This Old Thing? – A Tale of a Vintage Fly Rod



My grandfather was the epitome of an outdoorsman. An old school New Englander from a dirt poor family, he hunted and fished as a means to survive for most of his life. In the time I got to spend with him while he was alive, I knew him to always be doing something in the wild; tuna fishing, lobstering, hunting, you name it. His passion, it seemed though, was fly fishing. Every year, he and his buddies would drive up to New Brunswick, Canada for a few weeks of salmon and trout fishing. It was their thing. Their boy’s trip, their escape from the monotony and regularities of every day. As soon as they left to come home, I’m sure they were all quietly thinking and preparing for what the next time would be like.

As one would expect, he had no shortage of gear and it was all high end. He tied, without exaggeration, thousands of flies himself and accumulated an almost unfathomable amount of related equipment. Literally dozens of Pflueger and Scientific Anglers reels, Sage rods, Cortland fly line and who truly knows what else, all neatly organized in his small home office. Nine years after his passing and at the introduction of my journey into fly fishing, there was one particular item that stood out to me. It was a fly rod that was shorter than all the rest, with a smaller reel than the others. Upon inspection, I noticed tiny hand painted words just above the cork handle that read “Custom Built For Martin Damren by — a gentleman’s name who I can’t quite make out but I’ve learned was nicknamed Tink — Fly Fisherman’s Workshop Somersworth, NH”. Under all of which it says “7’9” #3 line” and is dated April of ‘88. It’s a two piece Sage graphite blank that one would assume was built before Sage put out their 7’9” Trout LL series of rods.

Inspecting The Find

This rod, being that it was built specifically for my grandfather, to the specifications he requested, REALLY got on top of me. The beautifully and honestly worn, vintage Pflueger Medalist was still strung with the line he spooled onto it and there was still a small wet fly attached. I couldn’t stop thinking about the rod. Wondering if it was still structurally sound. Wondering if the reel was still in good condition and whether or not I could restring it and fish it in the same small streams that my grandfather did all those years ago. I asked my mother to talk to her brothers as well and ask if it would be alright for me to take the rod and try to get it set up to fish again. Where I live in Maine, we have a huge amount of small streams and brooks that are perfect for — and undoubtedly what this rod was built for — smaller, lighter weight fly rods. That 7-8 foot range, 2-3 weight line is not only perfect for fishing in the thick cover around here, but it’s unbelievably fun once you hook up on a fish. The action of the soft, noodle-y rod makes even a 6” chub feel like a true warrior.

Setting Up the Rod

I brought the rod to one of my local fly shops to have the shop owner look it over for me. He opened the case and ran his eyes along the maroon graphite rod. When he saw the hand painted words, he remarked “I know this rod!” It turns out he knew my grandfather well and had seen him fish with this very rod. He knew the kind of gear my grandfather used better than even I did after looking at it all. I told him my concerns with it being old and I wasn’t totally sure of its structural integrity. With a bit of a half laugh he said, “knowing Martin, I wouldn’t be afraid of fishing any of his gear just the way he left it”. It was nice to hear my grandfather spoken about in such high regard and with the respect he undoubtedly deserved. After grabbing some line, the shop owner popped the reel off and headed over to the desk to start respooling. The whole process took all of 20 minutes and with a sincere thank you and goodbye, I headed out to jump in the river where I caught my first trout on the fly.

Fishing The New, Old Rod

I ran the fresh leader and line through the guides on the old rod and tied on a nice medium sized Stimulator fly with a #12 hook. I waded into the river at a point where it narrows to not much more than 25 or 30 feet across and started casting upstream, letting the dry fly drift naturally. The feel of the rod was something I noticed instantly. I’m still a very new fly fisherman and don’t claim to be able to tell the difference between a $200 rod and a $1,000 rod, but I can tell you I felt something for sure. The obvious reason being I normally throw a pretty standard  8’6” 5wt that’s fairly fast action. This 7’9” 3wt is a much slower action and you can really feel the flex of the rod. I’m not going to take away the actual craftsmanship that went into building this custom rod, but I’m also sure a part of me is adding in the sentimental value and maybe sensationalizing this feeling because of my bias. Either way though, it very much felt like a perfect fit to me.

Not even 20 minutes in and what felt like maybe 10 casts, I saw the Stimulator get snatched and dragged under. A friend of mine told me an adage that was passed onto him that goes something along the lines of “when you see the fly go under, make sure you utter ‘God save the Queen’ before you set the hook. This will give the fish enough time to get the hook in their mouth”. So one “God save the Queen” later, I did a pretty standard trout lift to set the hook and we were “fish on”. I saw a flash of silver in the water and knew pretty quickly it was only a Fall Fish/Chub, but at that moment it didn’t matter one bit. Not only did it feel like the fish was at least double its size due to the soft flex of the rod, but I had just hooked up on a fish with a rod that my grandfather had specifically tailored and built for him in 1988.

Being new to fly fishing in general, every fish feels amazing. This felt even more special though and it’s one I’ll never forget. I caught another Chub a few minutes after that first one and it was still just as exciting. Hopefully the first good trout I hook into will be even more exciting than these two little bait fish but for now, I have no problem sitting back and replaying the first time using my grandfather’s old rod and wondering how excited he would be to know that I’m making it happen with it. I look forward to coming across new anglers out there in the rivers and streams and getting the question “what are you fishing with over there”?

            “Oh…this old thing?” – Jay Pelletier

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