Smack in the middle of the best steelhead fishing in the world, at least according to one man, sits an old 15 X 20 hayloft converted into a flyfishing shop. If you open the door of the red, wood-sided building youll likely find a man who looks a whole lot like Jerry Garcia leaning on the counter ready to talk steelhead and two-handed casting. He wouldnt mind selling you a rod, either.
The Red Shed seems an unlikely Mecca and Mike Poppy Cummins an even more unlikely prophet, but anglers from around the countrymake that around the globeflock to this humble shop (both in person and via cyber space) on the Clearwater River in Idaho to pick up two-handed spey rods and chat Poppy up. Thanks in part to a recent video on You Tube, the Red Shed is garnering even more fame and popularity. In 2007, Poppy sold over 150 two-handed rods and a dozen single-handed trout poles. Not bad for someone working out of a shed in the middle of nowhere.
Before opening the Red Shed in July 2002, Poppy owned a small trucking company. He drove a diesel big rig and his wife Linda ran dispatch. Their shed was put to good use storing truck parts, assorted junk and bad hay from the days when their land hosted a dairy. Then, someone ran into his truck and ripped the front end off. That incident (along with some health issues) convinced Poppy that it was time to retire.
Around this time, his right hand kept falling asleep and Poppy was having a hard time holding a single-handed rod. So when he heard about two-handed rods, he got interested. Without the funds to purchase a spey rod, Poppy decided he would make his own using two single-handed rods. His junkyard spey hangs on the ceiling of the shop as a reminder that not everyone can afford a spey rod, he says.
His interest in spey casting was growing and a few visits to a friend on the coast with a successful spey rod shop convinced Poppy to open his own store. But, getting started wasnt easy. Basically youre dealing with tackle reps and most werent open to the idea of selling only spey tackle. They thought it was stupid, Poppy recalls.
The fishing industrybased primarily around trout, according to Poppyhas come around since the early Red Shed days. I have about ten trout rods, but Id rather have my resources dedicated to spey casting. With rod prices ranging from $270-$980 or more, Poppy carries something for just about everyone with a longing to cast a line toward an unsuspecting steelhead.
August through Thanksgiving is the busy season for walk-in customers at the Red Shed because thats when the B-run Steelhead are making the arduous journey from the Pacific Ocean, up the Columbia River, to the Snake and finally into the Clearwater. After two years of eating and growing in the Pacific, Steelhead (actually rainbow trout according to Idaho Fish and Game) average 10-13 pounds and 31- 34 inches long. The occasional fish that spends three years in ocean can grow larger than 37 inches and often weigh more than 20 pounds.
(The other group of anadromous rainbow trout trekking to Idaho are the A-run steelhead. These fish spend only one year in the ocean and are lither4 to 6 pounds and 23- 26 inches. These guys return from the ocean earlier in the year (June-August) and are found primarily in the Snake and Salmon rivers.)
Even when the store isnt full of wader-clad, vest wearing, tale-spewing anglers, Poppy does a hearty business over the internet and through the mail (75% of sales are made this way). Ive sent rods to Russia, Sweden, the U.K., Canada and to servicemen in Afghanistan and Iraq, he lists. Poppy figures hes sent rods, lines, leaders, reels and other fishing sundries to every continent. Sometimes he sends them just for people to try out. Through his Test Drive Program, Poppy will send tackle to anyone who wants to give it a try. Theres never been any charge, except for return postage.
When you try to press him to reveal his favorite rod, its like trying to get a fisherman to revel his favorite hole. Poppy insists, Ive never met a spey rod I didnt like. Whether its a Burkheimer, Echo, Loomis, Sage or other brand found within the walls of the Red Shed, Poppy fishes with every rod he sells. And if the Shed burns down tomorrow and there is only one rod left, Poppy wouldnt care which one it wasas long as he can fish with both hands in the river he adores.
While fishingand all things steelheadis one of the major loves of his life, it isnt the only one. Poppy is pretty enamored with his grandchildren, diesel trucks and handguns as well. His grandkids all live within eight miles of their granddad. Theyre all close to the bank of Poppy, he jokes. His nickname was bestowed upon him by his grandson Josh. (One of his other grandsons called him Poopy, but fortunately that didnt stick!). And if you are surfing around his website, youll find pictures of all the little onesstaffing the store, showing off Red Shed hats; They make cheap models, laughs Poppy.
Like any good Idahoan, Poppy also loves his guns; handguns in particular. Hes started a little side business selling copper-plated bullets and reloading components, and he likes to head out behind the house for a bit of target shooting. By selling bullets, hes able to get them for himself at a wholesale price. I can kind of feed my addiction, he explains.
Poppy doesnt miss his days on the road, Im pretty content to stay right here and fish, he muses. So, if you want to meet Poppy, talk steelhead and cast with a big rod, you better head down two-laned Highway 12 about 8 miles west of Orofino. Along the way, dont forget to stop and fish.
The Clearwater has over 75 miles of primo water between Potlatch mill and Clear Creek above Kooskia, ID. Whichever direction you come from, if you visit me you will have passed around 35 miles of river with a lot of good spots to fish. As you travel along the river you will see some spots that will just look fishy. Those are the places I would try first, Poppy advises.
Big Sky Journal
March 04, 2008