Saturday, September 12, 2020

Blue-collar rods and guns


Stevens 311 from the 1970s reborn


Copyright 2020 Erik Helm


A concept of value…


At a gun show last year I lingered at a table where a vendor had on display and for sale a large collection of vintage hunting rifles and shotguns, and also a nice selection of old split bamboo fly rods. As I fingered the rods and a shotgun or two, mentally putting a monetary value to each item often much below the asking price, I found myself in a familiar quandary; what is value? Is it only measured in currency… or do sentiment, historic place, or even cultural and social importance give something value?


As I unscrewed an old aluminum rod tube and found a well used, and slightly bent three- piece Montague fly-rod with decayed varnish, I could hear an echo of the inevitable response as to value given by those experts and collectors who make it their business to let down the finder or inheritor with the words: ‘Barrel rod,’ ‘Wall-hanger,’ or ‘Only sentimental value.’


At face value, those clinically sober collectors are right. These outdoor tools carry very little monetary value since they were manufactured in the thousands. However, when it comes to a place in history or even sentiment these rods and guns mark a place on the American timeline that is much larger than just nostalgia; they accompanied multiple generations of Americans on their hunting and fishing adventures. They got used, scratched, dropped, bent, unbent, repaired with string, rusted, modified, covered with blood, fell out of boats and trucks, and made the American outdoor experience from roughly the 1920s through the 1980s what it was because they were durable and affordable. I call that value.


I juxtapose this with those beautiful hand made masterpieces in firearms and fly-rods that are avidly collected. The Garrison’s, Payne’s, or Gillum’s of fly rods… the Purdey or Holland and Holland double guns that are taken out from under their glass sarcophagus once a year to cast a fly or fire a shot, and then carefully polished and returned to their conservatory. They hold monetary value for sure as well as place in that they represent the very pinnacle of perfection of the hand-craftsman’s art, but they never went trough a briar patch or saw the bottom of a wet canoe…


 American sporting traditions were more raw than, for sake of comparison, British hunting and fishing. Americans got muddy, scratched, and wet. They hunted through swamps full of bugs and fished big brawling rivers. They were self-reliant. The folks who used these blue-collar guns and rods never saw a groomed trout-stream or shot from the butts on a driven hunt where the poorer townspeople banged the pots and pans to move the birds for their ‘betters’. Their chosen tools had to survive those swamps and wild forests.


Back in the day… from Town to Country.


In the American heartland state of Wisconsin, specifically the city of Milwaukee where I spent my childhood, there were factories everywhere. Entire neighborhoods grew up around them. Streetcar and later bus routes were laid down with the necessity of conveying workers back and forth. Small businesses emerged crouched in the great shadows cast by the factories, and one could discover in each factory neighborhood, perhaps sandwiched between a tavern and a newsstand or tobacco shop, a full-service sporting goods store. The nearest to our neighborhood was M&M Sporting Goods, which lay on a side street in the wake of the massive AMC auto plant on Capitol drive. My father took me there several times beginning when I was so young that I had to raise myself on toes and knuckles to peer at the displays at eye level. They had everything for the sportsman… as long as it didn’t insult a working man’s pocketbook. The less expensive fiberglass and cane fly rods were in a barrel. The guns were stacked behind the counter, and any common item such as ammunition, worms, pocketknives, etc. were placed at waist height on display tables in the center and near the door for convenience.


Come around Thursdays or Fridays a few minutes after the shift-end whistle sounded at the factory, the place filled with eager faces dreaming of the outdoors and a weekend getaway with the boys. The workers surged forth like they were released from a prison to get their rods and guns and supplies. Their tools of choice had common names: Stevens, Savage, Marlin, Harrington and Richardson, Ivers Johnson, and lower end Winchesters or Remingtons. On the fishing side were cane and glass rods by Garcia, Shakespeare, Union Hardware, Montague, Horrocks and Ibbotson, and rods made by companies like these for the trade market, (often with the retailer’s name on them.) These guns and rods were made and assembled in factories by mirror images of the workers who now bought them for the field and stream. They smoked the same cigars, and drank the same beer.


A couple of hours later when the dust settled, and the throngs of hunters and fishermen were well on their way to the woods and waters, the proprietors of the sporting goods store would begin the cleanup process. I expect over 80% of business was transacted in those several hours near the weekend. The rest of the week was just preparation.


In the malaise of the 1980s when the factories shuttered and rusted, the nearby sporting goods stores shared the same fate. Packards and Buicks no longer carried their cargo of outdoor enthusiasts northward for the weekend. My father pointed the vacant stores out like so many ghosts as we drove through Milwaukee’s industrial corridors. Empty storefronts staring blankly now with their signs and names fading: Viking, Flintrop, Spheeris, Casanova, Burghardt, and M&M. Pieces of America, and our sporting history where dreams were gently simmered and made.


Rural America was more durable in that respect, for the same sporting goods stores greeted us as we drove the family wagon up north in search of adventure and rest throughout the 1970s and 80s. They had been there for generations, and many are still there today, in the same spot, run by the founder’s grandkids, and selling the same goods to the sons and grandsons of their very first customers. Rural Americans still shared their hunting and fishing traditions with their sons and daughters, and still do today.


 Mom was born in a small town in central Wisconsin with a population of less than two thousand. When we visited, Dad and I and the men and boys sometimes found ourselves rather in the way when a flurry of bread baking and cleaning was undertaken. We did what generations of temporarily outcast members of the male sex did: we went to the local hardware-general-sporting goods store. A role often fulfilled by a single establishment in any small town in rural America. One thing was similar to the working class stores in the city: the goods that were sold had to offer both a high value for dollar spent, but also good functionality and above all durability.


