THE ONE by John McMillan

Fall is darn near gone.  In fact, it was pretty much non-existent in my area.  It basically went from summer to winter on the Olympic Peninsula.  65°F afternoons with some high clouds to 6” of snow in two weeks.  Now it’s raining, and raining some more.

Shifting seasons, shifting gear.  Like many anglers, I will now move on from the summer rods to the winter ones. Several Burkheimer two-handers sit in a stand in the corner of my office.  A rod for this. A rod for that.  A backup for this, and for that.  Which rod to start the season with? It is a choice that could include a litany of variables, such as river size, fly size, casting distance, wind, line, and whatever else might come to mind.  Debates actually do go on, sometimes at great length, about the importance of those types of factors. In other words, a lot of thought usually goes into selecting a rod.

I don’t begrudge an angler who prefers the more complex approach to rod selection.  Do you some you.  We all enjoy different aspects of angling.

My selection sits five-feet to my right during summer and fall. No variables needed. Its three pieces, and it stands tall amongst shorter four-pieced peers in the rack.  Like a huge Sitka spruce. A beacon of winter. 

The 9143-3.  Purchased in 2000, it is my personal rainforest old growth. 

The rod has spanned the film-digital divide in camera technology. This photo is a scanned slide from the early 2000s.

The rod has spanned the film-digital divide in camera technology. This photo is a scanned slide from the early 2000s.

Outside of the time I lived in Corvallis and fished the Oregon coast – where I mainly used the 8133 – the 9143 has been my winter rod. 

Why that one rod?  First, I fish in a particular way that requires a bit more length and reserve power, plus the stout stick puts the wood to larger fish and helps me land them with more efficiency.  Wading deep and casting for the far bank taxes all rods, especially when fishing a sink-tip and larger-sized winter fly.  The 9143 not only covers that base, but it is also long and strong enough to make all the necessary mends.  Its classic American muscle. 

Extra length and power have always been the strengths of the rod, both of which allow me to have better control over larger fish.

Extra length and power have always been the strengths of the rod, both of which allow me to have better control over larger fish.

Second, longer was the rage when I started fishing with two-handed rods.  A length of 14’ was common, and my first double-hander was a 14’ 9-weight.  Basically, I’m using a rod length that I became accustomed to. So much so that nearly all my winter rods are between 13’ and 15’.

Back to the rod.  It has been fished, a lot.  One rod, fifteen winters on the OP, excluding the two winters on the Oregon coast.  Before I was married and lived in Forks, I tried to fish at least a couple hours each day.  I would work at night or early in the morning to make up the time.  Whatever it took.  Additionally, unlike most, I did not take summer vacation. I took mine during winter. I saved it for all those perfect times when the river was dropping into steelhead green.  I basically scheduled all potential free time around the need to fish.  

It was not until recently that I reflected upon how much I actually fished the rod.  I keep a detailed journal, which includes data on fish and river conditions.  That would seemingly be the first question. How many fish did I catch with the rod over that period of time?

My answer is: That doesn’t tell the story.  Trust me. There are people who catch more fish, and less fish. Larger fish, and smaller fish.  It’s caught its fair share.

I will say this, though.  I have caught my largest winter steelhead on the rod, and my smallest.  

Alas, its also caught its fair share of smaller bucks, including the occasional winter fish on the waker.

Alas, its also caught its fair share of smaller bucks, including the occasional winter fish on the waker.

Fortunately, I don’t just keep notes on fish. After reviewing my journal I realized there were other numbers that conveyed the rod’s story so much better than a simple summation of fish.

Case in point, I have fished the rod for over 5,000 hours in pursuit of winter steelhead and early spring Chinook, and I don’t count drive time. This is in the river, fishing-time.  It’s been through hell and back, a couple times, like a repeat spawner. 

Despite logging more hours than a pimp on Broadway, I have only broken the rod once.  Two years ago. I have replaced seven guides, three of which were lost to raking the tip across overhanging limbs on different occasions. The other four were ripped off when a large fish made a mad dash on a cold day, the frozen guides simply disappeared into the river.  Everything else remains original. Its cork is like leather on the seats of an expensive sports car. Perfect to the touch. More comfortable than it should be.

