Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

A Passion for Casting
Charlie Reading devotes his life to
sharing his knowledge and love of fly fishing

by Bob McEowen

Ivan Lally of Naperville, Ill., takes a seat while Charlie Reading discusses fly rods at length at his fly shop near Bennett Spring State Park.

Charlie Reading answers the phone and almost instantly launches into a "here's your problem" explanation to the caller.

The man on the phone is visiting Bennett Spring State Park for a few days of trout fishing but is having difficulty casting with a fly rod he bought the day before. Although the rod was purchased from a competitor, Charlie invites the caller to his fly fishing shop for help with the problem.

Within minutes Bill Leach arrives at Reading's Fly Shop with the new rod in hand and his wife in tow.

Charlie takes one look at the man's equipment and begins what will prove to be an hour-long monologue that is part instruction and part tirade. He recounts thehistory of rod development, critiques the products of various tackle manufacturers and extols the virtues of fly casting as opposed to merely catching fish.

Charlie's discourse continues as other customers come into the store and are drawn in. "I get pretty charged up with this stuff," Charlie admits. "If I've got people listening and I've got a message I get wound up."

For 22 years Charlie has dispensed advice and opinions while selling rods, reels, line and other tackle to the thousands of fly fishermen who flock to Bennett Spring State Park each year. For the past 15 years he's held court at his own shop located about a mile down Highway 64 from the park, one of the top trout fishing destinations in Missouri. While there are other stores in and around the park, few merchants delve so deeply into the intricacies of the sport or are so eager to share their views.

Charlie Reading demonstrates a rod to Bill Leach of Cuba, Mo.

Leach, an intermediate fly fisherman from Cuba, Mo., clearly appreciates the attention he receives. He listens in rapt attention while his wife stands by glassy-eyed, lost in the minutiae. Eventually, the two head to the front lawn where Charlie offers a casting lesson and brings out a few rods for Leach to try.

"That's not unusual," Charlie says later. "A lot of times I'll spend two or three hours with somebody and they won't buy anything."

This time he made a sale — a $300 rod. While sales keep the shop doors open, it is sharing his knowledge and views with customers that drives Charlie. He seems most happy when customers challenge his opinions.

"What I'm more proud of than anything else I do is truthfully evaluating what I'm selling," he says. "I'm blatantly honest about how I feel and I'm willing to take the time to share that with people and expect, I actually want my customers to say, 'Prove it.'"

Charlie's enthusiasm can be intimidating but those who know him look past the zealous and sometimes brash exterior and recognize him for the expert he is.

Charlie tries a rod while attending the annual Fly Fishing Conclave at Bennett Spring State Park. Charlie made the welcoming address at the event.

"He's very passionate about his work but very informative and very instructive and very helpful," says Rick Johnston, who owns the Circle J Campground and Restaurant where Charlie joins the conversation over coffee each morning.

"And very opinionated," Johnston adds. "But, you know, my daddy told me it ain't bragging if you can back it up. Charlie can back it up."

Charlie's passion for fly fishing began as a child. The son of a military man, he was born overseas but his family settled on a farm near Lebanon. When not doing chores, Charlie fished."I was absolutely fanatical about fishing," he says. While Charlie learned to fishwith spinning tackle, once he experienced casting a weightless nymph or dry fly on a bamboo fly rod there was no turning back.

"There is nothing like fly fishing," says Charlie, 47. "It's incredibly rich in literature. It encourages and satisfies and promotes the artistic person — tying your own flies, making your own rods, doing things like that — it gets you actively involved in the outdoors. It's a sport where you solve problems and mysteries. It's a lot more than fishing."

After graduating from the College of the Ozarks with a degree in biology and chemistry Charlie returned to Bennett Spring and took a job at the area's sole fly shop. There he earned a reputation for his knowledge of fishing and equipment.

As a sideline Charlie built fly rods. By the time he opened his own shop in 1985 he was known for rods with feathers beautifully inlayed along the shaft and handles made with contrasting exotic woods. He even made a rod which Trout Unlimited presented to the first President Bush.

As Charlie's acclaim grew so did his opportunities. Often at the invitation of rod customers, he traveled to far-away lands to pursue exotic game fish.

"I've fished in warm water, cold water, cool water, salt water, fresh water, all forms of fly fishing. From tarpon in the Florida Keys to Central America where I've fished for bonefish, 'cudas, stuff like that," says Charlie who also works as a travel agent, booking fishing trips through his shop.

Although Charlie builds few rods these days he built a reputation for customized rods that featured inlayed feathers and handles with contrasting exotic woods.

"I've fished for black bass in New Guinea. I've been to Christmas Island in the central Pacific 10 times. I've fished in New Zealand six times for trout, rainbows and browns. I love it. That's my favorite place to fish."

These experiences added to his knowledge of the sport and made him all the more valuable to his customers back home. Ironically, Charlie says he almost never fishes his home waters. Instead, the local spring branch and surrounding park provide a foundation for what he hopes will be a fly fishing shop with national reach.

"What's really great about this area is that it brings people from all over the United States. If I can make a lasting impression then when they get ready to buy some tackle they'll pick up the phone and buy from me," he says.

"When they get ready to spend their money I want to leave them with a message, 'Did anyone else take the time to give you this information before they started selling you something?'" Charlie asks, his voice rising as he plays out an imagined conversation.

To encourage this loyalty Charlie is expanding his business. He's adding onto his showroom and is constructing a 100-foot-long casting pond in the front yard. He's also increasing his emphasis on classes and a guide service.

Charlie offers Ivan Lally casting pointers on the lawn in front of Reading's Fly Shop.

Charlie, of course, will continue to hold court on all matters relating to fly fishing.

During the March through October trout fishing season Charlie is at the shop seven days a week, from early in the morning until late at night. With a variety of the highest quality fly fishing equipment — including tackle for waters far beyond Missouri — and perhaps the largest selection of fly fishing books in the nation Reading's Fly Shop is a must-stop for visiting fisherman.

Still, it is Charlie they come to see.

"He's probably more technical than the average person needs but if you're serious about fly fishing he's the guy to talk to," says Ivan Lally, a fisherman from Naperville, Ill., who calls on Charlie during annual fishing pilgrimages to Bennett Spring State Park. "He's the best that I've ever come across."

The combination of Charlie's zeal and his extensive knowledge make for a shopping experience not commonly found today. Even he recognizes it can be a bit overwhelming.

"I know at times I get too intense," Charlie says. "I am very competitive in the fly fishing business. I absolutely go right after it with my teeth showing. "I love what I do in here and I'm driven by it."

Reading's Fly Shop is located east of Bennett Spring State Park on Highway 64 about 10 miles west of Lebanon. You can call Charlie at (417) 588-4334.

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