The Well-Appointed Angler

You've got cigars, now here's the gear every fly fisherman needs to land the big one and to keep on casting for the one that got away
By Mike Spinney | From Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004
The Well-Appointed Angler

Reflecting a battleship gray sky, the foreboding water carries the angler and his guide downstream to the next run, where a gravel bar parallels a steep embankment and the river narrows along a deep channel. The pair beaches the craft and the angler walks the water's edge, surveying the current through polarized spectacles and measuring its breadth with a brief series of false casts.

The angler identifies his target—a seam of water adjacent to the main flow where a boulder roiling the surface forms a slick the size of a picnic table before disappearing into a choppy riffle. He drops his fly at the head of the slick and is focused as the imitation floats delicately along. There's a hint of motion and a flash of pink, then a speckled snout breaks the surface.

With deadly accuracy the fish parts the water and snatches the fly, then rolls its body back into the river. Lifting his arms, the angler abruptly halts the fish, which hurls itself out of the water in peril, arching completely airborne and shaking violently. Droplets of water shower from its glossy scales before a splashing reentry. Acting on survival instinct, the fish bolts one way, then another, then bursts out of the water again, shaking and contorting to rid itself of an unknown menace. Finally, the fish resigns itself to its fate and allows itself to be drawn to the bank.

With one arm the angler holds his rod up, and with the other cradles the fish in the soft mesh of a landing net while plucking the hook from its jaw. Holding the fish submerged in the shallow current, he waits for it to regain its strength, then releases the fish to dart back into the depths of the river, unseen.

Satisfied, the angler sits on a hunk of driftwood, reaches into his vest pocket for a cigar he has stashed there, and clips off the end. Scratching a match along a dry stone, he cups his hands and puffs the corona to life, watching the smoke tumble along with the river.

There's no doubting that for many fly anglers a streamside cigar is the ideal complement to a day afield. There's something about a fine cigar that completes the experience. A cigar rewards you when you reel in a lunker and calms your nerves after an encounter with one that gets away. It's also true that carrying cigars on a fishing trip greatly increases your chances of having a satisfying and successful day on the water.

Of course, you'll need some other equipment, too, and there are many choices for anyone wishing to outfit himself and participate. Like cigars, there are choices that will enhance the experience and others that will simply be an experience. Here's a closer look at some gear and accessories to keep in mind:

Cane Rods
Rods come in two basic materials: cane or graphite composite. Die-hard traditionalists will tell you that there's nothing like casting with a cane rod, and there's certainly no comparing the aesthetics of a finely crafted cane rod with any modern stick.

"Like cigars, sometimes it takes a discriminating palate to tell the difference between a good rod and a great rod," says Tom Dorsey, co-founder of the famous rod maker Thomas & Thomas. "But to the people for whom it matters, it matters."

Dorsey started building rods with his brother-in-law Thomas Maxwell as a hobby in 1967. Unsatisfied with the action of commercial rods that he'd used, he set out to build one he liked. Today, Thomas & Thomas is the standard by which all other cane rods are judged. Its long list of customers includes George Carlin and Eric Clapton, and during his term in office, President Reagan gave Thomas & Thomas cane rods as gifts to the British royal family and other heads of state. A Thomas & Thomas rod is an investment that can cost $3,000 or more, but like any good investment, it pays dividends when you drop a line into the water. For more information, call 413-774-5436 or visit www.thomasandthomas.com.

Another name of note in cane rod craftsmanship is Jenkins. C. W. (Charlie) Jenkins and his son, Steve, turn out a small number of cane rods from their Colorado workshop each year for an enthusiastic following of devoted traditionalists.

"A lot of people build ornate, fancy rods," says Steve Jenkins when asked what sets a Jenkins rod apart. "Our top priority is to build the best fishing tool. Our cosmetics are second to none, but we've developed a philosophy that simplicity is its own form of beauty."

The Jenkins rod got its start in 1960 when Charlie turned out a few in his basement. Local anglers took note and orders started coming in. More than 40 years later, Charlie is still at it. Steve joined him 12 years ago, and today the duo build around 40 rods each year, which is not nearly enough to keep up with the demand. "It's about 12 months from date of order to date of delivery," Steve Jenkins says. A Jenkins cane rod ranges from $1,470 to $1,570, but rest assured that you are buying a fishable piece of art for your money. Contact Jenkins at 970-947-9404 or visit www.jenkinsflyrods.com.

