Sitting on my fly-tying desk, on a shelf above the straggle chenille and holographic tinsel, is an 80-year-old Richard Wheatley fly tin. The edges of its aluminum lid, with that distinctive satin finish, are rubbed bright from the friction of bouncing about in a fly-vest pocket. It bears the inscription:
4, Short St.
Flyfishing is a lifelong journey punctuated and enhanced by the people we meet along the way. In my formative years, the most influential of these was Rodney Noel Jarvis. Many memories are attached to that tin, which bears all the nicks and dings of a thousand bankside miles. Not my miles, but those of the singular character who taught my dad how to cast. Dad, always happier with a rifle or shotgun in hand, was visiting Gallyon Gunmakers, about an hour north of London, and had seen an advertisement for flycasting lessons. Fancying the thought of learning to cast properly, he contacted the advertiser and a friendship was born; one that would prove as influential for me as it was for him.
I would have been about 10 years old when we first met. The pipe-smoking Rodney would have been in his mid-60s and living with his wife, Gwen, in a modest, semi-detached home overlooking the River Cam, in Abbey Road, Cambridge. Balding and with one false eye, I was immediately drawn to the exuberant warmth with which he would greet a phone call or visit from my dad. “Ahhhhh, Tooonnnnyyyy…” he would roll out, as if reconnecting with a long-lost friend.
Rodney had been a pilot in the Royal Air Force around the time of World War II and he had lost an eye in a plane crash. Seizing on this information, my young mind simply assumed:
RAF > World War II > Spitfires > Battle of Britain > hero. He must have fought in the war! But he hadn’t. The crash had been a pre-war training accident, and with only one functioning eye, Rodney was put to work teaching the young pilots who would get to stare down the Luftwaffe in dog fights across Europe’s skies. Rodney clearly did his part, but his non-active role was laughed off in characteristic fashion.
“I enrolled in every course there was to keep me away from all that stuff,” he’d say with a chuckle. “Best trained bloody pilot in the RAF.”
In skilled hands, the fly cast is an aesthetically beautiful process. Rodney’s effortless casting stroke was a joy to watch, unfurling the line with a relaxed artistry that landed the fly gently while a curl of tobacco smoke wafted up from his ever-present pipe.
A gregarious personality with a ready, sardonic wit and a face quick to smile, you weren’t long into a chat with Rodney before a tale was being told. Like the story of an old wire-haired fox terrier he once owned whose name was something feisty, like Duke. The name was a fitting one because, as Rodney told us, the dog was “a handful.”
He was taking Duke for a city walk one day in 1940s England— at a time when wearing a full fox fur across your shoulders was a symbol of style and prestige—when they chanced upon a female fashionista taking in the afternoon air. Rodney hadn’t even noticed the woman, as she was a good 100 yards away on the opposite side of the street. But Duke had. His ears pricked, eyes narrowed, and with generations of breeding bubbling up, Duke broke free of Rodney’s grasp and zeroed in on his prey. In a paw-spinning blur the terrier sped across the road, vaulted onto the woman’s back, snatched the fur from her shoulders, and began dispatching it with murderous headshakes. “By the time I got it away from him,” Rodney said, laughing, “the bloody thing was ripped to shreds.”
He taught my dad to flyfish over a series of evening trips to Suffolk’s River Lark. Dad occasionally had some success, but in the post-fishing debrief, when being quizzed by an enthusiastic 10-year-old, my father often reflected that “Rodney got a couple.”
Rodney’s flies were simple but effective. A favorite pattern had a pheasant-tail body, three strands of pheasant tail for the tail, and silver wire wound first as a butt, and then continued as a rib along the body before the being finished off with a couple turns of light-brown hen hackle.
Rodney encouraged my love of fishing. He had access to a local farmer’s lake that had
been stocked with trout, and he invited me over regularly—with or without my dad. The lake was run as a syndicate, and I often wondered how the fee-paying members felt about a young lad turning up and taking their trout. It didn’t seem to bother Rodney much, but not a lot did, really.
At times, when he had errands to run, Rodney would even drive me to the lake and leave me there to my own devices. He owned an old, cream-colored Volvo 145 station wagon, and his idiosyncratic driving style could be generously described as “carefree.” So much so, that you figured if his approach to flying had been equally casual, then it perhaps wasn’t surprising it ended how it did.
Early on in one of these trips, he’d taken a turn at an intersection and left his blinker on. Being young, I was at first apprehensive about sharing this information. But a mile or so down the road, after a couple of lengthy stares from passing motorists, I summoned the courage.
“Um, Mr. Jarvis, your turn signal is still on.”
He looked at the dashboard with suspicion. “Bloody backseat drivers,” he muttered with a smirk, before flicking the signal arm back up. Two hundred yards down the road he made a right turn, and five miles later, as we pulled into the farmer’s yard, the blinker was still going strong.
