Nothing cuts into your fishing time like death. – A.K. Best quoted by John Gierach
After learning in a July email from Michael Alwin of the wading misadventure he eventually wrote about in the August 2023 article titled The Grim Reaper as Your Guide, I did what I’ve been doing for decades: I wrote a response to him pointing out everything he’d done wrong and what he should have done instead. Well, that’s not true; Mike has been invaluable to me as both a mentor and friend over the years and thinking about his near drowning was mortifying to me. I did respond to his email with some suggestions on wading safety and I’d like to share them with you and expand a bit on them as well:
The first consideration in wading safely is constant situational awareness. You should ask yourself this question frequently: What happens if this doesn’t go well? This may make you rethink your approach and develop a new plan, or you may have no choice but to proceed, but at least asking – and answering – this question will force you to look for contingencies. The link (https://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/trout-fishing-articles/tips-for-safe-wading) to the Orvis Learning Center that Michael included in his article provides excellent advice on instream wading. Since I can’t improve on it, I’ll stress only two points regarding technique. First, one of the most common mistakes that I’ve made and have seen others make is trying to wade while casting. This is an invitation to disaster. You’re striding along, watching to see if a fish will rise again, when you trip on an unseen rock, stick or sudden depression in the bottom and plunge forward in a desperate but futile effort to regain your footing. The second thing I’ve seen, and to my misfortune have done myself, is stepping backward while turning around. It’s so easy to forget about the big rock immediately behind you, the one you waded around carefully a bit earlier, while watching a friend land a fish. This is mostly something done in shallow water, so while the danger of drowning is minimal, getting wet and cold is extremely likely. Worse, it’s likely that you’ll land hard in shallow water, which can lead to bruising and contusions if you’re lucky, or to broken bones or a skull fracture if you’re not. This may sound alarmist, but this is exactly how Datus Proper, the author of the book What the Trout Said, came to a bad end when he hit his head on a rock in shallow water while fishing Hyalite Creek outside Bozeman, Montana several years ago.
I would like to discuss some equipment that can help us wade more safely:
Leggings and quick-dry shorts: You hear about the value of a belt that tightly cinches your waders about your waist to prevent filling your waders with water in case of a fall. That’s true, of course, but how about, when it’s practical, ditching the waders altogether and investing in some leggings and quick-dry shorts instead? You’ll present a sleeker profile in the current, which will lessen the hydraulic pressure on you and, if you do go down, you’ll not be weighted down by the water in your absent waders. Also, I think I’m correct when I say that most of us are averse to the chilling effect of cold water on our nether regions, causing us to think twice before we wade deep enough to dunk said regions.
Wading boots: Yes, most of us already have specialized wading boots, but are they ones that will do the best job of keeping us vertical? For many years felt soles were the standard of the industry. They do work well on bedrock and on cobble, but I’ve never found them particularly grippy on large rocks or on algae-covered substrates. They’re lousy on muddy or snow-covered banks and none too good on grass. While their performance improves with the addition of studs, they’re implicated in the spread of invasive species, so it may be best to give them the go-by. There are a great many variations on the rubber sole boot. The high-end boot from the Orvis Company features a sole developed in concert with the Michelin tire folks. I’m not sure what that guarantees, but I note that the boots can be outfitted with studs, which are always helpful. The Simms Co. offers a plethora of boots with felt, Vibram and rubber soles. Many of them can be equipped with studs as well (Simms offers multiple types of studs, too). The Simms website has a chart that compares things like traction, support, and weight. You may have noted that I’ve mentioned studs several times. I think they’re a godsend and wouldn’t be without them. My personal choice for really tough wading conditions are Patagonia Foot Tractor boots with leather uppers by Danner and rubber soles equipped with replaceable shaped aluminum crossbars secured to the boots by Allen bolts. I can’t say enough good things about them. I can say that, on the downside, they are hellaciously expensive and that I was fortunate to find cosmetically imperfect ones on sale at a deep discount. In the big picture, though, at a time when top end fly rods have pushed past the thousand-dollar mark, half that amount for the most comfortable and effective boot I’ve ever seen may be a value.
