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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Barstander


“Never sit at a table when you can stand at the bar.”

It’s my favorite Hemingway quote and something of a way of life since I first heard it while tending bar thirty years ago. It’s been my experience that nearly everyone passes by the bar on their way to a table. Some just walk through, some stay for a drink and some never leave. The bar is where introductions are made, business is done and friendships grow in the lies of the last round and the truth of the next. Painted in the dim light and white noise of the room, experience passes as wisdom and stories told quietly fade to obscurity or become legend. Much like an estuary the bar serves as a transition zone between environments creating a unique, sometimes primordial, habitat that brims with life of all kinds. If the table is the river proper or the open ocean, the bar is the backwater.

A few weeks ago I was standing at the bar after the annual Bears Den Fly Fishing Show. Seated on one side of me were Bob Popovics and Dick Dennis joined by Scott Wessels and Bri; on the other were Jamie Boyle, Dave Skok, Jeff Iadonisi and Pat Cohen. Tom Harrison and Brian Lynch stood over my left shoulder and in the back were Ian Devlin, Mark Sedotti and Rob Lewis. To a person walking in with no knowledge of the fly fishing/fly tying world it would seem like just a group of friends meeting up on a Saturday night. For me, considering the sum of knowledge and experience the group collectively represented, it was a chocolate factory and I had a golden ticket.

I stood there in the middle listening to the conversations going on around me and imagined the scene at the Dingo or the Ritz Bar in Paris ninety years ago as the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Picasso, Pound and the other members of The Lost Generation rode a rainy Saturday night into Sunday morning. I was brought back to the present as I took the last sip of my beer and motioned to the bartender for another. When she set the beer in front of me a voice over my shoulder said, “Put that on my tab.”

The accent, considering my temporary mental visit to Paris, threw me for a second until I realized it was Neville. I turned and said, “Thank you, but you don’t have to do that.”

He grabbed me in a hug and said, “We’re fly fishermen. We’re brothers. Tonight, we drink together!”

Neville Orsmond is the owner and CEO of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods. I had spoken with him briefly a few times but had never had the opportunity for one on one conversation with him. I’ve read a few articles about Neville, how he came to buy the company and the work he has put into bringing the T & T name back to the forefront of the fly rod industry.  I was curious what would compel someone who had little to no experience in the business end of the fly fishing industry to buy a struggling company in a segment of the industry as tough as the rod market is.

So that was my first question. His answer was immediate and delivered with no pause or further explanation.

“Because I’m a fly fisherman.”

I asked more questions and Neville told me of his childhood in South Africa. He learned to fly fish with bamboo rods and as he developed as a fly fisherman he revered T & T rods as the best not only for their performance but more so for the quality and craftsmanship. As time went on he found himself in the New York area working in a job that provided a living for he and his family but left him feeling a little empty. The upside was that there was a lot of fishing to be found close to where he was living and he was able to take advantage of it.

In 2013, frustrated with customer service, Neville made a trip to the T & T facility to place an order in person for more rods to add to his collection. While he was there he learned that the company was near bankruptcy and that the ownership wanted to sell the company rather than try to keep the brand alive. “All I could think about after leaving that day was that I could not let the tradition that is T & T just disappear and be forgotten.” Seven months of round-the-clock work later he became the new owner and CEO of the company.

For nearly an hour we talked about the challenges he faced, and still faces every day, taking over the company. The infrastructure and equipment needed serious updating, the brand had to be re-energized and customer trust had to be renewed. Most importantly the faith of the entire T & T team in the new leadership had to be earned. That’s the thing that struck me the most about our conversation. Neville has absolute admiration and respect for his team, many of whom helped build the company to what it originally was, and for what they do.

“We’re all fly fishermen,” he said. “That’s what made this company great once and that’s what is making it great again. Not me, it’s our people.”

