I prefer not to think of myself as the chain-letter type. I don't buy lottery tickets, enter sweepstakes or respond to urgent Mailgrams that inform me there is a 14-karat-gold chain waiting for me to claim at some condominium project. I have been taught, and I believe, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
But free fishing flies? Scores of Light Cahills and Hare's Ears and Woolly Worms, all brought to my door? That was the tempting proposition made in a chain letter inviting me to join something called the Trout Fly Club. The letter had been passed on to me by a friend, Dick Hurd. "If you want to have some enjoyment, put a copy of this letter in the mail to six of your fishing friends within one week," it read. "Send one of your favorite trout flies to the name at the top of the list, and in three weeks you should receive 216 flies!!!"
In the margin Hurd had scribbled: "Sounds like fun." It sounded more like mail fraud to me. I particularly enjoyed the disclaimer near the end of the letter: "This is not a chain letter." I see. It must be a membership drive.
USE. He sent Dick a peculiar
But what the heck. Nobody likes to be a spoilsport, and for $1.75 in stamps and one lousy fly, I could afford to see what lay around the bend. I made six copies of the letter and, in the interest of geographical diversity, sent them to friends in Vermont, Ohio, New York, Maine, California and Illinois. "Sounds like fun!" I wrote, chirpily. Then I took the top name off the list, Frank J. Techar of Houston, and prepared to send him one of my favorite flies.
July 9, 1989
That was the tough part. I have a lot of lousy flies. Most of my favorites have been left streamside, imbedded in the limbs of willow trees. The few that have survived are too precious to send to perfect strangers. I do not even trust myself to fish them except on special occasions—like when I am fishing with my wife, Sally, and she is catching all the fish. As I rummaged through my tackle, it was looking like slim pickings for Frank J. Techar of Houston.
I thought it would be unseemly to send Frank a fly with a rusty hook, so I decided on an untested Hexagenia that had been tied by my brother-in-law. Hexagenia is the largest mayfly in North America, and my brother-in-law is an inexpert if imaginative flytier. The combination was daunting. He had named this creation Post-Nuclear Mutant Mayfly, and it was 2½ inches long.
It was meant to be a dry fly, but I doubt the Post-Nuclear Mutant would have floated in a pool of mercury. So I slipped it into an ordinary envelope with a brief note of explanation—"trout love 'em, confusing them with pre-nuclear mayflies that hatch in Wisconsin and lots of other places far away from Houston"—thinking that after the hackles got mashed Frank would fish the fly wet, maybe even bait it with a doughball, so that there would be a chance of attracting a brave, or blind, carp.
Then I waited. Hurd had already received his first two flies in the mail. One was a lovely #12 Hornberg with the following note: "The enclosed Hornberg works well in Vermont waters either wet or dry. I've had especially good luck with it on browns, after a spate or at dusk. Hope it does some good for you."
What a nice start. Hurd's second fly was from a fellow named Miles Miller of the Oxolotl Society, whatever that is, whose return address read: NO PERMANENT ADDRESS, NO TELEPHONE NO., NO WORMS, NO FISHES, NO USE. He sent Dick a peculiar fly that a desperately hungry fish might have confused for a small worm, I suppose, but that would have looked more at home in an X-rated movie. "Given my experiences in Philadelphia in the late '60s, I figured that the enclosed fly would be just dandy for all kinds of Eastern waters!" Miller wrote. He suggested Dick use it for suckers.
Hurd was thrilled with his haul, and began calling me regularly to report on each new arrival. I had no news to return. Finally, a letter from David Seybold of New London, N.H., arrived.
I opened it with a pleasant sense of curiosity, and I shook out a rusty, medium-sized nymph. "The last of my favorite fall pattern!" he wrote. Fall 1958, from the looks of it. The nymph was about a #12, its shank was bent, the lead wire used to weight the fly was fully exposed, and what little fur, feather or synthetic stuff there was at the head of the fly was tattered. This was the bag lady of flies. Still, it was my first booty as a member of the Trout Fly Club, and I was grateful for it, even if the chance of catching a fish with it was less than that of catching tetanus.
Seven days later a letter arrived from White River Junction, Vt. It contained a Black Ant, #14, new but somewhat mashed by the post office. The note suggested, "Try this little ant late in the season. Very effective drifted down under a bridge." It was unsigned, except that it wished me "Tight lines."