Wading staff: I was fortunate to win a Simms wading staff at a Wisconsin State Council TU banquet several years ago. At the time I was just trying to get rid of some bucket raffle tickets and had given little thought to how I might use a staff. I discovered how when I ventured to southwest Montana. It was instrumental in helping to keep me upright when I found myself on the wrong side of a river with no easily fordable crossing in sight. Using the situational awareness I wrote about earlier, I picked the “least worst” option and set out. The staff hummed and throbbed in the heavy current when I leaned on it more heavily than I thought possible, but I inched my way to safety on the other side, arriving there with a stratospheric adrenalin level and a pulse rate to match. Admittedly, my leg strength isn’t what it used to be, and I’m walking around on a couple of artificial joints that don’t offer the support of the original equipment, but as the philosopher said, time and tide wait for no man, so it’s wise to be ahead of the game and to start carrying a wading staff today, even if you’re not superannuated like me. Simms sells a staff equivalent to mine for around one hundred fifty dollars. Patagonia has an elegantly designed one for ten dollars more. Former chapter president and frequent angling companion Tom Schnadt tells me that he’s taken to carrying an old bamboo ski pole with him. It’s lightweight and floats on a tether behind him. The downside here, he acknowledges, is that the pole could possibly shatter under heavy load and effectively become a punji stick on which to fall.
The dangers are not solely in the stream and a wading staff can be useful in other circumstances. It can help you negotiate a steep or muddy bank when you enter or exit the stream and it can serve as a test probe as you travel the heavily vegetated banks along it. There are often little gullies, beaver holes or even logs hidden by overlying grasses.
Stationary bike: I can picture you shaking your head in disbelief about now. What I’m getting at is that we should all do our best to tend to our most basic piece of wading gear – our legs. A regular exercise program can help you maintain leg strength, flexibility and, consequently, balance. A stationary bike is but one tool you can use. A health club or YMCA may be able to help design a program for you using additional or other equipment. Even long walks involving substantial changes in elevation are a huge improvement over doing nothing.
Now get out there and have fun and come home safely.
Over fifty years ago a friend who was stationed in Montana while serving in the Air Force invited us out to go back-packing and trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains. Ron introduced me to fly fishing on that trip and Montana has been a preferred destination ever since. During the 1980’s he worked for US Fish and Wildlife and I went out once or twice a summer to camp and fish with him. We fished most of the storied waters in SW Montana but I became particularly infatuated with the Boulder River and Rock Creek.
Calling Rock a “creek” is an obvious misnomer. Its current discharge is four times that of the lower Kinni; when you look at it for the first time the word that pops into your brain is “river.” When I fish out west I prefer tent camping but this year for a couple of reasons we rented a cabin right on the river a few miles above its confluence with the Clark Fork of the Snake. As much as I like roughing it, I am moved to admit that the cabin experience was pretty comfortable. Breakfast and dinners indoors, lunch and happy hour on the front porch, a comfortable bed for a refreshing night’s rest, good friends to fish with and quick access to miles of one of Montana’s premier trout streams totaled up to a fine week’s experience.
Fishing, as we like to say, is always good. Catching, on the other hand, is frequently a different experience. Only two or three fish were caught in the first couple of days. I saw one trout rise on Sunday and another rise on Monday and not another the rest of the week. John at Rock Creek Mercantile said fishing has been tough this season due to a late spring and higher than normal water for late July. He recommended fishing nymphs in the morning and dry flies as late as you can in the evenings. We followed his advice. But we also fished afternoons. We fished nymphs, dries, streamers and wet flies, all without success.
On Wednesday morning, July 26, we drove downstream to fish some braided water that we hoped would be promising. After gearing up we spread out on the near bank keeping ourselves within sight of each other. After spending an hour or so fruitlessly fishing various dries upstream I reached one of our fishing partners who reported having the same success as I did. There were a couple of braids coming into this stretch from the opposite bank and it was abundantly clear that the water was too deep and fast to cross at that point. I cut through the underbrush to get above him thinking I might find safer water to attempt a crossing. So I was upstream and around a bend from him when I found a spot between a couple of riffles that looked wadeable. I started across and at about the half-way point realized that a) the water was deeper than it looked and b) the gradient was a whole lot steeper than I figured. On local streams I’ve waded knee deep, thigh deep and waist deep for decades, never having a problem with gradient, only that unseen rock that trips me up and causes me to curse. We have gradient; Rock Creek has Gradient.
