I recently said goodbye to my oldest piece of fishing tackle: a split-willow wicker creel I bought at Abercrombie and Fitch in San Francisco when the company still specialized in sporting goods. I was partial to Abercrombie because I grew up outside Manhattan and, as a boy, loved to browse at the flagship store on Madison Avenue. The eighth of its 12 floors was devoted to angling, but the sixth-floor gun room drew the most visitors with its display of stuffed big-game heads, including a rhino that Teddy Roosevelt shot.
The store lived up to its motto, “Where the Blazed Trail Crosses the Boulevard.” No aspect of the sporting life was left unaddressed. You could outfit yourself for a Kenyan safari, buy wickets for your croquet set or replace the blade of your Buck knife. Even then, I knew I’d probably never be able to afford the high-end gear. As I watched financiers and celebrities shop for Hardy reels and split-cane rods, I glanced at the price tags and winced.
Abercrombie stocked about 48,000 flies and 18,000 lures. I was still a spin fisherman, so I ignored the trays of Hare’s Ears and Pale Morning Duns to root through the plugs and spoons. A salesman worked the room, dressed in company-brand outdoor wear. If someone expressed interest in a rod, he’d escort the prospective buyer to a casting pool on the roof for a trial run. Anglers would lay out their lines against a backdrop of skyscrapers.
The creels were on the eighth floor, too, and I desperately wanted one. I could’ve hit up my dad for a loan, but I didn’t feel entitled to own such a beautiful thing. I was just a kid and thought I’d look foolish or, worse, pretentious carrying a creel when I’d never even caught a trout, only bass and pike — inelegant species that belong on a stringer, not in a woven basket made by artisans in China or Korea.
When I settled in San Francisco as an adult, I took up fly-fishing and decided I finally deserved a creel. I saw it as a symbol of my newly elevated angling status and brought it home to my humble flat in Haight-Ashbury, where the junkies had robbed me twice in the past month, making off with my stereo and television. In the evening after work, I sometimes sat with the creel in my lap and imagined wrapping a trout in ferns, as Ernest Hemingway had done in Spain.
That summer, I put my creel to its first test on the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. This proved to be a rookie’s mistake. Although the park wasn’t as crowded then as it is now, the valley floor teemed with tourists.
Yet I hardly noticed because of the glorious landscape. To a flatlander from back East, the granite peak Half Dome was mind-blowing. I stood in awe of Bridalveil Fall, thinking I’d catch a trout in the pool at the bottom.
My naivete, it seems, was boundless. To fish Yosemite successfully, you need to hike to a distant part of the valley, but I set up near the park entrance, and the tourists swarmed me. I got so rattled that my casting fell apart, and I almost hooked one guy who ventured too close with his camera. Moreover, I’d slung the creel over my shoulder as I’d seen anglers do in pictures, further hampering my ability to present a fly delicately enough to wake up a rainbow. In short, I caught exactly nothing.
I fared better that autumn on the Upper Sacramento River, lucking into a big hatch of BWOs (blue-winged olives) and landing a 16-inch brown. I couldn’t find any ferns, so the bruiser entered my creel au naturel and made for a fine streamside breakfast the next morning with hash browns and a pot of cowboy coffee. But I felt guilty about killing the fish in a way Roosevelt probably never did about his rhino, and soon after, I recited the catch-and-release pledge.
That posed a problem. My creel, technically speaking, was obsolete, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. I loved the craftsmanship and how the leather fittings had weathered. Instead of hiding it in a closet, I tried to be creative and use it as a picnic basket, but I could only fit a beer or two with the sandwiches, and that wouldn’t suffice. My girlfriend asked to turn it into a planter, but I drew the line and set it on a bookshelf next to a copy of The Sun Also Rises.
When I gave up my flat and took off for Europe, I put the creel into storage with my books and other valuables. Not long ago, I visited San Francisco and retrieved it, wondering what, if anything, it might be worth. A quick check online revealed a market glutted with similar creels, most priced below what they’d cost. But certain vintage models were prized by collectors, particularly models from the fabled Lawrence saddlery in Portland, Maine. A George Lawrence creel from the 1920s in wicker and cowhide sold for $3,500 a while ago.
The premier creel maker today may be Bill Mackowski, who lives and works in the woods of northern Maine and has been at the craft for more than 50 years, drawing inspiration from the native Abenaki and Mohawk. Instead of wicker, he relies on brown ash (known as black ash elsewhere), as is traditional in the Northeast and the Adirondacks. The bulk of Mackowski’s creels are intended to be decorative, although he sells a working creel with a brass buckle and a shoulder strap of chrome-tanned leather for $250.
Even if I had a spare $250 for a Mackowski creel, I’m not sure I’d spring for one. The creel has become an artifact, its purpose no longer of moment in an age of catch-and-release. When I left for Europe again to settle in Ireland, I sold mine for $22 at a garage sale. The kindly lady who bought it gave me her word she wouldn’t turn it into a planter.