Thursday, April 9, 2020

Tommy's Dad's Rod

Editor's note: I'm thankful for this guest post by Aaron Swanson. It's times like these we need stories like this to take us away, even for a few minutes, from the all the craziness going on. I'm sure every angler could relate to this one. Stay safe out there.  -KB

It was always in a barrel by the door, stuffed in there with some umbrellas, walking sticks and the odd golf club or two.  Over the years of going to my buddy Tommy’s house I’d always been drawn to the black tube in that barrel, the one with the Orvis logo on it.  He and I were friends through high school, before my love and eventual addiction to angling became what it is today. Back then I used to get him and some other friends to tag along with me on new adventures.  We would all fish for bass in ponds with bobbers.  Tommy’s interest in fishing stopped at the point when we’d throw spinners in small trout streams on ultra-lights. His dad used to fish some, he’d tell me.

Tommy’s house was a familiar and comfortable place.  Throughout college I’d come back to hang out over there.  We watched a countless number of Celtics games there, Giants games too.  The black tube with the Orvis fly rod was still in the barrel by the door.   When his dad was around, I asked him about his interest in fishing.  He didn’t say much about it.  He used to fish the Farmington River, he’d tell me.  By this time I’d acquired a fly rod of my own.  I too had started fishing the Farmington River, introduced by new friends, eager to feed my growing addiction.  I offered to fish with him if he wanted to rekindle an old passion.  No, the responses were cool, curt even.

As years passed, we hung out over there less.  Still, I liked to visit, to watch games and attend family parties.  The tube was still there in the barrel, marked Orvis Company Henry’s Fork 8’6” 5 wt. Line.  I knew my way around a fly rod enough now to have the confidence to take it out of the tube, put it together and whip it around some in the front yard.  It felt different from the one or two rods I owned, more bendy.  I think they’d call that “slower” at the fly shop. I stopped asking Tommy’s dad to fish.  Every once and a while I could still drag Tommy out to certain favored fishing spots from the old days.  It was probably there that I started to ask him, what his father planned to do with that old rod, since, you know, he didn’t fish anymore. I’d ask every now and again.  The answer was always the same, “no.”

Some years later I drove by Tommy’s folk’s house and there was a big dumpster in the drive.  When we talked I learned there was some remodeling going on. I honestly don’t remember if I asked or if it was offered but he told me that rod I’d been asking about for years was mine, on one condition, I had to use it. 

“Of course,” I’d have said at the time, fully intending to incorporate that old weighty graphite stick into my growing arsenal of specialized rods.  By that point I probably owned nearly a dozen different rods each slicker and lighter than the next.  I had small stream rods, dry fly rods, indicator rods, euro-nymphing rods, saltwater rods, steelhead rods; the tube joined them all on a shelf in the basement. And it sat there.  Sometimes when the guys would come over to tie flies on Tuesdays someone would take it out of the tube and the embroidered sock, put the two pieces together and jiggle it in their hand a bit.  Do they even make rods in two pieces anymore?  That was the most action the rod saw for a while.  Of course, I still intended to use it. 

I made a disappointing discovery last year.  The first fly rod I’d ever bought, a 9’ 5 weight Scott was gone.  Completely missing.  That rod had caught so many fish and still had a regular place in my rotation as a dry-fly rod.  As fly anglers become ever-more like tournament bass fisherman, it’s not uncommon to carry multiple rods, rigged and ready for specific purposes and executions.  I was now down a rod, not just in a sentimental sense, but also in a technical one.   This would be the year, I’d decided, that old Orvis graphite would be added to the regular rotation, to fill that hole.

So I rigged it up.  It paired nicely with an Orvis Battenkill mid-arbor reel.  Felt good in the hand.  The cork wasn’t beat but showed enough wear that I knew Tommy’s dad wasn’t lying about his angling exploits from yesteryear.  I took it out in the yard and for the first time, I casted it.  It felt right, a bit slower than what I was used to, but matched well to the purpose for which I intended to use it.  Slow enough to throw a softly landing loop, soft enough to protect a long, light tippet, full of “S” curves.  At least, that’s what I told myself. 

