It was late at night and I was nearing the end of a book I picked up at Huddy’s Books. The purchase had ended a hiatus in terms of my book collecting habit, brought about by my circumstances, but now I was relishing the pages of a book new to me. I turned the page on one story and started another. Something about blue dun capes. I read on a little, realizing that tiredness had overtaken my ability to truly digest what I was reading. On the second page I stopped. The piece was brilliant. Brilliant in the way of a rolling epic which spanned decades and transcended there here-and-now. I closed the book. I was too tired to appreciate this. It required relishing.
The next day I re-opened Nick Lyons 1973 “Fisherman’s Bounty” anthology on the story “Blue Dun”, by one Frank Mele.
For the next while I was spellbound. Each paragraph unrolled and soaked in, and I loved the read. Who was this author? How was it that I didn’t know of him? What else had he written?
As it turns out, these were questions that had been asked by other readers of Lyons book, decades earlier, and they too had gone looking for more.
Mele’s “Blue Dun” Story was written in 1970. It was later included in the anthology I was reading, and served to introduce the world to Mele. Coincidentally it was in 1970 that Nick Lyons published his own book, “Seasonable Angler”, and in that book is a story entitled “Mecca”, which Nick Lyons told me in a subsequent e-mail, was about Frank Mele (albeit under the pseundonym ‘Hawkes’), and more pointedly a days fishing in which Lyons was introduced to a man who was to become a friend.
Elsewhere in ‘Seasonable Angler’ Nick Lyons writes of a Payne rod which survived a house fire, and which he mentions needs to be sent to Mele for checking over. I later learned that the rod was given to Nick Lyons by Mele, and later when Mele fell on hard times Nick Lyons gave it back. Between re-reading Lyons book, and “Mecca” which I then learned was the first fly-fishing story Lyons ever wrote, I entered a delightful voyage of discovery.
Frank Mele wrote a book of flyfishing stories which was published in very small numbers in three separate editions, the first of which came out when I was a varsity student in 1988.. After his death in 1996, Nick Lyons brought the book to the wider angling world with a re-published edition, which I have since acquired, had shipped to me here in South Africa, and read. Read I might say, with a level of unsurpassed delight and enjoyment. It is an absolute gem of literature, as promised by Lyons in the foreword, which I first read online and which multiplied my determination to acquire the book. The title of the book is “Small in the eye of a River” (and not “the River” as erroneously printed in the earlier versions).
The writing is what I would describe as highly intelligent. The topics are broad and encompass a life view of enthusiasm, awe and respect, all loosely wrapped around the author’s unfailing love of flyfishing and music. His 30 page “Thoughts on flyfishing” unpacks his life-view and philosophy beautifully, immersing the reader in the topic, which he tackles more eruditely than most forays into this topic. Other stories are variously sweet and innocent, evocative, thought provoking and light. The book is unusual. I can’t think of any other book I could compare it to. I found one passage particularly moving: Mele had discovered Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” after its first (and relatively unsuccessful) 1950 publishing, and had acquired a copy in a colourful way, which I will leave for you to read about. He had written to Marinaro to encourage him, and to praise him for his work. Twenty years later he was to meet Marinaro, who confided in him that after the first publishing he had become depressed about the publication, and how Mele’s letter had carried him forward and prevented him from giving up.
Such touching and epic anecdotes, which straddle decades and warm the heart are surely Mele’s forte!
Mele’s life was unique too. After descending deep down the Google rabbit hole late at night I uncovered insightful gems about him. Many of them were brief eulogies or short articles written by his former violin students, fishermen he had met, and friends. Nick Lyons filled me in a little and he introduced me to James Bendelius, a great friend of Mele, who shared with me the story he once wrote about ‘Goombah’, as he was affectionately known. Bendelius’ story appeared in the Bulletin of The Anglers’ Club of New York in 2008, and is in itself a moving and brilliantly written account of Mele, the man. One of my blog readers from the USA came forward to tell me that he owns one of Mele’s Payne rods. Jamie Bendelius still owns much of his collection of rods, books and other tackle.
In March of 2016, twenty years after his death, an event was held in which panelists told stories of his life and their encounters with him in a forum, with more in the audience who contributed to the memories of the man.
