A Classic: The Story of One, Perfect Fly Rod

Written by: Nick Drain


Nick Drain and his favorite rod, Madison, with a fall brown trout on the Missouri.
Photo by photo courtesy Nick Drain

[Editor's Note: There are customer letters, and then there is this amazing tale from Nick Drain. Here it is in full, edited only for grammar and with the name of an Orvis competitor redacted for reasons that will be apparent when you read it. This is perhaps the longest post we've ever had on OrvisNews.com, but I am sure that you will find it rewarding, as it touches on so much of what makes fly fishing so important to all of us. Filled with great writing and wonderful insights, it covers a lot of emotional ground.]

TO: The Orvis Customer Service Department, please share this story in hopes my request finds its way to the right people.

I recently sent a letter to the rod repair folks in your company explaining the circumstances surrounding how my rod was broken. I explained when and where I purchased it, and without question they fulfilled your warranty as outlined in your catalog. The replacement rod arrived last week, and I now realize I have an additional request, which I will share with you at the end of my story. When I wrote my letter, I didn’t share all the facts about this rod and now find it necessary to share a small glimpse into her life. The journal I kept of every fishing trip I ever took was the most important tool used in penning this correspondence. My journal is filled with great memories, which I, to this day and hopefully for many days to come, will visit with a good glass of scotch.

She Left
You see, my rod was not just a rod, or as I’ve heard them referred to by others, a stick, pole or on a bad day of fishing, some four letter word. You only knew her by model number HLS Silver Label, delivered to your repair shop in a cardboard tube under the repair number 495605. This particular rod had a name and a life. It is not unusual for people to give names to inanimate objects such as boats, cars, and ranches, but it is seldom that one names a piece of sporting equipment. I guess that makes me atypical because the rod to which I am referring was named after my little dog, Madison, who accompanied me on every fishing trip over the 15 years of her life. She died on, September 11th 1990, while fishing the Missouri. Curled up on her favorite blanket in the bow of the drift boat, she looked back at me with those big eyes and took her last breath. “Heartwrenching” can only describe how I felt; she was carefully wrapped in her blanket and placed in the seat next to me for the long drive home. Age just got the best of her, as it will me someday soon. I can only hope that like her, I will pass away feeling a cool Montana breeze on my face with the beautiful blue Big Sky above my head.

Four days short of her 15th birthday, 105 in people years, she had a good life. Knowing this day would come, I had given some thought on how best to handle it. She would be cremated. When her ashes returned, they were, in the following weeks, spread over the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin rivers, forming the headwaters of the Missouri near Twin Bridges. They were our favorites, fished often, with her always by my side in the dark hours on the drive home.

In the weeks and months, that followed her passing, my interest in fly fishing diminished quickly. By the New Year, all rods, waders, and anything in the house that had to do with fly fishing was carefully packed away and placed in the attic. I asked my wife, Leisa, to sell them in the spring at a yard sale. The drift boat was sold by midsummer.

Seven Years Pass
I filled the next seven years of my life with a move to the country and the building of a ranch, rightfully named the B.O.K. on the Madison River. With memories of my little dog nearly faded away in my mind, I began to wish I still had my fly fishing journal, so I could revisit our precious times together. Leisa would try many times over the years to help return me to the sport I once loved. She said it is what made me the man she fell in love with. She knew that a piece of me had died with Madison.

An Old Friend Visits
September 11, 1997, a call came into my office just before 9:00 am. It was Leisa letting me know that the Orvis shop in Great Falls was closing and having a sale. She told me that even if I didn’t want to buy anything, I needed to see Lance, the owner. His health was failing and the closing of his shop was due to his plan to retire. Madison and I met Lance many years ago on the Missouri. I would see him over the years, usually at the Trout Unlimited banquet, an event that Leisa insisted we attend every year. I agreed to make the trip to see him.

As I approached the fly shop, I was still debating in my head whether to step foot in that shop again or just put my foot on the gas pedal, when something caught my eye. A little white dog was just outside the front door of the store. I rolled down my window to get a better look; she could have been Madison’s twin. She appeared to be looking up and down the sidewalk as if searching for someone or something. We made eye contact, and she began to bark. I drove by at a slow speed, and the dog began to move in my direction. Pulling over and moving the side view mirror to see….too late, she was at my passenger door. With the sound of a bark I got out and followed her into the store. She went to a rod rack located in the back and laid down.

