Thursday, May 25, 2017

Edison, Bukowski and four dollars

A while back I was at the Mobil getting gas with my coffee and ran into a guy I know who had bought one fly from me at a fly show the previous winter. We were about two months into striper season so I asked him how the fishing had been. He told me that he had not caught any striped bass on the fly I sold him and asked if I offered a money-back guarantee. I choked a little on my coffee and inquired where he had been fishing. He told me the location and reiterated that the fly had not caught any fish. Either time he had been out.

“Either time, as in twice?”

“Yeah, both times, nothing…I don’t think it works.”

I suddenly thought of Thomas Edison saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work” when describing his work to improve the filament in the incandescent light bulb.

I reached for my phone to show my customer pictures of a dozen fish recently caught on the same fly he was questioning but chose the high road and bit my tongue. I thanked him for his business and gave him back his four dollars.

Half of it in coins.

Just because.

I thought about that encounter a couple of mornings ago as I sat in traffic on the commute to The Cube. Cruising north at seven miles per hour I watched people in the other cars applying face paint, taking selfies, updating their global status and one dude rolling a number. Traffic came to a halt as a radio commercial touted the “immediate results” of some magic pill. Instant gratification seems to dictate most of what we do. Mass media, marketing and advertising, social media influencers, hashtags – we’re all manipulated by the profit in impatience.

We’re messed up, I get it. At times I’m both a perpetrator and a casualty of the game and to be contrite I’ll be checking Blogger an hour after I post this to see how many views it gets.

There is a phrase we use in fishing about a particular catch being a “fish of a thousand casts.” Much like Edison and the carbonized filament, there are times that the difference between fishing and catching is the result of persistence. Despite all the fancy gear, the electronics technology and real-time information available today, in the end, it comes down to putting in the time, cast after cast, sometimes day after day.

A friend of mine from Nantucket, Chris Lydon, recently sent me an email that illustrates this.

“I have been dying to get a bass on those foam popper flies since last season. I don’t know why, but it’s been a personal mission. I spent a lot of time at the end of last season searching for my final bass with them to no avail. I’ve been tying it on a lot this year so far. I have had countless missed strikes, explosions and tail swirls but yesterday I finally got the deal done. All the heartache was worth it. In my opinion, there is no more exciting way to catch a bass than watching it come up and clobber a popper.”
Photo by Chris Lydon

Charles Bukowski said it best; “Any asshole can chase a skirt, art takes discipline.”

I have no idea in what context Bukowski made his remark. If you've read Bukowski, well, use your imagination. I’d like to think it’s universal and can be applied to just about anything, especially fishing.

Merriam - Webster lists one definition of art as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.” The same could be said of fly fishing.

The season is upon us. Be persistent.

And keep making art.

South River, MA
25 May 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Next Cast

This morning was my first real day of the fishing season. I’ve been going out and prospecting for the last month using most of that time to look at changes in structure from the winter storms and erosion and trying to figure out if or how these things will affect fish movement this season. But today was just about fishing; just me, the river and the spaces between casts.

It was raining hard and windy as hell when I walked out into the marsh. That was just fine with me. It meant I would most likely be alone. More than the hunt for the first striper of the season, this was a grasp at being unseen and taciturn for a few hours. I quietly took my place in the grass as the herons and cormorants jockeyed for new positions around me and a red-tailed hawk patrolled the flooding marsh from above. After a few minutes the disturbance of my arrival was absorbed, the cormorants moved on and calm fell across the salt meadow with the fog and the rain.

I started casting, working the upstream current knowing that nothing was going to happen until the tide change. As the water flooded the sod bank and filled the grass so did my mind with what I have been avoiding. Like the basket of laundry still in the corner, I keep finding distractions and reasons not to fold, organize and put it in its place. I laughed out loud because she would have liked that analogy. And I laughed again in the moment of that thought as the rain fell harder and the wind picked up a little. This is the exact second she would have called to ask me some obscure question while I tried to keep the phone dry and fly line untangled in the wind.

But she didn’t call. So I kept casting. Mom passed away unexpectedly nearly two months ago. I still hadn’t let it out, I hadn’t let myself. I spoke at the funeral and nearly broke down reading memories written by the family. Among the tears and between bouts of strength and weakness I read the words but I didn’t let it out. Back on the pavement, submersed in the noise of the world of everyone else it’s easy to practice avoidance. There in the marsh, washed in the mud and the water of my world there was no place to hide, no reason to avoid what had to happen.

So as the tide slacked, the rain let up and the wind laid down I let it out. A little at a time, building in intensity and volume until I had no control of it and could only let it flow out of me. In the view of the heron and the hawk I let it out. I wondered if my sounds would disturb them and cause them to move. It didn’t. And so I kept casting.

