Thursday, June 20, 2019

"I've never even fuckin' seen it!"

Olympic Peninsula winter, a few years ago.  The plan is to meet four visiting anglers plus one of my buddies in the grocery store parking lot at 6:00 am.  My buddy and I are to informally guide the visitors on a river that requires a lengthy drive and our own shuttle.  The visitors are from Texas and Colorado and they are not experienced steelheaders or Spey casters, but they are keen anglers, and loose business colleagues, so we'll show them what's what.  They'll probably get skunked, and we've told them this information before they booked their flights, but they said that's fine, and are just looking forward to doing the thing.

6:00 am, grocery store parking lot.  Me, and four clients, no sign of the other 'guide'.

6:11 am, grocery store parking lot.  My phone rings; my buddy.  I take a few steps away from the excited, waiting anglers.

"Yo, where you at?"

"Dude.  Last night went a pretty late.  I'm running behind."


"I'll be there in 20."

I return to the circle of excited, waiting anglers.

"Is he close?"

"Kind of.  He'll be here in 20."

6:43 am, grocery store parking lot.  My buddy pulls in, and parks diagonally across four spots with his boat.  The door flings open.

"Holy shit!  I think I'm still drunk!"

Eyebrows raise.

"I had to pull over once because I thought I was going to boot, and then I almost aced a deer!"

Nervous chuckles from the four excited, waiting anglers.

"Holy shit man, I..."

I cut him off.

"OK, yea, let's go."

Two of the four excited, waiting, now nervous anglers climb into my truck, and the other two reluctantly climb into their own, to run the shuttle.  I sense thankfulness that they're not getting into my buddy's.  We make the drive south. We drop the boats in, throw gear in, double check everything, and then run the shuttle, my buddy and I in our rigs, the two excited, waiting, nervous anglers from Texas in theirs.

At the take out, we park the trailers and climb in with the Texans, my buddy and I in the back seat.  Typical guide-client conversation ensues.

"How's the season been?  Have you caught any?  What are the reports?  What flies do you like?  How long have you been out here?"

Short, vague answers.

"When's the last time you fished this river?"

"Ha!" my buddy chirps.  "I've never even fuckin' seen it!"

The two excited, waiting, nervous, now questioning anglers shoot a glance to each other.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

There's a pond

There's a pond in western Washington that a buddy told me about.  It's small, 15 acres, and has one access point.  The put-in is the exact minimum diameter to turn a truck and trailer around in, and dump the boat in.  It reminds me of ponds in Maine and it doesn't feel like Washington there. 

Once, a good buddy from England was visiting for work and we fished the pond together.  We were planning to go steelheading, but it had rained a lot and the river blew out.  So we went to this pond; neither of us had been there.

If I remember correctly, I missed a strike or had a follow on my first cast.  In this instance, that was exactly the sign of things to come as we had quite a day of catching.  We didn't count, or I don't remember the count, but I do know we were at 20 in short time.

Eventually we tired of catching them in on streamers, so we rigged up a dry fly stick.  We had seen a few rises, but couldn't make out any bugs on the water.  We took turns, one guy fishing, one guy rowing the boat slowly down the shore, and we worked structure and drop-offs.

A fish rose within range, under some overhanging trees.  My buddy took his shot and his fly landed in the branch.  Gently shaking his rod, the fly fell out of the tree and landed about where the fish had rose.  The fish rose again, and took the fly.  We laughed, landed the fish, and switched seats.

Once settled, I started working the same area.  I made several casts but nothing happened.  We agreed to move on but before we did, my buddy suggested I take a shot at the same spot he had just caught his fish in.

I made my cast and it too landed directly in the same overhanging limb.  I too shook the rod gently and the fly fluttered out of the tree onto the water.  Another fish rose and took it.  We caught eyes, exchanged a telepathic agreement that we should try this method another time, then switched spots again.

But we could not repeat it.  Specifically, my buddy seemed unable to cast into the tree!  Perfect cast after perfect cast onto the water, he pulled them all back and tried to put that fly into that limb again, but after some number of tries, he shrugged and motioned further down the bank.  We carried on.  Have you ever had that happen to you?  You're trying to make a very specific cast, and you try and try again, and you just can't get it quite right, so you give up, for a moment, on actually trying to catch a fish, and only on that one very specific cast you're trying to make and you either finally make the cast, and feel good about it, or you never make the very specific cast, and you just basically surrender, give up and move on, but 'moving on' actually means just returning to fishing, which is totally fine and good anyway, so your failure to make the very specific cast doesn't bother you very much, but only a little.  Has that ever happened to you?

Head in the McClouds

Drove to Californi,
a weekend just with me.
Found the bumpy dirt road,
17 miles of it, directions told.