A workingman or farmer only had enough disposable income to afford or justify a few well-chosen tools for the outdoors. These had to perform multiple duties…


Ever wonder why many of the old bamboo fly rods are a wee bit crooked? They didn’t start off that way. It may have happened through poor care and storage, but often it happened doing dual duty. Old Elmer, the farmer who also worked at the grain store part time had one fishing rod. It had a little stamped tin reel with a button that controlled the drag selection. The button had two settings: on and off. The rod could be used to cast a fly or chuck a worm or minnow, or with the reel drag turned off, it could be used to troll in a rowboat or canoe. It wasn’t a trout rod, it was a ‘Fishing pole.’ The bend in it might have come when old Elmer was trolling a chub and hooked a Musky that featured in a tale that grew taller each time it was told over a beer at the local tavern. The rod caught panfish that helped feed the family, cast plugs to bass, and placed a McGinty fly deep into a dark hole on the tannic river where the big trout lived.


When Elmer got back to his battered pickup, he placed the rod in the back next to the shotgun that always resided there. That gun was most likely a rusty pump or a side-by-side double. They defined the term “Twenty dollar gun.” They had a couple of features in common…


Any gun sold to a working class stiff or a farmer had better work, and work well and as hard as he did. It better hit what it is aimed at. If it didn’t, the new owners would be likely to show up back in the store where they purchased it wearing a frown and a dangerous look in the eye. Ornament and fancy hand-work had to take a back seat to durability as well. The duty list of the average blue-collar American shotgun might include in a given season: hunting grouse and duck, warning off the neighbor’s dog, shooting coyotes and foxes raiding the hens, eliminating feral cats, providing meat for the table, training the young’un in gun safety and responsibility, accompanying a farmer on his tractor, or even providing self-defense for his family.


For many Americans, the thanksgiving turkey did not come from the supermarket, it came from the woods, and that fish fry originated in a warm Saturday spent on a lake in a rowboat. Game was earned, not bought.


The theme of useful frugality is woven into this history because it was necessary. It also became part of our native culture and psyche.


My parents generation and all the uncles, grandparents and family relations and acquaintances had not come through America’s Great Depression unscathed or unmarked. The fear that someday everything you worked hard for might disappear, and that every household possession from the sewing machine to the shotgun and fishing rod had better be taken care of and valued was very real. Families rarely owned anything that did not see regular use, even the good china for Sunday dinner.


This frugality became a matter of pride: a sort of workingman’s ethos. Dignity was found in dirty fingernails and sweat. The memories of the Depression infected or affected the sons and daughters of Hoover and Roosevelt. Nothing was thrown away, and tin band-aid containers in the bathroom medicine cabinet or the kitchen contained rusty nuts and bolts, buttons, bread twist-ties, and collections of safety pins squirreled away, and only found when their grandsons and daughters dissolved their homesteads. They also found these old rifles, shotguns, and fishing rods, even after the tradition died; they had no clue of their family value, or how to use them anymore.


This is why, even if our farmer or factory man had a windfall miracle and could purchase the finest guns and rods available, or even knew there were higher-end choices than the local store offered, they still would shy away. For one thing, it would offend their sensibilities. It also might cause Grandma to break said high-end firearm or fly-rod over Grandpa’s head. The main reason would be that they would not wish to put on airs or get snubbed by the boys hanging out at the cracker barrel. “Who does he think he is?” Keeping up appearances is as necessary in the field as it is in the parlor.


Pride of Ownership


Yes, durability is one reason that these pieces of American sporting history can be enjoyed today handed down through the family or found as bargains at second-hand stores, but the stronger reason is that they were cherished.


Back at the gun show, I fondled an old Sears single-shot 12 gauge. Talk about no frills. This thing had a black painted finish to the receiver, a simple barrel, and a stock made from some awful wood. The barrel was polished like a mirror. Despite being 70 or 80 years old, it had no rust anywhere. It also had several repairs carefully done. Not by a gunsmith mind you, but by the owner or owners who repaired a split forearm with wooden pegs and glue so that you almost couldn’t see the repair, and who had also fashioned a new butt-plate out of leather. This gun was loved and cared for. Along with a fishing rod, it may have supplied food for the table when it might otherwise be unaffordable or unavailable. The labor of the factory worker built these, and they came back to serve the laborer and farmer. Born of sweat-equity, their usefulness outlived their users because they were so very important to subsistence, recreation, and dreams.




Marks of honor


Some of the shotguns that I caressed that day at the gun show were full of scratches, dents, spots of rust, and dings. Those were the marks of memories made in the outdoors, memories etched forever in the tool that got well used. The fly-rods had cork handles full of dirt with the finger and hand imprints of the owner who dared to dream of hunting and fishing before somewhere in the 1980s Dads got too busy or just forgot to pass on to their sons the traditions so dear to generations of men and boys.


So now, several generations removed, the grandchildren, digging in the attic or basement, find Grandpa’s old rusty Stevens 311 shotgun, or his crooked Montague fly-rod, and seeking it’s value, are told it is nearly worthless.


A beg to disagree. They are testament to a place in time in America that defined our thrift, our sense of adventure, our manufacturing ingenuity, and our freedom.


They contain memories more precious than gold.










Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Matching the hatch on the River Styx

Is Matching the hatch dead?

Coffee and Internet forums often lead to pondering, and so, this morning I pondered a response to one reader who mused, “Does anyone still fish a Blue-Wing Olive and match the hatch? Like, why would you want to do that? So lame…”

It was a bit of a jaw-dropper and a slap… like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

In the history and lore of the sport of fly-fishing for trout, nothing is woven through the fabric defining the shape of this wonderful pastime more than the insects and their imitations of fur, feather and dainty hook used to fool the fish.

From the early records in Macedonia, to the written descriptions of flies in the Middle Ages by Benedictine Prioress Berners, through Schweibert, Flick, the color plates in Bergman, and on to Swisher and Richards, an integral part of the game was figuring out what the trout wanted to eat and when, what the bugs looked like, and tying and fishing imitations of those specific bugs. It was and should remain as big a part of the trip to the stream as the rod, reel, and line.