Lance immediately greeted me with a big smile and said, “I knew you would be back someday.” Quickly, I informed him that I was not interested in any of the fishing gear and only stopped in to check on his health. He laughed and said he was fine, just wanted more time with the family. Sensing his health was of a private nature, I changed the subject and asked about the dog. “How long you had her?” I asked. He replied, “She just showed up a couple days ago and walked right through the front door, she looked so damn cute I let her stay.” That didn’t surprise me, as I knew him to have a big heart when it came to animals. I asked him what he did with her at night, and he replied, “I just lock her up in the store and let her out in the morning to do her thing.”

Lance then began his sales pitch about how I had to try this new rod called the Trident TL. He retrieved a test rod and placed it in my hand. I had to admit, rods had really changed over the previous seven years. It was very light and tapered like nothing I had seen before. It was beautiful, a piece of art. I thought to myself, who could build such a rod? Taking it out the side door, reluctant to demonstrate my lack of casting skills, I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at casting and asked what it was made out of. He replied in technical terms, losing me at “high-modulus graphite.”

I handed it back only to be given another rod, a “Superfine.” Wow! I was in total awe of its sensitivity and slow full flex action, just what one needed for a mountain stream such as the Smith or Rock Creek. Trying to display a total lack of interest, a few more casts found us back in the shop, and there again was that dog, sitting up and starring at me. I couldn’t get over the resemblance to Madison. Glancing away and looking around the store, I found myself thinking, boy have things changed in the world of fly fishing. The number of rods to select from was incredible, a reel to match every weight, and line in every color. “Breathable” waders? You’ve got to be kidding. I figured, if a person had the inclination, one could spend a lot of money in here.

Rod Selection
I glanced over in the dog’s direction again, and she made eye contact, turned her head, and began to bark in the direction of a single rod sitting on a large empty rack in the back of the room. I said to Lance, “What’s that rod over there?” He said it was just an old HLS, quickly adding that it was not the caliber of the Trident or Superfine. Before I could say anything, the dog began to bark again with, I swear, a “come over here” look. I felt like she was trying to tell me something.

I walked over and looking down at the rod, thought “nothing really fancy about this.” It was not nearly as pretty as the others; in fact, it was just plain. But I picked up the rod anyway and instantly felt something. I’m not a man with an eloquent vocabulary, so I can only describe it with few words: it felt like I wasn’t holding anything in my hand but rather an extension of my arm, an extension that could sense every nerve and twitch in my hand. I looked over at Lance and asked him to put a reel on it because I felt we needed to step back outside. With the first flick of my wrist, the yarn found its mark, a small discoloration in the lawn 33 feet away. The rod picked up the line effortlessly, as if none was even attached.

This went on for several minutes ,when Lance decided that I should have a target to cast at. He took a soup can from the back room, set it down nearly 45 feet away, and with the first cast the yarn was in the can. I repeated cast after cast with the same accuracy until Lance accused me of taking lessons all these years from Bob Jacklin and Lefty Kreh. I simply replied, “It’s not me, it’s the rod.” All I had to do was point, cast, and the line found its mark— a simple adjustment for distance was all it took. These words, “It’s not me, it’s the rod,” are words I would repeat many times in future fishing expeditions with this rod.

Lance was skeptical about the explanation of my casting skills and decided to give it a try. The expression on his face after his first cast told me he clearly understood what I was saying. After his third cast and his reluctance to give that rod up, I blurted out, “I’ll be taking that rod home.” I could see a disappointment in his eyes, but I figured he had an entire fly shop of rods to choose from and hours of retirement time on the rivers soon to be available to him.

With waders, boots, vest, HLS Silver Label combo (with a Battenkill reel and line), and other assorted accessories on the counter, I handed over the Visa and thought for a second if Leisa would approve of my purchases. I then turned to look for the dog. I guess I just wanted to say “Thanks!” She was at the front door, and I got the feeling she was ready to go somewhere. As I called to her, she turned, tail wagging, tongue out and with a look as if to say “Where have you been?” She barked once more and headed down the sidewalk in the direction of the river. After I loaded up the car, I looked for that dog again but saw no sign of her.

Three days later, I received a call that Lance had passed away. At his funeral, I inquired with family members about that little dog I saw in the shop on the last day I saw Lance. Not a single one of them knew what I was talking about, and in fact, Lance’s son informed me that he had been helping out at the shop many times over the last few weeks but never saw any dog. I can’t explain where the dog came from or where she went, but I do know that I would have never purchased this rod had it not been for this little white dog that reminded me of my Madison.