Included in the panel was his son Andy, whose career in environmental work was inspired by his father. The thirteen thousand word transcript of that forum is an insightful document, and takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey through Mele’s passion for bamboo fly rods, his truncated orchestral career, his cooking, his harsh tonque and short temper, and his boundless generosity. Very prevalent in this document and others is the story of how he mobilized to see to it that groundbreaking legislation was enacted to save his beloved Trout waters in the Catskills mountains, where NY city storage dams threatened to starve rivers of reasonable minimum flows. His legacy in this is truly something that has changed the face of flyfishing in the Catskill mountains for more generations than he would ever know.
The stories were personal and touching. He was a small and scathing man with deep set eyes and a big heart. Bendelius relates how the only time he saw a tear in Mele’s eye was when he gifted to him a rare book that he had been seeking for more than 50 years. Others recall the exact recipe of his pesto, and some relate his taste for liver, and sheep’s heads, and other carnivore’s delights that left some squeamish. A small group of passionate anglers who were cemented by the diminutive, argumentative Italian, called themselves “The Woodstock Anglers” and were clearly an institution, apparently still are.
Everything I read about Frank Mele is filled with colour. He had an immersive affliction for casting dry flies with a bamboo rod, which he did with a grace and style that impressed all those who watched him. Says James Bendelius : “ The Syracuse rod maker Dan Brenan was an early inspiration to Frank and his love for cane made Jim Payne a close friend. Frank would spend time at the Payne shop discussing the merits with Jim and later Walt Carpenter. He was always pursuing the ultimate bamboo rod.
Goombah knew cane rods. Not in the technical sense but in the artistic sense. “
He is referred to by many as a mentor, and others call him their ‘maestro’. His quest for the perfect rod lead him to the brink of financial ruin, and consumed him as much as his passion for wine, women and song. He loved to smoke an acrid pipe tobacco, drank coffee that could ‘melt the spoon’, and flung pasta at his ceiling to see if it was cooked. He wasn’t known for his cleanliness. He collected flyfishing books, and engaged in correspondence with some of America’s flyfishing greats. Amongst his friends was none other than Preston Jennings, the Darbees, Art Flick, and Dan Brennan, to name just a few. His humble home was a veritable train station of violin students, flyfishers, hackle breeders, political lobbyists and all whom he invited in to taste his sauces. He loved to write. His stories were apparently published in magazines, and he wrote a few books, but only one other, “Polpetto” was published (to critical acclaim). The rest of his material is relegated to papers in boxes in peoples’ houses, and in journals that pre-date the internet and don’t appear in searches. A few people said they had some papers, and ‘must go take a look to see if they can find them’.
In wading through all this material, and exchanging e-mails, it struck me that this was a man who was in many ways discovered appreciated and venerated long after his death. It is almost as though the world was slow to wake to what it had lost. I can’t help wondering what more he may have written, had he received the encouragement he himself gave to Marinaro during his living years.
I also can’t help hoping that something might trigger some of his old friends to go and dig in those boxes, find those papers, and see to it that they make it into the public eye. If that which was published is anything to go by, there would be a queue for a posthumous publication……..
Postscript: I am grateful to Jamie Bendelius, who, subsequent to the first posting of this story, sent me the two pictures of the inscribed books in his private library. I have inserted these in the post above in the relevant places. The first is in what was Mele’s copy of Nick Lyons book “Seasonable Angler” and the second is in Mele’s copy of “Modern Dry Fly Code”.
Reading my way through the tomes that cascade from my over-full bookshelf, is something I take great pleasure in doing. There is something satisfying in reading a message that resonates, written in so beautiful, and poetic a style that it causes you to lower the book and nod or mumble something. I mumble and nod a lot. It is a way of wallowing in a thought well presented, a way of immersing yourself in a moment shared eruditely in print.
My family have stopped responding with questions to all my mumbling and nodding. So I will share some with you:
“How often fishing leads a man to find beauty otherwise never seen! I am rich in having a treasure store of such places” Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado
“The man who hurries through a Trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him” George La Branche The Dry Fly on Fast Water.
“The secret of successful fishing is to expect it….Hope should be in the fisherman’s heart , expectancy in his hand , and his motto should be “you can never tell” “ Robert Hartman, About fishing
“Now that I care less, I fish better” Andrew Brown, Fishing in Utopia
“Fisherman who care too much about the size and numbers of fish they catch are insufferable on good days and as harried as overworked executives on slow ones. On the other hand, it is possible to be a happy angler who doesn’t catch many fish; its just that no one will ever say you’re good at it” John Gierach, Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers.
