Fishing Royalty

The noontime sky had cleared Friday after heavy overnight rains, and the sun was bright in an endless, blue sky, white clouds wafting east like lumpy cotton swabs. I was out by the mailbox picking up a gray Rubbermaid barrel and four recycling bins, tidying up for an important overnight guest due anytime. Never know what’ll greet you by the side of the road, maybe even news to fill this space.

As I stacked the four plastic bins one inside the other, a mini-van, I think white but can’t recall, approached slowly from the west, obviously wanting to talk. I figured the driver was lost. I was mistaken. He knew exactly where he was and broke the ice by asking what I knew about my neighbor’s motorcycle he’d seen parked along Brook Road for several weeks. Was it for sale? I told the man, older than me, accompanied by his wife, that I had no clue about the motorcycle, had never even seen my neighbor ride it. But it soon became clear it was not the bike he was interested in. No, the man was a picker, buyer of antiques and collectibles, curious what I had lying around my home and barn. He asked how long I’d owned the place and what had been left behind by the previous owners, well known collectors. That’s when the fun began.

I must admit I love rattling pickers’ cages, flash ing a wry grin, telling them I they’re barking up the wrong tree, that I was indeed born in the dark but it wasn’t yesterday. An old pro will have a reply for anything you can throw at them, though. Their steadfast goal is to at least get in the barn. Then, once there, all eyes, they try to find their way inside your home. Something like, hey, is it true there’s a ballroom with a spring-loaded floor upstairs? I’ve heard it often — hint-hint — and it’s a hoot to hold them at bay, give them the business, all friendly banter. I’ve been through it many times, be it walking the flea-market at 5 a.m., perusing a roadside antiques shop or an on-site country auction. The chit-chat is at least half the fun, meeting lots of interesting characters along the way, all with their own rehearsed, idiosyncratic spiels and yarns and pitches. This guy was one of them, right up my alley. Before long, he reaches into his wallet and hands me a business card identifying him self as a buyer of antiques and collectibles. When I notice he’s from Gill, I tell him jokingly that there’s not a “Gillbilly” alive I’d let into my place. When he asks why, I tell him I’ve learned over the years not to trust Gillbillies, they’re shaky, dishonest, can’t be trusted. He laughs, says he’s no Gillbilly. He lives in Riverside. Then he informs me that he’s made a lot of money off of shaky, dishonest fellas over the years. I reiterate that he’s barking up the wrong tree, an image any Gillbilly can understand.

Anyway, at about this point of our mischievous discussion, a silver SUV with Pennsylvania plates pulls up from the east and stops in front of my mailbox, facing us. Still talking to the wheeler-dealer and unable to see through the tinted SUV windows, I tell him to hold on for a second, I have to see who it is. So I walk over to the vehicle, the power window drops and it’s John Randolph from up the hill in East Colrain. We get talking and he hands me a program from the Oct. 9 Fly Fishing Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, N.Y. Randolph was as one of four 2010 inductees, quite an honor for a country boy from Colrain, son of a namesake New York Times outdoor writer.

Young John was an Arms Academy boy, then off to Mount Hermon School and Williams College; quite a ballplayer in his day, fierce and competitive, now a world-class fly fisherman, and author. I met Randolph through my late friend Tommy Valiton, Randolph’s high school teammate and friend who suggested I meet him and get permission to hunt his posted property. We have been friends and sometimes neighbors ever since. His second home, the one he grew up in, rests three miles up the road on a scenic slice of Franklin County paradise; deer, bears, moose, turkeys, you name it, they’re there. Who knows, maybe even a disoriented big cat passing through now and again.

As I speak to Randolph and wife Mary — his high school sweetheart from Shelburne Falls, daughter of Dr. Galbo, who practiced nearly 60 years on Main Street, Shelburne Falls — my picker friend grows indignant. He pulls up slowly and gruffly scolds Randolph for cutting into a potentially productive conversation. I reiterate that he has nothing to worry about: he wasn’t getting anything out of me, anyway. He shoots back that he’s heard that before, and then Randolph cuts in with a line or two of his own playful banter, creating a triangular verbal harpoon fight. No foreigner to history and antiques, Randolph knows the lingo, can talk the talk, even sent son John to auctioneer school, one of the best, in New York.

The picker seems humored as he pulls away, promising to someday return. I’ll welcome round two if he catches me in the right mood, which is most anytime. As he pulls around the corner and out of sight, I ask Randolph how long he’ll be in the neighborhood. He tells me through the weekend. I promise to stop by and talk when I get a chance.

The next morning I travel to his upland Federal home and catch him leaving for errands with Mary. He’s standing outside of his SUV talking to an old Arms Academy chum in a white pickup, a hunter who tells me about Savage Arms’ muzzleloaders, the best money can buy, in his opinion, better than the more popular ones most hunters are using these days. Randolph informs me that I arrived at a bad time. Come back Sunday morning. No problem. The brilliant sugarbush and flaming landscape between his home and Mt. Monadnock was well worth the trip.

I catch the Randolphs at the Sunday breakfast table, looking north through a large, multi-paned window across their pasture and old orchard to a ridge I have hunted many times. He leaves the room to dig out a photo album of snapshots from the 1940s, wants to show me what the forested ridge looked like when he was a kid, open fields and narrow tree lines following stonewalls. Among the photos is a shot of his grandfather, bowtie and suspenders, surrounded by sheep. We talk about how much the landscape has changed and move on to his glory days at Arms, war stories about making the All-Western Mass. Football Team, winning the Intercounty League title, punishing Deerfield High School on Veterans day, when Bunker Mazanec scored five touchdowns.

Randolph went on to play football and baseball as a Mount Hermon post-grad, then graduated from Williams (1959-62), where he also played football. He began his journalism career in 1967 as a reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer, then moved on to a brief stint at the Bennington Banner (1968-69) before founding the Vermont Sportsmen. That monthly hunting and fishing tabloid grew in circulation to more than 12,000 before he sold it in the early 1980s and took a job as Fly Fisherman magazine editor/publisher in 1982. Now 71 and retired, he’s living in Pennsylvania and spends his time fishing and freelance writing. When not globetrotting to the finest trout streams in the world, he often returns to his native turf to shoot the breeze with the cast of characters he grew up with, waking daily to a stunning view of faraway Monadnock on the eastern horizon.

Because we share overlapping eclectic  interests, our breakfast conversation jumped willy-nilly from squaretails and salmon to Shays’ Rebellion to Bradstreet to Kendall Mills to Pennell Hill and Pennell’s Tavern, then to the late Joe Jurek, a Colrain hunter who shot many trophy bucks on Randolph’s land. Randolph says no one ever gets the big one’s now that Jurek’s gone. He once took me on a walk to a swamp below his home, told me Jurek hunted it often because the big bucks were born there and returned when the shooting started. I made a mental note.

And to think Randolph’s love of fishing for trout, especially squaretails, all began on tiny Workman Brook, a mountain stream that traverses his
property and empties into the Green River a mile or two below, near the intersection of Green River and Nelson roads. Randolph learned to fish on that stream as a boy before honing his skills on the Green River, where he watched his first fly casters. It’s all chronicled in his 2002 book, “Becoming a Fly Fisher,” now the tale of a Franklin County legend, one whose name is included among American angling aristocrats, such men as Lefty Kreh, Ray Bergman, Zane Grey, “Catskill Bill Kelly,” “Sparse Gray Hackle” Miller, Ernest Schwiebert, Dave Whitlock and Lee Wulff.

John Randolph: Franklin County original, Hall-of-Famer.

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