It also was a part of the sport that dripped of art and refinement. Matching the hatch took time and observation and brought us closer to nature. Those that expanded the myopic view of bugs to the greater world of seasons, weather, and the natural world found patterns, reflections and ties to Solunar tables, and cycles of blooming wildflowers. When the trout-lilies first opened their white bonnet of delicate petals, it was time to look for the black caddis hatch, and the arrival of red-wing blackbirds might point to early stoneflies.

Peering under rocks to find both mayfly larvae, and possibly the deeper meanings of life is recorded in the writings and musings of great authors whose tongues dripped the honey on bound pages that we have savored for a century or more.

So, what happened out there on the river in recent years while I, and many others were watching the clouds and listening to the water-music?

I have a 1998 Orvis catalog in front of me with battered pages. In the fly section are all the names we have become familiar with: March Brown, Hendrickson, Blue-wing Olive, Pale Morning Dun, Pheasant-Tail Nymph, Sulpher, Stimulator, etc. Even the ‘New’ flies for that year bearing the names of their creators had the type of insect they represented in their nomenclature.

Fast-forward to a catalog from 2020, and we see oddly names flies with gaudy colors that look like an acid-trip at the vise. These new ‘Attractor’ flies are now all the rage. They are the cool new IPA of the moment. They bear names conjured up after a few too many IPAs as well: Dirty Hippy, Hippy Stomper, Fat Bastard, Cow Dung, Shag Nasty…

How can the lowly Blue-Wing Olive compete with this? It has no pink rubber legs, no cool name, and no tactical jig hook. It isn’t even made of foam. Dude, only ‘Boomers’ would use that! So, at the fly-shop poor little Blue-Wing Oliver is an orphan again, sitting in the bin with the other foundlings and cast-offs: a whole orphanage of forgotten flies. Dickens would be proud. We can almost hear them singing for a bit of water-time… or gruel. Unloved, these classic flies imitating the insects of our trout streams have been eclipsed by the new hipsters on the block.

“But what about innovation?” I can hear the question already… One angler once told me that “Today we have better flies.” I replied that, instead, we have ‘New’ flies, but that something was missing as well: the art and beauty of simplicity.

As time passes, what we all took for granted as iconic of an era, of a genre, of part of us and our identities becomes overshadowed and eclipsed by something ‘New’. Innovation is a good thing. If not for innovation, we would be fishing with solid wood rods, canvas and rubber waders, horsehair lines, and using only wet-flies. However, when icons of a sport such as the classic flies of trout-streams that match the hatching insect are nearly entirely replaced by modern attractor flies, something is missing. A huge hole in the soul of the sport has opened.

Several weeks ago, I fished my home waters here in the Driftless area of Wisconsin. I was on a section of a river I know intimately. I was faced with failure, and it was a glorious experience. “What?” the reader might ask; “How is failure glorious?”

The answer is that I learned something, and nothing feeds and incites learning like getting your proverbial butt handed to you.

Fish were rising and taking on the surface everywhere. It was windy, and I couldn’t see any insects. Whatever the bugs were, they were small. I guessed and tied on a midge. I even had several midges land on my hand, so I felt affirmed. Every trout in the riffle and pool either ignored my fly, or gave an ‘Interested but not having any’ refusal look. I stubbornly kept on casting and trying, and having no luck, moved on the next bend above. No dice here either, so I switched the fly to a smaller midge with a lower profile and more pronounced black body. After a half an hour, and nothing to show, a single fat brown trout ate the midge, ran toward his bank-side abode, and the hook popped out. Fish: 34…. Angler: 0

See, but now I had the fly that worked… even if it were only once. Thus, I kept up appearances and doggedly soldiered on, failing all the way up the river, and never touching another fish.

Time to do a little snooping.

I spent several minutes looking about the rocks on shore for a clue. Up to this point, I had been as hapless as Inspector Clouseau. I finally turned over a large piece of bark to find the bottom crawling with tiny black stoneflies. I had never encountered this specific insect before on the stream I was fishing. Then I sat on the bank and pondered the situation. It was sunny and windy. The early black stoneflies I was seeing were not laying eggs, they were mating on the bank, so they were not fluttering and diving on the surface of the water. Instead, they were at the crawling stage. The fish were picking them off in the surface film as they made their way to the side of the river. No wonder I couldn’t see anything.

My midge had a black body of the correct shape and size, but it had a white wing. The stoneflies were solidly cloaked in gray and black. The trout wanted caviar, and I was offering them Oreo cookies.

I dug in my copious fly boxes and found some flies I had tied years before to imitate the even smaller black stoneflies of winter often observed crawling on the snow. One of them was a bit large, tied on a size 20 hook. I tied it on, and on the first cast and presentation, the biggest boy in the pool confidently rose and ate my fly. The rest of the day will be one of memories and dream images.

This experience is special because of how challenging it was, and because of the spectacular failure, regrouping and study, the eventual clue, having the right fly tied in hand, and the final joy of success.

Or, I could have tied on a purple size 12 upside down bath salt special with spotted yellow reggae legs and just remained clueless. Heck, I might have even caught a fish or three! Trout can sometimes be that dumb. After all, they have no hands to investigate anything, just eyes and a mouth, and the new flies are better! Sometimes they actually are…

Until they aren’t.

I was guiding a client a couple of years ago, and he wanted to use his own flies. Despite my advice, he tied on a red foam thing with blue rubber legs. He proceeded to catch three tiny brook trout. These poor skinny little fish would have hit anything. Finally, I clipped off his fly, and told him to trust me, even if he didn’t believe me about the micro caddis flies that hatched early that morning and were crawling on the bank side vegetation. Suffice it to say that he was a happy angler at the end of the day.

Sometimes nature herself can be cool too in a subtle way without the gaudy pink rubber legs or goofy names. There are things that are happening all around us that we cannot perceive if we are not listening or curious, and are instead using the fly and the fish as props in a stunt. The bugs and the fish may be more important than we are on the river.

