Percy’s Contribution to Fly Fishing Lore

Percy was the owner and publisher of the local, biweekly newspaper. He also wrote the paper’s editorials. Percy had a reputation for being gruff, but most people considered him to be a stand-up guy. If the newspaperman claimed to have landed four steelhead the prior week, swinging flies on the Deschutes, the anglers in our community accepted his claim.

Decades prior, as his contribution to the wartime effort, Percy taught classes on cold weather survival to GIs bound for the Aleutian Islands. His friends found this ironic because the newspaperman was seemingly unaffected by the cold. Percy had topped his waders many times while Winter steelheading; spending the remainder of the day wet from the waist down, indifferent to his misfortune.

This was the early Sixties when commercial air travel was still a novelty and jet contrails seldom appeared in the skies of the Pacific Northwest. Sputnik was already in orbit and experiencing weightlessness along with the steady stream of Mercury astronauts NASA hurled aloft. Percy followed the rocket launches with interest and, as a former Navy man, took considerable pride knowing that the astronaut corps included multiple sailors.

Round Butte Dam was nearing completion a few miles upstream. The project provided well-paying construction jobs and the promise of an extensive reservoir which, according to the experts, would engender countless recreational opportunities. Few people questioned how much the dam might impact the river and the downstream fishery.

After distribution of the last of the two weekly newspapers on Thursday morning, Percy usually spent the rest of the day haggling with advertisers and then left the office late-afternoon to prepare his steelhead gear for an early start the next day. Because he preferred the solitude of Fridays, the newspaperman invariably fished alone.

Photo: Yancy Lind

Farmers were still working their fields, so Percy assumed the glinting object above the west rim of the canyon was either a crop duster finishing the season, or a helicopter ferrying supplies for the dam. After completing a drift, he let the fly hang in the current for an instant, moved two strides downriver and recast the same amount of line. He moved purposefully, methodically covering the water in search of a willing fish. When he finished the run and raised his eyes there was nothing to the west except the familiar basalt cliffs.

Three Fridays later, Percy was removing his waders and debating whether he should call it a day or drive to another favorite spot when a flash of sunlight from a low-flying, metallic object interrupted his thoughts. Decades around printing presses had dulled his hearing, but the newspaperman was nonetheless surprised at the lack of rotor noise because the object was stationary for extended periods. On the drive back into town, Percy made a mental note to call his friend at Portland General Electric to inquire about the flight paths of the helicopters employed at Round Butte.

The week after Thanksgiving, both issues of the newspaper mentioned an impending cold front, the first of the season. Friday morning, at his wife’s insistence, Percy donned an additional layer of thermal underwear. Unsurprisingly, there was no one else at the river and, other than multiple sets of straight-line deer tracks and the meandering prints of a coyote, the thin dusting of snow was undisturbed. It was a beautiful, albeit cold morning, the type of day that might yield multiple fish. At the water’s edge, the publisher hesitated and glanced over his shoulder at the brush row before making his first cast.

Rather than dissipating as the meteorologists predicted, the cold air lingered and was gradually reinforced by a strong, high-pressure ridge. Percy’s spouse tried to dissuade him from fishing that Friday, but the publisher went anyway after assuring her that he would be more cautious than usual.

The fog thickened with proximity to the river. Slowing to make the final turn, Percy noted a squat grain silo sitting just inside the fence line. Though he resided in a farming community, the newspaper editor was not particularly well versed in farming practices. He assumed the landowner must have chosen a convenient location to drop the circular metal container, a location that would be readily accessible in the springtime.

Spey rod in hand, Percy walked a few hundred feet downstream, studied the river and then turned to retrace his steps.

Percy had encountered a few particularly tall GIs during the years he taught cold weather survival courses, but the immense figure standing astride the pathway dwarfed anyone the newspaperman had previously met. For an instant, Percy thought the other man might be a fellow angler or a fishing guide, but neither seemed likely given the weather conditions. Plus, the man was not wearing waders, a fishing vest or even carrying a fishing rod.

