Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Clarity Through Purpose

Electric green borders the ribbon of flowing hope as it makes its run through humid farm country.  Water wrests through a boulder garden, presenting bubble lines and eddies to the fisherman's eye.  Dappled sun and bugs and the urgent pull of flowing water, all the things that call the fish hunter, converge to create a sense of urgency.  Want and need conspire to quicken things into a hasty, calamitous effort.  A center must be found; a balance between rushing to folly and the knowledge that often, one well-delivered cast will produce more than a series of ill-planned, poorly executed efforts.

I know there are fish in the pillow water guarded by upstream slab limestone or veiled in the muted recesses of the undercut bank, though they do not yet know I have arrived.

There's never a fish peeping out when you jam the camera under a cut bank.

 It will take time and effort to get to them.  It will take experience and knowledge converging to form a plan much like the seams of current and foam.  Decisions need to be made and actions need to be taken to wrangle these fish to hand.  Flailing and stomping about like I've upset a beehive simply won't do.  I must approach quietly, my casts and mends must be true.  Done well, it requires clarity and focus, and can be downright beautiful.  At least when other people do it.

This pause before the action may be the singular defining moment of fly fishing for me.  The fish are exquisite, of course.  I chase smallmouth bass predominately, and when I finally fight a muscled olive tank from coursing water, his burning red eye leaving no doubt that he would continue to fight me above water had he feet or fists, I am dancing as the feet of my Lord, as they say.  But that's all adrenaline and smiles, fist pumping and hooting like a fool.  The pictures are being composed and the backs are being slapped, and it all vanishes so quickly.

The quiet, treasured secret comes in the time before all hell breaks loose, before you're trying to run down the bank to avoid a snag or just holding on and praying.  It's the clarity of purpose.  More precisely, the clarity through purpose.  You're there to catch a fish, all your practice and experience has brought about a confidence and a purity of thought that lets you make a thousand little decisions, and execute them in nearly the blink of an eye.  Autopilot in the best sense of the term, it's a state that comes about precious few other times in life.

While we've set the apex of angling on the catching of that one perfect fish (it is that one thought that keeps most of us going back, after all), there are no real ramifications associated with not doing so.  The goal is there in all its lauded enchantment, but nobody is going to starve, the universe will not cease to expand, if we fail to achieve.  So even with all the pressure and anxiety we place upon ourselves, it's just a damn fish.  There's a joy of freedom in that too.  Take a breath, set your feet, and let 'er rip.

It has taken years and many fish, but I more often look forward to the intensity of the hunt and the purity that it brings now.  The foreplay.  That moment when it all comes together and you somehow know, you can be certain, that a fish will soon come.  You cover water, you cast and wade, until, all at once, through some magic of proprioception and memory, you just know it's going to come together.  The cast unfurls before you, and you can almost see it before it happens.  The fish will be there.

Whether it is simply a trick of the mind that we forget all the times it doesn't happen, or we can actually acquire enough touch, enough clarity, to actually see a memory nanoseconds before it happens, I do not know.

I was a musician in a former life, a horn player with a group that continues to perform on a national stage in front of tens of thousands of fans every year.  It was there, playing with those guys, that I first experienced this pure clarity and righteous confidence that comes with tiny moments of flirting with perfection.  As long as we loved what we were doing, as long as we trusted each other implicitly, that moment would come when the tunnel vision set in, when everything else disappeared and the autopilot kicked in, and there was but one goal to strive for in life.  Deep in the groove.

That moment comes for me in fishing streams and small rivers now.  The relationship between angler and fish has replaced that of the one between musicians and fans.  When it all comes together, when that moment comes and you can feel the fish rising out of the darkness, there is little more pure.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Around the Bend

Selma Kayak and I had a hot date this past weekend.  We've been together for quite a while now, and as happens to some couples after half a decade, I'd been somewhat remiss in my relationship duties toward her lately.  It's a good relationship, but we need to set up more regular dates to keep the romance alive.  She'd been nagging me to take her out, so we hit a local stream.  Just the two of us, a little lunch and a couple fishing rods.  River romance rekindled.

I made her a new duck hunting dress last fall, but maintaining relationships, especially with beautiful girls like Selma, requires constant work.