In the end, those of us that are snickered at for being ‘Old-School’, actually have an advantage. If we have an open mind, and admit that the new attractor flies have a place in our box along-side those somber and boring bits of fur and feather, we can adapt to everything. That is innovation without the eclipse. Then, when the trout are drunk enough to hit on that foam blonde at the bar that their friends tell them not to, we can be prepared!

Instead of the angler I recently encountered who only uses one fly for trout all year. He calls it the ‘Dead Lawyer’.

Which leads me to speculate out loud…

When we grow old and tired and gray, and pass from this world; when we pay the ferryman Charon to take us to the other side of the River Styx, will we be the last generation to grace those hallowed and fateful waters with a simple Blue-Wing Olive?





Monday, March 2, 2020

De-cluttering Fly-fishing and the Tenkara factor

I was poking about in a fly shop the other day when I overheard an interesting and thought-provoking conversation. An angler had arrived for the weekend and was going to hit the local spring creeks for trout. He mentioned that he was going to fly-fish that Friday afternoon and evening, but that for the rest of the weekend, he was going to fish Tenkara style, because as he put it, it was “So much more fun and simpler than traditional fly fishing.”

For those that are not familiar with Tenkara, it is a Japanese style of fishing using a fixed line and a telescoping rod averaging around 10-14 feet in length without a reel of any kind. First developed for Japan’s mountainous and high-gradient streams, it jumped the Pacific and has been adopted in America with an often-evangelical fervor.

My line of questioning (to myself) was why would Tenkara seem so much more essential than fly-fishing? After all, fly-fishing has always prided itself on its inherent simplicity and connection to nature and water. Just a rod, reel, line, leader and a fly… Was it really simply the reel that set the two-styles apart… or was there more to it? An angler with a fly-rod can do anything a Tenkara angler can do, but isn’t limited to casting range by the fixed line. The two systems have more in common than not, just being two similar means to deliver a hook tied with fur and feather to a fool a fish. So why the preference?

The angler answered the question himself shortly as he purchased a bunch of depleted uranium ‘jig fly’ nymphs, and a package of plastic bobbers for his afternoon and evening of ‘Traditional fly-fishing’.

Well, there it was. The answer was right in front of me.

By rigging that heavy fly and a bulky ‘bobber’ strike-indicator on his leader, he had inadvertently destroyed the rhythm and grace of casting a fly rod. Instead of the beautiful loops of line arcing out over the water like a ballet to delicately present a fly, he had turned his fly- fishing outfit into a ‘flop and lob’ rig; effective to be sure, but not graceful. Was that simplicity and grace, that Zen essence of purity missing from his fly-fishing driving his enjoyment and preference of Tenkara? I think it might.

For many hundreds of years, fly-fishing was concerned with casting an un-weighted or lightly weighted fly on the end of a delicate leader. Weight consisted of a few wraps of copper wire or later lead wire on a nymph. That was all the angler needed to get down to the level of the trout. The late Lee Wulff may have put it best when he quipped, “Trout deserve the sanctuary of deep water.”

Time and innovation marches on, and the desire to make the fly-rod do what bait-casters and spinning rods would allow led to changes which would revolutionize the sport. No longer would high-gradient bottom-dwelling trout be safe from the fly-angler. Enter heavily weighted nymphs and the increasingly large, wind-resistant ‘bobbers’ necessary to suspend them at depth. This changed casting as well. High-stick nymphing and the ‘flop and lob’ cast were seen more and more on the streams of the world. Many anglers today know no other way to cast or deliver a fly. They are wedded to the heavily weighted bead-head nymph and the bobber.

So why is this bad? Well, no other form defines fly-fishing more than the art of casting. It is simple, and beautiful to watch and perform. By placing that much weight on the end of the line, and using ‘bobber’ style indicators, the entire dynamic is thrown off. The problem occurs with an interruption of the smooth flow of the unfurling fly-line by hinges and shock-points caused by the clutter attached to the leader. We are making our fly-rod do things that it never was intended to do: thus the lack of grace and the chucking, chunking and lobbing. We cluttered it up. We tried to turn a ballet into a break-dance and ended up with a tangled tango. Then a new thing comes along offering exactly what we had before we adulterated the dance, and we waltz with the Tenkara rod…. back to that ‘Zen’ essence that we miss through our own clutter. How ironic…

Now I don’t have anything against Tenkara. I think it is a fun and simple way to fish. However, I think it may be time to re-examine and de-clutter our fly-fishing if Tenkara is now offering us something which we already had before we goofed it up.

Which leads us to the new fad sweeping the world, the Japanese-inspired ‘Minimalist’ movement of de-cluttering and its popular guru Marie Kondo.

‘Minimalism’ is the concept of removing all the things distracting and non-essential in our lives and possessions to effectively create a modern version of the simplicity of a Japanese room. (Think tatami mat, futon, and a simple table.) Taken to extremes, as everything is these days, it often sees the eager acolyte throwing away all their books and mementos, and leaves them in an empty room seated on an austere wooden Scandinavian design chair in their underwear staring at a blank wall… but I digress. Camus would be proud.

Minimalizing or de-cluttering our fly-fishing might mean questioning things: “Do I really need everything I carry with me?” “Is all this junk attached to my leader really necessary?” “Do I actually use the dozens of gadgets stuffed into every nook and cranny in my pack or vest?” or even “Is this actually fly-fishing?”

Or is it all about the numbers of fish caught…?

Of course, I am not recommending that fly-anglers go down to the river and make their own fly-rod from a willow branch and weave their line from horse-hair, that might be way too Marie Kondo. However, the more junk-in-the-trunk we eliminate and the more clutter we remove from our line and leader, the more we might get back to the simplicity and grace, the beauty and finesse that led us to take up fly-fishing in the first place. It doesn’t mean we need to give up nymphing… ( I already hear the grumbling). Instead it might just mean toning it down a bit… replacing that bobber with a piece of yarn, using lightly weighted flies, and learning or re-learning to cast.

