Monday, January 21, 2013

Me Make Pretty Someday

Since I was a child, I've had in me the desire to create pleasing things.  It has manifested itself, in many iterations of success and failure, throughout almost my entire life.  Writing, cooking, singing and playing music, innumerable photographs -- drifts of attempts to bring into existence something of grace and polish; they pile up in my life.  Found among them, infrequently and often by serendipity like Penicillin and Play-Doh, are a few rare examples of success.  I am decidedly no artist, but when the moon is in the second house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I can sometimes hack together a chunk of something that is marginally not abhorrent to the eye, ear, or spirit.

My journey began with one of those mind-boggling 70's-era parental decisions we now smile fondly upon in the fuzzy penumbra of the past.  I was given a crystal radio set and a soldering iron somewhere around the time I was still struggling to learn my multiplication tables.  It was somehow deemed perfectly safe to bestow the allure of molten lead upon a being who was routinely and abruptly cast off his bicycle for no apparent reason, came home with worms in his pockets, and bathed only under direct threat of mortal violence.

Regardless of how it came to be, I found myself in unsupervised possession of a makeshift branding iron, and with the help of my father's coveted woodworking chisels, attempted to make one of those routed and wood-burned family name signs out of a piece of split firewood.  The house didn't burn down, nor did I, but I was on my way to trying to make handsome things, ugly as that sign was.

Fly tying fits in a category of its own for me in this quest to make pretty things, being that the flies themselves, while sometimes pleasing to the eye, will always be a function of their end goal as a fish catching tool.  I don't tie well enough for my stuff to be displayed in a lucite box on the mantle, nor would I want it to be.  But that doesn't mean I don't wish my functional flies to be beautiful either.

It's bit of a balancing act.  There comes a moment in the tying of almost every fly when it would be good enough to catch fish, probably fool them quite handily, but it is also not yet finished because it's not pretty enough to snag the angler.  There's the thing -- the tyer could stop right there, when it's still a tad ragged, doesn't have the last bit of embellishment in a little glossy head or the perfect set of sparkling eyes, but I often can't.  It's not enough that it entice the fish, the fly must first enchant the fisherman or it will never leave the box.

I'm not a production tyer most of the time.  My flies are for me.  I tie for my edification and for my fishing, but I'm also a prodigious producer once things start to roll, so I often end up with a cache of flies to be sold on Craigslist or to like-minded friends and acquaintances who chase the same species I do.

All my personal fly boxes are full.  The current overstock pile.

I've never felt more like a drug dealer than the time last year when a vaguely sketchy Craigslist fellow (everyone you  meet through Craigslist feels vaguely sketchy, if not downright frightening) met me in a Pizza Hut parking lot, and began peeling twenties off a gangster roll to buy a big batch of my smallmouth flies.  That doesn't happen very often, but it was fun in that salacious, pretend-you're-a-villain just-for-a-second kind of way.

I started tying sometime in the mid 90's.  Those were the heady days of mangled wooly buggers and dry flies from the minds of horror movie directors.  I tied a March Brown Comparadun once that, had it become known to the government, would've been whisked away in the dark of night to be studied in some little-known bunker under the Mojave Desert, then killed with fire.  It was that grievously malignant and horrifying.  A puppy saw it and immediately began to cower.  Angels wept.  I decided that if I was going to continue tying, it would be in the realm of bigger streamers and topwater bugs for brown trout and smallmouth bass... for the good of mankind.

One of my earliest attempts, circa 1994.  Saved as a reminder that things get better.

Things idled along for a few years with fly tying but a dull murmur in the background of my life.  We fished with waxies under bobbers for the biggest bluegills I've ever seen, spring and fall, out of the fishing trailer in Onalaska.  (You know it's a renowned bluegill spot when greeted with a gargantuan, 12-foot long Lepomis statue at the city limit.)  Our limits of thick-shouldered 'gills were often almost too easy.  There were mornings when the fish basket could hardly be lifted out of the water in less than a couple hours.  While big fish were sometimes taken off their beds in spring using a fly rod, the flies employed were most often bubble-packed poppers bought at the gas station.  And the fish didn't care because bluegills almost never do.

We trolled Lake Michigan for many years, chasing salmon and trout.  I'd happily stumble from the bunk while a lot of people my age were just getting home from "last call," to be on the water before the sun came up.  My boat mates, Kirk and Steve, had been fishing there since childhood and had the program absolutely nailed.  Never before or since have I witnessed two men with a better shorthand and intuitive sense of what the other was doing on the boat.

