Monday, June 3, 2019
“You must really like to eat fish,” the friend of a friend says to me while sipping her latte.
“Um, well, actually I release most of the fish I catch,” I mumble, aware where this is inevitably going to end up.
“So, you like to fish, and you admit you like to eat fish, but instead you release them?”
“Well, see, it is all about nature, and beauty, environmental stewardship, appreciation of the fish and the river… See, fly-fishing is more than just fishing…”
Really, though, when it comes down to it, I reflect, it is just a simple game with rules that a four-year-old could grasp: Go down to lake or river with rod and reel. Catch fish. Repeat.
Being romantics, we always want to make more out of it. Take a simple essence and surround it with volumes of philosophy.
Make it into some sort of metaphysical and existential reflection and journey. Make it into a metaphor, and find life-lessons in it. Sit by the river pondering Camus. Assigning anthropomorphic qualities to things we see around us. Our flies are art, not craft we argue to ourselves, as if just accused anonymously by an upstart and impudent child. We’re not just fishing see… we are, well, experiencing some sort of primal harmony. “It’s all poetry,” we murmur out loud, even if the hypocrisy peeks its irritating head through a tiny doorway in our brain, reminding us that the last time we attempted to read Robert Frost, we fell asleep.
It just has to be more than a simple game of cat and mouse. We refuse any assertion that at times it can be quite easy. “Takes years and skill,” we argue to the trees while raising fish after fish with a fly that the carefully tied hackle fell off of on the first cast.
We have been caught by family members while lying in the filled bathtub with scuba gear, congratulating ourselves on the latest revelation or innovation in fly design. We have been admonished and punished by angry spouses when our latest attempts at dying hackle stained the sink a very interesting shade of blue-dun.
‘Normal or mundane’ folks refer to them as bugs, but we know better. They are Ephemerella subvaria. It makes a difference we reflect… Appreciation and knowledge and such.
There was once a time when we contemplated homicide as a careless Aunt referred to our cane fly rod as a “Fishing pole.”
We don’t just take a drink from the river, we sip of the essence of life, forgetting while we do so, that the last time we did this we ended up with the runs for a week.
What other kind of sport could so inspire, that we could be found late upon a cold winter morning, seated in front of the fireplace in the study, dressed only in a robe and our underwear, surrounded by tackle and fly-boxes, dreaming dreams of spring.
I once read somewhere that a newlywed bride told her friend, “My husband does not drink, smoke, or chase women, instead, he fly-fishes.”
Several years later, she admitted to the same friend that if it were up to her, she wished he did a few of those other things, and a bit less fishing.
“It’s complicated,” I try to explain to the friend of a friend; “It’s sublime.” Hearing those words from my mouth with the clarity of an out of body experience, I smile about how I am going to explain why it is ‘sublime’ to match wits with a creature with a brain the size of a match-head, attempt to fool it with a bit of old string and some smelly fur, and end up coming up short most of the time.
“Perhaps it is a journey in humility,” I reason out loud, remembering when arrogance kept us from talking to that guy with the spinning rod that was out-fishing us ten to one. Pride before the fall? Arrogance before humility, or humbleness only because of prior arrogance… More philosophy.
What other sport would have us attempt, via some hidden and unknown rosetta stone, to decipher and make sense of the many ill-written books on fly-fishing? Some being tomes of astounding tediousness and practically unreadable. What other sport would have us chuckle with the fine author Nick Lyons, as everything possible goes wrong and he falls in the river? Perhaps it is because we have been there ourselves. We may reflect back to the time when, on the subject of beauty and fly-casting, we attempted, in a local park, to show our spouse the inherent ballet in a properly made loop, only to have a seagull eat the piece of yarn we were using as a fly, and after taking out all the line, tangle it forever in a large oak tree.
“It’s complicated…” I mumble through current muffin crumbs, watching the departing back of the friend of a friend, and looking down at the spilled coffee, and the single word traced with it on the table: “Crazy.”
After much reflection, I have come to completely agree.
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
|Nasturtiums, a painting by my mother.|
Seamus lay on his side by the banks of the stream and took in the fullness of the May morning. Wildflowers were poking out their heads from amongst the grass and unfurling their colors. The valley was full of the yellow sun, and the resplendent green that only a spring day can bring; not quite green… a sort of yellow green… a youthful green, an infant green, a green of freshness. It gave him a feeling of innocence.
He was watching a long slow pool on the river shaded by a willow tree. Although he could not locate a single mayfly on or over the water, the trout were jumping into the air and performing summersaults in the air before slipping headfirst back into their freshet realm. He had never seen anything like it before. By twos and threes, the fish leapt into the air as if wishing to taste the surface world’s greening. A warbler provided a woodwind accompaniment from his perch amongst the bursting buds of the willow.
Seamus watched the trout for a few minutes, and pondered the ballet before him. In his hand was his father’s cherished H.L. Leonard bamboo fly rod. He turned his attention from his puzzle on the water to the handle of the rod. The cork was stained with long use. He could discern the imprint of his father’s thumb at the top end of the cork. He placed his thumb into the impression and closed his eyes, his ears still attuned to the splashes of the fish.
“Why do the trout jump?”
He thought about his father for a few minutes as the sun warmed his face pleasantly. What would he have said? He conjured a scene from his childhood in the old man’s study, a place of quiet and learning; a place of science and precision. His father stood looking at a book he had carefully taken out of the shelves buttressing the room, and easing down his glasses over his nose, was busy lecturing Seamus on the natural world. The question never was asked except in his imagination, but he knew the process of the answer would take him through anatomy, weather and barometric pressure, and angler’s streamside observations carefully recorded and now called into the courtroom to answer the question. Another book would be opened and another passage read, the author’s name preceding the quote, along with the date and the page number. Seamus would be expected to listen attentively as the case was made. His father was a lawyer, and the study in their large house in Dublin. Patrick McDermott esq. believed in science and logic, and it served him well in the courts. He would apply the same thorough analysis to this mystery of the trout. There would be a reason in the end. No mystery… but an uncovering of motive and resulting behavior. The fish would be subjected to the psychology of the individual and the group, and there would be a solution. The book would then be shut.
What that solution was, eluded Seamus’ daydreams for now, as ethereal as the memory of his father’s voice, and the smoke from his pipe as the vision dissolved in his head. He opened his eyes to the brightness of a flowering dandelion awash in bold impressionist brushstrokes of yellow and hints of orange; his mother’s favorite flower.
Mary McDermott loved God’s world and his works. She once told a young Seamus, (awash in stains from crawling through the grass and garden in the front lawn of their Dublin home), that “Dandelions were God’s paintbrushes.” He could see in his mind’s eye the ochre streaks on his boy’s pants held up with suspenders. He had felt that the stains were something bad; something he would be punished for, and had looked on his mother through tears of questioning guilt.