In the bottom of the canyon flowed,
a river - high, blue, deep and cold.
It was all new to me, the place and the ways,
I found that to figure it out, would take me some days.

The deep pools were deeper than deep,
the steep banks were steeper than steep.
On the trails there were poison leaves,
and snakes slithering amongst the trees.

The air was hot, the sun was bright,
my wading boots I had tied tight.
I entered the river and began to angle,
with long, double-nymphs rigs that were prone to tangle.

It had been some time since my last trout,
but catch them I would, I had little doubt.
One or two indeed came to my hand,
but not at the rate of which my mind had planned.

Excuses I would make,
of why the trout I could not take.
Alas, Jesse, do not forget,
just to fish is why you came, not just to fill your net.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

"And eat that fucking sandwhich quickly, would ya?"

Florida Keys.  May.  Sun.  Light wind.  Tarpon season.  And they’re there.

We’re getting shots all day.  We’re on the ocean side and you can see ‘em coming from two football fields away.  Find their course, make sure your line isn’t snagged on anything, start your cast, and let it fly.  Cross the string by five or six feet, wait until they’re almost there and then slide it into the zone.  If the string is long enough, wait until two or three go by, then bring it into the middle of the string.  You can see them look at it, and when they peel out of the string, you stop breathing, the boat goes quiet, you can’t hear anything anyway, and you wait for bucket mouth to open and the fly to disappear.  Hit her, steer the bus, clear line and hold the hell on.

It’s after noon and everyone – me, my fishing partner, and the guide – are hungry, but no one dares stop fishing, for fear the fish stop showing.  I’ve just whiffed on three shots; three strikes and I’m out.  I’m starving, so I go for the Cuban Mix sandwich from Sandy’s and a beer from the cooler.
I’m sitting on top of the cooler, middle of the boat, behind the casting deck, in front of the console.  I’ve got the sandwich wrapper spread across my thighs, beer can held between my knees, chowing down, when we see a string coming.

My partner starts his cast.  Mid-bite, I stop chewing, frozen in position, waiting for the mayhem.  They’re coming in quick, 70 feet and closing.  Two false casts and he’s at 50 feet, ready.

“Now,” our guide says from the poling platform.

The delivery cast.  He lays it down.  At the exact same moment, I crane from my seat just slightly to see it go down, and just enough for my legs’ grip of the beer can to loosen.  Fly and fly line lands on the water, five feet in front of the lead fish as the beer can hits the deck.  The string scatters.

My partner turns from the casting platform and glares right through me.

The guide chuckles.

“Why don’t you stay up there for an extra shot, Paul,” he says.  “And eat that fucking sandwich quickly, would ya?”

Monday, March 18, 2019

Can you believe that?

Fall.  Senior year of college.  Fall break.  A week dismissed from academia.  Read: go do something awesome with your best buddies.

Five of you lash two canoes to two station wagon roofs and head for a deep lake, at the northwestern end of which sits a campsite that one has been to before.  The supplies are, to use the word that you adopted then for its cliché, absurdity and appropriateness, “fratty”: twice as much bacon and eggs and potatoes as is necessary, a large bag of Cajun trail mix, other various bars and backpacking foods and two glass gallon jugs of Carlo Rossi wine, which has come to be one of several signature drinks of the college fishing club, of which you are all very, very important members of.

The second night around the campfire.  The remaining jug is passed around, and around, and around, until its location and existence is forgotten.  And then, disaster.  Where is the Carlo?!

How can you lose, misplace a glass gallon jug of wine in a 20’ wide circle?  Did it walk off, to take a piss in the bushes and forget its way back?  Did it evaporate, the same way the last two days did?  Did someone hide it, as a joke, and then have their memory of its location disappear like all the answers to the midterms you all just took?  Was it burned?  Five stumbling, mumbling, jumbling college kids, on top of the world, cannot find the wine, and it is a serious problem.

One guy looks in the tent.  One guy looks in the canoes.  One guy looks so far away from the campfire that it’s a joke.  One guy doesn’t get up, just looks behind his stump seat.

The last, the one sitting only a few feet from the lake’s edge, yells.  Everyone looks.  Reaching into the lake, as if grabbing a fresh born baby, as if landing a giant trout, as if pulling a piece of bacon that fell into the fire and that shouldn’t have, as if finding a single piece of agate on a gravel bar a quarter-mile long, he has the jug of wine in both hands and raises it above his head, yelling, “I got it!!”  By some absurd chance, the jug has rolled and fallen into the lake in just the perfect way that the opening landed perfectly downward so that the air inside the jug has held the wine inside, lake water creating a seal preventing any from draining.  No one can remember how much was in it when it was lost, but there is enough left that it’s enough for the rest of the night and also just the most recent of countless, tiny but unbelievable events that happened that make this trip story-worthy.

