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