Whatever his mother said to him that day, and every other day she encouraged him or explained something, the focus would be God. Mary’s world was one of faithful contentment. There was a reason and a will behind every breath, every leaf that fell, every bird that sang, every bruise, and bloody knee; that of the Lord and his plan. We could not question with anger the stubbed toes of life, nor curse the road’s turns when they turned away from us, for man was the center of a plan in God’s garden, and there was a reason for everything; one that would include stories and fairy-tales and passages from the Bible as she combed his hair or mended his torn shirt. What the answer would be in the end would be sweet and simple, but remain a defined mystery. Her smile and the sense of comfort in that mystery was in complete contrast to his father’s academic approach, yet love and security warmed the young Seamus.
Mary would have said that the trout jump because it is God’s will. There would be a profound rightness and peace in her answer.
As Seamus’ eyes opened upon the banks of the stream, his left hand brushed against a tiny wildflower opening its purple petals to stare up at him. Purple was his little sister Rose’s favorite color, despite her name. She always wore a purple ribbon in her long strawberry-blonde hair as she followed him through his daily adventures. She was his favorite, and he was hers. She was as happy as he was inquisitive, his dark curly hair and brows contrasting with her round apple dimples and tiny white teeth. He made up stories for her full of knights and ladies, castles among the garden and frog princes at the edge of the little pond bordered with primrose. She listened and smiled… and always laughed.
He had visited her in her house in County Claire, married now and with a daughter and son of her own. The children taking them back to their youth in Dublin with their antics, and reminding them of stories they shared over a wine made with those dandelions of youth and crisp as their memories. Her smile and innocent exuberance had never changed. They had instead just grown larger with age and beauty.
Seamus recalled the day when he (ten years old and feeling ten feet tall and full of imagined manhood) had in response to a question posed by Rose as to why a lark, perching in a lilac bush was singing. He was doing his best to embody his father, and the answer was scientific and clinical; something about mating and territory. His voice filled with importance.
Rose had laughed and threw a handful of grass into his hair. She replied “No, silly! He is singing because he is happy!”
He opened his eyes. The trout were still jumping. Where science and religion only began to illuminate and uncover the beauty of a simple answer, innocence prevailed. She was right… the trout jumped because they were happy!
He was happy too, he thought aloud, as he bit off the fly at the end of his leader, never having wet a line that morning, but instead gathered wildflowers in his wicker creel for a love somewhere that awaited that perfect innocence he now felt.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
A repost from a vignette written years ago... Enjoy! one fine romp through fly-casting and why most everyone won't ever practice.
I was walking in the park the other day, as I am known to do from time to time, day-dreaming of trout rising and the possible relationship between squirrel behavior and the plots of Verdi’s Operas (there isn’t any), when I stopped before the little par-3 golf course, and specifically, before the putting green. There stood a group of guys and gals wearing acceptable golf attire and endlessly practicing their putting.
That gave me an inspiration, and after concluding my walk with more useless speculation as to why overweight middle-aged men are irresistibly attracted to loud farting motorbikes, I ambled back to the car, where in the trunk sat a nifty glass fly rod and a reel complete with line and an old leader. “Putt away you St. Andrew’s dreamers,” I thought aloud to myself, “I will join you on the Itchen…er… Itchy Grass River,” as I swatted a mosquito on my ankle.
I placed three trout (twigs rather of the birch or char variety) at different distances and conjured the spirit of Charles Ritz as I played with rhythms and thumb pressure and timing, and the fly (a piece of a nearby convenient gum-wrapper) landed as close as I could make it to the targets. I had done this for half an hour, and was getting ready to leave, when a guy walking his dog asked me the dreaded question... “Are you catching anything?” “Just practicing for senility” I quipped, causing him to tighten the leash on rover a bit and curl an eyebrow as he walked just a fraction faster and changed directions to take him and his canine companion away from me all the quicker.
I had become “That Guy.” You know the one or the type. The guy with the long beard who plays the bagpipes near the kite-flying area: the idiot dressed up as a mime who stands dead-still outside a shop window posed as a mannequin for hours: or one of those train-spotters who everybody fears will start talking to them about trains.
Yet, as I pondered in that park, fly-anglers should do this. They should be seen on ponds and rivers practicing with the long rod; line making graceful loops so that their time on the river is filled more with reflection and less with frustration. Yet, I am the only person I have ever seen doing this. That might be due to too much time at the tying vise or the fact that my glasses might need updating, but I don’t think so.
Years ago it was common in any park with a lagoon or pond to house a casting club. England and France had them in spades and so did America, especially during the Great Depression and into the 1950s where they were a family outing and a cheap source of recreation. The great fly-casters were formed here, especially in organizations such as the Casting Club of Paris, or the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in San Francisco. The Golden Gate club still exists, but most of the local groups sedately casting away in local parks and sipping beers on weekends withered away as their members died off and younger generations never went out doors or suffered from maladies such as Digital Flu, or Too Busy Disorder.
Awhile back, another avid fly-fisherman and I seriously discussed starting a casting club. We would meet, it was postulated, at a local park on the river, and each caster would bring a rod and a bottle of wine and some cheese. Cigars would be welcome. It was to be a fraternal men’s group. A place where lies could accompany clarets, plumes of smoke, and loops of line. The idea of each bringing fine cane, glass, and graphite rods to share and try out reached a snag when a local doctor, who considers himself a great fly-angler was handed a rod by me to try out and immediately began major malpractice on it. Yea, that’s what I needed. “Sorry about the rod Erik… it just seemed to break mysteriously.”
I imagined who would show up at the group. Ten people at first and a fine time would be had by all, and then seven and finally four… two being tournament casters sporting 19 foot graphite lances and shooting heads and competing against each other (and the rest of us who couldn’t give a shit). The other guy would be some codger with a crooked Orvis Battenkill or Wright McGill who never fished and drank all our wine. The final two would my friend and I who would become more and more aware that Oscar Wilde’s famous quote that “I would never be a member of a club that would have my likes as a member” might apply here. Even if it worked out, I mused, it might just turn into an elongated casting lesson for free, which is part of my day-job anyway. I still might try to organize a club like this, but am aware that it might become the world’s most misanthropic and lonely men’s club.
I thought back to the 12 years or so that I had taught for local clubs and organizations at their annual casting clinics and picnic. Inevitably as the picnic progressed, more and more people wandered into the open fields and knolls to cast their fly-rods, but as I began the formal tutorial, I would be left with only the true beginners, as the rest of the established club members would rise in unison like a pod of German Browns to the scent of cooking bratwurst and foamy hops and retire back to the riffle of the picnic tables, leaving me to do whatever it is that an instructor does with 20 new casters.
Don’t get me wrong, I like teaching beginners the best. Wide eyes and good listening skills result in good casters and less bad habits, unlike the guys in the clubs who would demonstrate the same fatal flaws I tried to break them of for the past ten years to no avail.
When I did manage to cast with one of the regular members, they always offered the same caveat or excuse. “I am not a really good caster,” they would proclaim, and then slink away to ensure that their handicap would not be rectified anytime soon. I was puzzled. Then one of the older and wiser fellas told me that “They didn’t want to look bad, and were embarrassed by their casting.” Aha… and how silly. Then why was I there to teach a casting class, if the majority of casters were too shy to learn? Was fishing a game of lies? Were those tales told at club meetings where the 50 foot cast using 6X tippet and a size 22 midge hooked a 20” brown trout best absorbed after a martini so dry it confounded the senses? Should Old Rusty’s tale include instead a foul hooked chub with a botched roll-cast and a size 10 Adams? I took a sip of scotch and feared to tread there for obvious reasons.