Your hangover the next day makes you wish, slightly, that you never found the jug again.  But, what a story.  Can you believe that?

Friday, March 15, 2019

We had the bugs on the wall dying.

A plan is hatched: meet up, drive there, go fishing. 

“You wanna?”
“Yea, let’s.”
“Cool, I’ll pick you up at the airport.”

Las Vegas, an unsuspecting hub for outdoor recreation, especially fly fishing.  The drive to Lee’s Ferry is only four and a half hours from there though; an easy shot for two old friends.  The Strip in the rearview, a glowing dome in the middle of the middle of desert, as you speed away.  Remember the last time we were there?  Barely.

A motel room awaits you and a late night arrival is expected, so when you get there before you think you would, it seems early.  Too excited and wound up to sleep.  The old friend has an old reel that’s really loud.  The two of you wind a new fly line onto the old spool and it echoes off the motel room walls.  You both cringe and giggle as you do this, because you can imagine what it sounds like in the neighboring rooms, but hey, you gotta do it now, you can’t do it in the morning.

Rod pieces are put together, reels are screwed onto reel seats, fly lines are strung, leaders are looped, even flies are tied on.  Packs are packed, water bottles are filled, articles are placed neatly and precisely by the door, so you won’t forget, even though you wouldn’t.  It’ll save you four minutes in the morning and since you only have 12 hours to fish, you do it now at – what time is it?  You need to sleep.

Alarms awake.  Disorientation.  Sit up and stare at each other from your motel Queen beds.  Let’s go!  Quick!  Get to the car!  Don’t let the others get there before us! 
A long day on the river.  Then, back to the motel in time to watch the sun go down from your patio.  Après-fishing.  Each moment more than the last.

It’s barely dark and you’re beat.  Tomorrow you will do it again.  In bed, sipping whiskey, watching bad television.  In the morning, you’re told that you fell asleep mid-conversation.

Again, alarms.  As awake as you were when you arrived; it’s 26 hours later.  You realize you don’t have to meet your guide for two hours.  Spend the next 90 minutes pacing, chatting, puttering, packing, checking gear, re-packing, watching the clock, killing time in pre-dawn excitement as thick as when you met at the airport.  We fished for 20 hours over two days but it’s this one specific hour-and-a-half in the motel room, awake early because you went to bed early because you were beat because you stayed up late then got up early, waiting for the right time to go fishing, having a conversation that’s half-incoherent, half-profound, full-hysterical, that I remember most, even though I don’t really remember any of it.  We had the bugs on the wall dying.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

It's 4:00 am and you're a hundred miles offshore.

It’s 4:00 am and you’re a hundred miles offshore.  You left the dock 14 hours ago, you and three of your best.  After a four hour run, you reached The Edge and your captain pulled back on the throttle for the first time since leaving the inlet.  Everyone stands up and stretches, relieving their bodies from the tensed, flexed positions you held for the run.  Four young men relieve themselves and then four beers are produced from the cooler, which looks like it’s about to be brought to a party that you all had attended in college only a few years prior.  Beer cans are touched, nods and smiles are passed, and cold, light beer is chugged.  Then the work begins.

Bait is prepped by two while the other two begin setting outriggers and placing rods in specific rod holders.  Soon, six rods are in.  Big, bright gold Penn Internationals reflect the setting sun.  The engines are again put into gear, this time at a slow, calculated pace.  You assume the positions – captain at the helm, first mate behind him, leaning against the bait prep table, and you and the remaining mate taking places alongside the cockpit - and you are fishing.

You troll until after dark, taking passes along a length of The Edge, and then call it for the evening.  Lines are reeled in, the Penns making their unmistakable, mechanical retrieve sounds.  The handles are as big as car door handles, and they fit your hand well.  A few more rounds of beer are consumed and without discussion, two guys take to massive bean bags for a few hours of restless sleep.  The air is warm and humid, but cooling fast.  The sleep is barely that.

You and the fourth guy sit next to each other in the cockpit, softly discussing the morning’s fishing to come, catching up on some of your recent fishing trips, and what you have been doing since the last time you saw each other, which was a week ago. 

An iPod is produced from a hatch, and plugged into the vessel’s stereo system.  Robert Earl Keen’s album “Gringo Honeymoon” is played in its entirety.  When the title track comes on, the boat goes quiet, and the two of you just listen.  You listen to every word as close as you ever have. 

It’s 4:00, a hundred miles offshore, but your mind has taken you to some western oasis in another time, where “a crusty caballero” plays “an old gut string guitar” and “sang like Marty Robbins could.”  You are fishing, with your best buddies.