That might be a very good thing in the long run… especially if it cuts down on those impromptu emergency room trips where your buddy hits himself in the back of the head with his three-fly depleted uranium jig-fly setup and the bobber hangs down off his ear… Sure cuts into the fishing time.

Tenkara anyone? ;)

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Stuff of Confusion

Copyright 2020 Erik Helm

The other day I was reading an article in a fly-fishing magazine that was proclaiming how much easier it was to get started in the sport today than it was in the past. The argument as stated could be paraphrased as: ‘Today we have better and more availability of gear choices, and information is easier to come by.’

I found myself laughing a bit at this, for truth be told, a case can be made that it is both easier and yet more difficult to begin in this fine sport due to exactly the same reasons stated. Follow me as I explore this a bit…


Back when I took up the sport there were admittedly less gear choices available…. a lot less choices. In some ways, this worked in our favor, since we had fewer decisions to make, and spent more time fishing. I asked a number of the finest anglers I know about their path into the sport, and the answers all shared common themes. We went to a fly-shop to purchase a setup, were gifted basic equipment, or assembled the necessary gear ad-hoc after much research. Since we were beginners, and there were fewer choices available, we were less confused about our gear. We simply had what we had. One of us had a double taper line and a Shakespeare Wonder Rod, another of us had a new graphite rod and a weight-forward line and we all thought he was the king of the river. Then we went fishing.

My initial setup was an eight-weight rod that I purchased as a blank and hand-built into a finished rod. I still have it. That rod served me for steelhead and bass in my local river for three years before I purchased a five-weight for smaller quarry. For those initial three years, it was my only rod. A lack of financial means when on one’s own after college did lead to a rather necessary frugal approach, but I never felt lacking. Instead, I went fishing… sometimes up to five times a week. The other stories were the same. One friend had his mother sew pockets onto his old hunting vest, turning it into a fishing vest. Another friend used an old candy tin as his first fly-box, and still has it somewhere.

Not to seem like one of those dour “Back in my day” types, but the reality of it was that the choices we had were easier to make because the market was smaller, and more simplified.

For example:
To carry our gear into the river we had a choice between an assortment of vests or possibly a canvas stream bag. Today we have chest packs, myriad sling packs, fanny packs, hip packs, backpacks, packs that transform and convert, packs that attach to other packs to form modular ‘Tactical gear storage solutions,’ and everything in between. I saw an angler recently on our local spring creeks who was so top-heavy and over-loaded with packs and storage solutions that he was having trouble walking on the bank. The variety of choices is an improvement, but not if it hampers our actual fishing.

For fly rods back in the day, we had several large manufacturers out there like Orvis, Fenwick, Garcia, and the first Sage rods as well. Here we had what we thought were a myriad amount of choices; more than enough for our needs depending on our budget. They were easy to understand as well. Marketing was less sophisticated, and seemingly tried to simplify the process of selection instead of confuse us. Today we have dozens of major manufacturers marketing rods with odd but trendy names. Some rod companies claim they make and sell over 150 different rods, each for some ethereal but very narrow purpose. Given their similarity to each other, the beginner can hardly tell the difference. Add in online companies not represented in reputable fly-shops who mass-market rods made in China at cut-rate prices, and it becomes apparent that any on-line forum with a classified section has a massive amount of gear for sale with the description “Cast twice,” or “Fished once.”

Confusion leads to an unending cycle of buying and selling in the quest for an illusory magic bean. Less time is spent fishing, and more time spent on gear acquisitions and unending debate and questions. Arguing with fellow anglers about which sling-pack is cooler or better may have replaced the time we used to spend absorbing the lore of the sport through literature or by getting our proverbial feet wet.

The ultimate complication and confusion poster-child may be fly-line.
In the past we did have choices between a number of brands and categories: double-taper, weight-forward, floating, full-sinking, sink tip and specialty lines such as saltwater, bass, and shooting heads. That would make up around 90% of lines available at the time. A new line needed to purchased when the old one wore out, or when a new type of fish or fishing necessitated a different line. The labels were rather easy to read and differentiate as well. For example, Cortland had a package labeled ‘444 Fly-Rod Line: WF Floating.’ It doesn’t get much simpler that that. Garcia had their Kingfisher line, and Orvis sold their own ‘Flyline.’ What was lacking then versus today is the hyped-up marketing which has turned the entire fly-line industry into a specialized marketing engine designed to get one to not only purchase the ‘New’ thing because it is better than the ‘Old’ thing from the same manufacturer that you bought last year and fished with once, but to get the average angler to have a fly line for every river, day of the week, or lunar cycle. No wonder new and even experienced anglers are confused.

A quick browse through catalogues and websites shows us both the diversity and the confusing over-abundance of lines marketed today.

Here are just a few random examples:

‘Hi-Performance Fly-line’ (vs. what… like Low performance fly-line?)

‘Pro’ fly-line (Apparently for professionals… not amateurs, which explains its $98 price.)

‘Frequency’ fly-line (Does it vibrate differently by weight?)

‘In-Touch’ (vs. what… out-of touch?)
‘Nymph Taper’ (Because we need a different fly-line every time we switch from a dry-fly to a nymph, even though thousands of us have been using a standard taper WF floating line for both applications for years…)

‘Euro Nymph’ (Take your choice: either a line allowing competition angling with multiple nymph rigs, or a ‘Sprockets’ like line that comes with electronic techno-pop music and allows the user to wear skinny black turtleneck shirts while fishing…)

‘MaxCatch’ (Now I understand why I never catch my limit every day… I guess I was using a MinCatch line all these years…)

‘Fairplay’ (I just want to find an ‘Unfair Play’ line… That sounds so much better to me…)

‘Clearwater’ (Apparently only to be used when no rain or runoff starts to dirty the water…)

‘Precise Finesse’ (A must-buy for those of us currently using an ‘Imprecise Clod-Hopper’ line…)

‘Creek’ fly-line (What about a river… or a brook… If we call it a ‘Crik’ do we need a different line or a jar of moonshine?)

