Fishy Folk Art

Found these at Crazy Frank’s Flea Market outside of Mineral Point. They’re homemade and handpainted, signed by “MORT.” If you’re in the Mineral Point area and know who Mort is, I’d be interested in knowing more about him.


Retro Sunday Reels: Pflueger Medalist

While on our honeymoon in 2011, driving down U.S. Highway 1 in Maine, we stopped at a little antique shop along the side of the road. There isn’t much to say about the place– it seemed like a  hoarder’s house exploded, like many hole-in-the-wall antique places tend to be– but in the corner of the shop, mixed in with a bunch of other junk tools (Antiques Rule #14: every shop must have a collection of rusted hand tools, somewhere) was this reel. At the time I knew the name Pflueger, but apparently the shopkeeper didn’t, because I bought it for five bucks.

The Pflueger Medalist is one of the most successful fly reels ever produced. For more than eighty years the Medalist has remained in near-constant production, and although many things have changed both in fly fishing and with the construction of the reel, the essential design has remained largely unchanged: you could place an early 1930s Medalist next to last year’s model and a novice might have trouble making the distinction. The Medalist was produced in a variety of sizes, a couple of different styles (you can have it in any color you want, as long as its black or nickel), and underwent minor changes over the years to the drag and gearing system.

The Pflueger Medalist was popular enough that it spawned copy-cats such as the South Bend Finalist— which hardly bothered to hide its obvious provenance– and is one of the few vintage reels (perhaps only!) where aftermarket parts are readily available.

The reason for the Pflueger’s longevity is not hard to understand– it’s simple and it works. I’ve seen other fly fishermen compare it to a beat-up pick up truck or an old pair of boots, and I think both of those descriptions are spot-on. It’s not the flashiest reel, its heavy, and the narrow, small arbor has gone out of style in favor of wide, large arbor reels. But I know I can take this rod out with my 5-weight, abuse it, soak it, drop on some rocks, and jam it full of silt… and it still keeps going.

I can definitively pin down the year of manufacture of my Medalist due to two features: 1) the six rivets surrounding the spool latch cover were present on Medalists up until 1959, and starting in 1960 the number of rivets was reduced to three; 2) the stamp “MADE IN AKRON O USA” was first used in 1959 and continued into the 1960s. And so 1959 it is.

Due to the popularity of the Medalist, there are plenty of great online guides and histories of this reel from its origin until the present day. Pricing on Medalists varies by size, quality, and age, with older and better conditioned reels selling for top dollar. Reels made prior to 1979 hold more value, since they were produced in the USA up until this time. You can expect to spend around $40-50 for an usable, quality Medalist reel on the secondary market, and much, much more for highly collectible models. Also note that Pflueger produced the Orvis Madison reel in the 1970s, which was essentially a Medalist clone, though these aren’t as common on the secondary market.

Some of the Medalist clones can be had for much cheaper ($10-20 a pop) largely due to the perceived inferiority of these reels compared to the original. It’s hard to argue against a reel that’s been around since 1931, and I so I won’t even try (sorry South Bend!).

Handling an old reel like this brings back memories– but they’re not mine, but instead that of wild Maine trout streams and lively bamboo rods. I can only imagine what stories this reel has to tell, and how many browns and brook trout it has seen and taken in the past fifty years. The sharp click of the pawl is fly fishing. And it still has tales yet to tell, its second life coming on skinny Driftless water.

It’s hard to ask for more from a five dollar bill.

Sauk Prairie Eagles

Twenty minutes north of where my wife and I currently live is the dual city of Sauk Prairie, a collective township composed of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac that resides along the western banks of the Wisconsin River. Home to about 8,000 people, Sauk Prairie exists at a confluence of geography, history, and culture that rivals any other town in the state. Long before the founding of either, the neighboring hills were home to the indigenous Sauk people. Just outside the city limits (along Highway 78) you can visit Wisconsin Heights battlefield where Chief Black Sparrow Hawk led 70 men against 700 militiamen led by then-Colonel Henry Dodge in the penultimate conflict of the Black Hawk War.

That war pushed the Sauk from their native lands and opened it to Euro-American settlement, and by the 1840s both Sauk City and Prairie du Sac became established communities. The German-settled Sauk and the English-Yankee-settled Sac quickly became rivals and fought to control the post office, high school, and bridge that crossed the river, all told with good wit by August Derleth in his treatise of the Wisconsin River. Derleth, a native son of Sauk City, became its de-facto historian through a series of memoirs and fictional accounts of life in Sauk Prairie, most notably his Walden’s West and the lesser known but eminently more readable Wind Over Wisconsin. Today the Highway 12 bridge into Sauk City is given his name, as well as a park overlooking the river.

Today the cities are cooperative rather than antagonistic, and driving along Water Street its difficult to tell where one community ends and the other begins. Sauk Prairie is the home to the original Culver’s burger joint and the awesomely satisfying La Mexicana diner. It is home to the Prairie du Sac dam, which props up the Lake Wisconsin flowage and has been providing power to the region for a hundred years. The summer Cow Chip Parade has become a local icon, such that real estate listings proudly proclaim “this property of located along the Cow Chip Parade route!” Along its southern margin is a nice stretch of wadable water that is great smallmouth fishing in late summer through fall.  It’s large enough to be self-sufficient and still small enough that it avoids the traps of the Madison metro area.

