Sunday, April 24, 2011

Never Too Old For the Pain of Youth

When I was a kid I had a lot of heroes. At least it feels like a lot now, as I look back. I was (still am) a massive Raiders fan. And as such I worshiped Mr. Marcus Allen and Mr. Bo Jackson, among a half dozen other players who wore the silver and black, most of whom are silver-haired now. On the baseball diamond it was Mike Schmidt, then Lenny Dykstra. On the basketball court it was Dr. J, then Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, I even had fly fishing heroes. I learned to tie from the books of Jack Dennis. And I imagined (and still do) that he could catch fish anywhere. He was like a folksy Greek God of the Fly. And he had friends: Mike Lawson, dean of the Henry's Fork, Emmett Heath, Dean of the Green River, and Gary Lafontaine, who was the perfect distraction for a fly fisherman in college--Lafontaine was the like fly fishing equivalent of enlightenment.

I also found myself admiring Randall Kaufmann. Randall and his brother Lance had a history with Jack and they turned sometimes turned up in his stories. Randall wrote about his flies in Jack's third book. They liked to go backpacking, just like I did. And I've written about my love of the Stimulator and I imagine my respect and admiration for Kaufmann was rooted in this fly that at times seemed magical. I caught my first good fish, a 17-inch rainbow, on the Stimmy and I also managed to catch dozens of backcountry trout on the fly in all kinds of flavors and colors.

I remember my first year of college I was introduced to a new technology with the strange name of "e-mail." It was a wild concept but it seemed to be catching on, and when I used what was then the world's most popular search engine (Yahoo) to find the Kaufmann's Streamborn website I found they had an email address. So my mind began to creak and turn slowly as it does and I managed to send an email to my hero, or at least to his store. I felt sure that Randall Kaufmann did not hang around his store reading emails. He was certainly out fishing at all times, or writing books, flying to New Zealand or tying Stimulators (or perhaps the next great dry fly that would change my life). So my note said something to the effect that I hoped someone would tell Randall how much I enjoyed the Stimulator, how it was my favorite fly, and how I liked to use it in the Uinta Mountains. I was a freshman in  college but the whole exercise seems rather juvenile now.

A week or so later the University's email program (which was DOS-based, I believe--I remember the white text and the black background) delivered a reply to my email. It came from the Kaufmann's Streamborn address. I can't remember much of what was written (the email disappeared with my old college email account). Something about thanks for the note and how the Uinta mountains are a fantastic place. It was signed "Randall."

At some point in the late eighties, long before I ever got an email from Randall Kaufmann, Al Davis, the owner of the Raiders, was somehow upset and angered by the actions of Marcus Allen. I was too young to understand it all but Davis proceeded to more or less bench Allen for the better part of three seasons. Allen left the Raiders and played for one of their arch rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs. At some point during this standoff, Bo Jackson--who was perhaps the most exciting running back I have ever watched--incurred a freak hip injury that ended both his pro baseball and football careers. 

Lenny Dykstra has, in his post-playing career, turned out to something of a sham. He admitted to using steroids and has been involved in a number of shady financial deals. He filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Julius Winfield Erving II (Dr. J) had an affair with a reporter that resulted in a daughter. The girl grew up to be a pro tennis player. Dr. J refused to have any sort of relationship with her until just a few years ago. Isiah Thomas bankrupted the CBA and proved an incompetent NBA general manager. 

I am not trying to judging any of these events. I am simply relaying the fact that my heroes, it turned out, were just men. What a cruel lesson that was to learn.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a fly tying expo, sitting across from a talented tyer who was churning out some terribly fishy streamers and stonefly nymphs. I wanted to fish those flies badly. I wanted to be able to tie them as well, but only so I could fish them more recklessly knowing my box was full. 

Right in the middle of tying on a strip of rabbit, someone I didn't know asked a question I didn't really hear or understand. The tyer commented by relaying a story about his dealings with Jack Dennis. The story wasn't particularly kind to Mr. Dennis. 

This shouldn't have surprised me. I am the one that posted a links column headlined by Jack Dennis' legal struggles. But it did surprise me. For some reason I still thought of Jack Dennis as a folksy fly fishing legend. I couldn't imagine him as a man who some people don't like or who makes mistakes or doesn't live up to my image of him. The boy inside me felt a little betrayed. 

That was my fault. When we grow up we ought to take stock of all the notions we gathered as children and see if they stand up to the cold hard reason of adult life. I admired these men because of their skills and because of some abstract sentimental attachment to the teams I love or the first fish I caught on a fly I tied myself. Then, against reason but rather naturally, some part of my adolescent brain turned them all into Lou Gehrig. I don't remember deciding that they were all heroes with hearts of gold, infallible in character, modest and forthright. But it happened. Subconsciously, that it was what I believed. 

It was stupid and I know that. I now realize that we are all just people trying to do our best. Yet some part of me, that boy inside, still feels betrayed and let down when one of them is shown to be human again, when they change. That part of me doesn't want things to change, it expects Dr. J to still fly and Bo Jackson to put on the pads next week. That part of me doesn't understand why things can't just stay the same forever. Its dumb, but its there. 

I felt that way a little this week when rumors began swirling about Kaufmann's Streamborn going out of business. Not because Randall had somehow let me down, but rather because something I never expected to change was doing just that, and in the worst way possible. This is Randall Kaufmann's fly shop (even though Randall apparently retired five years ago). This place was home to the Stimulator and Kaufmann's Stone Nymph. I remember leafing through their catalog in my teens and early twenties, thinking about all the exotic locations they advertised. My gut reaction doesn't care for logic, its tied to all these memories. Such shops don't go under, the boy inside protests, such places carry on forever. 
I lived in Oregon for about 18 months after college. I never went to Kaufmann's while I was there, though I meant to. My Oregon experience was cut short suddenly by the bursting of the dot-com bubble and a swift layoff. All my family and my wife's family was in Utah and Idaho, so we returned. But while I did live in Oregon I discovered Westfly, one of the great online fly fishing communities. I read the Oregon forum with zeal to learn everything I could about this strange new place I now called home. 

Some of the folks on Westfly weren't particularly fond of Kaufmann's. I remember reading of poor customer service experiences. I had come to respect the Oregon anglers who posted on Westfly and I felt the uncomfortable twinge of cognitive dissonance as my mind tried to reconcile the idea that Kaufmann's wasn't everything I always assumed it would be. Maybe that is why I stayed away, so I would never no for sure. 

But I wish I had gone, just once, to see and feel what it was like. I just wish I had once seen the the sign reading "Kaufmann's Streamborn" and the rows of Stimulators. I wish I walked through the door. It seems like the least I could have done for the boy inside.   


  1. Though I have no personal connection to Randall or to the shop, I learned to tie from Randall Kaufmann via his books. The dry fly and nymph manuals were my first tying books and they are perhaps the only two that the trout fisherman would really ever need. So when I read that the shop was closing it felt like a chapter of my life was also somehow ending. Those books, and thus Kaufmann were a part of my fly fishing genesis and represent a time of wide eyed fly fishing innocence and exuberance. That part if me is now somehow a little less...well just a little "less".

  2. Like Anthony, my first first two "good" fly tying books were the Dry Fly and the Nymph. The stimulator is one of two favorite flies to fish. The only consolation is that at my age, I've seen a lot of good things come to an end. Doesn't make things any easier, but it no longer surprises.

  3. Gents,I have both of those books. Keep thinking I should pull them out and leaf through them again. Thanks for reading.