Thursday, April 5, 2018

Home Spun


Homemade rod tube and reel case

‘Tis poverty alone, Diophantus, that awakens the arts; poverty is the very teacher of labor…’

Theocritus, from the Fisherman’s Dream: 3rd century BC


The other day an angler friend sent me a care package containing, among other things, a complete leader building kit consisting of dozens of tippet and leader spools sorted by diameter, and a leader gauge. I have not built full trout leaders for quite some time, but upon receiving such a generous gift, sat down to do a little experimentation. I started with taking readings on various leaders I have from the 1970s through the modern day, and by reading leader specifications from Bergman, Ritz, and others. After fiddling around with a pencil and paper and a tape measure, I came up with 2 very different formulas for a 9-foot 4x leader. I assembled them, coiled them in envelopes labeled with the measurements and dimensions, and set a book on top of them by error. Today I found them while moving the book they rested under. It being sunny, I thought it no better time to try them out in the yard on several rods. The jury is out yet on which design I like better, but the end-game is not the subject of this diversion, it is the journey…

For many fly anglers, especially of the older generation, thrift and necessity led to experimenting with equipment. Thrift because, well just that: many of us had little means at the time, and a dollar saved was a dollar more for gas money to get us to the rivers. Necessity because the extraordinary expanse of good tackle and options available today was just not around yet.

In talking to other anglers both contemporary and older than me, I was told stories which led to this theme being developed. There were consistencies in the tales of homemade fixes, invention, and experiment that led to critical thinking and a foundation in the sport. That led directly to innovations in product available today, but also created better anglers more connected to their sport. Whether it was thrift or necessity or both matters not, it led to the same learning process.

Let’s look at a few examples…

When one had a fly-line that was too bright or the wrong color, boiling red onionskins produced a colored liquid that dyed the line a more muted color of buckskin and olive. Onions were cheap, and you could fry them with some sausage and peppers afterward and have a nice dinner.

When fishing with a braided or furled leader, loops for connection were often not available. Orvis braided leaders at the time came with a hollow butt and instructions on how to strip the end of the fly line with acetone. One then attached the braided leader permanently to the fly line with super glue and a careful insertion of the line tip into the hollow butt of the leader. If you wanted to put on a sink-tip, you either needed to cut the whole affair apart and start over, or come up with some novel solution. Modeling clay rubbed into the braid would work great, but then it was near impossible to extract it. The solution was ingenious: toothpaste. One rubbed toothpaste into the braid of the leader and it sank nicely. If you wanted it to float again, just rub out the toothpaste in the water and treat it with silicone. It also had the side-effect of shining up the teeth of the trout. Nothing like a little impromptu dental care to help nature along!

When faced with a challenge, anglers overcame it the only way they were able to, by experimenting around the kitchen table and futzing their way to a solution through creativity.

Take my first sink tip for salmon and steelhead. I went to Reinke Brothers on Greenfield Avenue in Milwaukee, a business that has been in the same place since its founding in 1950. I remember going there with dad on the bus from our east-side home. It took two hours back in 1975. The place hadn’t changed much twenty-odd years later, and I recognized various pieces of rod-building accessories dad had used in building his fiberglass rods. I found a thirty-foot coil of lead core line with a braided outer surface. For three dollars, I purchased it along with sundry feathers and whatnot, and went home and constructed interchangeable sinking tips. I saved money, and I learned to whip braids and coat the line with pliobond. They worked great until the lead separated and flew out of the core in little pieces that hit you in the head on the forward cast, but I caught fish with them! It laid a foundation that enabled me in later years to splice fly lines and add loops.

My first fly rod was a blank purchased from the same store, and hand-assembled and wrapped at my kitchen table in my apartment. I still have it. It is a nice 8 weight. I learned so much by building it (with dad’s old rod making tools and components), that I built a second one. I think the whole kit and caboodle set me back 40 bucks.

Since I had no money at the time, my first fly-box was one I made from a piece of mahogany carved while sitting on the couch with no tools but a pocket-knife that was given me by my mom and purchased at my Grandfather’s hardware store, Theisen Brothers, in central Wisconsin sometime in the 1940s. The box worked fine, and I learned how to carve wood and why doing it on your couch might lead to an adventure with a vacuum cleaner.

wood fly box carved with pocketknife
We bent the available hooks we had with pliers in order to make them fit the intended fly patterns. We sewed fleece patches to the back of old ball caps to hold flies.

Last year I acquired my first silk fly lines. I am of the plastic generation, but curiosity and historical knowledge drove me to goof around with them. The initial process of mixing boiled linseed oil with turpentine and spar varnish and treating the lines while monitoring the relative stiffness, flexibility, and smoothness of the stages of transformation gave me a deeper appreciation of what it took at one time to just go fishing. The sheer amount of necessary preparations both before and after a day on the stream might put many of today’s anglers off their beer. It sure taught patience, and a reverence of and care of one’s tackle. Cane rods were rubbed down and dried before they went back into their tubes, and the silk lines had to be dried every night by removing them from the reel, and then treating them with mucilin in the morning. These little tackle rituals performed of necessity every day one went fishing were just part of the whole experience.

