We've waded this diminutive beauty together for smallmouth bass numerous times over the years. Like all small rivers it is often sensitive and moody, showing great diversity of flow and attitude from trip to trip. The fishing last weekend was not particularly good, but it was not terribly poor either. It was, I guess, reliable -- quite possibly the only word you can use to simultaneously compliment and insult a fishing river.
As we fished, I noticed again that Brian is entering the Crusty Old Guy stage of his outdoor career with a good deal of grace, actually. He has avoided stagnation in the form of idleness. As he creeps toward his sixth decade outside, he remains an archetypal man's man. Meat and potatoes seasoned only with the salt of the Earth. Canning and foraging, gardening and pickling, doting over an aging bird dog have in no way diminished the stunning natural athlete and hickory-hard badass I've known since I was a boy. He can still walk farther than you and I, carry a heavier load than you and I, and close through the thick stuff on a birdy flushing dog faster than you and I. It's just that those abilities, once a matter of no conscious thought, are concerns of effort and pride to him now.
|I will stipulate that the swim trunks do detract from his tough guy reputation|
We waded in each other's company, Saturday, letting the flow and layout of the river dictate our cadence and relative positions. Communicating through language pared to it's essentials by decades of friendship on the water, we melded into a single fishing entity, covering water, passing one another or waiting for the other, as the bends and current dictated. After you've fished together for so long, especially on a familiar stretch of water, there is little need to talk. You grunt, and point, and slide around the river like stars orbiting each other, both to cover water and stay out of each other's way. This dance will never appear on any reality TV show replete with deep spray tans and miles of cloyingly saccharine cleavage, but that does not render it any less beautiful to me.
Brian has fly fished in the past, but for the most part, I think I'm reading him pretty well when I say that he simply doesn't abide that fancy crap. He grew up when fly rods were called "trout rods," and that was what they were used for, usually by effete city boys in funny clothes from Chicago. Times change, Brian doesn't.
So it was, then, that I was was casting the big streamers I love to tie, on a fly rod that has become my right arm, while he pounded the water with a crankbait and spinning rod. That was fine with both of us. We don't judge each other for our personal preferences in methods of fighting fish. I think it's ridiculous when fishermen do.
|"Peanut Envy" Designed by Kelly Galloup, habitually tied and fished by me.|
Brian was throwing the old reliable Rebel Crawfish crankbait, and muttering to himself in an affected Yooper accent every time he caught a fish, "That's the only luhr a man needs, hey."
For those few of you unfamiliar with the crankbait as a concept, it is one of those fishing lures that consists of a body or "plug," usually constructed of wood or plastic, from which hang multiple sets of triple or "treble" hooks. The crankbait is often used as a so-called "search bait," meaning you cast it around, with that armory of hook points rattling through the water until it snags into something; be that fish, tree, stone, or otherwise. Crankbaits as a class are a formidable, spiny little bunch, and the only ones that make me think, Aw Geeze, please don't put a hook through my thumb, every time I reach down to grab a fish with one in its mouth.
Eventually, just as sometimes happens on the dance floor, there had to come an ugly end to our watery gambol. As we occasionally uttered three-word thoughts to each other, and silently pointed out likely targets for one another's casts with our rod tips, he suddenly yelled, "Look Out!"
|Crankbait by Rebel, river sandal by Keen, pasty Sconnie ankle by Mary and Kurt|
I may be judged soft and weak by future generations, but it was then that I declared we were done fishing. At least until I was able to return to a comfortable gait sans crankbait welded to my ankle, snagging on the grass and weeds every other stride. An Ace Bandage temporarily snugging it to my leg would've been the perfect option for continued fishing in minimal discomfort, but you can only carry so much stuff in your vest.
We retired to Brian's house where he found a pair of cutters and some heavy cord with which to pop the hooks out of my flesh, but not before the banter began as I drove us back to the homestead. It took only minutes before the digs began to fly, concerning both his inability to control his fish and my failure to get out the way. It may very well be that we each felt a little bad for the way it went down, but such feelings are seldom shared between us. Instead, we jab and laugh and curse each other. And laugh some more. It's a different form of intimacy, much more comfortable and effective than talking it out. I can't even imagine...
"Oh, my! I am so truly sorry I was unable to control that fish before he hooked you in the ankle. It must be dreadfully painful. Please let me know if there is anything I can to to assist you."
"It's quite alright. I apologize for being unable to get out of the way of your trophy fish. Let's just ride home quietly, and get this taken care of immediately."
The hook removal went swimmingly well, using a method of cutting away the body of the plug (because I was hooked on both ends), then popping them out with a length of heavy monofilament line. Easy as pulling a loose tooth, really, except there is no hook fairy to give you a quarter in the morning. It's probably best not to hide hooks under your pillow anyway.
I was certain to remain stoic and completely unmoving during the procedure, knowing that the tiniest movement or peep from me would result in Brian having the ammunition to blow the ensuing decades of campfire re-tellings entirely out proportion.
Therein lies one of the few challenges (and greatest pleasures) of being a dude hanging out with other men.