When I first began fishing with them, in terms of the angling, I was little more than three more lines in the water and a sport to winch the fish in.  We became a team over time, and though I never approached their masterful knowledge of that fishery, we did very well in the tournaments and I tied a lot of Howie flies.  Lashing tinsel to tubes never really caught my fancy though.  It was strictly a matter of putting pounds in the cooler.

We catfished in the dark, all stink and mud, with atrocious smelling baits and cut up bait fish.  We chased muskies with heavy baitcasters on the big lakes up north before almost anyone had thought to get after them with a fly rod -- fly rod muskies being quite the rage these days, incidentally.

Then I discovered a website dedicated to fishing smallmouth bass in rivers, and the bug bit.  Hard.  I began as a spin fisherman, but quickly blew the dust off the vice, and began to chase the bronzebacks with bits of fur and feather clumsily fastened to the hook.  Like many in the beginning stages of any new-found obsession, I adapted the tools and techniques I'd learned from other arenas to fit my new needs -- essentially fishing bass with slightly outsized trout flies when you get down to it.  And it worked quite well.  Still does, if you want to do it that way.

I tied and fished in that happy milieu until Kelly Galloup kicked off an awakening in my tying when I saw him speak and tie at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo in Minneapolis a few years ago. (I also met and spoke with musky guru Brad Bohen for the first time at a writer's symposium there, which coincidentally, led to the existence of this blog, in a roundabout sort of way.)

Rodg and I had driven from his house in the Twin Cities suburbs to a hotel convention center in the gloom and slush of a late winter metropolitan snowfall.  We had a sub-par brunch in the hotel restaurant, wandered around the vendor floor for a while, then the speakers began.  Of all the presentations and guest tyers I took in that weekend, the infectious Mr. Galloup was the most concise and clear, and also the most engaging and fun, at least for me.  I don't think he was tying articualted flies yet, at least not during the show, but watching him tie a Zoo Cougar right in front of me was a revelation.

A quantum leap had taken place.  I came home and set to, armed with an entirely new outlook and thought process concerning fly tying for smallmouth bass.  While Mr. Galloup ties and fishes for brown trout the majority of the time, his entire treatise on fly tying works for smallies, as do some of the flies themselves.  If I may be so bold as to paraphrase, his thinking goes something like this compared to the more traditional way of thinking -- go big.  Go huge.  Tie monstrous, gnarly flies and pound them aggressively.  They will elicit predatory strikes from the biggest fish in the river.

Hulking, beefy flies as long as your vice arm

That works for me.  Not only do the flies perform on the river, but the tying of them is an adventure in itself.  Flies that take a few innings on the radio to tie and require a multitude of bits and bobs be fastened on. Flies that would give the 2-weight driftless guys flop sweats, that require every technique and material in my arsenal to come together.  There's an ugly beauty in them, and when I get to rolling at the bench, when I'm kicking it to a fat stack of horns in the earbuds and my hands are functioning almost strictly through muscle memory and habit, I find them unerringly prurient.

Fads, by definition, come and go.  I believe the push toward ginormous streamers has outgrown the fad stage.  I wasn't around for the bead head revolution in fly tying, so I don't know what that felt like, but I think this shift in the tying landscape has taken a similar permanent foothold.  And I'm glad to be a part of it, sitting in hermit mode at my vice, tying gloriously nasty articulated pig stickers and grinning like an idiot.

With plenty of practice since 1994, things have gotten better...

I am by no means an expert.  While some of the flies above are of my own design, most are my take on flies from the minds of  Kelly Galloup, Mike Schmidt, and Rich Strolis.  Should you find yourself interested in the tying and fishing of pork chop-sized streamers, fire up your Google machine and point it at them.  Their flies, patterns, and videos are all over the interwebs.  And if you're already a proficient tyer, check out the mesmerizing, absolutely outstanding tying videos by guide Brian Wise of Fly Fishing the Ozarks on YouTube.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

By the Hand of God

I needed cheese.  Pepper Jack and Cheddar, to be precise.  This was not a passing whim -- not merely some ephemeral hankering.  You see, the Packers cannot lose when I make the delectably gluttonous and magical "No-Lose Nachos."  They are that powerful.  For the good of Wisconsin and the universe in general, cheese needed to be procured, post haste.

I hurriedly clambered behind the wheel alongside my step mom in the passenger's seat, rushing to get back from the store in time to melt two cheeses into beer-laced b├ęchamel, and pour it over corn chips before kickoff.  We took her truck, but when we travel together I nearly always drive.  This is out of no anachronistic sense of chauvinism.  If you'd ever ridden with her, you'd drive too.  I suspect she secretly likes to be chauffeured.  That's the only possible explanation for why she tries so valiantly to end me in a firey ball of death on the seldom occasions she takes the driver's side.