I am self-taught through experimentation, failure, success, and reading. I guess that was the way I was raised. Our home was always filled with books. Dad was an avid reader, as was mom. Dad was a classical pianist who was mostly self-taught, and even tuned his own grand piano, although in the invective-filled afternoons and evenings he sat on the floor with the whole keyboard action disassembled and by now getting a bit into the brandy, we wished he would just pay for a professional tuner. We were all autodidacts from a sense of curiosity, thrift, and necessity. I cherish that upbringing now here in 2018 when I needed a sign for my business guiding and teaching fly-fishing. Instead of just getting a sign painter to make one for me, I did it myself, and learned that this kind of reward from creativity can be exhilarating. It turned out quite nice.

When my mother began her painting in Wisconsin in the 1940s, she attended Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. Her teachers were among the noted Wisconsin artists of the 20th century, as she became as well. They focused on foundation first. The students were taught to mix their own mediums, create resins and rabbit glues, and blend all sorts of toxic mixtures to allow them to paint with oils on a board in the styles of the old masters. Mom had a basement full of what looked like apothecary bottles with faded hand lettered labels, but they would allow her to prepare any surface for any medium of painting at will, and not be dependant on the availability of store-bought materials. Of course, thrift also played a part here for both my parents and many of the anglers who we owe so much to were children of the great depression, where money was tight or non-existent, and everything had to be made from scratch or modified… thus homespun.

In that foundation that was laid by experimentation, reading and soaking up knowledge, and trial and error, expertise was born, in angling, art, and life. Here is an excerpt of a biographical piece written about my mother just before she passed.

“In a way, (Mary) Helm is glad she never got an art degree. Learning from books on her own time gave her the freedom to explore many different styles. She alternately jumped form pencil to pastel, from pastel to watercolor, watercolor to oil and back again. Helm is also surprised at the ignorance of students who have had more educational opportunities. "I would mention something and they (the students) had never heard of it. I was surprised how little they really know about art."

Early 1940s self portrait by Mary Theisen Helm
That is locked into my memories as each weekend she returned from her job at the university with armfuls of books for both her and my dad. They spent their weekends learning. It cost nothing but time.
Time is a thing we had in the past too. Time was there to make the most of since all the time-saving devices and technologies had not been invented yet, and so thus we had more time for ourselves. The great irony of the information age… Our assets as sportsmen, tinkerers, homespun naturalists and armchair philosophers consisted of energy and time along with a few cherished tools of the trade.
Back in the day, most flyrods were labeled with a set of 2 numbers such as 5/6. The reason as explained to us was that the rod would take either a double-taper five or a weight-forward six line. Correct. However there is also another hidden reason. Most anglers had only one rod. The situations where people went on a fishing trip with a selection of 7 rods at their disposal were limited to the very few. A fly-rod had to be able to fish for panfish for the freezer, trout on both smaller streams and large, and even chuck bait for perch and bass. The angler in order to make this work often carried two spools for his or her reel with two separate line sizes. One had to slow down or speed up the casting stroke in order to make this work, and anglers were more connected to their gear at an essential level due to necessity. It made them more aware of what they had, and how to make it work, even if it often required a few modifications at the kitchen table involving glue, wax, boiled onion skins, or even a sewing needle.
Today we have at our disposal an ever-expanding assortment of arguably better tackle available, and definitely easier to use and set up. It is designed to take any futzing or modification out of the equation. The new influx of anglers, especially after the movie ‘A River Runs Through It’ came on the scene are able to get to the fishing and catching much faster. However, that often led to what I experienced at my 17 years of running fly-shops: a certain disconnection from one’s gear. It was common to have an angler not know what weight rod he had when wishing to purchase a new line, or not know how to attach a leader or sinking tip. Although the new gear and systems made it so much easier, the lack of necessary preparation and knowledge gained led to a lack of foundation. If something went wrong, they did not know how to address it. The purchased solutions of ease only worked if it included no interaction with the angler outside of the actual fishing.
This is why the anglers in the past, and older ones still present, are able to cope with many more variables. They remember the days of placing a safety pin or two in their fly vest to ‘come in handy some day’. That could be a motto for a whole generation…
Thrift and necessity led to experimentation. Experimentation led to knowledge. Knowledge in theory and application built upon itself to allow adaptation. Adaptation made us better anglers and more connected to our tools. Homespun may have itched a bit, but it was cheap, available and durable… and we made it ourselves and patched it as it wore. We didn’t just buy a new rod when the old one started to wear, we learned to re-wrap guides and varnish the thread wraps, we built leaders from scratch.
Speaking of leaders, I wanted a spool of nylon for building them back around ten years ago. I had none at my shop for the very reason that nobody bought the ones I had, and I had to sell them for ½ off. Even tippet material sales dropped off, because it was easier buy a new leader than to re-build one. That explained the reason a customer came in and told me that his leader was defective because the 9’ 5x contraption would not fit through the eye of the hook. I asked to look at it. It was a leader butt 2 feet long and looked like rope. On the explanation given, he replied, “What’s tippet?”
Tippet might be the direct link between us and the fish, but in the background, behind the scenes and present in shaded lamps seeing us bent over a task late of a summer evening before the morning fishing, that necessity of using one’s hands and minds provides a greater link still. That of homespun knowledge.


Copyright 2018 Erik Helm, of Classical Angler