Graphite Rods
Sometimes the aesthetics of a cane rod are simply no match for the conditions. When you're fishing in salt water, for example, or slugging it out with larger freshwater species, you may need something more. Or perhaps you just prefer technology over tradition and choose to take advantage of modern polymers to get the job done.

R.L. Winston, one of the most respected names to ever grace a fly rod, got its start in 1929 turning out excellent cane rods, but has since emerged to become one of the leading innovators in graphite and graphite composite rods. Crafted in Twin Bridges, Montana, in the heart of America's blue-ribbon trout country, R.L. Winston's rods go through extra steps to ensure a level of excellence. The company, which has built rods for George H. W. Bush and Tiger Woods, adds three coats of epoxy to its rods and gives each rod a serial number. It also customizes rods with personalized inscriptions and reel seats that range from exotic woods to faux ivory scrimshaw.

Sam Drukman, R.L. Winston's rod designer, is proud that Winston rods are known as much for their performance as for their looks. "The rod is well engineered," he says. "You're buying design and high-end, high-tolerance manufacturing. That's our heritage. A design philosophy that every rod we sell should cast beautifully, but not be overbuilt." A Winston graphite rod goes for $545 to $895. Contact 406-684-5674 or visit www.winstonrods.com.

Lesser known but equal in reputation are the graphite rods made by Mark Steffen of Steffen Brothers Fly Rods, located in Flagstaff, Arizona. Steffen describes himself as a "recluse fly fisherman who builds fly rods." Steffen fly rod owners are more likely to call the man a genius.

Steffen, who has been building rods for 25 years, creates all his rods from scratch using equipment he designed himself. He describes the process as "labor-intensive rather than automated," adding that the goal is to "make rods that I like." The result of Steffen's philosophy is that a growing number of fly anglers are falling in love with his rods, which sell for around $495.

Low-key but stubbornly passionate about his craft, Steffen allows that the primary difference between his rods and the more well-known brands is that he makes rods that fish well in close, at ranges that most anglers need. Whether on a mountain stream or in the brine, the majority of fish-catching opportunities come at short to medium range, where Steffen believes his rods excel. For more information, contact Steffen Brothers at 928-522-0617 or visit www.steffenbrothersflyrods.com.

Traditional Fly Reels
In fly-fishing circles the name Bogdan is synonymous with excellence, and for 63 years Stanley E. Bogdan has made what are generally regarded as the finest fly reels available. Each Bogdan reel is handmade by him and his son Steven in their shop in New Ipswich, New Hampshire.

Bogdan started out crafting salmon reels, which featured a unique braking system critical for hooking salmon, and they became so popular among the world's Atlantic salmon-fishing elite that Bogdan reluctantly began turning out trout reels in the early 1970s to satisfy demand.

For Bogdan, his reputation for making quality reels was his ticket to elbow-rubbing with American entertainers, British aristocracy and captains of industry, and he's fiercely proud of the fact. "I'm the biggest name-dropper you'll find," Bogdan says in a wry tone, recalling famous anglers who were both clients and friends. "I used to fish with Benny Goodman. Bing Crosby was also a customer, and the Duke of Wellington." Ironically, while Bogdan, who is now in his 80s, is renowned for his skill at making the finest salmon reel on the planet, it was not until 1957 that he took his first salmon-fishing trip, on the Matane River in Quebec. He has since traveled the world, wetting a line in some of the finest and most exclusive salmon waters and creating a reel that meets and overcomes the challenges.

A Bogdan salmon reel will lighten your wallet by $1,350 to $1,750, while a Bogdan trout reel goes for a mere $1,150. Only 200 or so reels leave the shop every year, and back orders range from six months to three years. But ask any owner of a Bogdan reel and he'll tell you the wait is worth it. For more information, call Bogdan at 603-924-9822.

