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.