My first fly rod came to me by accident. A student, my memory calls him Jim, departed the school and left it behind. He was a memorable boy for his habitual intensity. So much so that others gave him a rather wide berth in the school. Yet, I recall him best for the night he returned to basecamp several hours late, just as the search party was organizing, with a fly rod in his hand and a big grin. He had just gotten distracted and forgot the time. I did not come to understand that experience until several years later, but I was grateful to him for leaving his four piece, 6-7wt, fiberglass rod behind when he graduated, as well as his generosity in including a small metal fly box, which I still have. I took the set-up with me that year and the next and the next and began to teach myself how to catch brook trout in high country lakes. Of course, this is hardly a challenge, as anyone can catch their limit, any limit, in many of those lakes, the brookies having been planted in buckets some 70-80 years back, now crowding the high lakes and happily competing for any available food, which is not that much above 8,000 feet or so. Still, I began to feel myself a fisherman.
It did not take long for me to deposit most of Jim’s flies in various trees across the Sierras and thus I began to tie up a few more. Brookies being who they are, even my first meager offerings were quickly devoured and I began to feel pretty good about my growing prowess. After a few years of leading teens through the backcountry, I steadily became less than enamored with the adolescent chatter around a late day or early morning campfire. So I fished nearby. They were happy to be free of me and I of them. I could hang out on the bank of the lake, a couple of hundred feet away and keep an eye on the hormonal cluster around the camp while practicing my casting, releasing one brookie after another. The rod was an Eagle Claw, fiberglass and whippy. It was one of those utility rods that had a reversible butt section for either fly fishing or spin fishing. It was no thing of beauty, but it sure could launch a line out onto the lake. Yet, as beauty goes, I was stunned by the beauty of the brook trout. I still regard them as the prettiest of fish.
Soon I came to try my luck with rivers, but that was another game entirely. First of all, rainbows and browns were not as accommodating as brook trout. They were picky, skittish, and only ate when they felt like it, at least not when I prompted them. I had my best luck in pocket water, where I could get below the hole and shoot a flashback or tiny caddis up into the pond above me, at first spooking everything in sight, but later learning to “work the pool”. Of course the river also offered more opportunity for ankle turning, shin bashing, equipment loss, and occasional dunking, all of which I did regularly enough to be on a fairly steep learning curve.
Thankfully, it was not all learning the hard way. In the late ‘70’s, I stumbled across a copy of the Curtis Creek Manifesto, a classic of its kind, and it shortened my apprenticeship by years. I do not know how many novice fisherpersons have been enlightened by Sherwood Anderson’s little illustrated gem of a book, but I still gift copies to anyone who I am teaching to fish or who seems to be exploring it on their own. From this book I learned about knots, leader, the life cycle of bugs, the importance of stealth, and that every wannabe angler who has picked up a rod has made similar dumb mistakes to mine. If one fishes long enough, I suppose that it is possible to not hook yourself in new ways, but, no matter how long you fish, you are always just a step away from getting dunked. Suddenly, both my triumphs and my pratfalls were part of a long and venerable tradition.
Being a small-school teacher of limited means, I stuck with that rod for years, partially because I could not afford anything better, but also because it was nearly indestructible. Unlike a more temperamental graphite or bamboo, it was bulletproof.
I once snapped an Orvis 4wt with the power window of my car. The “Claw” would have broken the window. It did not even live in a tube; rather it was kept in a rod sack…one that did not defy age like the rod, but looked like I used it regularly as a dishrag. So needless to say, when I finally picked up another rod, a 5wt graphite beauty, made by a revered member of our club, I was delighted to feel that casting was more than slinging flies, though my form took some years to recover from the “Claw”. Perhaps it says something about me, but that 5wt rod is still my favorite go-to rod. It is faded and trail-worn, but we have a history together and I can depend on it to do what I want. And, besides, it is inscribed “Sespe Flyfishers” and it was made by Ray Johnson, so it gives me pleasure to use it. I gave the still-functioning fiberglass outfit to a friend who was starting out, with the explicit instructions that, if he enjoyed its use, he should immediately shop for something more responsive.
