Monday, July 27, 2009

The Taming of the Mouth

The Taming of the Mouth
Original short story copyright 2009
Erik F. Helm

(I know nobody reads these, but perhaps they will someday be collected in a book that nobody will read.)

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The lodge was quaint, cozy, and warm. In short, it was everything I hoped it to be for this weekend getaway to fish the Clark Fork near Missoula Montana. I usually eschew staying at fishing establishments due to their rather annoying habit of concentrating more on wine and seven course meals rather than quality fishing, but I had been assured by my angling friends that the hire of a guide from this lodge and the stay was well worth the time and money.

I arrived on Friday in time for cocktails and dinner, and after changing out of my rumpled travel cloths and giving myself a quick going over with a wet washcloth, I walked to the main lodge building armed with a powerful appetite. After meeting the host Mr. Everson, and his busy and lovely wife Grace, I was introduced to the guides, Paul and Stew, two young locals who would be accompanying us on our quest for trout. When I say us, I am referring to the other guests that weekend which I met in short order: Jim, a quiet businessman from nearby Butte, and Major Gallstone, a retired officer from Great Britain now living in Canada.

We were seated around the fire enjoying an aperitif as the hosts and guides left to attend to the dinner. The Major, speaking to Jim, or possibly three feet above him, was holding forth on his trip to Ireland for sea trout, and how he “Showed the peat diggers” how it should be done. “I caught all the large fish of the trip, and the damn locals could only manage a meager catch of a few sardines” he said through his thick mustache, his face tilted slightly but annoyingly upward. Jim and I only got a few words in edgewise as the conversation turned first to eastern Catskill trout, and then to Atlantic Salmon, both of which the Major was an undoubted expert on, according to his own pronouncements. In each instance, he derided the guides as “Dolts”, the locals as “Troglodytes or Knuckle draggers”, and held himself forth as the protagonist that always, despite adverse conditions, managed to catch the most and largest fish anyone had ever seen.

In general, I like the English. Their self-deprecating sense of humor, wry wit, and stiff upper lip has always endeared me. With the Major, however, my tolerance was being sorely tested. It was tested further, and indeed stretched to the breaking point at dinner when his constant bragging spoiled an otherwise excellent fillet mignon. He seemed not to be interested in anyone else’s stories, and when he did lower himself to ask us a question, he always interrupted us soon after, as if our answers bored him.

Now, I am not the best fly fisherman out there, but I am a professional angling writer, have seen my share of the country’s waters, and am honest enough to know that my skill level is quite good. The Major had no doubt read some of my articles, but had no interest in acknowledging me or even my writing.

After dinner, we adjourned to the common room for a nightcap. I managed to excuse myself from the Major’s company and ended up talking to Paul, the younger of the two guides. Asking him about himself and his family I began to peel away the layers of shyness that I perceived. Paul would be guiding the Major tomorrow, and was less than happy about it. “Last year I had to guide him too, and it was the single worst day of the year.” “ He treated me like shit, and everything that went wrong was my fault.” “He insisted that I follow behind him by fifty feet, and when he hooked a fish, he would simply steer it over to me to release.” “He was too good to touch it.” “He also would not listen to anything I said, which meant that instead of being his guide for the day, I was his lacky.” As Paul spoke, I began to get an idea. I took him aside and onto the porch of the lodge, and after a short while and the present of a bottle of single malt scotch, he was amenable to my plans. “Just as long as I don’t get in trouble” he said, “I need the job, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it, if anything goes astray, I will take all the blame.” I told Paul through a mischievous grin. “The Major will get his comeuppance, and if we pull it off smoothly, he will never suspect a thing.”

I took myself and my glass of neat whiskey back into the lodge, where the Major was now pontificating on the proper method of setting the hook on a trout. Walking up to him, I said “So Major, given that your line stays dry, your fly alights on the water perfectly, and the fish cannot help but hook themselves while you walk on top of the water, how would you like to place a wager on tomorrow’s fishing?” Taken a bit aback, his face slowly coloring, he answered “What do you have in mind young man?” I explained to him the rules of the contest: that each man measure the length in inches of each fish he catches and releases, adds them together, and that the individual with the greatest total measurement at the end of the day is declared the winner. “Splendid, I shall look forward to showing you the ropes then.” “Now for the wager, shall we say, mmm… a hundred pounds?” “Sorry Major, I said with mock regret, I am not a man of means.” “However, I do have an alternative idea.” “Shoot away!” invited the Major. “It is simply this, that the winner has the privilege of watching the loser fish on Sunday in a woman’s dress and sun hat.”
“What?” he roared. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” “I will have no such thing!”
“A pity, I proclaimed with a smile.” “I was looking forward to showing you how trout fishing is done properly in America.”

