Monday, April 16, 2012

Old Guys

I was in Milwaukee looking to hit a couple of the Lake Michigan tributaries for steelhead late last week, and needed a place to lay my furry head.  Since a tent set up in the parking lot of a corner gas station seemed like a questionable idea at best, I offered to provide dinner at my younger cousin's apartment in exchange for couch space.  A small group of friends, roommates, and relatives quickly agreed to join us for dinner.

I arrived early in the evening, and got to work, sort of spinning my wheels a little at first like you do cooking in a foreign environment.  You tread water and monkey around a bit looking for cutting boards and the like, but it eventually comes together.  Or you order pizza.

We had a few beers and shared more than a few laughs together, gathered in the kitchen as always seems to happen.  I put together salmon with mango relish and wilted spinach on ancho sweet potatoes and asparagus with lemon butter sauce while sipping beer and enjoying the din of a hot kitchen filled with friends.  The meal was fine, but I believe the Crave Brothers Petit Frère, paired with a torn demi baguette and medjool dates, may have stolen the show before I'd so much as peeled the taters.  That there is some cheesey goodness, I do declare.  I only stepped on the dog once during dinner prep, which I considered the foremost accomplishment of the evening

Hey Chucklehead, quit slopping the food around!

Confused when my alarm startled me from my couchy slumber, the strange quarters and belly full of beer conspired to complicate the matter of finding the bathroom in the dark.  Eventually, dressed and ready to go, I smiled as I crept stealthily down the back stairs.  It has been a while since I had to sneak my way out of an all-female apartment before the sun.

It was apparent as soon as got in the river that the spawning run was almost completely over.  I saw one deserted redd and one fish in a couple hours of fishing.  Like everything else outside this year, the fish had hopped a meteorological wormhole from the end of March to the beginning of May.  I was a few days late and a thousand dollars worth of fly tackle short.

Discouraged but undaunted, I hopped back in the truck, and pointed her due north, out of the city and up the west coast of Lake Michigan.  In the time-honored tradition of internet fishermen everywhere, all streams will remain nameless here, but I soon found myself standing in another burbling ribbon of tributary water, it too nearly devoid of spring chrome.

I know when I've been beaten.  I could've pounded the water, swinging flies blind with little confidence, but there are other species to prey upon out in the woods.  I walked the banks, kept my eyes peeled for new quarry, and eventually found it in the form of ramps.  Delicious spring onions that have since been pickled for use later in the year sprouted from the pockets of my vest until it resembled a poorly constructed ghillie suit.  And for the record, yes, I was on public land open to digging.  The fact that I didn't confirm that via the internet on my phone until later is unimportant now.

It was then, crouching in the sun on the bank of a glistening stream, that I felt something amiss. Nothing blatant, no neon sign blinking and buzzing.  Just a tickle, a niggling wisp of something out of place.  I'd caught the tiniest vibration of something not right, hiding in the periphery.

So I did what you do in that spot.  I became a squatting statue trying to ignore the sound of my own heartbeat.  I watched and listened and waited.  And there it was again, off to my right and downstream.  I still didn't know what it was, but I'd caught a hint of movement this time.  I remained still, struggling to see farther and clearer, trying to evolve into a hawk or a deer.

When it happened the third time, I had it pegged through the crash of riverside fallen trees and brush.  A puff of smoke.  Using careful woodsmanship and stalking skills honed through years of practice, I'd discovered one of the most coveted prizes on the stream and in the forest.  The mysterious and often cantankerous, old guy.

He was in worn, but well cared for gear, and eyed up my own tackle with a cynical stare as I approached.  Chewing on a dime store cigar and staring into the water as if to make the steelhead appear through sheer force of will, he looked as though he might've grown up out of the ground right there, as natural as any other tree stump.  I was greeted with the standard silverback brusque indifference.

You're too late.  Fish'er gone.

Thanks, Old Guy.  I can see that.  Why do you think I'm wandering around the forest with onion tops flopping out of my fly vest?

As is the case with with most of the wizened old cranks you meet out there, his initial bark was all show.  Once I'd demonstrated my worth in the form of passable fishing knowledge, an understanding of local weather patterns, and tacit agreement that the current evil incarnation of government (no matter the current evil incarnation of government) was out to destroy fishing and generally ruin the world, I was accepted into the fold.

We had a great conversation, if with a slightly more radical political bent than I normally adhere to, and I was able to glean a little more fishing knowledge about that spot from him.  The great thing about old guys who have been fishing a spot for as long as I've been alive is that they often share a lot of detail, even if it is buried in ranting and stogie chomping.

I hunt and fish with a lot of them.  For the purpose of a little definition, I'm referring to anyone old enough to be my father, and on up from there.  Brian is going to go ballistic when he reads this, but sorry dude, you're one of them even if you can still kick the asses of men a third your age.  Settle down, it's a term of admiration.

I love them for their stories, I try to shut up and learn when they speak, and I'm constantly amused that they just don't give a slippery shit what they say.  I don't know when you get that pass, when you've seen and lived enough to say anything to anyone, but I can't wait to get my membership card in the mail.  It is my sincerest hope that it only arrive without the stipulation to wear my pants up under my nipples.

I met Dennis back when we had an apartment on Orchard Street, just over the hill from Lake Wingra and Wingra Creek.  I'd seen him time and time again when I'd head down there after work, sitting half asleep in his lawn chair, a couple lines in the water.  Dennis was a devout carp fisherman with the optimistic and patient ways that accompany such an endeavor.  He'd worked for the post office for decades before he retired, and I learned a lot about the city of Madison from him.

Like most old guys, he was set in his ways.  As we became friends, I tried to help him out by attempting to update his ancient gear and techniques.  I made boilies and dough balls, taught him how to tie a hair rig, and got him a reel with a clicker.  Mostly, he was content to mash canned corn onto a treble hook, and drink his warm  PBR into nap time.  He could've caught more fish if he'd cared to update his fishing, but he'd probably caught more than his share already.

He did keep meticulous records of every fish he caught.  Date, time, size, and bait used were religiously recorded in his tattered little notebook.  That always gave me a laugh.  Even funnier to me, he was still a horn dog.  He could barely walk, but he was forever craning around to gaze upon the tanned college girls running the paved path behind us.  He once fell to a knee out of his lawn chair trying to get a good gander.  After I was able to compose myself, I dried my eyes, and offered to install bike mirrors on his chair.  He declined, stating that if he broke his neck staring at a woman, it would be a fine way to meet the Lord.

Our deer camps are predominately filled with old guys, using the definition above.  Some of them are just sliding into old guy-dom, while others have been comfortably there since I was invited to join them almost sixteen years ago.  If I stop to think that some of them will not be there to greet me any longer someday, I can get downright distraught.  Their stories and jokes are fantastic, their knowledge of the land and people is deep and indispensable.  And they've taken more of my money at the card table than I care to admit here.

I don't think they'll mind me stating that they don't always hunt as hard as they may once have, but there is nothing better for me than coming into a warm camp, and being greeted by their cheers and jeers from around the fire.

Old guys rock.

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