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
September 12, 1982

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."

On occasion a fare will prove to be an adventure. "A girl got into my cab one evening," says Gartside, "and she told me she wanted to stake out a Japanese restaurant. Her name was Jodie, and she suspected that her boyfriend was having an affair with her roommate, a Japanese girl who was a waitress in the restaurant. I parked across the street from the restaurant, and after a while the boyfriend showed up and met the Japanese girl. They got into his car. 'Follow them,' Jodie said. We must have gone 15 miles trailing them before they finally drew up in front of her house. Jodie said to me, 'Why don't you go to the door of the apartment and pretend you're a Western Union messenger, and I'll hide in an alcove and when they come to the door I'll surprise them.' It was a dull night, so I said, 'O.K., but pay me now.' She did, and I went into the house and knocked at the door. 'Who is it?' asked the Japanese girl. 'Western Union,' I said. The Japanese girl opened the door, and behind her I could see the boyfriend, both in scanty costumes. 'What is it?' she asked. 'I have a message from Jodie,' I said. 'What is it?' she asked. I said, 'I think you should ask her yourself.' At which point I thought it wise to depart as Jodie came out from the alcove."

If Gartside seems unusually well-spoken and well-read for a cabdriver, even a Boston cabdriver, it should be noted that until seven years ago he was a high school English teacher in Boston. He quit the day some students set fire to a desk and the classroom went up in smoke. "It's safer driving a cab at night in Boston than it is teaching in a Boston school during the day," he says.

Gartside and his sister, Gladys, are the only Gartsides in the Boston area phone books. The name is English (it literally means by the side of an enclosed garden), and all the Gartsides in his family came from Lancashire. Grandfather Gartside was a machinist on his way to Australia who passed through Boston and never got any farther. Instead, he married a young English girl who was working as a domestic servant in Newton and raised a family. Jack's father, John, was also a machinist, and life was always a struggle. To make ends meet, he worked as a part-time cop, while his wife worked as a secretary and telephone solicitor. She also played the organ in St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Revere, Mass., where her husband served as a lay reader. "My father was a great reader," Gartside says. "He had a wonderful speaking voice, a High Church voice. He always talked about the church and never about his work, although he never missed a day."

When Jack was born, his mother gave him the middle name of Clarence after her uncle, Clarence Wheeler, a general manager of the National Biscuit Company. "She hoped he would remember us in the will," Gartside says. "My mother named my sister after Uncle Clarence's only daughter, Gladys. When Uncle Clarence died, he didn't remember us at all but left everything to his daughter."

As a boy Gartside read every book he could get his hands on. "I read King Solomon's Mines, She, all of Rider Haggard. Arthur Conan Doyle, all the Holmes stories. I reread them every other year. Ghost stories—M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, John Collier, Roald Dahl. I've always been very strong on story and plot. That's why I read and why I fish and why I live and why I play poker and why I drive a cab—for the surprise ending. Think of that passage in the Bible, 'O Lord, let me know the number of my days.' Wouldn't it be awful to know that? My father always told me stories, too, and he encouraged me to travel. He was always poring over maps, and we would make imaginary trips together. But he never did make any trips. He couldn't even drive a car. Failed every driver's test he ever took."

The younger Gartside also had a vivid imagination; he would see himself as a character in whatever book he happened to be reading. "I went to a neighborhood reunion in Revere the other day and saw kids I used to hang around with when I was 10 or 11," Gartside says. "One fellow remembered me as a boy Tarzan. The mayor remembered that I went around with a lasso for two or three years roping everyone I saw, including him. Almost broke his neck. When I was in the seventh grade I held the school record for truancy and tardiness, and I guess I haven't stopped yet. I'm still late for everything.

"The first time I was ever arrested was when I was 12, but I impressed the police with my reading knowledge. I had gone to Filene's basement with a friend whose mother had given him money for a pair of shoes. My friend lost the money, and he didn't dare go home. 'I'll pinch a pair for you,' I said. I did, and I was caught. The police took me in a paddy wagon to the station, where I was locked up behind a grill near the sergeant's desk. The cop and the sergeant, both Irish, were talking about politics, and the sergeant asked, 'Who wrote that book, The Last Hurrah The cop didn't know, but I called out, 'Edwin O'Connor,' and the sergeant said, 'Can't be such a bad kid if he knows that.' The second time I was arrested was in Norway for trespassing on a salmon river, a river that costs a fortune to fish. I didn't think anyone would see me. I pleaded ignorance. I said I was hiking when I came across this river, and I just happened to have my rod with me. Since I had my town license and a Norwegian girl friend testified in my behalf, they let me off."