In those early days I fished almost exclusively with a floating line, shop-bought leader, and a Montana nymph. It was an unsophisticated set-up that served me surprisingly well, except for one particular day when I’d been left alone at the lake. The sun was up and the fish were down. The only place where any trout could be seen at all was in a deeper pocket right in front of the fishing hut. These large, lazy fish were always there, and with good reason. Family and friends of the landowner would regularly come down in the evening to feed them, and they had grown fat and complacent, akin to pets that cruised around like schooling tuna, overweight and arrogant.
I flailed away at them without success, and their obvious disdain for my offerings began to annoy me on a deep level. As I took a break for my lunchtime sandwich, a plot began to form. I threw some small crusts into the water, and in a couple of enthusiastic swirls they were gone. Molding some bread paste around my fly, the trusty Montana nymph was instantly repurposed. Ten minutes later, three fat rainbows lay on the bankside grass.
Not long afterward, Rodney and the farmer arrived and assessed the scene with interest, asking what I’d gotten them on. “Montana nymph,” I replied, as I quickly brushed a speck of bread paste from the cheek of one of the trout.
Rodney also enjoyed a bit of shooting, so Dad invited him along on a couple of our local hunts. These were the rough-and-ready version of the driven shoots that many associate with pheasant hunting in England. Two teams of a dozen or so in each were chosen at the start of the day, and then alternated on each drive between being the “walking guns” and the “standing guns.” The idea being that the walking guns and their dogs would flush pheasants out of a block of game-cover toward the waiting horseshoe of standing guns.
As jovial and friendly as he was, it quickly became clear that gun safety was not a great concern for Rodney. He left the concern to those standing closest to him. As he waited in line, with his shotgun balanced horizontally across his arm, he would swing absentmindedly about whilst observing the action, leaving those on either side of him intermittently facing the wrong end of a 12-gauge. Worse, if a low-flying bird happened to break through the line, Rodney’s barrels would trace its path with complete disregard for his neighbors’ safety. A torrent of profanity-laced instruction followed each incident, all of which Rodney seemed to cheerfully ignore. Thus, it was soon decided that we should keep our association to trout fishing.
Three decades on and many of my memories of Rodney are cinematic-style snapshots and snippets of conversation. One discussion in particular left a lasting impression, as it concerned matters of a carnal nature that I was clearly never meant to overhear. I recall, as if it were yesterday, Rodney leaning in toward my dad and saying in a whispering tone, “The mind’s still willing even if the body isn’t.” This came at a time in my life when, as one of three brothers, I was still grappling with the concept that my parents had had sex at least three times. So the thought that people in their golden years were even contemplating intercourse, let alone following through on the impulse, nearly sent me over the edge.
Other Rodney recollections include: his light-hearted lambasting of a Polish neighbor who occasionally left his bike propped against Rodney’s garage: “You’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for the British!”; his grumbling protestations at the prospect of his beloved fly-tying den being turned into a spare room for visiting family; and a thank-you card he once sent to me that included the Rodney-esque sign off: “Apologies for the rather tatty card. I get them cheap from Oxfam.”
Although I only knew him in his autumn years, Rodney gave the impression that, as a young man, he was probably quite a handful himself. But in the way men do—or rather, don’t—we spoke little of that younger life or of family or other such trivialities. Our relationship wasn’t to be complicated with that stuff; it was about fishing, pure and simple.
Consequently, I knew virtually nothing significant about Rodney. He was married to Gwen, a diminutive Welsh lady of saintly disposition—you rather felt she needed to be—who plied us with endless tea and biscuits whenever we visited. I have a foggy recollection of a son, who may have been a photographer in Paris but I can’t be certain. What is certain is the kindness and generosity he showed to a youngster who was just starting out in fishing—gifting me a Farlow reel, dozens of flies, a host of valuable tips and guidance, and the entertainment provided by hours spent in his company.
As time went on, university, travelling, girlfriends, and life in general meant the fishing trips with Rodney became fewer and farther between. But a few years later, as I began a career in journalism with a junior reporter’s role at a newspaper near his home, I dropped by to surprise him and see if he wanted to go fishing. Gwen answered the door and, while happy to see me, was clearly troubled by something. Rodney had had a stroke.
“I’m sorry James,” she said, “but Rodney’s not well enough to go fishing.” Just then Rodney, having heard my voice, shuffled into view over her shoulder.
“Ahhh, Jaaames,” he said with his familiar chuckle. But the chuckle was weaker. His skin carried that white translucence of the ill and elderly, but his eyes—well, eye—still danced mischievously. We exchanged a few pleasantries but it was clear Gwen didn’t want him over-exerting himself, so I soon said goodbye. I will never forget the warmth of his smile as I did. It was the last time I saw him.
The only remaining images I have of Rodney are a series of four grainy snapshots, taken by my dad on a point-and-shoot of questionable quality, which show me netting a fish for him at the farmer’s lake. The pictures may be hazy but it’s all there: the relaxed posture, the Barbour jacket, flat cap, black boots, and ever-present pipe. I can almost hear him laughing. The photos remain treasured possessions, as does that old Wheatley tin above my tying desk.
It is said that people die twice—once when taking their last breath, and again when their name is spoken for the final time. Rodney Noel Jarvis will live on for a good while longer.