THE SHOP RAT
By: Mad Mike Benson
My first introduction to a real fly-shop was at the late age of sixteen. Though I had been fly fishing most of my life, it had always been in a non formal setting, learning from my father, and grandfather who rarely set foot in fly-shops themselves. I knew no lingo, or technical terms for knots, rigging or gear. All I knew is what I had been taught or what had been learned from brutally beating my head against the river. It was at this time when I first walked through the door of Wilson Creek Outfitters, a small shop in the town just up the road from my home. It had been there for a few years, yet I had never seen it. Due to some trouble that I had gotten myself into, I had recently been obsessed with fly-fishing, it was really the only thing that my parents would trust me to do, and I had been having a hard time catching fish. Like I said, I had been fly fishing my entire life, but most of that had been in ponds and lakes, with the occasional trout stream thrown in. My father had fished a lot more before I was born and I was always engrossed in his stories of the mountains, and streams he used to hike into, and the fish he used to catch so far away from the prying eyes of society. I longed for that solitude at first, I just wanted to get away from everyone, and find something; mostly I was just looking for myself. Then after a few fruitless trips, I lost interest in finding myself and wanted to catch a damn trout! I spoke with my grandfather, but it had been a while since he had fished these waters and his advice wasn’t to my liking, but he did mention that he had seen a fly shop in downtown Morganton on his last trip there, and that I could probably find some good help there. Seeing that I needed a new leader anyway I made plans to swing by there on my way up the mountain the next day. Walking through the door, I instantly fell in love. Before me I saw more fly rods than I had ever seen in one place. The store itself was not much, just a shotgun style boutique set in the main square of downtown Morganton. That was when I first met Walt, a gruff old man who looked to be in his late forties, he gave me an expression that said "who the hell are you and what do you want". He never said this of course, in fact I don’t think he said anything at all the first time I saw him, he just glanced up from his computer on the desk in the front of the shop, and walked away into a back room. I continued to walk around, trying not to trip over my tongue as I drooled over things that I never knew even existed. The reels in the glass case near the checkout counter were beautiful. I at this point had never seen a real, machined aluminum reel, and I suddenly felt ashamed of the old martin that was precariously perched on my shoddy fly rod. I had come in looking for a leader, but at my current knowledge level I didn’t even know how to ask for it. A younger guy walked up to me after a few minutes, he looked to be in his early thirties sporting a goatee and a big smile. This was Lee, "what can I get for you today man?" he asked me. I just stared at him a minute and finally when I thought I knew what I wanted I came out with "I need some fly-line". "Ok then" lee said as he turned to the wall behind him where there were a bunch of boxes arranged and hanging on pegs. "What weight do you need?"….. This threw me off, what did he mean by weight? "Ten pound test should do it" I said trying to keep my composure. This drew a blank stare from Lee as he tried to decipher what had just happened. Well after a lengthy conversation, and a lot of education on the difference in fly lines, leaders, and tippets, I walked away with a tapered leader. This went on for a few weeks, me coming in, asking questions, being ignored by Walt, and Lee holding my hand and walking me through the paces. Even with all of Lee’s help in fly selection and places to fish, I was still not catching anything, but somehow that didn’t stop me, I just kept on fishing, and kept on hanging out at the shop every spare second I had, just to bleed Lee of any info he could give me. Then it happened, I remember it like it was yesterday, I walked in just like any other day, and there was Walt behind his computer, working on something, and Lee tinkering on a reel in the background. I said hello to Walt as I always did, and kept walking, not really expecting to be noticed when I heard "Hi there, its Michael isn’t it". I stopped, and slowly turned just to make sure I was the one being addressed. "Yes, Michael Benson," I stammered, still not sure of what was going on. "Well you been catchin’ any trout?" The next thing I knew we were having a genuine conversation as though we had been talking all along. He gave me some different suggestions on where to go, and what flies to try, and then he did something that would change my life forever. "Hold on here just a second, I wanna give you something to try" he said as he hurried over to a vice that was set up in the rear of the store. He came back with an odd looking neon yellow fly. It looked like any other parachute pattern, but the body was constructed of foam, then again, I knew so little about flies I just figured that this was what it was supposed to look like. "I’ve been working on this yellow sally pattern for a while now, and I haven’t been able to fish much lately, try it and let me know if it does anything for you." I took that fly, and left, and little did I know it then, but my life was about to make a turn that would alter my future forever.
