Neil Travis - May 6, 2013


I'm certain that there are readers of Fly Anglers Online that don't remember JC, aka Castwell, but he was an integral part of this online magazine for many years before his death in 2009. Perhaps a short remembrance of a man who was my best friend for many years is in order.

James George Birkholm, was an assembly line worker at Saginaw Steering Gear assembly plant in Saginaw, Michigan when we first met on the banks of the South Branch of Michigan's Au Sable River. The year was 1964 and it was in early May.

My late wife, our one year old daughter, my older brother Robert, and myself were camped at Canoe Harbor Campground in the Mason Tract when he wandered into our campsite. He had been out on the stream and discovered his waders had several holes and he was headed into Grayling to see if he could find another pair. We left the campground for a few hours and when we returned we noticed that he had struck camp.

Our next encounter was a few weeks later when I found him along the Au Sable where we were both fishing. We sat down on the bank next to each other and I noticed that he had a metal fish stringer hanging from the belt around his waders. Hanging from the hooks on the stringer there were several toads. I asked him what he was planning on doing with the toads and he told me that they weren't toads but frogs and he was going to eat their legs. I explained to him that I had a fairly extensive biological and zoological education and that they were not frogs but toads. I pointed out the warts that covered their bodies and explained that all the frogs that were native to Michigan had smooth skin. A bit sheepishly he unhooked all the toads and let them go. Later that day we sat around our campfire and talked about fly fishing, and the rest is history.

Jim was a self-taught angler. Like most of us from that generation he grew up hunting and fishing. He was an accomplished archer, hunted waterfowl in the marshes around Saginaw Bay, shot pheasants in the corn fields, and trolled for lake trout in Lake Michigan. He had an inquisitive mind, the gift of gab and the panache of a circus barker. In addition, he was very creative. When we decided that we needed to know more about the insects that lived in the Au Sable he set up a big aquarium in his basement, filled it with stream water and bugs that we took from the river. In the middle of winter he was hatching mayflies in his basement. Not satisfied with merely hatching them he wanted to photograph them, and without any formal photographic education he figured out how to take close-up photographs. He saw a slant tank in Vince Marinaro's book A Modern Dry Fly Code so he constructed one and soon he was taking pictures of mayflies floating in the tank.

We became friends with Carl Richards and Doug Swisher when they were doing the initial research on their first book, Selective Trout. Carl owned a cabin on the North Branch of the Au Sable and Jim would occasionally go up to his cabin and talk about photography. One day he returned from visiting Carl and told me that Carl had showed him a new fly pattern that we might try. The fly was quite simple; it was just a couple strands of peacock herl wrapped on a small dry fly hook and the ends pulled back over the body and cut short like tiny wings. Greased like a dry fly it proved to be a fish catching machine especially in the evenings. It was only several months later that I learned that the fly was Jim's invention. He thought I might think that it was a better pattern if he told me Carl had showed it to him.

Before long he had convinced the folks at Scientific Anglers, which was located in Midland, Michigan in those days, that we would make good field testers for their fly rods, reels and fly lines. Soon we were putting on seminars around Lower Michigan teaching people how to use a fly rod. Jim put together a slide show using the images that he had taken of stream insects, pictures from the slant tank, and that formed the basis of a lecture series. For two years we presented a three day, on-stream, fly fishing class where we taught basic fly casting, knot tying, stream entomology, wading techniques, and basic fly tying. During the winter months Jim and I were teaching fly tying classes, and Jim was presenting some classes at the local community college.

We had started field testing for a number of different fly fishing manufacturers Jim figured out a way that we could use a fly rod set-up to catch the newly planted Coho Salmon that were beginning to reshape the fishing scene in Michigan. An outfit that was producing a type of streamer fly that had a plastic lip that made the fly wobble contacted us to see if we could catch salmon in the Great Lakes using their fly. With a Scientific Anglers System 9 rod and a System 9 reel loaded with 20 pound Dacron backing in place of a fly line we could attach the Dacron line to a cannonball downrigger, attach a big streamer-type fly and troll for Coho Salmon in Lake Michigan. And it worked! When a Coho would hit the fly it would come loose from the clip that attached it to the downrigger and we fought the fish without any weight or other encumbrance on the line. It was a hoot.

In the late 60's we discovered that Vince Marinaro was coming to fish the Hendrickson hatch on the Au Sable and somehow Jim arranged for us to fish with him. That started a long friendship between us. We fished with him on several occasions, and ate pasta that he had prepared at the cabin he rented when he was in residence on the Au Sable. Vince was thrilled that Jim was using a slant tank to take images of flies on the surface of the water, and they spent hours looking at his photographs and talking about what they revealed. We both corresponded with Vince for years, and his letters and cassette tapes that he sent me are some of my most treasured fly fishing memorabilia.

While on a steelhead fishing trip on the Pere Marquette River in the spring of 1971 we hatched an idea that would take us out to Idaho, Wyoming and Montana for ten days of fly fishing that fall. The first week of September we were speeding by the wheat and corn fields in the Midwest, across the Great Plains and final into the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of the next few days we fished Henry's Fork of the Snake at Last Chance, Idaho, the Madison and Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, Hebgen Lake and Nelson's Spring Creek. Those few days changed both of our lives. Within two years Jim and Deanna had pulled up their Michigan roots and moved to Livingston, Montana. In January of 1974 I followed in their footsteps.

Time and tide wait for no one, and time is precious; once it is past no one can go back and claim it again. The glue that had bound us so closely gradually loosened, and although we remained in contact the currents of life's stream steadily pushed us in different directions.

Ultimately JC and the Ladyfisher moved to Washington, and in 1997 the Ladyfisher launched Fly Anglers Online. Jim took on the name of Castwell, and over the next few years he brought his creative ability to the readers of FAOL and to those that attended the various fish-ins that he attended. He was a showman with the ability to teach even the most uncoordinated person to use a fly rod.

Over the intervening years we chanced into each other at Federation conclaves and my late wife and I stopped to see them when we vacationed in Washington, but it seemed we were living in different worlds that revolved around different suns.

There are many memories of our times together; too many to relate in a short literary piece. We got in on the beginning of the modern renaissance of fly fishing. We were privileged to be a small part of that movement. Our fly fishing adventures changed both of our lives, for better or worse. I'm certain that neither of us had any notion how our casual meeting would change both of our lives.

In May of 2009, while on a fly fishing trip to the Bahamas with the Ladyfisher, JC died of a heart attack. The odyssey that had started in Michigan nearly 50 years ago had come full circle. It was quite a ride.

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