My grandfather was a smoker. His study, as I remember it, was at the far end of the house he shared with my grandmother. As you approached along the corridor, the smell of tobacco grew steadily stronger, regardless of whether he was in there. I say “tobacco” rather than “tobacco smoke” because that’s what I remember: the deep, rich aroma rather than the smoke itself.
When he died, I inherited his fishing gear. It was a mess. A section of one broken fly rod had been matched with a section of another—a marriage of convenience if ever I saw one. The split cane rods were like old men from stories, their spines bent into permanent curves. Vintage Hardy reels were spooled with ancient silk lines. One reel was so dented it wouldn’t turn. There were boxes upon boxes of flies as well, at least a dozen for trout and still more for salmon.
It took a long time to sort that lot out. It was a labor of love, a remembrance of a kind. Part of the pleasure was that everything smelled just like my grandfather’s study—probably due to the old tobacco tins and cigar boxes. The tins were pretty and glinting on the outside, bearing old-timer names like Navy Cut and Rich Dark Honeydew. When I opened them up I found nests of rusting hooks and chaotic collections of tube flies. My grandfather had lined the cigar boxes with foam. Moths had been at the flies, and most of the foam was disintegrating. Nevertheless, one of the boxes in particular caught my eye.
It isn’t much to look at. Six inches by four inches and an inch deep, with “Manikin 25” stamped on each end. If it looked old then, it looks far older now. Years of being handled has darkened the wood. I’ve replaced the foam more times than I care to remember, and I’ve had to re-glue every corner at least twice. But it isn’t just sentimentality that keeps me using it. Wooden fly boxes are hard to come by. These days they are mostly plastic, ugly and airtight. Nothing feels as nice as wood, and nothing breathes like it either. Flies tend to rust less when stored like that. The box is small, and it’s getting crowded in there, but surely flyfishing is the perfect excuse to travel light. I’ve never bothered to count them—thankfully, the fishing’s never been quite that slow—but there must be a couple hundred flies, maybe more.
Cigar boxes often outlive the cigars they once contained. Their inherent usefulness ensures their survival. But I doubt that many of them are as well-traveled as this one. I’ve fished in England and Ireland, Scotland and Wales; over the years I’ve been to the Catskills and Adirondacks, Vermont, across Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and up to 10,000 feet in California’s Sierra Nevada.
All the while this little box has been with me. Good or bad, each day begins with it opening and ends with it closing.
This article first appeared in volume ten, issue four of The Flyfish Journal.