And the Flies That Killed the Grayling
- By: Donald J. Goodman
EDITOR’S NOTE: The John D. Voelker Foundation, sponsors with Fly Rod & Reel of the Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, announced at their 20th Annual Meeting in 2009 A Tribute to Rusty Gates: "Whereas, Rusty Gates founded and championed The Anglers of the Au Sable, and Whereas, The Anglers and Rusty have faithfully defended The Holy Waters and the Au Sable Watershed, Now Therefore, the John D. Voelker Foundation is proud to have Partnered with and looks forward to encouraging strong support for Rusty Gates and the Anglers as they protect The Environs where Trout are Found."
Also in 2009, The Voelker Foundation, with Fly Rod & Reel, decided to introduce a special Traver Award/Rusty Gates Honorable Mention Award for an essay or story of particular merit. That award goes to Donald Goodman for his story “Camp Elegance.”
Celebrated conservationist and fly-fisherman Calvin “Rusty” Gates Jr. died on December 19, 2009 at his home on the banks of the Au Sable River in Grayling, Michigan after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. Gates was the proprietor of Gates Au Sable Lodge, and an iconic fly-fishing personality. And now—"Camp Elegence" by Donald Goodman:
I am standing in the dark doorway at two in the morning looking down the silvered, rain-washed lawn, hearing from across the river the haunting whoop of a whippoorwill and on this side listening to the rollicking fly-fishing trinity sitting around the picnic table—a rendezvous with John Voelker, Mary Orvis Marbury and Dame Juliana Berners. Always wondered how they’d get along. On the table I see an open jar of maraschino cherries, a small plate of orange slices, a bottle of bourbon and three almost-empty tumblers. Getting along better than I ever would have guessed.
When fishermen wiped out every last grayling from this river more than 100 years ago, following the commercial environmental standards of annihilation, extinction and ruin, they did it the gentlemanly way: no Indian gill nets, no dynamite, no poisons. No, they wiped them out with fly rods and flies, usually filling their boats using 10-foot bamboo rods, nine foot leaders, and a trace of three flies, often as not, according to Jerry Dennis, a Silver Widow, a Professor and a Coachman. I am here at this lodge intending to use one of these flies to tempt the trout that followed the grayling.
The American grayling, by the way, looks like it was assembled with parts the Almighty found in the bottom of the box: a steroid-enhanced half-pound minnow covered with a coat of mail like a knight’s, the scales pink, violet, brass, gray, silver, and gold, all the while flaunting the dorsal fin of a sailfish. Preposterous yet somehow elegant. Like my cabin.
The name on the wrapper of the thin wafer of soap in my bathroom reads ELEGANCE but the rest of the lodging falls a little short. No dials or gearshifts on the shower to call up a hammering hydro-message. Just plumbing pipes and knobs marked “C” and nothing. I assume the knob marked nothing is hot. No air conditioning, just a motor from a Boeing B-17 mounted on a tall pole, the propeller in a cage for safety. And no internet, no electronic card key for the door, (just a brass key dangling a plastic tag) no telephone, no clock-radio, no 2-cup coffee pot with a little basket full of perfumed teas from someplace England used to own.
The walls of my room, however, are lovely knotty pine. After the Civil War loggers clear-cut the whole state; in 1890 alone they floated 300 million log-feet of pine down this river to rebuild the bars and bawdy houses of Chicago where the good citizens, after a meal of oysters, buffalo tongue, passenger pigeon, and grayling, could retire and enjoy cigars, brandy, and an hour with their favorite floozy. I am glad they salvaged enough knotty pine to do my room. Alongside the lodge was a restaurant, where, I was told, they served excellent food. But no alcohol. Bring your own.
At five p.m. I tried out the place intending to get four more hours of twilight fishing in after supper, although the cloud bank out west had begun to build and grumble. Restaurant was a pleasant place, waxed pine walls adorned with framed posters of trout streams, mounted trout flies, and copies of John Voelker’s Testament to a Fisherman. I enjoyed a cute half-loaf of hot bread, a pan-fried rainbow trout and a patty of crisp-edged hash browns smelling delightfully of fried potatoes and onions. The wine selection was excellent since I brought it in a brown paper bag.
THE SILVER WIDOW
A Silver Widow, a Professor, and a Coachman in concert killed just about every last grayling in the river, according to writer Jerry Dennis. In my home library I found no reference to a Silver Widow, although Mary Orvis Marbury in her Favorite Flies And Their Histories (1892) describes an ordinary run-of-the-mill Widow “made of dark violet stuff with gray mallard feathers for wings.” Later anglers added a bit of glitz to the mourning lady by tying on a girdle of silver floss and a tail of silver monkey hair. Silver monkey hair? According to Herter’s catalog, fly tiers were using silver monkey hair for Professors, Grizzly Kings, Queen of the Waters, and many other flies as late as 1941.
