Wilderness with all the Comforts
My wife’s hometown, Stillwater, Oklahoma—population forty
thousand, home of the Oklahoma State University Cowboys and
the National Wrestling Hall of Fame—is not the kind of place, at
first blush, where you would expect a fly fisherman to have a lifechanging
experience. The old downtown is much like the core of a
lot of American towns whose original logic has been bypassed by
time and Wal-Mart. There are a few bars that cater to the student
clientele from OSU, a couple of banks, an upscale home-furnishing
franchise, a Christian bookstore or two, an ersatz Starbucks, some
boarded-up storefronts, and a multidealer antiques mall, the kind
you see these days in almost every town of comparable size.
The mall is much as you’d expect. Knickknacks and collectibles
of all sorts. The stuff Grandma left in her attic. Used books. Farm
tools, costume jewelry, fifty-cent ties, incomplete sets of glassware.
A room full of ticking wall clocks. Barbie dolls and Star Wars
figures, as the cutoff line for the term “antique” creeps
steadily forward. And then a dealer’s stand I’d never noticed before:
vintage fishing tackle.
At this point I’d been fly-fishing for three or four years, I suppose—
long enough to graduate to my first hundred-dollar graphite
fly rod and make the transition (in my own mind, at least) from
rank beginner to semicompetent amateur—by which I mean that
once in a while I even caught a few trout. So I stopped to take a
In one corner of the booth was a narrow wooden box about
three feet long, its hinged lid secured with two brass clasps. I
popped them open. Inside, boxwood partitions divided the con-
tainer into several compartments, on much the same principle as a
case of wine. Seven sections of hexagonal bamboo were nestled
into the notched dividers. The handle was reversible. There was a
stout butt section, two midsections, and three tips of varying
thicknesses. This meant you could configure the rod a couple of
different ways, as either an eight-foot fly rod or a five-and-a-halffoot
bait caster—a kind of rod that is used for throwing heavier
lures. This struck me as a neat arrangement.
Each segment of the rod was coated in a deep cherry red lacquer.
The ferrules—the male and female parts that connected the
sections—gleamed as chrome-bright as the trim on an old Cadillac.
The snake-shaped line guides were attached to the bamboo
with silk thread windings in elaborate patterns of lime green and
lemon yellow. The guides themselves were of some gold-colored
alloy. An inch or two above the cork grip, a lozenge-shaped acetate
decal depicted a snowcapped mountain, perhaps a volcano, against
a blue sky, with the initials “NFT.” You could be forgiven for calling
the whole thing gaudy, but to me it was magically redolent of
the 1940s, a decade for which I’ve always felt a special affinity, perhaps
because I was born at its tail end.
Suffice it to say that I fell in love with this fly rod, even though
it would end up jilting me. The price tag said $87.50. I paid cash.
I fished the rod a couple of times that spring. Once I took it out
on a smooth-flowing chalk stream in the south of England, where
it landed a handsome sixteen-inch rainbow trout. After that I used
it to catch some wild brook trout in Connecticut.
Feeling quite pleased with myself, I took the rod into a local fly
shop to get the reading of an expert. He took the pieces from the
box, sighted along each section in turn, put them together,
squinted at them some more, made small humphing noises to
himself, then gave me a long, appraising look. “Well, it’s very
pretty, isn’t it?” he said. “The lacquer’s nice, very decorative.”
“But?” I said, knowing from his tone that the real verdict was
still to come.
“Well, of course, as a fly rod it’s worthless, it’s a piece of junk.”
He pointed to the volcano decal. “NFT—Nippon Fishing Tackle.
That’s Mount Fuji in the picture, I guess. They churned these
things out by the thousands in Japan after World War Two, for
G.I.’s to take home as souvenirs, mainly. It’s not even the right kind
of bamboo. . . .”
The man in the fly shop went on talking some more. I missed
most of it—no doubt because embarrassment had kicked in. But
I do remember the gleam in his eye, the lyricism in his voice,
and the gist of what he said. The right kind of bamboo, he told
me, was something called Tonkin cane. The raw material was
Chinese, but the art of transforming it into a fly rod was a peculiarly
American accomplishment; and in the hands of a master
craftsman . . . well, if I ever had the good fortune to experience
the real thing—as opposed to the piece of junk I had just
dumped on his counter—I would surely agree that it was a kind
I resolved then and there that I would go in search of this peculiarly
American vision of perfection, never suspecting that it
would take me all the way back to Henry David Thoreau.