‘World Class’ ( Perhaps not the best for anglers traveling to 3rd world nations for fishing adventure…)

‘Cheeky’ line (Reminds me of a quip I uttered at an attractive blonde back in college that earned me a kick in the shins…)

‘Technical Trout’ (Apparently all this time I have been fishing to ‘Non-technical’ trout…explains a lot.)

‘Amplitude’ (Must be similar to ‘Frequency’, but this one vibrates at the maximum frequency… wonder if it can be programmed to play distortion guitar?)

The reader gets the point… so enough already.

All humor aside, tapers do matter in a fly-line, and one does need different lines for different applications, but this has gotten downright silly.

Worst of all are shooting heads, especially those designed for Skagit-style casting and involving separate heads and running lines. When this started out, we had a choice of two or three brands of heads and running lines to match together. Within several years of the industry seeing the benefit of floating and sinking heads and running-lines sold separately, everything exploded. The most common question on online forums (see next section on information) was “Which running line should I pair with a given head?”
I know anglers today that actually carry with them on the river something like twenty different head and running line combinations. They must spend the entire fishing day farting around with their lines…

So what do I have against innovation and choices? Nothing. I just miss the clarity and simplicity that fly-fishing is supposed to be.

It also insults my intelligence… Since I spent fifteen years inside the industry at independent fly-shops as well as corporate giants, I can tell you a little secret… Ready for it?

The confusion is deliberate.

Marketing performs its job when it makes us want things, or desire to replace things we already own with a ‘newer’ or ‘better’ model. It does this by appealing to both our baser instincts, as well as to our desire to ‘Keep up to date.’ ‘New’ equals good, and anything you have that is old (ie: not current) is bad, or outdated… and how many of us want to be accused of being outdated?

However, this only goes so far. By saturation-bombing our different choices and making things unduly complicated, (you need a specialty rod to fish for Small-mouth Bass, not the standard 9 foot 6,7, or 8 wt., or if you are casting streamers from a boat then you need a rod specific to the purpose with a proprietary fly line to match and a separate running line and special nano-friction backing,) the industry maximizes its dollars per angler, and in a limited market, that is a desirable outcome for the corporations. Never-mind that one in five anglers will give up fly-fishing because it finally seems to get so complicated, an outcome the article cited at the outset claimed was the opposite.

In some ways, it benefits some of us older and wiser coots. We no longer need to pay full-price anymore or buy anything new since the biggest market for fly tackle in all of history sits before us in the guise of things purchased and now for sale second-hand with little use at all…

I just feel sorry for many of the new anglers that never had the chance to see what the world of fly-fishing was like when we had a chance to go to the river without so much confusing stuff.

Information overload:

The second part of the claim is that there is more information available today. That is something that I don’t think any angler would argue with.

However, it is the source, and medium of the information that can cause problems and resulting chaos and confusion.

Many of us took up the sport in the P.I. epoch… (Pre-Internet)
Because we actually read books and magazine articles that were written by experts and professionals, we were steered in straighter pathways than today. Read a copy of Bergman’s Trout, Schwiebert, Atherton, or other authors that explained the nuances and broke down the mysteries and necromancy of fishing with a fly in chapters rich with information and expert advice, and one was primed with knowledge before questions arose.

Then the internet came along, and to our happy surprise, we discovered like-minded anglers of all experience levels sharing information on various websites and online forums. The world opened and good solid information flowed back and forth over the modems of the pescadors. Bytes were exchanged for more bites. I was there as one of the first users of the new technology and access to the libraries of wisdom out there…

Everything changed within ten years. I stopped even accessing the forums I used to avidly participate in because as time passed, and new anglers came online, the same questions badly framed and poorly asked again and again overwhelmed and eclipsed the solid information shared and traded.

“What’s the best five weight rod?”
“What grain head should I use when the water flow increases by 3 feet per second and my fly-rod is green in color?”
“Which sling-pack is the coolest?”

It was a sign of the times… Then came social media, and the whole world of information overload and confusion reached critical-mass and detonated leaving mere fragments of typing left to fall like a fog over the unread books.

I joined a few social media forums in the past year to see how the questions were asked and answered: it caused laughter and cynicism in the same moment.
Many of the answers were contradictory or self-serving. Even thoughtful responses to questions or inquiries only lasted a day or so, and then someone asked the same question again, getting a different answer.

Then the inherent problem occurred to me.

Not only were the internet and social media venues not durable as far as a source of information such as a book, it was that by attempting to crowd-source the answers that the questioner ran afoul.

The person answering the query could be a knowledgeable angler with vast experiences, an open mind, and with good critical-thinking skills… or it could be some dude who caught a fish and now thinks he is a guide. The answers could come from independent sources unbiased as to brand, or from somebody with a brand entanglement such as the ubiquitous ‘Brand Ambassadors,’ or ‘Pro-Staff.’ Believe it or not, some companies actually pay people to provide gear advice on social media forums. It goes without saying that the answers are not unbiased, and the employing company’s brand is recommended each and every time. The worst thing is that the beginner, without a foundation of knowledge, can’t tell a good answer from a bad, inaccurate, or misleading one.

Do an experiment. Join a social media forum on fly-fishing and ask a ‘newby’ type question. Save the good, the bad, and the ugly answers you get. Now wait a week and ask the same question again, perhaps in a different way. Note the answers, and compare them with one another.

I bet my oldest and stinkiest fishing hat that you will shake your head.

That is what new anglers are facing if they don’t get their gear from a reliable flyshop after asking appropriate questions and doing a bit of homework, and staying away from the noise of confusion. If not, they might become one of the competitors in a fly-fishing team competition recently held. Two of the anglers spent twenty minutes arguing about whose fly-rod was better. Then one broke his rod while the other one dropped his tactical modular gear storage system into the river.