Yes, we don’t want to make fools out of ourselves. Perhaps that is why fly-fishing is a solitary sport. Our tales and treasured literature sees us tangling our line around gorse-bushes, inventing new choice invectives, splashing our line on the water and scaring away all the fish, and finally catching the smallest fish in the river once our dry-fly accidentally sank. We look around sheepishly and see if anyone noticed, and straighten up a bit when we find ourselves all alone. Nobody saw us thank dog… now back to hooking bank side brush or festooning trees with little ornaments.
Contrast that to the golf course. Here stand parties of golfers progressing forward on the links, all in open view. Here your foibles are in full-view to all. Slice that drive and hit your Boss’s elderly crippled mother in the noggin and you might want to take a look at that Peace Corps brochure. Botch that 15 foot putt ten times for a quadruple Humphrey Bogie and your face will be so red that you could take the place of the flag on hole # 19, that being the clubhouse after your sixth gin and whoopee. So golfers are far more serious than fly fishermen? Either that or they are more sensitive to embarrassment. For anglers are serious about their sport too. Yet they would rather be eaten by zombies than spend ten minutes twice a week in the back-yard solving their problems.
I remember the moment I began practicing in earnest and became a better caster as a result. It was during a fly-fishing event I was working at a local shop. One of the reps, a tournament caster took an 8-weight rod and threw the line into the backing with grace and little effort. He then offered me the rod, but I begged off saying that my arm hurt. Rather it was my ego that suffered contusions that day, for I had strength, but no grace, and poor timing at best. The next day found me at the park, fly-rod in hand. I have a nearly perfect forward cast today, but a back cast that several master casting instructors still puzzle over, frowning and wondering why it works at all. I continue to learn on the water and on the grass. Some day I will be a caster worthy of the river, but for now, there are still situations on the water that confound me, and if fly-fishing isn’t a game of problem-solving and challenges, then I will hang up my rod and my pen and horror of horrors… take up golf.
As I tell new fly anglers, “Nothing you can do will improve your fly-fishing fun and fulfillment more that learning to cast proficiently.” Not necessarily far, but at 30 feet. Pick-up and lay-down, roll, steeple, side-arm, reach, etc.
So if you hook your friend in the ear on your errant back-cast, the ensuing verbal conflagration might serve you well in remembering not to drop your rod tip or break your wrist. It also might serve as a reminder that you might want to join me at my lonely post as ‘That strange guy standing in the park and fishing in his mind’. The putting green awaits, and practice makes perfect… or perhaps less of a quadruple Bogy on the stream. But then you might have to bring a new tape-measure to the river with you to measure your success rather than the extent of the stretch of truth told over a 12 year old… err.. 6 year old, err… 6 month old scotch. Errr… cheap bourbon.
See you on the velvet green!
Thursday, March 21, 2019
The Rejuvenation (copyright Erik Helm 2009) reposted for your enjoyment... Top ten vote getter!
Author's note: Ever go to a fishing club meeting? So many of them seem like an excuse to get away from the wife and eat and drink and tell lies to the same old farts that have gathered together for so many stale years.... well... here is one club that never saw what was coming!
As Richard listened to the speaker from the Fish and Wildlife Department address the room on the subject of PH levels in area streams, he slowly looked around at his fellow club members. Al had melted into his chair, his pipe intermittently disgorging a cloud of smoke. Henry’s head was slowly nodding forward as sleep took his eyes and brain. Cuthbert was picking at his fingernails as always, and Ed was attempting to show he was paying attention by hitting himself between the eyes repeatedly with the eraser on his pencil.
This brought to Richard’s mind the same problem that had been bugging him for the past six months. The fly-fishing club had become stale. Boredom plagued the members. Richard had attempted to encourage new subjects from speakers, had pushed a membership drive in order to infuse new blood, and tried to interest the members in outings to new places, all to no avail. The club seemed to be happy with the status quo, however sleepy it was. Ennui.
Thinking back on the last several meetings and outings, Richard sighed as he recalled Al’s fly-tying seminar. Al was a good tyer, Richard had to admit, but for some reason, Al limited his fishing to three patterns: a pheasant tail-nymph, an elk-hair caddis, and an Adams. He tied them all perfectly, but that is all he tied. Richard had wondered more than once if his constraint in fishing the three patterns had anything to do with the fact that those flies were the only patterns Al had ever learned to tie. He also seemed to recall that at the last tying seminar the club held only three months ago, Al had demonstrated the same three flies.
Then there were Henry’s outings. Usually around half a dozen of the club’s members would take part in a group fishing day on a local stream. This April it had been Muskrat Creek. It was always Muskrat Creek for trout, or Custer Park Pond for bass. The members would begin arriving late in the morning, put in a desultory few hours of fishing, and then retire to a local watering hole where Al would tell them about his three flies, or Peter would talk about the time he almost met Jack Hemingway.
The outings had originally been intended as mentoring sessions for newer anglers. However, since there had been few new members in the last seven or eight years, the fishing days became more of a day to get away from the wife for a few hours. What few new members there had been mostly faded away within a few meetings, and never returned.
Therefore, as president, that was Richard’s dilemma: how to infuse new energy into the somnambulant angling club.
Last meeting he had booked a local guide who had a slide show on fishing for Atlantic striped bass from shore. One of the club members, Richard could not remember exactly which one, had followed up the presentation by asking the guide how the tactics he described might be applied on Custer Park Pond. Richard had cringed in embarrassment.
The speaker from the Fish and Wildlife Department had finished and departed, and the lights had been turned back up. Chuck, the club secretary and treasurer, was yawning and wiping sleep from his eyes as he began the formal part of the meeting: reading the minutes and taking care of new business, of which there usually was very little indeed.
She walked in carrying an old canvas rod bag in her left hand, her scent and legs preceding her.
The silence was so complete that Richard could hear Al’s pipe clatter to the floor.
“Hi!” she said with a sweet smile revealing a set of perfect teeth and full lips. “Is this the Peterborough Anglers Club?”
It was in the way she said it. There was no hint of shyness, just clarity and confidence. Her name was Ann, and she was spending her summer with an Aunt before returning to Boston to complete her master’s degree.
She was six feet of Boston Brahmin breeding and curves, topped off by long wavy red hair and green eyes. Her purple skirt flowed as she moved to find a chair and settle in. The green cable-knit sweater she wore complemented her perfectly.
Ann was looking to find some fly-fishing nearby, and had brought her grandfather’s seven-foot Payne bamboo rod with her for the summer. She told the club that she fished the Catskill region from time to time, but had not been on a stream for the past three months. Was there any chance of trout fishing nearby?
