A Bowhunter Goes Fly Fishing – Part 1

Cabelas flyrod and reel combo.

“So we going fly fishing Sunday morning?” A voice boomed on the other end of the line.

I was regretting this call. Not because I didn’t want to talk to my friend, but because I knew the topic and implications. I’d mentioned wanting to start fly fishing several times but never with any intent on actually following through with it. Fly fishing was something I’d read about with great interest. Two of my biggest literary influences, Ernest Hemingway and Gordon MacQuarrie, were fly fisherman and produced some of the finest examples of writing on the subject the world will ever read. I’d fished through their words but never imagined I’d attempt it myself.

“With what rod, Rob? I don’t even have waders.” I answered, knowing full well it was a half-assed excuse with little chance of acceptance on the other end of the line. Not that it wasn’t grounded in truth. Fly fishing was an expensive hobby to do correctly and I’d never dabbled in anything.

“Bah.” He scoffed. “You can get waders. Jon is going and he has a rod you can borrow.”

“Jon who? Mudry?”

“Yeah. Jon has been fishing for years. He’s got an extra 5wt you can use. Perfect for trout!”

“I don’t know.”

“Well lets at least go to Cabelas. It’s Memorial Day weekend. They’ll be running sales.”

The parking lot was filled with vehicles by the time I arrived. The majority of them were as expected – Jeeps and pickups of various makes and models with ORV stickers and an overabundance of branded outdoor decals. My friend was leaning against his example when I pulled in and we were off to the back of the store. Rob had a noticeable bounce his step, while there was an undeniable hesitation in mine. Still, curiosity drove me forward and the excitement began to mount as we hung a right at the customer service desks and moved towards the racks of tall rods in the corner of the crowded store.

“Let’s get the waders first.” Rob said, bopping toward the rubber-boot wearing mannequins. “These are what I got. They are cheap but they’ll work.”

“They’re also on sale.” I said, feeling better about the impending purchase.”

“Yep. That isn’t bad at all. What size you need?”

“Sasquatch size.”

“A 13 will have to work.” He laughed, handing me a box. I opened it up, fanned out the waders, and shimmied inside. As I changed into the waders, my mind began to change about fly fishing. I could see myself in the river, fly rod in hand. I could feel the cool current against my legs and the warm sun on my back. The hesitation I’d been feeling was washed away by eagerness.

“Let’s go look at fly rods.” I said.

“You sure?” Rob said, looking surprised.

“Yeah. I’m not going to use someone else’s gear. I’ve been wanting to do this. If I’m buying waders, I’m going to damn well use them and I won’t if I don’t have a rod of my own. That’s just how I work.”

“Yep.” Rob nodded. “Ain’t that the truth?”

We walked out with an entry level rod and reel combo and a handful of flies. Looking back, I should’ve spent a bit more and bought a better package, but we’ll save that for a future post. I had everything I needed to get my feet wet and we were going fishing.

We met Jon at Glenn Blackwood’s Great Lakes Fly Fishing Company at 5:45 a.m. It was only a few miles from the Rogue and a beloved pit stop for many an angler. Due to my novice stature, I’d never heard of it or Glenn and was thankful to have such a fantastic shop less than 10 miles from my home. I was even happier to learn that the public land surrounding the Rogue was a destination for fly fisherman and I was within minutes of all of the prime spots.

Jon suggested we check out a stretch near one of my old turkey haunts. As the only seasoned fly fisherman in the group, we didn’t argue and were in the water by 6:30.

My literature-inspired fantasies became reality the moment I entered the swirling waters of the Rogue. The corked grip and heavy line felt foreign in my hands and I was suddenly reminded of my first encounter with the riser of a longbow. The memory brought a smile to my face and hope to my heart. The bow was now an extension of my arm and I knew the rod would be as well. All I needed was a little patience and a lot of practice.

“Well, get in there!” Jon laughed. “You going to fish or what?”

“I guess so.” I said. “What should I tie on here?”

Jon looked at the water, leaned over and wetted his hands, then back at me, as if in deep thought.

“Let’s start with a nymph. We can try a dry later. Trout feed on underwater bugs all year round. You’ll have a good chance at fish.”

“What’s a nymph?” I asked, embarrassed.

