The past lurks in remote corners of sport, is elevated to Halls of Fame, documented in record books and possibly exaggerated in the memories of aging athletes. History, however, no matter how glorious, is never as interesting to us as the breathless and exciting present, which demands our skills, attention and concentration.
But say it has been raining steadily for three days in southwestern Vermont, and the Battenkill—a precious, if faded, trout stream—is too muddy to work now with anything but the largest nymphs, and say that as a dedicated angler you've exhausted your interest in pinochle in the camper and in sharpening your cleaning knife, and you've told all the stories about that hog of a brown who snapped your leader on the West Yellowstone. In other words, you've had it and are ready to sit through a Walt Disney film at the local drive-in for lack of any noticeable purpose in life. Then, I say, it is time to visit the Museum of American Fly Fishing in Manchester. Vt., a truly beautiful experience, as necessary to the trout fisherman as is Cooperstown to baseball buffs.
Located in rooms rented from the Orvis Company, which makes fly rods and beautiful catalogs, the Museum of American Fly Fishing is a fine example of what can be done with the dedication, love and intelligence it takes to preserve not only the history of angling, but the passion as well.
Like most museums of sport, this one trades heavily on the famous names that once were involved with angling. Not surprisingly, there is an Ernest Hemingway display case, where, next to a photo of Hemingway, apparently taken when he had already made his mark as a patriarch of the outdoors, one can see his delicate Hardy Fairy rod, a worn fly hook showing some battered streamers against the fleece, a letter from his son John, and other scraps of Papa's memorabilia.
Almost everyone who was anyone has a separate case. There is a large one devoted to President Eisenhower, in which rods, reels, creels and fly boxes rest with a letter explaining that the old general had two favorite fly patterns—The House and Lot and The Spirit of Pittsford Mills.
And there is a display for Herbert Hoover, a fervent dry-fly fisherman, showing his book, Fishing for Fun and To Wash Your Soul. There are cases for Joe Brooks and the late Arnold Gingrich, publisher of Esquire, in which fishing vests hang from pegs like mummy wrappings or like the jerseys of dead football players—an eerie representation as unsettling as a stuffed salmon struggling to throw a hook on a walnut wall plaque. One begins to imagine the room filled with the bones of all the trout taken on flies in America, a bone pile several miles high; all the fine flesh cooked and eaten, all the dead fishermen come to the feast to argue the merits of favorite streams and to exchange tall tales so dear to the fishing breed.
But of course a museum is a museum, a compartment of history, a carpetbag full of the machinery of an earlier age. David Ledlie, a quiet, bespectacled man who is now assistant curator of the museum and chemistry professor at Bates College in Maine, says, "Fly fishing is as much a part of our history as the Revolution and the move westward in the 19th century. It may not be of critical importance, but preserving it tells us a lot of things about us that will someday be valuable to historians of American culture."
The displays built around famous personalities of the past are like attractor flies, both colorful and appealing, openly used to get visitors into the museum. There is a good deal more to the place. The rod maker's art is there, from a carved lancewood 12-footer made circa 1832 by Charles Murphy—he was the man who first split bamboo and fashioned a commercially feasible rod from it—to contemporary Leonards, Paynes and Orvises.
There is Winslow Homer's fly rod, a custom-made number by one B. F. Nichols. There are Malloch salmon reels, rare angling books, rod makers' patterns and a stunning display of old flies: patterns with names such as Lord Baltimore, Black Maria and Quack Doctor.
And in a building half a mile away, David Ledlie works patiently, cataloging gifts to the museum: more than 400 rods that range from common to most rare, a compact but rather complete library of volumes on fly fishing, thousands of flies chewed on by the trout of the past, horsehair fly lines, small boxes filled with brass reel parts from the 1830s, old wicker creels, weathered landing nets, 21-foot gut leaders.
Says Ledlie, "It's fascinating to see what was done in the past, and to appreciate it. But after a day of cataloging historical flies, I'm ready to hit the stream. Mostly this paper work is something to do when the ice is on the river."
Back in the museum, a few young boys wander among the exhibits. Out in the Orvis showroom, men flex the new graphite rods, check out the latest reels and waders. There is no ice on the Battenkill, and there are trout out there waiting to be part of someone's history, waiting to rise to the immediate and living thing that is the experience of fishing. But the past stays with us, preserved in the museum, a necessary link between what we are and what we were.