Memories Returned
On September 15, 1997, on what would have been Madison’s birthday, I decided to take my first road trip in seven years, to fish the Gallatin River. Loading the car in the early morning hours, I tried to stay quiet, trying not to disturb Leisa’s sleep. As I was backing out of the garage, however, I spotted her in my rear view mirror, standing in the driveway. I thought that maybe she too heard the sound of my heart pounding excitedly in my chest. In her bathrobe and slippers, she walked up to the driver’s window with a smile upon her face and said, “I’ve been holding this for a few years and thought you might want it back.” She handed me my journal. Without another word she turned and headed into the house. I couldn’t believe it, my old memories returned and a place to write new ones.

With every mile that clicked by, as I drove to my destination, a flood of memories began to emerge, and I couldn’t wait to get to that river. Once there, however, stepping out into the cool fall water made me feel a little nervous about both my newfound rod and my casting abilities. With the first few casts, this rod seemed to have a mind of its own, but soon it seemed we both relaxed and the line began to lie down perfectly. For the rest of the day, this rod compensated for my rusty, if not poor, casting skills, making me look and feel like I had never given up this sport I loved for so many years.

Fishing that day was beyond good, and on the way home, miles down the road, I found myself talking to the rod about how she handled those several large browns with unbelievable sensitivity and always knowing when to give on the run. I decided this rod, as special as it was, had to be given a name and it was to be “Madison.” The years that followed would only prove that she deserved her name, for she was not “just a rod” but a fulfiller of dreams and a creator of memories, just as my faithful little dog had been years earlier. It was she who returned me to the sport I so dearly love.

There are many journal entries in reference to Madison’s performance over the years. Once while fishing on the Missouri, near the town of Craig, I was met at the riverbank by an out-of-state fisherman. He asked where I learn to cast a rod with such finesse and accuracy in this relentless Montana wind. My reply was always the same: “It’s not me, it’s the rod.”

[REDACTED] Makes an Offer
Late one afternoon, in the fall of 2008, I was fishing the Jefferson just north of Twin Bridges when I saw an SUV pull in to the parking area. I figured I had another 15 minutes or so before my quiet space would be invaded, at which time I would call it a day. Keeping an eye on who I thought to be a local fisherman, I planned my exit strategy. I decided to step out as he was stepping in, give a quick exchange on the fly of the day and then Madison and I would be on our way home.

After a few minutes I got the feeling we were being watched and a quick glance back confirmed it. He wasn’t making his way towards the river but was sitting in a chair, next to his vehicle, just watching us. Two things immediately popped into my head: first, this is creepy, and then, where exactly in the truck did I leave my hand gun. After Madison and I landed a couple more nice trout, I figured it was as good a time as any to end the day, so we cautiously move to the truck.

Walking towards this individual, who had parked right next to me, I realized I had no need for concern. I had a hard time hiding the grin on my face as I thought to myself, “This guy is a walking, talking, breathing advertisement for [REDACTED].” This guy couldn’t fit another logo on his body. His hat, jacket, chest pack, gloves, and scarf were a marketing nightmare; even his vehicle, covered in decals, proclaimed his love of this company. Leaning against that vehicle was a 9-foot four-piece suite with what appeared to be a high-end [REDACTED] reel attached to a nickel/silver, rosewood insert handle. I had to admit, it was a handsome looking fly rod.

He immediately commented on my casting abilities and inquired as to what schools I attended and how long I had been casting rods. The words came without hesitation: “It’s not me, it’s the rod, and her name happens to be Madison.” As his eyes scanned my Madison, searching for the brand, he asked if he could take a closer look. I held her out and proudly stated that she was built in Vermont by the world’s finest rod builders and she was not your average rod. I could see skepticism in his eyes as they passed over her plain exterior and then, placing his hand upon her, his expression began to change. There was silence between us as he seemed to be searching for the right word to describe the feel of this rod in his hand. Then finally, he said “It feels. . .different. Mind if I give it a test?”

He probably knew, by my lack of an immediate response, that I wasn’t too keen on giving up my special fishing companion, and especially to a total stranger. Before I could respond, he said that he worked for [REDACTED] and was on the road testing a new rod that was not yet available for sale. Speaking in technical terms, he described the “rod of the future” and as if to confirm his occupation, he opened the back of his suburban. I can only describe it as a [REDACTED] store on wheels, for it was filled with posters, t-shirts, boat decals, window stickers, mugs, thermoses, even a humidor. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the selection of very nice-looking rods and reels. He told me he would trade a t-shirt for five minutes with my rod on the water. I’m not sure why, certainly not for the t-shirt, but I agreed.

