My First Rod

Posted on June 24, 2016


Thanks to Mike Sepelak for the image.  Check out his blog:

My first rod was a lifetime in coming. When I was in high school, my dad and his work buddies started taking an annual fishing trip upstate, and they decided I was of age to do man stuff. In preparation for this trip I decided I would like to learn to fly fish. Partially because even though I done actually quite a bit of pond fishing and deep sea fishing, just plopping bait in the water and waiting for something to happen never really suited me. Along the way I may have also read The Fireside Book of Fishing Tales and listened to many of my father’s stories from when he and his friends bought their own trout stream in high school. In short, I had been seduced by the idea of it, long before any exposure to the practice of it.

My dad spent a few evenings with me in the back yard trying to get me to put a fly in a bushel basket. Or in the air. Or anywhere. But honestly, I was a terrible athlete back then it just didn’t work. When we got to our destination, our cabin sat on a little damned up pond that was fed by the most beautiful trout stream you ever imagined. One of my father’s friends also tried to coach me, but I eventually snapped off our entire supply of flies and then just decided to hike up the stream, fly rod or no.  90% of the allure of fishing for me is still seeing where water goes.

I don’t remember how or where, but at some point on that trip we met these two guys “Fast” Eddie and “Crazy” Bobby. Or maybe it was Crazy Eddie and Fast Bobby. Bobby didn’t work at all and fished and hunted full time. (My dad asked him “How many deer did you get this season?” To which he replied “None.” “How many you got in the freezer?” “Can’t lie about that, got two.” Smiling through his remaining teeth.) Eddie was a responsible family guy. He worked four days at the mill and fished and hunted the rest of the week. He was an interesting guy. He actually went to a high school for the gifted back in NY where he focused on chemistry. “Left enough unlabeled nitro in the fridge to level that place. I often wonder what happened to that stuff.” He drove this International Harvester that had a huge professional mechanic’s tool box in the back, loaded with tackle. Eddie and Bobby were not fly fishermen. They divided their time equitably between drowning worms and drowning livers.

They basically became our de facto guides, hauling us from one supposed “hot spot” to another. I don’t remember actually getting put on to any fish, but I do remember getting woken up at midnight to go eel fishing. This is also where I learned to both drink and to drive, on the same evening, because I was the last many standing even though I was only 15. But that’s another story.

I build rods now, but even then I was fascinated by it. I found a catalog for a rod company, Timberline Rods, back in North Conway where for $60 I could build my own rods. I never did that for some reason, but I did get a few books on making lures from the Kittery Trading Post, where I also got things like deer hair, and manufactured lures for a while. I think this was a throw back to when I was a kid and we used to order molds from the Herters catalog, when they were actual outfitters, before they went all L.L. Bean on us, and then sit around on winter nights and cast lures, rubber worms and bugs, taking breaks for sugar-on-snow with homemade maple syrup. You just can’t pay for memories like that. When was the last time you took over the kitchen table to do crafts with the kids?

One of the reasons I moved to Seattle was the mountains. And when I first moved out here and still had good sense instead of ambition, I was in them every weekend, year round. I thought about getting a folding rod, and about fishing, but the idea went away again for some reason. Finally years later, I bought a farm on a stretch of water that Trey Coombs called “the best steelheading water in the world.”

At this time, my father-in-law shot himself. His death was the beginning of the end for my ex and I. Within a few weeks, our two Rottweilers died five days apart, and the day after her 35th birthday party we split up. She even took the truck. There I was with 20 acres on the Skykomish River without even a barn cat for affection. It was an entire country music album of dejection. However, from her father I had inherited a 71/2′  Eagle Claw fly/spin 5/6wt combo package deal, with a medalist reel sporting what I assume was the original line. The rod was older than me, but still generations ahead of my dad’s rod. As an homage to my departed father-in-law and a solace to myself, I decided to finally wrap my mind around this endeavor. I spent fifteen minutes a day out in the yard, quitting when I got to ten good casts so that I would leave with good muscle memory. I mostly figured it out, and got a few pointers from my friend Cracker for the rest.

Turns out Seth at the fly shop also learned on the same exact department-store rod. He gave me a Prince nymph and said “tie this on, don’t take it off, come back when you catch a fish,” probably the best advice anybody ever gave me on anything in my life. I had a lot of fun and no concerns about success.

As time went on, I made a few friends who fished. Most took askance on the rod, insisting I step up. Cracker intoned that the line had been cut back so many times it was basically a bass taper. But one day me and my buddy took that old  fiberglass rod out in the field where he was able to launch 90′ casts, while could manage 80s. (We measured them by the number of fence posts of line we laid out, 10-12 8′ sections.) That’s as good as I’ve ever done with any single-handed rod in the decade since. Besides, when I first got it, it wasn’t about fishing for me, it was about solace. I wanted to fish, because I felt better on the water.  I wanted to cast a fly rod, because there is comfort in the rhythm. I didn’t necessarily want to catch a fish because I’d achieved enough wisdom to understand that once I had caught one, the whole game would change and it would never be the same. Eventually, I would screw up and get a fish. But I went a whole summer following Seth’s advice before I finally hooked a stocker on Blackman Lake. I still remember that hookup, even though I didn’t land it.

I used that rod until after I lost all of my gear in a fire. But you know what? Even though I have several dozen rods and blanks lying around, I’ve managed to lose both the clarity of my cast and the intensity of my focus since I had that rod. I often wish I still had it to remind me of why I started this journey in the first place. Anybody got an old fiberglass Eagle Claw and a Medalist with a 40-year old floating line kicking around?



Posted in: Essays, Fly Fishing