Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Coming Home





They define us, they bind us to our inter-relationships, they flow and ebb, break and reconnect our concepts of identity. They are everywhere, but only if we look for them.

 Thus it was a connection I sought on Wisconsin’s Bois Brule’ river. Although the desired connection was a bright one with a wild steelhead, one sometimes seemingly as elusive as a unicorn, there would be another connection that, when the dust had settled, became more important.

 Our journeys as anglers are never straight paths. We seem to stray or explore different approaches and desired outcomes in our progress on the water. Thank god for that, for as one old friend reminded me, “Exploring paths in the journey along life’s road allows us to take side-steps and wind and turn throughout the one-way trip, thus adding miles and miles to what otherwise might be a straight, quick journey to the inevitable end.”

 As I get older, I am slowing down, and the explorations and approach, the history and lore seem as important, or sometimes even more interesting than the fishing itself.

So I drove up to the river with a wagon full of cane rods and hand-tied flies inspired by antique Scottish patterns fished on the Dee and the Don. The main rod was going to be a restored and newly cut and spliced Sharps of Aberdeen two-hander. It started out as a sweet rod several years ago, but after getting the ferules stuck together rather permanently, it got chopped and spliced to @ 10 ½ feet. Finding a line for it was a nightmare, as I sorted through my huge box of spey lines, for it started out moderately soft, but as I taped it up, realized that now it resembled a Frankenstein monster, cobbled together and chopped and sort of stiff moving, much like Boris Karloff’s flat-topped rendition. I drove to the local muddy canoe landing on the Kickapoo river and fitted it up with a 4 ½” wide-drum Hardy Perfect reel from 1917. To make a long story short, it was like casting a broom stick. I finally put on an old 10/11 weight salmon line and was able to make it work…. Sort of.

 Stubbornness runs in our family, and I got a double dose of it. That is the only explanation why the rod didn’t get left at home. “I can make it work,” I justified to myself weakly and often to reinforce the error.

 The weather was remarkably warm and beautiful when I arrived ahead of our party and settled in for lunch and coffee, dreaming of the river while I sipped and waited for Barry, who would accompany my foolishness.

 Steelhead are often a beat down. Not necessarily physically, but mentally. Bright cheery and eager faces entering the water at first light can often leave it after a fishless day not speaking to anyone, full-of self-doubt, self-loathing, and completely lacking in the confidence that was over-flowing in the morning. Everything gets the blame; Tackle, the sun, the water clarity, leaves in the water, the choice of flies, and our selection of aftershave. The truth is that confidence is the most important part of the game, and it is all mental and as fragile as a newborn despite our best intentions and egos. I have fished for steelhead all over North America for years and years on storied rivers. One would think I was used to this, but when Barry picked my pocket by landing his first Brule’ steelhead behind me in the second run we fished, I started to experience the downward spiral into self-questioning, misery and defeatism that we call steelheading. His fish was a stunner. Wild as the weather on Lake Superior and chrome. Translucent fins too. All that was missing were sea-lice. Here was the McCloud strain from California’s tributary to the Sacramento River, and extinct there. Transplanted along with rainbows and stocked in the tributaries to Lake Superior, they were all wild fish now, a rarity in the world of anadromous fish. Thus the happy congratulations and high-five we give each other often decays as we want a fish too…. And the mental beat down begins in proportion to the beauty and rarity of the fish.

 I stuck with the Frankenstein rod, making it work through stubborn will and body strength until in the morning of the second day, we screwed up, and took the wrong path for the morning fishing. This led to poor water and crowds and a path which we stubbornly followed with hope that things would improve and we would find better water and less anglers (who seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as we set our feet in the water). The path started to give out as we continued downstream, and we had to crawl and climb through the beaver-falls and clay banks, rods snagging on pines stub branches, our clothing covered with brambles.

