When Dennis Evans isn’t out fly-fishing, he’s usually hunkered down in his small Toppenish shop replacing guides, cork handles or reel seats on fly rods.
“I can do anything that needs to be fixed on a rod,” the 85-year-old quipped.
Evans is a rare breed. Hardly anyone repairs fishing rods anymore, and he’s probably the only one left in the Yakima Valley who offers such services.
About 20 miles to the north in Yakima is his friend, Rollin Caryl, who is probably the only one left in the area who repairs fishing reels. He’s been doing it for 15 years now.
“Both the rod and reel repair are just dying arts,” Caryl said. “They’re going away with our throwaway society and I think it’s sad.”
Steve Joyce, store manager at Red’s Fly Shop near Ellensburg, agrees that rod repair and custom rod building are becoming a thing of the past.
“Consumers, I think, are comfortable ordering name-brand stuff and the custom stuff, you’re fairly limited on the number of rods you can build a year,” he said.
Despite the trend, Evans is still meeting a demand here and people like him, Joyce said.
“He has a great reputation,” Joyce said.
Evans has been repairing fishing rods and building custom ones for the past 40 years.
“I started doing it for myself, then I retired,” said Evans, a former Toppenish School District teacher. “I learned a lot by trial and error.”
His shop is no more than two wooden sheds attached together behind his Toppenish home.
One recent afternoon, a rack of repaired poles sat near the door of one shed. Inside were boxes of reels, a work bench, rooster feathers for fly tying and tools. Photos of his trophy catches throughout the years dotted the walls.
“Nine-and-a-half pounds,” he said, pointing to one photo. “That was on Lake Lenore by Ephrata.”
He held up a group of rooster feathers he uses to tie flies, saying the bundle cost about $75. He held up another bundle he said cost anywhere from $25 to $30.
“So you’ve got over $100 of feathers on a good rooster,” he said.
Evans ran his fingers through the bundle of feathers, explaining the finer ones with narrow fans are the best for fly tying.
He loves fly-fishing.
He said he’s caught more than 6,000 steelhead alone over the past 36 years.
Evans said fly-fishing is better on the fish because the hook only lodges in the corner of its mouth for easy removal and release.
Though he releases most, he does keep a few to eat.
“It’s a good sport and I catch more fish under more conditions that I ever have with bait,” he said.
And he doesn’t hold any secrets about his methods. Fishermen rarely share which casting patterns or type of flies they’re using.
“Some will say, ‘Nope, it’s a secret,’” Evans said. “I don’t go for that. We’re putting them back anyway.”
Evans also holds free casting clinics for area fly-fishing clubs and kids.
Beginners should get lessons, he said.
“It’s so frustrating to try to cast a fly line — it’s not fun,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t show you how to do it, you won’t like it.”
But a little instruction makes a big difference, he said.
“I can show somebody how to get started casting in 15 minutes,” he said.
On this recent afternoon, he showed a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter how to cast a fly in his backyard.
“Hold the line with your left hand, keep it down and don’t bend your right wrist — you just want to push and bring it back,” Evans said.
At the corner of his shed sat 10 custom-made fly rods he plans to give to children in a raffle at the next annual Central Washington Sportsman Show at the SunDome in February.
“I like to help people,” he said.
His first catch
Evans clearly recalls his first fishing trip. He went with his Cub Scout troop to a pond near the Buena Bridge north of Toppenish, where he used a willow branch with fishing line tied to the end.
“We caught little bluegill,” he said. “From that time on, I was hooked.”
He began visiting fishing holes throughout the area and found a drain ditch near Washington Beef west of Toppenish full of trout and steelhead.
But they were larger fish than the bluegill that he could simply hook and lob out of the water.
“I had three hooks, three casts and three fish broke my line,” he recalled with a laugh. “I couldn’t just pull them straight out. A guy told me I had to play with them a little bit.”
Little did he know at the time where his interest in fishing would lead.
He’s been featured in the national Flyfishing & Tying Journal, hosted casting clinics at various outdoors shows across the Valley and is well respected in the fly-fishing community across the Northwest.
“He’s made quite a name for himself over the years for fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead,” Caryl said. “He’s been a landmark in the fishing business in the Northwest for quite a few years.”
Atop one bench is a long wooden device that looks like a lathe, with two sets of rubber wheels at each end — they spin.
“Those wheels are off of airplane models,” he said.
He places fly rods undergoing repair onto the contraption, where they will spin dry the adhesive he uses to install new guides or mend a break.
On a wall hang two dryers that look similar to hair dryers with a rubber attachment that funnels the heat into a fine stream.
He mounts the dryers in a way that allows them to blow hot air on the rods as they turn in the lathe-like device.
“It has to turn for four hours, then it’s ready to go,” he said of a repaired rod.
In his other shed are small steel rods of various sizes with rough sandpaper attached. They’re similar to a round file. He uses them to hollow out the center of cork grips that he custom fits to rods.
He makes his own tools.
Evans rifled through a drawer and pulled out a cork blank to explain how he bores out its center for a grip. His cellphone tucked into a handmade leather pouch around his neck dangled as he leaned over and spoke.
Nearby sat blank graphite rods ready to be converted into fly rods. He said the finish on the blanks needed to be sanded off clean so that the adhesive that holds the guides will adhere properly.
He charges about $2 per guide and anywhere from $5 to $7 to repair a broken rod.
He rebuilds bamboo rods, too.
“They’re easier to rebuild than graphite ones because the finish comes off easier,” he said.
People often want custom fly rods as gifts, with a graduation date or work anniversary inscribed on them, he said.
“That’s the nice thing about custom rods — some people want a certain size rod or certain size guides on them,” he said. “I build them the way they want.”
Leaning against his garage is a small wooden boat with a flat bottom slightly bowed at the bow and stern. He designed it.
“I wanted a one-man boat,” he said. “I designed it to make it lighter so that it rows easier.”
He guesses he’s sold about 10 of them.
Flyfishing & Tying Journal featured him with his boat in a two-page article in its Summer 2012 issue.
For Evans, it’s all just a hobby.
“I don’t get a lot of money, just enough to fish and pay for my gas,” he said.