There was a day that mom spent with my daughter and I on the boat. We had beached it on a sand bar and walked back into the marsh to a small creek I knew would be holding a fish or two. I made several casts with mom and Abby looking on and mom asked me what my favorite part of fly fishing was. I answered, “The next cast.”

She, of course, was full of questions about what I meant. I tried to explain to her that with each cast you can learn a little more about the place you’re in, the fish you’re trying to catch and in the end, somewhere between the casts, a little more about yourself. I made a few more casts and after seeing a small wake along the edge of a riffle, adjusted one mid-cast to put the fly just up-current of it. As soon as the fly drifted through the riffle it was taken by a small striper. As I held the fish in my hand to release it she said she had seen my attention shift to that spot in the water and adjust the cast and understood what I meant. Over the years the term “the next cast” came up in many conversations about adjusting to life and moving through it.

So this morning, in the spaces between casts, I cried and I let it out, more and more and then finally less and less with the next.

Mother’s Day is next Saturday.

Call her.

North River, MA
4 May 2017

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Jud

I was scrolling through emails the other morning and saw one with “Sailing with Jud” in the subject line. It took me by surprise because the only Jud I know has been successful in avoiding electronic communication and social media. Back in the day the answering machine messages from him usually started with, “Hey, you wanna’ go on an adventure?”

This blog is supposed to be about the people and places encountered in the backwaters while fly fishing. Jud and I have never fished together but our friendship grew through many adventures in places I would consider to be “backwater” so I’m making an exception here.

I met Jud Thurston in early October 1990, when he and I were part of a crew sailing a Tartan 34 from Bermuda to New York City. I was living and working in Burlington, Vermont at the time and he lived just over an hour to the south in Chittenden. Jud and I were paired up and had the overnight watch. In the interest of full disclosure, he did most of the sailing during the first part of the trip because I spent the first 36 hours with my head over the rail. It might have been the Heineken’s at dinner the night before. Or the Dark and Stormies the afternoon before. Regardless, I couldn’t look at a green beer bottle until 2014 without getting a queasy feeling.

Over the course of the trip helping Jud with galley duties, the night watches and sailing the last days through the tail of Hurricane Lili we became fast friends. He was an ice climber and we spent a great deal of time talking about climbing and he agreed to teach me.  A few weeks later I went to Mt. Washington with him and a few of his climbing buddies and my education began.

By 1993 I was climbing on a regular basis and had been accepted into the group of people Jud climbed with. He and I made several trips up Mt. Washington over the winters but nearly every year we would all meet as a group at the Harvard Hut (Cabin) for “Opening” and “Closing” weekends. The hut and Huntington Ravine became as familiar to me as my own home and the group of misfits we climbed with became extended family. These weekends became something of legend with sunset après climb parties on the wood pile followed by some pretty extraordinary meals carried up the mountain and laid out on the old plank table like Thanksgiving. And quietly at the center of it all was Jud, the silently agreed upon Mayor of the Harvard Hut and leader on the mountain. One of our group, Tony, used to talk about Jud leading a climb, setting up a top rope and climbing one piece of ice over and over, sitting on the rocks in Tuckerman’s just watching people or putting together one of those banquet meals at the Harvard Hut as “doing The Jud.” It was a nod to the respect that those of us who know him, and those who know of him, had for him on the mountain and as a man.

We climbed a lot of places during those years; Smuggler’s Notch, the Bristol Cliffs, Frankenstein and Lake Willoughby. A few stand out in my mind, like my first time at Willoughby. Our friend Graham was leading the climb that day with me in the second spot. We were climbing one of the practice slabs, I don’t remember which one but it was a nearly vertical two-pitch climb. Looking up at it I wasn’t sure I could do it. I looked at Jud and said, “You’re fu#*ing kidding me.”

He looked back at me and said, “What…yeah… can do it.” He said shit like that all the time.

“You can climb the first ten feet no problem, right? The rest of it is just like that, only higher.”

I made the first pitch but I was scared out of my mind as I tied into the belay point with Graham. I started out the second pitch strong but fear took over as I reached a small overhanging bulge at the crux. I stopped just short of it and as I hung there evaluating my next move I developed “sewing machine leg” in both legs and popped off the face of the ice. I only fell about five or six feet before the rope took my weight but it felt like a mile. Once I realized I wasn’t going to die I got my tools back on the ice and kicked in my front points. Now I was pissed that my friends had dragged me up this piece of ice I had said I couldn’t climb. Anger quelled the fear and I got over the bulge and topped out with Graham. I told him I hated him and sat down to wait for Jud.

It took Jud about five minutes to climb what had seemed to take me an hour. When he topped out I told him I hated him as well.

“What…yeah…’re up here…knew you could do it.”

It was a quiet walk to a spot where we could rappel down. There’s something about rappelling down a cliff that makes everything better. When I kicked off the edge I was still pissed. When I got to the bottom I was ready to climb again...after apologies were made.

