Friends on the Fly
It’s not all gear and technique. Some days, it’s just ‘Stephenchill’ time.
After an endless deluge of spring rains across North Texas, Lake Granbury is bursting at the seams. The Brazos River Authority opens two of the 16 dam gates to alleviate the swelling.
Frenzied water explodes over the concrete chutes and crashes down into the river. The normally sleepy waterway roars to life, 868 cubic feet per second. Brisk.
Three miles downriver, I’m stumbling around in its thrust with a fly rod in my hand. There’s no doubt that I’m the fish out of water here.
This fly-fishing rookie knows his limits, so I’ve brought along two experts: Jahmicah Dawes, 35, owner of Slim Pickins Outfitters in Stephenville,
and Ben Tabor, 34, guide/owner of Fatties on the Fly in Granbury.
Our target is striped bass. They are in full spawn, swimming upriver to the dam. The three of us are standing knee-deep in the river.
“Right there, where the slick water meets the rough,” Ben says, pointing. “That’s money! That’s right where they’ll be.”
He wades toward the spot, choosing his footing carefully as he fights the current. We follow. Ben sets me up with a fly and gives me a casting refresher course.
“Fly fishing is all about line management,” he advises and nods at me to give it a go.
I strip out line and start my herky-jerky casting motion. The rod swooshes like a bullwhip.
“You don’t really want that sound,” Ben says with a smile as he calms my cast.
Jahmicah begins the graceful dance of casting back and forward. There’s no swooshing. His cast is precise and deliberate. He plops his fly right into the quick water. Ben shouts with glee.
“There ya go, Slim! Shooting lasers today!”
Jahmicah watches the fly. And waits.
He pulls the line back and starts the dance again.
An uncomfortable mess
My stripped line floats in the current like spaghetti in a boiling pot. It looks messy. I want to fix it.
“All that line hanging out there, it doesn’t look right,” Ben says. “But you’ve got to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
He’s telling me to not worry about the mess, just let it go. Ben points me back to where the ripples meet the slick water and nods at me to have at it again.
After helping me, Ben strides across the turbulent Brazos, makes a few casts, pinpoints his fly into a jet stream of foamy water and pulls a striper from the river. Jahmicah watches him net the fish.
“Right on, Benny!”
I’m grinning ear to ear as I take in this whole scene. When I picture “fly fishing” in a book, it doesn’t look exactly like this.
Sure, on river left, there’s a high ridge covered in thick oaks and dense cedar trees. It’s wild and woolly and what you’d expect. But look over at river right, and the juxtaposition of a housing development jars the tranquility.
Then there’s us, a motley crew, each attired in our own personality-revealing styles. Nobody’s sporting waders, the traditional fly gear.
Jahmicah is wearing running shoes, a salmon-colored Eddie Bauer shirt and a Patagonia sling pack. Ben has a hip pack, pants and a collared Western pearl snap shirt. With his bushy red beard and brown tinted sunglasses, he looks more like the lead singer of an indie-bluegrass band than a fly-fishing guide.
This crew just feels right. I think I have found my people.
Turns out, finding their people is just what Jahmicah was thinking when he and wife Heather opened Slim Pickins Outfitters in March 2017. Located on Stephenville’s historic square, it’s the first Black-owned outdoor store in the country. Jahmicah envisioned a metaphorical “campground” where passionate outdoorsy folks could gather, purchase gear and grow an outdoor community in a place he truly loves.
When Jahmicah hit my radar, I was ready to gather at the Slim Pickins campground. COVID-19 told me I’d have to wait. Like the rest of the world, I’d have to “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
My wife and I moved to Bluff Dale, a blip of a town about 20 minutes east of Stephenville, in January 2020. We had lived in Salida, Colorado, for a bit and then wandered around the country in our Airstream trailer. Back in Salida, we had cultivated an extensive outdoor community with fellow bikers, hikers, river runners and yogis. If you wanted to chase an outdoor passion or learn a new skill, there was always someone to step forward and say, “Let’s do it!” We missed that community and synergy during our first few months in Erath County.
A few lonely months later, I stumbled across a Slim Pickins Outfitters post on Instagram featuring their basset hound, Bill Murray. (He’s the assistant to the regional manager at the shop and the designated greeter.)
Basset love aside, I couldn’t believe there was an outdoor shop in Stephenville, a mere 22 minutes from my front door. I couldn’t wait to go.
Unfortunate timing meant that would wait. Stephenville and Erath County issued “shelter in place” orders. SPO closed its doors to walk-in traffic. The pandemic had hit.
Instead, I spent the spring and summer studying the shop’s website and social media, getting to know the family virtually. The Daweses have two young boys, Silas and Finis (born during the pandemic). Jahmicah and Heather graduated from Tarleton State University in Stephenville. Heather loves to garden; Jahmicah is an avid fly fisherman.
Bill Murray loves raw potatoes.
SPO works closely with several nonprofits. Outfit the Saints provides gear for individuals on mission trips, and Black Outside Inc. works to reconnect Black youth to the outdoors. By the time I walked through the doors of Slim Pickins Outfitters in fall 2020, I felt like the Daweses were old friends.
Feeling the ‘Stephenchill’
A massive, refurbished, orange metal Rexall drugstore sign dominates the front entrance of Slim Pickins. It cantilevers over the front door and wraps around the side, forecasting the industrial vintage theme inside.