He went on, “Every rod ever made by T & T has been made here in America. Each rod is handcrafted one at a time. Our rods are more expensive but when one goes out the door to a customer, it already has a soul. That’s not production, it’s craftsmanship. No other rod company does what we do.”

In addition to rebuilding the production and business end of things, Neville knew he had to rebuild the T & T brand and customer relationships. Tom Dorsey, one of the original T’s in T & T is back helping with design and development. Neville sees this as a connection to the company’s traditions of the past that the older generation of fly fishermen remember.

To introduce the younger generation to T & T Neville relies on his Advisors and Ambassadors to help spread the word and showcase T & T products in different fisheries and environments. “We have advisors like Jako Lucas, Keith Rose-Inness and Rebekka Redd who are able to travel the world and showcase and test our rods in destination locations against big fish and extreme conditions.”

He went on to explain he understands that realistically the number of people who can travel to places like the Seychelles or Kiribati for GT’s or Mongolia for taimen make up a small percentage of the customer base. “Every customer is equally important to us. We’re making rods for the customer to trust and enjoy wherever they might be fishing, whether it’s a small stream next to their house or the flats of Cape Cod, we want each customer to be satisfied and confident with their rod.”

In addition to the Advisors and Ambassadors, Neville and his team also rely on a group of guides who are on the water every day to test, critique and advise on T & T products. “These guys know better than anybody what the rods need to do because they make their living using them.”  He pointed to Tom Harrison and Brian Lynch standing behind us and said, “Tom and his crew at Harrison Anglers and Brian fish clients all year long close to our plant. If they have a day off they’re usually out fishing themselves. We can’t ask for better product testing and feedback than that. And it’s in our own backyard.”

“We also rely on shops like the Bear’s Den,” he added pointing to Scott Wessels at the bar. “Scott knows every single rod on the market and is incredibly skilled at matching a customer to a rod. He also has the pulse of the industry…guys like him are an invaluable resource.”

The bartender brought another round. Neville looked around the bar, raised his glass and said, “It’s all about the people.”

Indeed it is. You’re one of the good ones, Neville.


Next time we’re standing at the bar, drinks are on me.



South River, MA

13 March 2017 


Monday, December 26, 2016

Auld Lang Syne

As the year winds down I'm looking at the pile of notes I've scribbled for blog posts not yet written, other writing projects half-finished, ideas and thoughts set aside for that block of free time that never seems to happen. The pen and the pad compete against the real job and nightly sessions at the vice, not to mention the constant monitoring of the fishing world construct on social media in the vain attempt to "keep up with the Jones's." Burning the candle at both ends takes a toll on productivity and creativity, not to mention relationships and the social life. Each year at this time I ponder the question of whether I should put aside the pursuit of these things in the backwater, step inside the fence line and just punch the time card and dance along with the herd. Usually this question gets deleted after the first sip of a tequila on New Year's Eve. And it will again a few nights from now I'm sure because I need open spaces and I don't dance.

This morning I looked through some images of the past fishing season. A few were taken by me but most of them were sent by folks who shared a moment in their own story that a fly I tied was a part of. I try to avoid pushing my fly business here but sometimes the flies are a part of what ends up in these pages. When I'm building a fly, I see it as a blank page or empty screen waiting to be filled by whoever is going to fish it. And selfishly I see each fly that goes out as a small piece of my own story. When someone sends back a photograph of a catch or a few words about a moment, my story is a little more complete.

So these images from 2016 will light the candle(s) for 2017. That said, I wish everyone reading this, a very happy New Year.



