Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Well Bought and Well Worn

One of Frosty's old fly boxes with 1920s Monatague rod and Hardy reel.

This year I went on my first deer hunt. I inherited from my Father a beautiful Steyr Mannlicher model ‘M’ bolt action with rich wood stock and fine bluing. He may never have shot it, and it certainly had never seen the field. I put on dad’s old hunting boots and took along a pair of wonderful Swarovski binoculars he used for bird watching for many years. After 3 hours of sitting in the cold on the last evening, the deer season ended without a shot being fired. I got up with numb legs and made my way down the hillside back to the cabin. Halfway there I had to step over a series of logs. Since I had limited feeling in my feet, my right boot caught on the obstruction and I took a header, putting a scratch in the rifle.


Back at the cabin after a dinner of wild game I showed the scratch in the rifle to my compatriots. “Good,” one of them exclaimed… “Now it is used and a real hunting rifle.”

I pondered on that a bit and then began a discussion on equipment and tackle for hunting and fishing. The theme that was developing was one of choosing one or two special pieces of gear, using them well, and caring for them.

Back home, I met with the son of Frosty Stevens, a fly-fisherman back in the day on the northern Wisconsin streams such as the Wolf and the Peshtigo. He and his wife made the 3 hour journey from home to make the gift to me of Frosty’s tackle including framed trout prints, his vest, and his beautiful hand-made wooden trout net among other things. It was a very special moment. They wanted the memories to continue with someone who could truly appreciate it. I was and am grateful and humbled. In the course of discussions, we discovered that his old fishing partner was Carl Blomberg. Carl’s son was Ron Blomberg, who married my mother’s cousin. We said at the same time ‘Six degrees of separation.” A connection had been made.
Frosty's wooden net. Hand made by Harry Baumann

As I examined the gear, I noticed one thing right away. The gear was well worn and cared for. The flies were used and little bits of tippet were still tied to several. They were arranged meticulously in old metal boxes, and most were hand-tied locally. The rods had dirty grips and sets to them. The leader wallets were worn at the edges. Frosty owned tackle that was among the best one could buy back in the day. It told a story of a man who was passionate about his sport, and the small collection of tackle was well maintained and well used. He chose his gear carefully, and from examining the knots and whatnot, I realized that here was a man who knew what he was doing, and did it very well indeed.

This is why I love old fly-fishing gear. It has a legacy. It seeps of history and encounters on the river and stream, and its owner’s personality and soul are part of it now.

Later that day I was looking at used tackle sites online, and I noticed something. So much gear had been purchased and was now for sale that was very lightly used and practically new. That led to some reflection on a bygone era in America and the modern world.

My grandmother owned a Singer sewing machine. A treadle model of all metal, it was used for years and years converting the older boys pants into skirts for the girls, sewing dresses, and endlessly patching and fixing things. For all I know, it most likely is still being used. It was probably an expensive model, and for a family raising ten children on one income in rural central Wisconsin, it was an investment. They had bought the best they could afford, used it well, and cherished it. They oiled it, tightened the belt, and polished it. It gave back in functionality by clothing the whole family during the Great Depression. Parallel this to fly-fishing gear and look at Frosty’s equipment and we see the same themes. Well chosen equipment, cared for and used. The purpose of the tool was more important than the quantity owned. Collectors would be laughed at.

If the limitation of owning a few pieces of fine tackle instead of 20 rods ever occurred to people like Frosty, it would be a foreign concept. One used what one had. Skill in the outdoors and reading and learning made up for limitations. If one had a hard time casting, he or she didn’t just sell the rod and buy a new one hoping that skill could be purchased, instead they went fishing and learned to use the gear they had.

Trout I caught this fall on Frosty Steven's old H&I Tonka Prince, his CFO reel and his line.
Contrast that with today. In our consumer-driven world things are commodities; their souls stripped by mass production, they no longer mean the same thing to us. They no longer carry the years and the memories in their dents and scratches, their worn pawls and gears. People buy and sell things in a never ending quest for the magic bean, buying into the concept that new equals better. Can’t shoot straight? Better buy a newer gun! On and on it goes.

Maybe it is time to take a trip back in the philosophy of commodity. There seems to be an emerging movement of downsizing and the craft movement is giving us special hand-made things that are beautiful and have character like Frosty’s wooden net. They used to call any of us that showed up on the stream with battered and well-worn gear “Old Timers.” I think that should rather refer to the philosophy of use rather than our physical age. “Buy the best you can afford, and choose it well. Educate yourself on and in the sport. Take care of and cherish the gear, and hand it down to the next generation with scratches and memories.”

My dad’s hunting boots which he never used are now muddy and need to be cleaned. I think I will leave the mud on, but polish them a bit and treat them with wax. A day one comes home without muddy boots is a day wasted.

We all have to pass through some day. I would like to go in style, with my boots worn, my vest patched, my reel scarred, and the cork on my rods well worn with memories of a life well lived.


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