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Fly-Fishing in the 1960's, with Paul Bruun

Description: This week my guest is Paul Bruun [39:50], a legendary figure in fly fishing who has been involved with the fly-fishing world even longer than me. Last night, he received the Izaak Walton Award from the American Museum of Fly fishing for a lifetime of contributions to our sport. Paul is a guide, writer, newspaperman, and he developed the famous South Fork Skiff, which has recently been resurrected and redesigned by the famous Adipose Boatworks Company in Montana. Paul is a wonderful storyteller and he tells us about what it was like to learn fly fishing in South Florida in the 1960s—not an easy task!
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi and welcome to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host Tom Rosenbauer, and this week I have a special guest. His name is Paul Bruun. Paul has been a figure in the fly-fishing industry since, I would say, the 1960s. Paul, just last night, June 30th, 2020, do received the Isaac Walton Award from the American Museum of Fly Fishing for his contributions, lifetime contributions to fly fishing. And just what did Paul contribute to fly fishing? Well, Paul has been a prolific writer, he's been a mentor to many, many people, he developed the famous South Fork skiff, and he's just an all-around wonderful person.
So, what Paul and I are going to talk about is the early days. Paul grew up in South Florida wanting to fly fish, but having no mentors at all, and how Paul developed as a fly angler and what the fly-fishing world was like in South Florida and in the United States in general in those times is a fascinating story, and Paul's a great storyteller. And also, the story of how Paul developed the South Fork skiff and other side tracks. So, I hope you enjoy it. Paul is a legend in fly fishing and someone that all of you should know about. Let's do the Fly Box first. The Fly box is where you asked me questions and I try to answer them. And if you have a question for the Fly Box, you can send it to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can either attach a voice file from your phone or you can just type your question into your email. Try to keep your voice files under two and a half minutes if you can because I probably won't read them if they go on and on...or I won't play them if they go on and on. And questions, comments, criticisms, suggestions, all that stuff is welcome.
The first question is from Ricky. "Being from Alabama, not exactly the trout capital of the world, I traveled to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee in North Carolina about once per year to fish at small streams for trout. My problem is unlike the bass and brim I'm used to, these small fishes are lightning-fast and I have a difficult time setting the hook in time. By the time I feel the strike, the fish is gone. I've even tried using guides to help me and it does help, but I think even the guides get frustrated. They see the strike before I feel it but I am just too slow to react. I do catch more with guides, maybe two or three out of 20 strikes or so, and I seem to get better during the week while I'm fishing. But the first day, which is when I usually use a guide, there is a real challenge to get one to net. Do you have any guidance that will help me figure out what I'm doing wrong? I forgot to add that when missing these strikes, I'm usually using dry dropper or tight line nymphing mainly because this is what the guides have recommended.
Well, Ricky, I think you've really figured out the problem without knowing it. You say you get better as the week goes on. And those small mountain trout are lightning-fast. They've evolved to quickly capture their food and they're so good at it and so quick at it that you're gonna miss some strikes. I mean, I've been small stream fishing for my entire life and I still miss a lot of strikes. Sometimes it's a refusal, sometimes, particularly the dry fly, it's your fly is too big for the little fish or it's not quite right or it's dragging. So, sometimes it's the refusal. But if you're fishing a nymph, you know, when that dry fly goes under or when you see that tight line tightening or jumping, you know the fish has got your fly.
With nymph fishing with a dry dropper, you have to really pay attention to what that dry fly is doing. The strike is pretty subtle and sometimes the fly just starts to sink and you need to set the hook as soon as you see that happening. Sometimes it's nothing, sometimes it's a branch, sometimes it's a rock, sometimes it's just the nymph has drowned the dry fly. But, you know, hook sets are free. And then with the tight line nymphing as well, you're gonna strike to a lot of things that aren't fish, and don't worry about that, you know, the best tight line anglers are setting the hook almost constantly because they're ticking the bottom.
But there is a reflex involved there and it's going to take some time to develop. I know that when I take friends out or people out who haven't done much small stream fishing and try to get them into a fish, it can be frustrating because they just don't have that reflex. So, it's going to come, it's going to come with time. Unfortunately, you only do it once a year, so that makes it really tough. But maybe try when you're fishing for your local fish. Try setting the hook instantly and try getting quicker and quicker and quicker with your reactions. That's the best I can offer you, it's going to come with time.
Don: Hi, Tom, this is Don from North Carolina. I've got a couple of comments and a question today. First of all, I wasn't really anticipating that I would enjoy the recent podcast with Brian Grossenbacher all that much, the topic didn't seem to be the usual kind of technical topics that you typically have. But I listened to it and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. I just really enjoyed that. It was a little different than the usual but his piece of advice for photographers wanting to take good outdoor photos of F8 and be there is terrific. That's just well-known by outdoor photographers and it's really a good nugget of advice.
The other thing was the Swinging Bridge story was absolutely hilarious. So, for those listeners that haven't heard that episode with Brian, I would encourage them to listen. My question is, as Brian talked about being a fly fisher, when he does pick up the rod, he mentioned he can cast with both his right hand and his left hand. And it had occurred to me that that might be a useful skill, I'd thought about that in the past. And I wondered what your thoughts are on that. It seemed to me that that might be useful in a small stream situation depending on how you're situated in the stream, what the covers are like, etc. So, is learning to cast with both hands a skill that a fly fisher ought to aspire to? Well, thanks, Tom, for all you do, and I look forward to hearing your answer.
Tom: Well, thank you, Don, I'm really glad you enjoyed that podcast with Brian Grossenbacher, I certainly enjoyed doing it. Yeah, Brian can cast with both his right and left hand and it is incredibly useful if you can do it. You know, it's funny, if you're a right-handed caster and you switch over to left-handed casting, it's like learning the cast all over again and it's a pretty interesting process because you realize that how much muscle memory you've developed in that right hand or in that left hand, depending on what you learned. And it's not that hard because you know the principles at least and then you have to develop the muscle memory through practice.
And I can cast okay left-handed, but what I have found is that manipulating the line or using my right hand as the line hand, I find that is equally as difficult as the casting process. And I hear that a lot from people, you know, they say, "I'm right-handed, I cast left-handed, but I just have trouble with line management with my right hand." So, it's gonna take practice. It will get you out of some really, really tight spots, whether you're in a small stream, or you're fishing on a flatboat in saltwater. If you can cast equally well or almost equally well with both hands, it's going to be a huge advantage. So, if you think you can do it, I would highly advise you, and anyone who thinks they can learn to cast with both hands, I'd do it.
Here's an email from Eric from Oregon. "Hey, Tom, this isn't necessarily a suggestion, more of an attempt to raise public awareness about an issue in my neck of the woods. But first, let me offer the standard thank you for all you do for the fly-fishing community, sincerely appreciate the podcast and the variety and effort you put into the content. I'm a relatively new fly fisher, been at it for three or four years. I live in Portland, Oregon. I'm sure a lot of listeners may know about Oregon for its main fly-fishing attraction, the Deschutes River. There is an equally amazing fishing on the Crooked River near Prineville.
I'm reaching out to you in hopes of raising public awareness about a water crisis in the central and eastern Oregon that, through poor government management, may lead to the demise of the Crooked River ecosystem. Near the city of Prineville and many years ago, the Bureau of Reclamation dammed the Crooked River, creating Prineville reservoir, and providing a larger source of water for irrigation to the numerous farms and ranches in the surrounding area. Normally, the Crooked River is a lovely tailwater that has a constant flow of cold water throughout the summer and winter and holds redband trout and the occasional bull trout as well as mountain whitefish.
There is widespread drought through Central and Eastern Oregon that is drastically affected the snowpack in these areas. It has been brought to my attention that the Bureau of Reclamation, who was in charge of letting water out of Prineville reservoir during the irrigation season, has decided to decrease the flow to the Crooked River to 10 CFS to protect irrigation. I understand there is an allotment on water rights for the ranchers and farmers in the area for the purpose of irrigation. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has said that the stretch of the Crooked River below Prineville reservoir should not fall below a flow rate of 50 CFS.
I've reached out to the manager of the Benfield office for the Bureau of Reclamation to ask him to be an advocate for this public resource and open a line of dialogue to the owners of the water rights during the irrigation season. It seems my request to him have fallen on deaf ears as I'm being dismissed with claims of contracts and legality and how they can't just give away water rights, water people have rights to. I fully understand they can't just give this water away, but I am simply calling a public servant to action, to advocate on the Oregon public's behalf to reach some sort of drought time compromise so as not to drastically cut the flow out of Prineville reservoir.
I'm hoping through your popular podcasts that I can spread public awareness of this crisis and hopes that as a community of public landowners and enthusiasts, we can open up a channel of communication between the Bureau of Reclamation and these water rights owners to keep the flow of the Crooked River at no less than 50 CFS to preserve this wonderful ecosystem and fishery. I reached out to numerous public advocacy groups in my area that deal with water access conservation with the hopes of getting the word out about the crisis. I realize this is probably a longer email than you usually feature on your podcast but I am not willing to leave any stone unturned if I think I can help with this amazing stretch of river. Thank you in advance for reading this and your time and consideration. Love your podcast and your book on fly tying, it helped me get started tying flies."
Well, thank you for making us aware of this, Eric. As you probably know, Oregon has a voluntary in-stream transfer program, so it is a matter of getting the water rights holders and the conservation groups or the user groups together. And, you know, this is a situation where antagonistic reactions to this will get you nowhere, it has to be a voluntary thing. So, you're right about trying to open a dialog and you probably need more people to help you with that dialog, and hopefully, you can come to a resolution using that voluntary transfer program.
Jared: Hey, Tom, how's it going? Jared here from Australia. I'm just gonna start by saying, of course, thank you for everything you do and answering our questions every week. I've got a suggestion and a question today. I'm gonna start with suggestion. I've been using Orvis shake and dry powder, I really like it. The suggestion I have for it and this is especially when your bottle gets a bit low, I've got large hands and like fat knuckles and when I'm jamming my fly in there towards the bottom, I tend to get my knuckle stuck in the bottle and it doesn't make for a great scene on the river, me jumping around when I start panicking and trying to pull a bottle off the end of my finger. So, I just wondering if you'd make that opening on that bottle slightly larger, it will be terrific.
Now, onto my question. I have Fisher River here. Gin clear, lots of conflicting currents, sort of a river that splits all over the place constantly, but we get, you know, all varieties of trout water. My question is in relation to these larger fish I've been seeing, you know, they're sort of 16 and above like being fish, but they'll be sitting in the water column, you know, in a decently fast-moving stretch. But they will be a foot from the surface with, you know, anywhere from 6 to 10 feet of water below them and they're just holding that position and I've been trying to figure out what they're doing there. You know, they're obviously not in cover, it's a weird place to be sitting to be eating. I mean, the only thing I can think is they're sitting at that level and they're waiting for merges to come through but there's shallow stretches where they could sit.
Anyway, every time I try and make a cast after them, they don't even look at the fly. You know, fish further down I've caught on the same fly, put it over their head, they're not interested, go to the immersion, not interested, put a short drop run for nymph, they're not interested, but they just sit in that position. So, I just wondering whether they're just being weird or whether they're actually doing something and they're catchable fish. So, I was wondering if you have ever seen this or you know what they're up to or what the circumstances. It's a bit of a strange one but any input you'd have would be tremendous. Anyway, thanks for everything, Tom. Catch you later.
Tom: Jared, you know, using that dry fly powder, there's grinders and there's shakers, and I'm a grinder too. Luckily, my knuckles...I do occasionally get my knuckles stuck in the dry fly powder. I'm afraid I'm not gonna go to the product developers and ask them to widen the mouth of the bottle because Jared gets its knuckles stuck in the powder. I think you're gonna have to learn to be a shaker instead of a grinder. So, sorry about that. Regarding your question, if larger fish are in clear water and they're holding a foot from the surface in deep water, I expect that the water where they're holding is probably less than two feet per second or less because that's where trout prefer to hold. And there must be some food that's keeping them there because trout don't like to be exposed in shallow water unless there's a reason to be there and that reason is invariably food.
So, they're eating something, you need to watch those fish. If they're not rising, you need to observe them and see if you can figure out what they're doing. Sometimes in a really, really food-rich stream, I experienced this recently, you won't even see the fish darting from side to side when they're feeding. If the stream is really rich in food, particularly midges or scuds in a spring creek, you'll just see the fish occasionally opening their mouths and sometimes they don't even move from side to side if there's a ton of food. So, if they're not rising, I expect this is what they're doing. Or they're looking and waiting for an insect, aquatic insect or terrestrial to come down, but I expect they're definitely feeding. Whether you can catch them or not, you know, it depends on if you can get a fly to them without spooking them. But keep trying and I'm sure you'll have some luck with those fish.
Here's an email from Charlotte from New Orleans. "I've enjoyed your blog for years. Living on the Gulf Coast, I'm always excited when you have to provide information to new visitors of our coast. Recently discussions of leaders and tippets appropriate to various line sizes and fishing environments has confused me. While I trust you as my primary source, I often use presentations of other experts on YouTube. When watching a discussion of leader line connections for five-weight rods floating line, two different national brands were mentioned. They were 20-pound lines with diameters of 0.020 and 0.018. Apparently, they were of the correct stiffness for good energy transfer.
Naturally, the first thing I did was look at my 20-pound Orvis SuperStrong Plus which happened to be at my desk at the moment, the diameter was 0.015 inches. So, what is happening here? On my eight-weight, I've never used anything but Orvis tapered bass leaders for any of my three fly lines, the original Clearwater, a bank shot, and a sink tip. On my five-weight eight-and-a-half-foot encounter, I've still got a short piece of the original leader attached to a tippet ring. I only occasionally use for panfish. Is there some hidden rule about the appropriate stiffness leader line? Do you have recommended leader line sizes for different weight rods published somewhere? Since I'm kind of a sloppy fly caster anyway, converted from 40 years of spin casting, this may be of only academic use to me. However, some of the newer fly fishers may be confused as well."
Well, Charlotte, a couple of things here. One is that different brands of monofilament have different pound test strengths, which may vary quite a bit. And it's not the pound test that you put on your leader butt or the end of your fly line, it's the stiffness, and the stiffness is usually related to the diameter. Now, some monofilaments are a little bit stiffer than others but there isn't that much variation, not nearly as much variation as there is in pound test strength. So, in general, for something like a five-weight, I would go with a 0.020 or 0.021 leader butt section. When you get down into the two and three-weight line, sometimes you can use a 0.019 or even a 0.017 leader butt. But, you know, honestly, I usually just use 0.021 or 0.023 for all my fly lines.
And then when you get into the heavier eight-weights and above, you probably want 0.023. So, it's not the pound test for your leader but it's the diameter. And the easy way to check this is to take the leader butt material and take your fly line and bend both of them kind of side by side and see where the leader butt, the arc in the leader but with the same amount of pressure kind of matches the arc in your fly line. And doing that, you know you're going to have just about the right leader butt stiffness to transfer that energy properly. So, don't worry about pound test, look at diameter.
Here's an email from Norman. "Thank you for speaking this spring at the Arlington, Vermont first annual fly-fishing festival. One of our daughters and I had the awesome chance to sit and hear you speak. I learned a lot. You mentioned you fish small streams with rubber wader boots and steel cleats/studs. Since then, I have tried the Orvis PosiGrip studs for my rubber bottom boots and enjoy the extra traction with good success when fishing from the bank. However, when I fish larger streams and wade in, fish seem to disappear. Are the steel studs scaring them off?"
Norman, I don't believe the steel studs are scaring them off. Some fish can hear sounds underwater from long distances and we know that sounds travel quite well underwater. However, everything I've learned about trout from scientific study says that a trout's hearing is not that good at long distances. Certain other fish can hear very well from long distances but trout don't appear to be able to detect sounds from long distances, it's fairly short range. So, I suspect that it's not the cleats, the PosiGrip studs on your rubber bottom boots because they actually don't make that much noise on the rocks. It's probably the fact that you are pushing waves because although trout can't hear very well, they can see the waves on the surface of the water.
And when that water starts to wiggle, when those ripples start to wiggle in an unnatural manner, in other words, the waters wiggling in a way that that it doesn't wiggle when there's just a normal current, trout know that something's up, there's a heron or an otter or a mink or human swimming toward them and they're going to be alerted, and they're going to spook and probably not feed. You know, you can test this by seeing...when you go into a still pool, if the fish stop feeding, and then you go to a riffle and the fish don't stop feeding, then it's not your studs, it's you're pushing waves. Because in riffles, those waves aren't very visible and in faster water, those waves don't transmit very well because the current overtakes them. So, it's mainly in slower water and still pools. So, see if that's the case. I suspect it is.
Al: Hi, Tom. This is Al calling in from Boise. I really enjoy your show and I listened to it every week. On the week of June 23rd, you had a caller call in who was frustrated by an inability to hook fish in a caddis hatch on western rivers. And everything you said was true and very, very helpful about hook sets and the emerging phase of the insect and those sorts of things. But one thing I did want to add is that it's very common in caddis hatches and less often in mayfly hatches for white fish to rise during the hatch. And the white fish's mouth is so small that they'll be attacking the flies and you'll be unable to hook them and realize that you're casting to white fish and not to rainbow trout. So, if you run a shiny nymph through the area, you'll usually catch the white fish and then you'll know. And they do have a slightly different rise and they don't have the red of their face inside as they go for your fly but again, if it's an emerger bite, that's a little challenging. But it's one more reason why you won't be hooking these fish that are hitting your fly.
Tom: Al, thank you so much. That is absolutely an observation that I should have mentioned. Doing most of my fly fishing in the east where we don't have mountain white fish, you know, I hadn't thought of that but you're absolutely right and you're spot on. You know, I do fish a fair amount in the western United States where there's a lot of mountain white fish and that can happen and can be very frustrated. So, that is another strong possibility of why that person could not catch her...could not hook fish during a caddis hatch. So, thanks, Al. Here's an email from Bruce from Virginia. "Last week, as I worked my way through a Pennsylvania size fly box while at least six different varieties of flies buzzed over in a famous Northeastern trout river, a conundrum came to mind that I hope you can resolve. When many different kinds of insects are active at the same time, why should dry fly anglers assume there is one hatch to match across the population to trout in that section of a river at that time?
It seems very likely during a complex hatch that availability of one variety of insects versus others will vary in different microhabitats of the stream, flats versus runs versus riffle, shade versus sun, etc. If so, wouldn't individual trout distributed among lies around the river take emergent sulphurs here, spend caddis here, and perhaps blowing out of dun somewhere else? Nonetheless, lots of anecdotal evidence in my personal experience over decades holds that trout will collectively select the same flies on or near the surface during complex hatches. Could this be confirmation bias or an excuse to blame one's patterns, not one's presentations? What explanations make the most sense to you? As always, many thanks for all your work for anglers and conservation."
Bruce, that's a great observation. And in my experience, it varies. You know, sometimes, there are fish in different lies or different currents that are taking different insects. Sometimes, all the fish are taking everything. You know, if there's a lot of bugs and they're used to seeing a lot of them and they recognize all of them as food, they may be taking all the bugs. And there's also the individual fish, you know, it's not just the lies, fish have personalities and one fish feeding alongside another fish may be feeding on something different maybe at a different microcurrent, but it may just do with personality or what it's learned in its lifetime, maybe taping at different stage or different bugs. So, that's what makes fly fishing fun. We never know and it can be any or all of the above, but it is a good point to make that there are different little microhabitats and some fish in certain microhabitats may be favoring one stage of an insect or one insect over another. But there's never an easy answer and never a sure answer and that's why we love fly fishing, for trout, especially, because it becomes a puzzle.
Paul: Hi, Tom, it's Paul calling from the UK. I'm an avid listener to the podcast. Even though the geography is obviously different and the rivers are different, I think many of the core principles are pretty much the same and I find every episode very interesting, there's always something in it that I learned. So, thank you very much for doing it. My question really is about knots and knots in leaders and knots that connect leaders to dry flies. I was fortunate enough to fish on a beautiful stretch of chalk stream last night as the guest of a friend and we both lost decent fish because our flies were pulled from the end of our leaders. And. you know, you get that little pig's tail when you get your leaders back. The pig's tail at the end of the leader, which shows you that the knots has unraveled in some way and I just can't work it out.
I don't think we're doing anything different. I think we might both be using fluorocarbon as our leaders, tapered fluorocarbon. And I think, yes, I know we're both using half-blood knots, you know, so five or six turns and then tucked and pulled. We're both wetting those knots. Something is going wrong and I wondered whether you had any suggestions for a more reliable knot that was still strong to connect the leader to fly because there is nothing on this earth more frustrating than getting into a big fish...I suppose they're a big trout, that two-pound trout, three-pound trout, and getting to a big fish and losing it. And also to think that it's potentially got a fly in its mouth, although we do fish on barbless hooks. Thanks very much, Tom. It'd be fascinated to hear the answer and to get some tips from you.
Tom: So Paul, a pig tail coming off a break-off or a loss fly is an indication of an improper knot. It may not have been tightened properly and there's lots and lots and lots of information on how to tighten a knot properly. Basically, lubricate it and kind of pop it close. Don't slowly draw it tight, but pop it closed. There's another issue here, though, with a clinch knot. Sometimes, if you use a tippet that is quite a bit smaller in diameter than the wire of the eye, then a clinch knot can slip. Usually, and, you know, if you match your tippet size to your fly size, you're not going to have that problem.
But for instance, if you're tying a 6X tippet to a size 12 nymph hook, that clinch knot can slip just because there's a great difference in diameter between the tippet and the eye of the hook. So, in that case, if you think that's the case, I would try another knot. Knots to try would be possibly the Orvis knot, the trailing knot, which is a variation of the clinch knot that goes through the eye twice and I use that to solve the problem of fine diameter tippet to a larger hook, and then a lot of people really liked the double davy knot. You can find all these knots on YouTube, you know, you can find multiple instances of how to tie these knots, but I would try one of those instead of the clinch knot.
Here's an email from Nick. "First off, I hope all is well with you, your loved ones, and the fine folks at Orvis. I have a quick but somewhat amorphous question regarding trout space, specifically the lower limits of water that can be fished in this style. I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My home waters are numerous tail waters of both the Arkansas and South Platte rivers, two systems in which the trout occasionally tried to convince me a doctorate degree is required. This is to say for listeners unfamiliar with these eastern Colorado tail waters, they're known for being highly technical pocket water fisheries with particularly wary trout.
I've mostly nymph these system using both indicator and tightline methods. This has typically been successful, but I wanted to learn something different. This led me to pick up a 10-foot three-weight micro trout spey rod with a Skagit head. The process of casting itself is wonderful. Over the last eight months, I've become competent with several basic Skagit-style casts but I have difficulty being successful on my home waters using such tactics. As the rivers never tend to be more than 25 to 30 feet wide or more than a handful of feet deep, trying to swing streamers on a Skagit head sink tip combo feels moderately constraining and likely to spook fish.
This prompts my primary if somewhat ambiguous question to you, how small a river is too small for a swung presentation using a trout spey rod? Also, bonus question if you have time, for particularly spooky trout, do you think a Scandi head tapered leader and swung soft tackles would be more likely to induce success? Thank you for your time and consideration in answering this question and many others. Your continued commitment to being an ambassador for the sport especially embracing discourse regarding inclusivity is greatly appreciated."
Well, Nick, as far as the size of the stream for a trout spey rod, you know, it really boils down to is it becoming uncomfortable to try to get enough casting room to use that two-handed rod in a small stream? If it is, then, you know, you probably need know, you can still swing flies but you probably should go to a single-handed rod. The other thing is that a 10-foot three-weight micro spey line is really more like a five or even a six-weight line in diameter and in the bulk of the line. So, if the trout are particularly spooky, probably trout spey doesn't make too much sense because you are disturbing the water quite a bit both with your casting and with the line landing.
And for your bonus questions, absolutely, you should be going to a Scandi line and a tapered leader and perhaps a little sinking head, a little poly leader on the end. Skagit in a technical trout stream and clear water is going to be too clunky for you. If you're fishing streamers, that's another story and waters are high if you're fishing streamers. But I think if you go to a Scandi line and longer lighter leader, you're gonna have a lot more success.
Mike: Hi, Tom. Mike from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I have a quick question for you regarding fly rod storage. I've begun to accumulate a few rods, which isn't a bad thing except for trying to figure out how to store them. I would like to store them in the tubes but I can't seem to find any kind of pre-made rack or storage system that would allow that. So, I was wondering if you or any other listener had any kind of input on that. And also, in general, I was storing them into tubes. I always stored them lying flat. Is there any issue with standing them on end if you were to do that? I doubt it but just thought I'd ask since you folks make the rods and have quite a bit of knowledge about that.
Tom: So, Mike, it doesn't really matter how you store your rods actually. Modern graphite and fiberglass rods can be stored any way you want them, heat, cold, you know, straight up and down, laid down on a table, even bent when you store them is not going to hurt those rods, they don't take a set. Bamboo rod is a different story, bamboo rods can take a set if they're not stored properly, you know, if they're not stored upright, they can take a set. In other words, an eventual curve in the rod itself. I always store my bamboo rods upright in their tubes. But you don't have to be that fussy about it. You know, I store all of my rods just in the cloth sacks on the top of a table and it doesn't hurt them a bit.
If you want to store them upright in their tubes, you know, if you're handy at all or not even that handy with woodworking, it's very easy to build a wooden rack with some, you know, holes in the bottom, diameter holes, the countersunk holes that will hold the tubes and then a second upright piece that you slide the tube through. And rod racks like this I know are sold in places, but they're quite easy to make out of wood or something. So, I wouldn't worry too much about it unless you're worried about, you know, just displaying them nicely. You can store those rods any old way you want. And if you do want to store them in a way that displays them and looks nice, then you're going to have to look at a system that you either make yourself or buy.
So, my guest today is my old friend, Paul Bruun. Paul and I go back, God, many, many, many years even before Paul was one of the Orvis saltwater advisors and I remember that we used to get questions because you lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at the time where you still reside and people were saying, "How the hell can you guys have a saltwater fly-fishing advisor who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming?" And we're gonna get into that but the most important thing, the most timely thing is that today is Wednesday, and tomorrow night you are going to receive the Isaac Walton Award from the American Museum of Fly Fishing for your lifetime contributions to fly fishing. And Paul, you've done a ton. You developed a drift boat or the South Fork skiff, right?
Paul: Yes.
Tom: And we're going to talk about your early days, and you have been a writer for it the "Jackson Hole News?"
Paul: Today it's "Jackson Hole News and Guide." I started at the "Jackson Hole Guide" in '73. They merged a few years ago. I went to the News and then after the merger, it was all one.
Tom: And Paul, you've written for lots and lots of magazines and you're a newspaperman by profession. And what we want to talk about today is the early days of fly fishing, not back in colonial times, you and I...I mean, of course, you and I were alive in colonial times. But we're gonna talk about, you know, fly fishing back in maybe the '60s and '70s, kind of that early days of the resurgence of fly fishing. And I get questions from people, I get questions not only from podcast listeners, but I get questions know, I work with a lot of younger people at Orvis, product developers and marketing people and social media people, and they are always curious too, you know, "What was it like in those days? What was fly fishing like?" And I don't think there's a better person than you, Paul, to talk about kind of the evolution of fly fishing and how it was different then than it is today. So, why don't you talk a little bit about your early history in fly fishing and then give us a sense for what it was like back then?
Paul: Thanks, Tom. I can tell you I'm not quite in the colonial period but I'm 78 and I have sitting by me a book that was written by a guy named Ed Zern and it wasn't really written by him. He compiled a group of cartoons, mostly from a wonderful New York newspaper cartoonist, and put them into a book called "To Hell with Fishing." And I grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, and I did a lot of fishing as a kid with my dad and with my neighbors. And so, I was visiting this neighbor of ours who was from Upper Darby, PA, for health reasons, he and his wife had moved down to Florida, and I found this book on his bookshelf. He was a wonderful outdoorsman. But this book was full of these cartoons by HT Webster and also some cartoons by Zern.
And I saw these pictures of these fellows in many...he had a bunch of reoccurring correlatives, "The Timid Soul," "Life's Darkest Moment," "How to Torture Your Wife," "How to Torture Your Husband." And so, on each page was a cartoon and then Zern would have funny quips on the page opposite sometimes about the cartoon, sometimes not, but I saw fly rods for the first time in these pictures. Now, I read every outdoor magazine there was as a kid because my dad got them but the fly rod with the reels at the end and these long rods and talking about the Royal Coachman, Silver Doctors, things like that, you got to remember, I was thousands of miles away from Chuck fishing as we knew it.
And one day going through the garage, I found a green and white striped box that had a Pflueger Medalist reel in it, and a little bit more research up on a shelf, I found two three-piece nine-foot bamboo rods. So, most of our fishing was spinning and plug casting but after reading Mr. Zern and getting amped up about this fly fishing, I put these things together and started casting around out in the yard or doing what I called casting. And pretty soon, I found some old flies that my dad had and then there was a hardware store near us and for some reason, the Philips company had...they had a bunch of streamers in stock. They had shinier bodies, they had a little plastic bead head with an eye on them, and they had opposing saddle hackle wings that's cleared out to the side.
So, they look pretty neat, and so I got some of these, and the ones that didn't get stuck and palm trees would get in the water around the bridges and docks where we were. And I'm not going to say this was pretty but that's how I started. And that was in the middle '50s, so there weren't many people around to help me with that. I had a fly-tying kit that we bought at a tackle store and I was tying basically bucktails as little streamers for throwing at ladyfish and jacks around the sea walls. But I could not for the life of me figure out how a dry fly got that hackle and my friend Carey Kreski, who grew up in Michigan was a neighbor of ours.
And Carey came over, he saw the fly-tying kit, and he said, "Oh, watch this." And he sat down and he tied a McGinty with the black and yellow body. And he said, "Do you have hackle pliers?" I said, "I don't even know what they are." He said, "Well, we'll do without them." He tied a hackle and turned it around the hook and Tom, I felt like I'd seen Houdini. I know that sounds very simple but remember, Miami Beach was not a hotbed in the '50s of dry fly fishing. So, that was the start. I just became enamored with trout flies. For Christmas, I got Ray Bergman's "Trout." I got a lot of other books. In the summer, we would go up to parents were both from Ohio but they had business in New York, we'd go to New York, you're going to love this, my dad took me to a place called Abercrombie and Fitch.
Tom: Oh, yeah.
Paul: And walking around in there and looking at those giant bins of flies, well, I guess that was the infection that started quite a while ago.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, further on, what was the world of fly fishing like when you discovered other people doing it? You know, what kind of people were doing it and how are they doing it and what was it like back then?
Paul: Well, remember, I was, I'm gonna say, quarantined in an area where the kind of fishing I was reading about in the magazines was mostly Catskills and Maine, you know, things like that. I remember reading AJ McLean's story about the fabulous fly that he had discovered by a fella that fished up in Canada a lot and it was called the Muddler Minnow. So, I fiddled around with my fly fishing, again, mostly in saltwater. In about '55, my parents took me on a trip, first out west, and then in '56, we went up to Canada. And in both of those events, I got to really fly fish for trout. So, the first was in Wyoming and also we fished the Truckee River before that in '55 and '56.
We were up in Ontario and around Quebec, and I got to go brook trout fishing up on a lake with a French-Canadian guide who was really colorful. I got to use some of my Abercrombie and Fitch flies. And we went to the Miramichi River, and I caught a Grills [SP] on a fiberglass bamboo...I mean, fiberglass rod that I bought in Mayama [SP] for fishing in saltwater because those bamboo rods taken a beating, and they weren't really made for, you know, banging around in a boat or around the bridge. But I didn't have anybody that could really say, "This is how you do this, this is how you do that." I had an uncle in Cleveland who showed me the hand twist retrieve. So, I always remember him showing it to me.
We were at a baseball field one night casting and he said, "Now, here's how you retrieve the line," and hand twist retrieve in saltwater wasn't really effective. So, that was, you know, step one. Step two, where I probably picked up a little more assurance about fly fishing. And again, I'm not getting a lot of help from outside because there just weren't a lot of people that I knew know, there were no clubs, no nothing. But I found...I went to North Carolina to college, and my parents said, "No fish and tackle, none." So, I went over to Durham, which was not too far from Chapel Hill and I bought a Ted Williams spinning rod, and the university had a water...had a lake, and you could rent a boat out there for a day, a rowboat for $1, and no motor and you could row around.
Well, with my spinning rod, I got a couple of top-water plugs and then ran droppers back to Boone queen bee poppers. And so, I started, you know, bass fishing and the things, and I found some of my fraternity friends were interested in fishing and, you know, I showed them all the different stuff and they said, "Well, what about fly fishing?" And I said, "Well, that's, you know, not that hard." So, I became the conduit to go into Durham buying fly rods for these guys, and then we would drive out...we'd get a weekend, we drive out to western North Carolina and camp and we'd fish the Lynnville River.
And so, that's a...and of course, the Lynnville River was stocked with rainbows but there were some browns in it and that's where Mr. McLean's Muddler Minnow really began to show up. But Tom, other dad made a contact...Dad ran a newspaper and he'd write stories about the outdoors and trips and things like that and he was in touch with all kinds of people. He got in touch with Leon Chandler, at that time, who was, you know, kind of the front man for Cortland.
Tom: Yeah, a wonderful man, a wonderful human being.
Paul: Well, all of a sudden, Leon Chandler had a friend who worked for Cortland who was a tremendous artist and whatnot, and he was basically their PR man. So, he would send letters to various writers and he would send me a letter and it would have a handmade...or a hand-done drawing of a big cup of coffee steaming and it would start out, "Dear Paul," and I was just a kid but I was getting this, they sent along some of these new floating plastic fly lines which were unbelievable compared to the stuff that was on that metal that Dad had.
Tom: Paul, was that Dick Jennings?
Paul: It was RF Dick Jennings. You're exactly right.
Tom: You know, when I was in college he used to send me fly lines too and I remember the steaming coffee cup.
Paul: Yep. Well, I got to meet at a our era when I used to see you at a lot of the sports shows, Leon Chandler came by the booth I was in and he said, "Paul, you always used to ask me about Dick Jennings," he said, "He's here." And I mean to tell you, I've met a lot of pretty impressive people through the newspaper, you know, sports people and people like Elvis Presley and whatnot. But meeting Dick Jennings, Tom, was a big deal because he was so kind to a kid.
Tom: Yeah, the same with me. Yeah, absolutely. And he didn't fish. Did you know that? He never fished.
Paul: No, I know he was a dynamite artist and he, he was, you know, I mean, quite an artist in his own right without the PR stuff. As opposed to Ed Zern, who wasn't much of an artist, he was what you would call primitive but he worked for J. Walter Thompson, which was, at that time, the biggest advertising agency in the world, and he of his accounts was the NASCAR cars. And so, I would see in magazines an ad for NASCAR and there'd be a funny thumbnail sketch of a guy and it was just like the guys that were in that "To Hell with Fishing" book. No, Dick Jennings was a...I mean, you got to remember, I'm not saying that I invented anything, I was just in sort of a vacuum until I got into service and then when I was able to travel around and be in places where there were consistent amounts of trout, that was really...that was a great accelerant for me.
Tom: And once you started meeting other fly anglers, I mean, what was the culture like? You know, how did people interact and compare notes? And, you know, we've got the internet and Instagram now and websites and podcasts and YouTube, you know, how did people exchange information in those days and what were they like?
Paul: Well, I didn't really...I mean, the groups that I got to know were basically in the...when I was in the Air Force, for instance, they had some sportsman's clubs on each of the bases I went to and I was stationed outside of Kansas City, so I wasn't very far from those great spring creeks that they have down in the Ozarks. So, there was a fishing club in Kansas City and when I was down at Bennett Springs, I worked these shifts, so I could get two or three days off, I would go down there and I would meet these various guys. And, you know, it was still a small fraternity, Tom, because at that time...I mean, let's say I'm talking 1966, '65, '60s, at that time, the majority of trout fishing was still with spinning rods and I'm going to say from what I gathered, there were people using fly rods but they were using...oh, they were using...what was it called? A Colorado spinner?
Tom: I mean, when opening day of fly fishing came in Pennsylvania, the stories that I read, most of the guys were fishing because the water was high, it was cold, it wasn't really a fly-fishing time. They were fishing a little spinner with a worm or they were fishing a split shot and something but they were using a fly rod. But the majority of the fishing, just like in those days, the majority of the fishing where I grew up was with bait and the lure guys, you know, they were few and far between. They were growing, especially in the freshwater area with bass and stuff. But the guys that I met at Bennett Springs and down in the Ozarks on the Niagara River, some of those guys were very handy.
You'll enjoy this. I was fascinated because this place called Bennett Spring was a magnificent natural spring that fed into the Niagara River just outside of...I can't remember the town's name. It's where Fort Leonard Wood is, though. And it's the headquarters...or really, was the headquarters for all the aluminum Jon boats that followed the original wooden Jon boats that were made. Lebanon. Lebanon, Missouri. So, anyway, there were three sections on this spring that were bought a ticket every day and for every ticket that they sold to a fisherman, they would put one and a half trout in the stream overnight from the hatchery. So, there were three sections, there was the bait section, the spinning section, and the fly section, and they would move them around each year.
Well, the fly section had quite a few people in it as did the bait section. The spinning section didn't get that many people because, you know, the bait guys were in the bait section, the spinning guys were in the spinning section, but there weren't that many of them, and the fly guys were definitely in the fly section. And so, I would go up and fish in the spinning section, I'd even go up and fish in the bait section, and I would watch these fly guys and guess what they were using at that time? They look like a giant leaf tablet, it was white, and it was a little white foam strike indicator. And these guys were good and, of course, these were pellet-fed rainbows. So, what they called the armyworm or hairs here or anything of that description, fished ticking along with a little split shot on it, and I'd sit there and watch those guys with that strike indicator and I was fascinated.
But with all my reading and everything, I wanted to fish a blue dun, I want to fish, you know, something like a Royal Coachman, I wasn't going to fish an armyworm. But if you wanted to really catch fish, that's what you fished in that stream but there would be hatches and these fish would come up and hit on the surface. So, that's where I started talking to people. There were a few guys on the base that fly-fished, and so we would coordinate our schedules. And I'll never forget the innovation that came along that was second only to watching the hackle being wrapped around the fly was a friend of mine said, "Here," he had the same rod I had, we were using those yellow Eagle Claw Wright & McGill fiberglass rods by then. And he had, wait for it, a tapered line.
Tom: Wow.
Paul: All the lines that I got from Leon Chandler and Dick Jennings were all level lines. And while I could get them to go pretty well, I picked up that tapered line and I thought, "Oh, my God, this is real rocket science." You know, I mean, you gotta laugh at this because if you talk to somebody today about a tapered line, they're going to have the triangle taper, they're going to have the quick cast, quick sight taper, they're going to have this taper or that taper. And, you know, for me, getting the tapered line...the first one I ever bought, I bought when I was traveling during the leave out west here, I was in West Yellowstone late in the year and I met a gentleman who had a fly shop there named Jim Danskin.
And I had gone out, he'd sent me to a place on the East Fork of the, the West Fork of the Madison, and I had a bang-up day and I came back. And even though second lieutenants were in pretty good shape then, we didn't, you know, exactly have Goldman Sachs-type finances to burn, and I bought a brand new 1494 Medalist with the first tapered line I ever had. And believe me, it know, that was Christmas. So, I didn't progress very fast. I was in the parking lot a lot longer than I was on the highway when it came to getting started in fly fish.
Tom: Well, I think that can be said for all of us who were self-taught in those days. There was just no information, you had to hack away by yourself.
Paul: Well, you could read the fellas that were writing, you know, Joe Brooks and McLean and Ted Trueblood and the guys that were really good, but they do what they were doing and they were around guys that were, you know, very...and they had no idea. And I think kind of by plan, I don't think they were real eager to invite a bunch of people like Tom and Paul out in front of them splashing around and getting in their way. I think they wanted...I mean, I got that pretty well that, you know, this was a club that didn't need a lot of entry-level people.
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: I don't say that totally facetiously because the fellows that were helpful were sensational. When I was telling you we went to New York in 1956 on our way after the Western trip in 1955 that Dad and Mom and I took, the next year was going to be Mom's year and she was a student of French and studied French and was really, you know, a Francophile even though she was Italian. And so, we went to Quebec or our plan was to go to Quebec so she could enjoy the aspects of, you know, the French part of Canada. And so, what was funny is on the way, we stopped in New York and we went to Abercrombie and Fitch and then we went to...I believe it was called The Angler's Den.
Tom: Yeah, Angler's Roost, Angler's Roost.
Paul: Angler's Roost.
Tom: Jim Darren.
Paul: Jim Darren. And Jim Darren was so nice to my dad and me, and I'll never forget him saying, he goes, "Mr. Bruun," he said, "As crazy as your son is about fly fishing," he said, "On your way to Canada," he said, "Please go to the Miramichi River." He said, "The salmon fishing there right now is absolutely sensational," and he said, "Your son will remember it forever." So, Dad was always game for something new and interesting. We went up to the Beaver Kill...this is pretty funny. This was in 1956, the summer of 1956. Dad had bought, with some other fellows, a Chrysler Imperial, a 1957 Imperial, and we were going to go up to the Beaver Kill because, you know, I'd been reading a steady diet of Beaver Kill from Rob, Zern, and everybody else.
We go to where we had a reservation and the little stone bridge, which, you know, they still have those little stone bridges over everything, the Imperial was too wide to go over that bridge and my dad snapped, he said, "I'm not going to fool around with this anymore, we're going to hit on north," which broke my heart but it was really an interesting moment. So, we go up to Fredericton and we go to a hardware store there to get licenses, etc., and there was a gentleman in that hardware store that...I mean, I think he would have been the Roderick Haig-Brown of Fredericton.
This man was so nice, so encouraging. He set us up, put backing on our reels because we didn't have backing. As matter of fact, he got a reel for dad. I think it was a Pridex, which was made...I think one of those, you know, basic English reels. And we went to a place near the Griffins and I remember Ted Williams had a camp up there at that time because they pointed him out, you know, the people where we stayed. We ended up getting a little cabin. Dad hired a guide and his name was Andrew Henchy and he had, I think, 13 children. He showed up in those, you know, L.L. Bean-type main hunting shoe boots and wool pants and the checkered shirt, and he had a canoe and he pulled me around in the canoe. Dad waded, he didn't go into the canoe with us.
And we went up and down that river pulling with the chain behind it and, Tom, I mean, that was just absolute heaven to me. But I just remembered...and ironically, what happened is we took a part of the day off, drove back into Fredericton, and we ran into the gentleman from the hardware store. He had just caught a big salmon. He cut the fly off and he said, "Son," he said, "I want you to use this fly, you're gonna catch a salmon with it." And that evening, we were just about finished, it was getting dark, and I said to this Andrew Henchy, I said, "Could we try this fly?" He said, "Certainly." So, he put it on and I was casting one side of the boat and then the other and then you'd push the boat down a little bit or up. And all of a sudden, that fly stopped and I caught an Atlantic salmon. It was a Grylls but it was a big deal. So, that was an unusual situation between Jim Darren and the man and they saw a kid who was really revved up about fly fishing and they took it from there. But I don't think that was exactly the case everywhere else.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah, it was an exclusive fraternity back in those days.
Paul: Exclusive is the right term. They weren't looking for business. You know, they didn't have fly shops that needed younger people coming in there and saying, "Hey, I want to learn how to fly fish."
Tom: Yeah. It was rare. It was rare for someone your age to be into fly fishing. It was mostly older gentlemen and it was men too, there weren't...there were very few women in those days fly fishing.
Paul: I remember something that is stuck with me and, of course, just yesterday, my wife, Jean, was out teaching a group for Lori-Ann Murphy's Reel Women that were here and there were five women, some of which had done, you know, quite a bit of regular fishing and some had some fly-fishing background. But it was just a beginning course in fly fishing with everything from knots to entomology, to everything. And Jean would come home every night and she said, "These women were so excited, so enthusiastic about all this."
And it always...whenever I see that, I remember when I was in the service and starting to travel around out west, I would see these cars parked by the road and I'd see a woman sitting in the car reading, knitting, or doing something and, you know, down on the river, if I could see it, I'd see a guy fishing away and I always thought that was sad. And of course, today, the women are really getting after it and you know far more about it than I do because you're still in the industry and you can see it firsthand.
Tom: Women and young people, yeah.
Paul: And that's great. I mean, I think that there we've talked about before, there is so much to learn that you never stop. You never stopped learning about it.
Tom: No, that's for sure.
Paul: I mean, it's humbling, it's truly humbling. I remember when I would be guiding, guys would show up, the clients would show up, and they had read every book there was. I mean, they knew far more about the issues of fly fishing and this and that than I did. But they'd never done it, so they didn't know, it'd be like a basketball player who knew everything there was to know about the game but had never jumped center and never taken the ball and down in a pressure situation. You know, they didn't quite know where to start. And so, sometime during the day, you know, we might be having a tough day and they'd say, "Well, Paul, what do you think? What should we do?"
And I said, "You know, I honestly don't know." And they'd look at me and they'd say, "What? You don't know?" And I said, "No," I said, "The stuff that normally is working isn't working," so I said, "We're going to have to just keep going here and we're going to find something that does work but I can't tell you what it's going to be because it's going to be a surprise to both of us." And, you know, I wasn't quite in the Rosenbauer league where I would get out and try to seine and see what was going on because when you had 2,500, 3,000 cubic feet per second flow, that wasn't really easy to do. You know, you just kind of hung on and hoped you could find a riffle where something was happening.
Tom: That's still my method, Paul. I don't get out and seine.
Paul: No, no, no. I've watched you, you're on a first-name basis with those insects where you go.
Tom: I'm not.
Paul: Except for steelhead fishing.
Tom: I'm not on a first-name basis...
Paul: Then we're in the same boat.
Tom: I'm just as clueless about the insects as anyone else. Hey, you know, there was a story you told about discovering a group of fly rod bass anglers that you told me about a little while ago that I'd like to explore a little bit with you.
Paul: Well, you're gonna have to be a little more specific. Oh, okay, I remember that one.
Tom: Yeah. Because I thought that was fascinating.
Paul: Well, it's still fascinating and it's still in many instances true. While the topography has changed, South Florida, as you probably know, is at the bottom of a very large drainage that comes down in the middle of the state. And it's what creates all the wetlands, what creates the Everglades, it's what creates the way Florida's aquatic behavior...well, actually, it's how everything behaves is that water coming down in the middle of the state in a very slow-moving river. Well, quite a long time ago, the hurricanes would rip the water literally out of Lake Okeechobee and flood areas and, you know, unfortunately, kill a lot of people.
And so, the Army Corps of Engineers got involved and I think I'm not exaggerating when I say sometimes there are cures that are a little worse than the pains that they're trying to cure. But there was a system of canals drainage to move water about, and basically came the Everglades. And I'm not going to go into the whole details of it, but those canals would run north and south, east and west, and they were very productive fisheries. And canal fishing is something that doesn't sound very attractive on its basis, but there would be...every so often there would be a cut into the main Sawgrass portions of the Everglades and water would come in, the canals were big collectors, and then they would come north to south, they would hit the Tamiami Trail U.S. 41 which was running from Mayama towards the west and at 40-mile bend, it would gradually turn north and head towards Naples and eventually Tampa, hence Tamiami Trail.
But those canals had a lot of fish in them. All the major sunfish, bluegill, redear sunfish, which are called shellcracker. There were black crappie, there were little stumpknockers, redbreast sunfish, pickerel, and largemouth bass. And depending on the time of the year or the water level, the fishing could be good. And these canals were usually very clear, even though they were very tannic stained. So, they were an absolute dream to fish with any kind of tackle but they were really fun with a fly rod because you had a solid bank and, in some places, it would be rocky where the dragline had, you know, pulled up some extra rock. And then there would, you know, be marsh areas with water hyacinth and lots of bulrushes sticking out.
And so, when I first started doing it, we were in little rental boats that there were places on the Tamiami Trail, you could run a boat, and if you had a motor, you brought it, if not, they'd rent you a motor, and you could go up and most of the people did minnow fishing. Well, as we progressed, I had a couple of boats that had oars and this is before the electric trolling motor became real prominent. So, you could just idle along and throw...I mentioned it earlier, a fella named Don Boone from up around Orlando developed a fly called the Boone queen bee. So, the Boone queen bee came in two colors, yellow and black that look like a bumblebee, and black and white that look like, you know, more of a paper wasp than a bumblebee with rubber legs.
And so, I just found this more fun than anything firing these popping bugs out, and bass, bluegill, not very often the crappie would hit them, but stuff would really pile on. Well, you didn't see a lot of people doing this. You did see people fishing with cane poles along the bank, bait fishing, and you did see a lot of people minnow fishing. But the people that I saw fly fishing, most everybody that I ever saw out there fly fishing were black fishermen and they were good. And they'd have...there be three or four of them in, you know, a pretty good-sized boat, not just a little tiny rowboat.
And one know, if the wind wasn't bad, one guy would be in the back with a paddle, sculling, and those guys would take that place apart. And, you know, we would stop and visit and they used a lot of little plastic...I'm gonna call them...they look like little hellgrammites but most of the people put them on a cane pole and drag them around, I'm gonna say, Tenkara-style, and it was like a grass shrimp. So, some of those guys would have a fly rod and they throw that little plastic hellgrammites. Sometimes they'd put two on a hook, throw it in, and then just start twitching it, hand twist, retrieve, and boom, something had just come flying out of the sawgrass or out of the hyacinth.
And then the others were throwing popping bugs and stuff like I was throwing. But I would tell that to people, you know, when I'd go somewhere, like I went up to Santee Cooper one time to go fishing up in South Carolina and I took my fly rod along and I'd go out to Texas, and you didn't find a lot of guys fly fishing...and this was even, you know, in the late '60s, early '70s. But those guys down in the canals, there were more of them...there were more black fly fishermen there than any place I've ever seen.
Tom: That's truly amazing because you think of the early days of fly fishing, you know, the mid-20th century, and you think of old white guys doing it, right?
Paul: Well, remember one thing, efficiency is hard to discourage and it was Homer Circle who said, "If you really want to catch fish, catch bass on a regular basis and do it efficiently, a fly rod beats anything else there is." And watching these fellows fish, they took Homer pretty seriously and I don't think they even knew who Homer Circle was but it always fascinated me. And I remember one time, though, this is pretty funny. I had a very good friend named Marvin Levine who I grew up with going to elementary school and actually, I think he still has some of the flies that I sold him when we were in sixth grade and Marvin became a wonderful, talented fly fisherman.
But when he was getting started, we were up at Lake Okeechobee and the Rim Canal, I had a little Boston Whaler which had oarlocks in it and so I would roll him along and he would fly cast. And there were two guys sitting on the bank with cane poles, shrimp fishing with bobbers. And so, I was telling Marvin to do this and to, you know, look ahead and the guy goes, "Man," he says, "That guy's even got his own fishing coach in the boat." But Marvin and I used to fish those canals a lot and we were always kind of fascinated know stopping and fishing with all the black fly fishermen and rarely did we go by one of their boats that there wasn't somebody fly fish.
Tom: Amazing, amazing. I wish that had been better documented, you know, that would have made such a great story.
Paul: I wasn't in the documenting days just yet.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. Well, you're documenting it now, which is good.
Paul: Okay, thank you.
Tom: So, another thing I wanted to talk about is one of your innovations, one of your contributions of fly fishing, the South Fork skiff, you want to talk about how that came about?
Paul: Well, it was a combination. I always say, "Let's steal from the best." And when I first started coming out out west when I was in the service, I'd have a 30-day leave and a lot of times, I would spend the whole 30 days just fishing and hunting between wherever I was stationed in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and frequently I'd have my dad come out and join me. So, in the mid-60s, we would see people floating rivers and, you know, there wasn't a lot to it at that time because I would usually come in September, I'd take my leave in September. So, I went floating with this gentleman I mentioned earlier, Jim Danskin, on the Madison River after just about...I mean, they rolled up the sidewalks, Tom, after Labor Day everywhere.
And so, Jim was kind enough to not...he hadn't put his boat up yet and he took me floating. And then I met a gentleman named Ray Hurley through Charlie Waterman up in Livingston, and Ray took me floating and he had a Jon boat as did, well, Joe Brooks and Dan Bailey up in Livingston. Because of the wind, Jon boats, aluminum Jon boats from that Lebanon, Missouri area were on top of just about everybody's car, their station wagons or their jeeps and whatnot. And so, we'll fast forward to when I got to Jackson, which was in the...I came to Jackson in the '60s and floated on the river with a fella named Boots Allen and his two sons, Dick and Joe, who became, well, very good friends of mine once I move here.
But they were using rafts because the drop on the Snake wasn't as conducive to a hard boat, they didn't think, especially when the water got low in the fall. So, you had the drift boat on the Madison and in Idaho. Of course, out further west, you had the Jon boats up on the Yellowstone and you had the rafts over here. So, as I got into more fishing and then eventually guiding, I would find times when the water was so low that the raft just couldn't get into places. And also, it was very slow, especially late in the year. And so, I bought a Jon boat. And again, the Missoura connection, Lowe Line and the Lowe family out of Lebanon were the...they had, by that time, bought just about all the Jon boat makers.
And I had a 14-foot low line and I was working at a store, a big drugstore here managing the sporting goods department, and I ordered six low line Jon boats and the owner was kind enough, he said, "Well, if you think you can sell them, I'll order them." So, we ordered a bunch of canoes and a bunch of Jon boats and then sold every one. And the Jon boat had advantages, Tom. Not that it wasn't cold when it was cold and it made noise when it hit rocks and it could leak if you hit them hard enough, but it got those days, there were a lot of railroad flat car bridges around the ranches.
You know, instead of building a bridge, they just go over and buy an old abandoned Union Pacific flat car, place know, pack it in the road, and it would go over a pretty sizable piece of stream. Well, those things were invariably pretty low, and going under them even in a raft or, God forbid, a Mackenzie boat, you were in trouble. You better have some stout boys with you to do the portaging around. So, the Jon boat, I started using a lot especially later in the season but it didn't have quite the amenities of a drift boat. It didn't have a curved hull, curved bottom that was like a banana peel, the water rushes underneath it and you could hold it, it didn't have an anchor system, and it didn't float real well. Plus, it wasn't very comfortable, unless you put seats on it and did this and that.
So, I had a friend named Ralph Headrick who was a very handy guy, he worked as a mechanic at garages and then he worked at a small engine in John Deere business here. And he and I were talking and I took him out in my Jon boat and he had a full-size McKenzie boat, I had one of them, I had a raft, you know, we had every kind of boat we needed. But we got to talking and, you know, we decided that taking that Jon boat concept of the low-profile boat and turning it into something that could bounce off or slide over rocks, have an anchor system, have a little bit of relief...and so, to make a long story short, he said, "I think I can build a prototype."
So, instead of one prototype, we built two. And the idea of the boat was simple, it was going to be sturdy, it was going to be easy to get in and out of. Seeing out of a drift boat for anybody that's not my size, and I'm about...well, I used to be six-three, I don't know right now what I am but it's not that. But I can still see pretty well with somebody standing up in the front, whereas somebody like my dear wife, Jean, who's five feet tall, if I'm standing in the front of that boat, she's looking at a blackboard, she can't see anything. And then the wind catches a regular McKenzie boat and a little bit lower profile isn't going to catch the wind, it's going to go under bridges.
And another thing that became increasingly important, when getting in and out of those boats, older people aren't as agile. And getting out of a tall-sided McKenzie boat, sometimes you just turn around and see somebody doing this slow pirouette and waiting to fall into the water. And that isn't always something you want to see, especially on a guided trip. And probably I'm going to say the biggest reason for our boat's success was very simple. The number one argument between couples, whether they were married, dating, I don't care how much they were enthused about each other, is invariably, the wife had a very bad time rowing a big drift boat. It was just awkward. It was hard. And so, the husband, of course, was always rowing and he got tired of that.
So, we like to think that we really made a major contribution to domestic tranquility like coming up with the South Fork skiff. We're on the Snake River but it's officially the South Fork of the Snake River because there's a North Fork, which is, as you know, the Henry's Fork even though it's in Idaho. And I grew up with skiffs in the Keys around Mayama, I just love that, so we called it that. And it did not take off in...we were in the early '80s when it started and I didn't expect it to really take off. But as a friend of ours who had a pretty popular boat company called Hughes and Maverick and Pathfinder and Cobia, a gentleman named Scott Deal, told me...I was down visiting with him about fiberglass stuff and he said, "Paul," he said, "It's just simply amazing how many naval architects I have run into since I began building fishing boats."
He said, "Everybody is an expert on what goes into a good fishing boat." And I said, "You know, I've encountered some of that same situation, the first thing people say is, "You know what this boat needs?" So, I would say quite a few years before our time, Ralph and I sold just about 100 boats. And then we sold the business to Carter Andrews who has a TV fishing show now, "The Obsession of Carter Andrews," and then Carter sold it and it went on and, you know, ping pong around. And now the boat is kind of undergoing a revitalization with a company up in Helena called Adipose that built their own low-profile skiff, but they also had the molds and the rights to the South Fork skiff and there's quite a few people especially around here that, you know, find the South Fork Skiff attractive. So, I think, you know, in 2022, it's probably getting popular.
Tom: That's cool, that's cool. Adipose will do a good job with it. They're a dedicated company. I've fished for many, many, many days out of an Adipose.
Paul: Well, in your realm, as I call you the modern face of the Orvis company, when this boat company started, it was going along and we were in touch with one of your, we'll say, many bosses at the Orvis company, a gentleman named Leigh Perkins. And so, Leigh had obviously a place over not too far from Jackson over in Star Valley and at the rendezvous and everything, everybody was up...and you'll see more about this later, everybody was up listening to you showing out all the new gear. And I would sit with Leigh because I thought I could learn a lot more from Leigh about how to sell my boats and do this and that.
Tom has taken care of the new rods, he doesn't need my help with that. And all of a sudden, one day Leigh said, "Paul, I want to buy one of your boats." And so, we made up a boat for him and David and Burke, his sons, told me that, you know, they got a big kick out of taking the South Fork skiff out when they would come up to see their dad. So, I considered it a plus when LHP said, "I want to buy one of your boats." I felt like, you know, this gentleman has seen just about everything there is to see. So, we were very proud of that.
Tom: And he was not exactly a boat angler, he preferred to wade. So, if he bought one of your boats, that's quite a compliment.
Paul: Well, our thing I didn't mention is we would talk to people about the concept of our boat and that because it was low profile and people were sitting down in our boat and as you know, people don't learn right off the bat to cast sitting down unless they've been treated to an Ozark Jon boat float trip where those long, thin wood boats, you didn't stand up in those, you sat down. And the beauty of the South Fork Skiff is that you can get a lot closer to targets. And I don't know about you, I know everybody wants to have a fly rod that can throw 70 and 80 feet, but I find I'm a little more accurate at 25 and 30 feet than I am at 70 feet if I could get 70 feet anymore.
And that was what our boat was designed for, is to get in close and not be as intrusive as the high bowed drift boat. And the people sitting down...there were, you know, some pushback against not standing up like you do on a regular drift boat. But our observation of the drift boat business is you watch people and they start out strong for about two hours, and then pretty soon, they're leaning on the front of the boat, and then they're sitting sideways on it, the boat is tilting, and they're tired. Whereas if they're sitting down, they aren't getting tired.
And once they realize that they can cast pretty accurately and they don't have to cast that far, the skiff becomes far more of a weapon to utilize when it comes to accurate presentations. But, you know, everybody has their own way of doing things. I'm happy that we came out with that boat in the early '80s because my shoulders are a total mess right now but that would have happened a heck of a lot sooner from, you know, 35 years of rowing. Things don't get better but with a skiff, you have a lot less drag and you have know, you can do a lot of work but it's a lot less work than you would be doing in a great big boat.
Tom: Well, Paul, those are some great stories and I want to thank you for for sharing them with us and giving us an idea of what the early days of fly fishing...the early days of modern fly fishing were like, really appreciate it. And I want to congratulate you on your Isaac Walton award. I will be there tomorrow night virtually to hear some more stories and I'm looking forward to it.
Paul: Well, thank you, Tom. You know, this Isaac Walton award, you've won it and I thought that was a very wise situation for the American Fly Fishing Museum, which is in Manchester. All they have had to do was walk across the yard and get you. And it was a logical step because I think that museum really started from what Leigh said in the basement of the Orvis company and it's just a magnificent collection to the stuff that guys like us absolutely love to be around, look at, know it's there. And for my evening, which is going to be on TV...or not on TV, on the telebroadcast, I've got some really wonderful people that are far better storytellers and bigger characters than I am to kind of handle the heavy lifting, all I have to do is sit and nod and smile.
Tom: Oh, good. Well, yeah, you've got some real stars there coming to the event which is going to be cool.
Paul: Right. Well, I'm counting on them to make the museum and all of us proud and I know they will.
Tom: Well, I'm sure they will. Well, thank you Paul for all your time and I hope we get to fish together again soon.
Paul: Okay, Tom, thanks a lot, and the best of luck to you. Stay well. And when you decide you want to get away from the east a little bit, stop by and see us in Jackson.
Tom: Oh, I will and I want to see your lovely wife, Jean, who is just a machine as a fly fisher. I remember, God, you know, back when there weren't many female guides, seeing her coming out of a stream in Colorado when we thought we had fished late and really put in a long day and I think we had been standing around drinking a beer or a whiskey or something at the car and Jean comes out of the darkness. She had outlasted us on the river.
Paul: She's still like that. I mean, I've fished late but I'll say, "Jean, you know, we've got about a half-hour run to get home in this boat," "Oh, no, no, just three or four more." And, you know, after people fish with her, they don't want any part of me anymore, Tom. They know where the fun is and the good fishing is, stick with Jean.
Tom: I won't comment on that, Paul.
Paul: Okay. Well, thank you, Tom.
Tom: Thank you, Paul. Thanks for listening to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast" with Tom Rosenbauer. You can be a part of the show. Have a question or a comment? Send it to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in the body of an email or as a voice attachment. You can find more free fishing tips at