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. Bernice found the fly fishermen irresistible, as women often do, and the fly fishermen, who desperately needed cash, as fly fishermen often do, found themselves suddenly employed as hookers at Willard Fullmer’s Mulberry Farm and Carp Ranch. Eager customers paid a premium of two bits apiece to point out exactly which fish they wanted, the fly fishermen hooked the specified fish using a fly tied to look like a mulberry, and the resulting spectacle surpassed even that of boxing kangaroos.
As trout men, they found the thought of catching catching carp with big purple flies repulsive at first, but they were anglers and needed cash. The bullish strength of the carp eventually won them over and, with the chance to cast their lines all day every day, they soon developed a repertoire of trick casts which they performed before the adoring crowds that gathered to watch them, and the summer was a tremendous success.
The tourist season ended but the work continued at Willard Fullmer’s Mulberry Farm and Carp Ranch. A booming mail order business had sprung up as travelers spread the word about the Fullmers’ carp and mulberry pie and the hookers put in long days casting for carp to keep up with the demand. Counting the money they’d saved over the summer, the hookers were happy to have the work, figuring that, if they fished all winter, they could be back on their way to Montana in just another year or two.
One of them, a reformed salmon poacher from Scotland named Robert Conroy, had taken a particular liking to Bernice and the two of them were wed in September. Their son, Richard, was born the next April, prompting those who could count to comment on the large size and robust constitution of a child born three months premature.
Image used by Scottish authorities on Robert Conroy’s “Wanted for Poaching” poster, from the collection of Quill Gordon
The kitchen, where Bernice spent her days preparing and cooking carp and mulberry pie, was no place for a child so “Little Dickie” spent his days in the shade of a mulberry bush while his father and merry band of fly fishing “uncles”* cast and caught carp.
*(The identities of these “uncles” has never been determined. Interviewer notes indicate their desire for anonymity arose partly from the shame of being carp fishermen, but those same notes also indicate a certain resentment at having been called hookers.)
The actual hooking took but an instant. Derricking the scaly beasts from the water to the outstretched arms of excited tourists took a little longer, but not much, and both elicited cheers from the gathered throngs. All was silent, though, while the anglers’ lines were in the air. From his low vantage point, Little Dickie couldn’t see the explosive action in the ponds, but he could see those lines, and he instinctively held his breath along with the crowds. When they exhaled with mighty cheers he nearly burst with laughter.
Day after day that summer Little Dickie lolled about in the shade of mulberry bushes, watching fly lines and listening to cheers. His father and uncles sat with him in shifts, explaining fly fishing, encouraged by the enthusiastic rolling of his eyes and steady stream of drool from his mouth. One afternoon, as Robert Conroy drove home the finer points of line velocity and rod deflection as related to successful double haul casting, Little Dickey reached for his father’s rod. Robert Conroy, certain in his heart that his child was a prodigy, handed it to him .
It should come as no surprise that the rod simply fell to the ground because Little Dickie was still just a wee baby and not strong enough to hold it. He did, however manage to grab the line with his chubby fist and, being a baby, he gave the line a few excited tugs.
“That’s right, laddie!” cried his father. “Haul!”
Little Dickie tugged again and it wasn’t long before Robert Conroy was fishing with his son on his hip, casting one-handed, with Little Dickie managing line. Little Dickie was a natural, tugging when he should and then letting go, laughing with delight as the silk line, which felt vibrant and alive to him, shot from his pudgy fingers. Able to concentrate on his rod while Little Dickey worked the line, the elder Conroy found he could keep his line in the air longer as he zeroed-in on particular fish, adding fancy curlicues and spirals to his false casts while he was at it. It also seemed his distance had improved.
Little Dickie’s “uncles” said they thought it would be disconcerting and spooky to have a baby in charge of their line, even without all the drool, but it was drool of excitement that soaked Robert Conroy’s shirt and they had to admit it sure was cute the way Little Dickey got all worked up over fly fishing.