Jon took the little box of flies included with my beginner’s combo and selected a small one that appeared to have a bead for a head. “This’ll work.” He said. “Thats all you brought with you?”

“That’s everything I have!” I laughed.

“I bought you a handful of nymphs, dude!” Rob barked from the bank.

“That was all that was in the box.”

“They were in the plastic bag I handed you!”

“Oh. I think I tossed that away.”

“Oh for the love of…”

“In my defense, they were tiny!”

Jon unzipped the front pocket of his pack and rescued a sleek, plastic container from its belly. It was an album-style box filled with insect imitations of every hook size, color, and material I could imagine. My face grew hot, as I looked at it, then back at my “cute” assortment of randomness.

“Did you tie those yourself?” I asked.

“Some of them.” He said, unhooking a small grub-like fly with a beaded head. “Throw this on there. It’s a Hare’s Ear Nymph and is pretty basic. That should get you into some fish.”

“Thanks! Do you still tie?”

“Yeah but I haven’t done it in awhile.”

“Does it take a lot of time?”

“It can. Some guys I know can whip up something like this in minutes. It takes me a bit longer. Do you make your own wood arrows?”

“Yep. Sometimes.”

“Its kind of like that. I like to do it, but don’t have the time to do it all the time. Ya know?”

I understood. Jon and I were in similar situations. Dozens of arrows adorned my walls and floors but I didn’t make them all. Arrow production screeched to a halt when my kids girls were born and I decided to dedicate the little free time I had to shooting and hunting rather than making my own tackle. I had to make the time to do so and that wasn’t always possible.

“Okay…” Jon said. “Have you ever seen someone cast a fly rod?”

“Yep. On YouTube. I binged on videos last night and did a bit of casting in the yard.”

“Well, show me what you know.”

“Shouldn’t take too long.” I laughed.

I walked to the middle of the river and performed what had to have been the worst example of a forward cast anyone had ever attempted in the history of Michigan, which was obviously amusing to Jon, who remained straight-faced despite my flailing and swatting.

“How was that?” I asked.

“Terrible.” He laughed.  “But we all had to start somewhere.”

“Okay, show me what I’m doing…”

We spent the next 30 minutes going through the motions of a basic cast. I would love to illustrate the things I was doing incorrectly but will spare you the word count. To summarize, I couldn’t grasp the basic principles of a properly working fly rod, which has to “load” to perform a successful cast.

I was breaking my wrist and not getting the rod back far enough on the back cast. The rod would never load as a result and I would overcompensate by snapping it forward like a pitcher tossing a curveball. I am certain that a video of the fiasco would’ve gained thousands of subscribers had we recorded it.

Jon was patient throughout the process and managed to teach me a mediocre cast serviceable enough to start fishing. He even snuck a roll-cast in there for good measure, which was essential to the runs we were fishing. I spent the next few hours absorbing whatever information I could from Jon and the Rogue itself. I learned about the parts of a river, reading the water, the insects nymphs imitate, and where to find trout. I also learned how little I knew about fish and rivers in general.

“The most important thing I can tell you is to look for structure.” Jon said. “Trout like to hang out where its safe.”

“Sure.”

“They like being in the shadows. Look for big rocks, felled trees, overhangs, stuff like that.”

“Okay.”

“Also…see those riffles? Thats where the bugs are. Toss your nymph upstream and let it float in there.”

“Gotcha.”

“You’re still not getting back to your roll-cast position.”

“I know.”

The morning was filled with comical exchanges. My mind was an empty jar to be filled and Jon wasn’t bothering with a funnel. It didn’t matter. I was enjoying all of it. Being in the river with friends and fly rods was something I never thought I would experience. And that was only the beginning.

I decided to split this story up into several posts, due to length. Part II will be filled with comedy, calamity, further instruction, and trout! I’ll be mixing fly fishing up with the typical archery mix from here on out, but you’ll still be getting PLENTY of longbow content. And if you like what you read, don’t forget to check out the Traditional Outdoors Podcast!

 

 

 

 

The Finer Things

Driving through the mountains.

