Tied to a Moment

FlyTying2

Watching an obsession form can be enjoyable and often humorous — especially when looking into the mirror.

I quickly realized the benefits of maintaining my own arrows early in my bowhunting journey. It made good fiscal sense. I was shooting a lot; I was missing a lot; and the costs were mounting. I could either bring my arrows to a shop and have them re-wrapped and fletched, or I could do it myself for a fraction of the time and cost. I saved up, bought a plastic jig, some generic wraps, and a few packs of feathers. I fletched my very first set of aluminums with that setup and killed a deer soon after.

Learning to fletch was a no-brainer but I discovered more than I signed up for. I knew I’d save money by learning to fletch but didn’t expect the activity to be so enjoyable. I fed the addiction by spending money, on shafting and fletching materials, yet my appetite grew. I wanted more out of the archery experience and was ready to move to the next level — wood arrows.

I started buying discounted cedar shafts whenever I could find them and scoured classifieds and online auction sites for bulk nocks, points, and fletching. Going to the hardware store in search of wipe-on urethanes and cements became routine, as did weathering the unnatural lacquer stench that wafted through our home and soaked into our clothes. I realized my reasons for the effort were no longer monetary when I graduated to feather choppers and burners. I wasn’t saving money and I didn’t care. I had further immersed myself into the archery experience and didn’t intend on going back. I was ready to kick it up another notch, in fact and vowed to kill a deer with a wooden arrow.

It happened that very season. On a crisp, October, evening a doe passed in front of my brush blind and back to nature courtesy of one of my crudely-decorated cedars. I felt invincible. The high was indescribable. I learned that an experience, no matter how good, can be amplified through added difficulty.

Fast-forward to 2018 and my next addiction. I loved fly fishing the moment I picked up a rod and knew it was only a matter of time before catching fish with purchased flies wouldn’t be enough. I would have to tie a fly and catch a fish with it. Period. It was an inevitability.

My fishing friend’s were interested in helping me get started whenever I’d mention it, but stitched in the following disclaimer:

“You won’t save money.”

I considered it a challenge and began tying much faster than anticipated with the help of a my dear friend Thom (Jorgensen) and the lifetime’s worth of accumulated tools and material he handed over. I was a babe in the woods — we both knew it — yet he gave me very little instruction, save for a “have at it” grin and this nugget:

“Your flies are going to be sloppy and look terrible at first. Know that going in.”

My plan was to bury the treasure chest within the bowels of my workshop until winter. There was plenty of hunting and fishing to do and I didn’t need another activity. However, curiosity got the better of me. Within a week, my impulses sent me rummaging through box and Web in search of simple fly patterns. The variety of hooks, thread, furs, and feathers were overwhelming at first. I relied on my limited time on the water to help me sort out my needs and pick a pattern that would catch fish no matter how badly I botched them. Caddis fly imitations seemed like the best bet. I’d been fishing with various forms of caddis for months, understood their lifecycle, and felt them rudimentary enough to cut my teeth on.

I began with their larva form in a size #14, which was a bit bigger than what I was currently finding beneath the rocks of the Rogue, but I wasn’t ready to tie anything smaller. The results were to be expected. I struggled with every element of fly tying from threading a bobbin to mashing a barb. I stabbed myself often. I had little idea as to which hand to tie with. And I broke thread every fourth pass around the shank. The latter resulted in a grub sized olive abomination.

The setback made me try harder. I tied well into the early morning hours and had half-a-dozen olive disasters on the kitchen table before calling it quits. They ranged from too fat to too thin but I was proud of the progression. It meant I was improving. I kept tying the following morning, throughout the day, and into the evening, getting more confident with the materials and tools. When I grew tired of nymphs, I moved to dries, testing myself with an olive, deer-hair, caddis.

Tying a dry, even a basic one, was more difficult than expected. I made the wings too long, didn’t use enough fibers, used too many fibers, and kept covering the hook eye to the point I couldn’t thread it. I also found out I was trimming the wrong end of the fibers, allowing water to penetrate and sink the fly. My tying improved with those realizations and I was able make a handful of serviceable flies to test the following Friday.

I hit the river at 5 p.m., wet-waded in, tied on a small Hare’s Ear, and followed the current to my favorite bend. It was a warm, overcast day with random showers. The fishing was slow but I didn’t mind. It felt good to shoot line again. I fished for several hours, changing flies often with little luck save for a few 4-6″ brown trout.

As it began to get dark, I moved further downstream in search of greener pastures. There was a wide, shallow stretch of water there that was perfect for swinging a wet fly. I tied on an unweighted purplish prince with a yellow collar, found a seam, and tossed it into the drift where it was immediately hit by a decent 10-11″ chub. It wasn’t a trout, but it was something, and I was grateful for the action.

A nice 11" chub I caught on a wet fly.

Everything changed from that point on. The sun went down, the bugs came out, and the fish began to rise. And when they rose they did it ravenously, leaving the water like breeching humpback whales for anything resembling a bug. Everything winged was on the menu, from mosquitoes to white/tan colored moths and dragonflies. If it landed on the water, it disappeared.

I knew these were small fish and probably planted but didn’t care. I hadn’t experienced anything like this for months and wanted to catch fish. I cut off the prince, thumbed through the sparse but coveted “my flies” portion of the box, and retrieved “the best” of my olive caddis. I tied it with shaking hands and eyes distracted by the chaos around me. Then, as I wetted the knot, the water rolled on the downstream side of a large rock in front of me. I reacted with a quick roll-cast before my brain had a chance to foul it all up. The line splashed just upstream of my target. The caddis fluttered down after and I gave it a quick skate as it crossed the threshold of the rock.

The reaction was violent and immediate. My line went tight and the caddis disappeared, as if swallowed by the river itself. The moments that followed were not nearly long enough. I kept the rod up, let the fish pull the slack from my fingers, jumped to the reel, and fought a beautiful 11-12″ brown to the water at my knees. What happened next was heartbreaking. I tossed my rod into the shallows, wrapped a wet, shaking hand around the trout, removed the hook, and reached for my only means of evidence collection. But the camera was not easily retrieved and trout aren’t fond of being captured. Right there, beneath the light of the moon, I fumbled my achievement into the murky water and traded a dramatic conclusion for a tragic comedy.

But that is fly fishing. That is what keeps you coming back to the water. I may not have a photo, but I’ll always have that moment where it matters most.

Author’s note: I don’t have the fly either. I lost it in a tree on the next cast and was unable to retrieve it. That, in itself, is a longer story I plan on including in my next book, which will be a collection of bowhunting and fly fishing short stories. Until then, there are still copies of my current book “Life and Longbows” for sale on this site. You can get a personalized copy right here or you can order an unsigned copy on Amazon. A Kindle version will be available next Friday.

 

 

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.