Burkheimer 9143 cork sml.jpg

Well-worn, and a survivor. It’s damn near outlasted every piece of outdoor gear that I own.

For example, during the fifteen-year period I have went through 42 pairs of waders and 38 pairs of boots.  I don’t have a boat. I bank-it, which is why I destroy waders.  If the waders cost an average of $400 and the boots $120, I spent about $20k on that stuff.  Clearly one is a better investment than the other. I should have worn seal dries and tennis shoes and bought 20 more Burkies instead. An investment.  I’ll run that by my wife this week.

Fifteen-years is a long time in the fishing world, and indeed, there has been great change in lines and rods. When I bought the rod the Mid-spey and Windcutter were reigning kings, integrated running lines and all.  Longer-bellied lines and a longer rod were a nice match. People even still used the double-spey technique quite often, rather than rarely. Rods are now shorter, lighter and fine-tuned for casting short heads, so it makes sense for lines to change accordingly.  Integrated running lines are nearly, and many anglers don’t even have a long rod in their quiver.  Twenty lines later and after numerous flirtations with other rods, the 9143 remains. It casts anything, long or short, though it prefers to flex its muscle.  That’s what draws me back every time.  The adaptability.

It has also maintained its mojo through fads in fashion. I have worn through one vest, two chest packs and three backpacks. Imagine a younger angler: What’s a vest, dad? Yep, people still wore vests in 2001. I had a vest that I occasionally wore, then stopped in 2002. I saw the writing on the wall. Chest packs and fanny packs were in, and more useful, as were waterproof backpacks.  Vests are no longer cool, but the 9143 still is.

What about reels? Sure, the 9143 broke once, but it’s been more durable than my reels.  I started with a Teton and a Galvan, then tried two different Lamsons, a Hatch, a Hardy, a Nautilus, and a Danielsson.  In almost every case the drags failed, some within a year, others after two or three.  The rainforest is really hard on gear, especially if you fish it hard every day. Perpetual moisture eventually finds a way into anything claiming to be sealed.  On the other hand, the moisture and fish have not impacted the rod at all.  Perhaps the varnish is a bit faded. There are several scratches.  It ain’t as pretty as it once was. Still, hand-rolled soul out-beefing aluminum. Not much else to say.

The list goes on. Six raincoats, five cameras, three pairs of sunglasses, three trucks, three jobs and two underwater housings.  Some cameras were dunked in the river, then I shifted from film to digital – a technological divide the one conquered with aplomb.   I put almost 170,000 miles on the trucks during those winters, traipsing from one river to another depending on the week or day.  One engine blew, another came close.  I changed employers and went back to Graduate school.  The only common thread? The 9143, like Ed Abbey said, outliving the bastards.

This hen was caught a few years ago and the picture taken with a digital camera. All of those technological changes and I’m still using the same Burkie.

This hen was caught a few years ago and the picture taken with a digital camera. All of those technological changes and I’m still using the same Burkie.

I did not set out to rely on a single rod.  It just happened. Every year I still try a new rod or two, yet none seem to approach that magical balance between power and grace, along with a trunk full of brute force when needed – at least in the rivers I fish.  The closest is the 9138-4, though as I mentioned, on the Oregon coast my rod choice was different.

The only slight drawback. It is a heavy stick. It requires a heavier reel to balance. Each winter I wonder, will this year be its last? Maybe there is another rod that can fill one of its weaknesses? I crept that way a little bit last season. Stream flows were so high that the long rod had little advantage, and much disadvantage in close quarters. So, I tried the 9135. Perfect for those conditions. And I used it more than I have used any other rod since acquiring the 9143.

Ultimately, I wonder what would have happened if I stayed in Oregon and did not return to the Peninsula? Would I have written his article about a different rod? Or, maybe I would have relied on several rods? Would there even be one? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I don’t have to think about what rod I will use. I already know the one.