Half way across in thigh deep water is an impossible place to turn around. When you’re in that deep you have no choice but to move forward. So I tried to keep going, trying to do my Tai Chi step by planting the downstream foot, shifting my weight to it and then pulling the upstream foot forward while angling downstream to mitigate the force of the water. Finally the rocks underneath my downstream foot gave way, I attempted an awkward pirouette and I went down, waders filling with water and my feet pointing downstream. I actually laughed, thinking to myself, “So this is what getting dunked is like? Huh.” I had visions of steering myself into calmer waters so I could crawl out.
Then I saw the log jam. In milliseconds I thought about the time my dog, Rickie, swam across this same river and got swept into a log jam, went under it and popped up on the other side. In the same milliseconds I thought about hanging on to that first log, a futile attempt since my waders were full and the force of the water was too powerful. I hit that log, went under it, surfaced ever so briefly, and then went under another pile of brush and logs before coming up for air. There was no time to be afraid. My eyes were open the whole time; I could see bubbles and parts of the log jam. I also swallowed some water. In those milliseconds under water I was thinking about how the hell I was going to avoid drowning. I wound up standing on a rock or a log, chest deep and wedged between a couple of logs, gasping for air. After several minutes I freed myself from the logs and after pulling myself upright on one of them, and with the help of the other angler, I was able to crawl across the log jam to the bank.
I lost my rod and reel, my hat and glasses, a couple of boxes of flies, some accessories and my wedding ring, a family heirloom since it was my grandfather’s and had my grandmother’s initials, A S, engraved inside. I don’t remember what we ate for supper that night, I was still tasting river water. John at Rock Creek Mercantile told us that in the prior couple of weeks three people had drowned: one on the Blackfoot, one on the Clark Fork, one on Rock Creek and his body was found several miles downstream. They say that only the good die young.
You have undoubtedly heard the five stages a trout fisher goes through: catch a fish, catch a lot of fish, catch big fish, catch difficult fish, and finally be satisfied with the act of fishing itself – whether or not the fish decide to cooperate.
My journey started in the 4th grade, fishing Trout Brook in Hudson every morning after finishing my paper route. I eventually caught my first trout by pegging a worm on the bottom of a hole coupled with a big split shot. Despite only processing 5th grade educations, by the next year, my mates and I invented euro nymphing albeit using long spinning rods and garden hackle. Now we were catching a lot of trout in water not known for great numbers and an added benefit was our bycatch of suckers and carp greatly decreased. The following year, the nightcrawlers on the lawn of the old Hudson courthouse their nightly sojourns after a summer rain were never bothered again by my flashlight wielding buddies and I. We changed our tactics and used Mepps and Panther Martin spinners (spin fishers don’t overlook a floating #5 Rapala either). Overall, the fish got bigger (especially at night) and the rough fish were eliminated.
During junior high, my parents bought a camper on a lake in Siren, Wisconsin chock full of pike. Sadly, I abandoned trout fishing and became a big pike fisherman using my paper route money to buy a boat. It wasn’t until many years after college, marriage, and kids, that my brother-in-law introduced me to fly fishing and I again fell in love with trout and the rivers they inhabit.
Forgetting all the trout knowledge I gleaned in grade school, I floundered mightily with the fly rod and was undone by poor casting and new enemy, drag. Needing help, I enrolled in a fly fishing class taught by Mike Alwin. A light bulb went on when Mike described how to swing soft hackles. This seemed to be a method that could disguise my inaccurate casts and luckily drag was actually integral to the method. When the class hit the upper Kinni for our “final”, I found success! BWOs were coming off in a riffle and swinging my new favorite fly, a partridge and yellow, I caught 11 trout! All that spring, I was swinging my way down the Kinni, covering surprisingly long distances (only discovered upon the slog back upstream) and encountering quite a few fish.
After a season of swinging, I decided to work on my nymphing game. If 90% of what a trout eats is subsurface, I figured this is how to rack up the numbers and I was right. The discovery of the water load cast was crucial to me doing more fishing and less untangling of double nymph/thingamabobber rigs.
I have never been a dedicated streamer junkie, but I have connected with some big fish, hitting the banks with streamers while fishing back to the car after an evening hatch is done. My biggest trout have come steelhead fishing on the Brule by chucking eggs and legs (Superior X-leg nymph with an egg pattern tied off the bend of the hook) all day long or fishing the hex hatch on the White and Brule rivers. Dry flies the size of hummingbirds bring the big browns out of hiding and makes braving the hordes of mosquitos worth the effort.