The “uncles” saw the way young women got all worked up over Little Dickie as he fished with his father and said they were afraid that Bernice, who had become a bit of a shrew, might not be pleased to see her husband surrounded by enthusiastic young women and they began taking turns fishing with Little Dickie, under the pretense of sparing their married friend a good thumping. As time passed, the “uncles” began to notice that not only had Little Dickie improved their luck with the ladies but that their casting had improved, too.
Little Dickie became as popular as Bernice’s carp and mulberry pie and a new grandstand overlooking the carp ponds was built the next summer, to accommodate the crowds that came to see him. Eager fans had always rushed toward their favorite hookers, waving quarters and begging to have a fish caught just for them, but now the largest gatherings were always around whichever “uncle” was holding Little Dickie. The others filled the time until it was their turn with him by fishing for no carp in particular, at the regular piece rate, filling orders from the kitchen.
Original grandstand overlooking the carp ponds at Willard Fullmer’s Mulberry Farm and Carp Ranch, from the collection of Quill Gordon
After work on the day Little Dickie took his first steps, Robert Conroy presented his son with a perfectly scaled-down version of his own rod to commemorate the occasion. With a tear in his eye, he watched his son wrap his little hand around the tiny grip and give the rod a wave and he swelled with pride as Little Dickie undid the fly from the keeper and stripped line from the reel, just as he’d shown him a thousand times before. He called for the “uncles” to come watch his son’s first cast and they gathered for what they were sure would be a good laugh, but Little Dickie surprised them all by flicking out forty feet of line.
Little Dickie’s father and four “uncles” were pleased, each taking credit for what he imagined his good influences to be, but Little Dickie was just getting started and what happened next left the men dumbfounded. With a tremendous wave of his rod, Little Dickie picked up the forty feet of line and ran under it, creating one of the prettiest loops the men had ever seen. Off like a shot, stripping line from his reel, Little Dickie false cast as he ran, eventually taking two quick skips and a hop while bringing his rod forward. Yard after yard of line shot through the air and his fly landed in the next pond over.
Too shocked to act, Little Dickie’s father and the hookers watched as a carp took the fly. Little Dickie dug in his heels, reeling furiously as he skidded across one pond and through the mud to the next, eventually reappearing, covered with mud, fish slime and drool, and depositing a carp nearly as large as himself at his father’s feet.
Lit by the glorious, golden rays of the setting sun, Robert Conroy placed one hand on Little Dickie’s head, turned to his fellow brothers of the angle and said, “Today my son has caught his first fish with a fly, all on his own! He’s not quite two, so I suppose his arms will get longer and one day he’ll be able to keep his elbows in. His back casts won’t drop so much once he’s taller, and we must have faith he’ll stop drooling, but I swear to the ghost of Cornelia Crosby that we absolutely must put a stop to that hoppity skippity nonsense and teach this lad to stand still!”
But Little Dickie had no desire to stand still and the five former trout fishers spent more and more of their time giving chase, hollering at him to stop, determined to instill proper casting techniques before it was too late. Glancing over his shoulder with glee as he ran and skipped and hopped, Little Dickie held them at bay with his back casts while audiences laughed, thinking it was all just part of the show.
“Stand still, laddie!” his father would shout, but Little Dickie wouldn’t listen. He jumped and skipped and danced while casting, which the men knew wasn’t proper, but Robert Conroy and his fly fishing friends had to admit Little Dickie’s loops were more than just sexy, and that the kid could sure work a long line.
Little Dickie had a way with short lines, too, and with his speed and agility improving every day he was soon out-fishing his “uncles” and even his father. Crowds cheered with approval and Little Dickie fed on their enthusiasm, bounding merrily from pond to pond, hooking carp after carp. The fans packing the grandstand loved it and his “uncles” tolerated it as much as they could, but the fact of the matter was that, not only was Little Dickie stealing the show, he was also taking money from their pockets by hogging all the premium fish as they struggled to meet their kitchen quotas at the regular per fish piece rate.
