Monday, December 17, 2018

Old Hat


The end of trout season found me putting away gear, and so, to the dreaded overstuffed closet I went. I was clearing space on the top shelf consisting of hats of all variety when it occurred to me that I have a rather large and cumbersome collection of fishing hats in various styles and states of decrepitude. As I sorted through them, each brought back memories. An old Hardy ball cap that I had worn for years while chasing steelhead in the western united states almost got discarded after last year I tossed in the washer and dryer and it turned into a frayed rag, but yet it still sat there with its sweat stains, little holes marking where I stuck flies as I changed them.

Dad’s old Irish hats were stacked in the corner. They get rotated and used each winter season because they hold different kind of memories, and they keep my ears warm, and the snow off my neck. There was an old waxed cotton cowboy hat that sort of melted and deformed and thus fell out of circulation. Tweed caps filled a box. I wear one of them every year on the Brule’ river, and their inner brims were still filled with flies. In the back, buried under yet more hats was an old cap from the first fly shop I worked in so many years back. I took it out and hung it next to my tying area for inspiration.

Sometimes rooting around through old things spurs thought, and I began to ponder the fishing hat as an object symbolic of more: of time, of history, of expression. I may have traveled to the rivers and came home with images of water and fish burned into my cortex, but the hats retained even some of the dirt, the very substrate under the rivers. They weren’t just hats, they were pieces of my angling history.

Sidetracked from my gear organization task, I paged through old copies of fly-fishing magazines and books looking for hats and found a treasury of ads and photos that had one thing in common: that of a lack of commonality. Every hat that could be imagined was donned by the anglers: terry cloth, tweed, straw, the ballcap, the bucket hat, the English driving cap, Irish walking hats, cowboy hats, trucker caps, packet hats, trilbys, even Bavarian alpine hats. Then I looked in a new magazine, and every picture had the same flat-brim ballcap. The variety had disappeared. I had a long discussion with other anglers older than I regarding fishing back in the day and the hats they wore and an idea emerged…

Back in England and in America as well until the turn of the twentieth century, there was a required ‘look’ to going fishing including proper attire, and topped by the finest in fashion chapeau. Sometime in the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1980s a change took place. Anglers no longer wanted to wear a ‘uniform’. They did that five days a week on their job. Fishing became a time for getting away from the factory and office, and an increase of working class anglers and hunters filled the outdoors on weekends. They finally had some leisure time. Entire trains were nicknamed ‘The fisherman express’, and ran out of the cities on Friday evening bound for the woods and streams. The people that left the cities behind also left the dress code behind. They escaped. Wearing a tie and coat with a derby was no longer socially necessary on the stream. People began to express themselves.

A time capsule emerged in 1973 in the form of descriptions of a group of anglers fishing Wisconsin’s Wolf River amalgamated from several of those conversations I had.

There was no look in common to them other than a ‘going fishing’ look, and every one of the anglers had their favorite fishing hat, unless their wife had finally made good on her promise to destroy it. That was one thing they did have in common: the universal detestation of their chosen hat by their wives… That, and a sort of lack of affectation to ‘coolness’ inherent in the varied old hats. The hat itself was a symbol of turning their backs, and breathing free… of escaping the cities… of non-conformism while not trying to look like a non-conformist.

Stumpy showed up in the fishing camp that year with his old gray felt fedora; the top sporting a large hole. As he told it, the hat blew off his head ten years back or so when he was playing a large trout. It had floated downstream and an otter swam out from some rocks on the bank and grabbed it, towing it ashore. Stumpy gave chase after landing his fish, and the hat lay in the grass on the bank soaking wet. The otter was nowhere to be seen. He was reaching down to pick it up, when the otter reappeared by chewing a hole in the very top of the hat and popping out, looking at Stumpy and squeeking. It then jumped into the water and swam away, its squeeking teasing Stumpy like laughter. He never sewed it up, he said, because “The otter must have done that for a good reason.” The rest of the gang speculated behind Stumpy’s back that he was a better angler for it anyway, because his brain now got exposed to more fresh air.

Carl always wore a brown wool hat his uncle had bought in New York after he returned from WWII. He got off the ship and realizing he had no civilian hat, went straight to a store run by an old Jewish man named Isaac. It had pheasant and grouse feathers stuck in the band, and Carl had turned down the brim in front so that it came down nearly to his nose.

Joe had an old ballcap with the logo of some farm machinery company. It was so stained with oil and grease that the name of the company was now unreadable. Joe had found it in an irrigation ditch near a farm while walking in to fish the Oconto River twenty years back. He had misplaced it one year and showed up with a newer cap, and not had a single fish rise to his fly. When he returned the next year, the old cap returned with him cocked at a jaunty angle, and he had out-fished everyone. Since then, he kept it in his safety deposit box at his bank. All his luck was contained in those old oil stains.

Whitey donned a tan bucket hat with blue and red banding. Stuck to the band were small spinning lures, a half-dozen flies, and a blue jay feather he had found.

Lou wore his masterpiece of angling: his fly hat. For ten years, he had always stuck any fly he clipped off his leader into the hat, and never removed it. Somewhere under those hundreds of matted and tangled flies was an actual hat, but no one in the group had ever seen it. It looked like some sort of abstract sculpture. One time while fishing with the group, Lou had been attacked by a dive-bombing red-winged black bird defending his territory. The bird had become entangled in the flies, and Stumpy and Joe had to use a pliers to free it. They were laughing so hard that Lou got sore at them and later after dinner, poured clam juice into their waders. Joe and Stumpy fished the next day surrounded by a cloud of flies they couldn’t shake. They finally dived into the river to escape the hungry hoard.

Frosty had the most dilapidated hat of the group. It started out as a fine Stetson, but his wife had washed it, and it lost its form and much of its color. It looked perpetually droopy and soggy, and the crown had bumps and warts sticking out all over. He had set fire to the front brim one evening lighting a cigar to keep the mosquitoes away, and the hat had smoldered for twenty minutes, creating a large brown and black-rimmed hole. A hillbilly would have scorned Frosty’s hat, it was just that bad… or good… depending on who was talking.

Fred was the only angler in the party that had a new hat. He had bought an Irish walking hat in green Harris Tweed because he said he always wanted one. The actual reason, which came out around the fire after a few glasses of brandy was that his wife had actually burned his old fishing hat in a garbage can in the back yard. The divorce followed shortly after.

These stories made me reflect that these old hats were more than just hats now. Maybe they had become a mold of the head and personality of the wearers: a now seemingly empty vessel full of thoughts, memories, destinations, and companions. Donning them again was like putting on a magic mask that both transformed and empowered the wearer. Luck flowed in the fibers, the cloth and the sweat, and you can almost hear the riffles in the stream… even if they now smell a bit fishy. One more reason to keep and wear that old fishing hat… a new one would have no stories to tell.






Saturday, December 1, 2018

Deer Father


Copyright 2018 by Erik Helm

14 years old for a boy is a shadow of in-betweens: no longer a boy, not a man, a time of identities and impressions, of questions and dreaming: a time of forming.

In 1979, I lay on the couch watching the winter’s fog through the windows meld and blend with my father’s pipe smoke as he kept me rapt with attention. The subject was hunting, and dad was half dreaming and half lecturing, surrounded by gun digests and outdoor magazines.

For Christmas that year I had received a .22 rifle, and had then passed a hunter safety class and joined the local Junior Rifle Club. The shooting and hunting drew my father and I together in mutual interest at a time when everything else was pulling us apart.

I was a good listener, and Dad was a fine talker and storyteller. He kept me glued to his words as I imagined the north woods of Wisconsin and hunting, I conjured images of red-checkered jackets, the smell of pines and the soft crunch of footsteps on new-fallen snow. Dad and I held classic sporting rifles, and he pointed ahead to show me the way.