For my next stage, I decided to take on the tricos a few of years ago. This hatch of insects, size 20-26 occurs daily from late July through early September, so the trout get very, very picky – they know exactly what a trico is supposed to look like. The water at this time of year is low and clear and to top it off, much of the feeding is for the spinners in the slow water below riffles. Dead spinners don’t move at all and the trout can get a good long look at the fly before committing. It took quite a bit of scouting to find areas with good hatches. Then it took a couple of years to figure out techniques, patterns, and leader set-ups that work for me. It was truly a challenge.
Well, that takes us up to this past season. Was I content to just get out, regardless of the results? Almost there! I wouldn’t be upset with a skunking, let’s call it “mildly irked.” One fish sure would have been nice. Being quite competitive in nature, I did not think I would get this far when I first started, but here I am, free to trout fish any darn way I chose. Very early in my journey I read every trout fishing book in the Washington County library system and purchased a good deal more. Some of the books, written across the pond, expounded on the requirement in some local streams to only fish dries flies upstream, to rising trout, which struck me as utterly ridiculous. And yet I stand here today, not as a dry fly snob — please trout fish any way you choose — but certainly a dry fly enthusiast. Without the need to rack up numbers or size, I no longer feel the need to fish from dawn to dusk. I fish whatever is emerging at that time of the year. During the hex hatch I will sleep in and wait until 8 pm before leaving the cabin. Conversely, if it is trico time, I will be on the water at first light and off the water enjoying a late breakfast by 10:30 am, when the spinner fall is over. My overriding rule, however, is that the best time for trout fishing is whenever you can go — and often that is when nothing is hatching — so I always carry a fully stocked nymph box.
I taught my kids to fly fish which was very satisfying, and I now find that helping out a stranger at streamside is a joy as well. Having a new friend catch a fish is more rewarding now than catching one myself, something that would have never occurred to me when I first started.
My son, Brian, is following the same path, as I did. He sits at the vice tying huge pike flies often with gobs of yellow bucktail and red hackle feathers, replacements for the Five of Diamonds spoons I used to hurl out with my spinning rod when I was his age. He is also looking for big trout too using these streamers and fishing the hex hatch.
In contrast, my daughter reached the final stage before I did! She went from catch a fish, to just happy to get out on the stream. I realized this, one night when the trout were tearing into sulfurs like stripers in a school of menhaden and I was laser focused on my #18 comparadun bouncing down a riffle. She tapped me on the shoulder and told me to look up to see an incredible sunset that made my jaw drop. I felt sheepish knowing that I would have never noticed it had she not been there. She has become almost a brook trout purist and claims to only need one fly to catch them, a #18 CDC Caddis. She is out in the world now and I don’t get to fish with her much anymore but I can’t doubt her. Her fish photos are all of brook trout and unless she is secretly hitting up the fly shop bins that is the only fly she asks me to tie for her. She has no need for big fish, as the small brook trout are “so cute” and their small bodies “concentrate all their beauty.” When she reports catching no fish, I ask what was hatching and did she try a different fly say a nymph, streamer, comparadun, or soft hackle. No, she didn’t try those, but then I’ll receive photos of what she did “catch”; the deer that came streamside to get a drink, the beaver cruising up the opposite bank, the bald eagle watching over her, and the wildflowers. She is on to something. She never gets skunked.
It’s been a brutal Winter! Too much snow, too much cold, too much inside. About all you can do is organize fly tying stuff, put parafin on already lubricated ferrules, and think about prior years when Winter fishing was fun and possible. I remember a Winter day on the South Branch of the Root when I found out that felt soles are a magnet for snow. Every step I took, I gained an inch in height! At least until my added length made it impossible to stand.
A few days past, I was looking at my fly rods, wishing I had the Sage 4711LL which now belongs to my younger son who lives in Colorado. At that time, I also owned an ultra light weight Sage 279LL which had a ring and hood reel seat, instead of the screw-locking one installed on the 4711LL, and that memory caused me to recall an incident where it failed.
