Fly fishing is a sport that has more than
its fair share of colorful characters. I'm
not sure why. It boils down to the old nature
v. nurture debate; does fly-fishing attract
colorful characters? Or do characters become
colorful after fly-fishing? It's probably a
little of both.
Though I don't know how fly fishers gain their
color, I do think that there are some characteristics
that colorful characters have in common. Your
colorful character is likely a good fisherman.
That might be inadvertent; you need to put a
lot of time in on the water to become a colorful
character and a by-product of this is probably
improved stream craft. But that's not to say that
all good fishermen are colorful characters, and
often it's quite the opposite. There are those
fishermen who are driven by God-knows-what-demons
to always catch the most and biggest fish. These
types tend to be, by sheer will, good fishermen,
but also single-minded and no fun to fish with.
Another characteristic of a colorful fly fisher
is a bit of eccentricity. This unconventional
behavior can take many forms, a weird hat, a
handle bar mustache, a strange fishing ritual.
Where I fish, I occasionally encounter an angler
who wears what looks like knickers and knee socks,
and his overall appearance is that of a gilley on
the Test during the Victorian era. I've never
asked why he dresses like this, but it is a tad
Your colorful fly fisher is also a raconteur. The
logic here is inescapable; a colorful character has
to be able to recount his exploits in an entertaining
way for those exploits to appear, well, colorful.
The most colorful fly-fishing character I know is
Mike Tolvanen, and I'm not alone in my choice. When
I first began fly-fishing for striped bass around
Ipswich, Massachusetts, I had the good fortune to
meet Mike while on one of my initial outings. I
ended up spending the better part of the day with
him as he showed me good locations to fish, best
flies to use, and the myriad of other things
necessary for successful striper fishing. This
willingness to share information, including hot
fishing spots is typical of Mike. He'll call you
out of the blue to tell you where he's been hammering
fish, and, if you follow his advice, you'll likely
have an exceptional outing. When asked to describe
him, virtually all of his friends will say, "he's
the best fisherman I know,"and we've all had the
frustrating experience of standing right next to
Mike while he's catching fish and we're getting
It's not hard to spot Mike when streamside. He's
the one throwing the long, elegant, tight-looped
cast. He's also the only fisherman wearing bright
red Chuck Taylor High Top All Stars for wading
boots. If you thumb through a Redington Tackle
Company catalog you might be surprised to see a
picture of Mike's Chuck Taylors. Representatives
of Redington were up north on a photo shoot, and
felt Mike's bright red sneakers worthy of inclusion
in their publication, even though they sell their
own, more subdued, brand of wading shoe.
Everyone who fly fishes on the north shore of
Massachusetts knows Mike, and all have a favorite
story. We were fishing Crane's Beach on a productive
September Sunday, when one of our group had to leave.
"Where are you going?" Mike questioned.
"Church," was the reply.
"Church??!!" Mike asked, incredulously. He spread
his arms, taking in the beach, the ocean, the feeding
fish. "This is church!"
Mike once told me that he had only had one fight
with his wife over fishing-seems she couldn't
understand why he had to go fishing on his
"The moon was new and the tide was right," he
confided to me.
Another time, in the midst of a long winter off-season,
he confessed, "I'm ready to start sticking fish hooks
in my veins!"
My favorite, though, is a story Mike tells of hooking
what he thought was a giant striper. "This fish put
up a helluva fight," he elaborates. "It took me forever
to bring him in." When he got the bass to the surface
he was amazed to see it wasn't 48 inches; not even half
of that. Weirder, it was coming to him tail first. "I
never saw a fish swim backward before. When I landed him
I found I had hooked him right in the anal vent! No wonder
he put up such a fight-I would have, too! Gives whole new
meaning to 'foul hooked.'"
Like all colorful characters, Mike has his quirks, too.
For instance, he always says, when a striper takes his
fly, "This feels like a pretty good fish!" whether the
bass is 6 or 36 inches long. He believes that, when
the bass aren't biting and you're not having fun, it
will be more fun not having fun fishing a popper than
a subsurface fly. And poor fishing is blamed on the
hole in the ozone layer.
We assumed Mike was a local phenom, until one of our
group, Jim, was fishing the storied rivers in the
Adirondacks. He stopped in a local fly shop to
inquire about river access and to pick up some flies.
"Where are you from?" the owner inquired.
"Ipswich, Massachusetts," Jim responded.
"Ipswich???" the owner asked. "Do you know Mike Tolvanen?"
"Everyone knows Mike Tolvanen!" Jim replied. ~ 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.