Monday, February 12, 2018

Gas Station Flies

Gas Station flies on hand made leather fly box cover and Wolf-River rod circa 1975.
A number of years ago I drove to the Brule’ river in far northern Wisconsin, passing through towns on the way that held memories of youthful vacations. I had not seen this landscape in almost forty years. Back in the day, the mid-1970s to be exact, our little family of three and our defective Volvo would take an annual vacation by driving to see relatives ‘Up North.’

‘Up North’ was a catch-all phrase for going somewhere rural where men went when they wanted to re-visit what it meant to be a man: away from the city… a place of muskies and trout, deer and cabins. To a ten-year old boy it was something exotic fed and conjured by elders in tales punctuated by beer and smoke with the spreading of hands and arms in measurement. My ‘reality’ of Up North was absorbed and simmered gently during the timeless hours of childhood summers reading Outdoor Life and listening to Dad. When I closed my eyes I saw rivers, smelled pipe smoke, heard winds through pine trees, and imagined groups of men wearing red and black checked wool hunting jackets.

For my mother, Up North meant time to spend painting landscapes and visiting local art and craft shops. For my father, it was a time to re-visit his dreams. He was an armchair fisherman and outdoorsman, so most of his dreams would be unfulfilled. Much later in life, I came to learn that perhaps a man with dreams is already fulfilled…

In those summers sitting and listening to him talk of the north woods, names began to be whispered: Brule’, Namekagon, Wolf, and Peshtigo. These were rivers of legend, and I can still hear Dad’s voice as we peeked through the birches and pines in our first and only glance at the rushing holy waters of the Wolf River. Maybe just attending this church by visiting was as good as participating in the worship or fishing. I never will know for sure, but Dad lowered his voice to a whisper when pointing out a rising trout to a wide-eyed and eared ten-year old. We never fished, but what I caught that day will be with me always.

As I drove through the towns again, I was out of place in time. My snapshot of Up North was decades old. I couldn’t believe how much it had changed. Most of those small hardware stores, and mom and pop places had been replaced for the most part with a plastic sameness as Kwik e Marts grew like cancers on my memories.

Back home some time later, I was going through old fly-boxes owned by a Wisconsin fisherman. Many of the flies were patterns I didn’t recognize, and with my penchant for history and old-things, that takes a bit of doing. When I say ‘Old’ it is rather relative, for most of these flies were purchased and fished during my lifetime, in fact in the very period of those youthful vacations. Old is relative, but I was alarmed by the amount of gray in my beard this morning when I shaved; like rust on those hooks of those flies… 

These flies were not commercial patterns in the strict sense; they were ‘Gas-station flies.’ They were not perfect by any standard, yet some of them were. Tails were often too long or short, wings too bulky, materials set off-kilter, and heads too obese. They would never make the quality test of a modern overseas fly company today.

Maybe that is a good thing. Today flies are tied in an almost clinical perfection in Asia and Africa by people who have never seen a trout stream. That kind of perfection can be flawed in economy of scale. How many hundred dozen do you want? Regional patterns and local ties like I held in my hand slowly disappeared or became scarce in that economy. These were unique and like a mirror in time. They held a place on a map…

Back when these flies were created, every great river had a local shop. I am not talking about a modern fly-shop in any sense. These shops were often places that sold gas, bottles of cold pop, flasks of brandy and bourbon, and sporting tackle. They were small operations run by locals. In a rural economy back then, they could exist on a shoestring, or maybe by selling a few shoestrings.

When one left the city and drove Up North, one always stopped at the local shop to fill up the Buick, add a quart of oil, pick up a needed item forgotten or worn-out, and to find out the local forecast for the fishing conditions and see what ‘They were biting on.’ The guy you went to talk to always knew your name as you knew his. Norm or Stumpy would be behind the counter. The flies that were working would be in a cardboard tray on the counter. They were tied by guys that fished the river every day. They knew exactly what was working, and the patterns were made up on the spot. “The Woodcock Special’ may be a great stone-fly imitation, but it could also be because somebody’s brother shot three woodcock last week. These people hunted. Other than a few materials such as the hooks, floss, and hackle, the materials used most likely saw the front porch of a hunting cabin, and spent a few weeks in borax and salt. The flies smelled like wood-smoke and deer hair. You purchased a half-dozen of each and clipping them into the tin fly-box, knew that you had the hatch all figured out because you trusted an authentic local expert.