(As published in STICKTALK magazine, April 2018)

The road was wet and the fog had rolled in by the time we entered the Smokey Mountains. I was at the wheel with narrowed eyes, navigating the weather. To my left and needing little introduction was the Ol’ Archer, watching the landscape switch from rock face to rolling hills. We were headed Southeast by mutual friend invitation and would be testing our prowess on feral hogs in a matter of hours.

We’d hit the road the night before, and after an overnight stop somewhere in Kentucky, were back at it bright and early. The conversation was as fluid as the windshield rain despite the early morning hours. It was my turn to drive. My compatriot had started the morning but required sustenance a couple hours in.

“I find it best to travel in short spurts.” He mused, staring out the window. “Makes the time go faster and the driver more aware.”

I didn’t disagree. The old man was a bit of an Eeyore sans his soda and snacks and I knew we’d make better time with me behind the wheel. Not that he approved of my speeding. He did not and took no issue expressing his opinion on the matter — though not directly. My father would have told me to “slow my ass down”. The archer wasn’t so bold or obvious.

“Ya know…those out of state cops will take your money.”

While I wish I could credit the old man with the phrase, it wouldn’t have done the author the justice he deserved. Andrew, our dear friend and founder of the feast, had coined the phrase earlier that morning whilst calling to check on our progress.

“Slow down boys.” He said. “Those southern cops love Yankee money. They’ll be happy to take it from ya.” For the sake of comedy, the archer paraphrased and claimed it as his own through Tennessee.

“You see that cop up there?” He’d ask.

“Sure do.” I’d reply with a roll of the eyes.

“You know what he’ll do, don’t ya?”

“Take my money?”

“You know he will!” He’d howl. “You better believe he will.”

It was a running gag that spanned the remainder of the state and into North Carolina. When he wasn’t trying his hand at comedy he passed the time drinking soda, eating trail mix, and telling me about the way things used to be when the longbow, as we knew it, was still somewhat new. I enjoyed these stories the most. They never flowed in a straight line. They twisted, turned, arched and climbed like the southern road beneath the wheels of my Caravan. It didn’t take much to send him off course and on tangent — a single question would usually do the trick, especially if longbow related.

The Archer appreciated hand-crafted archery equipment. He had it stuffed in every nook, cranny, crevice, and corner of the old farmhouse he frequented between the various shoots and gatherings of the year. There were some wonderful pieces in this collection and I loved hearing how he came about them. But the old man, it seems, wasn’t satisfied with the accumulation. He always wanted more. In fact, he carried cash on him in case he ever ran across something he fancied at a price he could haggle over. (I cannot stress the latter part of this statement enough.) He was frugal to say the least, which made this particular conversation so interesting.

“Just once I’d like to own something really nice.” He said.

I couldn’t help but scoff at the statement. “You own an entire bedroom full of beautiful sticks of all varieties. You have one-of-a-kind knives in cases, leather quivers hanging from anything with a hook, and buckets of arrows. You know what some would call that? An affliction.”

He chuckled and shot me a “you’ve got a lot to learn” grin. “You might be right.” He said. “I have a lot of stuff. Some of it is good. Some of it might even be great. It might get the job done, but I wouldn’t consider any of it fine.”

“What do you mean…fine?” I asked.

He fished a couple sodas out of the cooler at his side, handed me one, cracked the other, and wetted his throat in preparation for the explanation. I could tell, by the length of the drink, it was fixing to last us awhile and decided to follow suit.

“There comes a time in an old man’s life when he begins to crave the things he wanted when he was a younger man but could never justify buying for himself. Could be a longbow, rifle, guitar, boat, motorcycle, exotic hunting trip…it doesn’t matter. We all want something at some point and that something doesn’t go away as time progresses. We just get older.”

He took another long drag of his soda, swished the remainder around in the bottom of the can, and stared long and hard at the dreary, wet highway in front of him. “I’ve been putting stuff off most of my life.” He said, finishing off the can. “There ain’t much left now.”

The Archer always spoke of his demise, as if it were a package arriving in the mail. I got used to it but could never figure out if he was depressed or just being funny. I always assumed it was the latter, if only to make the situation less awkward. It seemed different this time — too “matter of fact” for my liking and there seemed to be heaviness behind the words that wasn’t there before.