With all that Sauk Prairie continues to surprise me, as it did when I learned that it was a prime location for bald eagle-watching. An otherwise solitary bird the rest of the year, eagles congregate together near open water in the dead of winter in search of food. Due to the presence of warm water discharges near the dam, Sauk Prairie has one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in Wisconsin during winter. The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, a non-profit group based in Sauk Prairie, has an overlook located in town that is staffed by volunteers with spotting scopes on the weekend.

There weren’t any bald eagles near the overlook this past Sunday when my wife and I visited, but the dam’s warm water provided perfect conditions for activity. Pulling up to the parking we spotted one immature bird on an ice shelf in the heart of the river. I counted another eleven roosting in naked branches along the shoreline. Add two or three more that occasionally appeared in flight, circling the river in search of lunch, and the total number of birds was somewhere near 14-15.

We returned this morning to grab some pictures. We are far from photographers, but between the two of us we managed some okay shots which I’m sharing below. (Note that only some of the birds have the iconic white plumage on their heads and tails: until they reach adulthood at around five years of age, immature eagles have drab brown feathers).

The majority of the time bald eagles are hangin' out in trees in order to conserve energy. They only actively fly and hunt about 2% of the time in winter.
Where’s Birdo? There are eight (by my count!) bald eagles in this photo.
Possibly one of the nicest shots we took, courtesy of my wife.
Possibly one of the nicest shots we took, courtesy of my wife.


While infinitely more entertaining to watch, eagles spend only about 2% of their winter in flight or actively hunting.
While infinitely more entertaining to watch, eagles spend only about 2% of their winter in flight or actively hunting.

According to the volunteer we talked to at the overlook, eagles should remain in their winter quarters through February and possibly into March if the weather stays cold. Considering the winter we’ve had thusfar I’d say they’ll be around for a while yet. If you do go yourself, know that you should stay inside your car at all times to avoid upsetting the birds (you are allowed to walk about at the overlook, however). For more information, check out the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council’s website.

Debating a Banty

Two nights ago a bug crawled into my ear and began to chant, “Banty, banty, banty…”  Since then I can’t shake the idea of turning my next bamboo rod project into a chopped job, a “banty” if you will.

Bantam rods were the name given to shorter, lighter bamboo rods in comparison to the heavy nine-footers that were a glut to the market through the 1950s. There are other names out there– flea, midge– that refer to specific lengths or weights of bamboo rods, but the term “banty” has been co-opted to describe the process of modifying one of those heavy nine foot rods to mimic the look of the short six- to seven-and-a-half foot bantams/fleas/midges. It’s analogous to “chopping” an old, un-cool Mercury into something infinitely more pleasing to look at.

The actual performance advantages seem dubious, at best. Some amateur “banty” makers claim that chopping the rod makes it more responsive and capable of throwing lighter line– reducing the weight of the rod from a 6/7 to a 3/4, a considerable improvement more suited to modern trout fishing– while others claim it does little more than change the action of the rod, sometimes for the worse.

So why bother? One, I’m near completion on my second nine-footer beast rod (featured photo, above), and don’t need a third nine-footer; and two, right now I’m kinda enamored with the idea of a short bamboo rod for little brookie streams. I also have the perfect candidate, a Pioneer bamboo rod (probably made by Horrocks Ibbotson at some point) with a curious rainbow re-wrap.


I was curious to see how this rod might actually feel if it were a seven footer, so I grabbed a few reels with various line weights and taped them about two feet up from the reel seat (just below the first female ferrule) and gave it a toss. This rod is like a wet noodle, for sure. The tip section is really soft and “wiggly”, such that I feel it really dampened the rod’s ability to throw line, but it does a passable job up to twenty feet or so. It’s a so-so rod for a 5 wt. line– like, you could make it work IF you wanted to– but, much like its nine-foot variant, it’s probably better suited for a 6/7 wt. line.

My only concern is the soft tip and the first ferrule, which combined create a serious “dead zone” along the upper third of the rod that creates a pronounced hinge.

You can see the hinge in the lower left corner of the photo.
You can see the hinge in the lower left corner of the photo.

However, after thinking on it a while this MAY be an advantage. A more parabolic action rod would offer less stiffness in the new butt section of rod, which would require some reinforcing to make it fishable. Since the mid section here is so stiff I think it could end up as a nice seven foot 6 weight, casting issues aside. We’ll see!

Half Full

Got my nymphs in  row. Most are pretty traditional patterns or those I’ve fished with success before. Some others are experiments in tying. I tend to tie new/experimental patterns in threes: one to give to the Ents, one to give to the fish, and one to remember how I tied it in the first place.


Top row (from left): dark hare’s ear, light hare’s ear and beadhead light hare’s ear

Second row: bloody black hare’s ear, dark hare’s ear, beadhead dark hare’s ear, ice dub hare’s ear

Third row: beadhead pheasant tail, beadhead stonefly nymph, orange and pink pheasant tail, beadhead light hare’s ear

Fourth row: pheasant tail, beadhead pheasant tail

Fifth row: beadhead black midge larva, beadhead caddis thingy, another beadhead caddis thingy (no wing), icy green caddis

Sixth row: pink and orange beadbody scuds, beadhead red and copper midge larva

Seventh row: caddis larva, more caddis larva, more caddis larva, beadheadless pink squirrel, “pink panther” (reverse color pink squirrel)

Bottom row:  pink squirrels, all the way