Sunday, November 6, 2011
Two-handed fishermen and the river
Mike "Poppy" Cummins at his Red Shed spey shop along the Clearwater River's Peck cutoff/Ralph Bartholdt
LENORE—I was a kid living in a small room in a faux log house on a lake in northern Minnesota where at night I dug through a box of old outdoor magazines that the local preacher gave me from his garage as mayflies, caddis and stones fluttered against the screen window and little brown bats bumped and crawled there chasing a meal.
The Coleman lanterns hissed in the living room and the sallow light of the sooty oil lamps with the elegant glass chimneys cast long shadows as outside the last of the walleye fishermen bobbed on black water in the narrows before reeling their lines and twisting the throttle on their outboards as they headed home.
It was there, in that room of that faux log house with what seemed a never ending push of waves against the rocky shore, that I discovered a river out west, way over the divide of The Rockies, weeks away on foot, maybe months, or even farther into the Bitterroots and west yet.
I read about it in a magazine.
It was called the Clearwater River and the magazine ran a double page watercolor of a man, solo and waist deep in a lonely river with autumn colors surrounding and a sky like a sooty boiling pot overhead.
He was fishing for steelhead, and he was alone on a river that rivaled any other out there. It was relatively undiscovered, this river, except by locals and the determined few, such as the author who for some reason reminds me to this day - although the magazine, the article, and the illustration have long melted into the long gone - of Russell Chatham the Western painter, writer and fisher.
This week I went to recapture the image if nothing else.
It had been more than 30 years since I read the article. Since I dug in the box of silverfish garage magazines as I did every night those summers as a kid by kerosene lamp, as a means to nudge dreams maybe, to spur imaginings of a vague future, or to complement my own fishing experience.
This week, I drove south on Highway 95 from Idaho's Panhandle, hung a left through Potlatch, a town so steeped in its own namesake, history and ties to the shuttered timber industry that it may never recover from this long belch of down and out.
I turned again south through Deary, another relic looking for a way out of stump heaven, and Kendrick and before Juliaetta head up a steep grade that would take me over a hump of wheat fields and back south to the river that has for decades to locals been a stream of contentment, no matter how hard the times.
I had driven this route before long ago and for a time, remembered the article even then, as a younger man, but it wasn't until now that the whole ring of gear, of leader and bobber and weights, of flies and streamer and the bunghole heft of weight-forward line wrapped around my subconscious like a bola.
It hobbled me and knocked me down.
I drove past Lenore on the river road, its old bridge, the old remnant of agriculture and rail so far gone into the black and white yearbooks of striped, knee-length sock wearing basketball stars with freckles on their backs that it sniffs of warehouse dust, and I kept going.
At the Peck turnoff I veered right.
And then again, hard this time, and I parked in a mud and grass yard between two drift boats.
A dog barked.
I walked up the steps and into the small, barnlike building. It was cool. A heater hummed. Lights were low. The walls rung with fly gear.
No one there.
I walked out and squinted into the late autumn sun.
The dog, a mix of many varieties most notably the rural neighborhood genome, still barked. It was a steady, even bark that said hello, nice to see you, hold on because Poppy is on his way.
That kind of bark, and then I saw a man with a beard like a gnome in sweatpants and baseball cap picking his way around potholes as he walked down the driveway from a nearby house.
Hi, I said.
How are you? Poppy said.
Poppy, known probably to his family and first acquaintances in another life as Mike Cummins, his given name, is not a large man, but he isn't small either. Years have given him the girth of a salmon spent seasons at sea, or the bright steelhead, sea run too and ready to pound water if hooked.
Poppy is that kind of big and his beard covers almost a quarter of him and like the fish that he covets, the ones that run down this, his river, the Clearwater, to sea and learn there, and eat and evade and fight and live before coming back, he has made his own sea runs.
He was a construction contractor for most of his life, and a truck company owner - he hauled logs out of Orofino, a small town upriver until he called it quits.
Unlike many or most or just a helluva lot of men, Poppy followed that divining rod in his gut when he converted a small hay barn, horse and tack shed into a shop that specialized in something special.
He started a fly shop dedicated to two-handed, or spey, fly rods before the sport of North American spey rodding had really taken off.
He did it because he loved the rods, the river and steelhead.
"Our focus here is pretty narrow," Poppy says. "It's all two-handed rods."
This happened from necessity. Arthritis, the kind of bone ache you try to avoid, prompted the former traditional fly fisher to look for a way to throw gear with two hands.
"I was trying to spread the pain around," he says.
He researched and found a method of lake fishing in the British Isles that used "Loch" rods. These were large, two handed varieties that could zing gear, but they were made for standing water.
More research brought him to spey: Two handed rods as long as 16 feet that can cast far, and mend all that line for a good presentation.
He couldn't afford to buy one then, so he built his own out of spare Fenwick parts and some graphite tubing.
He calls it the junkyard spey and it still hangs in his Red Shed fly shop on the Peck cutoff road to remind him of the days when he didn't have the cash to buy what now he is selling.
Most of his neighbors don't either, so he sells packages in the $450 range and the rods come with lifetime warranties.
"I don't sell any that aren't guaranteed for life," Poppy says. "I know most people are working people and they can't drop $1,000 for a two-handed rod."
Although this part of the world, as even the blue-ribbon cutthroat trout fishery Kelly Creek to the east, is spin country, Poppy doesn't stand out too much.
This chunk of Idaho is the slam and drag reel world of swivels and snap hooks, lead sinkers, diesel and chrome, dual, semi pipes on pickups. It's a chunk of trot line heaven if not for the game wardens that troll the river too.
In this world Poppy is less an anomaly than his clients. They come from California, the coast and Colorado. They come from the Battenkill and the Beaverhead in cars with out of state plates because they too, probably and maybe long ago read the article that I read, or the many since that were like it and they remember too from pictures the autumn colors on this river that is still, even now, relatively undiscovered and underutilized.
And that's OK. They throw spey. They stop at the Red Shed. Poppy may give them a hat to advertise his business.
He may give them advice. He will tell them flat out and without reservation how to paint the ceiling with a spey rod and then let them at it.
Poppy is the river, like that. He pulls no punches. He doesn't push.
And besides, they came here for the same reason as I.
And as Poppy, too, I'm pretty sure.
Another version, one more astute and tuned to specifics, a version that more deeply plies spey, the Clearwater fishery, and Poppy will appear in the December issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine
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