Fly Rods and Guitars I

                                                          The Ginger Quill and the UP Brookie

We almost stayed in Marquette. My wife and I had driven north from her aunt’s home in Milwaukee, up the west shore of Lake Michigan and crossed into Michigan’ s Upper Peninsula at Menominee. We continued north, climbing into the upper reaches of the Escanaba River, one of the UP’s largest, and over the hump into the Lake Superior Basin. From there, it was a short downhill drive, past jackpine and tamarack swamps and glacial outcrops, to Marquette.

The idea was to check out Northern Michigan University, to see if we wanted to move there and finish our degrees. I was 21 and my wife was 20. We had spent the last six months working in factories in the lower peninsula, saving money for school.

Everything we owned was in the back seat and trunk of our old black Comet. There were books and clothes and my wife’s grandmother’s blue and white Currier and Ives china and the new Dansk pots and pans we got for wedding presents. My wife’s tennis racket and riding helmet were there. I had more than my share of stuff. There was my first fly rod and reel, a glass, 6-weight South Bend and red Cortland reel. I also had my 20 gauge, and the sweet little Martin D-18, for which I’d recently traded away my white Stratocaster.

Straddling it all somehow was our year-old black and white English Setter, Leo. It’s probably weird and certainly deeply revealing that I owned a purebred bird dog  before I owned a car.

Anyway, we loved Marquette–the harbor, the iron ore boats, Presque Isle, the winter-ravaged buildings. But while my wife was still focused entirely on school, my attention had begun to slip, to drift to the objects in the back seat, to the dog,  and my fly rod, shotgun and guitar. In particular, I was utterly under the thrall of finger style guitar, the playing of people like Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot and Elizabeth Cotten. And there just didn’t seem to be any of that type of music in Marquette.

So we decided to head back across the Mackinaw Bridge, down to see my friends, Marilyn and Steve, in East Lansing and take a look out Michigan State. I got to fish one morning before we left. We stopped by a sporting goods store to pick up some flies and leaders. The proprietor seemed to like us and he gave me directions to a creek where he said I should be able to catch some “natives.”

It was a dark rippling creek, hemmed in by conifers and popple. I can’t remember if it was a tributary or a branch or the mainstem but it was part of the Carp River “flowage,” as they call watersheds back there.

Once I’d strung my rod and dressed my line, I waded into the creek. My wife and Leo stood on the bank. I guess we had some notion that they would watch me catch a trout. Before I made my first cast, Leo bolted and ran out into the river.

My wife began laughing. I grabbed his collar and walked him back to shore.

“Do you want me to take him down the river? she asked.

“Yeah, please.”

“Come on, Leo,” she said, and they headed down the fisherman’s trail, around a bend into the woods.

I didn’t see any insects over the water. That didn’t bother me in the least, because I intended to fish a wet fly anyway. I got classic, a Ginger Quill, out of my plastic fly box.

Here was my reasoning for choosing that fly: I had written an instrumental, a little finger-picking guitar piece when I was college in Detroit. I had liked Detroit. It was full of music, was hot and funky and sexy in the 1960s, entirely different from the small farm town I grew up in. But I must have missed the rivers and lakes and trout on some level, because my guitar piece was full of rippling arpeggios and open chords. It reminded me of a trout stream. I called it Ginger Quill. I had read Bergman as a kid and had always loved the soft understated look of the fly.

So I decided to try to catch my first trout with a fly cast on a fly rod with the Ginger Quill. I had caught a lot of trout by then, and quite a few on flies. But I hadn’t owned a fly rod until recently. I got them all on flies fished beneath a bobber with a spinning rod.

I cast downstream, as I had seen in all the books and articles. My cast was actually pretty good. I had been practicing a lot on the grass and in ponds. The fly didn’t swing more than 10 feet, however, before Leo came barreling back up the trail. He saw the yellow green line on the water and went for it. He snagged it and turned back for the bank.

Just then, my wife came running back around the corner. She was flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “As soon as I let him off the leash, he whirled around and took off.”

I was out of the river by now. Leo ran over to me, dragging the line. I snatched his collar. The fly, which had slid up towards his mouth as he ran with the line, was  imbedded in the fabric of his collar. My wife hopped off the bank onto the sand and gravel.

“You hold the collar,” I said, “and I’ll get the hook out.”

“Is he stuck?” she said, aghast.

“No, it’s in his collar.”

Now, holding Leo when he was excited–which he definitely was, what with the new place, new river, new “game” and, well, new everything–was no small feat. But my wife had jumped hunters since she was a kid and wasn’t used to taking guff from animals.

“Sit down, Leo,” she commanded. “Right now.”

He did just that. I retrieved my line. There didn’t seem to be any cuts or tooth marks on it.

“I don’t have to do this now,” I said. “I can go some other time.”

