Friday, January 29, 2010

Coming of Age

My mother’s family lived in a small town in central Wisconsin. My Grandfather moved the family there somewhere around 1920. Grandpa started a hardware store and ran it with his brother until he retired in his 90s. The memories I have from visits to the homestead and small town with my family in the early 1970s led to the setting for this story. All characters are fictional. I believe that the old story of boy gets fish, or man conquers nature have been done to death, so I thought I would put a bit of a twist in this tale.

Copyright 2010, Erik F. Helm

Coming of age.

Ronnie’s converse high-tops pattered and thumped against the pavement as he rounded the corner of Oak Street at full tilt and turned onto Division. His canvas newspaper satchel with the Courier logo in bold letters bounced against his hip to the rhythm of his legs. He was running from old man Hebert’s bullmastiff. The huge dog was Ronnie’s nemesis. It lay in wait in the bushes or behind the garbage cans until he opened the screen door to Mr. Hebert’s house to deliver the paper, and then chased Ronnie all the way to the corner. This game had been going on for months.

Although Ronnie was running from the dog, (anyone could see that) he also had a hidden agenda; for standing in the middle of Division Street was Theisen Brothers Hardware, and in the window was the latest object of Ronnie’s dreams; a fishing pole.

Ronnie slowed a bit as he approached the shop, and for the hundredth time that summer, tilted his ball-cap back, and cupping his hands to the side of his head, peered in the large display window. The pole was standing next to a wicker fishing creel, a softball and bat, and several bins of nails. Between Kerberg’s five and dime, and Theisen Brothers, A kid could find everything he desired, and more.

As he always did, Ronnie dug deep into his front jean pockets, and pulled out his collection money from the newspaper route. Forty-three cents: half of which would have to be turned over to his mother when he arrived home. Minus Bazooka Joe gum, a pack of baseball cards, and the Saturday afternoon gangster film at the Aurora, he might add another nickel to the money he had stashed under the old squirrel’s nest in his tree house.

Ronnie knew it was a fly-fishing pole. He knew this for a sacred fact because of the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue from 1942 that he had found in the trash along the curb on his paper route. In the long evenings and rare occasions when Ronnie, Joe, and Fatty Smith were not throwing crab apples or swapping comic books, Ronnie could be found in the tree-house savoring a warm piece of corn bread, eyes glued to the pages of the catalogue, and dreaming of what it might feel like to catch a fish.

Not that Ronnie had never been fishing. Indeed, he had been fishing twice with his father. Once when he was just old enough to remember getting his jeans and sneakers full of mud and receiving a spanking, and the last time Dad had been home on leave from Germany before, well… before that day the telegram arrived and Mother had cried. Dad had caught a few bullheads from Stoker’s Pond, but Ronnie just lost his worm and corn to nibblers.

Ronnie knew he didn’t need a fly pole to catch a fish. He had Dad’s old cane crappie pole in the shed, but Ronnie possessed a secret so precious that he wouldn’t even tell it to Fatty or Joe.

On a stifling July evening so typical of a Wisconsin summer, Ronnie took off after his supper to try to find some relief from the heat by swimming in Stoker’s Pond. He had had to endure the endless cautions and fussing from his mother before he was free. Mom had changed, he thought, in the months since Dad had ‘gone away’. She just seemed so much more protective.

He was seated with his bare feet dipped in the tepid water, reading a Hardy Boys mystery he had traded with Fatty for a broken cap-gun, when the pond was disturbed by rings and splashes at the surface of the water. Strange bugs like the ones that gathered around the streetlights downtown suddenly filled the air. Ronnie slapped at his ear, and looking at his hand, found an insect with clear upright wings, an elongated body, antenna, and long tails trailing behind it. The town kids, who delighted in stomping on the flies when they became disoriented or hit the glass bell of the streetlamp and fell to the curb, called them ‘crush-bugs’. Ronnie knew they were Mayflies. He also knew, thanks to the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, that they hatched out of the water in rivers and lakes. Now he knew something else too; that the mayflies that he and the other kids had just assumed appeared out of thin air, attracted by the mating call of the incandescent light, had an origin, and he had found it less than a mile from his house.

Although Ronnie may have had trouble with his math homework from time to time, he was not slow. It took him a grand total of five seconds to put two and two together and realize that the carp in Stoker’s pond, some of which, to his youthful imagination, he thought must have weighed more than a hundred pounds, were feeding on the mayflies at the surface, and making a messy feast of it at that.

He was down at the pond the next evening with Dad’s crappie pole, and the mayflies were back. The carp were circling lazily on the surface, sucking down the easy and tasty bugs. He rigged up the pole and chose the smallest hook in the old chewing tobacco tin his dad used to store his tackle. He caught a mayfly, and carefully placing it on the hook, heaved it out as far as the length of gut would take it.

It was if someone had suddenly pulled some magical switch. One second the carp were at the surface, and the next they simply disappeared. Ronnie looked for his bait. It too had sunk. It, and the sloppy cast had put all of the big fish off their evening meal. For the next week, he tried corn, worms, grasshoppers, stale liverwurst, and a ball of mushy dough, but the notoriously spooky and selective carp would have none of it.

That was last year, and by now, Ronnie had devised a plan for catching the big carp. The secret, as he had learned from his catalogue, was a floating mayfly imitation on a tiny hook, and the only way to make this work was the fly fishing pole: the very one that now teased him from Theisen Brothers’ window, the very one that he saved his paper-route pennies for and could never tell his mom about.

