February 2014, and I sat huddled in front of the upstairs window tying flies for spring. In the corner sat a sleek black aluminum rod tube, housing a thing that dreams are made of. Earlier in the month I had purchased my first true vintage bamboo fly rod, the W&M Granger Victory rod pictured above. Eight and a half feet in the traditional three piece configuration, the rod was eminently fishable, though it was no collector’s piece. One ferrule had been replaced, and the original rod bag and tube had long ago vanished. I wasn’t too pleased with the ill-fitting old plastic tube the rod came in, so I ordered a new quality tube and rod bag to protect my little piece of angling history.
I was tying Hendricksons that morning, dreaming of that wonderful hatch that heralds the true beginning of spring, and I tied a hand full of CDC emergers to complement my selection. I admired one under the light as the weak winter sun shone through the frosty window; a tawny blend of fox fur and sparkle…
April began and then ran it’s course without the longed for trip north. It was May before the hatch was starting, but the Delaware’s were high with runoff. Only the Neversink, the legendary river of Theodore Gordon and the birth of dry fly fishing in America was wadable. From my base at West Branch Angler, I headed to the eastern side of the Catskills for my first day.
Walking along a remembered reach of the Neversink I found myself blissfully alone, with the warm May sunshine delighting my winter weary bones and my eyes as it lit the budding landscape. Coming to the tail of the little pool where my most exciting Neversink fishing had debuted, I found no sign of the big, tannish mayflies I sought. I waited, fidgeted, and finally moved on upstream, passing all the familiar parts of that reach, and lamenting the lack of hatching flies on so perfect a day.
I settled down on a bright green, grassy piece of river bank, overlooking a promising looking glide. There was good rocky relief in the river bed, but the overriding feature was a peaked boulder centered in the deepest flow, it’s tip breaking the surface. The clear, cold water sparkled into a million tiny stars as the flow parted at that peak and spilled along both sides.
I am not certain how long I sat there, nearly dosing in the warmth of the sun, when I sat up suddenly with the hairs on the back of my neck tingling: there were mayflies on the water! Blue quills were bubbling along in the streamers of current broken by the boulder and, after a few minutes, one disappeared in a tiny dimple. I stretched, and pulled myself toward the edge of the bank, letting my legs dangle in the water as I pulled line from the Perfect and let it trail.
Soon a big tawny Hendrickson wiggled to the surface and skidded across the boulder’s parted current. I eased upright and slipped into the river to begin my stalk. I opened my fly box once I had worked into the proper casting position and selected one of those CDC emergers, tied months ago while dreaming of this moment! Two Hendricksons, three, and at last the fourth vanished in a bulge on the far side of the rocky peak. Two steps were necessary to adjust my position, upstream and away from the boulder, and they were made stealthily at such close quarters.
Another Hendrickson was taken and I waited, visibly shaking with anticipation, until lofting my first cast after the trout’s next rise. The fly alighted and drifted, then bobbed down my side of the rock. I pulled four feet of line from the reel and made my second pitch, upstream a foot and over two, dropping the rod tip quickly to put additional slack in the tippet. The fly alighted, danced on the quivering current of the brink, and slid down beside the peak on the other side.
That trout took with that confident bulge and dimple, and the old rod sprang smoothly to life! It was a battle to match the dream sequence preceding it: the ratchety growl of the Hardy, the deep arch of sixty-five year old cane, the tense moments when all was stressed to its limit to keep the big fish away from his favorite boulder. What could be more perfect than to land a gorgeous twenty inch brown as the first fish of my Catskill season, my first big trout on my first vintage rod?
It would be a fine season, and the Victory would prove the equal to every challenge the rivers and I could offer. In the quiet times, I would ponder the unknown history of the rod: who first drew that Victory from it’s poplin bag, reaping the sweet aroma of spar varnish for the very first time? What rivers did he angle, what trout did they catch together?
That Victory was the beginning. By summer I had found another 8642, an older original Goodwin Granger Special, restored by Granger historian and author Michael Sinclair. I had devoured his book that winter, “Goodwin Granger: The Rod Man from Denver”, developing a special affinity for the historic Colorado rod maker and the small company he founded. The Granger Specials were working man’s fly rods, very high in quality, though priced so that the average angler could own and fish a fine bamboo rod. The distinctly American ideals that Goodwin Granger and his company embodied made me proud to own and fish vintage Granger rods.
There are many fond memories of fishing my Granger rods on the streams of Pennsylvania and the rivers of my heart here in the Catskills. Angling history brought me first to Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley and finally here to the birthplace, the Catskill Mountains. Each season I am fortunate to add to that store of memories.
Last summer I was daydreaming in the aftermath of a stormy night, the rivers high and off color for the day. I slipped my 8040 Granger from it’s tube and mounted a reel with a four weight line. Granger catalogs always recommended a number five double taper line for their eight footer, but I love to experiment with lines. That backyard casting session was a revelation, as I found a “new” favorite four weight wand for my summer fishing!
The 8040 was my companion on many epic days, often wearing a bright Hardy Bougle` to match the patent nickel silver Granger reel seat. On one remarkable morning I fished in solitude on a particularly lovely reach of water. The river was gentle at summer flow, and there were no flies, no rises at this early hour. I knotted a small caddis fly, a new experimental pattern to my 5X tippet, and began to search the water. A brief spurt disrupted the drift of my fly and it disappeared from view. I raised the rod instinctively and the water opened up upon a scene of instant fury!
A massive trout rocketed out of the water, completing five consecutive leaps before I could react to it’s first, I tightened my grip on the vintage cork as the great trout turned down river and brought the Bougle` to full chorus. Fly line vanished and then more than half my backing, as the fine old rod bore the strain admirably. The fight went on and on as I grudgingly recovered line only to cede it once again, but the Granger proved itself once again, eventually leading one of my largest Delaware rainbows to the waiting net. At twenty-two inches in length with an unusually wide girth, that formidable bow easily exceeded five pounds.
My favorite river guide used to tell me that the Delaware bows rarely reached the twenty inch mark, for the trials of life in the great river were contrary to the long life span required. I often teased him about guiding me to within casting range of a twenty-five inch rainbow, and he maintained they simply didn’t grow that big. This entry into my log of Granger memories was one very spectacular trout!
Though I fish a number of capable bamboo rods, there will always be a special feeling in my heart for my Grangers. I am no collector, the rods I own are fishing rods, and I feel that is as it should be. Crafting bamboo fly rods has always been as much about the magic of bright water and wild trout as it has about the skills of cane and metalwork. The taper is the heart of a good rod and the tapers are where rod makers display their true genius and inspiration!
Great rod makers past and present have created their rods for fishermen, not for museum walls or collectors cabinets. Revere their rods, care for them, and display them if you wish, but give the rods and their makers the honor they are due and fish them. Their spirits come alive on bright water!