Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

February 23rd, 2004

By Dave Micus

Off-season is a trying time for your average Nor'eastern striped bass bum. With no fish to catch and too much time on our hands, we find ourselves doing things to fill the void that we would never consider doing during fishing season. Tying flies and tinkering with tackle gets us through November, but then we hit the wall. The more fortunate of us hunt, which can consume a good part of the long winter until the first bass shows up on the shores of Cape Ann in mid-May. The rest of us are idle, and an idle sportsman is a dangerous thing.

Finding myself in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record in Massachusetts (it was -45 with the wind chill last recently), and with my fly tying table banished to the unheated basement because of the mess I make, I decided to resume my hobby of collecting antique fly tackle. Resume is the wrong word, maybe resuscitate says it better. I had always intended to decorate my walls with old bamboo rods and line my shelves with antique reels, but in (not very diligently) searching antique stores for the past seven years, I managed to find only one Meisselback Featherweight reel and an old twelve-foot-solid-wood rod with a rattan handle, collapsible guides and a nickel-silver reel seat, manufacturer unknown-a nice piece but from what I read not really worth anything.

Collecting antique tackle is the 5th level toward fly-fishing Enlightenment. The first level is purchasing the equipment you'll use; second is fly tying; third is limiting yourself to reading only fly-fishing books; fourth is only buying clothing garnished with fish or flies. There are higher levels, but they are not revealed until you master the level you're on (but I'm sure rod building is in there somewhere). I've been stuck on level five, but then I discovered eBay.

eBay is a fairly recent phenomenon, and has a virtual monopoly on the on-line bidding market. It's not that the idea is proprietary, or the execution too complex for others to copy; no other entrepreneurs jumped on board because the whole concept of eBay relies on a trustworthy seller and a trustworthy buyer, something anathema to American enterprise. By the time it was proven that you could have a deal with two honorable parties, it was too late-eBay had already captured the market.

I searched "antique fly fishing" on the site, and lo, three full pages of old fishing gear appeared. I could virtually, pardon the pun, complete my collection in one visa-card-maximum-limit-busting bidding orgy. It was too easy. From sources deep within, I summoned the strength not to mortgage my house, but, like drinking, or drugs, or fishing, for that matter, bidding on eBay is strangely addictive.

It was apparent I had to limit my interests, and I decided to focus on old fly reels, but even then I would have to be more specific. Old wooden fly reels seemed a logical choice; they're rare, but still not very expensive, and would make a unique collectible. I still had ten plus to choose from.

As an eBaby novice I had a lot to learn about the intricacies of bidding. Some were transparent, such as don't start raising the bid on an item that still has a long time on the auction block. Others were not so clear. For instance, it's wise to make an educated guess as to the future availability of an item. Often an item will appear for the first time, bring in an excellent price, and spark others who recall "hey, I have one of those in my attic" to dig it out and put it up for bid, flooding the market and lowering the value. I was involved in bidding on a piece of antique flying tying equipment but quit when the bid got over $80, which was just a little too rich for me. Within a week the exact same item appeared and I got it for under $10. Conversely, I recently bought an old wooden reel for about $90, and shortly thereafter a lot of 8 wooden reels sold for $78. Though they weren't in the same condition as the reel I purchased, it was still a much better deal. Later I bought a wooden reel for $18. Immediate gratification costs extra on eBay.

Bidding wars pose a bit of a psychological problem. It's similar to buying a house; once you get to a certain price, 5, 10, or even 20% more doesn't seem like much, and you get caught up in the spirit of competition. When the bidding is done you look at the total and think, 'there must be some mistake!' I've heard it said that hunters feel a strange mixture of elation and remorse over what they shoot; winning a bidding war on eBay evokes the exact same emotion.

But losing an item can be even worse. I was once bidding on a nice reel, and decided to wait until the last 15 seconds to assure I'd win. I posted my bid with about three seconds left, was the high bidder for a fraction of a second, but lost the item. It just didn't seem possible. It was then that I learned about snipers. A sniper is a computer program that you can purchase to assist with bidding. You enter the item number, the time the bidding ends, and the maximum amount you're willing to pay. The program monitors the bidding, and at the last second will enter your bid if it is higher than the current price. This happened to me twice, outwitted both times by the same sniping buyer. On my third try another sniper entered the fray, and my high bid of $64 jumped to $117 in the last three seconds of bidding because of the snipers competing. My nemesis won the bid, but he must have expended his wooden fly reel budget for the year because I haven't seen him on eBay since.

As in any business deal, it pays to read the fine print. I was high bidder on a nice wooden reel from a seller in England (where most of the wooden reels come from) before I realized he wanted his payment in English pounds and he would not ship outside of the U.K. I could have reneged at that point, but I wanted the reel. Through a series of coincidences, I was able to get a check (cheque) from a work acquaintance with an English bank account, and then negotiated with an office mate to have the reel shipped to his mother's house (flat) in London. The whole thing was extremely time consuming, and no illicit drug deal or money-laundering scheme could have been more complex.

To date, I've purchased seven old wooden fly reels, two of which have yet to arrive from England (I'm counting on that 'honest seller' thing!). Regressing to level three, I bought a book by Stephen Bodio for a penny (I was embarrassed to pay a penny and offered the seller $2.50, but he refused), and the hard cover version of Peter Mathissen' s Men's Lives for $25. I bought a wood and brass 'priest' (an impulse purchase that flies in the face of my catch and release ethics), and a batch of wooden bobbins for next to nothing. I'm keeping track of some signed books by Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison, a few more wooden reels, and a lobster carved out of pre-ban elephant bone (which is straying from the path toward Enlightenment but, still a neat collectible).

And I'm considering collecting antique netsukes, tiny, intricate ivory carvings that were used in Japan as clasps on small bags. There are dozens of them on eBay, and quite a few of them have fish or fishermen themes, a combination of art, culture and fishing that will add some sophistication to my fly fishing compulsion and might just be level 6, though that's yet to be revealed.

I've also upped the limit on the visa card. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

Previous Dave Micus Columns

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