From Garrick Frost w/ Exuma bone

From Pete Nardini-surf rat striper

The Crew-American Museum of Fly Fishing Summer Fest

From Light-N-Fly Charters

From NantucketFishing.com-NC road trip

From NantucketFishing.com-Nantucket bonito


Team Dirtbag-2016 Cheeky Schoolie Tournament

From Chris Lydon-Nantucket albie

From Light-N-Fly Charters-stuffed albie

Max Ritchie-South Shore stripe
Max Ritchie-flats stripe

From Light-N-Fly Charters-Capt. Richard Armstrong of Bostonfishstix.com

From NantucketFishing.com

With Rich Walker & Tuck aka The Skiff Dog @ The Surf Bar, Folly Beach, SC

South River, MA
26 December 2016

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Water



Fifty one years ago it was raining on the day I was born. I’ve been drawn to water ever since. Brook, stream, pond, lake, river, ocean. I’ve swum them, paddled them, sailed them, climbed some when frozen and fished them. I’ve gone to the water at the highs, lows and idle times in my life. Water holds my memories. People come and go, jobs change, decisions alter courses…the water is always there.

So it’s no coincidence I’ve lived near the ocean since moving to Boston’s south shore nearly twenty years ago. We recently moved into our new home near the South River and within earshot of the waves crashing the beach out front. I spent the first nine years living in Marshfield fishing the South, the last seven on the North. Trying to work on the house knowing there are fish cruising the mud flats just a few hundred yards away has been tormenting.  

For over a month Jill and I have spent every spare minute unpacking, painting, fixing something old or building something new. With the number of “projects” getting smaller the decision to take a day and get on the water without feeling guilty is getting easier. Last night we made a plan, doubled up on coffee at first light this morning and headed for the South.
 
Photo: Jill Mason
We splashed the kayaks at the ramp and headed downriver riding the tail of the dropping tide. The river was covered in a thin fog but illuminated by the sun above it as if it were shining a light on both the past and present. 
 
Photo: Jill Mason
I made a few casts along the way but spent most of the paddle out reacquainting myself with the river and reading the subtle changes in her appearance as I would the face of a friend I hadn’t seen in several years.
 
Photo: Jill Mason
We made it to one of my favorite pieces of water just before slack tide and I threw a fly into one of my old go-to/sure-thing spots. The structure around it had been altered with time, tide and storms. It felt unfamiliar. After reading the changes in the sod bank and adjusting my cast the rod bowed to a South River schoolie. I’ve caught striped bass all over New England; schoolies in the South fight like they’re ten pounds heavier. It must be the water.


At slack tide we beached the kayaks and walked the flats back into the marsh. Thoughts of mornings spent there working with my dogs to sit-stay while I made cast after cast flooded my mind. We passed a small piece of water where my daughter, probably five years old at the time, reeled in a small striper I had hooked up. These events happened years ago but standing there I could still feel the moments of each.


We followed a small creek that holds water at low. It’s more like a ditch but there are a few deep holes that used to hold a fish or two. They still do. Each one that I tossed a fly into rewarded me with a tight line and bent rod.


Walking back to the kayaks, as the tide came rushing back in over the flats to cover the foot prints we left behind, I smiled knowing the water holds my memories.
 
Photo: Jill Mason
And the water is always there.


South River, MA
8 October 2016

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

the kid



The tide was coming in to meet me as I walked down the edge of the creek toward bigger water. The sun was still low with not a stir in the air giving good visibility into the water. A grass shrimp hatch was going off and periodically I could see schoolies rush the bank and pick off shrimp as the water flooded the grass roots. Watching this I clipped off the streamer on the seven-weight and tied on a Crazy Charlie.

My destination was a spit of mud that stuck out into the main body of the creek. From there I would be able to cover a great deal of grass line where three finger creeks entered the creek proper. Applying the adage, “Don’t drive past feeding fish”, I made a few casts along the bank in front of me as I walked and picked up a couple micro stripes. They were not big fish, the largest about fourteen inches, but these smaller fish tend to be violent and pissed off when they take a fly and fun to mess with.

I stood in my spot for a while mostly blind casting along the bank but managing to “sight-cast” to a handful of fish as they cruised along the edge. I saw a big push of fish go around the corner of the creek in front of me toward an area I knew held a deep hole. I had fished back in there in my boat on a flood tide once but had never been able to get to it on foot. I decided an expedition was in order and set off to find new water.

