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50 Years before the Vise

Mike G

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With Jonn Graham approaching his first birthday, my story of 50+ years of tying is a contrast to his memoir. I caught my first fish on a fly when I was five. I started tying flies when I was twelve. I started fly fishing when I was 15. 15 will be 52 years ago come July 16. Since the sequence of events seems to be reversed, I should explain. When I was five I was fishing for the bluegills swarming around a pier on a Hess Lake where we vacationed in Michigan. My gear, a toy pole, a piece of black Dacron line, and a Christmas tree ornament hook, was not working. My father observed this and tied a small black snelled fly on my line. That set me up for that vacation catching fish after fish from under the pier. By the time I was 12, I was deep into making model airplanes. My father must have thought that all this manual skill was being wasted as I could have been making flies for him instead. We bought a fly tying kit from Wards to get me started. It was from Tack-L-Tyers of Evanston. I still have the vise, the bobbin, and some materials from the kit. Though I was happy with tying flies and watching my father use them for a while, by 15 I wanted to fish them myself. I built my first fly rod from a Herter's kit. That is how the whole thing got its unorthodox sequence. I admit that I have not fly fished every year since then. I do not think that Jonn did much fly fishing in this past December, January, and February either. Since I keep coming back to fly fishing, however, I must have got started right.


Of course there are a lot of memories in 50 years. If I were to write a book like the 19th century journal, Two Years before the Mast, it would not be such a grim tale. There would be chapters like these: South Bend is a Fly Rod, Uncle Bob, The Globe Quarry, How George Leonard Herter Changed My Life, From Bamboo to Glass to Carbon, Tying a Gut Tippet, Thunder Lake, White River Air Service, Basswood Bass, Pinkie Crappies, and A.J. McClane as a 20th Century Role Model. These hardly begin to cover the first 25 years. Whether I write the book or not, it is great to see Jonn's enthusiasm as he starts out. I can attest that the enthusiasm endures.

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Great story! It is fascinating to hear how people got their start in fly fishing. I think few people ever learn it as their first fishing experience, so it's fun to hear how people make the transformation. Maybe we can keep this thread going for a while & hear more of the stories!


My family & I moved to Colorado when I turned 6 and I too picked up model building, first WWII airplanes, then cars. My Dad would take me fishing up in the mountains whenever we had the chance. When I turned 10 my dad bought me my first fly rod, an old Japanese bamboo rod, in preperation for a family vacation to Yellowstone. The only thing I caught on that trip was a cold after an unexpected dip in the Yellowstone River. Guess you could say that was when I was "baptized" into the world of fly fishing. Anyway, on fishing trips into the mountains I would get out my rod & tie on a Royal Coachman because it was the most beatiful fly I had ever seen. Unfortunately, my father didn't really know much more than I did about fly fishing, but we had fun, and I usually outfished him. He bought a fly tying kit from Herters & we spent quite a few evenings in the basement making a mess.


After my folks divorced my mother & I were forced to move back to Illinois for financial reasons. I was then 14 and became more interested in girls & hot rods, and put the old fly rod in the back of the closet. I still fished, but used spinning gear. Every once in a while I would take it out bluegill fishing.


Fast-forward. I've had two kids, divorced, and remarried after 10 years of single life in 1997. I'm out at the Interstate Center at the hunting & fishing show in early 1998, and there is a guy with a booth there that has a fly shop in Springfield (Tom Yokum). We get to talking & a couple weeks later I head to Springfield to see his shop. I was blown away. Bought a 5wt. Sage, a nice Ross Canyon reel, & everything I needed to get started. I was hooked BIG TIME, and the rest they say, is history. I haven't fished with anything but a fly rod since. My love for the sport has grown into a full-fledged addiction, and my "hobby room" in the basement is proof.


I now tie all my own flies, have rekindled a love for bamboo, and have restored 4 old bamboo rods. Eventually, I want to make my own. The wife kids me about my "addiction" all the time, but she has no complaints. She fully understands the passion that can develope for a hobby as she is knee-deep into quilting. Our kids are all out on their own now (all 4 of them) & there was a time we considered downsizing with our home. After all, why would 2 adults need a 5 bedroom, 3 bath home? ........Hobbies, thats why!!!! One bedroom is now our office, another my hobby room, and another her sewing room.


Most weekends, if you would walk into our home on a Sunday before the vacuum comes out, you will find bits of feathers & fabric tracked all the way thru the house. Ours is a happy home!



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Here's my short bio:


I moved to Atlanta when I was in middle school. I used to occasionally fish on the Gulf when I lived in Houston growing up. With the Chattahoochee tailwater running through Atlanta, I picked up trout fishing when I was about 14. Since my parents weren't going to buy me a boat, I started float tubing on the river. I would actually have my father drop me off upstream, and pick me up 6 hours later downstream. I was not old enough to drive at the time. I saw someone flyfishing on the river one day and was intrigued. I started participating in Trout Unlimited activities when I was 15.