It wasn't so easy with the pinched shoes from Filene's basement. "I had to go to juvenile court," Gartside recalls. "I was given a suspended sentence and told to stay out of trouble for six months."

Gartside's father, who was mightily upset by the incident, sought to channel Jack's energies into fishing. The senior Gartside didn't fish himself, but there was a long breakwater at Revere that was exposed at low tide, and Gartside would go there to fish for pollack, mackerel and striped bass. "I was often stranded out there when the tide rose, and the Coast Guard had to rescue me several times," he says. "Once I got my picture in the paper. I was a Red Sox fan, still am, and at the Sportsman's Show I saw my idol, Ted Williams, tying flies. I don't think I'd thought much about trout then, but I said to myself, 'Boy, if Ted Williams is doing this, it must be good.' I went home, took two of my grandfather's micrometers and used one to clamp the other one down while I used it as a vise. My grandfather wasn't pleased at all when he found out. The calibrations were off ever after. I tied flies with fur from the cat and pigeon feathers. I started fishing for trout, and with the first streamer I tied I caught a trout in Fish Brook, a tributary of the Ipswich River. I had a fishing friend, Henry Lightbody, a misnomer if there ever was one because he was one of the fattest kids I've ever known. We'd sit behind one another in class, desks half-open, reading Ray Bergman and Joe Brooks in Outdoor Life. Bergman wrote about trout fishing in the East, Brooks about Montana, and that's why I later went out there."

When Gartside was 18, he enlisted in the Air Force. "I joined to see the world," he says. "Where did I first end up? Cape Cod. Later on, I did get to Okinawa and Japan. Fly fishing appeals to the Japanese. It's very graceful and contemplative."

Gartside got out of the Air Force in 1966, went home and found that his father was dying. "All he did was raise a family, work hard, have all these dreams about traveling and never went anywhere," Gartside says. "And then one day when he was 53 he found himself flat on his back with cancer. He spent almost a year in dying, and a few weeks before he died he told me never to end up like that, full of regret for all the things he never did. I do what I do, I am what I am, I take from my father's death."

Gartside worked his way through the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where he majored in English and minored in German. He graduated in 1969, went to work as a teacher and spent the summers fishing. In 1975, he quit teaching to drive a cab.

To support himself on his jaunts abroad, Gartside has served as an extra in a Norwegian movie about Vikings (he played a peasant), has worked as a waiter in Sweden and Japan, has unloaded Argentine beef on the docks of Lübeck in West Germany and has swept African tobacco off the floors of an Amsterdam cigarette factory. Everything he swept, including dust and dead snakes found in the bales, accompanied the tobacco on the conveyor belt, and he soon was promoted to blender. In that capacity he added chocolate, mint and other flavoring to cigarettes for the European market that were supposed to have an American taste. "I worked in a stainless steel vat filled with mint from China," he says. "Ever been in a mint vat? A great smell."

In this country, Gartside takes odd jobs whenever his car breaks down as he drives back and forth between Boston and the trout streams of Montana. Once after he ran into a moose with a Ford van, he spent a week in Minneapolis putting screws in caskets and another week degreasing skimobile runners in order to pay for the repairs. When really pressed for money, he'll skip eating. "I can imagine eating a meal, and then I won't eat because my imagination has fed me," he explains. "That's why I'm so skinny—6'2" and 153 pounds."

Gartside owns only two rods. One is nine feet long and made of graphite, the other, a seven-footer, of fiber glass. "I'm not a good fisherman because I don't know equipment," he says. "I just know how to catch fish. After a while you get to know where the fish are." Indeed, one fish he's very proud of is a four-pound brown trout he caught in England. That's a nice fish, but it hardly seems worth a brag, except for the fact that Gartside caught it in London in the moat of the Old Palace near Parliament. "There are some nice trout there," he says. "People feed them bread and popcorn, but if you get down there early enough you can get in a cast." His best fish was a 13½-pound brown trout that he took in the Gallatin River in Montana in 1979 on his first cast of the year out West. "Kind of spoiled the whole season for me," he says. "It was on August 1, a hot day when even mad dogs and Englishmen were hiding under bushes. A friend took pictures of it, and then I released it. I took that fish on a fly that's listed in Bud Lilly's catalog as the Filo Fly. It's also sold as the Gartside Pheasant Nymph, but it's most commonly called the Sparrow, at least in the East, after being so named by Pete Laszlo in The Roundtable. The Sparrow is by far my most successful subsurface, all-purpose fly. I use it in different sizes, colors and hackle lengths for most of my nymph fishing. I also fish it as a streamer."

