Guest Blogger: Jim Murphy, Neenah WI, long-time J Stockard customer and avid fly tyer

The season had ended several weeks ago and I was already starting to fight off the early symptoms of the dreaded “shanty shakes” and of fly rod withdrawal. The rods had been wiped down, the lines cleaned and the reels were spotless. Using the old alcohol spray trick I discovered several pinhole leaks and one fairly obvious leak in a four-year-old pair of waders. Some well-placed Goop was applied and I was hoping to get yet one more year’s wear before retiring yet another pair.

It was a little early to start the annual tying regime. I had already surveyed my fly boxes and had a pretty good idea of which old faithfuls I would have to replace. I had also seen several patterns in various magazines and online that seemed to be calling my name and begging to be tied. Probably cleverly designed to catch more fishermen than fish.

Most of the eye-catching patterns were of the nymph, midge, and soft hackle varieties. I had often told myself at the beginning of the 8-10 previous season that next year I was going to learn how to fish under the surface. ‘Cause everyone, except I guess me, knows that most fish feed most of the time down below. But, I had always started with good intentions only to give way to fishing dries even when I was getting skunked….again. But next year, I really mean it this time, I’m going to commit myself to fishing wets and so I’ll need some patterns to pursue that end.

The remainder of November and into December will fly by. They belong to Ellie my seven-year-old English Setter who looks forward patiently ten months of the year for just these two months. It is pheasant season here and she is an amazing hunter who will sniff and snuff, run like the wind and then stop rock solid. And, when she stops I best honor her point. Of course, I am occasionally fortunate enough to add to my feather collection. The truth be known she is a much better hunter than I am.

But then it happened. It was last Thursday morning while getting ready to shave that I stopped and really took a good look at that older gentleman who was looking back at me in the mirror. He was staring back at me in disbelief. Was that really me? No, that guy was way too long in the tooth to be me. Yet, after a quick shake of the head and a clear-eyed refocus I realized it was, it was me. And we, the one in the mirror and I both began to reflect on days gone by.

I’m now seventy seven years old and have been fishing off and on since I was a young shaver of about five. I was a city kid but spent many summers on the farm. My dad had treatments and evaluations each year for a “mystery disease” and because he and my mom would spend several weeks, even months at the Mayo Clinic for tests I was shipped out to family friends in the country.

Not that I really objected, mind you. In fact, farm life was really great fun. One of the most memorable times involved fishing…kind of. It was here that Bobby and Jerry and I would bend some nails to somewhat resemble fish hooks, grab a long willow stick, some string, dig some worms and head off to a small creek that ran through their property. This tiny stream may or may not have held any fish for in the many hours and days we spent on its banks we caught nary a one. The question of fish or no fish is still unresolved. But we were fishing after all and that’s why they call it fishing and not catching.

Somewhere along the way, at about the age of 10, there would be the catching of bullheads in a small pond and panfish in a nearby lake. By then I was using an ancient hand me down steel rod and casting reel the later of which was prone to bird nesting most every cast…. A long period of time would pass between these early years and my rather backhanded entry into fly fishing.

I met a pretty girl shortly after graduating from college and whose father was an ardent fly fisher. This young woman became my wife. Since her father and I had exactly nothing in common she encouraged me to take up fly fishing. She was convinced fishing would bring us together. Well I did and we did….Sort of. I mean I bought a fly rod, a nine foot nine weight, obviously not having a clue of what a nine foot nine weight was really used for. I had softball bats which were lighter and more flexible. It certainly was not the best choice I could have made for fishing small stream trout. But, it was a fly rod.

During the next few years, I learned almost nothing about fly fishing but a great deal about paddling a canoe. My wife’s family lived on a small feeder tributary that fed into a world-famous trout stream. Although the lower main branch of the river was pounded on a daily bases the upper branch was narrow, willow-lined and in places not as wide as a sidewalk. It was actually a bit of a foreboding place after dark. Bats, and bugs and creatures that went bump in the night were always present. However, It also was home to numerous brookies and browns.

Whenever we visited my wife’s parents during ensuing trout seasons, he and I would grab the rods, paddles and canoe and head for the upper landing. We typically pushed off about 4:30 in the afternoon with me on the paddle and he on the rod. I would paddle upstream until well after dark watching him catch fish after fish. Eventually, of course, we would turn around and head back downstream.

Sounds like a great trip but I was still at the paddle and he at the rod. Sometime well into the bewitching hour when his casting arm had degenerated into something resembling a wet noodle, he would finally ask if I’d like to change seats. Now in the bottom of a boot darkness, with throbbing muscles from paddling and sorely lacking in casting experience, I finally had my moment. This was usually an exercise in frustration. Most of the time the only catching I did was to first catch the willows on one side of the stream and then the willows on the other with line screaming out behind me creating quite an artistic series of zig-zags firmly attached to the branches on either side. It was then that the black night turned blue as the words at both ends of the canoe flew fast and furious and brightened the night sky. Of course, the next many minutes required recovery of my fly line. This would lead to the unilateral decision, not mine, to pack it in. And so another fish-less night would come to an end as we paddled directly back to the landing.

I can now look back and know that it was the times spent paddling in the black of night and watching the grace and ease with which my father-in-law handled the rod and line that started me on my current path. As unbelievable as it may seem, a flame was rekindled that has grown into a passion that still burns bright. Since then I have had the good fortune to travel and have caught trout in Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado.

The old man in the mirror was smiling as I finished my shave, remembering the big colorful rainbow caught on the Big Horn and the beautiful eight inch cut caught on Horse Creek. These and many other memories and an occasional pheasant hunt will have to carry me to and through to tying season. And, tying season, in turn, will lead to another session of rod building. Then there will be the “Ice Breaker” fly shows and be pouring over Gazetteers and other fishing maps. And this year I’ve been invited to be a guest tyer for a series of beginner fly tying lessons. Of course, there are monthly T.U. business meetings, followed by programs related to fishing, and later stories to share and plenty of camaraderie to go around . In addition, another fly fishing trip with fellow fly fishers to a western venue will need to be planned. By then it will be late winter and opening day will be upon us. Once again I will have found the magic elixir, the cure for the deep dark mid-winter doldrums known as cabin fever, the shanty shakes or whatever you call them.

You too can shake the fever by reflecting upon the past and dreaming dreams of streams yet to be discovered and fish not yet caught. Yep!, you can not only survive but flourish by staying involved. Learn to tie a fly, build a rod, dabble with a new knot, patch those waders, spruce up the gear. Don’t forget youtube for it has hundreds of fly fishing videos from how to tie wooly buggers to floating the Yellowstone and everything in between.
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Of course, it helps to lull yourself to sleep each night with a fishing magazine in hand. Late evening reading often acts as a metronome. The tic-toc created by reading the same line over and over will be followed by glasses sliding off your nose and the chin dropping to your chest. Next thing you know you’ll be hooking the fish of a lifetime. The ensuing battle to land that trophy will go on and on until…until the alarm rings next morning or in a week or a month. Time will fly. Soon it will be Opening Day “…it will be over…one more case of the Shanty Shakes will have been avoided…It will be time to “Go Fish”.

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