I back-tracked, hop-scotched mosquito ditches, made some not so graceful long-jumps in full waders and back-tracked some more. After a little more than an hour I found the hole I was looking for. I set up where I could make a long cast over the hole and retrieve back across it and over its edge into the ditch in front of me. I made a cast and stared out at the marsh in front of me and slowly stripped the fly.

My morning was disturbed as I saw a blue and white Atom Popper go sailing down the ditch landing right where I had just cast. I followed the line with my eyes back into the grass and saw a Texas Rangers ball cap about twenty feet to my right. I walked up to the hat and found a young boy underneath it sitting on the edge of the creek ripping that popper across the water like he was on Saturday morning television.

He looked up at me like I was the teacher who had just caught him smoking a Marlboro in the bathroom.

“I didn’t see you over here”, I said as a form of introduction.

He shrugged and told me he had watched me jumping around through the marsh and followed me because he figured I knew a good spot.

He stood up and said, “You know, it’s a lot easier getting out here if you just follow the line of trees back there and then walk out here in a straight line from that big rock, there’s only three ditches to jump over and one has a plank across it.”

“Thanks.” I replied. “I’ll have to keep that in mind on the way back.”

The kid made another cast and I looked at the tackle box next to him. “What else have you got in the box?” I asked. “That popper may be a little big for the stripes that are in that hole.”

“I haven’t fished for stripers much. I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

“They’re keyed up on all these little shrimp, you need something smaller.”

He opened the box and showed me a collection of top-waters, a bag of plastics and a few metal spoons. I picked out the smallest Kastmaster and said, “I’ve got an idea, if you’re cool with trying it I’ll bet we can get you hooked up.”

I set about removing the treble hook from the Kastmaster and asked the kid questions about himself while I worked. The short story was he loved the Rangers, had just turned thirteen, lived in Fort Worth, and his father had sent him here to stay for the summer with his grandparents because his mother had left and the details of the divorce and selling the house were being worked out.

I asked him about the Red Sox t-shirt he was wearing with the Rangers hat. He said that he had been to two Sox games with his grandfather since getting here and they bought the shirt at Fenway.

I asked him who his grandparents were, thinking I might know them. I didn’t. He told me his grandfather liked to fish the creek and marsh back by the parking area and had shown him the way so he could ride his bike there when he wanted to. I asked if he liked fishing and he said that he and his friends back home fished almost every day in a local pond after playing baseball.

“The hard part is not being with my friends for the summer and being stuck here. I don’t really know my grandparents and they don’t know me. I’ve only seen them a few times. Grampa is retiring at the end of the year and they may move back to Texas to help my dad.”

I tied a short piece of mono to the spoon and rummaged through my gear for a small Clouser. Without looking up from my project I asked, “So, did you bring your bike with you from Texas?”

“No. Grampa took me to buy it the day I got here.”

“What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” I asked.

“Chocolate but I like Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food too, why?”

“What kind of ice cream does your grandmother have in the freezer?”

“Um, chocolate…and Phish Food.”

I tied the Kastmaster/Clouser combo on to his spinning rod and asked one more question.

“Who did the Sox play when you went to Fenway?”

“The Yankees and the Rangers.”

I trimmed the Clouser to match the length of the grass shrimp, handed him his rod and said, “So your grandfather showed you his favorite fishing spot, got you a bike so you can ride here, they have your favorite ice cream in the fridge and they took to you to see your favorite baseball team play the Red Sox. I think they might know you a little better than you think they do.”

“I never thought of it that way. I guess you’re right.”

 I told him where to cast, how to retrieve the rig and let him have at it.

“Are you going to fish?”

“No way,” I said, “I’ve never seen someone from Texas catch a striper on a spoon and fly rig before so I’m going to watch.”

