In my right pocket on most days, I am carrying a knife. It isn’t a particularly lethal blade even though its carbon steel can be honed enough to shave the hairs from your arm clean as a babies bottom. The craftsmanship is what you would expect from a mass produced circa 1975 hardware store pocket knife, a brown plastic handle that is slightly off center on one side, the name stamped crooked. Imperfections abound on this treasure and I would venture to say that if you were to find it along the side of the road you would submit it to a junk drawer if you bothered to pick it up at all. But this knife holds a great deal of significance to me.
This knife was the first thing I ever purchased with money that I had earned. I was ten years old and was going door to door asking for people to vote for a man that was running for school superintendent in my home county. For my half days work I think I was paid ten dollars, and part of that cash payday was used at Smith Hardware to buy myself a Barlow Pocket Knife. My Grandfather carried a Barlow and so I assumed that it must be the best knife to have on hand. It was many years before I realized the truth.
I still carry this blade because it means something to me. It holds significance in that it represents a milestone, a rite of passage, and at the same time it gives me a direct link to the childhood that has long since disappeared into thin and sometimes clouded memory. Now, I also see the potential future of this knife as I am preparing myself to hand it over someday to my son. In some respects, he will not carry it with the same significance as I. The memories he will have surrounding this blade will be of me and not how it came into my possession or what it represents. Then, many years from now it may go to my Grandson; the memory will be diluted further and perhaps he will place it in some easily forgotten drawer or box, but that is for him to decide.
In much the same way and same circumstances is the esteem in which we regard our Fly Fishing Gear. Each rod or reel has some sort of memory, some sort of story. An old worn out hat may reek of sweat and be faded and frayed, but held within the very fabric of the brim may be epic tales of angling adventure that have engrained themselves for a lifetime. Or perhaps it was handed down from the person who introduced you to the sport. The day that it passed from their hand to yours was a rite of passage that may be told to others, but never really shared with others.
Some of us have been blessed with the luxury of high dollar gear. Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars laid down for the very best, while others may have old, clunky equipment bought at yard sales or at a big box retail store. To argue the comparisons in craftsmanship would be pointless and to debate the merits of them would be a waste of breath. Within each high dollar rod with a historic company pedigree can be found a story, yet within a rod that might be valued equally as a tomato stick or such is at least an equal story.
From this train of thought we can perhaps conclude that the fishing isn’t about the equipment and its limitless accessories. It isn’t about brand names or price tags. Fly fishing is about memories and experiences. Fly fishing is about the moment, that one shining nugget that is as burned in your mind as a trip to the hardware store just to slap down your money for a knife. There is a life in our equipment that is dormant until we put it to use, and in the using is familiarity, memory, history. You just can’t buy those type things.
The smaller knife blade on my Barlow has a permanent glob of model car glue along the bottom of the edge side. I can look at that and remember, I had a Richard Petty model car that I was building and had used the blade to remove some excess glue that had seeped through the point where the Petty blue rear fender and trunk lid met. There again, that means absolutely nothing to anyone else but me. Same situation occurs with imperfections in our equipment. I may look at the deep gash in the cork handle of your fly rod and not give it another thought, yet you may look at the same gash and remember how you were on a trip with some friends. You may see a clear mental picture of how you slid down a grassy embankment and caught the handle on a piece of barbed wire…and think of the fish you caught that day.
I have a very old bamboo rod. If the hunches are correct, it was build sometime in the mid 1930’s which makes it as old as or older than my Dad. This rod has survived, and perhaps at times thrived through some of the greatest moments in human history, and also through personal worries and concerns. I sometimes wonder if any of the previous rod owners are still alive, where they were, where they fished. When I obtained the rod, it was found in the trunk of an abandoned 1950’s era Ford sedan that had spent several years rusting away behind this elderly couple’s barn. Trust me, when I fish this rod- the weight of its history (or potential history) is very present in my mind.
The relationship we have with our gear, no matter the price or the name is internal, and it should never be expected that anyone else should ever understand its significance. All that really matters is that we have something in the present which harkens us back to a time of which we will never return, and to a future that rests in the dimpled surface of a river where fish are rising and new memories await.