There are no Nalgene bottles in Schirmer's Fly Shop. No fancy sleeping bags, or sacks of trail mix, or kid-carrying backpacks. This unusual outdoor outfitter, discreetly located in the basement of a private home near Burlington International Airport, sells flies, and lots of them, displayed with museum-like care in plastic and glass compartments. There are some fly rods, too, some $5 "grab bags" of fly-tying equipment, and a nice assortment of trout-festooned coffee mugs near the counter.
But it's clear that for anyone who's ever fly fished, the real draw here are the fake bugs that might land them a world record, a trout supper, or just a few minutes of peace and quiet on a shady Vermont stream. The other draw is the man who makes them. Ed Schirmer, 72, is a fly-tying wizard who's amassed decades of insight into the peculiar tastes of fish, and has the talent to assemble insects from tufts of hair, slices of feather and flecks of paint.
For more than 2000 years, anglers have used artificial flies to attract fish. That's because real flies are a bugger to capture and present in a way that will actually fool the fish. There are now thousands of fly patterns, from Little Blue Caddis, Brown Hackle and Grizzly King to March Brown, Pheasant Tail and Yellow Marabou, which can also be a bugger to create -- especially if you've got butterfingers or are short on time and knowledge.
Recently I called up Schirmer, curious to see his store and seeking a fly-fishing lesson. Having practiced casting on dry land, I was ready to test my skills on the water. He couldn't take me out, but arranged for me to go with his guiding partner, Aaron Tudhope. Before setting out, Tudhope and I picked up my temporary fishing license at Schirmer's Fly Shop.
While waiting for him to write it up, I had a look around. It seemed that I'd interrupted Schirmer's work: On the table were scissors, tweezers, feathers, spools of wire and a towel smeared with different colors of paint. With green vinyl chairs and a neat line of rods standing in front of wood-paneled walls, the place looked like a cross between A River Runs Through It and "That 70s Show."
It was in 1975, in fact, when Schirmer started up this business, nearly two decades after his first time fly fishing in 1957. Short on proper gear, Schirmer wore a U.S. Air Force fatigue jacket and a pair of firefighter's boots to wade and cast in the river. He was promptly stopped by the local game warden, who asked to see a fishing license. "He said, 'You just don't look like you belong here,' said Schirmer, who did have his license. "I didn't catch any fish that day, but I could have put out fires!"
After selling his creations wholesale to outdoor retailers throughout New England and Vermont, Schirmer eventually opened his business to the public. But he maintained his routine of meticulously crafting hundreds of nymphs, gnats and Zug Bugs, which customers collect in cardboard French-fry cups before paying. "I'd get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and tie until 9 o'clock in the morning, when my wife brought down the coffee," said Schirmer. "Then I'd tie until noon, stop, have lunch and go back. It was just a labor of love."
Why tie flies, and learn to master the art of casting, when any clod can plunk a worm into the water and eventually pull up something? "After you learn how to tie flies, you appreciate the insects you're trying to imitate," said Schirmer. "And beyond the fact that it's artistic, it works. You become totally independent: You've got your fly rod, your reel, your gear, the flies that you've tied. You have control over what you're doing; you don't have to go to a bait store and buy lures or stuff like that. It's just a tremendous accomplishment."
Though Schirmer doesn't guide much these days, he works with Tudhope to take clients -- from fly-fishing newbies to Vermont newcomers looking for bountiful and beautiful waters -- to the Lamoille, Winooski, Dog, Huntington, Browns and New Haven rivers and the Otter and Lewis creeks. Like most anglers, Tudhope closely guards the location of his favorite fishing holes. But he will take clients to a few choice spots.
Our spot for the day is on the LaPlatte River, near Route 7 in Shelburne. A sticky white blanket of heat and humidity smothers Chittenden County, hazing the early June sky while cottonseeds clump in the drain grates. Spring fever has settled into a silent stupor with the rising mercury: It's too hot to play outside, too hot to be sitting and sweating in the line of steely traffic creeping down Route 7.
But just a stone's throw from the dusty road construction, the LaPlatte River gurgles with life; water beetles dance across the surface and cool rapids shoot over slick boulders, creating swirling currents and pools. The temperature seems to drop 10 degrees after Tudhope and I leave the truck. It's here, he tells me, where the bass will be hiding, close to the bottom. This morning, even the fish are seeking sanctuary from the sizzling sun. We'll be using a "wet fly," a little brown stonefly nymph, to attract the bass.
My fly-fishing friends have told me about the serenity, elegance and Zen-like qualities of their sport, but none of these words come to mind. I'm standing in the middle of the river wearing hip waders, which have slipped down to mid-thigh because I don't have a belt for attaching the buckles, and the heel of my hand is dripping blood into the river, thanks to a little spill I've taken getting down to the fishing hole.
Since I'm a fly-fishing rookie, Tudhope has me casting for bass, which are apparently easy to catch. After nearly two hours of flicking my line into the water, I should be supplying Perry's Fish House with its catch-of-the-day platter. However, all I've snagged are a few pieces of slimy moss. And I'm beginning to question the motto of Schirmer's Fly Shop: "We will help you attain your fly fishing dreams."
But gradually, the steady rhythm of casting and the meditative observation of the nymph, sinking and drifting in the current, begin to make up for my inability to catch a catch. Tudhope pulls in an 18-inch spotted bass, which sends him scrambling back and forth over the rocks in its struggle for freedom. After we've released it from the hook and slipped it back into the water, the fish languishes in the crook of a rock, then swims away. But first I get a close look at its shiny flanks.
Dipping his line back into the water, Tudhope pulls up a Nemo-sized sunfish, which jerks around before squirting back into the water, lickety-split.
"OK, let's move to a different spot," Tudhope says, noticing that our lesson is almost up, and leading me to a perch just above a giant boulder. One last chance. I start chucking the nymph into a percolating trough of water and twitching the line ever so slightly. Suddenly, it feels a bit tauter and, somehow, I manage to wrangle the rod in such a way that I actually hook something other than moss.
It's a bass, a pretty big one. The moment I realize that a living thing is on the end of my line, my heart begins racing as if I'm downhill skiing, right on the edge of losing it.
"I got one! I got one!" I yell to Tudhope. He watches the fish gracefully arc out of the water, then leaps over and shouts at me to keep the line taut while he positions himself on a rock to grab the fish. The fight lasts just a couple of minutes, but it's exhilarating. As he unhooks the fish and presents it to me, Tudhope notices my trembling hands.
"Adrenaline shakes," he says, pulling out a small red measuring tape.
It's a 15-inch smallmouth: not a trophy rainbow trout, but not Nemo, either. I proudly hang the fish from my thumb, then delicately slip it back into the water and watch it swim downstream. It's a start, and I'm hooked. And I know just where to find some flies.