Unidentified “uncle” with carp, from the collection of Quill Gordon
They tied bricks to Little Dickie’s feet to keep him in place but this prompted calls to the authorities and when they eventually did remove the bricks Little Dickie was even stronger, skipping and leaping higher than ever before. Firmly anchored for the better part of his second summer, Little Dickie had also developed, in addition to his well-defined leg muscles, some serious distance to his casts and when his casts exceeded the capacity of his reel he erupted in a tantrum only a two year-old could throw. His father finally tied two lines together and provided Little Dickie with an old mulberry basket to hold them, which calmed him for a while, but only until he was ready for three.
Bernice’s mail order carp and mulberry pie business grew beyond her wildest expectations, thanks to a favorable review in the *Paxico Picayune, and the men went into the off-season with plenty of work. Even Robert Conroy himself put in long days as a hooker to meet the demand. The men took turns with Little Dickey, determined to teach him proper casting, but they cringed each time Bernice stepped from the kitchen waving her cleaver and demanding more carp, so little Dickey was often left to his own devices, and he broke every rule in the book.
*(The Paxico Picayune also ran several captivating pieces featuring Little Dickie’s prowess with a fly rod. Unfortunately, those articles, along with the review of Bernice’s carp and mulberry pie, were lost when several tins of film burst into flame, completely destroying the Picayune‘s newsreel division as well its entire print archive.)
Little Dickie enjoyed dancing circles around his “uncles”, waving his line in the air while they targeted fish. When they cast, he would rocket his fly ahead of theirs and take their fish, inevitably leading to some uncomfortable stand-offs. Initially, they threw head fakes and wiggled their hips in an effort to make Little Dickie flinch and cast first, but he was unflappable. Then they took to simply keeping their lines in the air when Little Dickie came around, false casting until he gave up and moved along, but this cut into production. With Bernice constantly hollering for more carp, the best they could do was split up and hope one of them could distract Little Dickie long enough for the rest to catch some fish.
Little Dickie bounced and bounded about, from one “uncle” to another, waving his line in the air, daring each to cast, but the “uncles” used these confrontations as opportunities to educate him in the niceties and protocols of properly casting a fly. It did them a world of good to brush up on these things, having grown a bit rambunctious themselves in their rough and tumble world of professional carp fishing.
While Little Dickie flitted about, his line a menacing blur, the uncles stood stoically with feet planted appropriately, shoulders and elbows just so. The tops and bottoms of their loops were perfectly parallel, their rods gracefully marking time as their lines sailed forward and back. Little Dickie’s rod, meanwhile, seemed to warp time as he kicked up his heels and danced.
Seasoned casters, the “uncles” adjusted their lines carefully, keeping their loops manageable, but Little Dickie let fly with everything he had, swirling an entire mulberry basket’s worth of line through the air as he leapt, and the effect was mesmerizing. Little Dickie’s false casts were three dimensional drawings undulating in space and if his uncles had been mathematicians they would have spoken in hushed tones of polynomial lemniscates, conchospirals, and brachistochrones. The names of Fermat, Bernoulli and Archimedes would have been bandied about and one or another of them would surely have gone off on a tangent about sines and cosines, but they were not mathematicians able to discuss such things. They were fly fishers, and could only cuss quietly amongst themselves as Little Dickie pranced and snatched fish.
The “uncles” could cuss all they wanted, but the crowds went wild for Little Dickie and his fly line. The audiences the next spring were enormous, thanks in large part to footage of Little Dickie, produced by the newsreel division of the Paxico Picayune, which had shown on movie screens across the county that winter*. Most who saw it had never even heard of fly fishing but they thought it sure looked like a lot of fun to watch, and the place was flooded with visitors from as far away as Hoxie. Gate receipts were up, merchandise sales were booming, and Bernice even added more ovens to boost production of carp and mulberry pie. It was shaping up to be the best year ever at Willard Fullmer’s Mulberry Farm and Carp Ranch.
*(Sadly, the last copies of this film were the ones that burst into flames, completely destroying the Picayune‘s newsreel division as well as its entire print archive.)
Ahead, in Part II: The worst year ever.