Wonderboy

By John Chalstrom

While many may disagree, one of the greatest sport’s movies is the 1984 masterpiece, The Natural, starring Robert Redford. It is a movie not about baseball, but of fulfilling lost dreams and redemption. Throughout the film, the protagonist, Roy Hobbs, incredible talent, was due to his beloved bat “Wonderboy”, carved carefully by him from a tree on his boyhood home after it had been felled by lightning. This is typical of many pieces of literature- an inanimate object that gives the protagonist power, courage, or strength. Arthur had Excalibur. Samson, his hair. In my fishing endeavors, my Wonderboy was a Cabela’s 5 weight, 8’ 6” fly rod. And what a rod it was.

I discovered fly fishing while I was in college, (prior to the “River Runs Through It” craze of the early nineties). My college roommate introduced me to the basics of fly fishing while I reciprocated with teaching him the art of shotguns, pheasant hunting, and writing. In the fall of 1988 I was finishing college and serving as a substitute teacher at my hometown junior high. I saved every spare dollar I could and not knowing a thing about what I was doing, placed an order for the rod.

My father did not understand the allure of fly fishing. When the rod arrived in the mail, complete with a reel and a hard plastic case, he was unimpressed. Fishing to dad was trolling or casting for northern pike and walleye from the comforts of a boat with a large pitcher of ice tea within arm’s reach. They were then to be kept, filleted, and fried in a large vat of oil, not gently released back into a beautiful stream. So, alone, I began to study everything I could about tying knots, different types of flies, casting techniques, and insect patterns. There was only one problem: northwest Iowa did not hold any trout.

So my first forays into the art of casting a fly were on the Lizard Creek, west of Fort Dodge. Much to my shock, on my second cast, I felt a tug on a rubber ant. What emerged was a large chub. I was quite proud of my acumen. This led to a graduation to blue gills and bass. I never became proficient in the early years and caught more tree limbs than fish. And then, I finally had the opportunity to actually fish for trout.

An old high school buddy was working for the U.S. Forest Service in northwest Colorado and invited me out for a backpacking trip. I gathered my gear and drove to Walden, Colorado, a small town of miners and foresters an hour south of Laramie, Wyoming. I packed several miles to a pristine alpine lake. After a good night’s sleep, I woke up, brewed a pot of coffee, and started my descent to the lake. It was a crystal clear Rocky Mountain morning but it appeared to be raining on the lake. So many trout were rising to feed that I could hardly thread my line and tie on a mayfly bought in an Iowa Wal-Mart store. I was not to be disappointed. Trout after trout took whatever was given. Over a hundred brook and rainbow trout were caught that day, each returned to the water carefully after wetting my hands first, (a technique I learned from Nick Adams in the classic Hemingway short story “Big Two Hearted River”).

That day only intensified my love for fly fishing. The 5 weight became my constant companion on any trip I took. It would ride in the trunk of a car in its bulky plastic case and provide a few minutes of respite from my graduate studies while I saved money by camping in area state parks. However, as marriage, children, and job responsibilities took my attention, my fly rod was relegated to a shelf, rarely used. When my son was in high school, I decided it was time for him to learn the art I had neglected for some time. He began, as I had, with farm ponds and pan fish. This progressed to Colorado Rivers and lakes. After years of practice and frustration, I finally became comfortable navigating the streams of the west while proudly watching my son surpass me in his knowledge and skill. We caught many trout along the banks of the Yampa and Elk Rivers. One day, while I was assisting my novice nephew, my wife decided to practice her fly casting, not know that a #22 scud was on the end of the tippet. The rod bent and the fight was on. I jumped into the river and watched her skillfully fight a 16 inch brown trout with my rod. Once in the net, I don’t know who was the happiest.

However, the other day on a beautiful forward cast, I heard a crack. The rod had succumbed to years of stress and snapped. I now know the sinking feeling Roy Hobbs experienced when he trotted back to home plate after a crushing a mammoth foul ball to find his magical bat broken in half. My heart sank. On the way home I could only think of the many adventures the rod and I had taken across the country from New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Northeast Iowa, Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota. I have no idea how many tens of thousands of casts were made or fish landed. For practice and peace, I would find myself at Bacon Creek Lake in Sioux City practicing roll casts and catching trout, pan fish, and once, even a bullhead, (which a snobbish Minnesota friend of mine refers to as an Iowa trout), and more importantly, using the instrument to converge with nature.

I did my best to repair the rod over the next couple of days, rewrapping it and coating it with epoxy and successfully caught fish. But I well knew that it would never again have the spring and strength that it held in its glorious past. All sportsman have these devices that become anthropomorphic in their particular field of passion. Whether it be a beloved knife, shotgun, or pair of worn hunting boots, the objects utilized over the years become an extension of our persona in the outdoors and when they are gone, they are never fully replaced. While I will never profess to be a good fisherman, even an average one at best, the nearly 9 foot piece of graphite gave me years of comfort, confidence, and an instrument of peace that provided repose from the struggles of daily living. Through it are memories of friends, family, places, misadventures, and the reminder of mortality. Today it again sits on a basement shelf, cracked, its cork handle worn, having given thirty years of service to an undeserving fisherman.