While Visiting Jake and Cathie Wheeler at their home in Burke to interview Jake on the topics of fly fishing and fly tying, Oliver and Liam, the Wheelers’ two black cats, settle on the couch and listen in on the conversation.
According to Jake, the Willoughby River is the place to be for opening day of trout season in the Northeast Kingdom. This year it begins on Saturday, April 10. He sets his alarm for 3:45 a.m. and then heads to the river to throw out his line and relish the joy of fishing on opening day. Jake says,“I’ll fish until 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. and then go to breakfast. Then I either go back fishing or pack it in.”
For Jake, fishing has been a part of his life since he was a child. His father, Jim Wheeler, was the first one to take him fishing.
“We would visit my grandparents just north of Boston near the ocean. I had a cane pole about 8-10 feet long. It didn’t have eyes, guide, or a reel. We would tie a hook on the end, put a sinker somewhere above the hook, and go down by the rocks wearing life jackets. I was 4 or 5 years old.”
When Jake was 12, he received a fly-tying kit as a gift from his parents. The kit had feathers, a small vice, a bobbin, thread, and a book with instructions.“I tried and I wasn’t very good at it. I could tie a streamer and a Mickey Finn. Those were kind of easy. A Mickey Finn is a traditional old streamer fly that uses red and yellow deer hair.” Jake’s first fly rod was a fiberglass Fenwick.“I received it as a graduation gift from high school and still have it.”
Jake was born in Boston. Growing up, he enjoyed baseball, football, hockey, basketball, running, and swimming. He attended Harvard and graduated in 1970, took a year off to do some military service and was in the Army Reserves, and then graduated from Boston University Law School in 1974.
Jake and Cathie lived in Boston when they were first married.
“We spent some of our spare time commuting north to hike, camp, and ski. I liked being in a place where fishing was more readily available. We looked at northern New England pretty hard. Long term, we wanted to be some place where we weren’t commuting three hours on the weekend to go north to do the things we liked to do.”
Jake was hired at the law firm of Downs Rachlin& Martin (DRM) in 1974, and he and Cathie moved to St. Johnsbury. He has been practicing law since then and is now a partner at DRM. In 1975 Jake and Cathie moved to Burke where their property has frontage on the East Branch of the Passumpsic River. They raised two daughters, Erin and Emily.
By the late 1980s, Jake started fly tying seriously
“The more fly fishing I did, the clearer it became to me that I could have much more flexibility and creativity tying flies I needed rather than finding some place to buy them.”
For fishing Willoughby River, Jake uses a graphite fly rod that is 10 feet long and weighs 3 ounces. The reel weighs 6-8 ounces and carries a 7-weight line. He has several spinning and fly rods of different weights. The lower the number, the lighter the rod. Where you are fishing, how far you are casting, what fish you are catching, and what flies you are using all determine the gear you use. Fly fishing has three steps that resemble the movements of a metronome arm.
“ I’m self-taught so I’m not an expert. The concept is that your line is in the water, you bring the rod back to a stop and think of the 11 and 1 numbers on a clock. You need to make sure you pause because you want a good fly cast. If your back cast is good, you stop and pause and let the line straighten out and then you bring it forward.”
Fishing can be dangerous as river bottoms are naturally slippery. Jake explains,“When I’m fly fishing, I’m usually in the river. There aren’t a lot of banks to cast from because of trees. I wear sneakers and pants but always wear waders and felt soled-boots or boots with cleats over the feet of the waders so I won’t slip. I have started using a wading staff for balance.”
Animals show up on trips, too.
“I have seen bear but not up close while fishing. The closest I ever came to a bear was in the cornfield in Burke where I was 15 feet away from one when I was out running. I have seen moose walk up the middle of the York River and the East Branch of the Passumpsic River.” On his fishing trips, he has seen doe, bald eagles, otters, beavers, muskrats, caribou, ducks, mergansers, blue herons, foxes, and coyotes.
Jake enjoys fishing in many local rivers such as the Willoughby, Clyde, Upper Connecticut, Black, Barton, the East Branch of the Passumpsic, and in ponds. In late June he heads to the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada where he fishes for Atlantic salmon on rivers like the York, Dartmouth, St. Jean, Matapedia, Bonaventure, St. Paul, and Pabos.
Jake and his father have made several trips to Coopers’ Minipi Camps in Goose Bay, Labrador, along with a group of other fishermen.
“My Dad was always the hit of the trip. He has a good sense of humor, a lot of good life experiences, and is very self-effacing.” Fishing with his father has made many good memories and they still reminisce about their trips.