The Major stared at me with narrowed eyes through the silence of the challenge. The entire room had heard the proceedings and one could hear a pin drop. His ears had turned bright crimson when he answered “You’re on, and may the best man win!” Turning with a flourish, he left the lodge to make his way to his cabin. I thought it a good idea to turn in early as well, and as I left, caught the eye of Paul and slyly winked. He returned the gesture.

The morning broke bright and sunny, with puffy white cumulus clouds scattered across the sky. Breakfast was unusually silent, excepting the Major’s insistence that he be given proper marmalade for his toast and not the homemade blackberry jam that Grace was famous for. His bellicose orders regarding the jam just sealed my opinion of him, and I smiled at what was in store for him on the river.

The Clark Fork is full of riffles. It begins just west of the continental divide near Butte, and flows westward toward Missoula where it is joined by the Bitterroot and the Big Blackfoot. We would be fishing in sight of the Sapphire Mountains, so named because of the thickly forested pines and the way the evening light catches them, reflecting an especially verdant green.

Stew led me to a nice riffle and pool, but I told him that I would rather fish much closer to the Major, explaining that I wished to observe his legendary technique. We took up residence in a run just upstream of where he was standing in the water shouting to Paul to “Get a move on, and tie on that little size 18 caddis.” I pretended to fish while Paul tied on the fly and signaled to the Major that all was ready. His casting was everything even his braggadocio could claim. The line whistled overhead in perfect loops and sent his fly delicately into the riffle. Immediately his line was tight and his rod was bucking as he led a nice trout downstream to where Paul was waiting.

“A cutthroat” Paul shouted. “Sixteen inches fair.” “Seventeen roared the Major.” “Seventeen, damn it!”
Paul dried the fly off, and shouted to the Major “Hold on a second, I forgot to pinch the barb down.” He grabbed his forceps and made the tiny adjustment. “O.K.” he proclaimed.
Stew looked at me kind of funny as if to ask if there was something up my sleeve, and asked why, given the wager, I was not furiously fishing.

“Keep watching, you are going to be in for a treat’ I said.

The Major spotted a rising fish directly behind a series of boulders sheltered by overhanging grass. His cast was incredible. The fly curved through the air and swung around enough in a reach that the fish would never even see the leader. Once again, the rod bounced and line was tight as what was obviously a large brown trout gave a ballet-like leap. Then the rod simply sprang back and the line went limp. “Bloody Hell!” the Major shouted, “That was a good fish.” He soon found another riser high in the riffle and as before, made the perfect cast and presentation, hooked the fish, and quickly lost it. He glanced towards where Stew and I stood for a second, and then began to berate Paul. “What kind of fly did you give me… I can’t hook fish properly on this one, change it at once!” he said. “Yes sir” said Paul while clipping off the fly, opening his sheepskin wallet and tying another caddis to the end of the Major’s leader.

Major Gallstone then made another cast, hooked a nice jumping cutthroat, and promptly lost it. The word “Bugger” reverberated around the river.

“Let’s go Stew, I said.” “Get me into a fish.”
Ahead in the slow water behind a bend, Stew pointed to a fish rising close to the bank. I cast to him and he rose eagerly, inhaling the fly. “Six inches” Stew declared as he released the little cutthroat. I turned back to where the Major stood, face turning purple, and waved.

I think it is time patient reader, to let you in on my little joke. In addition to pinching down the barb, Paul was instructed to bend the point of the hook back as well.

You may well imagine what the rest of the day was like. I slowly but almost diffidently hooked, landed, and measured twenty-seven trout for a combined total inch count of 243. The Major never landed another fish. Paul took the brunt of the abuse, but I hoped that the knowledge of the secret itself, the awaiting bottle of single malt, and the anticipation of guiding the Major the next day clothed in a dress and looking like something out of a charity vaudeville act would be some slight compensation.

Major Gallstone looked rather dainty in Grace’s blue gardening dress with the little polka dots I decided, as I watched him fish on that most holy of Sundays. He never uttered a single word.

2 comments:

Cutthroat Stalker (Scott) said...

Au contraire, monsieur.

I have been reading them for the last month or so and I'm really enjoying them. I'm going to do a little write up on my blog about your blog, so maybe one or two of the three or four people who read my blog will find their way over here.

-scott c

Erik Helm said...

Thank you Scott. It was a sort of tongue in cheek comment about nobody reading this. Art for art's sake if you will.
Thanks again,
Erik