Richard sat in his car at the pullout of Muskrat Creek and watched with a wry smile as the club fished. It was seven a.m., and fully two dozen members were in the creek by now, following Ann slowly through the riffles. Henry seemed to have lost his limp, and left his wading staff back in his car. Cuthbert had a new hat, and was wearing it at a jaunty angle. Chuck had broken out his Bogdan reel, something he said he would never do. Richard grinned as he heard Al explaining to a member how to tie a Quill-Gordon as they walked down to the stream.
Even Stash, the oldest member in his late seventies, had a spring in his step, and had finally managed to stop dropping his rod-tip as he cast.
Richard shook his head in laughter as he reflected on all his attempts to rejuvenate the club, only to have the answer walk right through the door in the form of a feminine fountain of youth.
The next three months sure would be fun, he thought aloud as he pulled on his better pair of waders.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
Copyright 2019 Erik Helm: Short Story, Fiction, Humor
|Oh thou sinner!|
The parishioners to the Lutheran church in the town of Brule’ Wisconsin were a grim lot that Sunday when that memorable day happened. The motley congregation filed in silently, and sat with bloodshot eyes and sweating foreheads upon the notoriously uncomfortable pews that wobbled as one sat down, and creaked when one moved. Old Toivo’s hair had been combed and scrubbed, but was already coming astray with his twitching. The Paulson family, all 14 of them, were in the front with the patriarch, Linus Paulson trying to busy himself with the missal, his hands shaking from a wee too much brandy consumed at the Saturday festivities the evening before.
As the Pastor, Fr. Larsson panned his vision over the assembling devout; he reflected that today’s sermon was overdue. He blinked his rheumy eyes and nodded with a smile to Leena, the oldest of the worshipers, covered from head to toe in black lace. There were moans and coughs coming from the back, where the less pious and roughest sinners and recalcitrants of the area were packed together and fidgeting. Funny, Fr. Larsson thought to himself, how they always pack to the front and to the back, and leave the middle like an empty purgatory inhabited only by a few ghostly figures. Yes, they all were suffering the after-effects of potent potables. He could even smell them from the pulpit. So be it. The lord moves in mysterious ways.
Fr. Larsson looked at his watch, and then at his trembling hands. “Never again!” he mumbled under his breath, as he thought back to the bridge, and the birth of today’s sermon.
There was a conspicuous silence as the congregation followed Fr. Larsson out of the clapboard church, and shook his hand with a greeting and forced smile. As the parishioners broke into family groups and retired home to Sunday dinner or to Michael's tavern, the later a little guiltily, the questions were murmured, “What had made him do it?” After all Fr. Larsson was as fond of his spirits as he was of the holy variety. Didn’t he come every evening to Michael’s for a wee drop of something medicinal already smelling if he had gotten into the sacramental wine? Didn’t he toast them and their families, and even perhaps before leaving, sometimes even buy a round? Sure, didn’t he carry in his jacket pocket a bottle with no label half-filled with some sort of medicine against the cold fitted with a cork stopper? What had filled him with such brimstone and gall as he railed against alcohol and sputtered and spat the words from Proverbs and Ephesians at them? Was it hypocrisy now… or was it…? The thought of a repentant temperance-pastor and crusader gave them all a bit of a thirst, and the talk turned to what was to be done… if anything… or would it all just blow over in time?
Of delirium tremens and canoes
Ralph and Jake arranged their gear in the canoe carefully in order to prevent an imbalance. Duffle bags, picnic basket, cooler, and their fly tackle were strapped down as the sun rose over the birches and fir trees surrounding Stone’s Bridge landing. The two intrepid adventurers from the cities would be taking their first spring fishing trip down the Brule’ River for trout, and the May weather was perfect. Almost too perfect, Ralph thought to himself while glancing at the robin’s egg blue of the sky and the already warm morning sun. Perfect weather for a canoe trip, even if the fishing might suffer a bit.
There were a few splashes downstream against the weed beds as the trout showed themselves hungry and in pursuit of the mayfly nymphs that were climbing the waving fronds and hatching into little sailboats upon the glassy water. They launched the canoe after rigging up their fly-rods and pushed off, each taking turns at the paddle as the other cast to likely spots. The smooth flow carried them downstream slowly, and everything seemed to be in a nice rhythm that morning with the birds singing and swooping over the water, the splashes of trout, the whisper of fly-line making loops through the air, and the gentle hissing of the Brule’ as it wound its way sedately down toward Lake Superior.
Each angler began catching a few brook trout, and an occasional brown trout on the flies supplied at a local hardware store, and tied in a back room by a character called ‘Feather Betty,’ who also served the town as a sign-painter and local gossip. The trout sure liked her flies. They switched off on the paddle a few more times before rounding a bend and deciding to break the lemonade bottles out of the cooler. The May morning had blossomed into one of those rare spring days when the heat of the sun finally breaks through the wet of March and April and the foggy and cold memories of winter to release the denizens of the north woods from their many months of slumber. God it felt good!
Ralph handed a cold bottle of lemonade to Jake and they both drank deeply and dreamily. After the first mile or so of river, and six nice fat trout in the cooler wrapped in an old towel, they were casting lazily now, and more interested in just enjoying the spring day. A pileated woodpecker flew across the river and a kingfisher chattered, a young doe poked her head through a stand of cedars and drank from the river, and Jake spotted an otter slithering along the edges of the water. They began to get a hunger up for the cold fried chicken and summer-sausage and cheese sandwiches sitting in the wicker basket, but the only place to beach the canoe was up ahead a mile or so on a little sandy shore which offered a rustic public landing. No worries though, as the two anglers let the canoe float with the current, only keeping it straight by an occasional gentle stroke of the wooden paddles. Ralph even took off his shirt, and Jake let his bare feet dangle over the side to tickle his toes in the liquid mirror of the Brule’
Our two heroes were having a beer after lunch when Jake looked downstream and spotted an ominous dark cloud on the horizon. It is well known in those parts that Lake Superior, that greatest of the Great Lakes, with surface temperatures even on a sunny warm May afternoon under 40 degrees, is more than capable of making its own weather. Mariners more experienced with wizened eyes and calloused hands will head to a safe port rather than tempt fate with this inland ocean when the swells and clouds gather. Unfortunately when on a river…
“Hey Ralph,” Jake gesticulated with a shaky index finger, “Looky there!”
They stared at the advancing dark mass as the wind began to pick up, and came to the swift conclusion that they had better get the heck out of dodge as fast as the boat would take them. “How far is the takeout,” Ralph asked as Jake folded the river map. “About two miles… but river miles mind you, and there are a few rapids and ledges ahead of us.”
The two quickly packed up the picnic basket and cooler and pushed off downstream, this time with both men at the paddles, and using big strokes.
The front hit them and knocked them back upstream and toward the left bank after just half a mile was covered. The wind howled and the sun was suddenly shrouded from view. The temperature dropped by 30 degrees in a minute. They both knew they were in trouble.
As the front passed overhead, the winds died down just enough to allow the now worried friends to make progress down river. The trouble was that it was difficult to keep the canoe oriented properly. If it tacked just a little it caught the upstream wind and turned sideways. They began to fight every bend in the river when it started to rain.
