Updated: Nov 13, 2020
About the same time that COVID shut down the orchestra and confined me to quarters, I stopped watching TV. Something I learned as personnel manager of a small orchestra was that the same thing was going to happen whether or not I freaked out about it, and the TV news was not helping me not freak out. Neither news of the pandemic nor coverage of the impending election were helpful, so I retreated to YouTube videos by machinists and creators of things. Which I found informative and relaxing until the ads on YouTube turned almost entirely political. I almost wish I were cynical enough to find politics entertaining. A voting population that is almost exactly divided, each half thinking that the truth is obvious and the other half must be mentally defective, has got to be funny on some level but I’m just not getting it.
Ads on YouTube are fine, at least conceptually; even if they chop a video up a bit they’ve created an economy that supports a number of bright, gifted people. No doubt it supports some creeps too but at least there’s a bright side. I was absolutely engrossed by Clickpring’s series on recreating the Antikythera Mechanism using mostly technology available to the ancient Greeks. And although Adam Savage isn’t a machinist you’d want to copy, his goofy enthusiasm and knack for making something that works using whatever skill he has keeps me coming back. There is, after all, more than one way to skin a cat, and it’s good to see that proven once in a while. Also, there were some things I needed to learn, like how to set the hook timing on an industrial sewing machine, and, lo and behold, there is a chap named Uwe Grosse who has made a series of videos, beautifully shot and streamlined, that reveal the logic behind a mechanism that to me is what YouTuber AvE refers to as JFM (Just F***ing Magic).
But the political ads went from alarming to downright insulting, and a week or so ago I swore off screens big and small and turned exclusively to books. What to read? My copy of The Authoritarian Personality remained dusty; the idea was to escape, not wallow. If I still lived out West an extended fishing/camping trip would have been perfect, so I started re-reading books by fly fishing author John Gierach. More than 30 years ago, I read Trout Bum, his first mainstream book, as soon as it hit the shelves. My copy is a first edition, first printing, which didn’t seem important until I lent it to a friend whose 3-year-old scribbled all over its pages. Oh, well, I wasn’t going to sell it anyway, I can read through the scribbles, and they are a good reminder: first, what something is worth “on paper” is just that. Second, if you actually care about something, don’t lend it to a guy with a 3-year-old.
I was an apartment-dwelling graduate student at the University of Northern Colorado and already fly-fishing when I read Trout Bum. Gierach lived less than an hour away in Lyons, which meant that I knew the water he wrote about, more or less, and that when he wrote about Lyons bamboo rodbuilder Mike Clark there was nothing stopping me from walking into Mike’s shop on Lyons’s short Main Street, South Creek, Ltd., and seeing just what went into one. There wasn’t much I could do about rod building in my apartment, but Trout Bum planted the seed that sprouted a few years later when, at the beginning of my second season as principal clarinet of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, management called a meeting to say that the orchestra had run out of money and the next paycheck wasn’t coming. “What are you gonna do?” was a common question. I said I was going to build bamboo fly rods.
We’re going to gloss over the NMSO’s circling-the-drain years here, which, oddly, don’t seem so bad now, although I remember being stressed. The years since have taught me that there are worse things than being broke, although it’s easy to forget that when you’re broke. The orchestra dribbled out partial paychecks, but the unpaid balance would accrue. The board and management continued to hold an annual wine auction in Santa Fe to raise money. There was an “NMSO” wine that was sold at the auction — something decent, a relabeled Robert Mondavi or Charles Krug — and when they got stuck with a surplus one year it was made known that we musicians could take back salary owed to us in wine. I think we polished off that surplus pretty quickly.
Anyway, I fished a lot. The Rio Grande through Albuquerque was too warm and dirty for trout, but the Upper Rio Grande wasn’t far away. The canyon stretches were satisfying in that the harder you were willing to hike and the more risks you were willing to take, the better the fishing was. And there were lots of other streams in the northern part of the state that were accessible but that practically nobody fished because the fish were small. I joined the mob fishing for enormous trout on the San Juan River’s Navajo Dam tailwater a couple of times, and even caught some (especially the time I went at night), but the smaller fish/fewer fishermen end of the scale has always suited me better. Actually, bigger fish/fewer fishermen is what we’re all after, but you choose among the available choices.
And, I learned to build bamboo fly rods — established a small regional reputation for it and kept the bills paid, more or less. And learned to crunch numbers; I had a spreadsheet that included every conceivable income stream and every expense for the next 12 months so that when a paycheck came in at 50% or the Cutlass blew its transmission I could see how that affected my glide slope and how many rods I had to sell to take up the slack. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Early in my rodbuilding career, I went fishing with John Gierach. I’d met him a couple of times back when I was hanging around in Mike Clark’s shop, and he’d given me his card. I had sold a few rods by this point, and he was always curious about a new rodbuilder. We agreed that we should go fishing sometime, and met at his house, which was behind the gas station on the right as soon as you come into town. Right across the highway from the St. Vrain. We cast a few rods on his “lawn” before heading to the river. I’d brought four or five rods, each of which, considering that I had sold anything that was good enough to sell in order to pay my mortgage, came with an apology of some kind. One of the rods that wasn’t good enough to sell was my very first rod, which I had finished with an orange shellac French polish because I hadn’t yet built a varnish dip tank, and wrapped with bright green silk because that’s what I had. “It’s pretty ugly,” I warned John as I slid the rod out of its tube.