My father and his father in law William Theisen examine a Herter's catalog 1971

Those daydreams on the couch listening to dad would be the closest we ever came to hunting deer together. Life got in the way, as it always seems to, and the unexpected roadblocks hidden around the corner prevented the father and the son from turning the dreams into reality. We did hunt squirrels once together later that year while on vacation, but never saw any. I got up early the next morning, and without dad, shot two by myself. I cleaned them, and dad cooked them. Larger game would have to wait until the tendrils of time collided randomly in the future… or not.

Dreaming takes on a different substance or concreteness to a fourteen year old. I spend countless hours on the floor with old copies of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, full of rich prose and informative articles. For a city boy, it was like an overdose of adventure novels, Hemmingway meets H. Rider Haggard. Clarity and exuberance… Dreams…

For Dad, dreaming about hunting was probably as good as actually hunting, and far safer and resulted in less anxiety. Dad was an armchair outdoorsman, but nobody knew more, or had read more on the subject, or any subject he was interested in, I thought, than my father. He was a methodical reader and planner. Sometime that winter, he created a list of hunting necessities. It would never be completed. I found it tucked into an old notebook recently. When he made it, he was the same age as I am when I am writing this. The notations in the Herter’s catalog now yellowing with time, and wrinkled much like the corner of my eyes now.

Dad's hunting list

He had one thing covered: rifles. Dad had purchased over the years a collection of fine used bolt-action rifles: Mausers, Winchesters, Remingtons, Sakos, Brownings, and his treasured possession, a Steyr Mannlicher model M carbine chambered in 7X57 Mauser. He cared for them meticulously, but I only remember him shooting one of them when I was around eight. Once again, it took someone else to take him to a range. Alone, he was not enabled or empowered. The Mannlicher was his deer rifle, even if it had no scope mount. When in his old age, he gave me all the rifles to place into storage, he kept one in his little apartment: the Mannlicher. It came to symbolize a dream deferred yet kept alive behind a bookshelf. Maybe some day…

All life is mere memories and dust, and then he was too.

In 2017, I prepared to move to the Driftless area of Southwest Wisconsin, a place of trout streams, hills and valleys, and nature and scenery like those dreams of boyhood. A city boy moves to a town of less than 600 people. I had placed several of Dad’s rifles behind the refrigerator under a sheet to hide them in my apartment in Milwaukee. The Mannlicher sat there after his passing until unshrouded before the move. I had never hunted either. The light of the sun shined full on the rich bluing and deep wood; the rifle was as beautiful as it was patient… waiting…

As I packed the apartment and planned the endless life-changes before me, I enquired into the availability of scope mounts. It turned out that they were harder to locate than I thought. No dice, until after the move I found them online and ordered a set. Dad also left me a Leupold scope that probably had been intended to top the rifle in the first place. The 1970s were finally being assembled some 38 years later. I had some notion of actually shooting the thing, but had not shot a gun in around 30 years myself. I vowed after my move that I would explore new things, and this would be on the agenda.

I had the major tools. They smelled faintly of pipe smoke and storage boxes, of oil and wax and dream preservatives. He left me a Herter’s knife for skinning, leather slings, an LL Bean jacket, and hunting boots. I just had to fill in the rest and make it happen.

I was and am lucky to have supportive friends who invited me to share in their deer camp last year, and to hunt with them. I debated it until the last moment, and then purchased a license and sighted the rifle in at a local range. The skills I left at 19 years old, that of a competition rifle shooter, came back slowly. Age played a part too, but skills practiced through hundreds of hours have a way of seeping in forever. They announced their awakening with the first ‘BOOM” of the Mannlicher. Silent for so long, it was mute no longer.

I learned a lot last year, but only spent about 10 hours hunting, and never had a shot. Our deer camp ended deer-less.

This year I decided to hunt squirrels alone in preparation for deer season. I would use Dad’s classic browning .22. It turned out that I enjoyed it immensely. It brought together the splendor of nature and discovery and learning with marksmanship and exercise and solitude. Several squirrels were dispatched with offhand shots and clean kills. They would be prepared in a stew the morning before the opening of deer camp and shared with all. The stew turned out superb. Serendipity… Or foreshadowing…?

I had one goal for the nine-day season: to shoot a deer. To do it my way, stalking or still-hunting without the aid of tree-stands, blinds, or anything else: traditional hunting the way dad would have done it. Fortunately, all of us at camp based in my friend’s wood heated cabin had the same philosophy. Do it right, with sportsmanship and restraint.

The alarm rang at 5 a.m. and we awoke to a landscape of silent darkness and new-fallen snow. We brewed coffee in an enamel percolator, downed oatmeal and doughnuts, and bundled up. The rustic cabin and classic gear and rifles surrounded us like a black and white photo newly colored. It could have been the 1970s. Opening day…

It was cold. I startled a grouse as I made my way down the path from the cabin. I had decided on my own to explore some deer trails we had discovered early this spring while planting trees on the land. What I actually found was the most awful tangle of thorns, weeds, brush, and branches possible. A deer could have been twenty feet away, and I could have passed it unseen. I found deer beds, but no tracks in the snow. Nothing was moving that morning except me, and I was progressing as slow as the tangles necessitated. I saw no deer, but made the acquaintance of squirrels, birds, and a turkey.

After several hours of this futility, I returned to the cabin with cold feet. Dad’s hunting boots were the one thing he got wrong. They were fine for upland game and such, but standing and squatting in the woods when it was 16 degrees found them inadequate. After a snack of sausage and cheese, two of us drove to town where I solved the problem with boots two sizes too big and rated for 40 below. No more cold feet.

In the afternoon and evening we capped off opening day by hunting some public land we wanted to explore. I crawled through barbed wire and brush to discover a maze of deer trails and tracks. A cold wind blew up the valley, and nothing moved. I found a trail cam tied to a tree aimed at a buck rub by accident while taking a pee. It was pointed squarely at me. I hoped that the owner appreciated the diversity of wildlife it captured by accident…

The second morning broke colder than the first: eleven degrees by the thermometer. We decided that I would proceed to the top of the hill where a saddle and dirt track provided a clearing and a field of view. The other hunter that morning would hunt in the hinge-cuts he had formed through countless hours of labor to provide ample cover for deer, and allow them to pause, bed down, and browse for vittles. I started out in darkness ahead of him and carefully climbed the hill scrambling over trees and under limbs, pausing from time to time to listen, moving as silently as possible up the edge of a gully.

Arriving at the top, I crept into a thicket of weeds next to a large boulder adjacent to the gravel track on the ridge top. It was just getting light; the sun edging awake to illuminate the frost that covered every surface like jewels. A thousand points of light danced and flickered. I sat down in the weeds and hid myself, concentrating on silence and slow breathing. My breath came in clouds that fogged my glasses. I relaxed and sat listening to the morning sounds: a staccato of tentative percussion freezing and thawing, clicking and rubbing gently on their native instruments.

An hour passed. The quiet was deafening. I could hear my heart beat.

The slumbering stillness was broken by the sounds of deer moving through and up the gully to my left. All of a sudden my tranquility was broken as adrenaline flowed and I began to get nervous. I clicked off the safety on the Mannlicher and took several deep breaths, closing my eyes and listening. There it was again. Whatever it was, it had run up the slope and then paused near the top in the brush, moving every 20 seconds or so.