His first cast was more than impressive and with every subsequent cast he confirmed to me that he was indeed a master at his trade. Madison performed like I had never seen before, to the point of downright showing off. The pocket water she hit was at distances I never thought possible. The pickup of her line was effortless, and with a flick of his wrist she made the perfect loop, only to repeat that “perfect cast” over and over. Her roll cast was a thing of beauty. I realized I had never really known Madison’s capabilities until I saw her in the hands of a master fly caster.

As we walked back to the parking area, he asked where I had gotten her and if I knew what type of material she was made of. I could only reply that she came from Orvis. As we stood together and spoke of her capabilities, he began to make comments as to her age and of the new technology now available. Then he offered to trade of one of his new rods for my Madison.

I thought “How could he possibly think Madison was something I would ever part with?” He had to know she wasn’t just “a rod;” did she not just demonstrate that she is unlike anything he had ever held in his hand? I abruptly told him she was not for trade. He countered quickly saying his “company” would be interested in acquiring my rod and offered to buy her for $1,000.

His offer was never considered for how could someone think of selling his best friend; a friend who has created years of memories and been part of countless hours of fishing conversations? With Madison safely on the seat next to me, driving out of the parking lot, I looked through my rear view mirror and just shook my head as all of those decal logos faded from my view.

Our Plans Are Made To Rest
On the many fishing trips made together, during the sometimes long drives home, Madison and I would reminisce about how she got her name and of the little dog who led me to her. I would tell stories about my first Madison and how she would be in the boat come early Saturday mornings, barking, as if to say, “Hurry up! Let’s go!” I spoke of the day that I would leave and join my first Madison and contemplated what would become of my second. The possibility of going back east to live with my daughter was considered as Ashley, in her own right, is an “artful caster of rods.” But in the end, it was decided that Madison was a Montana girl and only knew of western waters, so, in Montana she will stay.

I never thought her end would come before mine, but on a cold December day last year, while lying on a set of abandoned railroad tracks along the Missouri, her time came to a close. A railroad utility truck that can run on both highway and tracks rolled over her, never knowing she was there. She had rested in that spot many times before, with me confident of her safety, for the tracks had not been used in years. Finding her in so many pieces was heartbreaking; how could I have treated her so carelessly? Sending her home to the people who created her would be my only chance to save her. The day I placed her in that cardboard tube, carefully placing the airbags around her, I quietly said good bye, knowing in my heart she would never return to fish again.

Conclusion
There are many articles written on how great Orvis rods are, about their beauty and technical performance, as well as your first class customer service. These things are fact and can never be debated. However, I have found very few articles written on the intangible benefits that come with Orvis rods, which now brings me to my “additional request” I promised to share with you at the beginning of my story.

Please convey the following message to your rod crafters:

They are not just builders of great rods, but are builders of dreams, a lifetime of memories and most importantly, the creator of my Madison, and for that, I am eternally thankful.

I am returning the replacement rod they sent in hopes you will find someone who can use it. I realize my Madison was a once-in-a-lifetime, very special rod and could never be substituted or reproduced. There is nothing wrong with this replacement, but in my remaining years I need to connect with my other Orvis rods. They, too, deserve a chance to sit in the front seat, help me fill my journal with memories, and maybe earn a special name for themselves.

P.S: I kept three small pieces of Madison from the accident. For, as we decided, Madison would stay in Montana and come spring Leisa and I will take a trip and carefully place her into the three rivers she knew so well.

Nick Drain lives and fishes in Montana.

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6 thoughts on “A Classic: The Story of One, Perfect Fly Rod

  1. Bill Litherland

    My next appointment is due in 10 minutes and I’m sitting with the tears running down my face. Thanks for a beautiful story.

    Reply
  2. Wayne sadowski

    An unbelievable an touching story…… As I read this it made me think about a lot of fond memories of my dog and fishing…… Job we’ll done

    Reply
  3. Gustavo Armand Ugon

    Truly touching. Left me with so many emotions!! A great story but also beautifully told, deep from the heart. A wonderful story and a huge compliment for the rod makers, now dreammakers. And it is quite true. I still fish with love and enormous enjoyement my Trident.

    Reply

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