Only in northern Michigan can you get summer, spring, and winter all in the same week. I’ve been thinking a lot about trout lately, but the warm couple weeks we had really has me thinking about carp, panfish, and smallies. I’ve got so much water to explore and re-explore over the summer. And when I think about it, I’ve got to relearn how to fly fish for smallies.
Back in New York, where I learned to fish for them, I was fortunate enough to have some world class smallie water all around me. The only downside is it was all moving water. Here in MI, that doesn’t do me much good. I’m in stillwater country when it comes to smallies. There are a few streams with smallies within driving distance, but I won’t really be fishing them.
I can still remember catching my personal best smallie like it was this morning. It was during one of those spur of the moment after work/ before English Lit trips when water temps were finally climbing out of their winter funk.
I was surprised to see a truck already there when I pulled into the public parking area. First instinct told me to go elsewhere, but I decided to hop out and see if there were any tails sticking up on the glassy flat below the pocketwater. I came down the trail of broken concrete and spotted the other guy with a net in one hand, flipping over rocks with the other.
“How’s it going?”
“Alright” He says.
I scanned the flat, then noticed a fly rod sitting on the bank.
“Any luck?” I ask.
“Nah, they’re not biting here. I’m gonna go downstream.”
He picked up his rod and walked up to his old Ford Ranger. I scanned the barren flat for a few more seconds, weighing my options.
Something told me that he was kind of a tool, so I walked up the trail to my car and slid my waders on as he broke his rod down. Not that it would have mattered if he was some sort of fly fishing god, when I’ve got a feeling about a spot, I trust it. No words were spoken, but body language said he thought I was either an idiot for fishing where the fish weren’t biting, or an arrogant SOB. Either way, he was probably right.
I tied on the fly I call “The Other One.” It’s probably my second most productive fly for carp and smallies, basically a brown seal dubbed dragonfly nymph with lead eyes and rubber legs. I waded out to the slackwater pockets at the tail of the riffles and started working it parallel to the white water.
Strip, strip, strip. Suddenly something descent is throbbing through the cork. Way too big to be a bass. Visions of carp fill my brain, then it makes what I first think is a half-hearted effort at tailwalking. Its about then that I realize it was just too fat to get any air.
Not a carp.
It fought like a big brown trout before giving in and gliding in to my right. I slowly knelt down, completely and utterly blown away by it. It’s the fish I had been chasing for probably 10 years, and the one thing killing the moment is the realization that my camera was home, sitting on my computer desk.
I forgot about the camera and became mesmerized by the mass of its lips. The fish made my already small hands look tiny. I touched my thumb to it’s front lip and then stretched my pinky finger as far towards it’s tail as it would go and then touched my thumb to where my pinky just was and repeated. It was just under three hand stretches long, and after a quick calculation, I realized I was holding my first 24-plus inch smallie.
A million thoughts raced through my head Not just thoughts, but the ultimate internal debate between my ego and my ethics. My ego wanted to go so far as to build a small dike out of rocks around the fish so I could run home and get my camera- it wasn’t smallie season or it may have argued for keeping the fish. My ethics said no. If there was a smallie in the Hudson River that needed to spawn, this was it.
If only I had my camera with me.
I knew what I had to do. I popped the fly from it’s heavy upper lip, burned the fish’s long vertical stripes into my memory one last time, and then lowered it completely into the stained water. One second it was there, the next it was gone.
I’ve never really understood some fly anglers’ fascination with bamboo fly rods. I mean, I get the whole nostalgia thing. I get the whole feel the rod loading thing. I get that they’re pretty. But I’ve never really got whatever it is that drives people to devote their whole fishing experience to the rod, opposed to whatever else you can wrap your fishing experience around.
My first bamboo rod wasn’t really a bamboo rod. It was a bamboo blank, given to me by a fishing buddy from the Bay City area who was learning how to build his own bamboo fly rods at the time. I remember pulling each piece out of the PVC-tube after the mail lady leaned it against my front door and just being blown away by how gorgeous it was. Still, I didn’t really get it, and traded the blank not long after.
My second experience with bamboo was on the lower Au Sable after fishing with the same guy, Bob, and another fudgee, Steve. Fudgee’s are what people from northern Michigan call people from downstate who come up for the fudge, the outdoors, fall colors, morel mushrooms, or any of the other million reasons they come up.
We had just fished through an amazing sulfur hatch, and were standing around the tailgate of Bob’s pickup truck talking about nothing really important. Bob was toying around with his newest build as he talked, and snapped the tip of the rod while pulling the nail knot through the tip. I don’t really get shocked by much, but I was speechless. I wanted to pass out. Bob investigated the spot it broke, made a few mental notes, and shrugged it off before tossing the broken rod onto a pile of rod tubes.
It was about five more years before my next bamboo experience. I was visiting with my grandmother when she mentioned that the guy who installed her new furnace found some old fishing poles on one of the heat ducts in the basement. She suggested I go down and see if I wanted any of them.
I hate my grandma’s basement. Its dark, damp, and covering the ceiling are the thickest cobwebs I’ve ever seen. Plus I’m pretty sure its haunted. Probably my Great Grandpa Williams messing around in his workshop. It really couldn’t be anyone else giving me the spooks– besides me– as the house she lives in was built by my great grandpa, an electrician originally from Vermont. I was only six when he died, and don’t remember much about him, but I do remember that he seemed to always stay busy working on stuff around the house.
