Hooked for life: Mills reels in memories with artisan rods
There’s nothing abnormal about the pair of armchairs in Jim and Baraba Mills’ living room, or about the television — the old tube kind — and wooden entertainment center that they face. Typical, too, is the hodgepodge of DVDs and VHS tapes filling the shelves and the pictures of kids and grandkids covering the top.
But even a cursory glance reveals Jim’s true passion. A trio of mounted trout — one rainbow and two brown — hang on the wall above the TV, and a fly-tying station crammed with every color and weight of thread imaginable stands in front of the ceiling-high shelf filled with old glass medicine bottles from Jim’s days as a pharmacist with the U.S. Public Health Service. Fly rods, either sheathed in protective cardboard tubes or laying out to dry on a jerry-rigged rack of cardboard boxes, fill every corner of the room, and a stool sits in front of the pair of thread spools that Jim is using to create the wrappings on his most recent angling project. It’s more than a living room: it’s a fly rod shop of the most unique variety.
“Jim’s rods are just special,” his wife Barbara said. “You can feel it.”
Just as J.K. Rowling’s Garrick Olivander matches young wizards in the Harry Potter series with the perfect wand to work their magic, it’s Jim’s calling to tailor each rod to the fisherman — or woman — who calls him up, looking for the ideal fishing instrument.
“I don’t push a rod on anyone,” the 73-year-old said, after pulling out of his interviewer the only fly fishing story that she possessed. “I want them to feel it. You know the feeling you got when you caught that fish? That’s the way I want you to feel when you cast my rod. I like for a fly rod just to be an extension of your arm.”
You can’t get that result by filling out a generic online order form. Jim invites potential customers up to his home in the woods between Whittier and Cherokee, where he watches them cast their own rod and reel. He gauges how the hold the rod, how they handle it, finds out what kinds of fish they want to catch with it. He asks them what kind of rod they want, and then he decides what kind of rod they need. Sometimes, as in the case of the customer who climbed Jim’s winding driveway convinced that he needed a Dickerson taper, they’re surprised by Jim’s conclusion.
“I said, ‘Here’s two Dickersons, but they are not the rods that are going to give you the most pleasure,’” Jim said in one of the many anecdotes that pepper his conversation. “So I showed him a Granger. He went back to the Dickerson. Went back to the Granger again. Had a cup of coffee. He said, ‘Can I cast them again?’
Finally, the customer delivered his verdict.
“He said,” Jim recalled, “‘When you measure the ease, there’s no comparison. I just thought I knew what I wanted.’”
In the blood
When it comes to fly fishing, Jim knows what he’s talking about. He’s been handling a fly rod since childhood and chasing trout since turning 21. A native of the Carolina coast, Jim spent every Saturday hooking sun perch with his parents, a activity that bonded the family of three until his parents’ deaths. Even in her 90s, Jim’s mother would accompany him on a James River bream-fishing trip every summer.
So it’s only fitting that his current enterprise in rod-building began with his father. In 1964, Jim had just begun his career with the U.S. Public Health Service, working as a pharmacist and hospital administrator in the desert of Arizona, 70 miles from Tucson, which was the nearest place to buy a newspaper. The young pharmacist wasn’t pulling in much of a paycheck, so he decided to make his dad a homemade Christmas gift — a fly rod.
“No DVDs and no books to tell you how to make them,” Jim said. “I just sat down and learned to make it. Dad’s friends saw it and they said, ‘Jim [Sr.], get him to make me one.’ I was in the service making a measly $268 a month. I said, ‘You guys are going to have to pay me for these things. I can’t keep giving them away.’”
That’s what got him started, and 50 years later, just three years fewer than he’s been married to Barbara, he makes about 70 or 80 rods per year.
All about the people
But for Jim, it’s not about the money. It takes him about four days of work and considerable cost in materials to turn out three or four bamboo rods, but he only charges $450 each. But for Jim, it’s about the people.
“I’ve met oodles and oodles of people,” he said. “I’ve shipped rods to lots of countries, but meeting the people is more fun to me than anything else.”
And the stories of the people pour forth: the 10-year-old boy whose face beamed so brightly the first time he cast one of Jim’s rods, the young man whose wife wrote back to thank him for making her husband so happy, the affluent customer who has bought 15 rods from Jim over the years.
“I said, ‘Why are you buying my rods?’” Jim said. “He had bamboos from Scotland, from Winston, from Thomas and Thomas. He said, ‘Jim, you put your heart into your rods. I’m going to keep buying them.’”
And it’s true. Jim lives closely with his work, leaning over the racks of drying rods every time he wants to put a movie in, spreading into his wife’s kitchen when he uses its long counters to varnish the rods — or to make the candy with which he pays his reel seat supplier in Colorado. He used to pay him money, but the man made it clear he preferred pecan brittle.
“I say if you’re in a hurry, go somewhere else, because I don’t want to be hurried in making one,” Jim said of his rods. “I can’t stand the pressure of having to do something fast and not get it right.”
He can put a graphite rod together in an evening, placing the single-foot eyes, wrapping designs in nylon thread around them, adding on the reel seat and handle and coating it with a varnish, epoxy in low humidity and Marine Spar in high. He still putters carefully about the craftsmanship, and it does take two or three days for the varnish to dry, but with his bamboo rods, he takes the artistry to a whole other level.
These rods take three or four days to make, varnish and finish, requiring multiple layers of Marine Spar varnish for the pole and a separate battery of lacquer, color-fast solution and varnish for the wraps. In between layers, Jim painstakingly smoothes out any bubbles with brass wool.
“I put three coats on the rod and five coats on the wraps, real thin so they look nice and don’t look bubbly over like you would with epoxy,” he said, holding out an example.
Then, of course, he has to place the eyes that will eventually hold the line responsible for hooking that first rainbow or trophy brown. That’s always a trial-and-error process for Jim, different for each rod and for each customer. He’ll place the eyes, try out the cast, and, if the action is off at all, he’ll remove them and try again.
The result? A thin pole of shining golden wood, hand-wrapped with colorful interweaving silk threads, so light that the cork handle seems to float in your palm.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. It wasn’t a question that begged praise — it was an invitation to share in the mysterious bliss that Jim receives from anything fly-related.
Because for Jim, the meaning of a good rod extends far beyond the joy of creating it in his workshop. It’s about the feeling he gets when the line twitches and the fish pulls, and it’s about the camaraderie of friends and family sitting around a campfire while the stars shine. It’s about the expression on a child’s face when she reels in a fish for the first time, or that dawning comprehension when a fishing novice finally begins to understand the language of water. And it’s about the places, too. That little stick of bamboo is Jim’s invitation inside parts of nature that most people never see.
“It’s amazing the things I get to see out in nature when I go fishing,” he said. “I’ve seen trees that six men couldn’t get their arms around. I’ve seen waterfalls that people don’t ever see. I’ve seen animals in action, fishing, that it’s just something else.”
Jim can still recount the time he stood motionless in the Oconaluftee River as a mountain lion headed toward Piney Village, or the family of elk that crossed it while he fished a different section of the river. Each paused separately for a drink and then crossed as he stood casting.
And now, just as the water tightened the bond he kept with his parents as the decades passed, it still binds him to his son Chris, who now lives in Alabama, and to his daughter Marissa, who calls Knoxville home.
“It keeps the circle going,” he said.
So he keeps the rods in his living room moving through the stages to completion, keeps the fishing trips going and keeps his door open for anyone interested in learning just what it is that’s so special about fly fishing.
“People can’t understand it that don’t do it,” he said. “And it becomes addicting. It’s become very addicting to me.”
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