I started tying flies at the age of 16. I was wading in the river one day; and I left my vest unzipped. My fly box full of 200 dollars worth of flies floated away when I wasn't looking. Needless to say, I was devastated. I picked up tying, thinking that I could save money and build my collection back up... boy was I wrong (about the money saving part). At the age of 18, I started building rods. I built several fly rods for myself, and a couple for friends.


Fast forward 20 years... and here I am in Chicago. In the 2 years that I've been here, my 2 days of fishing per week has turned in to 2 weeks of fishing per year (and having to take vacation to fish). I travel about 95% for work, which makes things hard. I'm trying to get back into the swing of things this year. I've started traveling with spinning rods in the car... and fly rods if I know that I might have some good access to wade and fish.


Living downtown kind of puts a cramp on my fishing "career." I usually end up fishing off of a sidewalk on like Michigan with a spinning rod (for a quick fix). I don't have enough storage space to store a canoe, kayak, and all my fishing stuff. Most of my gear is still down in Atlanta. I'm thinking a move to the 'burbs might be coming up in the "near" future. :P

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Great stories!


My earliest recollection of fishing is from a trip to the Ozarks when I was around 10.

I was all by myself among some rocks on a lake just outside our hotel.

A length of fishing line I found and a beer can tab was about all I had to experiment with.

Can't recall if I found anything to put on the "hook", but something told me that the lake held fish and these were tools to catch them somehow.


My dad didn't fish....still doesn't to this day.

Our outdoors related activities were golf (in a major way...he lives on a private course to this day) and taking us to the occasional stock car race at Santa Fe raceway.

An executive (business man) type in every sense of the word.

I'm an exception to the rule that kids not raised to fish never will in their lifetime.

A couple friends turned me on to the sport later in life, after they raised the fees at the golf courses and 4 times a week at Silver Lake CC wasn't possible any longer.

Haven't swung a club in over a decade, but might get my boy involved when fishing is poor.


Conservation is another story.

A person cannot devote their life to conserving the resource and expect to enjoy those efforts by fishing.

Not if you intend to go to the ends of the earth to promote a conservation agenda.

Not enough time in the day or days in the calendar.

To make it one or the other is a tough call, but the kids do need to go fishing.....


My late Grandfather had a fly rod and used it on the Kankakee River while raising my Mother there.

He took me out a few times when I was very young, as I recall. It was always raining.

What's up with that?

Sure wish I had that rod today.

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Guest airbornemike

When I was five I was fishing for the bluegills swarming around a pier on a Hess Lake where we vacationed in Michigan


I fished Hess a number of times with a spoonplugger 8 to 10 years back, I never hooked and landed so many 18" plus LM bass to date. Great lake at the time, made me a believer of spot on the spot fishing "Buck sez".

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When I was five I was fishing for the bluegills swarming around a pier on a Hess Lake where we vacationed in Michigan


I fished Hess a number of times with a spoonplugger 8 to 10 years back, I never hooked and landed so many 18" plus LM bass to date. Great lake at the time, made me a believer of spot on the spot fishing "Buck sez".




Thanks. It has been so long ago that I was there, I am glad to hear it is still there. And thanks for reminding me that Buck has to have a chapter in my book.


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"He bought a fly tying kit from Herters & we spent quite a few evenings in the basement making a mess."




All of this fits together. Herter's probably did more for fly fishing than Orvis. Brookies love the Royal Coachman though one of the Orvis elders declared that it was not a true fly because it did not "resemble an insect." Tying it together further, I have a Royal Coachman Streamer made from Herter's materials that I will be happy to send you if you pMail me your address. It is the most beautiful fly ever.

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  • 3 months later...

I thought I would add another chapter.


Then and Now


About the time I got my first vise (not vice, which came later), Lefty Kreh was tying his bug for the clients he was guiding especially those who had limited experience with a fly rod.




The idea was a simple bug low on wind resistance, no hackle and no legs, that is, no frills. This pic from FAOL captures the spirit of the original though Lefty likes to slant the face to make for an easier pickup. In the 50s I tied panfish poppers like that though I had not heard of Lefty. They were easy to cast, and bluegills seemed to like the small profile better than my full dress, eyed, hackled rubber legged versions.


Lefty's Bug stood the test of time. Though Rainey's version is upgraded by using a foam body, eyes, and some sparkelly stuff to "fill in the transition," one can still see the outline of the original.




Today, when I tie floaters, the ones I tie for myself keep to the simple line dispensing with eyes, hackles, legs, whiskers, etc. They catch fish. Those I want to sell or enter in contests get the full treatment. Then and now, fish and fishermen see things differently.

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