Several years ago, I was in Aspen, Colorado to play the harpsichord in performances of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. I had been asked by my violinist friend Jaime Laredo to join him in this project. I had been to Aspen before, and was aware of the free trolley that made a round trip through town every half hour or so. At the end of the trolley line was Slaughterhouse Road, where a stone foot-bridge spanned the Roaring Fork. One bright, sunny afternoon, when rehearsing was done, I gathered my fishing gear, stepped onto the trolley, and was driven to the bridge. The trolley man asked me when I would be done, and I asked him when his last trip to the bridge would be. He said 9pm, and I told him I would be at his turn-around spot at that hour.
When I arrived, PMD spinners were laying eggs in the shadows that the bridge cast on the water, little yellow mayflies dancing vertically under the stone arch. I had brought two rods in my case: the Sage 4711LL and an almost eight-foot two weight, a Sage 279LL. Pretty soon I was thigh-deep in the Roaring Fork, casting to rising Rainbows under the bridge. I had an audience, too…hikers on the footpath parallelling the river stopped to watch. I’d tied on a long 6X tippet, and had turned the two pawls in my reel to provide the least possible resistance to a hooked fish. The reel was a Hardy-built Orvis CFO123. I had just hooked my third trout, when the hooded butt cap fell off the rod into the water, followed in quick succession by my reel and the little knurled ring that secured the front reel foot. I reached for the line, and with the rod tucked under my arm, managed to net and release the fish. I could see the reel in the clear water, but every time I moved my feet, the water clouded up. The audience was getting larger, with a few scantily-clad teenage nymphs just downstream of me. I started to pull on the fly line, but the reel on the bottom just revolved and let out more without moving. I hoped my fly line to backing knot was good. I wondered how much backing was on the reel. I tried to spot the butt cap and ring in the water to no avail. Eventually, after ten minutes or so of frustration, I just reached down with my right arm and picked up the reel off the bottom, retreated to shore thoroughly soaked, thankful for the warm sun, even though all the bugs were in the deep shadow. Still wet, I made it back to town on the next trolley. The trolley man laughed when I told him my story. When I got back to the Twin Cities, I sent the little rod to Sage on Bainbridge Island to be refitted with a new butt cap and knurled ring. Cost me eighty bucks. To this day, I don’t know why the glue under the butt cap decided to dry out. Was it the altitude? By the way, the Bach Brandenburgs went very well, thankyou.
Sometime early in the century when I was helping out – or so I claim; Mike may have a different view – at Mike Alwin’s Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop, a guy named Paul Wiemerslage, would drop in, usually near the end of the day and usually accompanied by his pert and perky wife, and just sort of hang around, often well past closing time. By that time of day my supply of bonhomie had run low and I found him kind of irritating. He obviously came to talk to Mike and didn’t seem even to notice me, which, when you get down to it, is likely why I found him irritating. I learned that he was a high-level executive at a large local manufacturing concern and presumed that with that came a certain level of disdain for the help. I have never been more wrong in my life. I had mistaken a sense of respect for disdain. Sometime in the Christmas Holiday season in my days as a putative Lutheran, probably when my daughter was participating in a Sunday school show, Paul, who was a co-parishioner, stopped me in a hallway and asked me how my steelhead season had gone. I was surprised that he knew I’d been fishing. That one question breached the metaphorical levee between us and led to a conversation so long that I was, much to my wife’s consternation, late to my seat for the performance. Subsequently Paul and I forged a friendship that led us on adventures with venues as disparate as Paul’s home kitchen, the north woods, and the famous trout streams of Montana.
Paul had held many different positions with his employer and had excelled in all of them, but the job he had liked most, and was certainly best at, was in sales. He had a preternatural ability to earn people’s trust and to put them at ease. This wasn’t some sort of technique or act; it was simply and genuinely Paul. The first time I traveled with Paul we took his travel trailer deep into Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and set up at a campground on the upper reaches of Timber Coulee Creek. It had been a wet spring and the water table was high. The campground was soggy in many spots, but we’d parked the trailer in a high and dry spot. One afternoon I heard a group of campers talking. One of them was grousing loudly about where and how we’d parked and what jerks we must be. I told Paul about it. He shrugged and said he’d take care of it. He strode out to where the men were talking, introduced himself and asked them where they were from. “La Crosse,” the chief grump replied. “Me, too,” said Paul, “My father worked at Heileman Brewing for years.” This established Paul as a local and within minutes the entire group was laughing at Paul’s storytelling. There was no more grumping. I saw Paul build or reinforce relationships wherever he went. When we traveled, he brought along good bottles of wine and blocks of aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese from the Cady Cheese factory. He presented these as gifts to fly shop workers who gave him good information and to campground hosts who treated him well. Some of this was done, of course, as a means of ingratiation, but the real driving factor was Paul’s genuine respect for the knowledge they possessed and the effort they put in. These folks never forgot Paul, either. Perhaps they recalled the gifts, but I always felt it was more likely that they remembered Paul’s big heart and even bigger personality.