Fly fishing being what it is, it was only a matter of time before I began to accumulate rods and reels…an 8 wt for bass and surf fishing, another because I got a great deal on it, the aforementioned Orvis, a gift from a friend, which became my primary backpacking rod, but has now become my wife’s favorite and it suits her better than I, as I still tend to sling things around a bit and she casts with a delicate precision that suits a 4wt. It is a fine rod and Orvis stands in good stead with me, as they promptly replaced the rod tip that was snapped by the window, no questions asked. There are few things in life that come with a lifetime guarantee, but it sure is comforting to have it in a fly rod. I am hoping that they will honor it for my wife after I am gone, but I suspect that she mostly fly fishes for my sake and, further, would not use it without me there to release her fish.
A few years back, my buddy, Bill, took up bamboo rod building. Bill is somewhat of a perfectionist in those things that he chooses to be fussy about, such as sharpening a tool, cutting a dado, tying flies, dead drift fishing, and certain aspects of cooking. Some, including his wife, would judge him to be somewhat less than a perfectionist in, say, his wardrobe. But Bill would see this as shortsighted, as he just defines perfection in clothing differently than most. He sees wardrobe perfection, not in fashion, but longevity. If he bought a perfectly good panama hat, say in 1984, it pleases him to still be wearing it in 2013, despite the missing chunk out of the crown. If a small patch of duct tape would preserve an article of clothing for a few more years, then it is absolutely sensible to apply it. Of course, Bill and I are both blessed and cursed to have much of our wardrobes made by Patagonia, another life-time guarantee establishment. This can be a great benefit, such as the time I took a 15 year old jacket back because the zipper broke and they immediately replaced it, almost apologizing for the shoddy workmanship. The downside is that much of our wardrobes might be described as shopworn.
Shopworn. While this term is a perfectly good one in many instances, it does not actually apply to Bill’s actual shop. His backyard may be teeming with weeds, but his shop is spotless. Each tool is in its place. You could eat off of his saws or workbench (and sometimes I am sure he has).Each thing is properly labeled. Consequently, the workmanship in the furniture that comes out of his shop is impeccable, at least to my eyes if not his. So he was just the candidate to take up rod building, for it is a task that takes micrometer precision, an exacting attitude, a good eye for what is right, and an aptitude for problem solving that exceeds the norm. A bamboo rod is actually six separate pieces of bamboo, planed to exact proportions on gradually smaller forms, wrapped, glued, and then finished with seat, guides and guide wraps. The result comes close to a perfect marriage of form and function: a beautiful tool, precisely crafted for a specific job.
I was fortunate to be given one of his first rods; a nice little magic wand of a 4wt, about 8’6”, I believe, with the delicate touch of a 2 or 3 wt. It came with an extra tip section, as that is usually the first delicate piece to snap in a tree or get slammed in the car door. I have not caught a lot of fish with this rod, as it is a 2 piece, so not good for packing, and a 4wt, so often a bit light for a larger river or windy day. But it gives me pleasure to fish it, both knowing its history and feeling its delicate touch. It has a distinct quiver when the fish takes and it bends like I am playing a trophy trout for a fish the length of my foot. I am pleased to own it. I haven’t talked to him about it, but I suspect that Bill is good for a lifetime guarantee.
I bought another 5wt a few years back at the club auction. I thought that my Ray Johnson might be aging and this rod was crafted by another local reputable rod builder and, what the heck, the money goes to the club. Unfortunately, that is what this rod turned out to be…a club. If my 4wt fishes like a 3, this 5wt fishes like a 7. It was thick, unresponsive, and uninspiring to cast. Consequently, it sat in my gear closet for 9 years and then I donated it back to the club for an auction. It turned out to be a pretty good deal for them, as they got the benefit of selling the same rod twice. The passing of 9 years helped me to reconcile that I had squandered a few hundred bucks just so I could have something new. For the foreseeable future, I guess I will still fish my Ray Johnson. And if it is damaged, old Ray is still around and he probably would fix it for free.
I sometimes think of investing in a Sage, a Loomis, or some other of those high end rods that cost about the same as a CAT scan or a new set of good tires and I am not sure why I have not done it, except that there is nothing wrong with my Ray Johnson 5wt. It catches fish. I know what it can do and lately I have begun to dislike new looking fishing gear. As I start to fade a bit myself, something in me likes an old vest, a battered tube, and a rod that has the fade of many summer days….they kind of go with the general ensemble.