As quietly as falling snow, a deer crept tentatively out of the brush. I was in perfect position as it moved forward onto the gravel track. I raised the rifle and took sight. Where the deer should have been was just a huge blur. I looked over the top of the scope. Weeds. The weeds I was hiding in were obscuring my sight-picture. The deer took several steps forward completely unaware of me. I sighted again. Now the deer progressed into the brush on the other side of the ridge and paused. It all but disappeared. All I saw was its outline. I placed the crosshairs where the shoulders should have been and squeezed the trigger. The thunderclap broke the silence with a sudden brutality.

Had I hit it? I heard the deer run, breaking brush, and then silence. I waited as more deer sounds came from the gully. I chambered another round, working the bolt smoothly. Silence returned to the ridge top. The deer moved off to the left in the heavy brush. I waited five minutes more and carefully stood up. I walked to the deer trail where I had shot at my quarry, and followed the path downhill for several yards. A single drop of blood. Then more blood appeared hidden in the brush. I moved onward several more yards until it looked like something sprinkled blood on the brush and branches. I looked down the trail and there it was. I had shot it through the heart, the cleanest of kills. For a moment I paused and wondered if that shot, obscured by brush as it was, was guided from above. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I could smell a faint whiff of pipe smoke.

I thought it was a doe, but it turned out to be a button buck. After returning to the cabin to inform my partners, I dressed it out and we dragged it up the hill to the awaiting jeep. Hung from a tree in front of the cabin, a bottle of bourbon and cups were produced, a toast declared, and I took my fingers and dipped them in the old tin folding cut and sprinkled the liquor on the deer thanking him for his life and sustenance. Then I downed the fiery liquid myself.

My friend turned to me and said, “Well, your father finally went hunting…”

It meant something. Something deeply personal.

I sit here writing this in winter as I watch the snow fall, and think back to that winter of 1979, and all the unfinished things in our lives. The fabric of time had collided once again all these years later, and what Dad had started as a dream shared with a boy, fueled by books before the fire in our living room on the East Side of Milwaukee had seeded and germinated in the hills of the Driftless. Dad finally went hunting. I know he was there.
The conclusion

There will be wild meat this winter. It will feed the mind and the soul, and maybe somewhere a smile will appear deep in the woods at night, and in the cold darkness of forever, a wisp of pipe smoke may arise from that smile.

Thank you dad.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Growth and Fruition of an Idea: a Spey enigma


If a person’s day and life is not to become the predictable routine of the potato-eaters, experimentation and risk must be explored, and new things tested and grown. That is art, and what makes life worth living for me, for as Camus wrote, “If life were clear, art would not exist”, and I would add that in clarity are found potatoes.

I was in my new vegetable garden at my equally new home in the Driftless fumbling with tying up tomato vines in the 90 degree heat and harvesting summer squash when another newness presented itself in the form of a call from my good friend Joe Balestrieri the bamboo rod builder and endless experimenter. The query? ‘Did I think a spey rod could be built for smaller rivers like Wisconsin’s Brule’ out of a 9 foot bamboo sharps impregnated blank, and what would one look for in a rod of this type…’

Well, the conversation went back and forth for an hour while I puttered around the garden watering the vegetables and knocking the idea around in my head. We both had ideas about the action: soft and easy. What would the grip look like? Would such a rod be able to be built? Most spey rods are between 12 and 16 feet long, and in my pursuit of the art of spey-casting a longer belly line, and chasing anadromous fish all over the country, I now own over 20, most over 14 feet long. Would such a short rod be able to cast a standard single-hand line, even a double taper with ease? Would it be too short to properly spey cast? The questions added up much faster than the answers…. Those would have to come in time.

One thing I love about Joe is that he is more of an artist than a pure craftsman. Thus, he is always experimenting with ideas and tapers, shaving this down, adding glass tips to cane butts and vice versa, playing around with new ideas, and not afraid to fail if a deviation goes awry. That is a rare thing in today’s world. A freedom that few builders will ever have, and a quality that reminds me of my mother’s great artwork. She was always turning around and going in different directions in creativity and experiment. It filled her world with energy and beauty after a day with the potato-eaters at her dull day job.

Of course, ‘Spey’ casting a shorter rod like 11 feet in length has become somewhat popular recently, as ‘switch’ rods or rods that can be cast with both one or two hands are gaining acceptance, especially when paired with thick and very short shooting heads and running lines, but I wanted the rod to be able to mimic the clean graceful stroke I can achieve with a 15 foot rod and a 70 or even 85 foot weight-forward long belly spey line. Even if the rod could sort of do it, was the symbiosis of rod and line just a wine-induced fantasy? We knew we would be on some new ground here. Did the line exist at all anymore, now that the ‘heads’ and running lines have all but eclipsed them? I had a couple of things going for me here. One was Joe, and his openness to experiment and unfamiliarity with the new generation of lines (he would probably tape on guides and test it with a double-taper silk which would be an ideal test for what I had in mind), and the fact that I have massive boxes of old fly lines I could root through and try on the rod.

As the rod went through the process of creation, Balestrieri tweaked it to make it lighter, and enquired as to what I thought of grip length. “Oh, build it long!” I said, “Long enough to properly spey cast, and make sure the bottom grip is long enough to fit my whole hand around.” After I got off the phone I wondered if I was nuts. In my opinion, the bottom grip on shorter two-handed rods, for that is what he was building here, not a switch rod, are most often too short. This causes problems when casting in the Scottish style of getting the bottom hand started in the process of bending the rod early, and before the upper hand comes into play. Would the longer grips eat into the already short length of the rod and dull the action? Would the whole thing be just a thought experiment? Well, no risk, no reward…

As the rod neared completion, I got weekly updates from Joe as to his thoughts. He cast it in his backyard with a standard 8 weight single-hand line using an overhead cast, and thought it was very fluid and ‘easy’ in its character out to 70 feet. Would it work with a spey-cast? I would have wait for the varnishing and drying process to find out.

The rod arrived one morning about two weeks before I would be up on the Brule’ to search for steelhead. There was no water nearby to test it on properly, as our local river was flooded, so I fashioned a grass-leader out of 20 pound maxima with a series of 3 inch long tags to catch the lawn and simulate the water-tension necessary with a spey-cast.

The rod was aesthetically gorgeous. Balestrieri used clear silk wraps over the guides to allow the beauty of the rich bamboo to show through, and used an amber agate stripper guide along with a matching wood burl reel-seat. It was subtle in its richness and depth. The grip was long and thinner at the back-end of the forward section while flaring into a Ritz-style front. It actually was the most comfortable grip I had ever encountered on a two-handed rod. But would it cast?

I dug out several lines from the fly line mystery box in my workshop/office, and loaded up the reel to match the rod: a Hardy Golden St. Aiden lightweight which I hoped with both compliment and balance the rod. There were so many unknowns in this process. In my head, the rod and reel were the perfect match, and the line I picked as the most likely choice would also work… but it was all in my head up until the moment I stepped out to my private casting lawn at the side of my house.

I would love to say I heard the aria right away, that it just spoke to me, but that would ignore the fact that I had never tried to cast this short of a rod with a long-belly stroke. It overhead cast like a rocket, and I had to climb a tree to get the grass leader untangled from an ancient oak, but it was a quirky rod with a spey stroke. I called Balestrieri, and in the conversation, mentioned the word ‘Quirky’. That was a mistake. Now he wanted me to send it back to him, and build me a different rod. “No, let’s just give it time…” I might have been the quirky one here, for getting used to a new rod can sometimes be akin to getting to know a woman… it takes time. Three days later I had an epiphany. I slowed down my already notoriously slow casting stroke even more, and adjusted the line a bit by holding the end of the taper just at the tip of the rod. It made all the difference. The rod came together with the reel and the line like they were a long lost family.

It was a joy to cast on the Brule’ A true blossoming of an idea that could only be coaxed through its development by a rod maker who is also a great listener, and understands art and humanity, and my quirky ideas, and could meld them with his many years of experience creating objects of beauty and use. I now have a unique treasure, and perhaps the only 9’ 3” long-belly casting bamboo spey rod ever made.