“No. I want you to fish for at least a little while. I’ll walk him a long ways this time before I let him off.”

I sat on a log for about five minutes. I probably smoked a cigarette, because I smoked back then. Then, figuring the water below me was spoiled by all the commotion, I waded downstream. Around the bend, I discovered a large pine snag on the left side of the creek. There was a deep pocket behind its root wad. It looked like it would hold a nice trout, maybe a few of them.

A standard wet fly swing was impossible there, though. If you cast from the right side, the shallow side, the fast water midstream would pull the fly out of the pocket before the fly sank. If I tried to present the fly from shore on the left bank, the line would tangle immediately in the roots.

Fortunately, I had been tumbling nightcrawlers into downstream pockets half my life. I decided to fish the Ginger Quill the same way. I got into position directly above the snag. I pulled several coils of line from the reel. Then I made a high open back cast and gently lobbed the line over the snag into the deep water. The fly landed a few feet below the roots. I let it hang in the soft cushion of water below the snag.

I saw the flash, the fleeting wink, of the trout before I felt it. Then there was that unmistakeable weighty pulse of a fish.  I reared back on the rod. I’m sure I did it way too hard.

More panicked than purposeful, I began stripping line. I’m sure I did that way too fast and too roughly, as well. I was literally shaking with excitement. I was terrified that my fish would tangle in the roots.

It didn’t. It was about nine inches–pretty good-sized, I imagine, for that creek. I sort of wanted to keep it, to show it to my wife. But we were staying in a motel that night, and I didn’t have any way to prepare it.

I held it in my hands for a few moments. It had blue and pink spots, orange fins with immaculate white tips, and the characteristic inky black marking on its back. It was beautiful. I had caught bigger trout, considerably bigger. But this way my first on a cast fly and fly rod.

Even better, I caught it on a Ginger Quill.

                                                                          Guitars and Fly Rods

In George Reiger’s The Wings of Dawn, he cites a study of hunter attitudes by Stephen B. Kellert, a psychologist, done at the Yale University School of Medicine under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It concluded that, rather than the traditional two categories of hunters–meat hunters and “sportsmen”–there were actually three. Kellert described the meat hunters as “utilitarians” and then divided the remaining hunters into “dominionists” and “naturalists.”

Reiger wrote” “The former (dominionist) is absorbed by displays of skill, competition, achievement and companionship; the latter has a strong interest and affection for wildlife and the outdoors, and he is perfectly content to hunt alone, for his sense of being an integral part of nature is heightened by solitude.”

I don’t think you have to try very hard to see the same divisions, excluding the utilitarians, among fly fishermen and women. The majority of fly fishers today, it seems to me, fall into the dominionist category. These are the ones who talk a lot about big fish, lots of fish, and long casts. They usually know far more about their gear than the fish they pursue. They rarely fish alone, and they take a picture of every fish they catch. Internet fly fishing forums, with their squabbles and preening and locker room vibe, are the natural home for dominionist personalities.

The naturalists comprise a much smaller but still significant minority of fly fishers. They are the folks who enjoy fishing by themselves, who aren’t obsessed by numbers, and who care more about the health of the fish and their ecosystem than their opportunity to pursue them. These type of fly fishers tend to know more about the flowers and trees and wildlife in the places they fish than they do about the technical specifications of their rod and reel and line.

For some reason, most the fly fishers that I know on the Olympic Peninsula–in other words, the type of people who have organized their lives to be near the waters and fish they love–tend to fall into the naturalist category of anglers. That probably isn’t particularly surprising. I’m sure the situation is duplicated in all of the great fly fishing areas–around Yellowstone, the Deschutes, the Florida Keys, the northern Great Lakes, and Maine. You don’t make the sacrifices necessary to live in a remote place unless you care more about fish and wildlife and wilderness than you do career advancement and money.

Interestingly, a lot of the naturalist type of fly fishers that I know have also spent a lot of time with a guitar in their hands.

On the Olympic Peninsula alone, my fishing partner, David Christian, has played guitar since he was kid and is currently in a band. Skip Morris, the popular fly tying author, is an excellent jazz guitarists and performs around Port Townsend. Joe Crecca, who used to be a co-owner of the Port Townsend Angler fly shop, is in a band, and the shop’s current owner, Mike Duncan, had a flat top behind the counter the last time I was there.

Just this winter, I learned that Jeffrey Delia, the saltwater cutthroat master and creator of the legendary Delia’s Conehead Squid, has been playing acoustic finger-style guitar as long as I have.

I suppose you could argue that this is merely a coincidence, that guitars were a fad 40 years ago, just as fly rods became one 20 years later. You could claim that it was inevitable that a number of people would be swept up in both waves. And it is certainly true that many of the best “naturalist” fly fishers on the Olympic Peninsula have never played guitar or any other instrument. Still, the number of fly fishers I know who have also had a long relationship with a guitar is striking.