When I walked through the doors, good ol’ Bill Murray was there to usher me inside. SPO’s vibe is definitely “Stephenchill,” a term Dawes has trademarked. Old typewriters and radios mix with outdoor gear; relics of the past such as a washing tub and old fridge serve as display cases.
I introduced myself to Jahmicah, and we immediately bonded over our love of the outdoors, spending the next several hours chatting like old friends. I later learned that it was the same when Ben first walked in the door, and he and Jahmicah launched into a four-hour discussion of fly fishing.
Jahmicah and Ben work on fly-fishing workshops together, and SPO carries Fatties on the Fly Proper Boxes with flies that are region-, season- and species-specific for Stephenville.
Jahmicah’s a natural hub, with a kinetic energy about him that primes collaborative adventures. At our initial meeting, we quickly set into motion plans to partake in the other’s outdoor passion.
He would take me fly fishing. I would take him bike-packing.
Let it go
Back on the Brazos River, I watch Jahmicah and Ben fish side by side, like an audience member at a ballet. All I can hear is the water rushing by, but their movements transmit pure joy.
Ben hooks one; then, Jahmicah snags his. They strip line in unison as they pull in their catches. Jahmicah nets his first, and Ben reaches over to pat him on the back. Ben nets his, and the fishing buddies take their stripers and touch them together in a fin toast, grinning broadly. They lean down and gently return the stripers back to the Brazos.
I’m inspired. I channel their contentment and let go of the “mess” around me.
I mimic the flow of Jahmicah and Ben.
I drop my fly in the quick water and…
I get a tug, a bite! I start stripping.
“BD’s got one!” I can hear Ben shout.
I manage to pull my striper in, and Ben rushes over to help me unhook it. He shows me how to press it against my thigh and release the hook without cutting my hands on its fins. (This is only the third fish that I have ever caught.)
“All right, Brandon!” Jahmicah beams at me. “Way to go!”
My heart is pounding. That was fun! During the unhooking instruction, my prize has become lethargic.
“Oh, buddy, we’ve handled you a little too much,” Ben tells the fish.
He places it in the water and swishes it back and forth to get water in its gills. The striper recovers and swims away, none the worse for wear.
I cast again and immediately catch another striper. I strip, strip, strip until the fish is dangling right in front of me. I place it on my thigh and retrieve the fly like a boss. Ben sticks close by, just in case.
“That is the first time I have ever unhooked my own fish,” I confess. “The last time a caught a fish, I was 12.”
I began to make up for those lost years immediately. For the next several hours, we experience what Ben likes to call “a poor man’s salmon run.” My buddies catch and release more than 30 stripers each.
Me? I stopped counting at 20.
Got your back
When the run is over, I take a moment to reflect. My line is swirled everywhere. My hands are bloody from a couple of overexuberant battles.
I’m drenched to my waist. Fly fishing is messy. Life is messy. But it’s a lot easier to navigate when friends have your back.
When the pandemic put a strain on Slim Pickins Outdoors, the Daweses were afraid they’d be looking at closing the doors. Not so fast.
Seattle-based production company Wondercamp collaborated with the Outbound Collective, a group that works to make the outdoors more inclusive and approachable, to start a GoFundMe campaign and produce a short documentary highlighting the motivation behind SPO, the struggles as the first Black-owned outdoor store in a small town and the personal tribulations the Daweses faced during the pandemic. More than $170,000 was raised, and SPO’s Instagram account zoomed from 7,000 to 35,000 followers.
Jahmicah and I drive back to Stephenville together. I tell him he’s a social media influencer now.
“Really?” He’s not entirely comfortable with the label. He prefers to focus on his community.
“Change the world from here,” he tells students graduating from Tarleton, as he urges them to stick around. “You’re gonna have a bigger impact here.”
Still waiting for better walk-in sales when things get back to normal, the Daweses do brisk online business with their SP Provisions and “Stephenchill” shirts, hats and stickers.
Bill Murray the basset even has his own line of T-shirts, which sell quite well.
The Daweses live in Strawn, just four miles from Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, which is currently under development. Jahmicah says he sees a tremendous amount of potential for SPO in the wilderness opportunity that’s practically in his backyard, but his soft spot is Stephenville, and he hopes to always maintain a presence there.
For him, it’s about building bridges and being a conduit for inclusivity in the outdoors.
“I don’t think we’re going to be successful by having the dopest gear,” Jahmicah says. “It’s by finding subtle ways and intimate moments to
build community and act justly, love kindly and serve humbly.”
Wading back in
Slim Pickins Outfitters was a beacon for me. Even following remotely via social media during the pandemic, I could feel the spirit of a community of like-minded people — I wanted to be a part of it. That sentiment makes Jahmicah happy. He gets a rush by helping people.
“When you make that connection, whether it’s in the outdoors or not, we can take them on that next adventure we’re going on,” he tells me.
And we do have a next adventure, a bike-packing trip, my comfort zone. The next “real” adventure for Jahmicah and SPO will be building that campground — nurturing relationships, growing a community and inspiring a movement nationally to usher inclusivity into the transformative world of the outdoors.
Jahmicah and Heather Dawes are just the people to do it. With a little help from Bill Murray.
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