Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zen and Bob Uecker

I've failed to post here recently for a number of reasons.

Work has stolen innumerable hours better spent outside.  That's a cliché and an easy out, so we'll skip it here.  Work is a challenge at times for everyone.  You don't want to read about it anymore than I want to write about it.

Much more pertinent to the case concerning my lack of posts lately has been this ersatz spring.  It has simply been too nice out to sit here and pound away at the keyboard, especially after just having finished doing that all day at the office.

In a normal year, this month on the outdoor calendar can be a bit of slow time.  There are almost no hunting seasons open, the woods are still barren of forage, and the ice often gets soft and squirrelly, rendering the fishing treacherous at best.  This year the ice is completely gone already, and has been for quite some time.  Asparagus is up, nettles have been gathered for salad, and I'm starting to see mushrooms.  I'm pretty sure I can hear the crocuses freaking out like they're late for a flight.  Woodcock are peenting at dusk, and flushing on hikes through the low spots.  I can't help but smile when I think that, in a normal year, I'm often tip-toeing out onto questionable ice right now, spud bar tentatively prodding in front of me.  I never even got the spud bar out of the garage this year.  The ice seemingly sublimated overnight before I ever got the chance to use it.  Poof... summer.

Maybe.  Natives of the north soak up the rays while we apprehensively glance over our collective shoulders, dreading the evil April blizzard lurking in the deep shadows.  Winter surely will not give up this easily.  We cannot have lived so purely as to earn respite from the dreaded, limb-snapping slop and goo of an Easter whiteout.  The sun shines, and freckles reappear on the back of fishing hands, but we all know full well that it may be merely the pillow talk before the lovers quarrel.  Something will set her off.  There will be hell to pay and heavy snow to shovel.  It's an ancestral memory we cannot shake, imprinted in the DNA of everyone born north of St. Louis.  My boots and shovel are put away, but not that far back in the closet.

We had a little biblical weather last weekend while fishing for crappies in a spot that normally has to wait until late April or early May.  As dawn broke to reveal skies the color of a journeyman bantamweight's face a week after another lost bout, smudges of purple and yellow and green, lightning laced the sky behind an intensely vivid double rainbow.  Wind whipped, thunder rolled, and I was on the lookout for a plague of locusts.  Not your typical March morning on the water.

Despite pop-up thunderstorms more reminiscent of July, you have to get out there while the getting is good.  Make hay while the black kettle throws stones at the gift horse, as a playful mangler of the language I know likes to say.  Even though my internal clock feels like it's in the midst of a rollicking brandy bender, glowing with vague contentment but slightly confused, I'm down for anything in this stunningly glorious spring.  There is no way I'm going to sit inside one instant longer than I am forced to by the needs to eat and pay bills.  Except for one thing.

Time spent at the fly tying vice is a welcome rite of spring for me.  If I were another type of fly fisherman, this rite would no doubt consume more of my fall and winter.  But somehow, and I have no idea how this could have happened, the revered trout has not yet made it onto my laundry list of outdoor obsessions.

Trout season opens near the first of March around here, and while I do occasionally partake of our salaciously hued Salmonidae, I'm not much of a trout bum.  I live an hour or less from some of the greatest trout waters in this part of the country, but, maybe sadly, I've never been taken by the fish, beautiful as they are.  Fishing for them in the Driftless, while highly popular and productive, can be very technical and precise fishing.  A detail man's game.  Maybe it's my tendency to drift toward the ham-fisted galoot side of things in fishing and life overall -- give me the biggest stick in the rod rack, I'll over-line it and beat those fish out of the water come hell or Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now (Charlie don't surf!) -- that prevents me from enjoying the quieter, gentler world of effete little trout on gently presented, miniscule flies.  More likely, it's the fact that I suck at tying those flies.

In any case, I'm a smallmouth bass guy, chucking big baits and flies that would most likely send the vestigial tweed and elbow patch trout crowd into paroxysms of laughter or disdain.  Norman Maclean brought many of us to this sport, me included.  While a river does run through my life, and waters do haunt me, my waters are haunted by the slab muscle, burning red eye, and warrior's creed of the tank smallie.

If I were a trout man, toting a limber English 4-weight and a box of dainty, perfectly proportioned flies to represent every benthic creepy-crawly we have, I'd have been tying them all winter in preparation for the early March opener.  As it stands, the smallie doesn't come alive, at least for the purposes of fishing, until later in the year, so my fly tying binges wait until ice fishing is over and the grass starts to turn green again.