That December German submarines began putting a damper on the silver monkey trade along with shipments of orange baboon hair for Cahills, Jackal tails for Montreals, Calambas monkey stripes for who-knows-what?, and completely shutting down commerce in brown, black, white, and gray Monga ring tails. Monga ring tails were used in everything from Coachmen to Beaverkills to Cowdungs and Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ears. Haven’t the slightest idea what a Monga looks like. Only references I found on the internet were an article by a Doctor Manoj Monga about microscopic epididymal sperm aspiration in four monkeys and a recording by Madonna, Vete a la monga which begins with wazaaaaaaaaaa vete la monga!
Can’t imagine what possible aspirations four monkey sperms might entertain other than finding four cute monkey ova, nor what on earth Madonna was singing about. It is interesting that Mary Orvis’s plain-Jane violet Widow recipe appears in her book just after Dame Juliana Berner’s 1492 choice for July fly-of-the-month: The Waspe fly. Considering its color and its employment of buzzards and their necrophilic connections,
Dame Juliana’s Waspe fly might have passed for a Widow fly. Dame Juliana describes the Wasp’s body of black wull lappid abowte with yellow threde, the wings of boswarde (buzzard). Dame Juliana was a prioress who wrote the world’s first treatise on fishing the same year Columbus set out to find the wrong Indians. She liked the Wasp fly for ye trought and grayllyng.
In her treatise she not only told how to tie flies and bend hooks, but also how to make a three-piece telescoping rodde using willowe, grene hasyll, and a fayre shote of blacke thorne for the tip section. Furthermore, centuries before A.K. Best discovered Rit dye, the prioress was boiling up ale, walnut leaves, alum, and beaten copper to dye her horse-tail fishing lines into eight different colors. Some historians have questioned whether a 15th Century prioress would be out there fysshyng with rod, line, hookes of the smallest quarelle nedilles , and flyes that she had made, but at least one source I found said that the prioresses of that time were often the spoiled daughters of lords and knights and inclined at times to be a hell-raising bunch. Priests complained that some went out on the town, picked up men, gambled, seduced the friars, cooked the books in the priory, bought up land with their misbegotten earnings, and wore what they damn well pleased.
In the 14th Century, Chaucer’s own doe-eyed prioress seemed to have a flair for shamelessly showing off her lovely forehead by tipping back her wimple and also wearing glitzy, expensive jewelry such as her coral and green stone Rosary wrapped around her bare arm as a bracelet and displaying, in Latin, the teeny-bopper mantra: “Love Conquers All.” Today she’d probably sport a nipple-ring and a Harley tattoo.
And in spite of her eating daintily with just the tips of her fingers and entertaining a sappy indulgence for puppy dogs and mice, her Canterbury tale was pretty raunchy. In it a gang of thugs belonging to one religion slit the throat of a seven-year-old choir boy of another faith and then stuffed his body down the hole in an outhouse where the dead lad in the dung heap promptly and miraculously began to sing. His mother heard his voice, found him in the hole and, although he was quite beyond paddles or CPR, she was at least able to clean him up and have him properly buried. This story was removed from some editions of the Tales. In all fairness, though, in the end the miscreants were brought to justice, pulled apart by wild horses and then disemboweled. After hearing a sweet young thing rattle off a tale like that, catching fysche with flyes seems pretty tame.
Incidentally, while our Dame Juliana might have approved of the flies and rods they used in the 1800’s, she would have deplored the over-fishing: Also ye shall not be to rauenous in taking of your sayde game, as too muche at one tyme …should be the occasion to destroye your owne disportes and other mens as well. And when ye haue a sufficient messe, ye should couet no more…
U-boats might have cut off the supply of skins and feathers 450 years after Dame Juliana wrote her guidelines and recipes, and might have curtailed even her precious buzzard wings, but they wouldn’t have affected the supply of buttercups, in case you were willing to go back to the roots. Mary Orvis tells the story of Professor John Wilson running out of flies one day and fastening the petals of a buttercup to his hook, afterwards adding leaves of grass for wings. Apparently it was successful, and apparently the professor soon ran out of buttercups since he then went home and substituted gold silk floss for the body while other fishermen added their little touches to arrive at Herter’s 1941 Professor with red floss tail, brown hackle, and, of course, silver monkey wings. The whole story is too preposterous to believe and too delightful to doubt.
The Professor might frolic with fairies and the Widow spend her time at funerals while the Waspe with its buzzard parts might hang out on road kill, but it’s the Coachman who goes to the Embassy Ball. Who wouldn’t love this magnificent attire? It isn’t even fraudulent. Nothing in nature looks like that. The tail a sprig of golden pheasant tippets, two puffs of peacock herl for a body with a cummerbund of red satin, and a hair-winged fan from a snow-white goat skin flaring like a gallant’s cape on his way to serve the queen: DELIGHTFUL!
