Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Life Encountered

The idea for this collection of obscure thoughts and trivial observations from the mud began in early 2010. I was in one of those transitional places that life puts us in and desperate to find something my mind could focus on that didn’t involve lawyers or money. So I bought a ninety-nine cent notebook at Target and started putting words in it.  It took three years of thinking about it, reading every fly fishing blog I could find, blind writing exercises and lots of pages from that notebook being ripped out and thrown away before finding the courage to hit the publish button the first time.

I found a few surviving pages from that first notebook this morning filed away in an old folder in the back of my desk at the office. I had been looking for them since teaching a fly tying class over the winter and talking about a very simple fly that had been shown to me by an older gentleman nine years ago. My encounter with him was brief and random but became part of the underpinning of whatever this thing has become.

It was a Friday night and I had been on a job site in Boston all day. Knowing beforehand that I’d be coming out of the city late in the day and not wanting to sit in Cape traffic on Route 3 I had thrown my gear in the truck with the plan of stopping off in Weymouth and fishing one of my old haunts. It wasn’t until I got there and reached in the back for my waders that I realized they were still sitting in the driveway at home. I knew the water was a little too cool to comfortably wet wade but the sun was still up and the air was warm. So I changed into a pair of shorts I had remembered, laced the Timberland’s back up, walked into the water and started casting.

I was a few fish into the evening when the sun fell from the sky and the air cooled as it met the water. I started to shiver a little and stood there for a few moments watching the skyline of downtown Boston start to light up. That’s when I saw him, off to my right fitted out in hip waders, a flannel shirt and one of those old caps that train engineers used to wear. I walked out of the water, sat on a rock where I had left my gear bag and a jacket and tried to warm up as the old timer hooked up on nearly every cast. He was smoking a cigar as he fished and its sweet smell washed over me bringing back memories of watching Pudge and Yaz from the bleacher seats at Fenway.

I was thinking about heading for home when he looked back, walked out of the water, stopped in front of me and introduced himself as, “Name’s O’Reilly.”

“You lasted longer than I thought you would.”

I laughed and said, “Yeah, I forgot my waders in the driveway this morning. I’m an idiot.”

He took a puff off what was left of the cigar, looked back at the city skyline and said, “Doesn’t make you an idiot. I forget things every day.”

He leaned his rod up against a boulder and sat down on a rock next to me. There was enough light left that I could see it was an old Fenwick rigged with a Pflueger. I liked him immediately. We talked for about twenty minutes…about striped bass in the seventies, the crash of the population and how it had come back, his twenty year hitch in the Navy and how much the world had changed in his seventy-four years.  He pointed to the lights of Boston with the cigar in his hand.

“Life used to be simple but the world got real complicated, real fast. It all goes too fast, no one slows down anymore.”

I nodded in agreement and we sat in silence.

Taking the last puff on his cigar he looked at me and said, “Life is like this cigar, at first you think it’ll last for a long time, you can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, watch it burn to the very end and then linger in the smoke until it disappears. And then it’s all gone.”

He turned away, looked toward Boston again and quietly said, “I’m in the smoke now.”

He sighed, turned back toward me and reached into his shirt pocket and brought out something rolled up in aluminum foil. I thought it would be another cigar as he unrolled the foil but it turned out to be four flies about five inches long. He held one up, just a simple reverse tied bucktail with some flash in the core, and then handed them all to me.

He pointed at my rod and said, “I don’t know what you’re using, but this is the only fly I ever use. It’s what has worked for me all these years. You take ‘em, kid, I don’t think I’ll be needing them anymore.”

He stood up and pointed to a man not much older than me standing under the trees behind us and said, “Guess it’s time to go. That’s my boy, keeping an eye on me like his mother used to. Used to be I took him to the playground on Friday night, now he brings me out to play.”

I walked back to the parking lot with them and shook hands with my new friend as his son helped him into the car. He broke down the rod and as he put it in the trunk he explained his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and that while the days were the hardest, his dad seemed to have more clarity in the evening hours so on good days they would come out to make a few casts. I shook his hand and he thanked me for spending a few minutes with his dad on what was probably his last time out fishing.

I’ve forgotten the fish that I caught that night but I’ll never forget Mr. O’Reilly. I fished those flies he gave me all that season. They caught just as well as other flies I used but a fish on those flies had more meaning. I still build a few of them every season and think of him every time I tie one on to the leader.