I have thought about this quite a bit, but I have no clear explanation for it. I suspect that people who become good at both the guitar and fly fishing tend to share several personality traits. Patience is the most obvious. You simply don’t get anywhere with an instrument unless you practice regularly and for an extended, (years, not weeks or months) period of time. Similarly, you don’t reach the fly fishing level of someone like Jeff Delia without putting in a lot of time on the water. And you really don’t fall in love with swinging flies for steelhead or hunting cutthroat in the salt if you are in search of immediate gratification and big numbers.

“You also need a sense of rhythm to do both of them ,”  my wife said, when I told her what I was writing about.

In addition, the naturalist type of fly fishers that I know who also play guitar tend to share two other characteristics: They have an acute sense of beauty and, as Reiger wrote, they enjoy solitude.

Of course, playing the guitar isn’t the only activity that requires these characteristics.  There a a lot of boat builders on the peninsula, and they also display these qualities. Many of them are also fine fly fishermen. My late friend, Jay Brevik owned a boat shop and was on the board of the Wooden Boat School. David Christian built the wooden boat we fish on lakes and estuaries, and Dick Wentworth built a wooden pirogue to fish the rivers and creeks during low water and the boat he fishes on Lake Crescent today.

Then there’s fly tying. If anything requires patience, a sense of the aesthetic, and a fondness for solitude, it’s tying flies. And the best flies–the ones tied by Olympic Peninsula tyers like Syd Glasso, Dick Wentworth, Don Kaas, James Garrett, Jeffrey Delia, Dave Steinbaugh and Curtis Reed–also have an internal rhythm. I see flies all the time that adhere faithfully to the recipe and are skillfully tied, yet somehow die on the hook. One of Glasso’s or Wentworth’s Spey flies or Jeff Delia’s soft hackles has as much flow, as much juice, as a James Jamerson bass line.

                                                                          Mullet on the Fly

It was a sultry June night in the lower Florida Keys. The sky had cleared after what I had come to learn was the standard late afternoon summer thunderstorm. I hung around our campsite on Sugarloaf Key until the sun was about four fingers above the horizon, then walked across the highway to the gulf side of the road. Sprawling before me was the maze of shallow flats, channels, and uninhabited islands that comprise the “backcountry” of the Florida Keys.

I spooked a great white heron feeding along the edge of the mangroves. Rising seemingly in slow motion, it hung momentarily above the water as it gathered its large wings about it, then beat back toward the bridge.

This was my first try at saltwater fly fishing. My partner and I had been camped for several days on Bow Channel. I still had my South Bend rod and Cortland reel, but I knew that there wasn’t a lot of application for a 6-weight in the Keys. Instead, I fished every day with my old Mitchell 300 and grass shrimp off the bridge for mangrove snapper, blue-striped grunt and small grouper. We cooked fish every night over the campfire.

However, the day before I bought a paperback book on fishing in Florida published by the Miami Herald. I read about sea trout, really a weakfish, and they seemed the right size for my rod. I didn’t know enough at the time to realize that you didn’t get them very often in the lower keys. I decided to give them a shot.

Wading into the water, I was surprised yet again at how warm it was and how little surf there was. I had hitch-hiked to Cape Cod one summer, and the waves there had been much higher even during nice summer weather. I had never seen waves this calm in Lake Superior or Lake Michigan.

There was a chart of the area around Sugarloaf Key in the marina at the campground, and I knew that the flats here extended far offshore. The bottom was firm, a mixture of sand, I believe, and coral formations–perfect for wading. I was wearing jeans–to help guard against Portuguese Man o’ War–and tennis shoes.

Almost immediately, I saw the boil of what appeared to be a large fish. It was far beyond casting range, though, probably beyond wading range. Closer to hand, a school of smaller fish broke the surface, but they disappeared quickly. I was pretty excited. I removed the plastic box of flies from my t-shirt pocket. I chose a small Lefty’s Deceiver and tied it to my trout leader.

To be frank, I was utterly befuddled as to what to do next. My book hadn’t even mentioned fly fishing. To complicate matters, I noticed right away that the tide, about which I knew precious little, and the waves seemed to be working in opposite directions.  Not knowing any better strategy, I cast out as far as I could and retrieved the fly in eight- to 10-inch strips. I did it in a fan pattern around me, then worked farther down the flat. It was what I would have done in a trout lake in Michigan.

This was at the end of the decade that had begun in northern Michigan. I was a professional musician now, in a duo with a very good female singer/violin player. We played a mixture of acoustic blues, old jazz and country tunes, and originals. I was a lot better guitar player, could do a passable job on Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Blake and Tampa Red. I could back up jazz musicians, although I wasn’t much of a soloist, and I could play slide in a several different tunings. But I was already a bit chastened and worn around the edges by life in the clubs. My ex-wife was back in Michigan, a school administrator, and Leo was gone, buried in a hardwood forest near where he had pointed pheasants for seven years.