I had been on my way to a little wild stream outside of town when I stopped by the shop, so once I got back to my car I placed the fly in my box along with the others and proceeded up the mountain to the stream still a little stunned at what had just happened. Walt is a good man, but he is one of those people whom you either love or love to hate, and a lot of people had been pouring stories of his rough nature into my ear, so the fact that I had just had a pleasant conversation with him, and he had given me a fly for free was something that I never would have expected. Upon arriving at the stream, I went through my usual routine of getting ready, but when I pulled out my fly-box to select the fly I would attempt with first, I couldn’t get around looking at that gaudy yellow fly in the corner, so I just tied it on, it’s not like I could have done any worse that the previous trips with all the "right" flies. The first couple of runs and pools were fruitless, and I was beginning think that today was just going to fall in line with all the other trips I had taken recently and I would just have a new set of questions for Walt and Lee, when around the next bend I came up to a likely looking pool. The pool was wide and deep for this particular stream, and had some good flow coming off of the right side that dropped down and cut under some mountain laurels that hung out over the stream, only to return on the other side and dissipate into the deep center of the pool. Even as green as I was I knew a good spot when I saw one. The cast was a long one for me at the time, probably only 40 feet or so, but intimidating non the less, so I let my fly go with the best cast that I could muster and it ungracefully plopped into the current just above the pool and began drifting quickly towards the laurels. My first thought was to pull out before the fly became tangled in the bushes, but for some reason I just let it keep going. The fly slowly drifted under the laurels and out of sight but quickly reappeared on the other side no worse for wear. Just as it reached the end of its drift I saw something, or at least I thought I did. "Was that a shadow under my fly?" I said out loud. I couldn’t be sure but I could have sworn that something had come up to take a look, so I placed the cast in the same spot at the head of the pool a second time just to be sure. The fly followed the same path only this time is got a little closer to the far bank when it emerged from the laurels, and the shadow I had seen before reappeared. This all seemed to happen in slow motion, and I can remember every detail to this day as though I am still standing in that cold water watching my fly. The fish rose slowly giving me a look at his entire body. I could make out the spots and outline of a good brown. He came up as though to inspect the foam creation on my leader, but never stopped or hesitated in sucking it down below the surface leaving only a dimple to mark his presence. I was so shocked that this had just happened that I almost forgot to set the hook, but my senses came back to me and I raised my rod tip to connect with that fish. I was never the same. The fish was no trophy, probably around 14 inches, a nice wild fish. But to me, a stupid kid who had been fishing his brains out with no reward, this was the greatest accomplishment of my life. I stood there basking in the moment, taking in what had just happened, and thinking of all the trips, leaders, flies, and pain it had taken to get me to that point, and I could only think of one thing…. "I can’t wait to tell Walt and Lee about this!"
I went into town the next day and told the guys about what had happened, every detail. I’m sure they really weren’t that interested in hearing about a fish that would be all too routine to them, but they sure acted as though they were. They asked me questions for a change, and I felt as though I belonged there, as though I was a part of some club, or community of people far larger than myself. It was a good feeling that stuck with me for a long time. A few years later after high school I had been doing some volunteer work with my local chapter of TU while in college, and was tying flies in a booth at a local festival under a tent that just happened to be located in front of Walt’s shop. I was there for 3 days strait just hanging out tying and shooting the shit with the guys from TU and the shop. At the end of the last day Walt came up to me and asked me if I was interested in some part time work, and even though I already had a job, I said yes… looking back I’m not so sure it was good decision. Life went on I continued my college education, and eventually quit my other job and gave all of my employed time over to the shop. Even when I moved to continue my education in Charleston, I found a shop in town, and was instantly hired based on my credentials, and a few good words from Walt. A few years later sitting in my car on the verge of a mental breakdown I faced a fork in the road. I was not happy with where I was. School was ok, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted what was at the end of the tunnel, and being a poor kid from the mountains I didn’t have the money to just hang out in college and figure it all out. I had no idea what I wanted, or who I wanted to be. I was just sitting there all alone, hashing out my thoughts; once again I was looking for myself. Then something amazing happened, I thought about that time I caught that brown trout, about Walt and Lee and the shop, about all the things and people that had brought into my life. I thought about my customers at my current shop, about the friends I had made, and about how happy it made me to be able to do for others what Walt had done for me, and the panic disappeared. I realized right there that it didn’t matter where I was going, or what I was going to be when I got there. What mattered to me was how I got there, and how happy I was going to be along the way. The next day I took on a full time position at the shop, and never looked back.
I’m young, and I’m not going to sit here and try to unlock the secrets of life. I probably won’t work in a shop for the rest of my life, and I may not get to fish like I do forever. But fishing makes me happy, and helping other people catch fish makes me even more happy, and there are very few people in this world that would argue that being happy is the most important thing in life. I still try to keep in touch with Walt, and I run into people from time to time who know him or his shop, and it always takes me back to that place, to the man who helped me find what I was looking for, the man who gave me the chance to find out what I really was….. a shop rat.