Ralph asked Jake to hand him the green duffle bag. It contained his spare clothes and a sweater and rain jacket. He also told Jake that he had better put on his slicker as well.
“I didn’t bring one…” Jake said with slumped shoulders. “It was so nice out that I never thought to bring anything else but jeans and a shirt.”
“We can share,” Ralph countered, shaking his head. “I have a spare poncho in the duffle.”
Jake continued his furious paddling, propelling the canoe forward through some tricky ledges and fallen cedars. There was the sound of a zipper opening followed by a lingering silence behind him.
“What… what does that mean…?”
“It means, my dear intrepid partner, that I grabbed the wrong duffle bag.” “The one with the sweaters, socks, and rain gear is back in the trunk of the car.”
“Umm… okay… so riddle me this… what is in that duffle?”
Jake turned away for a moment and twisted to look back as Ralph produced a large blob of colorful cloth.
“My kids costumes for the school play,” he explained, holding up what looked to be several clown outfits.
“What play?” Jake asked haltingly.
“Snow white and the Seven Dwarves,” was the reply.
“And, we have here Dopey and Grumpy.” “My wife sewed them out of wool and felt, so at least they will be warm.”
“I’ll take Grumpy,” Jake stated. “At least it fits my mood.”
They back-paddled into a little eddy against the bank, and dropping the little coffee-can filled with cement that served as an anchor, quickly donned the too-small costumes. Jake looked at Ralph and started laughing, realizing that he had to be a mirror image in his Dwarf-suit. A huge gray fake beard that was integrated into his tall felt stocking cap hid Ralph’s face. Built into the side were huge fake ears. His arms stuck out from the costume from the elbow down.
“What?” Ralph asked with a smile.
“You look like… I don’t even know how to describe it!”
“You too, but even if we look like clowns, nobody will ever see us, and we are sort of warmer…”
They pulled the anchor and continued downstream, the drizzle soaking the costumes.
Before twenty minutes passed, Jake pulled the canoe over again, steering towards shore.
“What’s up?” Ralph asked.
“My hands… I can’t feel my hands anymore… they’re freezing.” “Hold up a bit, I have an idea!”
Jake rummaged around under the costume and triumphantly produced a small mason jar filled with a clear liquid.
“Moonshine!” “I bought it from an old Scot in the parking lot of the gas station.”
“You’re not going to start drinking?” Ralph queried in alarm.
“No, this is pure alcohol.” “We can burn it in one of the tin cups with a little cloth to act as a wick.”
Well, as ideas went, it might have been a desperate one, but it worked. Jake tore off and twisted a piece of his costume cuff and placed it into the tin cup, covered it with the moonshine, took a sip for good luck, and using his Zippo lighter, touched it off.
“I don’t see any flame…” Ralph commented as Jake rubbed his hands over the cup.
“It’s alcohol, the flame is invisible.” Jake replied, as both of them began to heat their hands over the impromptu fire.
They left the cup to burn out by itself on the center cushion, and shoved off downstream, their hands now toasty-warm. They had the bridge in sight as they rounded a bend in the river. The takeout was a couple of hundred yards past the old bridge. They would make it after all. That is when Ralph, in the rear seat, began coughing. Jake turned to look just as the old seat cushion, made of foam rubber and vinyl burst into flames and spewed black smoke that enveloped the canoe. The tin cup had toppled over and spread the burning alcohol. They began beating at it with their paddles, trying to put out the fire, and causing the now out of control canoe to spin in circles.
Fr. Larsson stood in a melancholy mood against the rail of the old bridge and took a swig from the nearly half-empty bottle of the best the still in Iron River could produce. He flavored it with crushed juniper berries from the bushes growing in front of the sacristy. One thing was nagging at him, and he came here to clear his head. He had no sermon ready for this Sunday’s high mass. It was bothering him, and so he was drinking and watching the river flow, letting his thoughts float away… looking for inspiration.
From under the bridge came a sound of swearing and banging, and the smell of burning brimstone. Emerging directly below him, Fr. Larsson, to his horror, imagined he saw what looked to be four clown-devils shouting at him and dancing around in a large fire that floated on the river. He closed one eye… now it was two clown-devils. He smelled the burning, and heard the incantations of the devils as they shouted. “Jesus!… Holy Christ!… Damn!" chanted the figures as they spun downstream slowly and out of sight.
Fr. Larsson took a long swig from the bottle and splashed some across his brow. He then made the sign of the cross, and heaved the bottle far into the river. Whatever he had seen, it couldn’t be real… or could it? Whatever the truth of that vision was that he saw on the river that day, one thing could be sure… if it was caused by the shakes… the D.T.s or by temptation, he would not touch a drop ever again! He crossed himself again, and wobbling back toward town, began to get an idea for a sermon after all. “By God, I’ll give ‘em hell, I will!” he shouted to a confused grouse perched above him in a tree. “By God I will!”
Sunday evening saw a certain lack of jocularity in the patrons of Michael’s tavern. The jukebox wasn’t playing, and the dice-cups were all alone at the end of the bar, silent. Silent too were the usual suspects seated at the bar and at the few tables, nursing small tap beers and looking sorry for themselves.
The door opened and the pastor stood there blinking. He walked slowly forward, his hands behind his back, acknowledging the silent nods with a tip of his head. He sat down slowly at the bar.
By now every eye was half-downcast in a sort of shame, but half-trained on Fr. Larsson, waiting for what might transpire. The silence lasted a full minute.
“What the devil are all you starin at? Haven’t you ever seen a repentant man before? Fr. Larsson bellowed.
“Get everyone what they want, and make mine a double!”
Sunday, February 24, 2019
As this blog, and my writing ventures turn the corner after over ten years of essays, short stories and vignettes I sat down to reflect back and think about what Classical Angler means in both the literary sense, and the bigger picture of what the writing is stating. I also wanted to detail the creative process as well. How to do this?
I decided to interview myself.
Happy anniversary! Many have found a richer world of fly-fishing and inspiration here. I hope for much more. Writing, like a fine wine gets richer with age.
Question (Q): “Introduce yourself and describe your work.”
Erik Helm proprietor of Classical Angler fly-fishing and the writer best known for being long-winded… just kidding… I live in the Driftless region of Wisconsin where I guide anglers for trout and teach fly-fishing classes and schools, produce fly-fishing related leather craft, and write the Classical Angler Blog of literary explorations into fly-fishing.
I started all this in 2008. ‘Classical Angler’ came from a study of classical music I was undertaking on my own at the time, as well as an appreciation of ‘Classic’ fly-fishing… an era roughly from the late 19th century through the 1970s… the time of the great authors, books, and magazine articles. Sounds all planned out, but I really had no idea it would blossom into a side-hobby of writing short stories and essays. Some friend or another just suggested I start a blog. What’s that? I thought. Well, beginnings are sometimes tender and innocent things like childhood. The future is an open book, and you never know where it will go or take you.
