On New Tackle

I shudder to my core when I see what some anglers spend on flyfishing tackle. I wouldn’t say that I’m envious of their gear; I am genuinely incredulous at what they paid to acquire it and of its superior quality and workmanship, but I’m not envious of it.  

I’m not even sure that ‘tackle‘ is the right word. ‘Equipment‘ sounds a little better but still doesn’t do this sort of kit the justice that it deserves. It’s like calling a Van Gogh a ‘picture‘. The eLotheni a ‘river‘. Charlize Theron a ‘chick‘, and so forth. There’s probably a suitable noun and a few adjectives available to name and describe this sort of kit, but none that I know adequately do the job.  

I’m a simple man of modest means. I know not the feel of a truly fine rod or reel in my rough, artisan-like hands. Most of what I take to the stream I’ve made myself or I’ve repurposed from something else. The remainder of my kit has come my way from the bags, boxes and garages of friends by means of a neatly tailor-made long-term lending scheme. (That these friends are not always aware of the existance of the scheme or even to whom their kit has been lended is a matter between me and my conscience and your mother cautioned you not to be judgmental.) 

I recently bought a nice new rod. Most flyfishers I know say this at least once a year but I, in glaring contrast, have been fishing the same stick for almost ten years now. I have to tell you though, this new rod is quite something. 

It’s fast, light and delicate but can lift a long line neatly from the meniscus and drop a fly delicately onto a predetermined speck of water somewhere in the middle distance. It is fast and sweet and true. It is fast and is made of materials and to tolerances that were previously reserved for the manufacture of deep space telescopes. It is fast and it is fantastic. It is a monumental convergence of art and technology and it represents the pinnacle of the triumph of human endeavors. 

This new rod of mine is well made. Ridiculously well made. It is made to a standard that would make the most anal retentive master craftsman blush in shame in its presence. There is not a wrap of thread or a micron of varnish that is not exactly, microscopically the same as the ones around it. I often lie awake in bed at night ashamed at the number of Spanish cork oaks that had to needlessly perish in order to get enough perfect, blemish free material to make that one grip, and for my part in fueling the industry that led to their wasteful demise. 

This is a great rod. A fast, delicate masterpiece of a rod. 

And I hate it. 

Every cast is an anxious nightmare, every mend is a chore and I genuinely live in fear of it. How I’ve escaped serious injury with it in hand is more a testament to some form of divine protection of my mortal soul than than it is to my fumbling skill set. 

How fast is it exactly? This demonic pole is so fast that I’ve felt the hook penetrate the flesh of the back of my neck on the return cast before I’ve fully completed snapping my eyelids shut to avoid the fly being embedded in them on my initial back cast. What the hell do you need a rod that fast for? Seriously. This thing is as rigid as a sixteen year old on a nudist beach. 

Delicate? I don’t really do delicate. I’m the guy sticking his spurs into the ribs of the bull in the china shop. As for the need for distance casting, I haven’t made a cast longer than ten meters in several seasons. (In fairness, this has more to do with compensating for my failing middle-aged eyesight and my recent propensity to be looking two or three meters distant from where my quarry has neatly spat out my dry than it has to do with any tactical advantage that I might gain from it.) 

I like my old stick. That thing is as forgiving as a favorite grandparent. It’s just a good, honest working man’s fly rod. It reacts to my overhead ministrations at an unhurried pace as it and I slowly amble up brisk mountain streams, picking her pockets as we go. 

I feel compelled to describe what makes this old piece of unpedigreed graphite so special, but it isn’t easy to put into words. I think that what separates her from my newer, satanic stick is that she’s got a ‘feel’; a lightness of touch that is hard to explain. 

‘Feel’ and ‘lightness of touch’ are an important quality in both a rod and an angler. I have a mate (who sadly I lost contact with after he travelled overseas, went out for a drink and was never heard of again) who possessed a singular lack of feel or deftness of touch. His hands were like granite and his senses were dull. He came to visit me one vacation while I was living in Dwesa Nature Nature Reserve on the Transkei Wild Coast. 

While the episode that I relate does not involve the casting of a fly line the general principles of angling are, as I’m sure you agree, universal. 

This buddy of mine modelled himself as something of an outdoorsman and looked more than a little upset when I handed him, on his arrival, a rod and asked him whether he could cast a Penn 49. By way of compensation for the unintended slight I led him to my favorite and most productive spot. 

Cast one landed on the rocks at his feet with a sound not unlike what I would imagine a lollipop being swiftly removed from a frog’s arse would sound like. (A sort of tight sucking sound followed by a loud slapping noise.) Nonchalantly wiping the smear of atomized sardine fillet from his spectacles he took some time to compose himself.  I stood paralized in silent laughter and bit back the temptation to offer him an Afro comb to undo what was an over wind the likes of which were last seen when the Gordian knot was tied. 

Cast two followed cast one in general trajectory but was fortunately a yard or two ahead of his standing position. It slipped over the ledge and into the rip below. 

I watched his bait slide slowly underwater perhaps a yard off the ledge and as he seemed inclined to just leave it there I said nothing. A short while later I noticed that his bait had been dragged a little further offshore. I then observed that it was being dragged parallel to the shore, offshore and back in again. 

“Strike”

“Huh?”

“STRIKE!”

As he raised his rod tip sheer, unadulterated hell and anarchy broke loose in a symphony of swearing and screaming reels and shouting and instructions and swearing. There is nothing that a five kilogram kob likes less than being furiously wound up a jagged, barnacled rock face (other than being furiously wound up a jagged, barnacled rock face without the opportunity to at least put up a good account of itself). 

Our hysterical cries of “The gaff! The gaff!” fell on deaf ears and the fish, brain in turmoil trying to work out what the hell was going on, made its tethered way up the ledge, over various sharp edges capable of severing a shad trace and, a wee bit later, onto my dinner plate displayed nicely next to a lemon wedge.

I may be belaboring the point, and I suppose that it goes to show that feel isn’t the most important quality for an angler provided that he also has a more than ordinary amount of luck, but it’s something that I look for in a light fly rod. 

My faithful old stick is not too delicate either. She has handled almost a decade of her reel seat being used as a bottle opener without showing much more than a scratch. Screw titanium, it’s good old fashioned cast iron that you’re after. (It’s a neat trick, this opening of beer bottles with your reel seat. Pop by anytime with a case of imports and I’ll teach you.)

It is a peculiarity of a bygone era that we bond with our tools and possessions; that we would favour them above those which are newer and ‘better’ and more handsome. We forgive them their minor inadequacies and compensate for their poor sense of fashion and frustrating old world eccentricities. 

That old rod presented the fly onto the Little Mooi that landed me my first wild brown. She is the only witness to a 22 inch fish on a piece of the Mooi that you wouldn’t believe holds anything bigger than 12 inches of stippled beauty. She is an extension of myself and a part of my soul. 

I once read that you don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. 

I get that. 

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