In July 1857, Thoreau set out on his third journey from Walden
Pond to the Maine woods. He’d traveled there for the first time in
1846, to Bangor by railroad and steamship and thence up the West
Branch of the Penobscot River to Mount Katahdin, the second
highest peak in New England. His second trip, in 1853, had taken
him via Moosehead to Chesuncook Lake. But it seems to have been
a little anticlimactic after the ascent of Katahdin, which had inspired
his celebrated meditation on raw nature assomething savage and awful, though beautiful. . . . Here was
no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn,
nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor
waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet
Earth, as it was made for ever and ever.
Thoreau and his companions dined on Maine brook trout,
freshly caught. “In the night,” he wrote, “I dreamed of trout fishing;
when at length I awoke, it seemed a fabled myth this painted
fish swam there, so near by couch, and rose to our hooks the last
evening, and I doubted if I had not dreamed it all.”
There was something restless and improvised about Thoreau’s
third trip to Maine, and he was debating his itinerary right up to
the last minute. At first he considered exploring the Saint John
River from its source to its mouth, but then he changed his mind,
opting instead for Moosehead, the lakes of the Saint John, and the
Penobscot again. Just nine days before he left Concord, he was still
casting around for a traveling companion. He wrote to his cousin
George Thatcher, of Bangor, asking for suggestions. Perhaps his
nephew Charles would agree to join him, since he had “some
fresh, as well as salt, water experience?” But in the end, Thoreau
settled on his Concord neighbor Edward Hoar, late of California.
The interesting thing about Thoreau’s account of this third
journey is that Hoar—his companion for 60 miles by stagecoach,
another 265 by canoe, and twelve rough nights under canvas—is
virtually invisible, never once mentioned by name. From Thoreau’s
subsequent correspondence, you can infer that his neighbor was a
bit of a pain. Two weeks after his return to Concord, Thoreau
wrote to a friend that Hoar had “suffered considerably from being
obliged to carry unusual loads over wet and rough ‘carries.’ ” Hoar
came back from Bangor with a set of moose antlers, a gift from
George Thatcher, which he used as a hat stand, and that’s the last
we hear of him.
In contrast, another character, with whom Thoreau had only
the briefest of encounters, positively leaps from the page. It was
July 23, and Thoreau, Hoar, and their Penobscot Indian guide, Joe
Polis, had just boarded the stage that would take them from Bangor
to the remote outpost of Greenville, which lies at the foot of
Given the number of guns on display in the coach, Thoreau
wrote, “you would have thought that we were prepared to run the
gauntlet of a band of robbers.” But it turned out that the occupants
were the members of a hunting party who were embarking
on a six-week trip to the Restigouche River and Chaleur Bay, in
the remotest reaches of the Canadian province of New Brunswick.Their leader was a handsome man about thirty years old, of
good height, but not apparently robust, of gentlemanly address
and faultless toilet; such a one as you might expect to
meet on Broadway. In fact, in the popular sense of the word,
he was the most “gentlemanly” appearing man in the stage,
or that we saw on the road. He had a fair white complexion,
as if he had always lived in the shade, and an intellectual
face, and with his quiet manners might have passed for a divinity
student who had seen something of the world.
Thoreau subsequently discovered that appearances were deceptive.
Far from being a divinity student, his coach mate was in
fact a celebrated gunsmith, and “probably the chief white hunter
of Maine.” But he never learned the man’s name, which was
Hiram Lewis Leonard.
Leonard belongs to that great American series of heroic archetypes—
the lineage that includes Johnny Appleseed and Horatio
Alger, but above all Daniel Boone and Natty Bumppo. One historian
described him as “a millwright, gunsmith, daguerrotypist,
flutist, trapper, moose hunter, taxidermist, and one of the very
early manufacturers of split bamboo fishing rods”—which we’ll
come to in a moment. You could add a string of other ...