Hot Rods and (Fly Fishing) Tune-Ups by Mark Usyk

I just started this too late. I wish I’d found fly fishing much sooner in life. It could’ve saved me a lot of heart ache. A lot of anger. A lot of depression. What you’ve got to understand is that even though I’ve always fished, there were a great number of years in between being a long haired head banger in high school stricken by the need to hunt bass in farm ponds with spinning rods and these years now that I find time fleeting and calendars shrinking as I dream of chasing fish to the ends of the earth with a fly rod. The years in between were a distracted time the way I see it. There was always a fishing rod leaning in a corner of a closet or the garage that came out a couple times a year, but there were too many things taking my full attention, leaving almost none for the fish and the places they could be found.

Hot rods. Once I discovered hot rods, once I began to learn to shape sheet metal into the complex shapes like fenders and hoods and roofs, once I got a taste of the drag strips of the south, and of chrome molly roll cages bent up and TIG welded with the precision of a surgeon, chopped tops and metal flake paint, once I saw my work in a magazine, in the grand halls of big time car shows, the fish probably breathed a sigh of relief. I gave them space for a good twelve or thirteen years. In that time I was sure that I’d discovered what I was meant to do and I’ll admit to having a lot of fun doing it. But often when I think about my gear head days, the stories start out with grand plans and what I considered cool rides, but end with the throwing of tools, the shouting of obscenities, and the customers who wanted the best work but didn’t want to pay up. Gray hair, heart burn, and head aches. There came a point at the end where the carpet was pulled out from under me one final time, and I knew right then that to get through this life with the rest of me intact I was going to have to leave it all behind. I sold absolutely everything and what I didn’t sell I gave away. I doubt that I could’ve done that if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d discovered fly fishing only a few months earlier. I still have a few gear head friends. They all think I’m nuts.

What they don’t see is me on the water today. They remember the guy stressed out over trying to figure out what he could sell to pay a bill because a paycheck bounced when a customer was refusing to pay their bill. They remember the guy whipping wrenches across a parking lot and drop kicking the door of a 1978 Ford F-150 because it was a pile of shit that for some odd reason he was convinced he was having fun with. They remember the guy sleeping on a cot in a room filled with drill presses, mills, and a plannishing hammer, a neon sign in the window, on the verge of divorce because he was always at work, yet couldn’t pay the bills, and was an asshole all the time because of it. There were some good times during all of it of course, but looking back on it all, it’s like one of those commercials for a new drug that’s supposed to make you sleep better at night, but the side effects may be blurred vision, dizzy spells, brain aneurisms, heart attacks, and anal bleeding. The negatives far outweighed the positives.

What they don’t see today is me picking my way through the woods, tripping over hidden roots and swatting at black flies and mosquitos without a care in the world about any of the scratches and bug bites. What they don’t see is me hiking through all of that, and slopping through knee deep mud holes, climbing over and under downed trees, the net on my back tangling in branches and stopping me like a dog at the end of its chain, or bruising up my shins and twisting ankles as I make my way through stands of ferns and undergrowth covering holes and old stumps with a smile on my face. They don’t see me going through all of this and more, to get lost for an hour and then finally find the river only to make a thousand casts, to try every fly in my box, to stumble and fall in and walk back out with water sloshing in my waders, and never hook a single fish. Calm and happy through most all of it. They don’t see that, and the reason they don’t see it is because I never complain about it. It’s that good.

It’s the wonder drug without all the bad side effects. There’s side effects, sure. Someone who talks to their doctor about fly fishing after seeing a commercial for it may find low bank accounts and suffer from “colds and regular bouts with influenza” unfortunately keeping them from work now and then if you catch my drift, and may even find their arm in a cast on a regular basis. But I don’t see any of these side effects as anything short of small doses of medicine themselves to maintain a healthy mental state and active lifestyle. I used to throw wrenches. I used to stress out over where the next check was coming from. I used to direct four letter words at people and inanimate objects like heat seeking missiles meant to carry out exact revenge.

I’ve never thrown a fly rod, and when I use a four letter word on the water it’s because I’m having a damn good time enjoying life. Yea yea yea, I know. That old ’55 Chevy I had with the fiberglass tilt front end and the tunnel ram motor would’ve gotten me to the water a lot faster, but the damn thing would’ve scared all the fish from a mile away. And with the fuel cell in the trunk my waders would’ve smelled like race gas. To all my old gear head buddies, don’t worry about me. Trust me, I’m good. I just had to do one final tune up. I’ve been firing on all 8 cylinders now without a misfire long enough to have confidence in the set up. The fly rod was that one part that was missing, the part that couldn’t be found in any of those speed shop catalogs.