I stumbled into fly tying in college.  My roommate Kirk was a steelhead and Lake Michigan salmon guy.  Fishermen, even those who worship exclusively at the alters of differing species, will form a strong bond, sharing knowledge and stories with each other.  This isn't Northern Ireland after all, we were fishermen despite our different styles of worship, and we got along immediately, having come from opposite ends of the fishing world and the group of friends, but still just a couple dudes with hooks and slime on the brain.

Kirk was much more the fly fisherman than I was at the time, and glad to show me the ropes.  He lent me his vice and bag of what I now know to be fairly ratty materials, mostly dusty chenille and old marabou used in steelheading flies.  I set to, that vice screwed to my little old desk in the bedroom because there was no place to accommodate the clamp, and began to tie some of the ugliest flies this world has ever seen.  Garish monstrosities and tiny disasters alike were born of my efforts.  Kirk graciously encouraged me to practice while somehow containing tear-inducing fits of laughter until I'd left the room.  

He passed away suddenly while we were fishing together some years ago.  We were all terribly hurt and stunned.  I was given his fly tying and jig making materials after his passing, the same vice I first learned on.  While I no longer use that vice, some of his tools remain in my arsenal.  Every single time I sit down to tie, I see them, and think of him, and what little is left of that particular hole in my fisherman's heart heals over just a little bit more.  I've come along slowly as a tyer, making toddler steps and stumbles into the vast world of fly tying, and now get great satisfaction out of a well tied fly.

 A meditative state can be achieved in fly tying when all is going well.  Like cooking a favorite dish you've done a thousand times before, you get deep in the groove, time passes without notice, your energy is focused on creating this thing, and suddenly, there it is.  Something that didn't exist minutes ago now does, and by your hand.  In the case of the fly, if Jupiter is aligned with Mars and I'm not in suck mode, it's part tool, part art, and completely engrossing to me.  Even more so when I've gathered some or all of the materials bird hunting the previous fall.

There is an advanced technique in fly tying called spinning deer hair.  The intrepid tyer cuts a clump of fur taken from the belly or body of the white-tailed deer, lashes that fur to the hook, and slowly increases pressure to the center point of the length of hair using consecutive wraps of thread.  When it goes well, the fur spins around the hook shank (a truly scary moment for the beginner!), and flares out into a fan shape, standing out in all directions like the quills of a frightened porcupine.  This continues, clump after clump of hair, until the shank of the hook is bristling with deer hair standing on end.  The hair is then trimmed with a razor or scissors into the shape of a body or head, which will float on the water.

 Three colors of deer hair, spun onto the hook, before trimming with the razor blade...
 ... and after a little attention from the barber.

That sounds like a time-consuming and difficult affair, and it is.  There are much easier and faster ways to build floating fish lures.  Plastic and balsa are much easier to work with and shape, and take much less time and experience to get right, but there's just something about spinning deer hair that intrigues me.  A conventional plug can last for seasons of hard fishing, but a floating fly of spun deer hair will often be destroyed by one fish.  Maybe even just a strike that fails to land that fish.  There's something philosophical in there, then, the making of something by harder means, requiring more time and skill, that will ultimately fail more quickly.  Not quite art solely for art's sake, but something like that.

Sometimes, when a fish comes to hand, a deer hair fly that I lovingly and painstakingly created hanging mutilated from its jaw, I think, Good for you, buddy.  You didn't go down without a fight.

I have many days of the year I look forward to.  The opening day of deer season, our dingleballs tournament and the Excess versus Moderation Tailgate Challenge, fishing opener and Halloween weekend when the woodcock hunting always seems to be the best.  I could never pick just one, but definitely somewhere in the running is that magical day in spring, when I can finally open all the windows. I turn on spring training baseball, maybe pour a cocktail if I feel daring about my fly tying skills, and get lost in spinning deer hair on a hook.  A Zen trance with Bob Uecker on the radio and dreams of smallmouth bass in wadable rivers.

That day came early this year, and that is my only excuse for those of you that have been pestering me to post more.  My ammunition stores have been nearly refilled, and the smallies will be given no quarter.  I'm coming, and I'm bringing my deer hair with me.


  1. Remember, I can put you on smallies; Fat, mean, river smallies.
    All you have to do is bring one of those ugly boats of yours up here, and take me up on it.

  2. Love these words right here..

    Sometimes, when a fish comes to hand, a deer hair fly that I lovingly and painstakingly created hanging mutilated from its jaw, I think, Good for you, buddy. You didn't go down without a fight.


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