Another week, and I received a package from Manchester, Vt., that was protected by layers of bubbled polyethylene. Inside was a golf-ball-sized plastic box. Encased in the box was a perfect little Hendrickson. The scribbled note read: "My wife, Margot Page, got the Trout Fly Club letter, and since she doesn't tie, she asked me to send you a fly. This one is a classic Catskill Hendrickson, with genuine urine-burned fox, wood duck, and natural dun. A lot of fishermen pass this type of fly up, but I find them to be more effective than no-hackles or parachutes at times. Besides, they're pretty and fun to tie. Hope it catches you a nice one." It was signed by Tom Rosenbauer, author of Reading Trout Streams and The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide.
That fly had no chance of catching me a nice one. Frankly, I was unwilling to touch it. Urine-burned fox? Surely I had misread his writing. I called the Orvis Company in Manchester to thank Rosenbauer for this tiny work of art and to get to the bottom of the matter. "It's urined-burned, all right," he told me. "Comes from the belly of a vixen fox. A perfect match for the Hendricksons in the Catskills." Who discovers such things? What manner of man peers at the belly of a vixen fox and says, "Geronimo! Catskill Hendrickson!"? I would be damned if I would lose something like that on a twig. That fly has been retired to the fireplace mantle.
By then I was thoroughly hooked on the Trout Fly Club. I began to approach my mailbox each day with a bounce in my step. A #8 Royal Coachman (wet) arrived from Stan Stoner of Oklahoma City. The next day I got a huge grasshopper imitation from Peter Moyer, an old skiing pal who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He feared that if he didn't respond to the letter, he would suffer a curse—a morbid aspect of some chain letters—and would never catch another fish. A shiny minnow came from Jerry Shennan of Lafayette, Colo., with three words of encouragement: "Catch Big Fish!" Two days later, another beautifully tied Hendrickson arrived, slightly peach-tinted in the body, this one courtesy of Del Mazza of Utica, N.Y.
I was beginning to feel a little guilty about sending that Post-Nuclear Mutant to Frank J. Techar down in Houston. How did I know people would respond to this thing so generously? People from all over the world, it turned out. The next letter arrived from England, thanks to a 32-pence stamp. Inside were two midges—#18 and #20—brown-bodied, black-collared, and wrapped with silver tinsel. Each had a little white Ethafoam ball above its down-turned eye. "A John Goddard suspender midge pupa pattern," read John Goddard's note. Goddard, I later learned, was coauthor, with Brian Clarke, of The Trout and the Fly; he is one of the most respected freshwater anglers in England. His note went on: "Deadly—try it when trout are right at the surface sipping down any very small flies."
Inside every fisherman, I was discovering, lived a bit of the missionary. True believers cannot stop themselves from spreading the word. The chain letter had said: "Send one fly." But what arrived, almost always, was a fly, some information, and a few words of hope. "Catch a big one!" "Tight lines!" "Good fishing!" Do you suppose those chain letters that ask people to send a dollar are accompanied by advice on how to invest it and salutations like "Get rich!" "Win the lottery!" "Bingo!"?
A week passed before another anonymous fly arrived, this one from Merced, Calif., a #14 nymph with gray hackles and a synthetic material body. Six days later an envelope arrived from Detroit; it had been sent by an old school chum whom I hadn't seen for 15 years. "Enclosed you will find a very squashed fly from Alaska," he wrote. "Worked great on big rainbows, but then again, in Alaska all you need is a hook." The fly looked like a small, hackled mouse.
As suddenly as they had begun, the flies stopped appearing in my mailbox—some 205 short of the promised 216. Oh, well. If things had gone much further my conscience would have pricked me into sending something decent to Frank J. Techar in Houston.
Then, three months after all of this started, one last nymph arrived, from Chapel Hill, N.C., courtesy of a Mr. Morris. It was a nice one, but the note was grudging, I thought. "It seems a little strange sending E.M. Swift one of my flies," Mr. Morris wrote. "But here it is, a traditional mayfly nymph tied with Swannundaze. It's been deadly on California spring creeks."
It didn't seem at all strange to me. By that time it wouldn't have surprised me one bit to open up the mailbox and find a White Wulff tied for my pleasure by the legendary Lee Wulff himself, accompanied by one of his books on fishing. I was, after all, a paid-in-full member of the Trout Fly Club.
My wife got an invitation to join our little society the other day. It was passed along to her by my stepmother, Carol, who is not exactly the chain-letter type herself. Of course, the prospect of 216 free Woolly Worms can make a person step out of character and take a flyer on flies. Carol had scribbled in the margin. "This could be fun!"
She could be right.