“Perhaps the power of fly-fishing (and the comparisons it invites) lies not in its confrontation with meaning, but its escape from it.” Maximillian Werner , Black River Dreams
“Flyfishing has many attributes , but none more pleasing than its ability to find and liberate the young boy that still hides within me and to let that boy live again without embarrassment or regret, sorrow or anguish” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Nick Lyons, Seasonable Angler.
Let me stop there, lest you fall asleep during this diatribe, but I think you get the idea: An immersed fisherman who doesn’t read, achieves immersion in shallower water.
You may nod and mumble now…
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Wrote Nick Lyons in Seasonable Angler.
Lyons wrote a column by that same name in the magazine “Flyfisherman” for 22 years . Back when our currency had some value, I used to subscribe to it, and always read that column first. I have enjoyed his writing ever since.
I think this image captures the essence of privateness, quiet satisfaction et al:
The other day my friend and I did an exchange of sorts. He and his wife got oxtail. I got his left over beers, a good bottle of wine and the loan of a book. I should consider myself lucky. He would have digested the oxtail in a few hours, and I haven’t yet returned the last book he lent me. Truth be told the oxtail was an experiment: a mix of three rather dodgy looking online recipes, each of which attempt to condense the cooking time of oxtail from six hours to two, and none of which I followed with any dedication. And not only have I failed to return his last book, I haven’t even started reading it.
I was assured though, that what I consider a poor quality, gonzo picture of the author on the cover of this latest tome, should not put me off. Its the second edition.Bright blue surf breaking in the background. A bright red text box bearing the title. An arguably overexposed picture, but with the fisherman’s face in shade. 1970’s movie star blue reflective sunglasses, and after a while I noticed that the weird groin protrusion was in fact a fish, its form poorly contrasted between the mans legs and some or other rag being used as a glove to hold its tail. The right arm is held off to the side, clutching a fly rod rather clumsily……
OK, let me stop bashing the cover .
Inside is sheer brilliance.
My prejudice normally has me skipping chapters on bass, catfish and the like. Seth Norman’s skill as a writer had me relishing pieces on bait fishing! Actually the pieces on bait fishing, spinning and saltwater species, like those on Trout, were not about fishing at all. They are about death, love, lust, justice, schizophrenia, and nomadic travelling experiences. The fishing is just the glue that holds the pages together, and it serves to attract obsessed flyfishermen like me to topics broader than fly choice and casting techniques. Norman draws you into contemplation of your father’s death, your career and lifestyle choice, and your spirit of generosity or otherwise. He causes you to lose your mind. When he has you in there, he holds you there with fishing tales, and humour, and sentences that you read three times just to roll them around in your head a bit. I found myself wanting to suck the marrow out of the pages somehow. Maybe I will sleep with it under my pillow.
Allow me to quote a few lines:
“…..we’re four thousand feet into a narrow Sierra pass. Cliff wall to the right, cliff wall to the left and in the high beams we see a great white yacht broadside, an oceangoing yacht blocking the highway from shoulder to shoulder. “What’s that?” Mor asks, naturally enough……..
………….“No matter. I know another stream behind us and south. As we bed down in a campground, Mor in front, me over the cab, I hear him laugh again. “Noahs Ark. Does that kind of thing, do things like that happen often on these trips?’’
I consider . “Arks not so often. But a fishing trip is always a meander. You can’t quite know what will come up.”
“You like that?”
He pauses. We each have a small skylight to look through; through mine I can see an edge of cloud silvered by moonlight. Once more, Mor laughs, long, happily. “Of course. Of course you do. You’ve always liked that.”
If you enjoyed “The river Why” by David James Duncan, or “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”, you will enjoy this one for sure.
Not that my opinion counts in the shadow of a Pulitzer nomination, but Seth Norman, I salute you.
I must own a copy for sure, because this one will be re-read.
To the great Nick Lyons: I somehow only got to know about this book after its second edition ( It was first published back in 1996!) , but Sir…could you do something about that 2nd Ed cover ? A sunset maybe. A Trout? Revert to the first edition cover maybe? Maybe a rod and reel in soft light? No? Okay no problem, I am buying the book anyway.
The first edition is pictured left. I have ordered one…a second hand one. I found it on some or other online store. I hope it arrives. It cost half of next year’s Christmas bonus. I know, I’m an astute investor. No, you may not borrow it. Not even in exchange for good oxtail.