He cast it a bit and cocked his head slightly, “I wouldn’t call it ugly,” he said.
“But it could be prettier.”
We fished the St. Vrain, of course. I was nervous; I didn’t want to recognize myself someday in “the literature” as the nameless rodbuilder who had somehow managed to attract a clientele without knowing his ass from a hole in the ground when it came to fishing. I enjoyed the conversation, we both caught a few fish, and that was that. If John thought I was a clueless poser he didn’t show it (or write about it), which I guess is what manners are all about.
I would still be a “serious” fly-fisherman if it weren’t for where I live. When first plunked down in Western Pennsylvania by my occupation, I had no time to fish. it was my chance to play in the big leagues and I was serious about it. Then, a couple of years later, I discovered that I was allergic to poison ivy. My skin would puff up like fried pork rind. Blisters the size of marbles that bred blisters the size of golf balls. Agony. It only took a few exposures to realize that nothing short of a human life was worth that. And if we’re bargaining, exactly WHICH human life are we talking about?
For a few years, I got my fishing fix while playing the Crested Butte Music Festival in June and July. From there I would head to Missoula, MT, where my mom was Dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Montana and I had ready access to Rock Creek and the Bitterroot and the Clark Fork and various tributaries, an embarrassment of riches. From there I might drive to Oregon, passing through lots more great fishing. But there was a change of regime at the festival, my mom retired and moved back to Greeley, and in 2012 I started working steadily with the Pittsburgh Symphony, which reduced my time off and moved it to August, when the St. Vrain was usually too low and warm to fish.
Interesting, how something that used to occupy a fairly large slice of life has shrunk, although that just means other slices expanded so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reading Gierach now, I miss the St. Vrain, and the Thompson, and the Poudre, and the Frying Pan. I miss camping in the Red Feathers area with my friend Barry and eating fresh-fried Brookies like corn on the cob. I miss the afternoons spent with my friend Dale taking turns working up a private stretch of a small stream with deep holes and good-sized, uneducated fish. We called the spot “Cows Not Mine,” after the sign by the road, hand-painted in red spray paint on a sheet of plywood. The road was frequented both by open range cattle and by tourists who weren’t used to that sort of thing, and the owner was sick of people knocking on his door to tell him his cows were loose.
I’m going to say it’s been eight years since I’ve fly-fished. After my mom moved back to Colorado from Montana I used to splurge for an out-of-state license when I visited in August and fish the too-low St. Vrain for old times’ sake, maybe take a day and drive up to Wyoming and fish the North Platte. After a few years there came a point where loading the two big duffle bags and the bundle of rod cases into the car for the trip went from being automatic to too much trouble for the little bit of fishing I’d do, and there was an audition for which I was preparing. Yes, there are trout to be caught not too far from where I live in Pennsylvania. Any number of times I have looked down from bridges and thought, “That’s good-looking water.” But every time I have looked more carefully, there is the effusion of poison ivy. And I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not the stuff you see that gets you, it’s the stuff you don’t.
Roughly 75 to 85 percent of humans are allergic to poison ivy, or, more specifically, urushiol, a mixture of organic compounds found in several plants, including the obvious ones with the word “poison” in their names but also the mango tree and the Chinese lacquer tree. The doctor who prescribed the heavy dose of steroids for my first reaction happened to collect fountain pens, and told me that some people react to the very expensive Japanese pens that use traditional urushi lacquer. When the sap of the lacquer tree is exposed to oxygen and moisture the urushiol polymerizes and becomes hard, black, and shiny, and the chemistry changes enough that only highly allergic people react to it.
10 to 15 percent of those who react to urushiol are highly allergic. So there’s a spectrum, and unless you’ve watched your own skin slowly boil you might not be able to relate. Like the friend who said, “I’m allergic to cats too, but I got used to it.” Implying that my problem was not biological so much as emotional — if I loved cats enough I’d do whatever it took. To which I replied, “You’re not really allergic to cats.” I’ve had Pennsylvania fly fishermen say similar things; being unwilling to spend the summer either in torment or on steroids merely shows a lack of commitment. Whatever. When I lived out West I used to read Harry Middleton’s accounts of fishing for trout in the Smoky Mountains with pleasure, if not actual envy. Now that I live close enough to see what he was talking about, I know that he was not allergic to poison ivy.
Wikipedia says that poison ivy (or, at least, poison something) is evenly distributed throughout the United States, but for some reason I spent a great deal of time in contact with undergrowth in the Northwest without encountering it. Also Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and New Mexico. Maybe there were fewer plants in the semiarid climates. Or maybe the allergy just kicked off once I was exposed enough and that just happened to occur here in Pennsylvania.
Where were we?
Right, fly-fishing. For the past eight or ten years it’s sat in the crease between requiring a “not right now” allocation of resources and “you could do it if you really wanted to,” which applies to just about anything, as in the old saying that you can have anything you want, just not everything you want. For now, fly-fishing has taken a back seat. But, re-reading The View From Rat Lake, and Even Brook Tout Get the Blues, and Standing in the Water Waving a Stick, I’m thinking that maybe I can — or should — make it happen. Someday.
If it weren’t for poison ivy it would have happened already. Although in that case I probably wouldn’t have had time to make pipes, probably would have gotten back into rod building, who knows. And as much misery as it has caused me, there’s no use bitching about poison ivy, it just is.
Kind of like politics.