At first, he thought of telling her of his desire, but Mom was a girl. She understood magical things about carrots, naphtha soap, cabbage, and how to get chocolate stains out of Ronnie’s Sunday church shirt, but she could never understand about tadpoles, carp, jack knives, or why he would need a fly-fishing pole. For his birthday that spring, she baked him a cake, gave him a hand-knitted sweater too large for him, a new pair of sneakers from Kerberg’s, and sent him to a double feature at the Aurora. No, Ronnie would have to keep the secret to himself for now.

He calculated that with his meager savings, even if he cut back on the gum and skipped the weekly cinema film; he would still be a bit short on the price of the fly rod by the critical time for the mayfly hatch.

Providence sometimes intervenes, and it does so in its greatest effect in childhood. Ronnie had completed his paper route that happy Friday afternoon, when the elderly Mrs. Thompson came out of Abel’s grocery store with a large bag of produce and breathlessly asked if Ronnie could help her carry them home. He consented happily, and after setting down the bag in Mrs. Thompson’s kitchen, was asked if he would be willing to help her every Friday, and with a few chores around the house as well. She was getting on in years she explained, and it would her happy to have the company as well as the help. Reaching into her purse, the ancient lady extracted a quarter and smiling, handed it to Ronnie. Like everything about Mrs. Thompson, the quarter smelled like baby powder, but it was his now. He quickly agreed to the job, and clutching the quarter, ran for home.

A week later, he marched into Theisen brothers with his head held high and his eyes wide.

“Well hello young man, how may I help you?” asked William, the taller of the brothers and the more friendly.

Ronnie got right to the point.

“I want to buy that fly rod in the window,” he stated with eager anticipation.

“Well, now…” said Mr. Theisen, “That is a fine rod for a young boy, a model made in Indiana if I am not mistaken. She runs two dollars and a quarter,” he stated with raised eyebrows. “Sure you don’t want one of these cheaper poles over here?” he asked pointing to some crooked telescoping steel rods displayed under the brand ‘Catch More!’

“Nope, just the one in the window,” Ronnie replied.

Mr. Theisen carefully removed the fly rod from the window, gave it a dusting, separated it into two pieces, and wrapped it in yellow butcher’s paper.

Ronnie selected a dozen of the smaller tan flies from a bin by the counter, and laying them next to the rod on the counter, placed his pile of coins next to them.

“Well, young man, will you be needing a reel and line with the rod, or do you already have them?” Mr. Theisen asked.

Somehow, in all his planning, Ronnie had thought the rod came with everything. He was so fixated on the fly rod itself that it had never occurred to him that a separate reel and line would be needed.

“Um, well… How much are they?” he asked in trepidation.

“Well son, the reel we got to match this rod is a dollar, and the line and gut are fifty cents.”

Ronnie, who all this time was almost hovering above the wooden floor in excitement, suddenly felt deflated. The dreams of the carp were vanishing before his very eyes.

He began pulling out his pockets, unearthing a sour apple, a screw, a broken pocketknife, and three pennies.

At that moment, William Theisen remembered what it was like to be ten years old and to want something more than life itself. In his case, it had been a catcher’s mitt.

“Say… son, can you hold on a minute? Let me look in the storage room, I think I might have something there for you.”

He returned in less than a minute with an old tarnished and rusty reel that was still attached to a broken rod. Mr. Theisen carefully placed a chisel against the rod fragment and with the single tap from a wooden mallet, freed the reel.
He handed it to Ronnie.

“Here you go, son,” he said, placing the reel in Ronnie’s outstretched hands.

“It is a bit bent and rusty, but a bit of an oiling will fix it up nicely. The line is in serviceable shape too. It should work just fine.”

“How much?” Ronnie asked, not grasping the intention of the moment.

“What you have here will just cover it,” Mr. Theisen said smiling. He pushed his glasses onto the top of his head and placed the coins in the register.

“Not a word though, son. Can’t have folks thinking we just give things away,” he stated with a wink.

That evening after supper, and with his math practice completed and delivered to his mother, Ronnie ran to the tree house and assembled the rod, reel, and line. The reel was a bit bent, and even after oiling, would squeak and grind when the handle was turned. It didn’t matter though, it worked. That was the point. He carefully ran his hands down the intermediate red wraps on the cane rod, and sighted down its length, just like the man in the Norman Rockwell print from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post that he had saved, and which now hung by several nails in his tree-house.

It was sort of straight. Not perfect, but not too bad, he thought. He attached the gut, and stored the flies in an old cough-drop tin. He was all ready for tomorrow. He hid the rod under some old comic books in the corner, and went in to listen to the radio. His mother didn’t even have to remind him to wash his face. He was asleep in minutes that night, dancing mayflies filling his head.

All day long on that Friday that he and Stoker’s pond had a date, Ronnie had difficulty concentrating. He delivered papers to the wrong houses, barely escaped Mr. Hebert’s dog, and poked at his chores. He ate his dinner so fast that his mother had to warn him three times that he was going to give himself a stomachache.

After helping dry the dishes, he was excused for the rest of the evening. The screen door banged on its hinges as he made the dust fly running to the tree house.

The sun was just touching the tops of the trees that lined the far edge of the pond when Ronnie arrived. Standing well back from the water, he assembled the rod, attached the reel, and strung the line through the guides. He reckoned that he had around half an hour before the bugs started hatching, so he decided to try a practice cast or two in the clearing where the townspeople parked their Fords.