About ten minutes of baseball talk later the rig worked and my new friend brought in his first striped bass. He handed me his phone and I took a photo of him with it before we released it. He immediately sent it to his dad.

He made another cast and looked at me and said, “It’s going to be hard when I go back. Mom’s living with this other guy in another town and I’m staying with my dad in an apartment so I don’t have to change schools. Everything is different. It’s so hard. It really sucks.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond or even if I should. Thankfully the awkward moment was broken up with another stripe on the line. I reached down to lip it and while removing the hook said, “You’re right, it does suck, everything is upside down and all you can think about is how hard it is. I can tell you having gone through divorces as a father and as a son, you’ll adjust, you’ll learn how to deal with all the changes. You won’t believe this right now but this is not the hardest thing you’re going to have face in life. Take it all head-on, don’t run from it. You’ll get through it.”

I let the little stripe go and said, “Next one is all you cowboy, catch it, release it…all you.”

A few casts later he went tight to another fish, a little bigger than before. I snapped a few more photos of him with his phone while he removed the hook and let it go.

“Nice fish, dude.” I said as I gave him a high five.

He looked at the photos on the phone and said, “They’re not very big. I thought they’d be bigger.”

“Well, bigger fish are gonna be out in cooler water. These little guys live inside along the river during the summer while they grow. This is fishing, dude. Worrying about how big or how small your catch is…that ain’t fishing. That’s something else.”

“What do you mean, what’s the something else?”

I handed him his rod and said, “You don’t need to worry about that right now. You’ll find out soon enough. Right now you’re a kid. Be a kid. Have fun.”

We walked out of the marsh together so he could “show me the way.” I gave him my cell number and told him to call me if he had fishing questions or needed to talk. I told him to keep the rig we had built and gave him a couple of Clousers to put in his box. He said thank you, jumped on his bike and rode away.

One evening about a week later I was out in the marsh and saw the kid with his grandfather fishing near where I met him. From behind them I watched as he lipped and released a small striper that his grandfather had just caught. The kid gave him a high five and said, “Nice stripe, dude!”

I heard his grandfather laugh and say, “I thought it would be bigger.”
 
Illustration by Abigail Rice
The kid shrugged, made a cast like a pro and said, “This is fishing, Grampa…worrying about how big the fish is or isn’t…that ain’t fishing…”


From the journal
North River, MA
Summer 2013

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tempo



The water flows off the flat as the tide drops and the sun rises in the sky. It’s a never ending dance, a continuous symphony of light and water and color. I carefully pick my way through the white-water around a rock garden I’ve been fishing and think of the music lessons and band practices from a lifetime ago. Words like allegro, espirando, bellicoso and poco a poco fill my mind with the same definition, just a different meaning.


I follow a trough running across the flat to where it narrows before opening to the outside and deeper water. I move from waist deep water to knee deep in one step where I can see down into a natural choke-point and watch for cruising fish. The breeze creates ripples on the water’s surface that cast shadows on the sand below. If you stare at these shadows long enough, they look like fish; if you wait long enough, fish will move through them. Sometimes.


A striped bass on the flats is a chameleon. Its stripes and body coloration allow it to blend in with its surroundings and virtually disappear to avoid detection from above. There are times I have seen a fish only at the last second as it swims by my feet and spooks from my reaction. When I have other anglers with me in these conditions I tell them to look for a rock or a shadow that seems out of place. If you look for a fish, you’re likely not to see them.



Flats fishing is frustrating, especially if you’re wading. There are very few “first cast” or “third cast” fish. They come after thousands of casts. Hours can turn into days and days into weeks without a catch. I’ve spent a lot of time on different flats inside and outside of Cape Cod Bay. Each flat is different, each tide is different. Some days I catch multiple fish, some days I don’t. Some fish are big, most are not. Each outing, catch or no catch, teaches me a little more about the place and the fish.


It’s a process.

Poco a poco.


On the flats
24 July 2016