 We spent five hours hiking through the forest tangle, fishing here and there and swinging flies for a few casts until the water petered out, only to find ourselves back at the next parking area downstream where the other two anglers in our crew had put in. We walked back to the car soaked in sweat, dehydrated and pissed off, and when the rest of the gang met up with us for lunch in the parking lot, found that they had success, and Lem had hooked and landed his first Brule’ fish literally on his first morning on the river ever. The mental beatdown was now riding on my shoulder like a chattering monkey. “You suck,” it kept blathering endlessly.

 I kept with the monster rod throughout the rest of the day, but the physical exhaustion and muscle fatigue and doubt combined to make me take it apart and put it away before nearly passing out. Both Barry and I skipped the big party on the river we were invited to, and silently ate dinner after visiting three restaurants just to find a single available table. Back at the motel we knew we had to come up with a plan to beat the crowds. It seemed that half of Wisconsin and Minnesota showed up that evening for the weekend fishing. We had to have a plan. Well, the plan just sort of developed all by itself. By going to bed early, we awoke early and refreshed, and opening the motel door to the cool air of false dawn light, found that the parking lot was still full of cars. Everyone had slept in.

 We hoofed it into waders, choked down a doughnut and coffee or tea, and drove like the devil for the stretch of river I chose for the morning fishing. There were only two cars in the lot ahead of us, so we geared up by aid of headlamp and chanced it.

 Here is where the connection begins. I reached for a single-hand bamboo rod, and took it out of its case. A restored Clifford Constable 9’ six-weight restored by my friend Joe Balestrieri, and matched by a Hardy Perfect reel of 3 5/8 inches; a special reel, but more on that later. I tied on the new fly that, get this, I had not fished yet, lacking in confidence.

 Sometimes things come together in just the right way to make the connection. I noticed right away that I was fishing better as the light began to increase and the water chilled my legs. My swing was in zen mode, the little corrections to fly speed just happening as I didn’t struggle to fight the gear. Before the light was fully on the water, my fly was intercepted with authority. I had hooked my second Brule’ steelhead, the one last year having coming unpinned due to user (or loser) error.

 The bonus was some drama. The steelhead moved back and forth in the run, with me not trying to place too much pressure on it and screw it up. Then as Barry watched, it exited the pool and the reel began to sing and screech and protest the sweet music of an old Hardy. The run ended with a sharp left-turn of 90 degrees and a rapids which as I followed, my fish took my line into the tree branches at the bend, to be saved by Barry, alert as always.

 By now I was convinced I was not gong to land the fish. There was another 100 yards of rapids to go, but all of a sudden, the reel stopped screaming, and the fish buried itself in a soft pocket of water in the middle of the maelstrom. I spotted a small sand bar under water to the side, and a landing plan was put together. Maximum strain was placed on the rod turned upside down to equalize tension and strain on the bamboo, and the fish was landed. A sweet buck with a small bit of rose flank for color. The beat down had ended. I was staggering around in relief and joy when it hit me. The reel was owned previously by the late Andre’ Puyons, angling legend, former president of Trout Unlimited, prolific teacher and tyer with ever-present pipe and Irish hat and co-owner of Creative Sports, a fly-shop in Walnut Creek, Northern California. Walnut Creek is just west of San Francisco, gateway to the Sacramento and its now land-locked tributary the McCloud River. My reel most likely fished the McCloud back in the day in the hands of Andre’ Puyons.

The fish I landed was a ghost, an anachronism not out of time but out of place and now in last refuge from extinction. We all got tangled up and met in a connection on Wisconsin’s Brule’ river. I could almost smell the pipe smoke. The reel had come home. Old Andre’ was looking down and cracking a wry smile from somewhere beyond the pines and the mists of the river. I felt it. God, I dig this sport.

They say you can never come home again. I disagree. The time and place might be a little different, the circumstances connected with crooked lines of geography and chance, but if one closes one’s eyes, we can see it, it is all around us. We are always home through the connections that entangle us.