At first, it was as if the rod had a mind of its own. Whatever Ronnie intended to do, the rod would just not cooperate. It was like learning to ride a bike, he thought, as he tangled the line around his head. The harder he tried, the worse it got. Finally, he sat down in the grass and tears of frustration began to well in the corner of his eyes.

Then he remembered something he had read in one of his trips to the library. It was something about casting slowly and stopping the rod, something about loops. He stood up and tried again. This time, to his delight, the slower motion of the rod caused it to bend and unbend, and the line went forward and fell in a heap. After a few minutes more, Ronnie was able to make the line turn over and land the gut gently twenty feet from him. It would be enough, he thought, to place a fly in front of those carp.

Looking up at the gathering dusk while wiping away the remnants of his tears, Ronnie noticed the first mayflies over the water. They seemed to coming from the surrounding trees instead of the water, Puzzled, he peered through the tall grasses at the surface of the pond. To his eye, there seemed to be two colors of mayflies, some were creamy white, while the others were sort of tan. The tan ones had clear wings and were flying, while the creamy ones struggled in the surface film and crawled up the stems of cattails. Ronnie tied on one of his cream colored flies to the length of fine gut.

The first carp were surfacing and slurping in the bugs as he stood to make that first delicate cast of his life.

The rotten apple hit high up on his right cheek and shattered in fragments. Ronnie’s eyes exploded in colored lights as his nostrils recoiled from the stench, and he fell backward into the shallow water. As he sat up and shook off the water and apple crud, he heard laughter. Standing to his right, not thirty feet away, was Tommy McRory, the pimpled bully of the fifth grade, standing filthy and barefoot as he always did, and grinning through his yellow teeth.

“Ronnie ponnie, puddin and pie, you got apple slime in your eye,” he sang as he approached, his matted hair almost covering his eyes.

Tommy was the eldest son of the extended McRory clan. They lived together in a run-down single story house on a slope above the swamp that bordered Stoker’s Pond. Ronnie knew that people whispered about Tommy’s pa, who delivered coal when he was not sitting behind the firehouse drinking something from a paper sack. His mother warned him to stay away from the McRorys, but she herself often left slices of cornbread or a potato or two by the coal chute. These would disappear, even if Mr. McRory avowed that he “Didn’t take no charity from no one!” to anyone who would listen.

“What you got there?” Tommy said as he grabbed the fly rod out of Ronnie’s hand.

“A fishin pole, huh? This here is my pond, sissy, so this must be my rod too.”

“Give it here Tommy, it isn’t yours and you don’t even know how to use it,” Ronnie shot back.

“Who’s gonna make me… little girl, you?” Tommy spit with foul breath. He shoved Ronnie in the shoulder and laughed in hysterics as Ronnie staggered and fell once again into the mud at the edge of the pond.

“Watch me crybaby, I’m gonna catch the biggest fish in this pond.”

The young McRory waved the rod forward as if to cast a conventional bait-caster. When it didn’t work, he threw it harder, causing a dangerous bend in the rod.

“This rod is stupid, like you, prissy-boy. It don’t work right.”

Although tears were already trickling out of his eyes, and he was unable to form words in his anger and blubbering frustration, Ronnie began to feel a sober rage forming in his belly. He wished his father were here. Dad would send the bully home with a sore behind he thought. But his father was not there, and Tommy was much bigger than he was anyway. What could he do?

Ronnie’s sneakers made a squishing sound as he rose.

“Cut it out, Tommy, you are gonna break it.”

The bully didn’t reply. He was too busy poking the rod into the water at a large carp, trying to spear it. Ronnie thought about all the money he saved for the rod, the hours spent mowing lawns and delivering papers, all the anticipation, and Mr. Theisen and the hardware store. He thought about how he would have to explain all this to his mother, and how his classmates and friends would find out; find out that in the end, Ronnie really was a scaredy-cat. A coward.

“Give it here NOW!” he shouted.

The person that uttered those words, and that now advanced on Tommy McRory was somebody Ronnie did not recognize. The words may have come from his own mouth, but they sounder older, more determined, more commanding.

Bullies are cowards at heart, and the last thing they expect is the humiliated victim to fight back, but the fist that hit McRory square in the nose was no illusion; neither was the blood that flowed down his shirt or the sudden fear and panic that sent him flying back towards the shelter of his family hovel.

Ronnie sat down and cried. Never before had he had the guts to stand up to a bully, and the raw emotion of pain and humiliation followed by triumph overwhelmed him.

When he calmed down, he looked at the rod, now broken in three pieces and lying before him. He looked for a long time in silence, then he removed the reel and line, threw the broken pieces of the rod far into the pond, and after washing the mud from his clothes and shoes as best he could given the circumstances, turned and began the long walk home, the reel safely in his jeans pocket.

For some reason, a sense of calm came over him. He reasoned that it would take some extra work, and maybe a second paper route, but next year he could buy another rod.

He had come as a boy to catch a carp. The young man that walked back on the path away from the pond felt slightly sorry for Tommy McRory. At least Ronnie had something to look forward to, he later reasoned, as he dreamed of the carp and the new rod in the deep stillness of the hot Wisconsin summer night.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Distracted Take

Huh? What the…? Zzzzz ZZZZZ!!

Anticipation. Expectation. Hours of repeated confidence reminders. The Zen zone. Nothing, and more of nothing. Wading practice.

You see an eagle, osprey, owl, or fumble in your wader pocket trying to locate that half of a granola bar. It is then that we are most vulnerable. Mr. Steelhead often picks this very moment to strike.

