I once had an old friend, not so recently deceased, who had a thirst for whiskey, a passion for the best bamboo fly rods, fly fishing and—not the least—women.
I once had an old friend, not so recently deceased, who had a thirst for whiskey, a passion for the best bamboo fly rods, fly fishing and—not the least—women. I’m not sure about the exact order, but all were subjects of discussion during trips to the river or over a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta. While he was not a well-known writer of fishing stories and other works—which could have made him famous—his cantankerous nature prevented those perhaps well-deserved accolades. Editors and publishers ran when their phones rang.
I met him on a blustery, gray April day along the East Branch of the Delaware River. He was standing by the guard rail, looking into a large placid pool that was easily visible from the road. I had just stopped to check the river myself when I saw him. He appeared to be a frail fellow with a black Greek fisherman’s-cap, and a lovely Payne fly rod clutched in one hand. A curved pipe was clenched between his teeth.
It was Hendrickson time in the Catskills, and every angler of consequence was out and on the water. Hendrickson was the hatch we all waited for and incessantly talked of throughout the year.
We exchanged pleasantries, at which time I learned he was from Woodstock. As I recall, the flies never hatched and we soon went our separate ways. Little did I realize on that early spring Catskill day over 50 years ago, that we would be comrades in the fight to change the pathetic releases of water from the Delaware reservoirs to their respective downstream rivers. It took five years, but we prevailed.
Almost every week, I would get the call: “ToTo, I have a sauce, how’s your appetite?” That was my invitation to bring a bottle of chianti and a salad. A sauce meant marinara with chunks of lamb’s neck that had been sautéed with olive oil and garlic, then allowed to simmer for several hours. Once the sauce had matured sufficiently, it was melded with steaming portions of DeCecco fedelini pasta, which had been perfectly cooked al dente. The pasta was then plated and sprinkled with several generous turns of the grater, which contained the finest Locatelli Romano.
As the meal progressed, tongues would loosen as the wine flowed, and my friend would start in. Most conversations began with a comparison of all the different cane fly rods he owned during a very long life. Every fly rod was from the one of the “masters,” as he liked to call them. There were several from Jim Payne, Walt Carpenter, Thomas and Thomas, George Halstead and Dan Brenan. Every time he sold a rod, he would replace it with another, supposedly better one, with the perfect action. That’s when he would check in. “The seven-and-a-half-foot Payne arrived this morning; stop in this afternoon and we’ll put a line on it.” There would be excitement in his voice as he looked forward to this new, ultimate fly-fishing instrument.
As the night wore on, espresso served, and the topic changed from fly rods to the trout season past, and all the days on the river. The hatches and trout landed. Then inevitably, the evening’s dialogue would turn to women and their similarities to fine cane fly rods. “ToTo,” he would say, “do you know that a fine bamboo fly rod is, in many ways like a beautiful woman?”
“Please explain,” I would reply.
“Much like a lovely woman, a fine cane rod is a thing of beauty—sensitive, sensuous and alive.”
“I can see why you would make that comparison, although I’m not sure that other anglers would have the intellect or interest to make that analogy,” I would answer.
“Ah, I can understand that,” he would reply, “but what do they know? Most people, anglers included, don’t have the insight and sensitivity into beauty that I do.”
“That is also true,” I replied, keeping in mind that my friend’s quest for the perfect fly rod and a woman never ended.
During his life, my friend tested and fished countless fly rods. But I don’t think he ever found the perfect one, the one that was light in the hand, fished in close, yet cast a long line when required.
Looking back, I believe the search was just as important as the rod itself; it provided a non-ending challenge. At the end of his life, there were a Payne, a Carpenter and a Halstead. All rods from famous rod builders. Cane rods that any aficionado of bamboo would be proud to own and cherish. I was humbled and proud to receive the Carpenter when his will was read. I’m not sure about the women. He never elaborated, choosing instead to keep adventures of the heart and bedroom private.
Toward the end, my friend was rehabbing at a local nursing home. And even during his last days, his search continued. Every time an attractive nurse would enter the room, he would nudge me and remark, “ToTo, ‘Che Bella Madonna.’” In Italian, “Madonna” means, “My Lady,” as in the Mother of God—or in his terms, “What a beautiful woman.”
So for some, my friend included, the search never ended, even when the end was near!
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