The smoke may be gone but the story lives.

From the early pages
15 May 2019

Friday, May 3, 2019


I walked to the water tonight to start the season. I stood in a light rain being driven into my face and studied the water. I had low expectations. The water temperature was still a little low, the sky had rained more often than not for what seemed like weeks leaving the water in front of me the color of iced tea and I had about an hour left of the incoming tide. Not the most favorable conditions but every season needs a starting point and all day long I had that gnawing feeling that if I didn’t go, I’d be missing something.

I paused at the water’s edge before stepping in and watched the rain drops leave little marks on the surface before being almost instantly absorbed. Like the rain drops, this place has absorbed my history. I smiled in the irony. For twenty years I’ve come to this same spot for the first attempt at “getting on the board.” That first fish of the season, what we all think about during the off-season. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the experience that matters, the knowledge gained each time out, history written by volume of sought experience, not volume of created content.

Out of habit, one which I’m trying to break, I reached to my jacket pocket to make sure my phone was there.  In the back of my mind an argument began with the Id demanding that if a fish were to be caught that it be “photographed and immediately posted”, the Ego proclaiming “it’s just fishing” and the Super-ego chirping something about buying in and selling my soul.

It’s just fishing. I stepped into the water thinking about that as I threw line. In fly fishing we try to entice a fish, in this case a striped bass, to eat a cluster (sometimes a Cluster-F.*#) of natural or synthetic materials tied to a sharp piece of metal that we cast at speeds somewhere around 400 to 600 feet per second into water that can be moving, in this instance, about 4 miles per hour, on a planet that rotates on its axis at 1040 miles per hour while circling the sun at just under 67,000 miles per hour. On top of that, while fishing, we can upload images of our catches to social media from our phones nearly instantly at speeds measured by Mbps. I have no idea what that is but it sounds fast. I’m not smart enough to understand the physics of it all, it just seems clear that the world is already moving fast before we try to influence it.

As I continued to stare out at the water and work the rust out of my already marginal casting, I thought of a notable quote from F. Bueller, the preeminent American philosopher of the 1980’s:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

More looking around. Less uploading. Copy that, Ferris.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did go tight to the first stripe of the season and I did take a photo of it before I released it.

And I did post (upload) it as a voice in my head chirped something about buying in and selling out.

From the water
28 April 2019

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


The day was just beginning around me; those few moments that are the best of the day because in the back of your mind, despite what you hope for and what you do to try to advert it, you know it’s probably not going to get any better. I pulled the phone out of my sling and turned it off, a defiant act consciously made in the desire to extend the perfection of the morning just a little longer.

From my perch in a rock garden above a small flat I could see clearly across the Caribbean blue-green sandy bottom in front of me. A bluebird sky above wrapping itself around a rising sun, the water remarkably calm and just enough movement in the air for the smell of the salt and the water to physically brush past my face. In my mind all I could hear was the Piano Exit to Layla. I didn’t just hear it, I felt it.

In the water the bass had pushed one of the largest schools of bait I’d seen in a long time up into the rocks and were gorging themselves on sand eels and silversides. I just stood there, rod in hand, and watched mesmerized in the knowledge that this has been going on far longer than we’ve tried to control the world around us and hoping that it will continue long after we’re gone. I watched as the stripers seemingly worked together to hold the school of bait against the rocks while they all fed. Just back from the flat where the bright blue water turned to a dark green the heads of two seals bobbed along obvious in their attempts to dart in and pick off the bass at the back of the pack. I wondered if farther out behind the seals there were sharks biding their time to take a run at them.

It was a thing of beauty watching the natural order of things play out in front of me. The struggle of each party intrigued me, the bait schooling and moving as one to prevent their demise, the bass doing much the same to both feed and elude the seals behind them. I watched the bass as they corralled and penned the bait and marveled in the idea that they were working together. I remember a time when I thought, perhaps naively, that we, the human race, worked in the same way. I lost myself in that thought for a few minutes. When I looked back in the water, clouds had moved in and just as sudden as it had started, it was over.