We set out to float a section of a local river that often fishes well for smallmouth bass and channel catfish, with the occasional petulant pike making an appearance, all flash and slashing threat at the side of the boat.  As is our habit on such solo journeys, we paddled upstream for quite a while right from the outset.  We can then take a relaxing lunch break at some point, and float back down to the truck at our leisure.

I know this river well, having fished it in spring for the bass, summer for the kitties, and hunted ducks on it during the fall.  It's a bit of a drive, but I was on my way out of town in that direction anyway.  It was the perfect excuse to sneak in a backwater tryst with my girl.

As we got into the groove with each other, once again, we were able to let go all the stress of weekday life.  Birds sang, sun shone warm and bright, and there was just enough wind to keep things cool.  All was temporarily right with the world.  She travels fairly well against the current, and I don't mind the extra work, so we were having a grand time of it.  The water was a little high and stained, which didn't bode well for the bass fishing, but we didn't care, just content to be out on the water.  She is pretty long and beamy, wide in the hips, if you will (don't tell her I said that!), which isn't the ideal set-up for paddling up a cramped little river in high water, but I'm just barely young and dumb enough to keep on chugging. 

While probably not the best for maneuvering against the current, Selma was designed by Native Watercraft to be exceptionally stable and roomy.  She's the perfect platform from which to stand up and fly cast, almost un-fall-out-able, though I have managed that feat one time through no fault of her's.  A mid-stream boulder and my inattention conspired to dampen my britches on that particular day, as I was attempting to cast, standing up, to rare bronzebacks rising to hatching flies. She really shines with that amazingly comfortable seat on long trips or when it's time to relax and sip a cold beverage on the float back to the truck, using the paddle only as a rudder.

This river gets some boat traffic, but not as much as the more popular ones.  I figured when we first set afloat that we'd encounter a few portages along the way, and I was correct... kinda.  There were more than a few.  In fact, there were a lot.  Kind souls (I can't name the group without giving away the river on the open internet so they will sadly remain nameless here) usually clear the stream of downed trees and other obstacles every spring, but they had apparently not gotten to this section of river yet.  Around seemingly every bend of this twisty, flirty little river, we found blowdowns, wood debris, and the natural detritus that makes a passage somewhat more of a challenge.  It's not much of a hardship to get out of the boat, and drag her over or around a hurdle once or twice, but as the portages begin to pile up in number, the burden begins to grow.

Selma often functions as my taxi as much as anything else.  We paddle or float to a likely looking fishing spot, then, when time and river condition permits, I sometimes exit the boat to wade and fish the riffle or run.  Honey hole fished, I hop back in, and ride down to the next spot, making probing casts as I go.  There's no right or wrong way to fish a river, and this is my habitual mode of covering water.

So I'm used to getting in and out of her, as the fishing and trees barring our way dictate.  It can become a bit of an ordeal when you simply want to get home to dry shoes and a good meal, water and mud splashing into the boat every time you clamber in and out, but that's the way of the river.  If you don't want to get stinky, take up coin collecting, or worse yet, golf.

While she looks great spit-shined and polished, I like her better when she's just a little dirty.
We eventually made our way far enough upstream that I deemed lunch to be in order, knowing full well that I'd have to make all those portages again on the way back down to the parking area.  I noshed on chicken smoked over apple wood at home and grilled asparagus with roasted red pepper coulis.  It had gotten all smushed together in the dry bag, but I didn't care.  Those of us who sometimes take sustenance under a willow with our feet dangling in the river actually look forward to those vaguely colloidal meals, blended together by vest pocket and duffel.

Rested and restored by a fine snack in the shade on an outside bend, a strange thing then happened.  The plan had been to return to the truck, and get on with the responsibilities of the weekend, but of her own volition, and without any input from my paddle, Selma pointed her bow into the current, and once again we made our way upstream.

That's why we're a good match, she and I.  Even when there are things to do and places to be back in the world, we share the same desire to carry on exploring.  It's a draw that I also share with a few good river men in my life.  Any of us that have ever been pulled around the next bend of a river, and the next one after that, know the joy of simply seeking.  We also know the rigors of navigating the last river miles and loading a boat all while shrouded in darkness. 

Truly undiscovered country is no more, at least around here, but it can sometimes feel like you'll be in it if you can just round the next bend.  Visions of Lewis and Clark, of Undaunted Courage, race through your mind, at the same time accompanied by the sobering thought that there's probably a Starbucks within 20 miles, as the mallard flies.