The first occurrence happened on my first large steelhead. It was bank side squirrels rioting in a crunchy, leaf blanketed back yard that pulled my attention away for just long enough to… BUMP! TUG! WhirrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRR ZZZZZZZ!

My knuckles still hurt from getting in the way of that reel handle. I must have looked like a panicked juggler as I frantically did everything possible to lose that fish, but somehow failed.

My first steelhead on the west coast came when the sun rose above the canyon walls and I fumbled for my sunglasses. I actually had them half out of the case when the fish pounced on my spey fly. Glasses and clip-on sunglasses in one hand, rod in the other, I blindly squinted down river at the blurred scene of a chrome fish jumping and spitting the fly.

The typical scenario on a river goes like this. All full of coffee and in that zone of concentration, I fish for a few hours like a studious heron. I crouch, lift and reach my rod, mend attentively, and follow every nuance of the water. If a midge landed on my rod tip, I would feel it. I know exactly when and where that jolting take is going to occur. My fly tracks through the water like a poem on a mission.

Then slowly, after endless casts through productive water fail to produce, my mind starts to wander. I make a cast, and with my fly still swinging, take a photo, fumble with the wading staff, talk to a buddy, or watch wildlife.

There is also something about moving water, and the light patterns and reflections off the bottom that tend to mesmerize me. As the day wears on, I spend more time looking into the water than I do watching my fly.

One of the cardinal rules of fly-fishing is this; “If your fly is in the water, you are fishing.”

We all know this to be true from the times when suicidal or mentally challenged trout, panfish, or bass have hit our fly as it dangled in the water at our feet while we were picking out a wind-knot, or rooting around through various pockets.

A number of years ago, a partner had just landed a spectacular steelhead from a western river. I stepped up to the plate and began to strip out line. The fish had taken his fly on the other side of the river. It was going to be a long cast for me. I rolled out the fly, leader, and sink-tip, and stripped off more line. Suddenly all hell broke loose, and I was attempting to fight a steelhead just twenty feet from me with line everywhere. The fish came off of course.

The moral here is about that cardinal rule, but also that one should cover the water properly. Lord, all the things I have learned the hard way. However, perhaps those lessons stick in our brains better. A kid that reaches over a hot burner tends to equate fire and pain quite effectively after one lesson. I on the other hand am the kind of idiot that has a pebble in my wading boot for six weeks. With every step I mutter “Ow, ow, ow…” and so on. It never occurs to me to actually remove the offending pebble.

This past year I had a couple of wonderfully jarring takes when my mind and tongue were dedicated to something else. A nice hen almost yanked the rod out of my hand as I was asking a friend where his new puppy sleeps. “Does she sleep in a little box or in a cage by the …? *&^%$#@!!!!!! ZZzzzzzzZZZZZ!!!! Man, those Hardy reels can ratchet up a complaining song!

The same thing happened to me on my home river. Once again, my head was turned and I was yakking about some inane topic when my reel decided to play a Wagner overture at 125 decibels. The look on my face was one of shock and confusion.

I often wonder if there is something to this. Perhaps it might have something to do with being relaxed, or not trying so hard. In addition, the distracted take seems to lead to a higher landing percentage. This may be due to our inability to react and ‘screw it up’ at the time of the initial pull or take.

On the other hand, perhaps all the anthropomorphism is apropos; steelhead may have a sense of humor after all.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bass Pond Apocalypse

In June of 2008, I drove to a friend’s apartment complex for a day of fly-fishing and classical music listening. This was the first time I had visited him in his new location, and I had heard talk of huge large-mouth bass and cooperative panfish in several ponds. I arrived armed with music disks, and a large duffle of tackle.

The day was as hot as the face of a griddle and sunny, and upon arrival, I noticed that my friend was already fishing. The apartment complex was enormous and sprawling. The land consisted of hills and valleys, and several small dams backed up a creek to form a series of weedy ponds. I greeted my friend and found that he and his roommate had already landed several panfish. I armed myself with a foam cylinder popper, and went to work. The first cast produced a ten-inch largemouth. This was going to be a blast!
I don’t necessarily believe in fate or karma, but I do notice that when success comes too easy and soon, disaster is likely to follow. These bass had had every lure in creation thrown at them. Local kids with snoopy rods and random tactics had turned the bass from willing players to extremely dour and spooky. I could see bass up to six pounds slowly swimming through the weeds. In four hours of fishing, all I had to show for it were two missed takes, one panfish and one small bass, muddy feet from stepping in a hidden hole (I am great at locating these), and a nasty sunburn. I also caught a lifetime supply of weeds. In fact, it seemed at times that I was doing a one-man job at weed reduction in the pond.
Then it began to rain: lightly at first, then steadily heavier. We had noticed ominous black clouds moving in from the west, so we retreated to the apartment.

My friend and I share an interest in weather in general and storms in particular. Soon the television was tuned to the local news broadcast. No matter which station we tuned in, the weather personalities were wide-eyed and visibly excited. It doesn’t take much to excite these guys anyway, but now they were hysterical. The radar showed the entire southern half of Wisconsin as one giant red blob. Sirens began to go off as I moved my car into the shelter of the underground garage. Just in time too. A massive storm front with evil rotating green-gray clouds and constant lightning began to dump hail that covered the ground like snow. The temperature dropped fifteen degrees in a minute, and more sirens declared the obvious. White wisps danced before a boiling wall-cloud and kissed the tops of the trees and roofs. I half expected the four horsemen of the apocalypse to ride out of the looming and churning storm.

