Fly fishermen tend to anthropomorphize the objects of our obsession to such an extent that I often wonder if it’s us or the five-year-olds who have the most active imaginations. Still, the claim that fly rods are more than just tools shouldn’t be too hard a claim to swallow. For a group of people who regularly claim that trout are capable of elaborate and deductive reasoning, I think there is room for the idea that fly rods are more than the sum of their parts.
The best rods aren’t really friends. They are rather confidants. They watched every mistake, watched your successes, and stayed by your side for the average days that make up most of our time on the water. If we lived in a world where fly rods could talk, they would be the stoic pal who only talks to correct your demagoguery. They would have the final say on every fish story.
In this hypothetical world, they would also be the only ones able to objectively tell the story of your growth as a fisherman. We like to forget certain events – like the time I threw a cane in Pyramid Lake and threw a fit on the beach as a toddler – or see them through rose-colored glasses. A fly rod would remember every throw, every drop, every fall, every fish lost or missed. Most importantly, it would show you how each of these mistakes made you a better angler.
And that’s why I sat on the tailgate of my truck with a heavy heart, glumly gazing at a fly rod. It was the first high end rod I have ever bought – a 9’5wt Winston. I had caught grayling and salmon in Alaska with this rod, and cutthroat and golden trout here in the Rockies. It is without a doubt the rod that I fished the most. He has the most stories to tell, the more locked up memories.
The last time I fished it was on a float with two friends on Utah’s Green River. My buddies had come from both coasts for a whitewater rafting trip, and they were planning to arrive a few days before to see if the fishing here is as good as I said. I had my boat ready, the rods rigged and we took to the water early.
My Winston was tied up with a single dry fly, but I only threw it a few times that day. We had fished at the end of August, which can be a difficult time on the Green. The fishermen pounded it to death for a few months, the fish have all been caught a few dozen times, and the dry fly catches are so shy that you almost feel bad on the hook.
In the precipitous exhaustion of packing the boat to return to the lodge in time for dinner, I put the Winston back into its rod tube. I didn’t notice the cane sock was soaking wet. Fast forward a few weeks. It is mid September and I have just moved to Evanston, Wyoming where I am working as an English teacher in college. After a long day with the kids, I left for one of the dozens of rivers within an hour’s drive from school, my trusty Winston shotgun.
The wind was blowing through sagebrush and the sun was low on the horizon when I parked. It was pretty hot, I didn’t need waders, so I put on my boots and went to tie my cane. That’s when I realized the mistake.
Opening the stem tube triggered a moldy smell that turned my stomach upside down. I moaned as I pulled on the rod and felt the sock still wet. A few years ago I started making bamboo rods and I have a good collection of canes in my quiver. One of the first things you learn about bamboo is that you never store a wet rod. Already. In any circumstance. While this is hammered out for bamboo owners, this is also true for people who fish graphite.
The water that remained in the cane sock had made its way through the little cracks and dents in the Winston’s varnish. Mold has grown between the surface of the stem and the varnish. Almost every wire wrap was cloudy with water, mold, or a combination of the two.
Then I looked at the reel seat. The water had seeped into the wood, causing it to expand and trap the locking strip on what was previously a beautiful piece of burl elder. The reel seat spacer took pride in the locking threaded barrel of at least 1/16 of an inch, if not more.
The last nail in the coffin came when I tried to remove some water and mold from the stem. He had eaten away the varnish on the stalk inscription to the point that a simple drying removed all the varnish and the hand lettering.
In the space of a few weeks, the water ruined my first favorite fly rod. I hardly felt like fishing, although I had more than a few spare rods in my truck. Fishing seemed wrong to me after learning that my own stupidity had cost me a dear friend. I still fished, but I did not catch anything. On the way back to Evanston, I dodged the deer and antelopes and thought more of the Winston drying in my passenger seat.
Often times we think fly rods will last forever. Our grandfathers or our fathers passed on enough canes, and the vintage cane market is alive and well, to make them seem timeless. Of course they are not, and I felt more than ridiculous to be sorry for the loss of graphite, wire, glue, nickel silver and wood. It wasn’t just the rod that I had lost, however. It was all the memories I had created using it, the fish I had caught, the places I had been. Instead of a tangible connection to those experiences, I was left with photos on Instagram. It’s not as strong a newspaper as a fly rod.