Selma and I continued on for a while, nearly in the paddle strokes of Marquette and Joliet as it happens.  And this is where my many shortcomings as fisherman and duck hunter often rear their ugly, gaping maws on the nearly innumerable babbling gems that braid our state.  I forgot to fish.

Well, not exactly forgot.  More precisely, I was persuaded to choose paddle over rod by the drive to see around the upcoming corner, past the next willow blocking our path.  It happens to me all the time.  I set out on the hunt for that slab smallie lying in wait at the head of the pool or wood ducks careening through the hardwoods, and I simply cannot fight the paddle from my hands.

Soon enough, obligation put an end to our heedless search for the unknown.  People need to eat, after all, and I'm the designated kitchen monkey of the clan, for better or worse.  I gently convinced Selma to pirouette, and carry us back to rubber and tarmac.  We made all the same portages again, water and goop slopping into her resin hull.  I may have cursed once or twice, dragging and grunting her over logs and through the slop, slapping skeeters and wiping sweat, but even the best couples fight occasionally.

We'll continue to explore, Selma and I, sometimes forgoing the gathering of protein for the love of gliding on water.  I have my eye on a another kayak now, one more slight than her stately form and dimensions, more suited to navigating the wee rivulets where I pass a lot of time.  I'll hate to break it to her when we become a triumvirate, but she'll still be my girl when when loads of decoys and camping equipment need to be ferried across open water, or any time the royal ease and comfort of a La-Z-Boy on the water is called for.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

First Cast

A pickup truck rolls to a gentle halt in the gravel along the river's edge, sending a faint cloud of dust wafting ahead.  The driver, stiff from miles of mind-numbing driving, exits slowly and stretches.  As always, his first move -- it's instinctual now -- before getting his gear out of the back, before applying sunscreen and bug dope, is to go to the river.  It appears both the same as always to him, and different, as rivers do.

"You can never step into the same river twice," he thinks as he walks the bank.  Who said that?  Some old Greek dude, most likely.  The thought evaporates as he begins to dissect all a river presents to a fisherman's eye.  Currents and eddies, boulders and seams, riffles and runs.  His mind jumps to calculating possibilities, to searching out the likely haunts of his quarry.  Water levels, weather, seasonal changes, and the availability of prey all play major roles in where the fish will be, among many other things fishermen have yet to divine, and he quickly remembers that most often, you just have to shut up and fish.

He moves slowly but with purpose, polarized sunglasses and the bill of a cap snugged down tight allow him to gaze just a little more effectively into the secrets the flowing water holds.  He stoops as he walks, almost imperceptibly, to let his hands flow through the tall grass. Young nettles sting his down-turned palms, but not as fiercely as they will later in the year.  This is the first trip of the season, and he wants to savor it.  Even the nettles are welcome.

Back up at the truck, it's time to don the armor.  Like the proper music supporting the mood or the perfect wine complimenting a meal, the waders and fanny packs, vests and boots are not strictly essential to wading or catching fish, but the act of having them there, putting them on, cements the proper mindset.  It's a ritual of anticipation, the deep breath before the meal.

He slops on the viscous sunscreen, plainly hating this part, cursing Nordic heritage and the burn that will follow if he doesn't apply.  He remembers through a grim rictus the time as a kid he burned so badly there were blisters on his small shoulders, how they looked vaguely like the surface of a golf ball, and how they screamed at him when he tried to sleep.  It's distasteful to him, smearing on the sticky goo, but necessary to get him where he wants to be at the end of the night.  Like dancing at a wedding reception.

He pulls on the stained waders, unwieldy buckles and straps, neoprene welds and crinkly breathable fabric.  As wonderful as modern waders are, the boys over in the wader lab can't ever get rid of that signature smell; part vinyl, part gym bag, part river must.  Even stored hung and dry for an entire winter, the aroma remains, a testament to hours spent in the water and under the summer sun.  Others would be repulsed by the olfactory affront, but he has come to associate it with time on the water, and inhales it willingly.    