That word summons so many images and feelings in me as I close my eyes… because I was there. I may just have been a little punter, but little punters have big eyes. What I saw and experienced as I walked through these local ‘Sporting-goods’ stores was real, authentic, rural, honest, local. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was breathing in history along with the dust. Yes… dust. Much of the shelving was covered with a fine powdering of dust. It lay on the boxes of muck-boots, the barrel of nets, and on the tackle that was timeless. I have grown to like dust. Dust is the most authentic thing of all, for all life is made of it. To a modern retailer, these places would need a massive cleaning and refit. There were no merchandising standards other than “The hip waders are in the back aisle under the shotgun shells.” Fish mounts and old bowling trophies sat or hung crookedly. There was no product rotation, so as a kid, I could always find an old Daredevil spoon or cap-pistol that was priced sometime in the past decade, and would be cheap enough for a pestered parent to buy. If you asked for something, the owner would furrow his brows, ask his wife, and she would root through an old box and find it. It was like a kind of magic. Muskie plugs and bucktail streamers appearing out of the primordial lost spaces of dust. The clutter was beautiful…

The fly-fisher never used all those local flies, but it was always a part of consideration and good conduct that one made a purchase of a few things to support the local store. The excess flies got stored away and now sit in front of me along with a fiberglass fly rod made locally for fishing the northern Wisconsin rivers. It is an odd rod by today’s standards…


Standards that have in time made these purpose made rods look obscure…. but they weren’t.

This rod is a seven footer for a seven-weight fly line. Short and with authority. It was designed and built off a Fisher glass blank by a man who owned a local shop like this. It was and is the perfect tool for the rivers it was born on. It was designed for brushy rivers with big trout and sweepers and log hazards. Throwing big size 2 hex nymphs on the Bibon marsh at night and catching alligators of brown trout as long as your arm while keeping them out of the rushes and cattails? Here is your rod. This wasn’t the Missouri river, and not all rods had to be 9 foot 5 weights. This was a specialty rod. When we look at the history of fly-fishing, we see as we descend the map a growing myopia of fishing culture, equipment, and tactics. These were grown locally and fed on long studies and days a field. The Letort and her micro-terrestrials and the rods to match. The Au Sable and the midge rod and long boat. The Wolf and her huge trout and deep rocky runs grew the large weighted stoneflies that made the rod in front of me a necessity. Each local fishery grew in myopia then, there was no internet, and thank god for that, for if there was, Marinaro, Fox, Flick, and the other local experts would all be told that they were doing it wrong… Instead, the local tackle and flies grew in a vacuum of sorts. The river grew the fish, which grew the fishermen, who grew the fly patterns and tackle, which became part of our history and culture. Yankee ingenuity at its best.

When we hold one of these flies in our hands, we must be aware that there was experimentation here and serendipity. They were purpose-built by a tier who lived in a small cabin and traded them for gas and cigarette money. That kind of small economy and craft is what made America rich…. not monetarily, but culturally. These flies are a time machine, with rusty hooks, faded colors, and hackle chewed by bugs and fish alike, small pieces of gut and nylon attesting to memories made on the rivers. The rivers grew all of this. We are all children of rivers.

A fly is an artificial deception to the trout, but also a word that means to travel through the air. This spring, a few of these that are in better condition will do just that at the end of my rod, a fresh leader, and a fresh perspective into local history. The honesty of knowledge that led to their creation in less complicated times will still deceive the fish, but my memories from those childhood travels through the Gas station sporting-goods stores will never deceive me or fade. The hooks on these old flies may need sharpening a bit, but my memories are as sharp as ever. I can still smell the pipe-smoke and the dust….. I can still see the Wolf River through the pines and hear Dad’s voice… whispering.

Dedicated to my Father and all the other dreamers back in the day, To the moms and pops that ran these small shops, the flies and tiers, and to Joe Balestrieri, and Bob Blumreich who remember… Up North.
Copyright 2018 Erik Helm



  1. Once again, Erik, you captured the moment of the kind of writing-and reading-for sure. Keep the words flowing.

  2. Talk about a nostalgic moment! I am voting for this one. Good luck on the award. You desrve it! Jim Ludwig


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