Then it began to really rain like I have never experienced before. I almost thought I heard a deep voice saying “Noah, build an arc.”
All visibility was lost, as the entire air became water. The television proclaimed flood warnings, downed power lines, stranded motorists, tornados, hail damage, and the end of the world. When the downpour let up enough to see out the window, we witnessed strange fountains of water shooting twenty feet into the air. The hills of the subdivision were partially drained by a system of culverts. These culverts had gathered so much water that they became pressurized, shooting water in great arcs into the sky. A turtle emerged from the nearest pond, and crawled across the sidewalk to take refuge in some bushes. That’s when we noticed the water level in the ponds had risen by at least a foot. Weeds were no longer visible. Then all visibility was lost for the next two hours as the skies opened, and a truly biblical downpour began. Local storm and sewage systems were overwhelmed, and manhole covers shot into the air. Roads turned into raging rivers.
We alternated between music and the weather broadcast for the next few hours until hunger drove us to attempt to find an open restaurant. We made our way through a labyrinth of streets blocked by squad cars and filled with debris, and by a miracle, found a greasy hamburger joint. The food was wonderfully awful as it always is in these locally famous grease-pits. As we ate, the rain began to slow to a drizzle.

Back at the apartment, and sated with food, I suggested that we venture out and see how the bass were doing. We donned waders and rain gear and hit the pond. By now the water had fallen enough that the little footpath surrounding it was only submerged by a couple inches of water. I made my way to the inlet to the main pond, which was gushing forth a stream of dirty water through the cattails, and put my popper as close as I could to the incoming water. What followed can only be described as insane. Every bass in the pond was gathered at the inlet eating all the small fish, insects, and what ever else that had washed down to them. They liked the popper too. I missed more fish than I know in the darkness as they exploded on the fly. I had to set the hook by sound. We had found the secret to the dour bass. They were like sharks on a feeding frenzy, arbitrarily hitting everything and anything, even each other, in their mania for food.

That could have been the end of the adventure, but as they say, “When it rains, it pours.” After navigating flooded streets and hydroplaning on the freeway, I got within two miles of home and reached a dead-end. The main road was closed due to a flooded underpass. I drove through side streets filled with up to two feet of standing water for an hour before I found a way home.

I awoke in the morning in time for the parting shot. Another storm blew through and knocked down half the trees in the neighborhood.

All in all, six to ten inches of rain fell within an eighteen-hour period. Half of Wisconsin was a disaster area, and some communities were entirely isolated when rivers rose all around them and washed out bridges.

This was the day, of all days, that I picked to go bass fishing. We later learned that the tornado warning that was issued was due to the large rotating cloud that passed directly over us. Nice.

The moral of the story is simple. You choose the day to go fishing, not me. My track record is a bit tainted.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Attitude Problem

Some readers of the Classical Angler may wonder from time to time why I seem to get my knickers all bunched up over what I perceive as an attitude problem among many of today's steelhead "Hot Sticks."

Here is a photo that will say it all. I am not going to say who it is, nor where it came from and have blacked out the faces, but even if it is a hatchery fish, it not only shows disrespect, but almost displays a kind of psychosis.

Pouring beer into a steelhead's mouth is beyond silly. It is childish. Childish behavior and unsporting. Especially as this was the 'last rights' before killing the fish.

Grow up.

And another from a different site. Yes, they are only hatchery fish, but should they be treated like this, much less photographed and posted on the web as if it were a badge of coolness?

Grow up.


Editors note: 1/21/10 - O.K. Boys, I think that is about enough for now. The guilty parties are aware that I called them out. Enough of a nest of hornets.
I have a few last thoughts before we put this to bed.
First, how all of us behave reflects on the sport as a whole. That goes for me as well as you. This was not a matter of a hatchery fish and whether or not to dispatch it. Far from it. To me, it simply showed a lack of respect for life, for our fellow creatures, other anglers, and displayed a maturity level on par with the denizens of a video arcade.
My hope is that I made people think. That is and has always been my goal in my writing. Perhaps we might take a moment and think before we post our latest exploits and conquests on facebrag. The world is watching, and I am on the same team as you are. PETA is not.
Secondly, it is interesting that with the variety of writing that I place on this little corner of the blogosphere, that controversy gets the most attention. If I had one wish, it would be that I could share humor and inspiration as successfully.
Erik Helm

Monday, January 18, 2010

Things people tell you

Readers of the Classical Angler seem to enjoy observational humor. At least that is what I gather from feedback.

We have all been given advice regarding fly-fishing. Some is good and some bad. Most of the advice is well intentioned, but sometimes it is hard to sort out the useful tips from the silly ones.

What is it that makes a person want to give you advice when they see you with fishing equipment?

An old adage worth noting states “Better to keep silent if you have nothing worth while to say, than to open your mouth and remove any doubt as to your ignorance.”

Here are a few of my favorite pieces of advice or opinions that should have been left unsaid.

Around six o’clock on an August evening, I made my way down to the river at a local park. It was cool and overcast, and a downstream wind was blowing steadily. I thought it was the perfect time to work on my errant double-spey cast.

There was a small gathering of executive types near the river. It looked to me like a corporate retirement party or something. Wine and cheese were being served. As I passed the gathering, a tall distinguished looking executive type sporting perfectly trimmed graying hair and a Ralph Lauren button-down oxford dress-shirt came over to me.