Dressed and ready, he removes the four-piece rod from its battered cylindrical case, and with care, assembles the it once again into a functional fishing tool, equally capable of producing long elegant casts and frustrating disastrous ones.  The drag sings as he pulls lengths of line from the reel.  He fumbles once while lining the rod, and it all runs back through the guides, falling in a pile on the gravel.  Rusty from the long cold winter, he shakes off the blunder and tries again.  This time his fingers manage the slick fly line through all the guides and out the tip.  A tippet is tied to leader using a complex knot that used to give him fits, but now comes with the ease known to well-practiced fingers.

The ever-present fishing companion, a Red-winged Blackbird distracts from the task at hand with his abrupt, trilling call.  Conk-la-ree!  Conk-la-ree!  But now, after all those long hours at the tying bench while late winter and young spring conspired to bury any thought of this moment coming, it has arrived.  A fly must be chosen, a sweat begins to run.

As is his way, there are spread before him, in his chest pack and on the tailgate, in spare gear bags and as flotsam in the sea of equipment, entirely too many fly boxes at his disposal.  He enjoys tying flies as much as fishing them, so they grow in population until the fly boxes stack like tiny fly apartments in a downtown high-rise.  The number and volume of choices are almost too much to comprehend, so he chooses a few boxes of likely candidates, and banishes the rest of the boxes to quarantine in the wader duffel.  Out of sight, out of mind.  He lingers, his eyes alternately looking down to the river, and back to the open boxes.

It's too early in the year to fish big ugly topwaters, the water too chilly, the fish too sluggish according to conventional wisdom, but he can't be helped.  Out of love for the flies more than their expected effectiveness today, he decides on a garish deer hair diver.  It's poor choice for the day, and he knows it, but grins as he thinks it will be fun to fish anyway.  The blurp... blurp... blurp... as he strips it across the surface of a likely pool and the trail of bubbles skating away to forever, it's all so addicting.  "Just for a little while," he tells himself.  And if an especially spry fish does decide to murder it, well, that will just be a story worthy of calling the boys about on the drive home.  The now-pointless tippet is clipped off, and the fly is tied on almost as an afterthought.

He moves down to the river now, a plan in his mind, and unceremoniously steps in, thankful that he slid down the steep muddy bank without crashing to the ground.  Nobody talks about falling on your ass in the erudite and trendy world of flashy internet fly fishing these days, but it happens.  Not this time, but it has and it will again.

The weight of the water snugs the fabric of waders around his legs.  It's a strange feeling, a hug from an old friend juxtaposed with the faintest hint of a threat.  His feet cautiously probe the bed of the river, wary of hidden obstacles and soft bottom as he wades to his intended casting point.  Just because it was good bottom here last year, doesn't mean you can or should go striding across with nary a care.  Rivers change, and they love to surprise you.

Water tumbles over and around a mid-stream rock up ahead, chattering and foaming just a little.  Calling to him.  He knows there will be a deep hole on the downstream side of the rock, the river bottom scooped away by centuries of hydraulic action.  It's a likely home for his target, lying in wait in the pillow of slow water for a meal to happen by.  He curses himself for not tying on a deep minnow imitation to get down to that fish, but doesn't really mean it, surrendering to the joy of simply being there.

He wants to laugh out loud now, realizing in a moment of distracted clarity that he's firmly in the grip of this thing, but he he doesn't dare make a sound.  Predator mode.  He tries to set his feet quietly in the unruly cobble beneath them, waggling like a golfer getting ready to swing.  He breaths and calculates without realizing it's happening.  The internal computer born of experience and practice takes over, judging how far and how fast, where to aim against the wind and current, if a mend will be needed in the air or on the water.

A quick glance behind him to check clearance on the backcast forces his eyes skyward, and he is momentarily struck by gratitude for all his many teachers and the life that has led him to this point, ugly and beautiful as it has been.  His hands fall to familiar patterns as line is stripped from the reel and the dance of the double haul fly cast begins.

The rod tip passes back and forth through the pattern of the arc in space, power and glide, stop and start, as the line slides through his off-hand and out over the river.  There is that spray of water that always happens as the line whips through the stripping guide, and the sound of the lubricated fly line running out past the rod.

Then it happens -- the first cast of the year.  With one final strip of the off-hand the rod is extended and stopped.  The fly line, leader, and fly unfurl before him, a cast laid out in the air, all hope and conviction in a singular line to his goal.

The fly lands.

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