The other climb that will always stand out in my memory is my first lead up Pinnacle Gully on Mt. Washington. It was me, Jud and another guy I had never climbed with. I had been up Pinnacle enough times to feel comfortable on it and had no hesitation when Jud told me to lead it. Setting the first piece of protection halfway up the first pitch, hanging there by the front-points of my crampons and one ice tool; just three tiny points of metal stuck in a frozen waterfall to prevent me from falling while I one handed an ice screw into it…that’s a rush bested only by knowing my friend and climbing mentor had the trust in me to lead the climb.

Once I topped out and set up the belay, I took a minute to look down the gully and out over Huntington Ravine before giving the signal to Jud to climb. I was exhausted and cold but had never felt so alive. When Jud got up to me he tackled me with a bear hug. It had been an accomplishment not just for the student, but the teacher as well.

Not all adventures were on the ice. There were whitewater trips to the Upper Hudson and the Kennebec with some of the Harvard Hut gang. The infamous Big Trade where I swapped my motorcycle with Jud for a whitewater kayak and a pickup truck full of paddling and climbing gear. An epic weekend at Sunday River skiing bumps on White Heat in t-shirts one day and ten inches of powder under the lift lines on Oz the next. The gig Jud got for he and I and Graham serving as “Mountain Experts” and safety climbers for a VISA / American Skiing Company commercial shot at Killington.

 And there was the Traverse.

I got a call from Jud one summer evening. It was the usual, “What are you doing this weekend, wanna’ go on an adventure? How ‘bout part of the Presidential Traverse on Saturday?”

We met in the dark on Saturday morning at Pinkham Notch, left a vehicle there and drove around to the Appalachia Trailhead on the other side. We hit the trail just as the sun was rising and clicked off Mt. Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clark and Washington; got down to Pinkham, picked up the other vehicle and drove to my family’s camp in Harrison, Maine to get a beer, quick swim and clean clothes and made it to Rick’s Café in Naples in time to get a table on the roof deck for dinner and tequila as the sun set over Long Lake. We covered a lot of terrain that day. On Sunday, just to unwind, we met up with our buddy, Hank, for a leisurely rock climb at Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, NH. Classic doing "The Jud."

None of this has anything to do with the backwater and yet it does. I watched Jud with his kids when they were growing up at their home, on hiking trips, ski trips and climbing with his son, Ben. It left an impression on me and as I’ve raised my daughter I’ve emulated some of the things I learned from him as a father. As he brought his kids up in the mountains, I’ve brought Abby up on the river. Jud’s spent his life working as a carpenter and a mason, he’s one of the most powerful people in mind, body and spirit I’ve ever known. He has incredible strength and endurance, the kind earned from working with your back and hands and honed by taking pride in what you do. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from him is the ability to find the calm in the space that exists between the edge and the abyss below, not just on the mountain but in life.

On one of my last trips to Mt. Washington, after climbing in Huntington in the morning and then going on one of Jud’s famous afternoon “walkabouts” our group got back to the Harvard Hut in time for cocktails before dinner. As they began happy hour out on the wood pile, I set about organizing and repacking gear while Jud started getting things ready for dinner. When I finished, I walked outside and Tony dug a beer out of the snow, handed it to me and said, “Let me buy you a beer, Little Jud.”

It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

I hope we have a few more adventures left in us.

Jud Thurston.

Friend, mentor, last of a breed.

The Jud.

South River, MA
19 April 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Those Days

Not every effort needs an award for justification. No rewards for just showing up. Not every meal has to be a banquet. Not every day has to end with a parade. Some days it’s just about seeing what happens.

We put in at the end of a road codenamed “WBLM”... for two of us it had significance as a nod to the 207. For the third it didn’t matter. Tarpon had been the objective but the wind and irregular light had other plans. We didn’t care. A stop at the Kickin Back Food Mart had provisioned the boat with gas station Cubans and Italians from the cooler and twenty-four Bud’s on ice.

We made a short run and then poled around places like the Budd’s, Raccoon, Crane, Riding and Sawyer. We took turns on the bow casting at mangrove roots, patches of grass and dark shadows we hoped held a secret. In the awkward silence of a slow day conversation turned from the technical aspects of fly rods and casting to movie reviews, trucks, boats, Def Leppard lyrics and estimations on how long it would take to get to Cuba.

The day was not without its moments. There were a couple of run-ins with small barracuda and snapper that momentarily halted the boat deck presentation of several lines from the movie “Ted”  and a brief on the water safety inspection.

Chalk it up to dues paid, experience gained and the continuing search for the best Cuban sandwich. A day removed from the rest of the world exploring new water and sharing beer-can philosophy with good friends. A day often thought back on and appreciated for what it was.

It was, one of those days.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


“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 road trip

From 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


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

South River, MA
26 December 2016