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”.
The Letort Regulars used to meet for Sunday morning breakfasts, or for picnics at Charlie Fox’s place on the Letort spring creek, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. * Vince Marinaro and others would stay over at Charlie’s fishing hut, which he built on his property even before he built himself a house to live in.
It was in that hut that they had a fly tying kit , donated by one Bob McCafferty, and their meetings, experiments and trials drew the attention of visitors like Lefty Kreh, George La Branche, ER Hewitt and Joe Brooks.
This band of fishermen, which included the likes of Ed Shenk, Gene Utech, Tommy Thomas, Ross Trimmer and others, were ground breakers. Their home water was what is still described as one of the most difficult trout streams in the world.
Stories abound about how spooky the fish are, and how clear the water is. The banks are sodden marshes in many places, the whole stream is only 9 miles long, and the fish are apparently all but impossible. Online searches reveal much evidence of these difficulties expounded in recent times. But reading Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” (written in 1950) reveals that not much has changed in this respect. Marinaro humbly paints a picture of himself as a duffer, saying things like ”This stream has always been a difficult one for me to solve and for many others too. The capture of one good trout in an evening’s fly-fishing was quite an achievement” and “….the usual result in these cases is a violent reaction on my part intended to be a strike, something I fervently wish I had never learned, and the matter is concluded by a sudden parting”.
As a relatively slow flowing limestone creek (AKA Spring Creek, chalk stream, Limestoner), its trout have all the time in the world to inspect what the fly fisherman has to offer, as well as a remarkable abundance of food besides. These characteristics make the stream a veritable university of fly fishing technique. Puzzles and riddles needed to be solved there, because although early fly anglers could see the trout, they couldn’t catch them.
What makes this interesting, is that the likes of the Letort Regulars had other streams they could go to, where the trout were easier, but they didn’t. That is to say that they chose not to abandon this near impossible challenge in favour of easier waters. They fished other waters, for sure, but their identity as “The Regulars” formed around the most difficult stream in the Cumberland Valley, the one of which Marinaro said: “the Letort is a hard task master and does not treat lightly any violation of dry fly technique”.
This challenge saw them entertaining the mother of invention: necessity. If they wanted to work out the puzzle, they had to get serious about it, study the trout and the insects and learn by trial and error. And so a great “university” was borne.
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ed Shenk’s books, and I am sure there are many other enlightening ones besides that I am not aware of, but I have devoured books by Mike Lawson, Ernest Schwiebert, Darryl Martin and Vince Marinaro.
These articulate writings of a bygone era reveal a level of enquiry, dedication, observation, and let me say obsession, which is rare nowadays. A Google search will reveal tidbits, videos and anecdotes, and people who are quick to boast that they knew the Letort Regulars, but like me, they don’t add to the body of knowledge of flyfishing technique.
The discoveries of the Letort regulars were significant. They pushed the boundaries. They looked for the smallest hooks and finest tippets they could find and tied flies on them, and tried to land big fish on them. They spoke and wrote with deference to Halford and Gordon, but then gently introduced the flyfishing world to the new frontier of terrestrials. They pushed back frontiers. In the 1970 edition of “The Code” which I own, Marinaro writes with wry amusement about how he meets anglers out on he stream who offer him their tiny flies, complete with words of instruction and encouragement, oblivious to the fact that it was he who started the whole thing.
It is also interesting to read on modern forums, how the benches, stream improvements, access paths , footbridges, and passages across the streamside bogs are all gone. Quite apart from the fact that a highway bridge now crosses the river where Fox’s hut once stood, the attentions of this dedicated band of fishermen are seemingly a thing of the past. How strange that is!
Consider for a moment, that when the likes of Charlie Fox fished the Letort, it was probably not as famous as it is now. At that stage it did not have attached to it the history of some of the great personalities of flyfishing, and neither was it described as the birthplace of modern terrestrial imitation, as it now is. And yet, despite its ordinariness, it received the loving attention of these pioneers. That would be attention both in respect of hours spend studying its trout and how to master them, and also hours spent with spade and saw, making it into something great. Now in the glow of its fame, there is little evidence that any of this still takes place.
Instead there are some brass plaques, and there are those who claim to have known the men who made it great. There are also stories about how difficult it is to access the neglected sections, and there are dreadful stories of fish kills and pollution.
One forum commentator enlightens his colleagues as to the names of various stretches, pools and meadows, presumably because these exist only in the memories of ones like him, who witnessed the Letort in its halcyon days.