Paul had a close friend, John, a brilliant architect and businessman. John, a giant of a man, had an appetite and a lust for life that equaled Paul’s. John had an expansive cabin on what was essentially a private muskellunge lake in northern Wisconsin and another utterly primitive cabin in a vast lake-dotted landholding in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We fished hard on trips to these midwestern paradises, but we ate Paul’s gourmet cooking and drank John’s French wines prodigiously as well. John was never happier than in these settings and Paul once said to me, “I just love to watch that man have fun.” The feeling, I’m sure, was mutual. The only problem for me was keeping up with these two characters and I soon learned that I was a better observer than participant.
In essence, Paul loved to watch all the people he liked and admired have fun. In the last few years of angling author Jim Humphrey’s life, Paul hosted a mid-winter get-together at his house with Jim as the guest of honor. Paul didn’t know Jim particularly well, but, again, he admired Jim’s work and what he’d done to help others through his writing. These were titularly discussion groups with specific topics pre-selected by Paul. The guests ranged in age from Jim at the oldest to anglers Paul’s son’s age with several of us in late middle age in between. Everyone’s input was welcome, but Paul made certain that everyone understood that Jim’s word was gospel. There was food and drink, of course, with typically three different varieties of Paul’s delicious chili served as entrees. Paul put hours of work into those soups, expecting nothing more than the obvious satisfaction of his guests.
Paul was a born organizer. We (Friends of Paul and friends of friends – Paul subscribed to the idea that his friends’ friends were also his) made trips every spring to Cottonwood Camp on Montana’s Big Horn River for several years. The fishing was superb and the camaraderie was excellent, but the best part was that everything was taken care of! Paul secured the lodging, planned the menus, and did the grocery shopping. In almost everything Paul did he started at wretched excess and went on from there, so while it took half the crew risking hernias and ruptured discs to haul his massive Yeti cooler from the truck to the cabin, we could be certain that we’d dine like kings throughout our stay.
One of the very best adventures I ever had with Paul was a trip that the two of us made to Montana in the late summer of 2012. Paul asked me to go along with him to pick up a gorgeous, custom-made wooden drift boat he intended to buy. I had been downsized from my job that spring and felt that I ought to stay home and be responsible, but Paul worked his salesman’s charms on me, made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and it was off to Montana we went. We took a southerly route through Wyoming, country I hadn’t seen, staying overnight in Sheridan before heading up across the Big Horns and on to our lodging at the historic Chico Hot Springs Resort. Eventually Paul took possession of the boat and we fished out of it on both the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers before returning home. However, it looked for a time as though details might block the sale and we were both nervous. When the details were resolved and the deal done, Paul drove us back to Chico and produced a bottle of sixteen-year old Lagavulin single malt scotch whiskey he’d brought along in case a celebration might be in order. I’d somehow made it into my seventh decade without ever having so much as had a nip of this delightful potable, but I rapidly developed a taste for it and it took a couple of hours of soaking in the hot springs and several cups of the resort’s potent black coffee to make me whole the next morning.
I was to have another memorable experience involving Paul and scotch. Late in the afternoon last December 20th, Paul called and asked the name of a smoky Scotch I’d told him about. I told him it was Ardbeg. He asked me if it could be found in any of Hudson’s liquor stores. I suggested he try Casanova’s. Not two hours later there was a knock on the door. It was Paul. He thrust a bottle of Ardbeg into my hand and told me that he’d bought a bottle for himself, too, and intended to go home and drink a glass of it and suggested that I do the same. He turned and walked out to his Jeep and out of my life. Paul died of heart-related issues sometime late that evening or early the next morning. If you knew Paul only casually or only by reputation, it was easy to think of him as a sort of Falstaffian character – which he was. Paul was a man of huge appetites and interests, but he was also one of the kindest, truest, and most generous friends a man could hope to have and I will miss him always.