My advice to the thousands of anglers I have taught to cast and fish a fly has always been this:


“Go to a flyshop. Get a matching rod, line and reel, a few leaders and a box of flies and go fishing for God’s sake. Put in your time. Stay off the internet and don’t look at any ads. Less information in the short-term will benefit you in the long run. Learn to walk first in your diaper stage before you get all tangled up in the underwear of too much confusion and stuff, and end up placing your new outfit into the closet along with all the other abandoned dreams…”

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Some Pheasants

Copyright 2020 Erik Helm

John Phillipson motioned to the waiter at the Fox and Hounds to pour the wine first for his guest. He had chosen the vintage carefully to accompany the lunch he was giving for his young employee Ed, who had been a key team member in the successful conclusion of a major project for his firm. Ed was a software engineer of rare talent. Slim and dark haired with thick glasses, Ed was someone one would pass on the street and not remember seeing, even if the street were otherwise empty. He had worked long hours for the past six months and even took work home with him to his small bachelor’s house. John thought perhaps Ed had worked a bit too hard at times. He needed to get out in the sun more, thus the lunch at his favorite restaurant, and further invitations to participate in activities that would take Ed away from his screen and keyboard.

What made John rather unique, he thought to himself, was that he got to know each and every one of his 92 employees on a personal level. Like a good general, he reasoned, a good manager and CEO should know his assets and how best to keep them active, happy, and even more… know what drove them in life. That last question was one that eluded him with Ed. He couldn’t believe that Ed’s work was his only reward or joy.

“What should I order?” asked Ed, who habitually had a brown bag lunch of a sandwich and a piece of fruit at his desk while he worked.
“I recommend the pheasant’” Phillipson replied. “I have it every time it is on offering, and it is very fresh and well prepared. They serve it with asparagus, wild rice, and a nice herb white-sauce.”

It was agreed, and John toasted Ed’s health, and after the wine was sampled, began to inquire about any hobbies that his valued employee might engage in. After some sundry talk about toy trains and stamps, John asked Ed if he had ever hunted pheasants.

“No, but I do love pheasants,” Ed exclaimed with some passion as the plates arrived with the delicately presented breasts of that most desirable of birds steaming and framed like a work of art with the rice and vegetables.

After the feast was consumed, and the coffee was served, John brought up the subject again.

“I would like to invite you to my home for a little pheasant hunt if you are willing… I have over 60 acres of scrub fields bordered by thin wooded copses that are full of pheasants. A couple of years ago my accountant suggested the idea of reducing our taxes by raising game on our land, so we stocked 25 pheasants and bought several chickens and even a pet goat. The chickens lay a few fresh eggs, and the goat… well, the goat just is a goat, but the pheasants multiplied like rabbits. There must be over a hundred cocks and hens, and I rarely get time to hunt them any more, but now that the project is over and a success, I suggest we take the time this Saturday for a few hours and do some nice upland wing shooting.”

Ed mentioned that back before grad school he was a keen trap shooter, but that his shotgun was back with his parents in Connecticut.

“No worries,” John assured him. “I have a little Spanish side by side 20 bore you can borrow, a spare game bag for you, plenty of shells I got from a little ma and pa sporting goods store that was closing, and anything else you need. Just come as you are, so to speak, and wear some tough pants and a jacket that will stand up to moving through brush, and also a stout pair of hiking boots or something on that order. We will hunt together, and then Ellen, Mrs. Phillipson, who you will meet, will do her magic to the birds. You also will meet my English Cocker Abby, the best bird dog I ever owned.”

“Do you enjoy a fine Scotch, by the way?” John enquired with one raised eyebrow.

Ed agreed he did indeed enjoy a fine malt, and would be delighted to enjoy this adventure offered so kindly to him. The time was fixed at 1 o’clock Saturday the next.

Sometimes fate turns and weaves its lines through the stories of our lives beginning with a little incident. The ‘incident’ in this case was that in un-boxing a fine 12 year old bottle of Speyside Scotch, Mr. Phillipson accidentally dropped it. The tinkling of broken glass and following invective brought Abby to investigate, and the poor dog trod on a bit of glass, cutting her front left paw. There was no other bottle of scotch in the house, and with Ed due to arrive in fifteen minutes, a change of plans was in order. Brandy would follow the hunt, which would now have to be conducted without the dog. More difficult for certain, and lacking in that essential quality of hunting over a champion bird dog who knows more about bird hunting than the hunters ever will, but not impossible he reasoned. The sheer quantity of birds on his land would allow the hunt to continue even without a dog. They would just have to do it ‘old-fashioned style,’ each of them zigzagging and flushing their own birds. He hurried to sweep up the glass as his wife placed a bandage over Abby’s thankfully very slight injury.

Ed was prompt, and Phillipson, upon opening the front door, was greeted by a unique sight. Ed had on a pair of old rubber galoshes complete with metal buckles. For a coat, his guest was sporting a dilapidated khaki barn coat obviously several sizes too big for him, and smelling faintly of mothballs. This outfit was crowned by an eager smile and delivered forward with a warm handshake. John wondered, just a fleeting thought in the back of his mind, if Ed’s hunting attire had come from a short visit to a local thrift store. But then, he recalled, Ed did say he loved his pheasants. Maybe he had no outdoor gear, since Ed seemed to be always working owlishly at his computer, or maybe he had his old hunting kit stored at his parent’s house along with his shotgun. Well, today he would show him a bit of the outdoor life anyway. Perhaps if Ed enjoyed it, Phillipson speculated, he could gift him with some briar pants, a game vest, and even a nice bird gun as an end of year bonus. He was worth it after all… all those long hours…

John ushered his guest into a little sun room located off the foyer that he playfully referred to as his ‘Safari room.’ He seated Ed in a nice leather chair, and took down a canvas gun case from a nook between shelves filled with outdoor books. He unzipped the case, and revealed the soft warmth of a hand-rubbed and oiled walnut stock, and case patterned side plates of the Spanish double. He broke the gun and handed it to Ed.