The visitor appeared to be clothed in a form-fitting jumpsuit which prompted Percy to wonder if he was looking at a pilot or even an astronaut. Realizing that he might be in the presence of an Air Force or Naval officer, Percy smiled and hailed the man.

When there was no acknowledgement, the newspaperman moved closer and called out again, to no avail. As the distance between them decreased, Percy noted the other man’s pasty looking skin and wooden, expressionless face. Everything about the visitor was oversized, especially his arms and hands. So far, the figure had not moved which prompted the newspaper editor to wonder if he was looking at a mannequin? Of course, that made no sense because why would anyone construct a mannequin to model such absurdly large clothing.

Mystified by the oddity in front of him, Percy was slow to notice the two, much smaller individuals standing in the water, a few dozen feet behind the behemoth. To gain a better perspective, Percy took several steps to his left. The mannequin’s head turned to follow the newspaperman’s movements and then the mannequin took a step to its right. When Percy repeated the process, so did the mannequin.

It occurred to the publisher that he might be dealing with a bodyguard or a member of the State Police, assigned to protect VIPs. Intrigued by that possibility, Percy kept his feet stationary, but shifted his body from side to side. The oversized protector reverted to its mannequin imitation. Even though his view was still largely blocked, Percy was able to determine that the two, more distant individuals were truly diminutive, at best, no more than three feet tall. They also appeared to be fly-fishing with a comparatively short, odd-looking rod that was roughly the same color as a gun barrel. Percy was still observing their casting when he realized neither individual was wearing waders even though they were up to their waists in the river.

After his unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the oversized bodyguard, the newspaperman had not spoken again and, as far as Percy could tell, neither had anyone else which made it even more inexplicable when the mannequin abruptly turned its head, nodded toward its companions, and stepped away from the trail.

Without the large obstacle in his way, Percy had a clear view of the anglers. Previously, he had considered the possibility they might be children, but upon closer inspection their skin looked wrinkled and aged. Their heads were bald, and they wore better fitting versions of the mannequin’s attire. As their eyes settled on Percy, the newspaperman had the overwhelming sense the fly fishers wanted something from him. That feeling grew in intensity until the publisher stepped forward, glanced over to confirm that the mannequin was still stationary, and gently placed his 13-foot fiberglass Spey into the outstretched hands of the nearest visitor.

The newspaperman awakened sometime later, slumped sideways on the passenger side of his pickup’s bench seat. The sun was comparatively low on the horizon, so he knew it was late afternoon. The cab was cold, even by Percy’s standards, and there was condensation on the interior of the windows.

The publisher vaguely recalled meeting a large, mannequin-like individual and two much smaller fly-fishers who were proficient casters but clearly inexperienced at reading steelhead water. The memory seemed real, but Percy’s waders were dry which suggested he might have simply fallen asleep in the cab. Chagrined at that possibility and concerned about what it might mean for his days of fishing alone, Percy slid his 71-year-old body across the seat, started the engine, and tried to recall more details about the day.

When he was warmed and his mind more settled, the editor looked through the rear window of the cab into the truck bed. His fiberglass Spey was missing, but in its place, there was a short, gunmetal-colored fly rod.

Not certain how to explain the day’s events, Percy told no one. Several years later, an old Navy friend who held a senior position at a leading rod manufacturer, visited the Pacific Northwest and spent a day steelhead fishing with the newspaper publisher. That evening, unable to keep his secret any longer, Percy showed the metallic-looking fly rod to his companion and related the story about how he acquired the piece.

Photo: Yancy Lind

After agreeing to give the newspaperman a vintage, English split-cane bamboo, the other man took Percy’s unusual possession back with him to the East coast.

Nearly two years later, Percy received a rod tube from his ex-Navy friend. The tube contained a new, two-piece, 13-foot Spey constructed from a material that the manufacturer called – layered graphite. The accompanying promotional materials promised that purchasers of the new rods would enjoy an “out of this world” casting experience.