Richard Herkimer Conroy was not born with a fly rod in his hand (his mother would not allow it) but by the time he was four he could cast a line further than men ten times his age. Few anglers know his name, let alone his story, and only scattered traces remain of his meteoric rise and ignominious decline, but “Little Dickie” Conroy’s influence is still felt today. Mocked, jeered, and once nearly burned alive by those who took offense at his unconventional style, Little Dickie’s mastery of the fly line has yet to be equaled. From elite casters to green dilettantes, many have tried, but no one has ever thrown a line like the dapper young man from Kansas who once, in front of three thousand people, landed a fly on a poker chip from fifty yards away while turning a one-handed cartwheel.
“Little Dickie” Conroy, age 5, from the collection of Richard Haas
PART I: THE EARLY YEARS
Plowed under long ago, Willard Fullmer’s Mulberry Farm and Carp Ranch was once one of the most popular attractions along Highway 24 in eastern Kansas. Swimming in acres of hand-dug ponds, Willard Fullmer’s carp grew fat and sweet on a diet of mulberries from the acres of bushes he had planted, and people came from miles around just to sample his famous carp and mulberry pie.
As proud as he was of his mulberry bushes and carp ponds, Willard Fullmer was more proud of his only child, a daughter named Bernice, his sole companion since the death of his dear wife Opal, who passed away the morning after Bernice was born. Bernice had grown strong and beautiful and was a great help to her father but their business faced increasing competition as other attractions in the area began drawing in travelers by advertising things such as boxing kangaroos and high-diving mules.
One sunny May morning, as he returned from drawing in travelers by scattering nails on the road, Willard Fullmer paused and gazed upon his daughter as she labored, lifting dozens of carp from a pond with a long-handled net and dumping them into the cart she used to haul them to the kitchen. Watching her work — back-lit by the morning sun, gauzy dress clinging to the sweat that glistened on her toned, tanned flesh — he was struck by an idea so exciting he blurted it out loud.
“What we need around here,” he exclaimed, “is some hookers!”
Bernice turned toward her father, her eyes wide in horror, but not at her father’s words. She was looking past him, over his shoulder, to the highway, where an overloaded sedan with blown-out tires was coming apart in pieces as it rolled down the embankment toward one of the carp ponds, where it landed with a splash and a mighty hiss. Five disheveled characters climbed from the car and waded ashore through a drift of stunned carp floating to the surface.
The characters in the car were fly fishermen on their way to Montana and they were just fine. They always looked like that. Continue Reading »