“This little girl needs to sound off a little. She hits exactly as you point her. You don’t need to lead too far with pheasants, and I think a box each of high-brass number 5s should do us fine today.” Ed was cradling the gun as if it would break or bite him, but Phillipson soon reassured him, and closing the action on empty chambers, executed a few snappy swings. Ed said the drop and length of pull were perfect. John was impressed. His associate knew a few things about guns. This would be a fine hunt, with the slight clouds, little wind, and a half-inch of powdery snow fallen in the pre-dawn darkness.

They began on the edge of a small corn-stand abutting the drive. Each side of the drive was a field, and on the edge of each field were the wood copses.
“Pheasants, like most game are creatures of edges,” John explained to Ed. “Edges and Cover. We will split the sides between us and work the edges of the field and wood. Cover everything in between. Pheasants can be runners instead of flyers, and you want to kick them up into flight. Try not to shoot runners, that can lead to accidents.”

“Good hunting!” he added. “We will meet back here in two hours, so take a look at your watch… I have it half past the hour.”
Ed nodded and smiled, his action broken and cradled expertly in his right arm, and his galoshes clicking and galoshing as he walked.

John turned and strode into the shoulder high grass and weeds, beginning the process of covering ground and every likely lie a bird might favor. After 10 minutes or so, he kicked up his first cock out a sort of snow-covered wigwam of brush. The bird flew straight up and angled right. John swung from behind and touched off the right barrel of his Fox 16 bore. The pheasant dropped in a shower of feathers. It was easy to locate due to the snow cover. It also helped that John had hit it with a headshot, so it never had a chance to run, hide, and slowly die hidden from prying eyes.

Five minutes later John found his second bird. A hen, this crafty gal ran straight away from him and then flew low and flat. He aimed the fowling gun and fired the left barrel, giving the hen a shot-string of full-choke 5s and bringing her down dead. As he retrieved the bird, he wondered at the lack of shooting from Ed’s side of the field. That morning he had spread a large bag of feed around on that side of the drive, and if the past were any experience, the birds would be on the feast pretty quickly. He did want Ed to have a successful and fun day today.

The third bird John flushed required both barrels to bring it down, and as he was searching for it where it fell near the edge of wood, he heard the joyful sound of a distant report followed by a second muffled ‘boom.’ Ed must have found a bird! The day would be a success if Ed could shoot one tenth as well as could write code… but then there were those galoshes… really, what was he thinking? Ed really needed to get out more often.

The next hour saw no more birds located by John, while on Ed’s side of the woods sounded like a slightly excited English shooting party on a driven hunt. No more than ten minutes elapsed between further exclamations from Ed’s shotgun. He must have found the mother-load thought John.

The time came to make his way back to the rendezvous, and as Phillipson approached the little corn stand, a final pheasant flushed and flew left and high. John’s shot was on the mark, and the fourth bird fell fifty yards off as Ed appeared out of the field. John pointed to the bird, and motioned Ed to place it in his game bag, as he was much closer. Ed’s bag, John was very pleased to note, was sagging heavily and very full. The pheasant was added to the bag and the tail feathers stuck jauntily out as Ed smiled.

“Well, how did it go?” John asked with a wink.

“I had the best time ever!” Ed exclaimed with flushed cheeks. “Some of the pheasants flew kind of strange, and one just sat there, and then there was one that perched in a tree, but I only missed a few shots! I even hit a double…”

“Pheasants can be like that sometimes,” John explained as they walked back to the barn to breast-out the birds. “Predictability is not a pheasant’s strong suit.”

Phillipson had a bench at waist-height covered with plastic sheeting and a tin garbage container ready to accept the offal. He reached in his back game pouch and placed his three pheasants on the table. Ed opened the strap and turned out the contents of his bag next to it.

There are moments that time seems to move rather slowly. At this very moment, it crawled in slow motion. The contents of the bag that tumbled out onto the table included in order:

One cock pheasant (The one that Phillipson dispatched)
A large woodpecker.
One pigeon
Two grackles
A starling
One female cardinal
And wearing a rather stupefied expression, as if to say “Now what the hell?” a very dead member of the small Phillipson stock of chickens.

“Well, what do you think?” Ed proudly exclaimed.

The words almost formed in John’s mouth, but both because he caught himself in time, and due to the fact that his jaw was hanging open, only a sort of strangling gurgle made itself heard. He finally closed his mouth, straightened to his full six feet and with his back rigid, and his hand extended, turned to Ed, shook his hand, and exclaimed, “Good shooting!”

As he lined up the birds for dressing and stropped his knife, he reflected that it would not pay to even mention or explain to Ed what he had done, nor to inquire if Ed indeed had ever actually seen a pheasant before, and if he had or had not, what the heck he was thinking…
His knife hovered carefully over the little starling.

Ellen (Mrs. Phillipson) was presented a tray of ‘Pheasant breasts’ in the kitchen with a whisper from John. She arched her eyebrows in reply, and John placed his forefinger to his lips and winked.

Seated in the ‘Safari room’ after being introduced the smiling and lovely Mrs. Phillipson, Ed was offered a large snifter-glass of amber liquid. John proposed a toast, but Ed insisted in presenting a tribute instead. “To my first hunt and your excellent hospitality,” he proclaimed.

“Excellent Scotch,” he added on the subject of the brandy. The best I have ever tasted.”

Both Mr. And Mrs. Phillipson agreed with some shared reflections after dinner was over and Ed had left for home with grateful thanks; these were that the woodpecker was surprisingly delicate and tasty, that Ed had obviously thought of a ‘Pheasant’ as some sort of food he had been served once or twice that formerly had wings and flew a bit now and then, and that above all…. That Ed REALLY needed to get out more…