“So what sort of things are you looking for?” I asked, attempting to change the subject and lighten the mood. “You just bought that brand new (to you) Black Widow and you never shoot the damn thing.”

“Because it’s a touch heavier than I’m used to!” He shot back. “I’ll adjust. It’s too nice a bow to leave on the rack, collecting dust.”

“Well, if it ain’t a bow, what is it you’re so smitten over?”

He pulled a package of trail mix out of the cooler and teethed it open. Half of it was gone before he replied and he seemed to be in better spirits.

“I’ve always wanted an engraved, leather hip quiver with a matching belt. And I mean a real nice one with some kind of extravagant hunting seen on it — a buck or something of the like.”

Out of all the items I’d imagined he would name, this would be the last on a lengthy list. He made his own quivers and had for years. Each were simple, yet charming in their own way. I asked him to make me one several times, in fact. He always had the same response.

“C’mon over and we’ll build it together.” He’d say. I always assumed it meant he didn’t want to do it himself. He knew full-well I lived several hours away (and not round trip). Still, the fact he wanted me to build my own made his wanting to buy something someone else made his statement a touch ironic. But the Archer was a lot of things and quirky was one of them.

“Well, does it matter who the maker is?” I asked. “I know a guy that builds a nice quiv…”

“Yes!” He interrupted. “It does indeed. I want a guy by the name of Art Vincent to build me one. Cedar Ridge Leatherworks. He builds some of the finest quivers you’ll ever see.”

Now I knew he wasn’t joking. The leather goods of mention were a work of art. And not the kind of “functional art” someone might label their favorite blue jeans or wool shirt. Art’s were the kind you could hang on the mantle and stare at or brag about when not in use. You didn’t see them on the ranges often. When you did see one, it usually hung from the hip of an old timer who had put his bow through the proper paces time-and-again and lived to be happy with the results. A quiver by this particular maker was a right-of-passage purchase and priced accordingly.

“So why haven’t you bought one, yet?” I goaded.

“Oh, I was hoping my wonderful wife would buy me one for my birthday or some other special occasion.”

“Well, does she know you want one?”

“No. Well…she might suspect. I’ve mentioned wanting one a few times, but I’ve mentioned wanting a lot of things a few times.”

“Those things are fairly personalized, aren’t they? Does she know what you want? I mean, you wanted the buck, what if she gets you one with a turkey on it instead?”

“She wouldn’t do such a foolish thing.” He laughed. “That woman knows me. I ain’t ever shot know turkey with no longbow.”

“Well, then how in the heck is she supposed to know what to get you if she doesn’t know what you want?”

“She’ll figure it out, I suspect. Always does, that wife of mine. Always does.”

I couldn’t figure out why he had danced around the purchase of something he wanted so badly. At least, not at first. He could have bought that quiver himself. He had the money and he knew what he wanted. Then, somewhere near the South Carolina border, it hit me — wanting had little to do with it. The old man wanted it to be a gift. Buying it for himself felt incorrect in his odd way of thinking. It seemed self-serving, or even gaudy to buy such a thing. A gift, however, had meaning. A gift was earned.

What I suspected the old man didn’t know, was that he had already earned it, in every way possible. His quiver was bought and paid for with the lifetime of integrity, commitment, passion, and joy he dedicated to the bow and those he shared it with. No level of payment could ever be awarded for such things. The engraving he selected, no matter how fine, would tell his tale proper. Or maybe he did know, and just didn’t agree. Maybe, in his mind, you never stopped earning it. Archery was an art of challenge and repetition, after all. Something you could work your entire life to master and be humbled the day after. It took a special type of person to understand that and keep at it for so long and the Archer was a shining example.

I knew then, that people like him where the gems of our beloved pastime. People like him where the “finer things” and I was proud to have recognized it and have something special to aspire to.

“I’d slow down if I were you. I think I saw an SC cop back there a spell.”

“Ya know, maybe it’s not that I drive too fast. You just drive too damn slow.”

“That maybe the case my boy…” the Archer laughed, “but they’ll take your money. You better believe they will.”

The End

This story was featured in the Spring edition of STICKTALK magazine. STICKTALK is the quarterly publication of the Michigan Longbow Association and every issue is a fantastic read. All you have to do is be a member, which will cost you $20 annually.