Fly-fishing lore is Vt. museum's lure


May 07, 2000|By CANDUS THOMSON

The wooden carving hanging above the entrance of the small, well-kept building says it all: Fish spoken here.

The 3-foot-long salmon is the first fish you'll see at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vt., but by no means the last. It's a terrific place to spend part of a day if you're on vacation and have stopped in town for the fishing or the outlet shopping or, in winter, for the skiing.

Obviously, the place is geared toward those who are lured by the fly or toil in solitude, hoping to someday cast like Philip Krista or Lefty Kreh. But there's enough in the display cases to hold the interest of even the non-fishing person for an hour or so.

The museum has 1,200rods, 400reels, 3,000books and "the largest collection of flies in the world accessible to the public," says executive director Gary Tanner.

It attracts about 3,000 visitors a year, including writers working on books, craftsmen measuring classic tackle to build duplicates, and outdoors magazines borrowing from the collection for photo shoots. Museum officials also get called by movie producers to act as technical advisers, as was the case with "A River Runs Through It."

A display case in one room is filled with the fishing gear of famous folks: Babe Ruth's four-piece E.F. Payne rod; band leader Glenn Miller's three-piece Paul Young rod; Bing Crosby's two-piece Orvis, hat and pipe; and rods from Ernest Hemingway and Winslow Homer.

Also included are the fishing poles of former presidents John Quincy Adams, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, and Herbert Hoover's creel and fly box.

It was Hoover who offered this advice to those who might hope to follow in his footsteps: "No political aspirant can qualify for election unless he demonstrates he is a fisherman, there being 25million persons who pay annually for a license to fish."

Hoover wrote a book, "Fishing For Fun and to Wash Your Soul," in 1963, one year before he died. But the first president to write about fly fishing was Grover Cleveland, whose 1901 book, "Fishing and Shooting Sketches," also is on display, along with his fly box.

Women are well-represented at the museum, from the obligatory debate about the existence of DameJulianna, often called the mother of fly fishing for allegedly writing about the sport in the 1400s, to a tribute to the women who tied some of the world's greatest flies - one was even honored by the British government.

But perhaps the nicest display consists of 40 exquisite oak-framed panels from the 1893 Columbian Exposition showing flies tied by Mary Orvis Marbury and photos of the lakes and rivers on which they were used.

The specimens range from dainty flies used on Oregon streams to flies the size of a man's thumb used on the St. John's River and Lake George in Florida.

The exhibit notes that it was Marbury who began to standardize the names of fly patterns in her book "Favorite Flies and Their Histories."

Tanner points out something else about Marbury's work: "These flies are over 100 years old. I guess it's a testament to the birds that their feathers hold up so well."

The museum was founded in 1968 by anglers Herman Kessler and Leigh Perkins Sr., chairman of the board of Orvis. He also donated the space in his flagship store to house the beginnings of the collection. By the early 1980s, the collection needed space of its own, and the building on Main Street was acquired.

The second floor of the museum is a repository of tackle, flies and books - some purchased by the staff, some donated.

Who parts with their gear?

"Sometimes we hear from families that do it because it was owned by their father or grandfather, and they want to know it's safe forever," says Tanner.

But for each donation of a 15-foot salmon rod built in 1870 come 10 donations of items better suited for a church bazaar. Yet, Tanner never rejects anything out of hand.

"Would we take a tiny plastic box of flies made in Taiwan?" he asks, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. "Well, maybe, if we don't have one."

And not all of the artifacts collected by Tanner and the staff are used to catch fish.

"You've heard of Leonard rods and reels?" says Tanner of Hiram Lewis Leonard, the master builder from Bangor, Maine.

"Here's Leonard's flute," he says, opening a wooden box.

The museum publishes a glossy magazine, The American Fly Fisher, four times a year, maintains a Web site ( and has a traveling show that is booked through the end of next year.

"You're limited to what you can send out. I mean, I could create a 2,000-square-foot display on the history of the dry fly alone. So instead you do a broad-brush approach," Tanner says.

By sending the museum on the road, Tanner expands his fund-raising possibilities (it takes $750,000 to run the place every year) and, perhaps win some additional converts to fly fishing.

And, of course, it gives him a chance to break out the fly rod - especially next month, when the show opens at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont.

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