In the last decade or so, the more pragmatic souls in the angling world have been observed to utter low moans and race for the bathroom when a phrase like "the aesthetics of fly-fishing," delivered in yuppified tones, comes crashing into a conversation.
And yet, and yet....
Who among us is so single-minded that he would not stop to admire the feathery symmetry of a well-tied Hendrickson, or to contemplate the seamless craftsmanship of a split-bamboo rod, or simply to observe a proficient caster spot his fly beneath an overhanging branch from 50 feet away?
And so it is entirely fitting that American fly-fishers have chosen the breath-catchingly pretty village of Manchester, Vt., as the site of their national shrine. As a matter of fact, the American Museum of Fly Fishing has been there on Route 7A since 1968; on June 7 a ceremony honored its remodeled and enlarged premises.
June 16, 1991
Roughly a third of the museum's visitors, says executive director Don Johnson, are nonanglers, and there's no doubt in his mind what the No. 1 attraction is for them: the nine-foot Hardy "Palakona" split-bamboo fly rod that Ernest Hemingway fished with in Idaho. (But the museum is not pettifoggingly purist. It also has photos of the cane pole with which the young Hemingway fished grasshoppers on Horton's Creek, near Jackson, Mich.)
Next, the drop-ins usually move on to Dwight D. Eisenhower's gear, donated by Mamie, and to George S. Patton's creel. Judging from its generous dimensions, the creel was intended to hold several dozen brook trout that had not been apprised of their rights under the Geneva convention. And, of course, most museum visitors will want to sec Bing Crosby's porkpie hat, pipe and rod.
After that, if they plan to make Burger King in time for lunch or take the kids down Alpine Slide at Bromley Mountain, there probably won't be much time to look over many of the more than 800 reels, the 1,400 rods (including classic Leonards) and the 40,000 flies. Or the library of almost 3,000 angling volumes, the largest in the U.S. that allows free access to the public.
Actually, it's likely some of that stuff will be out on exhibition. There are also small shows from the museum that Johnson calls "tabletops" all over the country at any given time. And there's an auction-dinner in San Francisco every December.
Once you take away the tourists at the museum, though, you are left with the anglers. They divide, fairly neatly, into two subspecies: There are people like you and me, gentle fly-fishermen; and there are the zealots.
I can't speak for all of my thinkalikes, but I am sure that, in spite of Hemingway's rod and Zane Grey's tackle, the most fascinating section to this group is the collection with which the museum began. It came from the dust and grime of the Orvis Company's basements and attics, which are located just down the street in Manchester. It is perhaps the most significant example of angling Americana that exists.
It is a unique collection of flies, some accompanied by black-and-white photographs and matted together under glass in oak frames. It was created by Mary Orvis Marbury, the daughter of the firm's founder, Charles Orvis. She was born in 1856, the same year as the firm. And in the late 19th century she was preeminent as a flytier. In 1892 she wrote the 522-page book Favorite Flies and Their Histories. When she died in 1914, the headline in Britain's Fishing Gazette read: DEATH OF THE MOST FAMOUS BUT ONE FEMALE ANGLING AUTHOR. (The most famous, of course, being England's own Dame Juliana Berners, author of The Treatyse of Fishying with an Angle, some 400 years earlier.)
The Marbury montages were created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the pictures were executed by great photographers of the day. "They were lying there in the dust," Johnson says of the montages, "when they were rescued in 1968 by Leigh Perkins [now head of Orvis] and Hermann Kessler [then art director of Field & Stream].
Marbury's stroke of genius was to frequently mount the flies against photographs of the locale in which they were used, be it deep woodland or, as was often the case, with a village or a farm in the background. Consequently the items are social and geographic history as well as fishing lore. There is a plate of New York State's Ausable Chasm, a palisade of rock, with two anglers in a boat; there's Wagon Wheel Gap, Colo., with hundreds of trout laid out in front of the fishermen; there are hanks of brook trout, 10 of them weighing 30 pounds, on the shore of Lake Superior.
And there's the obvious social stratification: guides standing respectfully alongside their sports at the salmon pool at Bangor, Maine, in 1893. And you gawk at the flies themselves, some almost as big as hummingbirds. Marbury maintained a network of correspondents throughout the country to keep her up-to-date with the latest patterns. Many members of this network were railroad stationmasters. And who better? When the sports took the train from New York or Philadelphia to their fishing hideaways, the local stationmasters were their sources as to the latest information on where precisely to fish and what flies to use. When the anglers headed home, they would brag to and update the stationmasters.
Little did those enthusiastic and voluble anglers know that in less than a century the gear they carried with them would be combed over by yet a third group that is attracted to the museum. Those are the folk that Joe A. Pisarro, a past president of the Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers and a volunteer at the museum, labels the zealots.
It's the museum's policy—and if things go on the way they are, it might be its regret—to offer a free research service. And Pisarro is the man to whom many of the queries come because he is highly knowledgeable on the subject of vintage tackle. "The average zealot," he says, with lightly disguised scorn, "is in his late 20's to late 30's. He collects rods, but he fishes with one he bought in K Mart. The others, as the French say, are objets d'art."
And is the zealot well off?
"Uh, he has enough to adequately sustain his habit," says Pisarro. "He attends all the tackle shows, buys the specialist magazines. And, of course, he'll be at the high-rollers' auction of fishing tackle that's held at Oliver's auction house, in Kennebunk, Maine, every July.
"At other times, he'll either be here or calling me up, asking me maybe if a rod made in the '40s by Pinky Gillum is really worth $17,500."
Pisarro will politely answer the zealot, hoping that, even if the voice at the other end of the phone regards fly rods much as he does pork bellies, the fellow might bequeath the Pinky Gillum to the museum. A pragmatist, that Pisarro.