Thursday, August 06, 2009

Fly-Rod Memories Are Priceless

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Make no mistake about it. What we’re talking about tonight is nothing more than a cheap fiberglass fly rod and reel from many years ago.

It’s an old Shakespeare Black Beauty fly rod, 8 1/2 feet long, and made for a seven-weight line. The old automatic fly reel and an early Scientific Anglers seven-weight Air-Cel fly line is common. The rod and reel isn’t anything special to look at but it holds a special place in my heart.

I bought it early in my river guiding career which extended from 1967 through 1976. That rod landed literally thousands of brown trout, Chinook and coho salmon, and steelhead. Fish up to a 38 1/2 pound Chinook back in the early 1970s when those game fish had broad shoulder, tremendous girth and a kick-ass attitude. It wasn’t uncommon to have for one those big kings to take me a half-mile down the river.

Often there would be a dozen big fish (usually over 20 pounds) hooked and landed in fast currents. The rod and reel was with me daily through 10 guiding seasons, and some fishing on my own when I didn’t have a client in tow. The rod performed admirably, which is more than I can say for the automatic fly reels. Two of them blew up on me, and springs and other sharp objects came flying out of the side of the reel.  Both times I got some cuts on my hands and arms as the coiled spring began twisting about under great pressure.

The rod and reel became a legend in its own time. I turned down $100 on several occasions for a rod that probably didn’t cost me $20. People believed, deep in their soul, that the rod would make them a better fishermen. One of my guides offered me $100 on two or three occasions, back in the day when he was guiding for me, and I turned him down.

That rod and reel suited me. Taking hold of the dirty cork handle was like putting my hand in a soft leather glove. It just felt good and it felt right to me. It stood up to the torture of constant contact with big fish, long runs and hearty jumps. It was tough when it became necessary to steer a big fish away from a log jam, and the fish ran upstream, it worked miracles in making the fish fight heavy river current and the strong bend in that black fiberglass rod.

Here was a rod and reel around which legends became known. We were the first three fly-fishing salmon guides on the Great Lakes tributaries, and we were busy on a daily basis. My rod, although my favorite, would perform its special brand of magic for other people. I never liked to loan my rod and reel to a client, but on occasion, it became necessary.

Every angler who was privileged to handle a fish on my rod always returned it at my request after they landed a big fish, and they always commented of how smooth but strong the rod appeared to be. They could put some muscle to a down-bound salmon, and the rod took more abuse than any other rod I ever owned, and that number is high. The longer I owned it, the less often I let people fish with it. If anyone was going to break it on a big fish, it would be me, not them.

It was my hope that it would last my final season. I never kept track of the fish I caught on it when I didn’t have a guide trip, but I once figured it handled somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 big fish in fast water, fish that ran upstream, swapped ends and rampaged downstream like an out-of-control power boat heading toward Lake Michigan. The rod produced big fish wherever I went: on such streams as the AuSable, Betsie, Boardman, East Branch AuGres, Elk, Little Manistee, Manistee, Muskegon, Ocqueoc, Pentwater, Pere Marquette, Two Hearted, White and many other streams on both sides and on both peninsulas of the state.

It was a rarity among cheap fly rods. I tried a good bamboo fly rod on salmon just once, and the first fish I hooked broke it apart within seconds of the hook-up. My last guiding season ended the same year as my first marriage and my magazine writing career career blossomed and my income doubled. It was time, I thought, to give my old Black Beauty fly rod a well deserved rest.

One year, in about 1979, a book salesman for Stackpole Books who was selling my steelhead book, came up to fish with me. I’d fished with him often, and we both looked forward to a day on the Platte River together. We’d caught a couple of 10-pound coho salmon, and then I spotted a big king and his lady friend nestled in tight beside a water-logged tree trunk that had been in the river for years. I offered the chance at that fish to my friend, who declined, saying he wanted to see the Black Beauty in action just one more time on a big fish.

I cast to that male hundreds of times. I changed fly types, from attractor to imitator patterns and back again. Hook sizes where changed, going up from a six to a four of from a No. six down to an 8. The fish wasn’t responsive. Time after time the fly swung past its nose, and finally after a marathon session of casting, the buck salmon moved forward slightly and intercepted the fly. I can still see the fish as he grabbed the fly and my hook-set was hard and forceful.

That big fish, which weighed at least 28 pounds, lasted a long time and took me far down the river. I stayed as close to it as possible, and whenever it stopped to sulk, more pressure was applied. It jumped two or three times, and we fought a back-alley, bare-knuckle slugfest that made me think again of the wonderful rod I’d come to love.The fish finally rolled up on its side, its mouth open in submission, and I started leading the fish to a sandy shoreline.

Deep down inside the rod came a groan like an old man gritting his teeth from the pain in an aching hip joint. I don’t know if one or two or more fiberglass fibers had finally given out, but I took all pressure off the rod, grabbed the line above the fly and eased the big salmon into shallow water, I grabbed my needle-nose pliers and eased the hook out of the fish’s mouth, grabbed the old warrior by the caudal peduncle, and helped it face into the current until it gathered enough strength to swim away. I took the rod apart gently, walked back to the car, and laid my old friend to rest on the back seat.

That night, in a private little ceremony with just me and my rod, I put the rod back together and hung it on the wall where it still hangs, a champion rod if ever there was one, and a beloved friend that had stuck with me through a arduous guiding career and through a portion of my life that had been experienced but shall never come my way again.

Once I’ve fished around my last bend, and caught my last good trout or salmon on a fly, that rod and reel will be given to the young man who became a fantastic guide, and who offered me $100 when that was a bunch of money during an era long ago. I hope he hangs it in a place of honor in his house, and like me, gazes fondly upon that rod and remembers when salmon and river trout fishing was much better than it is now. He will remember, and I’ll be happy that this wonderful part of my life will be transferred into the hands of a good friend who deserves this honor.

And when all is said and done, the memories of that rod and the fish it helped land, will be with me forever. Those memories are priceless.

Posted by Dave Richey on 08/06 at 07:09 PM
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