I stood there for a few more minutes wondering if I should move on to find more fish or call it a day. I turned to walk back up the beach and stopped to pick up a few remnants of consumerism force fed to us by talking heads, hash tags and influencers; a crushed beer can, a fancy sneaker and a Starbucks mega sized plastic cup. For all that we have gained, I wondered, what have we lost. It’s tragic; something within our grasp yet it’s slipping away.

Don’t let it slip away.

South River, MA
13 February 2019

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Shed

We fell in love with our house the first we time we walked into it with our realtor. It had everything we were looking for but there were two “OMFG” items that sold it to us: the kitchen and the shed. The kitchen might be a story for another time. This one starts with the shed.

We opened the door to the shed that day and gave each other the “we could just live out here” look. I thought about moving my fly tying into it. Jill thought about moving her art and woodworking into it. Possibilities began to outgrow the available space. As the dust settled from the move and the volume of power tools we each brought into the relationship and into the shed increased it was clear what should go where. So I set up a work space using a couple of tables on one wall so that she could get going on Jill Mason Art and Photography. 

As we have bounced around the last few years fishing, going to places old and new and taking the occasional “Mike Rice Field Trip” (drive/hike/paddle until you get somewhere that looks cool on a tank of gas and scrounged beer money) the cameras and the notebooks have gone with us capturing images and words of what speaks to us in the heart of a moment, a first look on the approach, something unexpected or in the details of a memory.

In our travels we started talking about combining our pursuits outside the nine-to-five; fly fishing, photography, her artwork and my ramblings in the written word into something that we could do together for no other reason than it’s what we do. These conversations became repetitious and centered on being on the water and in the sun, finding the emotive and unvarnished rather than analytical and manufactured stories and images of people and places outside of the noise and away from the mainstream, regardless of social media metrics.

During a “field trip” last fall to a quiet little bar on Cape Cod we tossed around the idea of a space online where we could combine all of what we do into a format that would interest us and that might interest people like us. After the unpopular discussion of how to do this in between paychecks and tuition bills we agreed there is no good time to start and no reason not to. I opened my notebook and stared into the mirror behind the bar. “Maybe you should have a whiskey,” she said. That’s what started it. From there the rough plans for “Sand, Light and Water” were drawn.

Over the last few weeks I’ve built out the shed to create a work space for both of us. When I started I saw it as a blank page, a new chapter and endless possibility. 

I was reminded of other “work spaces”. The “Tin Shed” where Chouinard started forging climbing gear, the “Hell House” where Lynyrd Skynrd wrote their first two albums and the garage in which Scott Hunter started sewing Vedavoo Gear. I am in no way comparing us to any of them; each has inspired me over the years and is part of the “soundtrack” of my life. All of them took who they were, what they had, found a place and created something with gritty passion. 

That is what we are going to do.

The keel has been laid and the hull is almost done.

We’ve still got some work to do. 

When we launch, we hope you’ll tag along.

The Shed
South River, MA
16 January 2019

Monday, December 17, 2018


I followed Matt out of town along Route 30 toward Dorset. Crammed into his rig along with fly rods, wading gear and fly boxes were his wife Amanda, and his sons, Cam and Jonah. We had no clear destination, just some mumbled words from the bar the night before about "...follow the road and you'll see water."

We had been in Manchester, VT at the American Museum of Fly Fishing for the weekend to attend the opening of the "On Fly in the Salt" exhibit and to participate in the annual Fly-Fishing Festival. Saturday night had turned into Sunday morning faster than I had anticipated after finishing a second bottle of Pinot while telling fishing and non-fishing stories with my buddy Alex. Thankfully, as is the case with most New England towns, Dunkin was there and a large regular and an Old Fashioned had muffled the sound of the windshield wipers and brought me back to life. It wasn't raining so much as the air was just saturated with water. But it was August and there was no reason not to go for a walk in the woods in the rain
Matt pulled off onto a side road and crept along as we passed over a small stream almost visible through the branches and leaves from the bridge above. We found parking in a clearing just past the stream and I savored the last of my coffee as he geared his family up. He went about rigging rods with flies I could barely see and gave tips to the boys as they forced wading boots on over neoprene socks, his words and tones seemingly dwarfed by the size of the flies he was tying to leaders. I wondered if he was reliving a similar moment with his father as I recalled my own quietly telling me to load my rifle and what to look for as we prepared to enter the woods next to the upper field at the farm. History repeating; different, but the same.
Gearing up.