Happy camper on the Brule' with the new rod.
That might make me even more eccentric, but I have been referred to as eccentric before, so if people scoff at it, they can always go have a potato. Instead, I will look at the glowing depth of the bamboo as the graceful loops unfurl and carry a beautiful fly out to a river that is a worthy compliment to a fruit fully blossomed, born in the summer heat, carefully watered and worried over, and finally tasted with a sip of water from the River of Presidents.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Psychology of Stimulators


Magic Potion?

It was a late September afternoon when I received a phone call from a friend I will call ‘Spud’. “In the Driftless area of Wisconsin for the weekend… Fish?” was the question. The answer was in the affirmative, (Duh!) and the time set for late the next morning. I have not fished with Spud more than a few times for trout, our meetings usually occupied with steelhead, or a lack of them on beautiful rivers where I lead him on epic detours and short-cuts which he puts up with for some reason I can only speculate about. When I have traipsed the creeks with him in pursuit of the wily spotted trutta, I have found him to be among the best spring creek fishers I know.

Because of his expertise, I decided to take him to a tiny brush-clogged stream, and one of my favorites: intimate and complex besides being filled with challenging trout. I always feel at home here, like I passed through time and the river to a more elemental and simple place. We met at noon, and after a cup of tea, packed up his truck, and were off.

Although cloudy and cool, we timed the fishing perfectly. The water had warmed enough that a hatch of Blue winged Olive mayflies had begun. Not a major hatch yet, but enough to get the trout looking up for snacks. I tied on a little size 18 BWO dry fly, and Spud tied on a size 16 olive stimulator. Now the curious reader might exclaim “Fung Wa? What???” Yes, a size 16 olive stimulator dry, for that is all Spud fishes with for trout. You have to respect his trust in it, his determination that the fish will see it as a morsel of food, despite it being too large and the wrong shape for the hatching insects on the stream. It works too, at least in his hands, even if old Ernest Schwiebert, author of ‘Matching the Hatch’ might proclaim, “Das fool! Zat is der wrrrong kaput forlunkin fly!”

We progressed up the stream, carefully placing casts to the tight cover and avoiding all the obstacles in the form of myriad bushes and overhanging branches. The trout were cooperating too, as I discovered Spud’s Modus Operandi: simply by over hackling the stimulator, he could place it in the tightest quarters between twigs, bounce it off the water, gently pull it in and out of snags, and effectively fish every inch of productive water near trout cover without worrying about his fly getting stuck. It was almost a fly with built-in weed guard. The fly was his magic power, his cloak of invulnerability, his helmet of confidence.

We both took decent fish out of the complicated chess game the river demanded of us, and spud being a lefty, we traded off in runs based on openings that demanded either a left handed caster or right. After an hour or so, we ran out of river, as it braided out at an upper bridge, and proceeded downstream to a lower section. This is the kind of happy-go-lucky fishing I love: no pressure or worries, and a guide’s day off. Catch or catch not, pick your relaxed pace and fish the challenges with little agenda and a good friend who is as happy when I catch a fish as I am when he does.

The hatch of tiny mayflies of the dusky persuasion we were playing amongst had increased in intensity when we wet our boots in the lower water. I began catching trout with regularity, and spud briefly considered changing to a more realistic pattern, but decided instead to increase his agenda of dancing his seductive little stimulator over, under, and through every obstacle. He picked up the fish my fly didn’t tempt quite enough. The menu specialized in small olives du jour , but the blue-plate special of meatloaf and mushroom gravy with mashed potatoes found on the back page tempted up some hefty and hungry diners.

Then the impossible happened. A nice fish chewed up Spud’s meatloaf stimulator and it would not float anymore. Reaching into his vest, he opened a fly box that… you guessed it… contained nothing but size 16 olive stimulators. Alas, the horrors!… it was empty. What to do? After all, we were only halfway up the stretch of river we were fishing. It seemed that there is a first time for everything, as Spud extended his leader, and tied on a Blue Winged Olive fly similar to mine, and cast it forward into the maze of riffles and protruding flora.
The change was shocking. I had to look at him to be sure who I was fishing with. His first cast got stuck in a tree behind him. His second cast he mended into a bush. Then he stood on the line while it tangled around the tip of his rod. “What is going on Spud?” I asked. “I am all discombobulated and un-stimulated,” he replied, while placing his fly into another bush and slipping on a rock. He started teetering back and forth in an uncoordinated manner, and if I didn’t know that he was a confirmed avoider of alcohol, might have thought he had secretly sneaked a snoot-full of potables.

Why? Why is it all happening to me?
I began laughing, and he did too. I said carefully “You know, I am laughing with you not at you… I think this is all psychological…”

“No kidding!” he now almost shouted, “It’s like someone gave me kryptonite! Before, all I could see was water and targets, now all I can see are obstructions and obstacles!” It was like a bizarro world, a world of negatives where black was now white and white now black… targets on the water to be missed, and every branch, rock, tree, or even his hat turned into some sort of magnet… and it was all psychological. Removing that damned stimulator was like pulling out some essential piece of mental DNA, or putting his batteries in backwards. His wet flies floated, and his dry flies sank. In short, his confidence and mindfulness was short-circuited. You could almost hear the fuses popping.

I seem to fish best when being mindful yet in a Zen state… a harmony with everything… a sense of ‘Wa’ as the Japanese would describe it. If I am too distracted, or even too full of concentration and thinking, things often begin to go wrong… not to the extent of Spud’s malaise, but all of us have been there at some point in our angling, or will be.

The answer is to stop thinking of the problem itself, and return to the beginning. Sit down on the bank and close your eyes. Take a deep breath… or follow the path of one ‘Tin Cup’, the golfer and psychological disaster played by Kevin Costner in the movie of the same name. In the movie, a distracted, in love, and nervous Costner is at the practice driving range at the opening of the U.S. Open golf tournament, and keeps slicing his drives into his fellow competitors including some famous PGA pros. The other golfers start staring at him and making comments as he unravels worse and worse, and can only seem to hit the ball backwards and sideways. He had become his own ‘hazard’ on the course, and he had not even begun play yet. The solution proffered by his coach and caddy played by Cheech Marin is to tie his shoes together, put on his hat sideways, transfer his change to his other pocket, and other goofy things. Tin Cup states that he feels like a fool! The coach says “Excellent… swing away!” and Cup does with a perfect drive. “How’d you do that?” he asks. The answer: You stopped thinking about shanking and slicing your shots. That simple.

Spud’s solution was a bit different but equally effective. He went back to the beginning and cleared his head too, as he rooted around through myriad fly boxes and found one last misplaced size 16 olive stimulator, a somewhat battered former gladiator, but ready to be tied on and sent forward into the fray. He cast gracefully and perfectly, placed the fly in an impossible spot, and hooked and landed a fish… and another… and another.

When the fly finally fell apart from all those tiny teeth, he reeled up, thanked me for a great day of fishing, and we walked off the water, and had dinner. It was his closer to the trout season, and would give him all winter to replenish his box of stimulators. I am thinking of tying a few too, and putting them in a small pill box… like medication of the placebo kind for that inevitable day when I become all tangled up in my psychological underwear.



Wednesday, September 19, 2018


Upper West Fork where the little brookie was caught



Part one: We go fishing


The morning broke slowly, and the damp mists shrouded our progress up Bohemian Valley creek. It was as beautiful as it was quiet, the only sounds being the light adagio of woodwinds and muted percussion played upon the riffles; water music.

