The Ones I’ve Loved
By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine, November/December 2015
The first good rod I owned was an Orvis Far & Fine, a 7-foot 9-inch graphite that threw a five-weight line in that elegant, old-world way. It was a Christmas gift, given to me by my father who’d come to understand that the fiberglass noodle I’d been wiggling since childhood was sufficient for shiners and chubs and bluegills, but that I, his only son, was destined for something better. He wrapped the rod tube in paper, tucked it behind the tree, and let me re-define giddiness when I slipped it from its cloth bag. It was a thing of both beauty and utility, with perfect cork and a walnut reel seat and graphite that was an un-sanded, lustrous gray. I cast it in the snowy yard all afternoon, and slept with it by my bedside that night.
That rod accompanied me through the ensuing decade, wherein I and it caught a pile of fish. There were the obligatory chubs and shiners and bluegills, which had come to be my mainstay, and which I cherished for their simplicity and prevalence. There were the freestone trout that whacked at dry flies across the states of my New England, and came glittering to hand. There was a parade of bass that engulfed deer-hair poppers on Vermont mornings and Massachusetts nights, occasionally tipping the scales north of the five-pound mark. There was even a single recalcitrant Adirondack pike that cleaned me out, allowed me to re-tie, then got himself caught again, vengefully taking the second offering while the first still hung in his lip. I took the rod along when I finally made it to the fabled rivers of the West, where the sky was big and the trout bigger still, and where I got an education in the subtle balance between force and power.
That little rod did it all with aplomb, with the elegance and dignity of something built with integrity, given with love, and cherished for the intrinsic value of both. It was slow as molasses by today’s standards, requiring a casting stroke that hesitated for an eternity at 10:00 and 2:00 while the rod bent, recovered, and let line unfurl into the future and the past. But when I trusted it, as I then did, to work its magic, it could throw anything. I fished flies from size 2 through 20, on gossamer tippets and hawsers. I threw chironomids as slim and light as whisps of silk, and bass bugs that must have weighed an ounce, and fluttered into the wind like settling mallards. My faith in that rod, however, grew to be absolute, and I could pin my placements on a dime. I remember one summer day in a fly shop parking lot when I wowed my friend Breuer (who remains to this day a far better caster than I) by zinging ten straight false casts through the open windows of his girlfriend’s jeep at fifty feet, without ever touching the gaskets. It was a tool of Tolkien proportion, and it made me a better angler.
In retrospect, it’s a testament to the impulsiveness of youth that I went looking. I’m a loyal fellow by nature, who prides himself on being so, in matters of love and friendship. That said, a life in rods and reels has taught me that I’m also a sucker for the soft sales pitch, and the possibility that some new or different piece of gear will set free my inner Rajeff. Somewhere along the way I deigned to assume that no angler worth his salt ever fished only one rod, as if versatility was a sure sign of incompetence. Maybe I just fell victim to the Syren’s song of good marketing. Regardless of the why’s and how’s, I got tempted, and came home one day with a rod that was touted to be the ‘next big thing’. I remember it to have been a Sage RPL+ in 6-weight, which I believed would be ideal for those belly-boat smallmouths I so dearly loved. I got the rod, and a reel to balance it, and took my first step into dangerous territory. What followed was an affliction with rods that remains to this day.
In the beginning, it was more a palm-sweat sort of heartbeat romance than anything. I remember fishing that Sage for a while, thinking of it as something space-aged and futuristic, and myself as a guy on the tip of the spear. It was indeed a muscle of a rod that I kept over-lining in a vain attempt to make it bend. Never quite satisfied, I at length determined it just didn’t fit my evolving aesthetic, which had mellowed and matured. I retired the Sage. I was, I determined, more gentlemanly than that, more of a pipe-smoke philosopher than the rod was permitting me to be. I pined and coveted down at my local fly shop, putty in the hands of the old guy at the counter who knew an easy target when he saw one. I scratched together my summer earnings and took home a Winston, back when nickel silver hardware meant something, and the blanks were inked with that beautiful, sensuous script. With the Winston I realized I was in deep, a hopeless case, and blissed out on possibility and an elitist ideal.
There were dalliances with Scott’s and T&T’s that were purpose-built for small streams and big streams and streamers, and then several lost years wherein ‘the idyll of split bamboo’ broke my heart and my bank account with quixotic longings. I feverishly reviewed the used rod lists from a handful of dealers who still typed the things on by-god paper, and sent them out by snail mail. I waited years for several cane rods to be made with me in mind, and my name inked on the butt sections; I am waiting for a couple still, with little hope that I’ll ever see them. In bamboo, however, there was a delicious exclusivity and the soulful quality that complimented what I’d always found in my fishing. It seemed an obvious fit.
But lo, I decided at length to make my fishing into a paying gig, and guiding turned rods into the tools they were likely always intended to be. I suddenly cared less for nickel silver and more for something with a good warranty, something of utilitarian dimension and universal castability. But there was more to it too: I suddenly cared more than ever for the eye-candy potential of my tackle. I was bitterly convinced, as I am still, that a guy with a string of $800 rods in his boat instills some boughten confidence in his clients that he didn’t earn. So I purchased some third-party faith in my abilities, used up a stable of rods in the way only a guide can, and sold just enough of my soul in doing so to feel a little guilty. In the end they were still great rods, despite their dubious purpose.
Sadly, I no longer fish the way I used to. I still take out the odd weekend client, and I’m still vain enough to care about the impression I make when I string up what I string up for a day on the water. But a few days back I went fishing for myself, and I pulled out the Far & Fine for obvious reason. I hadn’t fished it in good long time, and I tailed my first few loops like a rank amateur, and embarrassed myself though I was all alone. It was so much softer than I remembered, so much less forgiving of the slop I’ve allowed myself with age. I made a rat’s nest of the leader, and sat down to re-tie, and I held that old rod in my lap. It was beautiful, as it has always been, and I looked at it lovingly there in the summer sunlight, and remembered a long ago Christmas. So too I remembered a father who loved me, and a good life salted with more trout and bass and salmon than I’ve deserved, and what I hope to be a bunch of good years ahead. Then I blew the fly dry, picked up the rod, and went fishing.
It came back piecemeal with a muscle-memory re-education, but I slowed down and trusted what I’d learned long ago. I let that rod do its job, bending fully without too much help, sending line into the future and the past. To say it was peaceful would do it no justice, but when the last loop went out and the fly settled, all was right with the world. And when a good trout ate dry in the stillwater pond, I felt all the magic return, thrumming right through the water to bend aging graphite beneath my hand.
It’s funny how sometimes the good things remind us of what we love and why, despite our best efforts to muddy the waters.