I had opted not to fish, choosing instead to bring the camera and notebook along. I was looking forward to traipsing around the woods and exploring a new place. It had been a long time since I had followed a stream through the woods. After two decades of walking beaches, sand flats and muddy salt creeks, the art of silently and gracefully walking through understory and windthrow that was once second nature seemed foreign. Stepping into the trees was like stepping back in time, old instincts and reflexes returned without a thought. We made our way down a short ridgeline through broadleaf's and evergreens to a "flat" of sorts, blanketed with ferns and woody shrubs. The gray light penetrating the canopy above cast a metallic-green glow through the air around us and the drops of water falling off the leaves and branches reminding me of bioluminescent phytoplankton in the wake of ships at sea.

Standing at the edge of the stream, Matt had a few words with the boys and then watched them as they headed upstream on their own. The look on his face as they walked off on their own was one of pride and confidence. This was one of the moments I was fishing for that day, watching my friend, as a father, impart some of what he had been taught and learned on his own to his sons and observe history being passed on and made in the same heartbeat.

Matt and Amanda crossed to the far side of the stream and began making their way down to a deep hole in the elbow of a dogleg. I dropped down the other side trying to avoid getting too close to the stream bank and found a small clearing below where I watched Matt pointing out pieces of water and quietly explaining to Amanda what he was seeing.
Matt & Amanda Smythe
This was another moment I had wanted to see. Amanda had just started fly fishing earlier in the year and while this outing was just part of the beginning of her fishing experience, it was becoming part of their history together. I knew what that meant to them both.

They started casting into the hole and working the water around it making rod length casts and mending their lines in the current. I watched mesmerized by the delicacy and precision of their movements laughing to myself in the knowledge that later in the day I would be back in the marsh throwing eighty foot casts into the river with no concern or regard for anything other than getting the line out there believing all the while that I was being delicately precise in my delivery.
Matt & Amanda Smythe

It wasn't long before we heard Jonah shout from upstream. Matt and I made our way to him where he was beaming with a brookie at the end of his line. I looked around the water Jonah had been fishing, no more than ten or twelve inches deep and maybe six feet between the banks. I'm not a trout fisherman so the idea that he had caught a fish in that water was impressive to me. More so was his concern about releasing the fish without injuring it and the maturity he showed about the whole thing. Jonah just quietly told his father he needed help getting the fly out, which Matt did quickly, made up his rod and with a pat on the head took off to his next spot. The look on Matt's face? Pride and confidence.
Jonah's brookie
I decided to follow the boys from there and would circle around them, back and forth, along the stream watching them not only fish but as they would pause every few minutes to look around where they were, standing silent and seem to ponder it all. They continued separately up the stream bed around obstacles and through overgrowth, naturally moving with the innate and acquired skills of woodsmen. In a world where it seems most people, not just kids their ages, are physically and emotionally dependent on some sort of electrical device to navigate their way through an increasingly digital life it was refreshing to see these two boys make their way toward whatever was ahead and yet to be seen,  fully aware of, and engaged with, the natural world around them.

Jonah Smythe
I even found myself standing silent, immersed in both the mortality and immortality of where we were and what we were doing. Sitting on a boulder at the edge of the stream and watching Cam studying the water in front of him I was reminded of a poem his father had written. Some of the words washed through me and circled my mind like the water flowing over and around the rocks at my feet.

"I run solo but I'm not alone.

It's in my blood. My Blackfoot ancestry. I feel them running with me and the hair on my neck and forearms stands on end. I hear them in the wind off the lake and in the song of leafed branches overhead.

I was given endurance and two legs that respond when I say go.

I was not given excuses.

I run because I can and carry everything on these two feet and shoulders, until I carry nothing."

I don't think he knew I was there but if he had asked me what I was doing, I would have told him I was watching the poet's son living the poet's words.

Cam Smythe
The title of the poem is "Give Me Trails." Matt and his friends Denver Miller and J.R. Kraus put the poetry to film. You can watch it and hear it in Matt's voice HERE.

Eventually we regrouped and made our way back up the ridge to the clearing. We packed up, said our good-byes and began the trek back to our lives.

We came together to celebrate the history held by the American Museum of Fly Fishing. On our walk in the woods, I hope we made some, and found some, of our own.

Manchester, VT
12 August 2018