I started bringing the rod out with me, figuring I’d break it in eventually.  That didn’t happen.  I fished it half-heartedly now and again, always as an afterthought rather than with a plan.  I brought it to our “opening day” camping weekend, the perfect venue to debut new toys.  The only fish caught on the rod that weekend wasn’t caught by me, but a buddy’s cousin who I let use it to throw woolly buggers.  I never throw woolly buggers anymore.

I assumed that catching on the rod would take care of itself.  We were coming into the part of the season when fish eat flies off of the surface with increasing regularity.  I missed the first major hatch of the year, caught up chasing American Shad instead.  The dry fly fishing I did after that was done with a lighter two-weight rod.  I got into swinging wet flies too, surely, the perfect way to score some easy action.  I caught them on the two weight but not the graphite five weight. 

It started to become apparent to me what was going on.  This rod I had asked for, for years and years was given to me with condition and that condition had not been fulfilled.  I was really going to have to earn my fish with it; I was going to have to use it.

I brought the rod with me to the upper Farmington the other day.  It was one of two rods I brought.  One rod rigged for tight-line nymphing and Tommy’s dad’s rod rigged for surface fishing.  The day seemed to be shaping up nicely.  There were bugs hatching, fish eating them.  I got to work on what appeared to be a pod of quality fish eating caddis on top.  I fished them hard; taking breaks to change flies and positions.  They didn’t want what I was selling with the old Orvis stick.  I watched what looked to be a very fine fish, eat a tan caddis, fluttering six inches above the water’s surface.  I cycled through more flies.  I finally got a good fish to take.  I missed him.  In my frustration turned excitement I pulled the fly away from his kyped jaw before he could fully inhale my CDC caddis imitation.  My shoulders slacked.  I slumped over.  It started to rain.

The rain changed the day.  It cooled the air and the water. A blanket of fog hung above the river.  I changed spots and landed alone in one of my favorite stretches on the stream’s course.  I worked the familiar lies with nymphs.  One eye on the colored sighter, and one eye looking for rising fish.  I walked down to another productive stretch and looked for risers.  They weren’t there.  I surmised the cooler water slowed insect activity, hurting chances at a good evening of dry fly fishing.  I kept nymphing.  I almost fell in the middle of the river, stumbling over a big boulder I’ve navigated around hundreds of times before.  Nearly defeated, I decided this was it.  I’d switch the rig on Tommy’s dad’s rod and put on some wet flies.  That would connect me to at least a freshly stocked trout, I thought.  I’d break the seal and head home.  I fished through that run again, methodically covering each piece of water where I know trout were holding.  They didn’t eat. 

I walked back up again, to where I started.  I hadn’t stopped to sit down all day.  I was thirsty, I don’t think I’d taken a sip of water since I arrived.  I looked at the two rods in my hands and thought about walking out of there.  Instead, this had to be the day.  I’d swing the wets through the top part of the run once more.  I’d get a fish and be done with it.  If the rod was going to make me work for it then I’d put the work in.  I’d use it.  I started the easy casts that come with that style of fishing.  Down and across, water-loading when I had no backcast, roll casting when I couldn’t do that.  The rod felt good, perfect for this style of fishing.  I wondered what kind of fishing Tommy’s dad had done with it, maybe this.  Maybe he threw woolly buggers. 

Halfway through the run I was still without a touch.   A couple of small trout rose but nothing indicated to me that fish were active, willing to move out of their lies to chase flies.  I looked around.  It was beautiful out, the mix of clouds and setting sun made golden hour live up to its name.  The blanket of fog had lessened some above the water’s surface now.  Swallows flitted around me, eating tiny unseen bugs.  I should go home.  It had been a good day, not of catching fish but of soaking in the lush bouquet of early summer.  I’d seen wildflowers and fish and more species of birds then I could count on two hands.  All the things that fill in the little spaces of a day on the river that makes it satisfying no matter the number of trout that find their way into your net.

