their trip to that great dream destination… filled with epic fish… for a week…. In the wilderness…
4 flies.
4 bloody flies.
One fly to get dropped in the river, one to get lost before they get there, one to stick in the tree behind them, and the last one… the magic fly… to break off on their first fish.
Despite my attempts at good-natured advice as to the proper equipped angler, they often leave the shop with only those 4 flies.

Broken rods!

The true bane of existence for anyone working in a fly-shop are broken rods. I like to say there are two kinds of anglers; those who have broken a rod or two, and those that soon will. It is just a fact of life with brittle long skinny sticks like this. I rather think I could amend saying to more fully represent reality… “There are two kinds of anglers; those that having broken their rod, will gladly pay a small warranty fee and get a new rod in return, and the kind that blame me for breaking their rod.

Well, not always me specifically… often it is the manufacturer that gets blamed as well. So how did I get to be the blame fall-guy? I was there to receive the anger and frustration of the customer…therefore my fault. It always mystifies me how people seem to destroy their rods. I have broken a few, and with only one exception, it was my fault. I fell on two of them, one while tumbling on wet clay and the other when loose rocks slid out from under me. Never did I blame the person who sold me the rod. These guys crack me up. Most of the breakage happens when neophyte fly-fishermen foul hook salmon that are making their spawning run up great lakes tributaries. Big fish hooked in the fins, long brittle rods, and anglers that don’t understand how to let the fish run and wear itself out results in lines waiting at the door at opening times with sad or angry looks and a rod tube in hand.
I asked one guy whose rod had broken on landing a king salmon what tippet and leader combination he was using. “Huh?” he answered. It turns out he was tying straight 20 lb. Mono on his line as a leader. No wonder his rod broke.

I get guys coming in with 5 wt rods shattered on salmon. What were they thinking? The poor fish hooked in the ass and jumping down the river followed by a tangle of line and the tip section of a five-weight fly rod was heard by one piscatorial-eared passerby to exclaim “I was just trying to have sex!”
and on it goes…

Fishing Reports

Want an accurate fishing report? Good luck. See us at fly-shops have to be part fiction writer and part social-psychiatrist to put together a report.
Here are several examples and translations:
Fishing: Great
Someone caught a fish yesterday, there are fish in the river, the river is not completely blown out, that rumor about the escaped alligator is only partly true, the truck filled with gasoline crashed and exploded downstream from the last hundred yards of river, so there are still fish to be had, The river has not completely dried up, although it is 100 degrees out, fish can still be had at dawn and dusk, etc.
Fishing: Good
That fire you read about wasn’t near the river, it WAS the river. Don’t go. Stay home. Be very afraid.
See, these are for profit operations, and they profit from you going fishing and visiting their shops. They are not going to tell you that you have a better chance of taking a trophy trout from the river Styx with a dry fly in the pitch darkness while being rowed to Hades by the devil himself, then catching a fish in their river! If they say the fishing is just So-so, you might want to consider a game of ping-pong instead.
Then come all the inherent problems with rating the fishing. What is “Good” after all? To one angry angler complaining about our fishing reports “Good” was not good enough. He caught two wild brown trout @ 10 - 11 inches each on a dry-fly from a local creek. See, I would consider that “Good” fishing… apparently he didn’t. He wanted to catch numbers. That numbers problem is why tributary fishing reports for salmon and steelhead are often very relative. “Good” refers to when an angler has a near 100% chance to catch dozens of fish. “Great” refers to when while gearing up at the car, a errant salmon trying to jump the water falls accidentally lands in you car, upsets a grocery sack of spices onto itself, guts itself, and then flips onto the hot manifold and begins baking nicely.
“Just O.K.” is when you have a decent chance of landing a fish if you actually have some skills. That way when somebody who can only cast 10 feet and is more than half-drunk enters the river, they won’t come in your shop afterwards bearing firearms and complaining about your misleading reports.
Its all about setting and managing expectations, and the setting of those expectations is often beyond one’s control.

Beginners and experts

I maintain that there are only two kinds of fly fishers: Beginners and experts. Beginners have never caught a fish. Experts have caught at least one fish. Give me the beginners every time.
Think that is a Tongue In Cheek observation….
Meet the cast of the “Experts Club,” all experts in their own minds…
One guy didn’t know a Blue wing olive was a mayfly. He thought it was a midge. He was ‘guiding’ several other anglers at the time.
Another guy didn’t know the difference between a salmon and a steelhead, although by his own accounts, he had “Caught thousands of ‘em.”
One gentleman seemed to correlate 5X tippet and leader with 5 lb and 5 wt. He thought you could only use 5 lb. Test tippet with a 5X leader because his rod was a five weight.
Another guy complained that his new rod he bought from us ‘sucked’. He said that it didn’t cast right. He told us he used the same line on his other rod and it worked fine. This rod was a 9 wt.. His other rod? A 4 wt. “Nobody told me,” he complained. He told us that he had been fly-fishing for over 20 years.
One old codger thought that the WF designation on a fly line stood for “Wrinkle-Free” He was planning on ironing his fly line to get the kinks out.

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