I suppose every boy remembers getting his first fly rod. Mine came to me on July 15, 1915, my 12th birthday. When I walked into the living room to open my presents I knew it must be in the long and narrow package, still in the brown paper that the rod maker had shipped it in. All the other packages were in birthday wrappings. Inside the paper the rod was boxed in four thin pine slats with heavier square endpieces. A screwdriver had been thoughtfully placed on the table for me to use in prying off a slat.
"Be careful how you do it, Watty," said Father. He was continually telling me to be careful.
I got the slat off with no difficulty and no damage to the box or the rod within.
"You will need the box to send the rod back in when you break it," Father observed, but I did not listen. I had lifted out the rod. Until that moment I had not been at all confident of having a fly rod of my own. When, shortly after my preceding birthday, I had announced that what I had really wanted was a fly rod, Father said I was too young and irresponsible to be entrusted with anything so fragile. But after a time he had relented, I suspect at some pleading by my mother. I found it difficult to untie the tape of the snuff-brown twill envelope that encased the rod and still more difficult to withdraw the rod from the case. Fly rods in those days came packed on a sort of cylinder covered with cloth, with indented spaces to accept the two tips, the middle joint and the butt, with two tapes near top and bottom to hold the pieces firmly in their places. I now not only held my rod, I could see it.
How can I describe it for you? The slender pieces were a pale cream color—or should I call them ivory—against more snuff-brown cloth. The windings seemed unique: a pair of black, a pair of red, a pair of black, a pair of red, all the way down to the tip end. The most beautiful rod I had ever laid eyes on. The joints of my wrists and knees seemed on the point of dissolving. I could scarcely lift the pieces from their molded places.
"Take care how you put it together," Father told me. Speechless, I could only nod. I knew how to set up a rod; I had set up his more than once when he was going off to fish. I took out a tip and the middle joint, rubbed the male end of the ferrule behind my ear for lubrication as Father had taught me (some vulgar practitioners, he said, employed the nose for this purpose) and inserted it into the female section at the top of the middle joint. They slid together with a smooth, totally satisfying firmness. I repeated the process, joining the middle joint to the butt. The handle, instead of being covered with cork, was wound with a fine gray-green cord that, to my eyes, was especially beautiful. As my fingers closed snugly around it I felt the action of the rod. I swung it gently from left to right in horizontal arcs, as I had seen Father do to "feel" a rod, and a sense of life, suddenly created, filled my being. A reel would have to be mounted and line threaded through the guides before the rod's action was complete.
There were other packages on the birthday table. From Father came a single-action reel with a line, untapered in those early days. It had a hard enamel finish that could produce all kinds of kinks and snarls if one unwarily stripped too much from the reel, but that I was yet to learn. A wicker creel from my mother; it was somewhat smaller than my father's but serviceable nonetheless, with the same sort of sling. A landing net from my brother and a black leatherette fly book for an assortment of snelled flies and a couple of leaders from my little sister, Mary—I felt no boy could be better equipped to start out fishing with a fly. My heart burst with impatience to get off to our pond to test my skill at casting. There was, however, the birthday luncheon to sit through. On that particular morning I cared not an iota for ice cream, cake or party crackers, but mine was not a family to permit me to slight an observance of this nature.
So I shall spare you a catalog of tiresome details and give you instead the particulars of my new rod. It was 7½ feet long, weighed four ounces, and was made of lancewood by J.F. Pepper and Co., Inc. of Rome, N.Y. Why lancewood, not split bamboo? There were two reasons. First, lancewood was much less expensive. Behind the second reason hung a tale.
For 10 or 15 years, before, at the age of 50, he married my mother, Father had spent each September trout fishing in Quebec, where he and a Canadian enthusiast held a lease on the Murray River, or Malbaie as it was then called. Their water began at the foot of a spectacular 200-foot slide called La Chute, 10 or 12 miles above the river's mouth at Murray Bay, and extended all the way to the headwaters. Except for an occasional family of Indians, whose rights to fish had been retained, these two men had the river to themselves. In a real sense it was virgin fishing, and they and the friends they often took in with them came back with five- and six-pounders. Many were mounted for trophies. It was one such that a young rod maker named Pepper, about to set up business in Rome, saw in a taxidermist's shop. On impulse he sent Father one of his rods to try.
At the end of that year's fishing trip Father and two of his guides decided to make one last excursion from their base in the tiny village of St. Urbain to La Chute. It was a 24-mile round trip, and in their hurry to make it in the single day left to them, the head guide picked up Pepper's lancewood rod instead of the six-ounce bamboo Father had always used. The mistake was not discovered until they reached La Chute, where the four-ounce rod looked incongruously fragile against the great foaming slide, for La Chute was in spate. Yet the rod handled Father's double cast of No. 2 flies well. He sent his cast across the tumbling flood, then let it swing down with the current until his flies reached the calmer water close to shore. The minute he started to retrieve them the water exploded, he struck, and after 25 minutes of harrowing action the head guide, wading in until he was waist deep, netted the fish. It was a silvery gray female brook trout, 28 inches, 8¼ pounds. My father never again fished with anything but a lancewood rod.