1942 - 2009

I’m sitting now, on one of the first mornings of the New Year, in a messy, stinky pile of marabou feathers and raccoon skins that nearly canvas the frigid wood floor of my tying room. It’s only ten a.m., and I’ve sneezed at least a couple dozen times by now, and my fleecy home office uniform is flecked with bits of moth-chewed feathers and finely shredded Mylar, and I’m wondering if my house can really afford to smell any more like naphthalene and stale nicotine than it did before I inherited this feather and fur explosion.

I met Jack Gartside, unbeknownst to him, when I was fifteen on a sleety Saturday afternoon in Hamden, Connecticut. He was making some white and pink Soft Hackle Streamers at a mid-winter fly-tying event held by the Housatonic Fly Fisherman’s Association, and I was completely mesmerized by the simple yet elegant design of his funky streamer and the grace with which he constructed it. I had him sign his page in Judith Dunham’s The Art of the Trout Fly, and I nestled between the pages one of his dyed-pink mallard breast feathers that carpeted the floor around his feet. I remember thinking to myself that this dude was, uh…different.

Gartside

Fast-forward eight or so years to the summer of 1997, and I’m tits-high in mud-stained brine trying to keep my boots dry while wading the mussel bar off Wollaston Beach in Quincy, Massachusetts. I’d recently moved to Boston and had ditched work to head out for a mid-afternoon Harbor session with Tom Keer, and we saw Jack and the T-riding flyfisher, Timmy Allen, as soon as we arrived. They were both tight to stripers and towing small, cheap inflatables behind them as they worked the last drip of the dropping tide. We visited briefly when the tide died, and then we all fished as the clear ocean water rushed through nearby Hull Gut and quickly began to cover the bars. I carefully watched Jack as his lanky frame sliced through the current and saw him work his puffy streamer like a true predator, just beneath the surface with a single split-shot guiding its jiggling motion. We all caught fish, but like always, Jack caught more.

Jack Gartside was like no one else, and I learned a lot from him—about fishing and about the world and about life, too. He taught me that Ougadougou was the capital of Burkina Faso and that there really was a ’50s rock band called Dicky Doo & the Dont’s. That Roy Orbison lived an extraordinarily sad and tragic life. That time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana. That Minneapolis is quite possibly the coldest spot in the galaxy. That wade fishing in Africa is a horrible idea no matter how tame the wildlife might appear. He showed me how most fishers pull their flies out of the water way too soon and much too quickly. That you don’t really need much more than some hooks, thread, and a pheasant skin to fool all that swims—fresh or salt. He showed me that people will actually buy a bag of pre-smoked cigarette butts for five dollars if you can convince them that they’re absolutely necessary for the dubbed body of a deadly trout fly. That “any minute now!” is a great thing to think and say, even if you don’t actually believe that the fish are going to show up any time in the foreseeable future.

Jack’s been gone nearly a month now, and I miss him every day. I imagine I’ll miss him even more when spring gets here, and we’d normally be bundling up for some May stripers in the Pines River or maybe calling Milano’s for some quick Italian sub action before loading his belly boat and dilapidated six-weight outfit into my Jeep for a trip to some weird pond neither of us had ever been to before. I figure I’ll miss him most on Wednesdays around noon, when most folks are too busy toiling and haggling with regular life to go fishing, when Jack was always ready to drop everything and go. “Today’s the day!” he’d say, followed quickly by “Beyond awesome!”