I had fished most of the day with my 8 ½ foot Phillipson Pacemaker bouncing the #16 Royal Coachman down the folds and furrows and dance floor of the river, in and out of trouble and shrubbery, dodging aluminum canoes full of dogs, and guiding the Coachman in its glorious colors, while it danced the waves in two-step, quick-step, long graceful glides of a waltz: he can do them all! And all the while I am thinking that this whole procedure makes us counterfeit deities, creating tiny river creatures with our fingers and then pretending to bring them to life with a wand. Do enough thinking like this and you wind up climbing trees. CAMP ELEGANCE Although I came to this lodge with three fly rods, at least a hundred flies (but no buzzard-wing waspe flyes ), two reels, and spools and spools of tippit, I was poorly equipped. More than once John Gierach has written that you should always bring at least two fat detective novels on any fishing trip.
The Chilean poet, Neruda, agreed: when he’d heard he was a contender for the Nobel, he bought a huge lock for his gate and stocked up on food stuffs, red wine, and detective novels. Not me. I had packed a single book, “a complex, mysterious, beautiful novel;… (which) caused (the reviewer) to plummet to a place deep inside… where the most enduring and pure human emotion resides.” It contained “searing imagery, …incandescent writing, the calm probing of life’s most turbulent and devastating experiences.”
Hell, I should have known better. Because right after dinner the clouds lit up and the sky poured down and I was stuck in the cabin propped against a Wal-Mart pillow swatting mosquitoes and probing life’s most devastating experiences with a thundering, river-strafing, lightning-flash storm all around. For a while I moved outside with a glass and uncorked my half-finished bottle of Italian Pinot Grigio. Then sitting on a cabin chair on the concrete apron protected by the roof overhang, I tried to plummet to a place deep inside where I could find some turbulent and devastating experiences. Almost fell asleep. Must be something better. I went back inside and found it on the nightstand’s bottom shelf: the book that made the cabin elegant.
The Ur-book of fly fishing in 20th Century America; the book that started it all. Before Gierach, before A.K.Best, before Lee Wulf and Jerry Dennis and Nick Lyons and Harry Middleton; before McGuane, Chatham; even before the river ran through it, there was Traver. There was John Voelker.
Elegant: from the ancient Indo-European root, leg , and the earliest related word: lekjaz, ENCHANTER, ONE WHO SPEAKS MAGIC WORDS.. True, at the Crown Plaza of White Plains New York I’d have six pillows on my bed, each probably costing a hundred bucks, and a basket of fruit on the desk, and a bill that ran exactly four hundred per cent more than I’m paying here, but I wouldn’t have elegance, I wouldn’t have Trout Magic by Robert Traver. And in hard cover! I filled my water glass with wine, sat up in bed, and read The Testament of a Fisherman; read about Morris the Rod Maker, and mayflies, and the hoarded cast, and D. McGinnis until I’d finished the bottle and fallen asleep listening to the downpour and smelling the dislodged churn of the river, satiated with elegance.
I woke in the dark to the clear silence of after-rain and the voices around the picnic table, climbed off the bed, opened the screen door, and saw them there: Mary Orvis Marbury and John Voelker belting back Old Fashioneds out of large jelly glasses and biting booze-dripping cherries off the stems. At the end of the picnic table sat someone in a vast gown, cape, and wimple holding a small, square quarrel nedille in her fingers, wrapping it with blacke wull & lappid abowte w yellow threde. The wings of course would be buzzard. John was telling the girls about Danny McGinnis fishing through the frozen lake for a jug of moonshine the coldest evening of the year, and his audience whooped with delight when the frostbitten game wardens showed up and begged for a snort.
Then Mary told the story of the famous royal coachman, Tom Bosworth, who became skilled with fly rod by practicing with his coach whip while driving Her Majesty Queen Victoria around London. Old Tom loved snatching the pipe from the teeth of a passing pedestrian “with a carefully calculated whirl of his whip!” At that moment Dame Juliana tossed them each a Wasp fly and announced, “Tyme to fysshe!”
She tossed off her cape, her robe, her wimple, and her rosary, hanging them all on a bush and turning to reveal a nylon fishing shirt in sprout green, a pair of Cabela’s Cimarron grey stone Dry Plus waders, and a pair of Hodgman boots. And on her head a baseball cap emblazoned FLY GAL. Not what I thought they wore under those habits. Away they went with their flies and fly rods toward a river sliced by thousands of ghost dorsal fins.
Even as they stepped into the current, casting upstream where the river had come from, upstream where the planet had been, upstream into the infinite yesterdays of grayling and passenger pigeon and forest primeval, I could hear Dame Juliana singing softly: Wazaaaaaaaaaa vete la monga!
Donald J. Goodman is a writer who lives in Muskegon, Michigan. His story “The Secret Lives of Fly Rods” was a finalist in the 2007 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award.