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No Fly-By-Night Cabbie Is Jack
Robert H. Boyle
September 13, 1982
Jack Gartside ties some of his best flies in broad daylight while waiting for riders in a Boston taxi queue
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September 13, 1982

No Fly-by-night Cabbie Is Jack

Jack Gartside ties some of his best flies in broad daylight while waiting for riders in a Boston taxi queue

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Jack Gartside is a tall, lean, 39-year-old Bostonian who looks like Fred Astaire (so people say) and speaks like a Boston Brahmin. He probably fishes more blue-ribbon trout streams than any millionaire alive. He spends the greater part of every summer fly-fishing in Montana, and on occasion he also fishes in England, Norway, Sweden and Japan. In the summer of 1981 he fished in New Zealand for a month. The Boston-Auckland round-trip plane ticket cost Gartside $1.79, which is about the same as he will charge you for a ride from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to the Esplanade in his taxi.

That trip and that "fare" are fairly typical of Gartside's angling expeditions. One Sunday in late May a year ago, he had been lolling by the Charles River reading The Boston Globe when he came upon an ad announcing that, in order to publicize its new route from Boston to Denver, Continental Airlines was going to give away round-trip tickets to 225 people to anywhere in the world that the airline flew. They would be selected from among those who showed up at Logan International Airport the following morning dressed in costumes depicting the destinations of their choice. There was one major catch, and one minor catch: The minor one was a token charge of a $1 plus tax; the major one was that those picked had to depart that day.

At 10 a.m. Monday, Gartside made his appearance at the airport decked out in an Aussie campaign hat and a bush jacket made in New Zealand. "I thought that thousands of people would be there," he says, "but there were only about 300. By noon there were 500. Still, I figured I had a 50-50 chance. At 2:30 I was picked, and I only had two hours to get my boarding pass, rush back to my apartment for my rod, my flies and my clothes, and then get back to the airport again. You bet I made it."

Gartside landed in Auckland with all the money he had in the world, $200, but he calculated that would hold him for a while, given the way he travels. One of the people he first met, Bob Sullivan, a tackle dealer at Lake Taupo on the North Island, lent him a pair of waders, and Gartside then hitchhiked around the island by thumbing with his right hand while using his left to hold the waders and his rod aloft. The ploy worked beyond Gartside's expectations. A motorist who stopped to pick him up was going fishing himself, and he took Gartside along, for a week, and showed him all his secret spots. Later, a husband and wife Gartside met after he cadged a cigarette from them in a theater lobby and started telling how he had flown from Boston for only $1.79, put him up on their farm for a while and even loaned him their car to get around in.

Gartside held out in New Zealand for a month. When he arrived back in Boston, he had exactly $1.35 in change left in his pockets—"I always just make it under the wire"—and had to drive a cab for three weeks before he and his cat, Tobermory, named after a talking cat in a story by Saki, could drive out to West Yellowstone, Mont. in his battered 1965 Volvo sedan. The Volvo, which Gartside bought for $300 five years ago, currently has 397,000 miles on it, and it serves as his home away from home. The car is registered in Montana, and the license plates say FLYTYER, a self-advertisement for Gartside, who makes his living tying flies as well as driving a cab. When short of cash in the boondocks, Gartside will drive to a spot by a river where fishermen park and sell flies tied to order.

To describe Gartside simply as a hawker of stream-side flies would be like calling Nathan's Famous frankfurters mere hot dogs. Along with John Betts, who ties with synthetic materials (SI, May 4, 1981), Gartside, who ties almost exclusively with natural materials, is in the front rank nationally, which means the world. "I'd put him at the top," says Bud Lilly of West Yellowstone, who views flytiers with an experienced businessman's eye and whose mail-order catalog has featured Gartside's flies ever since the cabbie ambled into Lilly's shop one day in 1976 with a Pheasant Hopper stuck on his vest. "Jack's flies are superb," Lilly says. "His Pheasant Hopper is a real thing. When I first met Jack, he was kind of a drifter, but he has established direction, and if he continues in that direction, he's going to make an impression on the fly-fishing world. He has a lot of integrity, a lot of principle and a lot of feeling for what the sport is. He's an artist. He has a feeling for natural materials, a feeling for an idea, and he's not greedy. By not greedy, I mean he's not 'commercial' the way some flytiers can be."

Robert Rifchin, editor of The Roundtable, a magazine published by United Fly Tyers, Inc., confirms Gartside's credentials. "Oh, absolutely," he says. "Little known, but very talented. In terms of skill and ability, he's on a par with Betts. Jack can tie a conventional pattern with anyone in the United States, but he's an innovator, mostly because he didn't have money. He found ways to use materials that everyone has thrown away for years. He isn't a speedy commercial tier, but I've never seen anyone who has consistently produced better flies. There's no junk at all. He wouldn't let it go out with his name on the box. He'd fish it himself."

Back in Boston, Gartside often whiles away the time spent in taxi queues by tying flies in a vise attached to the steering wheel. Indeed, he originated his Hacklehead streamers while waiting at Logan. "I was tying some large marabou streamers," he says, "and as the sun was lying low, I needed a way to finish a head neatly under poor lighting conditions and hit upon this method." Recently a man got in the cab, saw what Gartside was doing and bought a dozen streamers.

When not tying flies in the cab, Gartside reads voraciously. His apartment is stuffed with thousands of books, in addition to a half dozen deer hides, a moose hide, pheasant skins, chicken necks and other fly-tying materials. At present, he's rereading Shakespeare's tragedies, and he has named a new fly Hamlet's Cloud. "Act Three, Scene Two," he says. "Hamlet asks, 'Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?' Polonius: 'By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.' Hamlet: 'Methinks it is like a weasel.' Polonius: 'It is backed like a weasel.' Hamlet: 'Or like a whale?' Polonius: 'Very like a whale.' Most fish are like Polonius. They see what they want to see, and this fly can be anything."

Gartside, who leases his cab by the mile from the Boston Cab Company, usually waits for fares in front of the Ritz, the Sheraton Boston or the new Marriott on the waterfront. His fares have included Laurence Olivier, Rudolph Nureyev, Seiji Ozawa, Joan Kennedy, William Buckley, Annie's dog, Sandy, Sarah Caldwell and Red Sox Pitcher Bruce Hurst. "The actors are usually very short jobs," he says. "They're playing at the Colonial, the Shubert or the Wilbur, and they stay at the Ritz."

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