The tricos, or minute mayflies we were waiting for were quiet as well, for none were showing as we crept slowly forward, or sat with senses aware to sounds and taking in the surface of the water like a Shakespeare play… drama, or a lack of it to be exact. Some wise sage once said that there is no thing deader than a dead brown trout stream. Despite the divine spiritual beauty of the misty valley this morning, like a fog-shrouded church ruins, the trout were not having any. They just would not come out to play. No tricos showed for an hour, and no rising trout. Different fishermen would have placed an indicator on the leader, and attached a weighted nymph, but we wanted to play this game on our terms that day. As the years pass, it seems to become more and more important to just exist to witness the beauty of the rivers here in the Driftless, and part of the poetry in and on the rivers is to appreciate a few trout to hand, and the restraint to walk away happy with what the river gives you… a gift.

I did begin blind-casting a tiny size 22 trico dry fly just in case; a process not unlike playing the lottery without buying a ticket, and did manage to hook one small brown trout. Sometimes the number ‘1’ can be an existential victory. So we left the river happy. It had flowed in that valley for tens of thousands of years, and we would take up no more of its slow concept of time that day.

We stopped at Timber Coulee, the parent river, and another moss-bed incubator for the tricos, and progressed up a riffle as the sun began to warm the water. The tricos should be showing, but nature has her own rhythms, sometimes impossible to touch or feel, or interpret for a mere human soul. My friend of many years and adventures, memories and wisdom stored in the coming graying spotted a single rising trout, and covered him with a tiny caddis and caught him. The water-ghost was a brown trout full of coming autumn colors and fat. I took the lead up the 100-yard long riffle, but neither of us could raise a fish to a dry fly. So we left the river to its own terms… after all, we had both caught a single fish where there were thousands. Sometimes in life, a single sip of champagne tastes the finest when the glass is put down, and placed there to stay. You can watch the bubbles, and imagine the next sip, if there is one…

The next river we visited upon was the upper West Fork of the Kickapoo. This gem of the Coulee region saw some of the first stream rehabilitation work that brought the Driftless area to trout angling prominence. The sections we were on were near the very headwaters. Often a change in valleys and streams will turn the cards over, and all comes up flushes, aces, and royalty. This was one of those days. As dead as the Timber system was, the West Fork treated us well indeed. The change in venue brought multiple trout to hand including a 13 inch brown that took the fourth drift of a skittered caddis under the grass of an undercut. I rarely get to hear the small Hardy perfect reel sing like that, even my partner heard the ratcheting from upstream, and the little bamboo 4-weight ‘Princess’ rod bent in a crazy curve. Interesting karma, since the reel was a gift from him many seasons and fish ago.

The river was good to us, and we felt a part of it like an old friend of many promises kept. We continued upstream, joined now by an old sage of the Driftless who has forgotten more about trout on the fly than many will ever know. Now we were three. We located a pod of trout mixed in with Largemouth Bass, an interesting combination. The bass were washed down from Jersey Valley lake, the impoundment and dam at the headwaters, and were making their living right there in the middle of a cold-water trout stream. It was juxtaposition as extreme as one can get: like a clown at a Harvard philosophy conference on the subject of aesthetics and epistemology. We cherished the privilege. Herr Sage picked apart the pod of trout, while we practiced standing on our lines and tying complicated knots of the macramé variety in our leaders. Yes, there are those moments too. Anyone who says it never happens to them, either only wets a line in their mind, or is lying.

We futzed about for another hour with the bass and trout, and moved upstream to a section I had not been back to in four years. It was a section of some old improvements from the 1980s still tentatively clinging to life after all these decades and the great floods of 2007 and 2008. Structure in name only, but the riffles held brookies and some browns. There is a magic place in many streams, an invisible border, a magic gateway where one is catching brown trout, and then as if passing through a black hole with a single step, catching only brookies. We stood at the threshold, one leg with the Fario, and one toe touching the Fontinalis. The ice age lay ahead with fish as old as the rocks in the stream bed, unchanged since long before man emerged from a cave, carved a stick, and attaching a string of horsehair and a bone hook, went forth to angle.

It was time to go now. Time. I ran ahead to the top of a riffle where an icy feeder stream poured in from the north. I cast a dry fly up to where the two waters met and the fly disappeared in a ring. The brook trout was all of 7 inches long. I held it in my hand. Its body was almost transparent, like the mirror I passed through to get here held the solidity, and all was clear as ice where I stood: frozen with ripe berries of color… blues and reds and halos. I looked at it. It looked back. Our eyes met. I released it back to its home. My hand held its halo, its negative, its shadow. It felt cold as deep earth… cold as the waters born there. This was its home. I was just passing through.

Time to leave. Time…

Part two: The tempest

I awoke at 1:30 in the morning to a cannonade in the north. My tired eyes witnessed a firework show on the horizon. The windows rumbled with the unending timpani of thunder. It went on forever… I fell asleep as the rain danced on the roof and spattered on my brow through the open window, the curtains rising with the mistrals to tickle my cheek. It was subtle and beautiful, this violence of nature.

I awoke anew. My phone was going off with little pings and beeps. I grabbed it and began to sort through the warnings and awake to the realities of the aftermath. Upper Vernon county and areas received over 12 inches of rain. Jersey Valley dam had breached and failed. Timber Coulee valley and Coon Valley downstream were destroyed. Bridges were knocked out, people were scrambling for information, and what was coming was not good. A sobering by nature. A reminder. A flooding like we have never seen before. Early pictures resembled a muddy world war one battlefield with trees shorn from artillery fire. It looked like death… like war… like a painting by William Orpen.

The West Fork of the Kickapoo was devastated. The Kickapoo itself was beginning to flood and the upstream towns were being evacuated. Nobody knew how to get anywhere due to roads being closed. People drove for an hour zigzagging back to where they started… and it was all headed downstream toward me. At 4:30 the next morning, our town received evacuation orders. Fortunately, Soldiers Grove had flooded so many times in the past that the main street business section along the S-curve in the Kickapoo had been demolished and relocated to higher ground. I was high and dry too at the top of a hill in my little house, so I went back to sleep.

At nine in the morning I walked the 400 yards down the hill to look at the Kickapoo. There were five-foot standing waves where a beautiful park had replaced the site of the old town. Everything was wrecked, but we were all safe, Gays Mills downstream would not be so lucky. Built in a shallow bowl in a wetlands area of the Kickapoo, floodwaters rise there and slowly recede. The last remaining businesses on the main street got flooded. That had never happened before.

I looked across the bridge back in Soldiers Grove, across the raging brown waters filled with hay bales, trees, parts of silos, and other flotsam of wreckage. There is a little sign on a post with a red line marking the high water mark back in 2008. The entire sign was under water. I turned around and walked back home. I was land-locked for two-days until the floodwaters receded. Fortunately, nobody lost his or her life in this epic mess.


Part three: Reflections


It was a week later that I began to tour the damage. I stood in my own footprints near the headwaters of the West Fork, only my footprints, and everything else had been erased like the finger of God. Everywhere we had been fishing the day before was erased. It was as if a lahar had been through the valley. I didn’t know where I was. Only the hills and the road gave any orientation. Where the river slowly jogged back and forth turning and twisting as a stream should dance, it now ran in a completely new and arrow-straight channel fifty feet wide and ten feet deep. The finger of God. I stood with my friend and just stared. The silence was tremendous.

Thousand of hours, countless dollars and efforts in the shape of stream improvements… gone.

A small dead brook trout lay in the mud at my feet. Its eyes no longer looked back… they stared too, unfocused now.

Had I hooked and released the last fish caught on the upper West Fork? It mattered not except to mull in my mind the sheer fragility of life. In the mud and debris were written lessons in a script decipherable only if I closed my eyes. To be mindful. To appreciate the smallest whispers. To cherish gifts of nature and friends, to never take anything for granted… I am but a speck of dust before nature, before God if you like.

