Last week, one of my favorite people in fly-fishing passed away at the age of 88. Gordon Wickstrom was an author, a professor of theater, a student of fly-fishing history, a passionate angler, and a man with strong opinions. The first time I met Gordon was in the American Museum of Fly Fishing booth at the International Fly Tackle Dealer show in Denver many years ago. We talked about how fly-fishing had changed over the previous couple of decades, and in the middle of the conversation, he raised himself to his full impressive height, surveyed the entire show—full of high-tech gadgetry and modern designs—and exclaimed, in his stentorian voice, “This. . .[long pause]. . .is BULLSHIT.” I knew we’d be friends.
Gordon was the author of two fine books on fly fishing, Notes from an Old Fly Book and Late in an Angler’s Life, both of which I highly recommend. He also maintained a blog called The Bouldercreek Angler, on which he made his last post on September 5, and was a regular contributor to The American Fly Fisher. He would frequently send me emails about posts that appeared on this blog, often revealing his curmudgeonly side, which was always accompanied by warmth and humor. He was gracious enough to allow me to publish a multi-part history of fly fishing (see links below), as well as a wonderful remembrance of his own beginnings as an angler. That great story is reposted below.
I will miss Gordon’s wisdom and wit, as well as his idiosyncratic view of the fly-fishing world—a strange mixture of orthodoxy and irreverence. Although he was hardly a household name among anglers, I consider him one of the fly-fishing world’s Great Men.
Personal History: Birth of an Angler
Written by: Gordon M. Wickstrom
[Editor’s Note: For those of you who may have missed Gordon Wickstrom’s fascinating and idiosyncratic “Fly-Fishing History” series, check out the links at the bottom of this post. Trust me that it’s well worth your time.]
It was after morning recess in Mrs. Winter’s sixth-grade class at Mapleton School in Boulder, Colorado. I remember the moment precisely, when the boy behind me, right in the middle of the lesson, leaned over his desk and my shoulder to whisper in my ear that if I’d take a nickel down to Woolworth’s at Broadway and Pearl, I could buy this fishing “thing” with which I could catch lots of fish out at East Dagues Lake.
There’s no way for me to explain why my imagination was so immediately galvanized, if not downright obsessed. I could think of nothing else the rest of the day. And that was strange because I knew nothing of fishing. My father had never fished; though assorted of my uncles sort of had, and one of those had taken me at the tender age of five, out to Johnson’s Trout Farm, where I was allowed to pull out a lot of pan-size rainbow stockers.
But that was the extent of it. Granted that, as a small boy, I had doted on what was to be known as Goose Creek and is now lost under melancholy development. It was a lovely, small brook flowing east along the other side of this great old hill. There I could chase garter snakes, watch minnows and red-winged blackbirds, and generally dream away an afternoon with the sandwich my grandmother had made me.
But none of this explains why the suggestion of a five-cent hand-line, because that is what it was, so caught and held me on that spring day at Mapleton School.
In spite of the Great Depression, which kept us kids penniless, that very afternoon I somehow came up with that nickel. And right after school, I went to Woolworth’s to lay down that precious nickel for thirty feet of green cotton braided line wound on a small wooden frame, with a #8 O’Shaughnessy hook, a bobber, and a quarter-ounce sinker with which to hurl out the line.
Waiting, I forget how many days, for the neighbor Shons family to take me out to Dagues Lake was hard. But the day came, and there I was, hand slinging the line, bobber, sinker, and worm rig (I was really good at digging worms) some few feet from the shore to the many half-dollar sized sunfish. They readily took a bite of my worm, but, with the hand-line and a hook too large, they were hard to hook. I could see them out there, messing with my bait, and making me nearly crazy with excitement. And I can still smell the few I did manage to catch, that special sunfish fishy fragrance out under a parching sun on that dry, rocky plateau.
I immediately understood why a rod was essential. The Shons kids each had beat-up, old rods, but they were real rods, and with them they caught lots of fish. So. . . .