“You’re a little early,” he said.

“Pardon?” I replied.

“I usually start fishing in early October, the salmon don’t run before that,” he stated.

“I am just practicing my casting,” I told him.

He just would not accept that I was just going to practice my casting, and not fish. Then he started to offer me advice regarding fly selection (glo-bugs again) and tactics for fishing to our zombie salmon.

Now, you must understand that I was wearing a waxed cotton Filson wading jacket, carrying a 14’ spey rod and Hardy reel, wearing a ballcap with the logo “Born to speycast…Forced to work”, adorned with a muddler and a weathered full dress Ackroyd Dee fly, and had a Hardy canvas and bridal leather stream bag slung over my shoulder containing dozens of lines to try on the rod.

My point in mentioning this is not to call attention to myself as the overdressed angler, but simply to state that to most observers, I probably looked like I knew what I was doing.

Not to this gentleman though.

I missed the opportunity. I held my tongue, mentioned how lovely the river looked, and bid him farewell.

Here is what I wanted to ask him:

“Say, do you mind me asking what you do for a living… because I thought you might want to hire me to help you with critical thinking…”

O.K. so, it went unsaid. I was polite. Perhaps he was a GM executive? It would explain a lot.

Once a guy yelled to me from across the river that I was “Doing it all wrong.” He explained that I had to “Wave the rod back and forth like this,” his arms flailing above his head. He knew this, he said, because his friend fished with a fly rod.

I was casting a 14’ spey rod…. Thanks for the advice.

People show me their flies and actually present me with a lucky fly. I will finish swinging through a nice piece of water with a classic fly, and when headed to another run, meet a fly fisherman on the trail. We will exchange greetings, and then often enough, the person will offer me one of their glo-bugs. They are actually being quite kind and generous. It is hard to reject the offering with some curt statement, so now I have a bunch of egg patterns at home that I will never use.

This worked the other way last fall when a guy stopped me as I was walking by the river and wanted to know if he could buy some flies. He had driven to the river with only two and had lost them. I gave him four of my lesser-used classic hair-wings, and refused monetary payment. As he thanked me, he tied on one of the flies and then reaching into his pocket, squirted fish scent goo all over the fly. Ugh! So much for generosity…

Then there are the guys that are always catching huge numbers of fish. A guy came into my shop one day wanting me to donate gear for a charity auction. In way of introduction, he mentioned that he loved fishing for steelhead. The conversation turned in that direction. He told me that he had caught 37 fish in an hour and a half. It turns out he was gravel raping in a river no bigger than a trout stream. He was trying to impress me, but ended up making me sick.

People often wrinkle their noses at me when they see me in my local river, their impression being that the water is polluted and nasty. It has become my response to reply to the incessant question “Did you catch anything?” or “Any luck?” with the reply “Just typhus, I was trying for cholera, but couldn’t get any.”

One guy entered the water near me while I was practicing with the two-hander. He was fly-fishing for smallmouth bass. He told me that the key was to use a rubber twister tail on the end of the fly. He waded into the river, stood in the best water, and cast his chartreuse lure into places where no bass in his right mind would ever live. I briefly ‘hooked’ two bass on the yarn I was using for practice instead of a fly. I guess I would have done a lot better if I had a chartreuse twister tail fly.

Somebody wrote that they “Never let their steelhead get into the backing.”

This one baffles me. Is he using piano-wire for a leader? He sure must not be catching the same fish I am. Was this meant to be bravado? As in “I just clamp down on the line and bust my rod?” Talk about missing the best thing about steelhead…

Another guy wrote to me: “You don’t need a two-handed rod to fish this river.” His opinion is both correct and incorrect at the same time. If I am fishing in low flow and flipping glo-bugs, I certainly do not need a two-hander. However, if I wish to fish runs where by necessity my back is against the trees and bank side brush, or if the water is high, then a two-hander is a real advantage. I also can cover the entire river and don’t have to wade all over the place.

A friend was told that if he was going to use an orange General Practitioner then he was “Only taking up space in the river.” He caught a fish on his very first cast, much to the chagrin of the other angler who had just offered his sage advice.

A guy told me that Lake Erie tributaries were “The best steelhead fishing in the world,” and that I “Should really fish there.” He then asked where I spend time fishing. I replied, “Mainly crappy places like the Columbia and Snake tributaries.” He had never heard of these rivers so he asked me if they were any good. I told him “Nah… not as good as Ohio apparently.”

It seems that anglers that are numbers fishermen tend to immediately dispense advice if they find out that you have caught one less fish than they have. Apparently, I need to: “use more weight, use less weight, use a black leech, use a glo-bug, cast farther, cast shorter, nymph with my spey rod, add split-shot, use a stone fly, use a yellow fly, and stay in the same spot.”

I also have been very privileged to receive guidance and mentoring from some of the finest fly-fishermen I know. One of the reasons that I tend to know the difference between horse-hockey and the real McCoy is that I listened to them first.

I have learned by now that when offered advice that is obviously spurious or specious, to just smile and nod. Helps keep the peace anyway.

So, thanks for all the advice!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Simple joys: less is more

This past spring I was retying a leader while seated on a grass bank high over a trout stream, when I witnessed another angler making his way toward the run directly upstream. He seemed to be encumbered as he walked. He was not old or infirm; he was just overloaded. Every pocket of his vest bulged with gear. In addition, he had both a chest pack and a waist pack, and each of those seemed full to the breaking point as well. He carried a net suspended from the rear of the vest, which kept tangling in the riverside brambles. He reminded me of myself just a few years ago.