Paul loved the outdoors and he loved fly-fishing for trout. He was a long-time member of Kiap-TU-Wish and once served on the board of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust. His family has asked that memorials in his name be directed to those two organizations.
One day this past Spring, a FedEx shipment in a triangular box arrived on my doorstep. At first, I was confused as to its origin, and my wife, Suzanne, who in all our years together has become quite familiar with triangular boxes and their contents, quickly asked “Ed, did you order another fly rod?” I had not. Further investigation of the label revealed that the package came from my good friend Ernie Chupp ,who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.
Over time, I’ve shared with Ernie my fervent passion for fly fishing. I’ve mentioned my fondness for older rods and explained how fly rod construction had progressed over time with the advent of modern materials such as fiberglass and graphite, eventually finding favor over bamboo. I was delighted to learn that one of Ernie’s relatives was none other than Ferdinand Claudio, a builder of premier fiberglass fly rods in the 1940s which are still in great demand today by vintage rod collectors—and Ernie has one of Claudio’s rods.
After opening the box, I was surprised to see a vintage bamboo fly rod. It was a three-piece rod with two tips. Each section was cradled in a slotted holder. The rod was in pretty rough condition, but something told me that it had character and qualities that, if paired with a little TLC, might result in a usable fly rod that would provide loads of fishing fun. I needed to find out more about the rod and whether it could be brought back to its nearly original condition.
My next thought? “I need to go out and see the Norlings.” I contacted Dave Jr. and asked if I could bring the rod out to their workshop, if they’d be willing to help me figure out where and when it was made, and if there was a possibility, we could give it a new life.
At the workshop, Dave Sr. took the rod in hand, and asked “what do you want to do with it?” I told him that I would like to fish with it. He gave me a wry smile; I think he was pleased.
At first glance, Senior thought the rod was made in New York, but he couldn’t verify the manufacturer and said he’d need to do some further research. On closer scrutiny we determined that one section was missing some guides, and that a series of narrow thread wraps, which Senior told me were called “intermediates,” were placed along the sections of bamboo for added strength. Many of these wraps were either loose or missing and would need to be replaced.
The Norlings offered that I could come back out to the work shop and they’d help me get started with winding new wraps and attaching new guides. I left the rod so that Senior could do some additional research and determine what else was needed to get it into fishing condition. About a week later I received a note from Dave Jr. telling me that they would be fixing up the rod at no charge. What a surprise! They had found that the rod was indeed made in New York, by a company called Horrocks-Ibbotson (H&I), and they placed its manufacturing date around 1910. Horrocks-Ibbotson was one of America’s largest production rod companies for many years, competing head-to-head with Montague and South Bend. It later became known as the world’s largest manufacturer of fishing tackle.
I soon got another call to come and pick up the rod. Dave Sr. also informed me that I could likely get a reel on Ebay to match up with the rod, and I was able to purchase a wonderful, small,
single-handed reel made by H&I that turned out to be a perfect match for the rod.
When I arrived, Senior handed me the rod. I pulled it out of its rod sock and was astounded. The rod glistened. He had put fresh coats of varnish on it. There were new snake guides where needed, a new stripping guide, and a set of new ferrules. All of the guides and thin intermediate thread wraps were re-done. The reel-seat was re-glued as well. When I put the rod together, I knew that I was handling a treasure. I felt blessed! I showed Senior my vintage reel, and just the sight of it made his day. Next, Senior’s command: “Let’s go cast it.” He felt that the rod could probably handle a 6-weight line, which Dave Jr. quickly spooled onto my vintage reel. First casting honors went to Dave Jr. As I watched, he quickly began to shoot the most wonderful tight loops imaginable, making clear what an excellent caster he is. Then it was Senior’s turn. It was soon evident that Senior hasn’t lost his touch. I followed and was delighted with the feel of the rod loading and unloading and how effortless it was to throw a perfect cast. The three of us reveled in our success.
I want to thank my friend Ernie, whose gift started the whole experience, and Dave Jr. and Dave Sr. Their generosity has provided me with not just another fly rod, but a treasure that will always have a special place in my heart.