I think of my writing as a blending of examination, philosophy, humor, nature and the essential spirit of fly-fishing as a sort of literary sport if you will… I don’t want to just write ‘How to’ or ‘Where to go’ articles. For me writing is all about the creative process; finding art and meaning in words and expression of the greater meanings of life seen through the looking glass of the sport of angling.
I see somewhat of a vacuum out there in this genre. Articles and books with actual literary content have been on the decline for the last 40 years, and I miss reading the stories and articles in the outdoor magazines I picked out of my dad’s library and curled up with for hours on the floor before the fireplace in long dark winters. Later, after writing for several years (sometimes appalling poorly), I started collecting classic angling books and articles by such authors as McQuarrie, Gingrich, Lyons, Haig-Brown, Atherton and many others, and discovered a sort of symbiosis between my ideas and thoughts and their explorations… an echo with or of what I was trying to say and how I was trying to say it… an affirmation at least for me from a past where creative writing could stand on its own without as many imposed limitations of commercialism. My blog began to provide the perfect vehicle for that freedom of expression. Freedom means not having to confine the realm of artistic expression to less than 750 words or something like having a picture inserted between each paragraph to hold attention span.
Q. “Can you describe your creative process?”
(Chuckling and shaking head while smiling)… Well… I think each process is unique- each work different in its journey. I guess if I had to categorize them, they would fit into several vague paths…
Some works, like ‘Ephemeral’, are like giving birth. The idea is born and it just grows until it comes out all raw and screaming and crying and shouting with joy. The works that develop like that often require little note-taking or planning. Instead, they are born on the spot like Jazz Improv, and are both exhausting and exhilarating to write. Also, with pieces of this type I don’t like to disturb them by over-editing afterwards. The mood, mindset, or passion of the voice of the piece… its soul… if that doesn’t sound too hokey, can be upset and actually ruined by afterthought and picking and poking about. I would almost rather scrap a piece entirely, which does get done, than ruin the fluid thought process which makes it unique. Some pieces are very unique… like something cooked up on the stove without any recipe, and should not be fussed with by adding, subtracting, or even trying to coax it in a different direction. Each piece has a growth process that should not have me forcing any pre-conceived ideas upon it. Each word, sentence, or paragraph effects the one following… each turn bringing new discoveries and influencing new thoughts and ideas. I guess every artist has a different method… Mozart wrote everything down straight out of his head with little or no corrections. He saw and heard the piece in his mind. Beethoven, on the other hand was a meticulous editor, scribbling and erasing and adding and annotating until his scores were often notoriously undecipherable, yet they both produced beauty.
I have had several pieces take me a month or more of note-taking on thoughts and ideas before I actually sat down and wrote the piece… so yea… there are endless paths to the fruition of an idea. It all starts with the idea… the inspiration. Sometimes those ideas came to me all at once… at 3 in the morning while lying in bed, or while fishing or taking a nature walk. Sometimes the ideas are a dead-end or a failure. I keep several notebooks full of ideas for essays and writing. On occasion I will page through them and find a neat idea that remained an orphan and adopt or merge it with something else and it turns out better after sitting a year on the back burner. I guess one never knows…
One trap I have fallen into several times is taking too big a bite or too wide a view of a subject. Often the ideas get all muddled up and clarity is lost. It’s like a soup with one too many ingredients… it loses its unique taste trying to be too much…. Too many blended ideas and the individuality is sacrificed. I usually try to scrap these and approach them later, but most of my works, including the short stories are actually composed or written in one session at the computer.
Q. “Why the essay? Why do you find this so compelling versus developing much longer pieces?”
Great question! I guess I feel that the essay, long or short, offers a completion, a framing if you will, of an idea, and is accessible to the reader. I like to compel thought with my writing and weave themes in a more artistic expression than possible with chapters or some other format. Maybe it has to do with my personal creative style, but I like to create and then more on to contemplate another work or creation. The essay allows the writer to examine things and proffer an argument even if it is hidden. Often my vignettes have hidden subject matters. Take ‘Gas Station Flies’ for example… ostensibly a piece about history and nostalgia, the hidden subject emerges as the author as a child peeping through the trees with his father at a famous river… it is a piece on growing up… a piece about memories and change. These themes sometimes emerge from nowhere as I am writing… and I love that process! I like not knowing! Let the piece tell me what it is all about. Sometimes the actual subject matter shifts right before my eyes. I find that so amazing and fulfilling… at least when it works…
Q. “And the short stories?”
The short stories by necessity are far more planned. I usually have a framework written down as to the theme or themes and where I want it to begin and end… the subject too and some of the detours, but the writing process still tends to be eclectic. I do like to add mystery and a bit of horror at times as well as local history. It seems to draw in the reader when a story begins innocently enough, but then becomes far more than one thought after the first few paragraphs. I am a very avid reader of the genre of the short story, especially 19th century and early 20th century authors such as H.H. Munro, Somerset Maugham, and others like Checkhov who have the amazing talent to start their stories not always at a definable point or beginning, but in the middle of nowhere and travel through the story in non-linear directions. My chosen wider subject matter, that of angling, can only accept so much pushing at the boundaries of convention, and I do try to push as hard as I can sometimes. I think convention is dull or boring… repetitive and stale. How many stories can you read where a man catches a fish? Hemingway pretty much owns that! But… what about a story with masked themes where the reader forgets all about the fish? That speaks to me.
Q. “I notice you switch voices and moods in your writing between pieces. Is there a reason for that?”
All artist are nuts! (Laughs) or just human…
Well… the mood of the writer and their voice can change… must change I believe. Many writers in a genre like this have one established voice, be it humor, philosophical, romantic, serious, happy or sad. Established voices work. They are predictable. Read some authors out there and after awhile one becomes kind of lost. Each piece is the same. We go fishing, then a reflection and philosophical detour, we come back to the fishing, another reflection, a laugh, and a predictable conclusion. I like to vary the mood. I never want to write two similar pieces in a row. Two pieces of humor for example… I try to include a different tonality in each piece. I often write to a background of classical music, and choose the music or composer based on the piece I am trying to develop. For passion I might play Beethoven, for jazz madness… Mahler comes to mind… Poetic subtlety… Bach… We are getting back to my pre-natal stages of development as a writer. Why, by accident I coined the term ‘Classical Angler’… because the various moods and passions govern music and our interpretation of music. They mimic our humanity. Instrumental music mimics the human voice that expresses our existence. Often I find writing about fly-fishing as satisfying or even more so than actually going fishing. When ideas flow like rivers the catch becomes more permanent and the journey is its own reward. Fishing can often be kind of one-dimensional, but writing can be almost four-dimensional… More freedom to go beyond the rivers into our own existential being…
Experiences on the stream have moods as well: frustration, elation, reflection, joy, wonder at nature, fear of nature, centering and mindfulness…The themes I develop should reflect those moods if crafted properly. Formulaic writing may be successful in many instances, but it bores me.
