I hate to admit that some time ago fly fishing didn't really excite me. It may have been that I had no friends that were willing to trade the bikini laden beaches for buggy cedar swamps, or, the fact that my father's only outdoor activities revolved around bird dogs and Grouse hunting, but I first found my time with a fly rod awkward and frustrating. It was purely a trial and error affair, with a strong tendency towards catastrophic error. My leaders frequently looked as if they were donated for mice to attain their presidential fitness award for the rope climb. I often traded my cheap 5wt for an ultra light spinning rod and a Mepps bucktail. The complexities of fly fishing are far too great for a boys mind with no guidance other than literature. It was rare for my dad to take me to a fly shop, and even if we did go to one, it was necessary for them to also have a fine gun library for him to browse. I would inevitably end up following one of the shop guys around, pestering them with as many questions possible until they were ready to keel haul me, at which queue my Dad would drag me out before I touched anything. It was only logical to use a spinning rod that my simpleton mind could wrap itself around.
To my father, a fishing rod was like a babysitter. It allowed me to do something by myself instead of bugging him. So from the time I could walk, talk, and tie my shoes, a fishing pole became part of my life. A lot of my dad's buddies had ponds at their houses stocked with bluegill, catfish, and trout. These provided hours of endless entertainment whilst my dad and company polished off glasses of bourbon and talked of things a son should surely not repeat in front of his mother. I didn’t seriously discover fly fishing until I was in 6th grade, and it was only then from reading the likes of Jerry Dennis in my parents bookshop after school. This was also about the same time I started reading Hemingway and learned that Nick Adams and I shared the same backyard. So you can imagine what my vision of fly fishing looked like- classic, pure, old timey and exaggerated. It was like watching a bunch of hardcore porn before losing your virginity- you'll be very disappointed to learn that your director’s version of this event doesn't match the performers agreement (not to mention sound, set, and lighting arrangements). So a fly rod never seemed the logical choice. Nowadays, it’s hard for me to imagine a day on the water (or lawn, or parking lot) that doesn’t involve throwing some loops. Then again, I guess that’s the beauty in learning something for on your own- because there are no real rules and even elementary successes are monumental. It may be that very reason that I enjoy fly fishing so much. I didn't know this at the time, but Rusty Gates did.
First, allow me to disclose that I don't know Rusty Gates AT ALL. I've been to his shop twice and only one of those times did I actually talk to him. I wouldn't have guessed it then, but that single conversation would have a lasting impression on me.
It was summertime and on a whim I had decided to head up to Au Gres and see if I could catch a few Walleye off the pier. After fishing for the evening, I slept in a field, down a rural dirt road, not far from town. I was disappointed the only thing I'd caught that night was a channel cat. The next morning I left early so I would be home in time to take my girlfriend to an afternoon Tigers game. I stopped in town at a cafe and had some breakfast. It was a beautiful day. I continued after eating and got on Southbound I-75. Five minutes after getting on the freeway I decided it just wasn't time to go home yet. I'm not sure why, but I took the next exit, turned back North, and called a girlfriend that wasn't going to take it well. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I wasn't going back to the Goddamn city. Not yet. I found myself taking the Grayling exit an hour and a half later, and turned east headed downriver. Eventually I came to a stop at Gates' place and wandered in.
I didn't really know anything about who Rusty was before meeting him. To me, he was just another guy behind the counter in a fly shop. It took all of about ten minutes for me to completely peruse the store, and aside from a hello upon entering, he had yet to say another word. I stood looking in bewilderment at the hundreds of fly patterns in the center display case. Another guy walked in. Someone he knew. They immediately struck up a conversation and Rusty offered the guy a cup of coffee. I watched enviously as the man took the cup. I felt the little kid begging to be keel hauled screaming inside of me. He wanted to be part of what they were talking about, whatever it was. But I just listened, hoping to pick up a tip or two on where some fish might be had or something else of top secret order. They didn’t talk fishing though. Rusty was saying about how they'd found some sort of industrial waste dumped behind a factory that was leaching into the river. His voice didn't change in tone until after he'd explained all the facts, and then he followed it up with something like: "F#%$in' criminals" and it came out almost as a low growl. After his cup was empty, the man left and I was once again the only customer in the shop. I was scared to talk. By now I had noticed a copy of Gates' book and put two and two together as to who was behind the counter. Not that I knew anything about him, but just the fact that he'd written a book on one of Michigan's most prized trout waters was intimidating. I felt like if I said the wrong thing, I might get tossed out on my ear. He was watching me now and I could feel it.
"Anything you’re looking for?" It wasn't the growl.
"Nah, just lookin. How's the fishing?" I responded.
"Any pointers?" I think my voice may have even cracked.
"Under the banks. Use some of those." He pointed to a streamer that looked like some sort of bugger pattern.
I hadn't brought my fly rod with me this trip as I had just planned on fishing for walleye and heading back. How was I going to get around this? Here's a guy giving me a tip and I'm going to walk out without buying his fly. This is also when I learned to keep a fly rod in my vehicle at all times for such occasions.
"I actually don't have my fly rod with me." I replied.
He looked at me with a raised brow in a puzzled expression. I didn't expect what he said next.
"Why not?" He asked as if it was my brain I'd left at home.
"I don't know." I mumbled sheepishly. I felt like a student that had forgot his homework.
"So what are you fishing with?"
"Spinners." I admitted guiltily.
"Go East a couple miles and turn left to the bridge. You can fish there."
"Thanks." and with that I left like The Devil from Sunday Service.
I drove a couple more miles down the road and found the bridge where I could throw spinners to my heart’s content. But I didn't want to. I made a couple casts and felt ashamed; like it had been my factory they found the industrial waste behind. I went for a swim in the cold river with my dog and lay in the grass to dry in the sun. After a while I got up and continued along my journey towards Mio, hooking south and eventually taking M-18 all the way through Prudenville, avoiding the freeway, and eventually arriving home later that evening. It has only been a handful of times that I've picked up a spinning rod since.
I wanted to go back and tell him how I felt, I wanted to walk back into that shop and earn a cup of coffee. Only now do I realize that conversation was the spark that ignited my fire for fly fishing. Strange, it only took a few words. I never knew Rusty Gates well enough for that cup of coffee, but he must've known something about me. Maybe he didn’t know that fly fishing would lead me on adventures around the globe, and that it would become engrained in who I am, but I bet he was certain I'd never return without a fly rod again. I'm one of so many that thank you, Rusty. I hope that someday I might get that cup of coffee, as I'm sure your new shop is still on the Holy Waters.