I once had an old friend, not so recently deceased, who had a thirst for whiskey, a passion for the best bamboo rods, fly fishing and, not least, women. I’m not sure in the exact order, but they were all topics of discussion on river trips or over a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta. Although he was not a well-known writer of fishing tales and other works – which could have made him famous – his unpleasant character prevented those perhaps deserved recognitions. Publishers and editors ran when their phones rang.
I met him on a gray and windy April day along the East Branch of the Delaware River. I was standing by the railing, looking out over a large placid pool that was easily visible from the road. I had stopped to check the river myself when I saw it. He appeared to be a frail man in a black Greek fisherman’s cap and a lovely Payne fly rod held in one hand. A bent pipe was clamped between the teeth.
It was Hendrickson time in the Catskills, and all the anglers of consequence were out and on the water. Hendrickson was the hatch we were all waiting for and talked about incessantly all year.
We exchanged pleasantries, at which point I knew he was from Woodstock. As I recall, the flies never hatched and we soon parted ways. Little did I realize on that early spring day in Catskill, more than 50 years ago, that we would be partners in the fight to change the pathetic water releases from Delaware’s reservoirs into their respective rivers downstream. It took us five years, but we prevailed.
Almost every week, I would get the call: “ToTo, I have a sauce, how’s your appetite?” This was my invitation to bring a bottle of chianti and a salad. A sauce meant marinara with pieces of lamb neck that had been sautéed in olive oil and garlic, then simmered for several hours. Once the sauce had matured enough, it was fused with steaming portions of fedelini DeCecco pasta, which had been cooked perfectly al dente. The pasta was then plated and sprinkled with several generous turns of the grater, containing the finest Locatelli Romano.
As the meal progressed, tongues loosened as the wine flowed, and my friend began. Most conversations started with a comparison of all the different cane rods he had over a very long life. Every fly rod was from the “masters” as he liked to call them. There were several from Jim Payne, Walt Carpenter, Thomas and Thomas, George Halstead and Dan Brenan. Every time a rod sold, he replaced it with another supposedly better one with the perfect action. That’s when it would register. “Payne, seven and a half feet, arrived this morning; stop by this afternoon and we’ll put a line in.” There would be excitement in his voice as he waited for this ultimate new fly fishing tool.
As the night progressed, espresso was served and the topic changed from rods to the past trout season and every day on the river. Hatches and trout landed. Then, inevitably, the evening’s dialogue would turn to women and their similarities to fine reeds. “ToTo,” he said, “do you know that a good bamboo fly rod is, in many ways, like a beautiful woman?”
“Please explain,” I would reply.
“Like a charming woman, a fine cane rod is a thing of beauty: sensitive, sensual, and alive.”
“I can see why you would make that comparison, although I’m not sure other anglers would have the intellect or interest to make that analogy,” he would reply.
“Ah, I can understand that,” he replied, “but what do they know? Most people, including fishermen, don’t have the vision and sensitivity to beauty that I have.”
“That’s true too,” I replied, bearing in mind that my friend’s search for the perfect fly rod and a wife was never-ending.
My friend tried and fished countless fly rods in his lifetime. But I don’t think I ever found the perfect one, the one that was light in the hand, fished close, but cast a long line when needed.
Looking back, I think the research was just as important as the rod itself; it was an endless challenge. At the end of his life, there was a Payne, a Carpenter and a Halstead. All rods from famous rod manufacturers. Cane rods that any bamboo enthusiast would be proud to own and love. I was humbled and proud to receive Carpenter when his will was read. Not sure about women. He never elaborated, choosing to keep the affairs of the heart and the bedroom private.
Towards the end, my friend was rehabilitating at a local nursing home. And even in his last days, his quest continued. Every time an attractive nurse walked into the room, she would give me a handshake and comment, “ToTo, ‘Che Bella Madonna’.” In Italian, “Madonna” means “My Lady”, as in the Virgin Mary, or in their terms: “What a beautiful woman”.
So for some, including my friend, the quest never ended, even when the end was near!