I haven’t been out fly fishing alone since. Now it is with a close friend or a client. Perhaps I am haunted. Perhaps I held eternity in my hand for a moment and touched it. I know that this too will pass. All things are ephemeral now. My senses are more aware. I feel as if I can smell time.

The last photo I took of the upper West Fork of the Kickapoo. Evening rise and mists.
Author’s note: Ephemeral means ‘transitory, transient, fleeting, passing, short-lived, momentary… It is also the root of the taxonomic name for the Mayfly, a favorite stream bred trout insect: Ephemera and Ephemerella. It seemed the perfect title to remind us to live in the moment, for all things are transitory.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Bibliophile to an Angle

Or an ode to books and the literature of fly-fishing

Author’s note: This is one essay that nearly defeated this writer. The examination of literature and themes of human expression as art and life through fly-fishing opened so many doors from expression, nature, curiosity, the human condition, the digital age, existentialism, and a hundred others that I started to get overwhelmed. This could be a book with two dozen chapters. A tome reflective of the human state of reading and not reading, of philosophy and the exploration of our humanity, achievements, fears, mortality, and everything else written down on the dozens of pages and notes I have taken in the last several months leading up to this actualization of putting pen to paper. Perhaps it can best be expressed as how it emerged, with interlocking and woven themes rather than chapters. Rivers flow and lines curve and so may words, if we are willing to read them. E.H. Summer 2018

When I was growing up, our house on the East Side of Milwaukee was full of books. Books sat on shelves, cascaded off cocktail tables, were piled on the floor, and carried in hand from room to room. For much of my youth my father sat engrossed in books, slowly smoking a pipe. Social gatherings often were occasions of passionate discussions of ideas and books, punctuated by booze and smoke. My father’s generation kept their minds sharp, even if their bodies were not always treated the best. Today sometimes I think we have come to the opposite problem: our bodies sacred, but our minds awash in a sea of data bytes, with no punctuation rooted-words to tie it all together.

As a curious child, I explored ideas with questions… pestering my parents to no end wanting to know the what, why, and how of everything. They had a set answer: “Look it up.” The search took place in books awash in dust and ideas, and often the journey was more important than the destination or answer, for it took one on diversions both small and large that opened the mind, and imprinted new thoughts or dimensions of perspective on a young mind. A transcendental journey away from the mundane.

My father found great wealth in books and was rich in ideas and knowledge. Indeed, late in his life he was at the home of a relative after a funeral, and was in an odd mood, as if he had been faced with his own mortality. One of the guests approached him as he stood alone quiet and reflective in the living room browsing through the shelves of books. “What are you doing?” the relative asked. “Looking at the books,” he replied, opening one briefly.

“Oh I hate books,” said the relative. “They cause dust, and I am allergic to dust.”

My father turned ever so slowly, and replacing the book gently and reverently in its slot, said “I would rather have dust in my lungs than dust on my brain.”

Thus, when it came time for his son to explore the world of fly-fishing, I naturally turned to books, and turned the first page in a lifetime journey.

The immortal Arnold Gingrich opened his literary exploration of the world of fly-fishing writing in ‘The Fishing in Print’ with the words:

“As Sparse Grey Hackle says, some of the best fishing is to be found not in water but in print. It follows that some of the best fishing partners are to be found not in life but in literature.”

A book, in its essence is a recording of thoughts and experiences, points of view and reflections. Stories, our stories… his story and history. Books allow ideas to be preserved in a timeless way… mirrors and windows through another’s eyes. They take us places we have never been, they augment dreams, and widen our world. They allow for exploration of ideas. Opening a book can be like an open-ended question: joy, fear, anticipation and validation… mortality and ecstasy captured through mere words on a page. Books are a lens into a different world, and an examination of the human experience… the human soul… the human story. Rivers are dividing points and joining points, moving water and flowing ideas and expressions… mirrors into introspection and perspective as words are.

When mankind placed pen to paper, and the written language emerged as a preservation tool, books were lovingly created and copied by hand. Even after the printing press was invented, cherished volumes were often kept under lock and key in vaults, so sacred and valued were the words. Libraries were the intellectual equivalent of treasuries… banks investing in or keeping knowledge. Words opened minds and that scared institutions such as the church, which spent much of their time and effort banning them and collecting them to file out of sight forever. Ideas can be dangerous. For us today they are free or nearly so. So free that we take them for granted, and don’t read them.

The greatest tribute to anything as far as human history is concerned is to capture it in art, and the written word, or literature, is one of the finest forms. It has been said that a picture paints a thousand words, but I would add that a word conjures a thousand pictures, for the human mind is not two-dimensional, and words trigger imagination. The finest angling books or literature are often not entirely about fishing. Indeed, they are about life seen through our experiences while fishing. The human condition portrayed in the garden of analogy. William Humphrey wrote one of the greatest stories about fly-fishing in ‘The Spawning Run.’ It is a story about fishing, but in between the words are our own foibles laid bare in the bushes of life down by the river. Thus, the finest books are often not simple how-to or where to go typing, but viewing life, nature, art and philosophy through fly-fishing. Our little sport might be unique, for more words have been written about it than any other sport. Ernest Hemmingway wrote his most simple and essential novel, a single tale of man and a fish… which was not about fishing, but about life, existentialism, and the bigger realms. The ideas were as large as the dialog was simple and child-like. These stories endure and are endless as the rivers. Ars Longa Vitae Brevis. The writers may be gathering dust, but when we open their books, we hear their voices. Words are immortal. They give us something greater to chew on. To taste and reflect on. To live through. A hundred books, a hundred lives, and one reader living it all.

Yes, and books are there for learning. There on the shelf, the bookstore, the library or the hearth mantle available and accessible to all, only for the boldness of curiosity to open the cover and open our minds. Why boldness? Because sometimes books make us question things… even ourselves, and critical thinking can be dangerous to the self-assured. I wonder often if zealots like Halford the dry-fly dogmatic read books with their eyes tightly closed. We have to be open to ideas and desire to see the world as other’s see it. That wider view can be frightening or enlightening, depending on the reader. A closed mind is a closed book. Learning through books is something we can all do. The history of the sport, and the varied experiences and perspectives is our education off the water, allowing us to enjoy the fishing at a greater level when casting in it. Casting our fly into books can be as rewarding as wetting an actual line.

Explore wit and wisdom with Lyons as he stumbles through the rivers, laugh with Volker, discover the inner humor in Skues, Lose a day with Negley Farson in ‘Going Fishing,’ explore the north-west with Haig-Brown, Fish the world around and gain a lens into entomology and history with Schwiebert. Sit at a table with Ritz and Gingrich at a fishing club with a salon-like atmosphere where ideas are born and drown in martinis, and fishing is only the seed for the larger expressions of the mind. Sparse Grey Hackle (Arthur Miller) wrote a book almost entirely not about fishing… or was it about fishing in the end? We have to go there to see. We have to feed our mind along with our body. When we do, we find out why we might have not wanted to fish with Hemingway, or the development of the Irish wet flies with Kingsmill Moore, what we have gained and lost in tackle, the joys and losses in the tussle with memorable fish, discover Yeats and his poetry about fishing and nature, explore the north woods with Gordon McQuarrie, and even find ourselves feeling so slightly sheepishly guilty for enjoying these explorations off the stream as much as our time with rod in hand. There in an essence, was the author’s intent.