I had an idea.  As dark continued to creep in I’d make a last ditch.  I made a deal with the devil and chopped back my leader to tie on a fresh piece of heavier tippet.  I fished around in my waders for the small box of random flies that I sometimes have with me and sometimes don’t.  I pulled out a black woolly bugger with a gold bead head and tied it on in the fading light.  I walked back up to the top of the run, the same one I just worked and had worked twice earlier before that. 

I started by dead drifting the bugger through the slow v-shaped seam in the middle of the shelf that falls off into the deep channel.  I’d let the black hackled fly drift through the current and then swing it up, across and out.  On the third drift as I started the swing a fish hit and came immediately to the surface.  It flopped around, throwing the hook I never had a chance to set.  That was probably my shot.  Tommy’s dad’s rod was going to make me work and maybe, today wasn’t the day after all. I shook my head and began casting across the river and slowly swinging across the heavy current that runs through the center of the deep channel.  Nothing. 

I fired a cast across to the little back eddy just above the big rock.  It seemed like I was on before the fly even hit the water.  The trout was clearly as surprised as I was and rolled, cartwheeling on the surface.  There was lots of slack line between us and I was pretty sure he was going to come unbuttoned the whole time I stripped the line back to me to come tight.  The fish sounded to the middle of the channel, taking some of my fly line underwater.  This has happened to me so many times in this spot.  The familiar strumming of the current against the taught fly line thrummed down through the rod.  I looked up to see the mat-gray blank folded over in half.  I could feel the headshakes through the bend, down into the cork in my hand.  I figured I’d foul hooked the fish; either that or it was pretty big.  I’d been in this exact same situation enough times to know that you don’t land all of the fish that behave like this in this run.  There are rocks and logs down there where they go to try to rub the fly out of their mouths.  The added pressure of the thick fly line under water makes pulling a hook that much more likely.  I’ve felt this heartbreak before.  

I relaxed and told myself, “Let the rod do the work. Just keep it bent and don’t give any slack, take your time.”

I really couldn’t move the fish so I tried changing rod angles a couple of times.  That did the trick and my unseen opponent shot downstream, past the big rocks, a familiar path I’ve followed before, attached to different foes.  I hadn’t noticed the spin fisherman that had come down the bank and began casting at some point.  I told him I was sorry, but I wasn’t really in control of the fish.
“Might have him fouled,” I said. 

I used some more angles, keeping a full flex in the rod and finally pried the fish off the bottom. We did some circles in the current before I thought I had some control and reached back for my net.  I had one hand on the rod and it took off again, into the current, trying to dive for bottom once more.  This time though, the fish had tired from the pressure of the old graphite rod and I was able to quickly turn it back, get the head up and guide the big brown into the net. 

He wasn’t foul hooked. It was a brown trout of more than 20 inches.  He had a huge head, substantial shoulders and a bit of kyped jaw.  I was thankful for him.  I kept him in the water, black woolly bugger still in his jaw.  I snapped a few photos, some with flash, some without, hoping they’d come out in the difficult light.  I made sure the rod was in the frame.  When I went to take the fly out of his mouth, it fell right out at the gentlest touch.  The flex of the old graphite rod kept it planted there until he was bested.  I held the fish by the tail in the current for a moment before he kicked and swam off.
“That looked like a respectable fish,” the angler across from me said.  It was almost dark now. 

“It was,” was my only reply.

I stood up and looked around.  It was pretty much pitch now. Although I know the path well, it would still be a slow walk with two rods and no light in the dark.  It was time. 

I felt good.  The rod felt good.  That old rod made me earn that first fish, made me keep that promise.  It wasn’t given to me to be kept in the basement, or used as an afterthought.  I had to use it.  When I did, I hooked a fish that tested me in a way that taught me what the old stick was capable of handling.  Now I know the rod.  I’ll be using it.

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