I am pleased and lucky enough to inhabit a huge group of loosely-knit men who cover the entire spectrum of interests and allegiances from MENSA to IBEW, burning Red State to hardcore Blue, Metallurgist to tattooed Heavy Metal rocker. Fifth generation farmers and hipster nerds, alike. I think that stems partly from the fact that any time you claim a bar stool in Madison you're as likely to sit next to a Doctor of Meteorology as you are a plumber, and partly from the fact that nearly everyone fishes at some point, no matter what they were born into. Fishing talk transcends almost all boundaries, and comes up just as easily at the bar as it does whispered in the pews before a wedding. At least if you're hanging with me.
The one thing almost all of these friends have in common is that they love to give each other a hard time. I do too. As far as I'm concerned, one corner of heaven is reserved for a card table or wood stove and the re-telling of the time your buddy screwed the pooch, or pulled the greatest prank ever played.
Speaking of which...
In the fall of 1996 I was invited to join a deer camp in the northwoods of Wisconsin, by a family whose only natural state of being is one of generosity and kindness. Let us not assume, however, that their natural inclinations toward charity and goodness precluded these men from pulling one of the most well-conceived and enacted, stressfully painful pranks I have ever been the target of, early in my stay there.
It involves the consumption of a homemade Swedish liqueur called Glögg, or "glug" as it is known to the American ear in camp. Rodger makes glug for the boys almost every year. It is a family recipe passed down from father to son, with rightful pride, for generations. I've seen the tattered and dog-eared oldest surviving incantation, the writing barely legible on crumbling yellowed paper.
It's the good stuff. An alcohol content absolutely through the rafters, but prepared and reduced in such a way that the drinker feels almost none of the deleterious effects until it's too late. And that is the crux of the problem, as I so ruefully learned.
At the time, I was only newly dating Rodger's eldest daughter, Erin, she of radiant green eyes and perpetual mischievous grin. He was a pilot and retired naval officer, I was a nerdy little college puke, invited by his nephew, Frisbee, with whom I'd become fast friends in the dorms. I was was fully and rightfully intimidated by Rodger.
The first Sunday night of our eleven-day deer season the glug came out. I partook, and heartily. Being the new guy, however, and unable to taste the intensity of the alcohol so well prepared, I over-indulged. That's stating it kindly. I hastily got very, very intoxicated. Rip-roaring drunk. Loud, annoying, hammered-asshole inebriated. You get the picture. I was 22, don't tell me you never did.
Frisbee and I had to return to Madison the following morning for our mid-terms. I was hungover and tired, but happy to get back to the city to see Erin, admittedly less joyful about the tests.
We took our exams, and, as promptly as possible, made the four-hour trek back to deer camp. I was in high spirits, riding back up north with Frisbee, the appropriate clothes and firearms in back, ready to hit the woods and hang with the guys at my new camp.
We rolled in, full of youthful enthusiasm, and I was surprisingly greeted with less than stellar salutations. Even shunned a bit by the better actors. While Frisbee was greeted with hearty handshakes and claps on the back, I was granted only mild acceptance.
Rodger's brother shook my hand, and whispered, rather mystically, "I CANNOT believe what you said about Erin to my brother."
Later that night Rodger came in with the bottle of glug under his arm. As is the tradition, he shook hands with every man around the table... except me. Completely ignored me, as a matter of fact. I stood up straight and tall, as a young man courting his daughter should have, and stuck my hand out, only to be met with cold indifference.
As the evening progressed, he offered shots of glug to the boys. "Who wants a shot of glug... Ted? Paul? Primo?" All the way around the table, until he got to me. He looked me directly in the eyes with a fair amount of derision, and asked plainly, "Truth serum?"
I wilted inside. Damn near died, honestly. I had no idea what I'd said to him about my dating life with his daughter, couldn't recall most of the previous Sunday night, honestly. In the days that followed, it was all I heard about from the other guys. ...you need to apologize to Rodger.... I can't believe what you said to him... you should never drink that much in front of your girlfriend's dad....
The entire remainder of our gun deer season progressed like that, as I fretted in my ladder stand and worried in my bunk. Cold shoulders from the old guys and glances of pity from the boys my age. In the true spirit of a good prank, it was perfectly executed and very nearly too uncomfortable to take.
Of course, it came out on the final Sunday that I hadn't said a single bawdy or remotely inappropriate thing to Rodger about Erin and I. But they knew my memory of the evening in question would be foggy at best, and jumped on the opportunity as a clan. They gleefully played me the entire week. I have to say that Rodger played his part very well, effectively treating me like a leper the entire time. I only wish that I had known him then as I do now, so that I might've been able to express true thoughts to him personally, concerning his acting skills and devious trickery. As it stands, we remain tight friends to this day, so perhaps it is better that I couldn't.
I can't explain it to you now, all these years later, but this ribbing and silliness are examples of things men can bond over. It doesn't hurt anymore that they keelhauled me. It's hilarious. There are plenty more camp stories where that came from. Pranks that I had a part in, or that happened before I was even born. They are the basis of our banter and inside language, rites of induction and continued membership. They're part of the narrative of who we are as a tribe, and I love them. Even if they occasionally sting at the time.
|The deer camp boys, after a deer drive. I'm on the left, safely four away from Rodger.|