Antique tackle collectors: Packrats and historians

Hobbyists with an obsessive taste for fly fishing treasures from the past are helping to preserve the craft and history of our sport
antique fly fishing flies and books
Exotic bird skins, materials, flies, rare books and reels from Paul Schmookler's private library (photo: Paul Shmookler).

Collectors of antique fly fishing tackle are a unique breed. Motivated by a passion for the sport and the excitement of the chase, they often search and compete for decades to acquire a single object of desire.

In doing so, they help preserve the craft and history of fly fishing history one rod, reel or fly at a time. Some have gained celebrity in the fly fishing community, reaching the status of elders in the tribe.

Take Hoagy Carmichael, the son of the famous musician and composer of Stardust Memories, who grew up fishing and playing with Hollywood actors like Clark Gable. Hoagy apprenticed to the legendary bamboo fly rod maker Everett Garrison, and made over 100 fine fly rods, which are now collector’s items selling for thousands of dollars apiece.

Carmichael’s book A Master’s Guide to Building a Bamboo Fly Rod inspired an entire generation of fly fishers to try their hand at crafting their own rods. He purchased all of Garrison’s workshop from his estate and the master rodmaker’s workbench and tools are now enshrined in the Catskills Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, New York.

When I first met Hoagy, he was working around an antique tackle show in Boxborough, Massachusetts with a deerskin bag, from which he pulled out a massive antique Philbrook and Paine salmon reel. I asked him if the reel was for sale, to which he replied: “I suppose.” “Well, how much?” “About $15,000 would do it,” was his reply.

hoagy carmichael bamboo rod
A Hoagy Carmichael bamboo fly rod (photo: Steve Woit).

Over the years, hundreds of rods and reels and other collectible items have passed through Hoagy’s hands, like salmon returning to a home pool. He has delighted many collectors by selling them rare rods and reels from estates from some of the most prominent families in New York and elsewhere.

Carmichael has also captured much of the history of the early rod and tackle makers such as Jim Payne and Hiram Leonard in his many books and short stories and penned his magnum opus, the two-volume “Grand Cascapedia: A History”, to share his love for one of the finest salmon rivers in the world.

Hoagy introduced me to Jerry Girard, a fellow collector, when I was writing my book Fly Fishing Treasures: The World of Fly Fishers and Collecting. Jerry is the leading collector of early American fly rods, known by some as “The Norris Hoarder” since he owns more rods made by the legendary Thaddeus Norris than anyone.

“Uncle Thad” Norris was truly the Godfather of fly fishing in America, preceding even Theodore Gordon, and writing the iconic “American Angler’s Book” in 1864.

Krider packrod and pistols
John Krider pack rod, pistols and medals won for his guns and pistols from the Franklin Institute of Pennsylvania in 1847 (photo: Steve Woit).

Jerry is fortunate to live in the Philadelphia area, the birthplace of the innovative American fly rod making industry, where many of the first fly tackle retailers also set up shop. Girard has collected many rare early examples of fly rods from the Pennsylvania rodsmiths such as John Krider, many of whom were also gunsmiths, like Samuel Phillippe, who is credited with producing the first fully bamboo split cane fly rods in the 1850’s. Phillippe’s rods, eventually made from six pieces of tapered bamboo, became the standard for fly fishers in American, far outperforming the British rods at the time.

In addition to his prodigious early rod collection that includes examples from all of the classic makers from Pennsylvania, New York, Maine and Vermont, such as Leonard, Thomas, Murphy, Chubb, Montague and Payne, Girard also collects fly fishing ephemera such as catalogs, brochures, tradecards, invoices and billheads.

His collection of American fly fishing ephemera provides a rich resource for those researching the craft and origins of early rods, reels, flies and accessories, many of which can only be traced back via the original paper records.

jerry girard collector
Jerry Girard: Antique fly tackle collector, angling historian and archivist of early American fly fishing tackle (photo: Steve Woit).

Jerry is now a tribal elder in the collecting clan and fellow rod collectors, makers and enthusiasts regularly bring him rods to examine and authenticate.

Perhaps the most colorful member of the antique tackle community is Paul Schmookler, the master salmon fly tier and originator of the modern creative fly tying movement. Schmookler and his partner Ingrid Sils produced the most beautiful books on salmon fly tying materials ever made, tirelessly photographing and cataloguing rare and unusual exotic feathers and materials used in the art of salmon fly tying.

Paul’s salmon fly creations are unrivalled in their beauty and complexity and his persona as a fly tying genius, fly fishing book collector and appreciation of the Victorian salmon fly arts have earned him a wide reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over the years Paul has been a prodigious fly tier, author, collector of insect specimens for scientific suppliers, and scholar of early fly fishing literature. His book collection includes iconic volumes from all of the great British and American fly fishing authors in pristine condition. His collection is centered on a nearly complete archive of every book that Isaac Walton would have read to compose “The Compleat Angler”, including early texts in Latin and Greek.

antique fly fishing gear
Early Kosmic golden rod, flies and catalog (photo: Steve Woit).

If you would like to identify a rare salmon fly pattern and the materials used in dressing it, Paul is your man.

With the increasing popularity of fly fishing among women, it is important to point out that women have actually always been fishing with men over many centuries. Mj FitzGerald of Lancaster, Pennsylvania has made it her mission to preserve the heritage of women fly fishers through her extensive collection of prints, magazines, postcards and cabinet cards.

Mj’s collection spans the late 1800’s to the 1950’s, with beautiful examples of real photo postcards of women fly fishing and magazine covers, prints and cabinet cards featuring women in all types of fly fishing locales around the country and in Europe.

She emphasizes that women have been fishing as long as men have and that while social mores have changed over the years, women have contributed greatly to the sport. The craft and literature of fly fishing has benefited from great fly tiers like Helen Shaw, Mary Marbury Orvis’s fly tying operation and Megan Boyd’s great salmon flies, and from the very beginning with the publication of Dame Juliana Berner’s “A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle” from the 15th century.

mj hearst fly fishing collection
Hearst's Magazine cover, May 1913 issue, from Mj FitzGerald's collection (photo: Steve Woit).

The first licensed Maine Guide was Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, who was an early promoter of fly fishing sports in Maine. Women have also recorded a number of the world record catches of Atlantic salmon, including the 64 lb. British record landed by Miss Georgina Ballantine on the River Tay in 1922.

We are fortunate to have so many great people preserving the craft and history of our sport. Absent their drive and passion to conserve the rarest objects of the past, we would be missing a great deal of our common heritage.