(I must hasten to add that I have never visited the stream – I wish I could- and that my conclusions are based on desk-bound research, but I can find no evidence that refutes what I claim here)
This whole state of affairs puzzles me. Notwithstanding the burgeoning and ever pressing demands of the human population, the fact that an iconic and revered stream lies unkempt and at least in part, neglected, is an irony. So many other places have been killed by too much attention: turned to theme parks with gift shops and tourist centres, but this one, like many trout streams I read of, suffers neglect instead. I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for, but could I perhaps put in a request for something in between? I mean, could one of the people who revels in the nostalgia of the greats, not round up his buddies and go cut a path and lay a boardwalk to one of the pools? Maybe these fellows actually have it waxed. Maybe they fish there three times a week, meet in secret, and keep their wonderful exploits off the internet. That would be great I guess, and from thousands of miles away I may never know, but nothing leads me to suspect that this is the case.
Turning for a moment to the observations, and technical developments of the Letort Regulars: Has anyone seen Marinaro’s assertions on the body colours of the spinner vs the dun espoused, refuted, or even discussed since the 1990’s? It is quite possible that I am missing something, and that in fact these technical issues have been built upon since that era of great flyfishing books. But my mates and I just throw Para RAB’s. I know: Our particular streams are fast freestone waters, and fish will bite Humpies and DDD’s, so maybe the Letort/Marinaro model doesn’t apply here, and maybe modernisations of his work are widely applied elsewhere..
But, we do have some slower sections of river. Late last season a friend and I were foxed by some fussy trout in a series of slow pools.
Our frantic changing from a para RAB to a beetle to a CDC emerger simply didn’t work, and our conscious repertoire didn’t extend to significantly different solutions. We concluded that we were fishing one of the most difficult trout streams around, and I for one would have been happy with just one trout that evening. I can’t help thinking that Marinaro, if he was watching, would have labelled us as guys who “Stomped the banks and flailed the water”. And I can’t help thinking that all of us fly anglers have gone just a little bit backward. Our enquiries extend to scant viewings of Instagram pictures, and the odd YouTube video in which the tattoos and the brand of fly rod are the main feature. We don’t meet at the riverside to inspect the insects and discuss the finer points of the hatch, and life is too busy for a fisherman’s breakfast every Sunday.
We recently lost Lefty Kreh and Ed Shenk.
There might have been a code once, but I think its broken.
‘ * Errata. I am grateful to John Fiorini who had this to add in respect of the “Letort Regulars”:
The term “Letort Regulars” is capable of a couple of meanings. A loose group that adopted the name (and of which I was a member) was formed in the late 70’s and met for dinner at a local restaurant on the first Fri. of each month, with a picnic in August on benches at the “Nineteenth Hole” on the river behind Charlie Fox’s house. (That is also where an ad hoc gathering of locals often held a “prayer breakfast” on Sun. mornings.) Charlie was a regular attendee at our “meetings”, but Shenk and Marinaro were not. The latter-day Regulars sort of faded away in, I think, the early 90’s.
Seeral others also forwarded me pictures of the cloth badge of the Regulars
And in respect of the conservation of the river, John adds:
I don’t live in the Carlisle area and haven’t followed the recent status of the Letort carefully, but I know that both the city and the Central PA Conservatory have done a lot of rehab work on the river.
And Eric Richard added:
A letter written by Charlie Fox at the group’s inception was titled Super Trout in reference to the Loch Leven strain of Brown Trout. The Loch Leven was the mover. Defined by it’s movement and recognized by these anglers for their value they met to propagate and manage these misunderstood fish. The-book is an historical document. A federal fish hatchery biologist dismissed them with the assumption that all brown trout were crossed. You should be happy to know that while standing on the shoulders of C. Fox a grassroots movement of anglers in PA successfully petitioned for the protection of the Letort’s breeding population during the post spawn when they are feeding in the downstream watershed.
This particularly interested me, because my home river here in South Africa was once on record (and forgive me, but for the time being I forget where the reference comes from , except that I know it is quoted by Duncan Brown in one of his books), as that containing the most pure genetic population of Loch Leven Browns in the world. Sadly I know that this is no longer the case, but a few of us keep pictures of our Browns from the river, and compare notes and are looking to see the degree to which the later introduced European browns remain in evidence, interbreed, or perhaps reduce in number as the supposedly now adapted Loch Leven’s hold sway.