Filo feathers, or aftershafts, are the small, fluffy feathers found down toward the rump of a pheasant. Gartside started using them one day because he had little else to tie from a bird he had otherwise plucked bare. Along with the Sparrow, Gartside ties a number of ultrasoft flies, such as the Wet Mouse, which looks like a pussy willow bud. "I first tied up this pattern on a large, pointless hook as a plaything for Tobermory," he says. "It amused him for about two minutes." Trout apparently take it for a dragonfly nymph.

Another well known Gartside is the dry Pheasant Hopper that Bud Lilly spotted on Gartside's vest that day in 1976. He forms the wing by coating a pheasant feather with polyurethane spar varnish and stroking it into a V-shape that forms naturally. He then cups the wing over a body made of poly-yarn and an under-wing made of deer hair. He has found that the most effective body colors are tan, gray, green and yellow, while an orangish body makes an excellent adult stonefly imitation. "The Pheasant Hopper is very durable and quite popular in the West," he says, "and it's been written up in a few books and magazines. Unfortunately, everyone who has written about it has, for some reason, gotten the pattern wrong. I don't use the 'church window' feathers on a pheasant for the wings but the feathers just below them on the back."

There is one inelegant, if spectacularly effective, fly that Gartside ties. It imitates a cigarette filter tip. He tied it one day after discovering that a number of trout in the Firehole River in Yellowtone had filter tips in their stomachs. Gartside has since learned that the trout probably strike at a filter-tip fly because it looks like a freshly molted nymph of an aquatic insect, especially one of the per-lid stoneflies.

Besides selling to Lilly or to anglers who happen to jump into his cab, Gartside sells flies by mail. His flies cost from $1.35 to $2 each, and he maintains a year-round post office box in West Yellowstone (Box 853, zip code 59758) to receive orders; the postal service obligingly forwards the mail to Boston when he's in residence there.

"I think my flies are pretty good," Gartside says. "I have my strengths and my weaknesses. I work with what I have, and I've been very limited in money for materials. To me, fly tying really has very little to do with fishing. If all the rivers in the world dried up tomorrow, I'd still tie flies. I like looking at photographs of flies. I take pictures of them, and I have prints made from the slides. Maybe it's growing up with TV, but things look more real to me in a photograph."

Despite his love of fly tying, Gartside refuses to tie full time. "It's lonely work," he says, "and doing it full time would become monotonous. I can't stand focusing on a small space for long periods of time. I like to get out and see things and meet people. That's why I like driving a cab. Also, driving a cab is unpredictable. I like surprise endings."

Recently Gartside has been driving the cab more and tying flies less, in an effort to pay vet bills for his cat, Tobermory, who came down with a mysterious ailment. Though the cat recovered, the bills were so high that Gartside had to sell his piano for $600.

This summer, Gartside spent two free weeks in England (he was the guest of his sister, Gladys, who was left an inheritance by Uncle Clarence's spinster daughter, Gladys, when she died in 1980), and after returning he hacked for a month to raise cash for his annual trek to Montana. Alas, just as he and Tobermory were set to take off in the Volvo, the car blew its water pump and alternator. Gartside then took a bus to Montana, while the cat, which was refused passage on the bus, went in a crate by plane. They met in Bozeman and from there they hitched to West Yellowstone. Says Gartside, speaking for himself and Tobermory, "We'll be in Montana until the snows move in or the Red Sox win the pennant—whichever comes first."

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNGartside and his faithful Volvo share a Boston curb. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNOn the road in Montana with Jack and Tobermory. TWO PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNTobermory battles boredom and Gartside ties a Pheasant Hopper (inset) at their Yellowstone camp. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNGartside hooks a Yellowstone River cutthroat, as seen in a fish's view of the action.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)