It seems to be a common progression as we advance from novices in the world of fly-fishing, and begin to view ourselves as more advanced, that we buy into all of the goodies and gadgets that the tackle industry offers us. Perhaps it is a quest for that magic bean: the tool that will improve our catch-rate. We purchase nippers and pliers, floatant and knot-tyers, tippet gauges, twelve fly boxes, thermometers, multi-tools, zingers, hook sharpeners, laminated hatch-charts, containers of split-shot, a leader tying kit, three different packages of strike-indicators, a leader straightener, magnifier glasses, fly-threader, leader wallet, line dressing, tape measure, catch and release tool, and a partridge in a pear tree. We then buy various hip and chest packs and a vest to store all of this stuff. We cannot leave home without carrying every last scrap of fishing tackle that we own.

I remember fishing an area trout stream for the first time a number of years back. I had a full vest, a rain jacket over it, also with stuffed pockets, and a large canvas shoulder bag crammed to the brim. I could have outfitted three complete anglers. Why I was carrying an extra reel and an extra fly line I will never know. The canvas bag contained enough food and water to keep a small African village well fed for a week. I was like a reality version of a Dungeons and Dragons adventurer, carrying forty weapons, sixty pounds of gold, a suit of armor or three, a library of magic books, and every other conceivable item around on his back. Speaking of backs, mine began to ache that day on the trout stream. As I fished, I had to drop the canvas shoulder bag off and then come back for it.

Was all this necessary? The answer would be yes if I was backpacking for several days in the mountains, but since this was a stream an hour from home… no.

Then I fished with an acquaintance that was a real veteran, having spent years fishing all over North America for multiple species of fish. He carried in his minimalist vest only the essentials: a nipper and forceps, a spare leader, two tippet spools, one fly box, floatant, a plastic bag containing two strike-indicators, a granola bar, and a small notebook and a pencil. All this was stored in pockets with the exception of the forceps. He traveled light.

I began to notice what other anglers carried on the river, and their experience level. Sure enough, in most cases, the more experienced the fisherman, the more pared-down was his or her gear. The neophyte was always the one saddled like a pack-mule.

I dumped my vest and packs next to the car and proceeded to remove anything that I deemed non-essential to the day’s fishing. I was now around twelve pounds lighter.

So, why do we so encumber ourselves while fishing? I think it has something to do with wanting to look like we know what we are doing. The guy with the ratty plaid shirt and an old fiberglass rod can’t be much of a fisherman; he just doesn’t have enough cool stuff! On the other hand, the guy with all that shiny new equipment who looks like a walking tackle catalogue must know what he is doing…

It also might be due to some latent boy-scout tendencies that whisper to us “If you don’t take it along, you will surely need it.”
Back on that stream, I had finished my recollections and musings as well as the new leader, when I noticed a fly box float past me. That was followed by a package of strike indicators. The source was obvious; it was the other angler upstream of me, who was now seated on a midstream rock, furiously rooting through his various bags, pockets, and packs in search of some item or another. His flotsam still had the price tags attached.

Perhaps less really is more…

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A, like, Modern fairy tale

A wee bit off topic, but funny.

Once upon a time, there was a teenage girl. She was walking from the shopping mall to her grandmother’s house when she was approached by a big bad wolf.

“Hello little girl, I am going to eat you,” said the wolf.

The girl sneered at the wolf.

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed. “You are like, totally, like gross and stuff. Eeew!” Like, you are totally not going to, like, mess up my hair, are you?”

“Huh? said the wolf,” confused.

“Like, I am totally gonna twitter this and then you will, like, be in big, like, trouble, and stuff!”

As the girl began texting on her cell-phone, the wolf opened his toothy jaws, and in one bite, ate the girl all up.

The English language lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Company vs. Crowds

When I was a young lad, I often played with a number of neighborhood friends. Two of us would play without incident until a third kid joined in. Somehow, two of us always ganged up on the third person. Who the third person was didn’t seem to matter, and I was the odd man out as much as not. Parents required to break up the fray would often mutter the cliché, “Two is company, but three is a crowd.”

The other day, I was reading an essay about the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. Those who practice the art of far and fine presentation to spooky trout consider sections of this water sacred. Accompanying the story was a photo of dozens of anglers lined up helter-skelter in the water. The article was full of praise for the river and its fishing, but my mood as I was reading it became soured. Why?

Somehow, the beauty of the trout, the scenery, and the holiness, history, and tradition of the place was lost for me when I looked at all those fly-fishermen. It looked like a convention of graphite, cane, and floppy hats.

What constitutes a crowd differs with each angler. Some of us like to fish alone, or with a carefully chosen partner. Others form in groups to fish. However, I would venture that there is some hidden number for all of us that defines the razor’s edge between comfort and discomfort in the numbers of people fishing near us. It may vary depending on the water type and size, or the type of fishing.

We fly-fishers have a lower tolerance for crowds and need more space for our fishing and peace of mind than most. Here in the Midwest on any weekend in summer, area lakes abound with dozens of boats jockeying for position within yards of each other. This is considered normal in the bait and hardware world. Place the same pressure on our fly-waters and I along with the rest of us would skulk off into the bushes muttering misanthropic thoughts.

