A cold November morning, and I am sitting and thinking about the season just concluded. I slipped the little Thomas from it’s tube and caught the scent of varnish from the ancient bag. I turned it in my hand, admiring the delicate grip, the lovely amber of the vintage cane accented with bright red silks. There’s a touch of sorrow as I return the rod to it’s case; I didn’t fish it this season. I started to a dozen times, but then chose another foil for the day’s looked for skirmishes. That’s the way it goes sometimes with cherished things.
The rod is dear to me, foremost because I own it thanks to the kindness of a friend. Its history makes it important as well, for there is more than one hundred years of experience in that rod, just a handful of them mine. Daydreaming sometimes I can picture old Fred Thomas turning the finished rod in his hands, inspecting it to ensure it’s worth to bear his name, before sending it off to an impatient angler anxious to cast a Thomas rod. I wonder about that angler, and his days with the rod.
Was he local, fishing the wilds of Maine back in 1918 when the rod was new and the brook trout epically large? Was he perhaps a New York angler, headed off for spring here in the Catskills, eager to cast the new Hendrickson dry fly with this lithe yet powerful lance? I’ll never know the details of that history, and thus I dream…
My brief history with the rod began in it’s ninety-ninth year, wading the West Branch Delaware at a favorite haunt. The morning was glowing as I gazed from bright water to the sparkling red silks on amber cane. The old rod was beautiful, restored by my friend at his rod shop beside that same river: immaculate work! I cast to the rise I found and felt the energy of a large brown through each fiber of that century old bamboo; thus my time with the Thomas was charmed from those first moments.
It seemed the Thomas brought good fortune whenever I carried it astream, and each outing led me to cherish it more. Summer on the West Branch can be a heady time, and it was on such a summer afternoon that the good fortune of the old Dirigo reached a climax. In the motto of the great State of Maine, Dirigo, ” I direct”, refers to the North Star emblazoned upon the State Seal. Indeed the ancient Thomas directed me to that afternoon that lives brightly in this angler’s memory.
The sulfur hatch was slow to begin that day, as anglers gathered close to Noon. We waited, then eased along a favorite bank as the first dimpling rises showed. The wild browns have become their wariest by high summer, schooled by hordes of springtime anglers, many not so delicate with their delivery of fly. This day they proved particularly difficult, sipping irregularly during the early hours of a sparse hatch. I managed a pair as I recall, though the details are lost, my memories rewritten by the events of late afternoon.
The hatch had all but concluded, and most anglers had left the river, including a stalwart that I knew who was fishing nearby. I waited, still searching for some disturbance to the rhythm of the current in the dark places along the bank. As time and hope faltered, I eased ever downstream, hoping perseverance might bring a late flurry of the tiny yellow mayflies, and once again, a rise.
At last I saw the glassy surface sprinkled with a few tiny wings and hope returned. A movement caught my eye, a quick sweep in the current beside the submerged bulk of a fallen tree. Watching intently as that sweep ended out in a clear lane of current, I smiled broadly to see it punctuated by a bulging rise. I sensed my opportunity was brief and quickly stripped more line from my reel. I dared not invest precious time to stalk closer, trusting the charmed rod to deliver the fly seventy-five feet away. The cast unrolled with a timeless smoothness until my wrist kicked gently to shock slack into the leader. The glint of the tiny fly winked at me as it drifted down, until that bulge and dimple intercepted its progress.
I often wonder about the culm of Tonkin bamboo old Fred Thomas chose for that rod, for it celebrated the latter hours of its ninety-ninth season in grand style, bent nearly double while the reel screamed and the perspiration dripped from my furrowed brow. I cannot say how many times that trout bored toward the certain freedom of the downed tree, only that the little Dirigo turned him every time. It seemed hours passed as I struggled to lead him to the net, fearing for the delicate tip of the cherished rod, the gossamer tippet, and the tiny size twenty hook that joined us in battle. Each time I thought him ready he charged off into another run. When I finally managed to lift the meshes with that writhing slab of bronze and gold I was breathless!
I thought of the old stories I had read, joyful accounts of a two pound trout, subdued at last. I expect the Thomas had brought more than a few of those to hand in its century. Perhaps that is why it proved so capable and determined to best the twenty-five inch brownie I lifted in my own sagging net that day.
Indeed the old rod is cherished, though I do feel a sadness not to have taken it along this season. Old Fred Thomas’s ghost might disapprove, and my friend would tell me to enjoy the rod and fish it. I will. Such talismans as this are meant to be counted on for the magic within.