I found the old rods leaning against the furnace. There was a cardboard tube full of old spinning rods, one of which is a telescoping rod made out of steel. My grandma said that she used to use it when she was a little girl fishing with her dad, Great Grandpa Williams, on family trips “up north,” which I later learned were sometimes on the Au Sable. The next time I stop by, I want to get more details on those fishing trips.
The other rod wasn’t in a tube. it was in a rod sock. I untied flap on the sock, and pulled out what I immediately recognized as a bamboo fly rod. An old bamboo fly rod.
According to my grandma, the rod had to have been on that heating duct for at least 50 years, as her dad hadn’t been fishing since the 50′s. I was really blown away by the rod, but more by the revelation that a lost relative dabbled with fly fishing.
I went right to google to dig up anything I could on the old rod. While there wasn’t much to go by on the rod, the sock had a manufacturer, model, and even the street the factory was on in Chicago. Assuming its the original sock, it was made by Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co.. Going off of a website I found that outlines the history of Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co, they were at that location between 1903 and 1924, making this rod around 80 to 110 years old.
When I told my grandma how old the rod was, she questioned whether or not it belonged to her dad. She was more inclined to think it was her grandpa’s fly rod. My great, great grandpa. He died at a fairly young age, I wanna say in his 30s, due to ensepholitis after some dental work.
Whether the rod is my great grandpa’s, or my great, great grandpa’s, its my most prized possession, despite the fact that I never really got to know either.
The company that made it eventually became “True Value,” a big box in that era. I’m guessing the service they provided at the time the rod was for sale was pretty good, there was a guy behind the counter who knew all about fly rods, and carpentry, and plumbing, and whatever else they sold. A big box then was probably like a mom and pop shop now.
The rod is in pretty good shape, and I’m tempted to fish it just once. But the thought of it breaking, man, I thought it was bad watching someone else break their rod. I’d never let myself hear the end of it.
My next bamboo fly rod experience came a few months ago while I was working at the local fly shop. An old timer said he had an old bamboo fly rod and reel he’d like to give me, if I wanted them.
He brought them into work a couple days later and told me where he got it from. I guess when he was a kid, an old timer who lived on the Sturgeon River gave him the rod and reel– about 50 years ago. I did some digging and the reel is actually pretty special. Its a Martin No. 1 Automatic, and not just any Martin No. 1. This one was made while Martin was still located in Ilion, NY– before they moved to Mohawk, NY. The company was founded in Ilion in 1894, and then moved to Mohawk in 1902. Meaning mine is one of the very first ever made. I’ve dug around ebay and the web, and still haven’t seen another.
The rod has no markings on it, but it does have an agate stripper guide which makes me think it was a fine rod in its day. One of the ferrules is broken, but other than that, its in great condition. While its not a family heirloom, its also one of my most prized possessions.
That leads up to my most recent bamboo experience. I’ve kind of gotten into vintage reels. Not so much to collect, but to fish with. The more simple, the better. Well, that kind of led to some snooping around of bamboo fly rod auctions. And, yep, you guessed it, now I’m getting into bamboo fly rods.
I don’t really have any interest in the high end stuff– only cause I can’t afford it. My interest is in what would have been a working man’s fly rod when it was new. Something a guy could throw a $5-bill on the counter and walk out of the hardware store with. Something I can actually fish with and not be a wreck over when I break it.
I learned that Montague was just the kind of company I was looking for. So a couple days ago, I won an old Montague Clear Lake for like $17 in decent condition. Then, shortly after, I ran across another Montague auction. This one spoke to me like I’ve never been spoken to by a fly rod. It whispered sweet nothings in my ear, and I knew right away that despite it being an old “working man’s rod,” it wasn’t going to go for $17.
I put it on my watch list and didn’t bid. My plan was to see how how it gets up to, then if it was in my price range, come in and steal it at the last minute. I turned the computer off and went to bed, only I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was that rod. I grabbed my phone, opened up my handy dandy ebay app, and bid a measly $40. Just enough to put me over the current high bid. Not enough.
That was a couple days ago, and ever since, I haven’t been able to get that rod out of my mind. I can’t explain it. Its not that its pretty. Its not that I’ll probably be able to feel the deer hair on my comparaduns whir through the air when casting it. Its not even the fact that it was made in the 1940s. There are like 10 other auctions for the same model– not in near as good of condition– available for less money, but this is the one I have to have. And I have no freaking clue why.
Tonight when I got home, I put in a bid substantially higher than my original. I’d love to tell you about it by publishing this post right now, but then one of you might go looking for it. And there isn’t a chance in hell I’m going to let that happen. I’m not even going to type the model name right now, as I’ve been known to accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save draft.” One day and 21 hours to go, and then we can talk all about this beauty.
I hope I win, and I hope that my wife won’t kill me when she finds out that I bought another fly rod. But most of all, I hope that actually fishing with a bamboo fly rod this season will help me understand what it is about it that has me acting completely fascinated about them.
Okay, that was all written a few weeks ago. No, I didn’t win the one I wanted, but, I did win something better.
You’ll be hearing all about it…
On the eve of an epic northern Michigan snowstorm, two fly anglers sit around a table, peering up from their fly tying vises every now and then at whatever happens to be on the television.They plan to wake up early the next morning, during the peak of the storm, and drive through the blizzard to a river that holds large numbers of Great Lakes steelhead. A river that despite its national popularity, and it being a Saturday, they will have all to themselves.
Angler 1: Remember that movie, “The Perfect Storm?” Those guys caught a ton of fish.
Angler 2: Yup.
Angler 1: That storm is what made the fishing so great. Fish love a good storm. Those guys slayed ‘em.
Angler 2: Yeah, and then they all died.
Angler 1: Tomorrow will be so awesome.