Of course, books also have tangibility, a physicality of touch and feel and smell that is clinically absent in the digital world. Books are read by the stream, by the fire, in the company of valued friends and pets, with wines, and exotic cheeses. Books are like tasting a new food. They each have a flavor as varied as the natural world and the human personality. The human writer wanting to be more, to exist in a larger sense, and create something larger out of a simple act. To separate ourselves from the animals through art and sport. Books have a durability as well. Treasured and saved. A gift to be given to ourselves again and again, and shared with others.

The digital world of today exists for a nano-second and moves on. It is designed for short-attention spans, and cultivates and harvests them. Forums don’t explore ideas like books do, they race through inane subjects like what is the best five-weight rod?… they are there and gone again. Books are like a fine wine slowly sipped and enjoyed for its character, its very uniqueness. Scanning typed data is like drinking 100 thimbles of different wines with a toothpick. We remember and enjoy nothing. Ten minutes later we are all back where we started.

Books and ideas are not to be constrained to a formula: 1,500 words with a side bar map and travel tips. Writing by numbers. Books are the soul of creativity, allowing the author to say what they want, go where they want to go, without hindrance. We owe a debt of gratitude to editors and publishers such as Gingrich and Lyons for allowing and championing just that… even if a book on fly-fishing was not always a good monetary bet.

Literacy can be defined as not just the ability to read, but the act of reading.

Books are our constant companions too, as are the stories and ideas. We absorb them and they become part of our experiences on the river. Rounding the bend on a spring creek, one remembers a passage in ‘Reflections of Rivers Past’, or wading a big river, find ourselves recalling a dozen passages of the naked fear when the author discovers that nature and water are in charge, a force not to be tamed or taken lightly, but respected. The written words peek out of the attic of our memory when we share the joy of landing a fish with an author who in that moment, captured the feeling so eloquently. We remember the words: flow, caress, spray, leap, pull, twist, dive, thunder and roar, cascade, liquid fear, anticipation, loop, cast, etc. The reels scream, the rods bend, the fish tussle, the angler is in doubt, the line breaks… the fish is freed. Then on to the next bend…

Our rod is a mere extension to a foreign realm: an upside down world where life breathes in water and knows next to nothing about the air-breathing world above the mirror of the surface. Liken the fly-rod to a spire on a cathedral creeping closer to god. Hope and mystery dwell in the nether worlds of heaven and water. We can only touch them for a moment. Words can take us there, and bring us home safely too. Books and words kindle our imagination and extend our season as we read of the rivers and fish while snow falls and the dog sleeps a dreamless sleep like the trout do under the ice on a dark January evening. We are there too, along with the author. We catch their fish along with them, triumph along with them, and fail when they do, howling a barbaric YAWP! echoing across the canyon or valley with our existence, achievements, fears, and frustrations. Then sit and reflect with print on the meaning of it all. Why do we fish? Why is this important to us? What about fly-fishing is so fascinating that we can’t get enough to fill us? The reflections have been written a thousand times in a thousand different ways, all worth the quiet to read them. Why did the author labor to record them? Was it vanity? Was it that he or she felt what many of us do; that fly-fishing is an art performed in water, but perfected in words?

The debt of gratitude is not just owed to the publishers, but to the authors themselves. We can thank them for the vicarious pleasures, for the absorbed learning, for the pure joy, and time filled with ideas by just reading their books. There is no greater tribute.

A new premium fly-rod made of space age plastics costs over $800 today. Most used ‘reader’ copy fly-fishing books can be had for under $20. With the used book availability of the internet, access to beginning a library has never been better. So for the price of one new fly-rod one probably doesn’t need anyway, we could purchase 40 books, and have a lifetime of experiences to enjoy, experiences we might never have without reading the travels of the authors: examinations of opinions we would never have been exposed to if we didn’t delve deep into the pages, history we may never have known and connections we never may have known existed without the words being recorded and bound.

There is another thing that we often find as an unexpected bonus by reading books. We discover ourselves.







Thursday, July 19, 2018

Innovations and Eclipses Part One

Waders and boots... a humorous look back and forward


A tongue in cheek look at advances in fly-fishing tackle and what was overlooked


The last 40 years or so has seen a plethora of new and better designs in equipment that allow us anglers to enjoy a day on the stream with much less fussing than before. We now have breathable waders, large-arbor reels, plastic no-maintenance fly-lines, rods that cast further and are more powerful, etc. Sometimes, as we leap into the stream of innovative new products, the older technologies slide by and fade out of memory, so it might be fun to set the way-back machine for laughter, and take a trip down parallel paths in time and take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in fly-fishing tackle, or what was innovated and what was eclipsed. First in a series…


Waders have come a long way from rubber covered canvas and nylon to new breathable laminates such as GoreTex. They are lighter and now actually keep you dry… imagine that.

Old style waders kept you dry too… from the stream… The inside was another matter. Often you had your own water source on the inside… in the form of sweat, which soaked your clothing and quickly turned so rancid that fly anglers of the day took up pipe smoking and cigars not for enjoyment, style, or even to keep insects away, but instead to mask the smell of old rubber and wet dogs.

However, like silk fly-lines, these things lasted forever, and could be repaired with a patch kit from a bicycle inner tube or even one from a Model T Ford. Chewing gum could plug holes in a pinch too. They came in only a couple of sizes: too big, and ‘could double as a tent’. They had an irritable habit of causing you to float since they fit so loosely and trapped air, and you had to fit them to yourself with a tight wading belt so as both to not look like the Goodyear blimp, and to prevent them from filling with water in case of an inevitable dunking. (You actually looked like the Goodyear blimp wearing a girdle anyway.) They sometimes worked better when suspending the angler upside down in the water.

The only plus was that they were somewhat functional (they were the only game in town) and durable as hell. So durable in fact that they lasted for years or decades, often providing the angler with unseen benefits as when the fetor that emanated from them attracted their own hatch of bugs… Even if despite the added benefit we wished they would die already so we could have the excuse to start over with a new pair…


The breathable revolution

Modern waders are constructed of laminates containing millions of micro-holes that let water vapor or perspiration out, but will not allow liquid water in. They are truly breathable and a great innovation saving us on warm days and on hikes in to the rivers. They are arguably the greatest innovation in fly-fishing since the advent of hooks with eyes.

Unfortunately, these micro-hole waders soon develop macro-holes in downright mysterious places that do allow water in. I seem to get about a year out of a pair before something begins to go wrong, but then, as a bonus, they only cost an arm and a leg. Seriously, $700 for a pair of waders? Do they come with a free trip to the Cascapedia?

Sometimes the seam tape falls off, allowing a nice showerhead to form inside. Sometimes the neoprene booties come apart or follow Erik’s first law of stream physics: Those things that are laminated tend to delaminate…

Holes often appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast, especially when you are searching for them using the factory recommended technique of filling the waders with flammable alcohol in a bathroom with the lights shut off while holding a tiny flashlight and standing on your head crouched under the sink.

I once had a new pair of waders from a noted top manufacturer that actually lasted two weeks. I took them out of the box to pack them for a trip, used them successfully for the 14-day excursion, and then when donning them again a week later, noticed that both legs were soaking wet. I filled the legs with water and they leaked like a sieve down both seams. I sent them back to the manufacturer, and a short time later a new pair arrived in replacement. Hooray! Until…

I wore the new pair the next spring and they seemed a wee tight. I looked at the label: size large… same as the old pair. I struggled to get into them vowing to stay off the doughnuts and then realized that it wasn’t me, but the manufacturer had changed their sizing. They gave way on a steelhead trip out west when I split the crotch wide open from the front to the back while wading. The resulting cascade of cold water onto the family jewels caused me to do a rather credible imitation of walking on water as I levitated to shore spouting invectives. The company replaced them again for free.