This past year I ran into a few situations that pushed the buttons of my crowding alarm. One weekend day on a large western steelhead river, there must have been a drift-boat conclave. I have never seen that many boats on the river. They had every run sewn up. I started high on the river in an attempt to find an open run. I drove to a hidden spot, made my way through the poison ivy and loose scree down to the river, and was beaten into the run by seconds by a drift boat. The run is big enough for only one or possibly two anglers, as it has a defined sweet spot. The boat dropped four anglers. I drove off muttering to myself. For the next six hours I dodged drift boats, got sandwiched between boats, got low-holed by boats, etc. Finally, I got the idea of going back to the upper stretches of the river above or close to where the boats launch to find peace. Since it was now late in the afternoon, I figured there would be fewer boats. I was correct, as were the four or five other anglers that had the same idea I had. Now we got to compete and crowd each other for the few runs open to us. Sigh.

On another occasion, I was fishing a trout stream in my home state, when I noticed a pair of anglers working down toward me, as well as another pair of anglers moving up towards me. I was busy catching brook trout on dry flies during a sporadic hatch, and as the anglers approached, I began to feel as sociable as a pissed-off rattlesnake. The numbers line had been crossed. My personal space had been invaded. The worst effect of crowding actually drove a fishing partner and I off a river this year and sent us over a mountain pass to another river in search of seclusion for a few days.

Success and misery love company. Toward that end, many fishermen gather in groups or eventually gravitate towards each other in the river. When the number of people reaches a critical mass, thinking persons like me can no longer hear our inner-voice. Our sense of harmony is disturbed. Our place in relation to nature and our surroundings becomes unbalanced.

Some people like to fish in crowds. Others like to take the path less traveled by, and find themselves in a remote or spiritual place where they can practice their art in silence.

The nice thing is that it is usually our choice. There are exceptions to that rule though. As steelhead populations decline and dwindle, and more rivers are closed to fishing, more pressure is placed on the few rivers with healthy populations of fish. The same can be said of areas with trout streams that are suffering from drought. Healthy rivers with water concentrate both fish and anglers.

Weather can play a role too. Most people these days are soft. Raised on a couch in front of a television, they are afraid of snow, ice, wind and rain. Dark clouds send them scuttling back to the SUV. This opens an opportunity for others of us that enjoy getting a bit muddy or wet, and consider a few mosquito bites or a twisted ankle a right of passage.

Sometimes getting away from the madding crowds is as easy as putting as much distance between you and a pullout or bridge as possible. I found this out once again this year when I passed up several anglers fishing within a hundred yards of each other on a little trout stream. I drove upstream into a remote section and went exploring. I found myself alone in a cathedral setting. Granite walls a hundred feet high on one side and forest on the other. For the next four hours, I never saw another soul, and buttery brown trout were caught.

As the environment suffers, and consequently, opportunities for quality fishing decline, some of us will have to travel farther or crawl through more brambles to find the peace we seek on the water.

Back to that picture of the Henry’s fork, you can keep it. I will be somewhere else where I can listen to owls, and nobody can witness when I put down every fish in the pool with my first sloppy cast. Fly-fishing was never meant to be a team or spectator sport.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What’s the best…?

They are everywhere these days. They dominate internet forums with page after page of opinion, advise, and blather.

They are the dreaded “What is the best…?” thread.

Questions without proper framing or background such as “What is the best 5 wt. Rod?”, or “What is the best casting video?” are so subjective as to often leave the door open to such a wide and varied set of answers that the questioner ends up more confused than before they asked the question. Add to that the fact that anybody can post an answer regardless of skill level, scope of knowledge in the area of questioning, or any precedent at all, and no wonder so much bad advise gets disseminated.

Here is an enlightening fact; there is no “best” rod, reel, line, book, video, wader, hip pack, suppository, etc.

It is all subjective.

What is best in one situation or circumstance is not the best in another. Then add in our skill levels, preferences, maturity, physical fitness, and style, and it really becomes a morass. Add in the river conditions, the weather, summer vs. winter, wind, etc.

What is best for me in a given situation may not be the best for my Neanderthal friend Og, who lives in my basement. For example, I am having a sandwich with summer sausage and mustard for lunch, lets ask Og what he is having for lunch. “Hey Og, what are you eating?”

“Og eat old shoe, mmm… old shoe best.”

Blech. See? Best is subjective.

Another problem with the concept of ‘best’ is that it often translates to ‘easiest.’

What is the ‘best’ method of fishing for trout in a river? How about bait? That would be best because it would place more fish to hand. However, what if a hatch was occurring? Then fly-fishing with a dry fly might be best. Does skill enter into this at all? Is what is ‘best’ for the neophyte angler different from what may be best for a master of the sport?

Does best mean the most fish to hand? Most difficult? Easiest for Og? Most colorful? Shortest? Longest? Perhaps 'Most efficient in the hands of beginning to moderate casters and fishermen' might be better. To most people though, it means "What will make me a better fisherman and catch more fish than my buddy without having to put in any work or practice of my own." ‘Efficient’ in many cases may mean the easiest way.

Let’s ask Og what he thinks.

“Og fish best. Og smash fish with rock. Fish good!”

O.K., so Og might not be the right person to ask, but it helped illustrate the point. Og, being a creature of little intellect and a subsistence feeder, jumps in the river and grabs a fish, then hits it with a rock and swallows it whole. That is what is ‘best’ for him.

When it comes down to it, the best for you may not be the best for your neighbor. What works for me may not work for you. As the proverb puts it, “One man’s meat may be another man’s poison.”

We tend to look for simple answers to complex questions.

Beware of the simple answers in life.