by Jeffrey Stutsman
I can remember the first fish I ever caught, but only because my father had a framed photo of a six-year old with my ears (oversized, then and now) standing next to a pond, triumphantly holding a big, shiny rainbow trout. I know it was my first fish because my dad told me so, and he’d only lie if it was funny, or convenient, or would get him out of trouble.
I’m pretty sure I’d been using the requisite, age-appropriate elitist tackle: hook, bubble, and worm. And I’m entirely confident the trout was stocked and pellet fed, and therefore dumb, though I wouldn’t learn that distinction for many years. If I close my eyes and try real hard to remember the photo, I think I was wearing a stripy brown shirt that had been my favorite until it got too threadbare or too stained and my mom chucked it in the bin. The catching of this first trout must’ve had something of a formative effect on me, given the direction my life took, but the memory itself is just gone.
I do, however, still remember—with remarkable clarity—the evening my dad dragged me to the local fly shop to see about getting me my own fly rod. I was in my early teens, and I remember gleefully pawing through each bin of neat little flies and wondering how anyone could get feathers to look like that. I remember the way the swell of cork nestled perfectly into my left hand. I remember giving the rod that was going to become My Rod a pointless, ceremonial wiggle to see how it would cast. And I’m sure I squirrelled up my face so the salesman would recognize me as a savvy angler. I remember how cool the matching Sage reel was. I marveled at its “Made in Redditch England” label and how perfectly the two balanced when locked together. Later I would learn how utterly perfect it felt when the line loaded that thing just right; it was my first brush with magic.
My upbringing was not always so smooth, I had some issues, and there were some low points, some things I’d like to forget, some things I’m pretty sure I already have, but I always try to remember my dad like he was then: encouraging, gregarious, and maybe just a little bit nurturing. If you’re going to hang on to anything, it’s usually best to hang onto something nice.
He bought himself a new rod at the same time: a lightweight four-piece St. Croix pack rod, and I remember a pang of jealousy when I saw its tiny PVC rod case on the counter next to the Sage’s 5-foot aluminum tube. Because I fancied myself an aspiring outdoorsman, the unwieldy, walking-stick-length Sage tube seemed a poor compromise, but smaller is not always better. The pack rod turned out to be a milquetoast, whippy mess. While the Sage, my Sage—aided, no doubt, by its cumbersome two-piece design and robust Type II graphite construction—has always laid line out with just the subtlest hint of verve.
It’s almost a disservice to note that the poetically named GFL 590 was produced to satisfy a surge in demand brought on, in large part, by the movie A River Runs Through It. But what began as an opportunity to capitalize on a trend, Sage turned into an honest, quietly beautiful product. And that decision might have helped create a number of lifelong anglers. I know it informed my transition to an obsessive trout bum.
As a rule, older graphite rods are more sturdy than their modern ultra-high modulus composite cousins. They are slower, too, not that far off from fiberglass rods in their action, which means you won’t boom out huge casts all day long, but like ‘glass, the rods do a bit more of the work for you, forcing you to slow down and relax. Most importantly for clumsy bastards like me, they are less likely to shatter when you smack them into an unseen branch. The last point is important because I often hike a long way from the car and I rarely haul a spare rod with me. And you wouldn’t believe how many branches I don’t see.
You tend to love what you know, and my Sage’s relatively slow action may also have had a formative effect on me, eventually leading me all the way back around to my current preference for slow fiberglass rods like Redington’s terrific Butterstick. And a couple days a year, if there’s room in the back of the car for its awkward case, I’ll still fish my GFL. I’ll drag my thumbnail over its rough-finished, ridged blank and I’ll remember that fly shop, and all the fish I scared away before I ever caught one on the fly, and I’ll still smile when it loads just right.