Q. “What are some of your favorite pieces you have written?”
The next one! (smiling)
Seriously… I don’t know. What I like and what the reader likes are often very different. Some pieces stand out to me, but fail to inspire the reader or miss the mark. I aim too high or too low or simply obscure too much… I am told, or have been told that I am at my best from or in a free-form mode… like jazz. I like ‘Dear Theo’ for that reason… for its sheer uniqueness of subject matter and framing. One current author wrote me concerning it that he thought it “Amazingly inventive.” “The Stand” is possible my favorite short story, and short and eclectic pieces like “Depression and Blue Winged Olives” keep coming back to me as compelling. I sometimes wonder what went into it… what drove it when it was written… or other pieces as well, but have to just say… “Well, there it is!” I can never recapture the mood so to speak. “Water-Putting” is a neat little journey of humor and truth as is “Its Complicated.” That last one I never remember writing… It just seemed to appear before me already written… I don’t know…
Q. “They say no writer is ever born a writer, instead they have a hundred lives before they begin to create.”
I agree. I was never a writer until middle age. In fact, although a notorious book-worm, my grammar and spelling was so poor that it drove my parents nuts! I guess I was always creative though… it’s in the genes. My dad was a classical pianist and history buff. Mom was amazing artist and painter of regional acclaim in Wisconsin. She produced thousands of oils, watercolors, sketches, pastels, drawings, etc. So many varied styles and explorations. Amazing artist… I think I got the creativity from her. That and I am an only child, so I was left to entertain myself often enough. There was always music and art in our house on the East-Side of Milwaukee. We had a saying, or my parents did… “Bored? Go mow the lawn!” That could translate as ‘There are a million things to do and explore in life… Boredom is a sin.’
I first tried writing in college. I had an amazing creative writing teacher… a gal who back in the day smoked in the classroom, looked like a cleaned up version of Janice Joplin, and urged us to always explore. I loved writing poetry. She hated it as it was awfully contrived, and she was right. However, she found my creative stories to be very original. She said I knew how to tell a good story.
But I never did anything serious with writing until after both of my parents passed away. As a form of catharsis I wrote a long memoir entitled ‘Up on Downer,’ referring to the street we lived on in Milwaukee, and a play on words. Yikes… it would require a year of editing for subject and consistency if it were ever to be publishable, but it taught me about writing, especially the voice, and how important it is in relaying a feeling or a mood underlying a subject.
It wasn’t until a year or so after starting ‘Classical Angler,’ that I sat and re-read some of the pieces I had written and realized they had some promise. What I lacked was freedom. The pieces that failed were too contrived again: too methodical. The works that sang were less constrained. I began to find my voice or voices. I began to write with confidence. That was a long process, and I still struggle. However, producing something that can be read and enjoyed is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I spent much of my adulthood for some reason trying to be a business guy… to prove something to myself… from Information Technology to retail management and everything in between. Funny if we find ourselves back at our own roots sooner or later. I guess writing makes me happy, and that I am thankful for, even if the process of general acceptance can be naked at times, and people don’t read in depth anymore, the creative process has to come out. I write for the few people who will appreciate it. I feel lucky to be able to create.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Two old friends have an adventure of a lifetime along a northern Wisconsin trout stream… one that they might want to keep amongst themselves for obvious reasons. Copyright 2019 Erik Helm
The plan, as Ed explained it to Pete, his life-long friend and fellow fly angler, was to fish Moose Creek in Northern Wisconsin for brookies. They would park the old Buick at the highway bridge, wade up the creek carrying their lunches, and be able to fish right until dusk without having to retrace their steps after dark by utilizing a dike which lay at the upper stretches of the creek, and ran back to the road through a cranberry bog after skirting a local lake.
This idea emerged after last year’s trip to this same river led to stubbed toes, a dunking or two, a lost wading boot in the bog, and an exhausting trek back out following the meandering river back downstream to the car, and missing the evening rise for fear of being trapped after dark. This seemed like a better plan Pete thought to himself, but asking Ed anyway “Are you sure about that dike short-cut… Is it public…?”
“Old railway bed, I checked with the guy at the gas station, and he says it’s fine.”
It was a warm sunny morning when they parked the car at the bridge after a drive of six hours from the city.
“Risers!” Pete said as he looked over the bridge into the little creek as Ed busied himself with waders and assembling his Garrison bamboo rod, his cherished possession. Pete had purchased a Payne rod ten or so years ago, but he always was jealous of the Garrison. Ed felt the same way, he was jealous of the Payne.
It had always been like that for the two old lifetime friends. Since they met in grade school, they had always done everything together, fished, hunted, dated and even married two sisters, having the ceremony together at the same church. The friendship had warmed to a form where polite teasing and friendly competition always formed a background to their adventures.
Ed opened up the sack with his lunch to check it before stuffing it into the back pouch on his vest, and the smell of burned bacon wafted forth. Betty was a great cook, Pete reflected, but she always burned the bacon. Everything Ed owned tended to smell a bit like bacon, even his fishing tackle. Pete’s wife, on the other hand, had a thing for cabbage, and cooked it into everything, even the eggs. His lunch would be stuffed cabbage rolls wrapped in foil. Between the two of them, they smelled like a cheap diner blue-plate special, but Ed liked burned bacon, and Pete had an affinity for cabbage. The friendship fit together like two puzzle pieces.
The rising trout were a good omen as the two friends fished their way up the stream. The air was filled with little brown mayflies, and each angler had several dozen flies they had tied in the weeks before the trip that matched the hatching insects perfectly, even if Ed’s flies smelled a bit like burned bacon.
By the late afternoon they had made their way a mile up the creek and stopped for lunch. Both Pete and Ed had released a dozen brook trout in the ten to thirteen inch ranges, and kept several of the largest for the ladies to cook for breakfast. They paused for an hour after they had eaten and smoked a pipe, quietly enjoying the beauty of the conifer forest, the spring warblers, the wood ducks flying overhead, and hidden calls of woodcock and bittern.
They needed this trip away from the noise and fast pace of the city and their jobs, Ed thought. They were both nearing retirement age soon, and the thrill of business was slowly being replaced with a longing for memories made in quiet places.
Pete thought about the time in their early teens that the two of them discovered his dad’s beer stash under the porch, and climbed an apple tree to drink a few in secret, feeling like men, or at least playing at being one. The beer was warm and kind of skunky, but neither of them would admit it or say anything, so they finished drinking them while telling stories of the future, and what they would do when they were older. The problem became how to get out of the apple tree. Pete’s legs didn’t work right after the beers, and Ed was seeing double. They both had thrown up their dinners, and it took them several hours to sober up and get down from their perches among the branches.
Ed reminisced upon the time when he and Pete had first hunted grouse together. Pete’s first hunting dog was a remarkably dumb lab named ‘Pep’, short for Pepto-Bismol because that damn dog gave anyone hunting over her a case of sour-stomach. Sure enough, Pep never did flush a bird that day, but instead found a skunk, and deciding it might be a funny kind of grouse, chased it into some bushes. They returned to the car and drove home with Pep in the trunk covered in tomato juice. They both had to burn their hunting clothes.
Funny all the memories that old friends can share, and through all of them, they had kept the vast majority of any misadventures to themselves, despite temptation after a few drinks to tell the boys a hell of a story. “Let’s keep this to ourselves,” became their oath of silence.