Back home on Fifth Street, I decided to get a rod. It was a seven foot shoot of green alder that I cut along the little brook that flowed parallel to the foot of the Red Rocks hill, just west of Fourth Street. It was a pole, not a rod, heavy as hell, and altogether inflexible. But with my cotton line tied dead off to its top, I would be a lot better at hooking those little bluegills on our next trip to Dagues. And it was wonderful.
Enter the Fly
This obsession with fishing, which had gripped my young life, continued unabated when it was writ in stone the Christmas of 1939. My mother and dad gave me the most wonderful of all Christmas presents: a restored, eight-foot bamboo, real fly rod, a new South Bend Orenomatic automatic fly reel (it’s here still with me in my work-room), and a size E Weber Henshall level silk fly line. Now I was prepared to fish properly and in earnest.
Back down at Woolworth’s, the small display of tackle at the rear of the store presented new possibilities. I’d learned about leaders and flies, and Woolworths had Japanese gut leaders, also for a nickel each, in either three or six-foot lengths. (I should tell you here that a three-foot leader was the standard on Boulder Creek back then.) So, I thought, why not buy a six-footer for the same five cents, cut it in half, learn to tie the end and dropper loops and have two leaders! And so began my tackle tinkering and making, Now I was set to go with worms, a Colorado spinner, and a couple of snelled flies—the basic Boulder pair: A Rio Grande King and a Gray Hackle Yellow, size 10.
Somehow I found myself with a second job. In addition to after school hours working at the Boulder City Bakery, I hired on to scrub the floors of E.B. Edwards’ shop on the north side of Pearl between Eleventh and Broadway. Ed kept a small jewelry and fishing-tackle shop and tied flies for his own trade. He was the only tier I knew of in Boulder in those days. But as he sold a few packets of simple fly-tying materials, as many as would attach to a two-by-three-foot wall panel, there must have been a few others.
Ed tied only conventional wet flies—sizes 8,10, and 12—most of them with trimmed duck primary quill wings in the standard Colorado favorite dressings, which were wondrous names to me: Rio Grande King, Ginger Quill, Cow Dung, Pink Lady, Grizzly King, Mormon Girl, on and on. They were highly regular, neat, un-lifelike things, snelled to gut, and priced at two for a quarter.
As I scrubbed Ed’s shop floors each week, for fifteen cents each time, I’d look over his shoulder as he sat tying at his vise and try to remember what I saw long enough to get home and with my poor substitute tools and materials, try to do it myself. Eventually I produced three or four things that looked enough like flies to impress my dad with my efforts. In those tough days, I could never in the world have afforded to buy ready-tied flies at any price.
I began to buy materials from off Ed’s board, along with an awful, crude vise I got for one dollar. I’d trade my fifteen cents for scrubbing for a pack of this or that: silk floss, hooks, or hackle. Ed kept track of my scrubs vs. my packets. I was always behind—indentured, I thought—to scrubbing floors forever. But Ed was good to me, and I love the memory of him.
In debt or no, I was on my way, totally enthralled, night and day, all year long, working at it, studying it, reading catalogs like gospels, practicing it in Boulder Creek down through town. I entertained frantic fantasies of ever more and better tackle. I was a little out of my head and was becoming more and more of an angling snob every day. I wanted to be stylish in that classic English/Eastern way that I saw in a couple old books. Eventually, I wanted to hide my automatic reel and get a proper single-action job. I dreamed of English fabric waders. I was lost, lost utterly.
And this many years later, I have felt the need to have a new throw-line, and so made the one above, improved only by a bit of monofilament leader. Heaven help me, I think I’ll take it out and try to use it!
I have said, at least half seriously, that had it not been for fishing, I might have amounted to something.
Gordon M. Wickstrom is the author of Notes from an Old Fly Book (2001) and Late in an Angler’s Life (2004), editor of The Boulder Creek Angler newsletter, and writer and director of The Great Debate—A Fantasia for Anglers, an imagined debate between Frederic M. Halford and G. E. M. Skues.
Read Gordon M. Wickstrom’s “Fly-Fishing History” series: