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Convergences

By Roger Stouff


Legacies can become a part of our own pallet even if they are not necessarily our own.

Bear with me while I give you some background. Several months ago, I was corresponding by email with a pal I had made on the Internet discussion forum for WoodenBoat magazine. We were chatting about bamboo fly rods, and Doug mentioned to me that he had a few old cane rods that had belonged to his grandfather. I expressed interest, and Doug kindly sent me down two of them to choose from after I cast them and inspected their condition. I would, we agreed, return the other and pay the postage.

When the package from Connecticut arrived, it was an aluminum cylinder, a capped tube designed for storing fly rods. I removed the cap and took out two antique rods in cloth bags.

One rod was unmarked, and though of fine craftsmanship, it had suffered some "sets" in the linear cane, resulting in a rod that was no longer straight but dipped and jutted at odd angles. The other rod immediately caught my attention by the etching on the reel seat identifying it as manufactured by the Goodwin Granger Co. of Denver, and by the signature on the bamboo just forward of the cork grip, which read "Granger Victory."

I knew that Grangers were highly-sought rods, and the Victory was a legendary model of the Granger line. So I emailed Doug and explained to him that, even in the rod's current condition of terrible varnish meltdown, it was worth a little something, which was a little more than I could afford. Doug replied by asking me if I intended to buy, sell and trade these rods or if I intended to fish them. Of course, I have no interest in collecting for the sake of collecting when it comes to bamboo fly rods, and I said as much.

"The rods are yours," he said, noting that he'd rather see his grandfather's rods used and enjoyed rather than grow dusty in some display. I gratefully agreed, and promised to send him some boiled crawfish up to Connecticut this fall.

Tons of research, reading and practicing on wooden dowels later, I felt brave enough to work on the rods. I took the unnamed rod first (which, according to some other kind folks I consulted on the 'Net, was probably a higher-grade Montague or Horrocks Ibbotson model, both of which were mid-grade companies) and scuffed up the varnish with 0000 steel wool. I straightened the cane under a heat gun and left it clamped in place to straighten. It came out of the clamps as close to straight as I could hope to get it. One line guide needed to be rewrapped, which I did, and then I applied three coats of spar varnish to the entire rod using a variable-speed drill on a jig I concocted.

Satisfied that the first rod came out pretty good, I got to work on the Victory. Luckily, it required no repairs per se, but I stripped the varnish from it with lacquer thinner, preserving the signature line on the cane, and applied five coats of spar varnish on my jig. A little polishing of the nickel silver metal parts, and both rods came out looking like a million bucks.

The second rod casts an eight-weight fly line decently, but it is clearly a notch or two down from the Victory, which casts a five- or six-weight fly line so dreamily it brings tears to the eye. I emailed photos of the finished rods to Doug and asked to know a little more about his grandfather, that I might think of him when I take his rods out to fish here in south Louisiana, far from the trout streams and lakes they knew in the north.

John Louis Blake was born in 1902 in Richmond, Va. He was raised by an aunt and uncle due to the tragic death of his mother and some unknown problem regarding his father. The aunt and uncle either ran or owned a sawmill on the James River. Doug said because John Louis Blake was "an orphan" he was expected to work as the hired help was expected to work, but he wasn't paid for it, like the family. He spent any spare time he had in a little camp that he and his brothers and some pals built on the James River.

Later in his life, he came across an ad in the University of Virginia newspaper for a typesetter, reporter and editor. Though he wasn't a student at the university, he applied for and got the job.

After a rather risqué issue of the student paper got the attention of the faculty, John was threatened with expulsion from the university, the one he wasn't even attending. To avoid further embarrassment and confusion the school found him a job at a local newspaper with an arrangement to "keep quiet" about the college paper incident.

John Louis Blake worked for dozens of newspapers and companies for many years. He was friends with E.W. Scripps and William Randolph Hearst, telling Doug great stories about both of those legendary media giants. He eventually became a major officer in the Scripps-Howard Corporation, and then president of the Great Northern Paper Co., with an office on top of the Pan Am building in New York.

He retired in about 1968. His grandson recalls him having a fierce, cranky temper typical of a dyed-in-the-wool old newsman, but also a great and dry sense of humor. When in the mood, he could be downright goofy and silly, Doug fondly recalled. His wife was the powerhouse in the family, though, and tended to keep John straight when he got too grumpy with the grandkids.

Mr. Blake was also a talented painter, astronomer, machinist, sailor, fisherman, bird hunter and bonsai gardener. He designed and printed his own Christmas cards every year until the last few of his life, on his own small printing press in his basement. Doug said everyone knew what the Christmas cards would look like by Thanksgiving because of the inky impressions on Granddad's hands and clothes.

John Louis Blake died in 1988.

Some people stroll through flea markets and antique stores and bring home items which knew the touch of other hands, the whisk of other fingers against them, the spirit and souls which still resonate somewhere deep inside. Sometimes, when we are alone and the movement of the thin places allow those special convergences to occur, we may sense them, those voices, those whispers, those touches.

I will think of John Louis Blake each time I fit the ferrules of one of his rods together and sight down the guides to check the alignment. I will, I hope, honor him somehow when I attach a Pflueger reel to the seat, thread the leader and fly line through the guides and tie on a good bass fly.

Perhaps John Louis Blake landed a great many trout or steelhead or salmon on those rods, as well as some smallmouth bass and bluegill. Within the cork grip, perhaps I'll sense that old Granger resonate again with the flick of a weight-forward line shooting through the guides, or the tremble of a respectable fish taking a bow into the tip many years ago. Here is the fly rod of a man I would liked to have known, a man his grandson chose as a role model, a man who rose from orphaned poverty to become a major corporate figure, but still knew the wonder of a good bamboo fly rod and a feisty fish on the end of a leader. That he was a writer and newspaper man makes the legacy of those fly rods even more special to me. This is the way of things, at least for me.

So you see, it isn't about the fishing. It isn't even really so much about the fish. It's about the reaching, the thin places where the convergences happen. It's the narrow taper of a bamboo fly rod again glowing amber in the sun and conjuring line like a sorcerer's wand, rather than sitting dusty in a closet collection.

And though I may or may not be half the fisherman John Louis Blake was, may or may not catch half as many fish as he did, my hope is that some part of him will fish with me and his old bamboo fly rod. And I would hope as well that these words would give an old newspaper man some satisfaction.

Nea'se. Thank you for sharing my ramblings, and my waters. ~ Roger

About Roger

Roger Emile Stouff is a journalist for the St. Mary and Franklin Banner-Tribune in Franklin, Louisiana. He has been working in newspaper since age 15, and learned fly fishing as a youngster from his father, who was the last bloodline chief of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana. He still resides on the Chitimacha Reservation in Louisiana, and is also half French-Acadian, or Cajun. When not pursuing bass or bluegill with a fly rod, preferrably bamboo, he may be found building wooden boats or woodworking in his small shop.

Watch for a new feature by Roger, Native Waters, to begin here on Fly Anglers Online after the holidays!


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