I had a different guitar, too. Somewhere along the line, I had traded the Martin for another guitar. That was truly a bad mistake, especially since I can’t even remember the guitar I got for it. But the guitar I played in the keys, a Lo Prinzi, was a wonderful instrument. It was made by Augie Lo Prinzi, who previously only made classical guitars but had recently branched out into steel strings. My guitar had a big body, based loosely on the dreadnaught shape. When you finger-picked it, it was incredibly sweet sounding, with a perfectly balanced top and bottom. But when you strummed it hard, it boomed without falling apart and losing its musicality.

I played the Lo Prinzi in Key West for a year, at the Bull and Whistle, at Captain Tony’s, and at Sloppy Joe’s, where we were regulars. As is often the case with musicians, I actually had the most fun playing away from the stage, making “kitchen music,” as the saying goes.  I don’t think it’s particularly fanciful to suggest that there may also be a distinction among musicians between dominionists and naturalists. The dominionists love performing and do their best work in front of an audience, while the naturalists tend to have the most fun playing with friends, practicing alone, writing songs and teaching.

As with fly fishing, I was definitely a naturalist type of musician, and I gradually came to dislike the stage. My fondest memories of playing in the Keys all took place after we were done at the bar. Sometimes I played long into the night with an alto saxophonist friend of mine. We played old jazz ballads like “My Funny Valentine” and “Autumn Leaves” and “My foolish Heart.” Sometimes the new day had broken by the time we finally put our instruments back in their cases. Then we would drive over to Duval Street, so quiet and cool and peaceful in the clean morning light, and have grits and eggs at a diner.

Anyway, I eventually lost my Deceiver, probably on a coral head. I had two more, but didn’t want to lose them on my first day. For no particular reason, I replaced it with a Muddler Minnow. I didn’t get anything with that either. I kept seeing fish, though, an occasional large one farther out, and the smaller schooling fish broke the surface regularly. I hoped they were sea trout and would eventually come within casting range.

At one point, a ray of some sort slowly batted by. It came to within a rod length of me. Having grown up on stories of toxic rays, even species that can give you an “electric” shock, I nearly jumped out of my skin. It didn’t seem to even notice me.

Other than that, I was having a great time. I loved that heavy rank scent of the nearshore in the tropics. The sky was suffused with the pastels, the pinks and purples and oranges, of the fading day. I saw several other white herons along the mangroves. At one point, a long line of pelicans, as neatly in formation as the top of a fence line, moved low and in single file over the water.

Eventually, the sun hung just above the surface of the water. Twenty miles down the highway, at the end of the road, the sword swallowers and mimes and jugglers and tourists at Mallory Square were growing quiet, waiting for the sun to touch the water. I would be on stage in a bar a couple blocks from there later in the week. But right now it was just me and the herons and rays and mangroves and pelicans on the flat off Sugarloaf Key.

I decided to fish a few more minutes, then head back to the campsite. The guy at the marina who sold me grass shrimp told me not to wade around in the dark, because the sharks came up into the shallows at night.

Just before I left, one of the schools of fish showed off to my right, and seemed to be moving in my direction. They were close enough that I could see they were approximately the size of small trout. Maybe they were  sea trout. Thinking a smaller fly might be more to their liking, I quickly removed the Muddler and replaced it with a Black Gnat.

Now the fish were directly in front of , not 30 feet away. I cast, let the fly settle, then began stripping. I did that three or four times, without a bite. By then, I had mentally resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to catch a fish that day. But there was still a hint of light. I kept casting.

The fly suddenly stopped. There was no sense of a strike. The fly just didn’t move when I stripped. Then I felt the weight of a fish.

It fought hard, at least as hard as a trout of similar size. I brought it to hand just as the inky tropical darkness began settling over the water. It was about 12 inches. It was a pretty fish. But it wasn’t a sea trout. I had seen this fish’s picture in my book and in bait shops. It was a mullet.

For the last 35, virtually every person I have told that story to insists that I snagged that fish. They say, rightly, that mullet are largely vegetarians. Snook and tarpon fishermen who use them for bait catch them in cast nets. But I looked at the fish closely and the fly was in the corner of its mouth. It hit the Black Gnat.

A while ago, I looked it up, and mullet are caught occasionally on lures and bait. On the Gulf’s north coast, some anglers fish for them with dough balls, sort of like carp fishermen in the north. There’s at least one guide who targets them with flies.

I caught a lot fish and a lot of different kinds of fish during the year we played in the Keys. But I  remember that night on the flats off Sugarloaf Key as vividly as any of them. It was my first saltwater fish on the fly.

Sky Valley Limited
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