Will your handmade gear catch better fish? Chas Letner, winter steelhead, 2024

by Scott Sadil

I’m swapping out lines, thanks in part to an unforeseen issue with my old Islander offshore reel, the one I often rely on when I need to dump 500 grains of sink-tip line over the gunwale and let it head for depths unknown, where some sort of pelagic beast might intercept descent of the fly.

Something must have happened to the drag on that longfin tuna off Cape York.

It’s actually more complicated than that.  But the upshot is that I’ve got lines coming off reels, these same lines or new ones going onto other reels, fussing, the way you should, in anticipation of the next bluewater adventure—when I glance for a moment at my decades-old winding jig, wobbling atop the living room cabinet, and think, I can do better than that.

The old one

Not saying a whole lot.  If I remember correctly, I scavenged some cut-off chunks of rough lumber from a house we were framing above Cardiff reef, in California; I nailed things together, drilled holes, added some bolts and washers and nuts to hold the line spools, and called it good.

Lasted all these years, although it never has set flat, thanks to a big medullary knot on the underside of the hunk of resawn four-by-six that serves as the base of the jig.

(I once owned a stylish portable Struble line winder, no longer produced last time I looked, but it disappeared out of a side pocket of a roller bag on my way to Costa Rica.)

Blind mortise, from Jan Adkins’s Toolchest.

The question is, of course, why spend time fashioning a tool of any kind, much less a replacement for one that has worked, reasonably well, for decades?

I wish I had a good answer.

In my defense, there’s an aspect to fly fishing, along with other outdoor sports, that appeals to those of us who like to fashion and use handcrafted goods. Building rods, building boats, tying flies—these all add scope to the sport by offering the opportunity, so rare in our lives, to craft useful, beautiful, and unique objects that enhance the experiences that go with them.

The new one

DIY rather than guided fishing trips can be like that, too.

I confess I’ve been influenced lately by books piled up on a coffee table in front of the woodstove:  James Krenov on cabinet making, Sōetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman, Christopher Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, even the slender and insightful volume, Toolchest, by the always delightful writer and illustrator Jan Adkins.  The idea is that many of us long for things in our lives that aren’t mass-produced, that are somehow different from, say, another set of new tires from Les Schwab.

Also, on my way home from Baja this winter I stopped to visit my good friend, Baja vet and fellow woodworking aficionado Gary Bulla, who has rebuilt the home he lost to wildfires in the foothills between Ojai and Santa Paula.

Fly fishing, like so many other skills, begins with balance.

Bulla has always done things with wood that, boatbuilding aside, are beyond me. (I gained some insight into his work on reading Krenov, with whom Gary studied decades ago.)  In his new shop he was fashioning a kitchen countertop out of heavy slabs milled with a chainsaw from an old dying olive tree from the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy’s steelhead preserve.  That sort of thing.

So why not try my hand at a simple blind mortise cut into a chunk of black locust, a steady base for a line winding jig that just might brighten my mood as I go through the necessary steps to fine-tune the arsenal for whatever adventures lie ahead?

I often worry, of course, about being the guy Russell Chatham described in an essay somewhere, a fellow who was going about a chore as if he thinks he’s going to live to be three hundred years old.

Then again, as soon as anybody says anything about time-saving tools or methods, I always wonder:  Saving time for what?

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil claims he keeps his hands busy so that, no matter what, he doesn’t end up in front of a television.