With evening approaching and the sun beginning to angle, the woods and river cooled and mists began to rise along with the trout, giving an otherworldly almost spooky church-like atmosphere to the upper stretch. It was worth all the planning though. As dusk set the two friends caught more trout than they had ever caught before, and Pete hooked one while his fly was dangling beside him in the water between casts, while Ed managed to hook a trout on his back-cast. The fish were suicidal now in a crazed frenzy to eat the falling spinners of the brown mayflies that hatched all day.
The last light faded from orange into pastel pinks and fuchsias as the mists rising from the creek and surrounding bog became thicker. It was time to go. They could keep the trout fresh in the cooler in the car and breakfast tomorrow would be heavenly.
Ed led the way through the bog to a small rise that indicated the side of the dike or railway grade dimly appearing through the growing fog which smelled and tasted like something from prehistoric times. Whippoorwills began to call all around them, and darkness blanketed the woods.
They were ten feet from the dike when Ed stopped.
“Shh…” he whispered. “There is something big and dark standing out in the cranberry bog right ahead of us… Don’t look like a tree, kind of like a bear or some animal…”
Pete had better eyes than Ed. “That’s a Moose,” he exclaimed in surprise, trying to keep his voice low.
“Shoot. Moose are unpredictable and dangerous. Does it have antlers?”
Ed squinted through the fog. “Yup, big rack too. I can see them clearly outlined against the sky.”
As darkness settled into inky blackness, the two stayed very silent and still. Neither had any idea what to do at this stage, and the thought was beginning to occur to them that they may have to spend some time stuck here until the moose, still dimly outlined in the near distance, moved on from its feeding. Ed found a large boulder nearby, and suggested that if they were going to be stuck here for a bit, they might as well be dry. They climbed the knobby chunk of granite careful to not make an errant sound.
It became obvious to both of them before long that they were well and truly stuck. The moose might or might not be still there, and they could no longer see through the fog and moonless night to be certain.
“O.K., let’s take inventory,” Pete quietly murmured. “I have a bag of peanuts, what do you have?” “A half a pint of peppermint schnapps,” Ed replied. They had left the half-full thermos of hot coffee back in the car because it was such a nice day. Both of their minds ended up focused on that hot coffee as a light drizzle began to fall, and their backs began to ache from sitting on the uneven cold rock.
After midnight, they broke down. Ed offered the schnapps to Pete after taking a swig himself, and Pete opened the peanuts. “Wait a minute Pete!” Ed exclaimed. What if Moose like peanuts? I can smell them like anything, and I bet the moose can too.” The peanuts were put away, and a long silence began. After an hour a staccato rattling was heard.
“What’s that?” Pete asked in a hush. “My teeth!” Ed answered. “I’m freezing, and I can’t feel my feet!”
“We need energy… food. I am so hungry I could eat my hat.”
“Kind of like the Donner Party…”
“What…. Eat each other and our hats?”
“No, as in we need food and we are marooned. Moose don’t eat trout, get it?”
“Cold trout? I can’t see my pocketknife to clean them.”
Hunger and cold can drive men to do things they might think themselves incapable of in better circumstances. The raw trout tasted like bog, slimy and silty, and made an interesting combination with the last of the schnapps. They almost gagged, but managed to eat a trout apiece to help keep them warm through the night.
The two old friends spent the night on a cold knobby boulder in a cranberry bog miserable with the drizzle surrounded by woods noises that to both of their now acute imaginations sounded like a huge moose on the prowl. In the weak dead hours of pre-dawn, they managed to nod off to sleep, propped against each other for warmth and stability.
A cloudy and misty dawn broke slowly into the forest and bog, the light increasing until the two anglers could begin to see again. Awake, but bleary eyed, they both peered through the banks of fog and into the heart of the cranberry bog in the direction of the road and the position of the moose the night before.
“I can’t see it,” Pete sputtered, “It must be gone by now…”
“No… there it is!” Ed chattered through his teeth, “It hasn’t moved!” “It’s in the same place as last night.” “It’s huge! I can see its antlers from here!”
“Wait a minute…” Pete exclaimed, the increased volume of his voice causing Ed to cringe. “I smell foul here. No moose is going to stand out there in a field all night and not move. I am too tired and cold and hungry to care any more. I am going to creep forward and check it out.” They decided that Ed would follow behind, and if Pete got mauled, he was in charge of breaking the news to Erma, Pete’s wife. Pete figured he had the better end of the stick.
The two crept slowly forward on the relatively dry abandoned railway dike toward the outline of the moose, appearing now menacingly large before them. Fifty feet away they paused. Pete spoke first, standing up and clicking his tongue in disapproval. “Look Ed, It has wooden posts for legs!”
“I’ll be a monkey’s…” Ed began, trailing off into silence. They walked up to the moose. Ed knocked on it with his knuckles. Wood. It was over life-size and was painted black. They could see the highway now clearly as the meager sun began to burn off the fog of morning.
They walked around the moose and stared at it from the front. A stylized moose it was. Looking not half like Bullwinkle the billboard proclaimed cheerfully…
“Visit Scenic Moose Lake! Next Exit.”
“I’ll be damned…” they both exclaimed quietly.
“I feel like an idiot,” Ed admitted.
“That is beside the point Ed,” Pete laughed rather seriously.” “The point is I feel the fool too, but the important thing is to keep this to ourselves. Nobody, even our wives must ever hear of this.” “Even our wives?…” Ed grimaced. “Yea, especially them. You know the boys at the lodge and the tavern would here of it sooner or later, and we would be the butt of jokes forever.”
They came up with a story. The car broke down, and they had to spend the night huddled under blankets until in the morning, when they discovered the problem: wet spark-plug wires. That would do the trick, Ed thought aloud. “Yea… Betty is always nagging me about getting the spark plugs changed anyway. She would get a chuckle out of that one, and it would only cost me a few bucks for new plugs.”
“I am serious about the silence thing Ed,” Pete said shaking his head and smiling. “I think we should take an oath.”
“What… like double dog dare, or spit and shake… that sort of thing?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of something else… If you tell anyone, I get your fly rod, and if I tell anyone, you get mine as a penalty. That should keep our mouths shut for a while.”
The two old friends shook on it and the oath was taken.
Ed got the nickname of ‘Bullwinkle’ a few weeks later. Pete was referred to as ‘Moose’ for the rest of his life.
It was worth it, Pete reflected as he landed a nice trout on his new Garrison rod. Pete was in the distance, proudly playing a fish on his equally new Payne.
Author’s note: On a trip to the Brule’ river in northern Wisconsin, I passed a field on foggy autumn morning and glancing to my right, spotted a huge bull moose with black fur and white antlers standing in a boggy lowland, partially shrouded by the enveloping mists. I was pumped to see such a rare sight in Wisconsin… until…
Out in the field stood a perfect replica of a moose, made of plywood and life-size, and painted black with white antlers. Some farmer’s idea of a joke. I felt the fool. Now that might make the basis for a good story I thought… until three years later here I am with the idea fully formed. A fishing trip and an oath of secrecy… else the fool!