Contemporary Fly Reels
In the staid world of fly-fishing, colorful gear is the exception, not the rule, but in the case of Abel Quality Products, it's also exceptional. The Camarillo, California, company makes the best modern fly reel in the business and is favored by big-game anglers the world over because they know it will not let them down once the hook is set. When Steve Abel opened his shop in 1977, it wasn't to build fly-fishing reels but rather to manufacture precision parts for the medical and aerospace industries. That changed when Abel, a fly fisherman at heart, began growing more and more unsatisfied with the reels he was fishing with. He then decided to try building reels himself—ones that would meet the same exacting specifications his industrial customers expected. One friend was so impressed with the reels that he asked Abel to make a reel for him, too. It wasn't long before a fly-fishing legend was born.

Abel makes reels to meet every fishing need, from light tackle to big game. In addition to the reel's rugged construction, it boasts a zero-torque drag system, which is important while fishing with ultralight tippets or while battling a monster tarpon. If you want an Abel reel, prepare to plunk down up to $750, or even more if you want customizations such as a personalized anodized finish with an American flag or a particular fish species. But be assured that you're getting a reel that will last and not let you down. "People work hard to afford the best toys," says Jeff Patterson, who has been with Abel for 13 years, "and [the Abel reel] is one of them."

Contact Abel Quality Products at 805-484-8789 or visit www.abelreels.com.

Waders
Wading technology has come a long way since man first stitched waterproof canvas pants to a pair of Wellingtons. Today, the hands-down choice is Tailwaters XT waders from fly-fishing staple Orvis. The integrated lace-up design of the Tailwaters XT's boot-foot and the stocking-foot waders have anglers raving. Bob Murphy, a product development specialist with Orvis, says the advent of new materials and manufacturing techniques converged to allow an integrated design that makes the company's waders comfortable, durable and lightweight. Abby Ward, the company's spokeswoman, credits the new design for the deluge of positive feedback that Orvis has received from its vast network of professional guides.

Tailwaters XTs retail for $379 and are available directly through Orvis by calling 800-333-1550 or visiting www.orvis.com.

Chest Pack
The Richardson chest pack has developed a cult following in the angling world. It was originally designed to complement the traditional fishing vest, but anglers have discovered that the modular design and hands-free operation also make it the ideal fly storage system.

Owners Karl Weber and Bob Hegedus are the third in a succession of company owners maintaining a sacred tradition of hand-making each chest box system that leaves their central Pennsylvania facility.

Because each Richardson chest box is handmade, Weber and Hegedus can accommodate requests for custom features, such as a special tray to hold a favorite cigar or a flask. "We once made a special flask for a salmon fisherman who took a shot of whiskey after each salmon he landed," Weber relates.

A Richardson chest box can cost as much as $500 or more, depending upon the level of customization the customer wants, but Weber says most orders range between $200 and $250.

Contact Richardson Chest Fly Box Co. at 814-353-3188 or visit www.chestflybox.com.

Vise
For many anglers, one of the true joys of the sport is catching fish on a fly they've tied themselves. When it comes to tying flies, no other vise can match the quality or performance of an HMH vise.

HMH vises are counted on by every level of flytier to take the frustration out of the often delicate artistry involved in spinning thread and feathers into an imitation fly that will help coax a fish onto a hook. Many giants of the fly-tying world put HMH on their bench and wouldn't think of using anything else.

According to Dana Dodge, operations manager at HMH, there are two choices for a tier who wants the best vise available: the HMH Exhibition or an HMH Limited Edition Premium.

"The Limited Edition is a true collector's item, and there are fewer than 50 available," Dodge says, adding that buyers can expect to pay at least $1,000 for the vise, but, as with all HMH vises, the product is backed by a lifetime, unconditional guarantee.

"You wear out or break your jaw, we replace it free of charge; your basement gets flooded, we'll refurbish the vise," Dodge says. "We take our guarantee seriously."

Contact HMH at 207-729-5200 or visit www.hmhvises.com.

As with most pursuits, innumerable doodads are needed to round out the complement of equipment that is required. Flies, forceps, line, leader material, floatant...the list goes on and on. Many fishing and outdoor shops offer expert advice to help you get the most out of fly-fishing, including what kind of fishing is available in your area.

So grab a stick, hit the water and, when you are done, light up a self-congratulatory smoke and share a story with those who will listen about the one that didn't get away.

Mike Spinney, a freelance writer from Massachusetts, enjoys paddling his canoe and casting flies on the many streams, rivers and ponds near his home.