The new ones leaked after only six weeks, and the seam tape turned to ribbons. I gave up and bought a pair from a different company that were half the price. These were the best designed waders I have ever had, even if after one year the tape began to fall off the booties and I had to get the aquaseal out and begin repairs. They developed small leaks about the foot that despite covering with enough glue to make me look like the blob, continued to ship water. So… I bought another pair, and another, and another. At one point I had three pairs of these identical waders in various stages of sputtering leakage. I would rediscover the source of the leaks from time to time while juggling the pairs. I finally had had enough when one entire shelf in the refrigerator was set aside for opened aquaseal tubes. There was no room for beer. That did it! I threw them all out and started the process all over again.

Since then I have owned: Ultra light convertible waders that were the most comfortable I have ever owned, until I met with thorn bushes that turned them into ribbons… the laminate seemed to be made from some kind of Chinese toilet paper.

A pair of integrated boot-foot waders someone gave me where the boots collapsed rendering the waders unusable.

Waders with a zipper in the front… (The zipper leaked and then broke)

And finally…. Located in the basement in an old box of junk… A pair of old nylon waders from 20 years ago, all patched up. I took a tentative sniff and wrinkled my nose… nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought… ‘Forward into the past!’

They were more awful than I even remembered and smelled like a garbage dump in Bangladesh.

That is when I discovered wet wading. After all, if one is going to wet anyway, might as well be comfortable!

And then there are… The Boots

Boots are an essential part of a wading system. They provide that rather vital contact with the earth and stream bottom, and support and protection for your feet. They also protect the soft bootie of the wader. Boots should always wear out before waders do.

A friend has a pair of old Russell leather wading boots that he has used for over 30 years. They are still in fantastic shape, but then he does care for them a bit. After all those years they form to his feet perfectly and are as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. The felt is still in great shape, and they have been resoled once by the manufacturer. Back in the day all fly-anglers had to choose from was a leather brogue. These often had canvas and rubber parts as well and were secured to the feet first by straps, and later by laces. The leather absorbed water and had to be carefully dried and treated with oils and waxes. One often wore a stout pair of socks under them and over the wading bootie in order to preserve the integrity of the wader against abrasion and leakage. They needed a lot of maintenance, but lasted forever.

Modern materials such as nylon and plastic replaced these older leather wading brogues and offered several advantages mainly in drying faster and being much lighter. The modern materials did not absorb water as readily. They also seem to be built to fall apart.

I have another friend that has a pair of Weinbrenner wading boots that are going on 15 years… not me though… my odyssey has been one of puzzling failures. I worked in the fly tackle industry for over 15 years, so I have seen some downright strange things.

Take sizing for instance. Shoes and boots are formed around lasts. These come in different sizes so that the appropriate size boots can be formed over them. Back when I made medieval footwear, I had every customer form a molding of his or her foot by wrapping duct tape around their foot while wearing an old sock. This assured a good model. American boot manufacturers had standard sizing for boots with only slight variances. When wading boot manufacturer was farmed out to China some odd discrepancies became apparent. I always stocked a few larger sizes in the fly shops I ran: size 14 and 15 to be exact. On several occasions I had professional basketball players as customers. They would attempt to try on the boots, but usually could not get them on. The larger sizes were too narrow. The Chinese it seemed, had no experience manufacturing footwear this big, and as I imagined it, used a local tall teenage kid for a foot model. Admittedly, most of those sizing problems have since been rectified, but years ago, buying a wading boot for anyone with wider or longer feet was an adventure.

Another advent of farming out the production was that of quality control. It is easy to spec the materials and construction design for a pair of boots, but if one does not have on-site quality control in China, strange things can happen. Take the case of a group of friends who found a deal on a major manufacturer’s wading boot (one of the best designed boot ever) at a discount outlet that sold overstock at cut-rate prices. They all thought they were getting a great deal. They each bought several pairs. I remember warning them that there was going to be something defective about those boots, and that the manufacturer had dumped a whole numbered lot at cost for a good reason. The reason was soon discovered. On a steelhead river in Washington State my friend donned his boots for the first time and walked into the water to make his initial cast. He never made it. He wondered what that white thing was that was floating slowly downstream of him, then he began to slip on the rocks. Yup…. The felt soles had fallen off after less than a minute in the water. Seems that the Chinese factory ran out of ‘#1 American expensive glue,’ and substituted something such as Elmer’s glue… which is water soluble.

Another innovation that is amazing is the replacement of felt by vibram and studs, or by soft rubber that grips the rocks. Felt is still the best all-around material for wading, but it has a few disadvantages. For one, it absorbs water and invasive organisms, and taking forever to dry, provides the perfect vector for spreading those unwanted flora and fauna. Felt is also awful for hiking on slippery mud banks or clay. They almost guarantee that at some point the angler will end up ass over teakettle and covered in mud. Snow adds another dimension as I discovered one day while walking across a field to a lake in late December, the snow packing on the soles and collecting exactly like making a snowman, and finally forming two foot high and two foot wide blocks on my feet which made me walk like the Frankenstein monster before I collapsed into a snow bank.

The process of getting to vibram soles with screw-in metal studs also saw some inevitable failures. Most of these quickly vanished from the market after the wild marketing claims didn’t live up to their hype. One boot had a neat sticky rubber sole that was used aboard ships to provide traction. They even worked on oil drilling platforms. What they didn’t work on were rocks. The sticky rubber shredded from the boots like eraser peelings. They never made it to market.

Lacing systems are another area of experimentation. Who of us wants to try to try to fumble and struggle while bent over with boots that require us to thread and tighten laces through 12 pairs of holes and catches? It might still be the best system, but some people who are overweight or elderly can’t manage. Enter Velcro the wonder system. It works great at first, allowing easy entry and exit of the boots, but when it becomes clogged with sand and dirt, will no longer function at all. Another great idea was a zipper in the side of the boot. I had a pair of these for awhile… thank god they also had laces, for the zipper seized up when it froze or got muddy, and soon just stopped working altogether. That leads us to the latest automatic lacing systems. These use wires permanently attached to the boots and a neat little circular winch that tightens them and loosens them on demand. They really work well. Until they don’t. Then one is facing the prospect of walking out of a canyon in the dark over sharp rocks for a mile back to the truck with one leg. Good luck finding a replacement system too. If you didn’t bring one with you, the Ma and Pa store in town won’t carry them, although they do carry boot laces!

This might be a good time to introduce Erik’s first law of equipment failure: It will never fail until you are in the middle of a rapids in 100 degree heat or a blizzard or a tornado, chased by meth addicts or a cougar, and have run out of water.

Most of the modern synthetic boots are marvelous and durable, but even I can’t tell the longevity and durability of a pair of boots by just looking at them, and given the quick time from development to market these days, caveat emptor. I don’t know whether going cheap and having low expectations or getting the most expensive and expecting them to last is the best plan. It all seems a crapshoot.

I give you my experience:

Boot #

  1. The soles fell off
  2. The soles fell off and the top surface dissolved into toilet paper
  3. They shrunk in the sun and I could not get them on again, even after soaking them
  4. The soles fell off
  5. The soles are fine, but the lace holes all pulled out and I had to use duct tape to keep them on
  6. The stitching seemed to be made from some sort of water-soluble material. They fell to pieces
  7. The soles fell off
  8. The zipper stuck and the soles fell off
  9. Invaded with fungus for some reason. Threw them away
  10. The jury is out…. Still wearing them and crossing my fingers.

  1. Go on ebay and look for leather 1970s era used boots. Take care of them and pray every night…

Yes… it is worth it to laugh at ourselves a bit and at our struggles with gear, and when it all comes down to push and shove, I love the innovation and choices out there as well as the ability to stay dry and sweat free, and the ability to wade with confidence without smelling like a garbage juice… I just wish with all the innovation… well… you know…