Some of the trips in and out of Labrador were interesting. Jake explains,“At one time, the U.S. Air Force base was fully staffed in Goose Bay. The NATO air forces all trained there during the Cold War because it was the closest to the terrain and geography of the Soviet Union. One time we flew to the Coopers’ new camp at Goose Bay. When we were scheduled to fly out, it was foggy and raining. We were concerned we weren’t going to make our next flight. Finally, a helicopter came in and picked us up. The fog rolled in again. The pilot said we were going to go. I was in the co-pilot’s seat. We were out on this little point of land with the lake all around us and when you lift off, the helicopter’s nose goes down so it looks like you are plunging into the water. He couldn’t use the normal flight path so he said he was going to fly along the Kenamu River. I thought that wasn’t a bad idea until I realized that the Kenamu River was a big gorge. We were flying at tree level right down the river. We made it but we were late for our flight.”
Another trip Jake remembers is when“Gordon Mills went with my Dad and me to Goose Bay. We were scheduled to fly out of Goose Bay in the morning to get into camp on a float plane. The flight is about 40 or 50 miles from Goose Bay. The pilot, whose wife was the cook at the camp, had a little miniature dog that she wanted at camp so the dog was on the flight. We took off fine, got over the Churchill River, and started to turn and head up the river. The dog started barking in the back and all of a sudden the pilot was paying a lot more attention. Gordon and I were in the second set of seats and the engine started to sputter a little bit and we saw oil spraying all over the windshield. The pilot was as cool as could be and said we were just going to circle around and land on the river. We were trying to process all of this and sure enough he landed on the river and taxied along to a spot. We made it back to dry land without incident. I have a terrific picture of my Dad kissing the ground when he stepped off the pontoons of the plane. If it had been 15 or 20 minutes later and we were out in the bush, it would have been a different situation.”
The biggest fish Jake ever caught was a 35-pound Atlantic salmon. He may keep a couple of fish a year to eat but mostly practices catch and release.“The area up here had 2-5 pound brook trout as native fish and we overfished them. I don’t begrudge people keeping fish if they are really going to eat them. I have been foolish enough to keep large fish and have them mounted but I won’t do that any more.”
Where in the world would he like to go fishing? Jake would like to have the summer to fish as many salmon rivers as he could in northern Quebec. He would also like to fish in Alaska, New Zealand, Chile, Patagonia, and the mountains out west. As he describes it,“Fishing is my contemplative time. Any place you go to fish is great.” Probably at the top of his list is the Kola Peninsula in Russia. He describes it as“probably the best salmon fishery in the world.”
In retirement, Jake says he would“enjoy doing custom fly tying for people.... I wish I had taken the time to learn tying when I was a kid because now it would be second nature.”
Tying a fly depends on the pattern, but it takes anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. Jake does not tie for presentation but for use. He ties year round. This winter he tied around 100 flies. He chuckles when he says,“You never have enough flies when you go fishing.”
Some of the materials used to tie flies include feathers from partridge, turkey, pheasant, ducks, and ostrich, and fur from deer, elk, moose, coyote, bear, skunk, and fox. The feathers and fur are sometimes dyed to become beautiful colors. Exotic birds, heron, anything that is protected, or endangered species cannot be used. Jake’s conversation is punctuated by names of his favorite flies such as soft hackle streamers, green highlander, tiger ghost, same thing murray, blue charm, undertaker, magog smelt, and grey ghost. He has his own version of a fly that he has named PHISH fly.
For five years, Jake presented fly fishing and fly tying at the traditional Craft Day at the Fairbanks Museum. He adds,“The one thing I worry about is when I go to the Willoughby River on opening day, the number of anglers is decreasing. For the next generation and the generation after that, there aren’t as many younger folks as there were when I first started. We haven’t done a very good job of mentoring. It’s the future if you are going to have a healthy fishery. You need to have anglers of all generations.”
Fishing creates long-lasting friendships such as the one with Pete and Ann Henderson, friends who fish each year on the St. Paul River with Jake.“I have been able to share a canoe with each of them which has probably been some of the most fun times of fishing I have ever had except with my Dad.”
What draws him to fishing?
“Opening day draws me to get cobwebs out, it’s a new year, you see old friends, and it’s less about catching fish than being out, putting your line in the river, and standing in the middle of the river. It’s spring, rebirth, and regeneration. I like to catch fish, but the more remote the setting, the more contemplative it is for me. To me, it’s a way to commune with nature and some of it is fairly primitive.” Jake has a busy law practice and fishing is a time to get away. His philosophy is that“Vacation is vacation. Fishing is fishing. Business may be talked about in the car on the way to the airport and maybe on the way back, but when you’re in camp, you’re in camp.”
Perhaps Jake has the right idea.