So with the urgency of a man late for the meeting of his life, I rushed onward for the glow of town over the horizon and the big box grocery.  The game was on the line, after all.  It occurred to me that the headlights might have been a skosh dim in the wintry evening gloom, but that was of little concern in the heat of the moment.  Then the dashboard lights faltered.

Oh, shit.  That ain't right.  I'd been there before in a vehicle of my own, and knew the symptoms of an alternator in the throes of death on the road.

Within a minute we were dead in the water, adrift in a sea of impending Packer doom.  As it happened, we were also stalled at a four-way stop in a no parking zone right at the edge of town.  Being a weekend as it was, Carolyn elected to leave the Suburban overnight in order to avoid exorbitant towing charges, which meant we had to get it down the street and around the corner to avoid a parking ticket.

Now Carolyn, wonderfully bright and witty as she is, is not built to push 7200 pounds of Chevrolet steel down the road in her pretty little heeled boots.  Even in her youth she was a slight woman.  Tea with the ladies is more her speed.  So I was the nominated workhorse, obviously.

All went well on the straightaway.  With the standard amount of slipping in the snow and questionable language to get things started, I quickly found myself in that oddly powerful condition of rolling a big vehicle down the street one-handed.  Then came the turn, and trouble was once again at our doorstep.  Not only was Carolyn unable to push the truck, but through no fault of her own, she didn't possess the strength to turn the wheel without power steering either, and we'd rolled too far into the intersection, all kattywampus and snarled up.

I quickly found myself dancing with the devil in the cold dark.  Heave on the steering wheel to get the wheels turned, push the truck back, yank on the steering wheel once again in the other direction, push the truck forward; executing a 47-point turn, one hernia at a time.

A gifted storyteller, my father used to relate to us a favorite family tale of he and Brian canoeing down the Kickapoo river.  As one of our favored paddling rivers, I've enjoyed the wiles of the Kickapoo many times, and was always entertained by the story as it grew in magnitude and intensity over the years.  The best storytellers among us can accomplish this embellishment sublty, without detracting from the meat of the story, and often do among friends.  It's part of the art of folklore.

They'd chosen a spring day of low flow and freezing weather to run the river.  It turned into a tiresome afternoon of getting hung up on sandbars in that big old aluminum Grumman, but they'd managed to avoid stepping into the icy waters by doing that ridiculous butt-skooch thing you do when your canoe gets stuck.  The vision of two bearded, hale and hearty outdoorsmen doing the butt-skooch dance down the river before my time is enough to make me smile every time the story is retold.

Nearing the end of their journey, the canoe finally became irrevocably mired.  Skooch as they might, they weren't going anywhere.  In the retelling, Dad was down on his knees in the bow, digging at the marl for all he was worth. When, in his own words, with proper dramatic pause and expression of awe, "As if by the hand of God, we broke free and began to move."

While "as if by the hand of God" has since become a family catchphrase, with a wink and a nod, for any momentous happening, the Almighty Himself had little to do with freeing the canoe that day.  Brian had simply sacrificed his warm dry feet, and gotten into the river to push.

And so it was with Carolyn's Suburban and my 47-point hernia.  As I was leaning into the tailgate for another heave forward, the truck rolled forward begrudgingly.  But then, as if by the hand of God, it began to move more freely.  I looked up to see not Jehovah, but a dude clad in Carhatt and a Pheasants Forever cap, much like me.  With his help, we were able to park the truck at the curb, safe from tickets and fines, and grab a ride with Carolyn's husband to the grocery store.

Fear ye not, while they weren't ready to enjoy until the second half, No-Lose Nachos were made, and they worked their mystical charms on the game.

I don't know how many cars passed us as I toiled to get the truck turned that evening.  Dozens and dozens, at least.  As it happened, the man who stopped was blatantly cut from the same cloth as I am, as evidenced by apparel, attitude, and demeanor.  From his pick up truck with an ice shack in the back and his willingness to help, right down to the same brand of boots I noticed, head down and pushing, when he first appeared beside me, we were two of a kind in that moment.

Maybe that means nothing.  Maybe everyone else who passed us had wives in labor or screaming children in the back.  But most of the folk of fine northern stock I associate with would stop on a cold night to help a stranger push a broken-down vehicle out of the road.  With the exception of a certain unnamed soul who once playfully sat in his truck sipping a beer as I dug my truck out of a snow drift with an ice skimmer on the camp road, it's what you do, at least if you're a guy.

I didn't catch the name of our mystery man, nor was I able to repay him with anything more than thanks, but I've stopped to help stranded motorists in the cold before, and I'll do it again.  In the vain of the old Real Men of Genius Bud Light commercials, here's to you, Mr. Mystery Ice Fisherman Truck Pusher Guy.  I owe you one.

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