Chapter 1: Fishermen are Everywhere
1 FISHERMEN ARE EVERYWHERE
Fishermen are everywhere; all it takes is for the subject to come up, and somehow it always does. I had a plumber out the other day to look at my clogged toilet. When I explained that the plunger had no effect, he smiled in the kindly way of a doctor comforting a worried parent and said that yes, he’d seen this before, it wasn’t terminal and he knew just what to do. But then on his way to the bathroom, he stopped to look at the fish photos I have tacked up in my office.
“You like to fly-fish,” he said. “I’m an ice fisherman myself…” and we were off to the races.
Not long before that, my firewood guy, Fred, was out making a delivery and as we unloaded two cords of dry pine he explained to me, as he always does, how many more trout I’d catch if I’d only use live bait. Fred thinks I fish with artificial flies because I’m squeamish about worms and he is only trying to be helpful, but of course, he’s wasting his time. People fish the way they want to and won’t be talked out of it. After you’ve explained in detail how your method is better than theirs in every conceivable way, they’ll smile benignly and say, “Well, this is just how I like to do it,” and you can’t argue with that.
Once I was in northern Michigan fishing with a friend, a local who seemed to know every sweet spot in the county as well as every year-round resident of his hometown of Charlevoix. One afternoon, we stopped at the docks to see how the weigh-in for the Trout Tournament was going and ran into a guy my friend had known since grade school. We told him we’d been out fly-fishing the local rivers and he said, “I thought about getting into fly-fishing once, but it’s too expensive.”
My friend and I exchanged a look. This guy had just stepped off a cabin cruiser suitable for the high seas of Lake Michigan, with twin 50-horse outboards, military-grade fish-finding electronics, and enough tackle to stock a Bass Pro Shop that, all together, must have set him back six figures. We could have explained how much fly-fishing that kind of money could buy, but at the moment the guy couldn’t have been happier with things as they were. He’d just brought in a 30-pound chinook that he thought might land him first place in the salmon category, which would be worth a thousand dollars in prize money, a mount of the fish by a good local taxidermist, and a place in local history. So we wished him luck with his fish, grabbed dinner at a café, and then headed off to catch the evening hatch.
When I took up fly-fishing in the late 1960s, I was naturally lumped in with the influx of hippies who’d recently adopted the sport and who were held responsible for techniques that were considered heresies then, but have since become standard practice. I can’t say it was a bum rap because I looked and sometimes acted the part, but in fact I was never entirely successful as a hippie. I believed in peace, love, and the simple life in a general way, and still do, but my redneck streak ran deep and the yin-and-yang symbol you saw everywhere then as an emblem of balance and harmony always reminded me of two pork chops in a frying pan.
And I wasn’t much interested in heresy, either. Early on I fell in with a crowd that favored the bamboo rods and hackled dry flies that were already beginning to look dated by the early ’70s. Maybe we’d turned our backs on so much of our buttoned-down upbringing that we were attracted to this harmless backwater of sporting tradition as a kind of security blanket, or maybe we just understood that those guys had been at this for a while and knew things we didn’t. Whatever the reason, we imagined ourselves to be the counterculture equivalent of tweedy sportsmen, while the old-timers just saw us as a bunch of charm school dropouts who needed haircuts.
It could have been another phase I was going through—we all went through some phases back then—but that vision of the sport took hold as just the way I like to do it, although that’s not to say I’ve never strayed.
Most of my flies are tied from drab natural materials in the old Catskill style, but I also like to have a few of the latest cartoon-colored plastic and rubber monstrosities and I’m not above tying one on when I think it’ll outperform fur and feathers.
Most of my favorite rods are still bamboo—old tackle triggers the kind of nostalgia that’s irresistible to some—but I fish some graphites, too, including a few that are among the best fly rods I’ve ever cast, as well as some others that make me wonder what I was thinking at the time.
I’ve fished with spinning rods, but not often. It’s not that I have anything against them, but that I somehow went from the level-wind bait casters of my youth straight to fly rods without that intermediate step. I must have missed the whole spin fishing thing while I was away at college.
And I’ve fished my share of bait. There were the worms I drowned as a kid, as well as red wigglers and live hoppers I sometimes fished with a fly rod on days when I wanted dinner and proper dry flies weren’t producing. I’ve thought about revealing my secret history as a worm-dunker to Fred, but by now the whole bait/fly controversy has become a private joke that we both enjoy.
I was down at our little market in town recently and a fly fisherman who works there told me he was taking up ice fishing this year as a way to while away the off season. (Ice fishing again; it must be in the air.) I almost gave him my old ice auger, but then thought better of it. I haven’t ice fished in twenty years, but I still have the auger and the guy had a point: winters here are uneventful enough that sitting out on the ice staring down a hole—“the stone-age equivalent of watching television,” as Jim Harrison called it—could begin to look pretty entertaining.
I find it comfortable and comforting to live in a place like this that’s not a big fishing destination, but where fishing is just an ordinary thing people do when they have the time, or, in some cases, go to considerable trouble to make the time. Where the guy behind the counter at the feed store—standing under a mount of a 30-pound lake trout—asks if you’ve been getting out without having to specify out where and doing what. (I’ve noticed that 30 pounds is about the minimum size for mounting a lake trout. It must be some kind of unwritten rule.)
But I also love the expeditions, especially those that take me to places you could call wilderness if only because you won’t see anyone on the water that you didn’t see at breakfast. Sometimes the fish there are bigger and more numerous than you’re used to; other times they just haven’t yet been made hysterical by a constant barrage of flies. Or maybe they’ve seen their share of plugs and spinners, but are pushovers for the feathery liveliness of streamers, making you look like a better fisherman than you are.
In the end, though, it’s all just fishing and therefore better some days than others. But even when the catching is slow there are compensations, like a sense of scale and emptiness you won’t find on your neighborhood creeks and, once the droning of the outboard and the small talk go silent, a kind of sublime stillness. It’s one thing to not hear any traffic noise, but another altogether to know that the nearest automobile is a hundred miles away by floatplane.
Or maybe you bump into some local wildlife—woodland caribou, let’s say—and rather than running in terror at the sight of a human, they just stand there as dumbfounded as dairy cows, while you think, I am a long way from home.
I do know how I like to fish—with floating lines and dry flies as a benchmark, followed closely by dries and droppers, swung wet flies, and streamers—all methods that were familiar a century ago. But I also know that the quickest way to get off on the wrong foot is to show up thinking you know better than the guides who’ve worked their water for years. Even on days when the guide is clearly guessing, I have to think his guess is better than mine and I’ve learned a lot just by following instructions.
Sometimes it’s something new, like the flapdoodle, a quick and dirty way to attach a barrel swivel and spinner blade to an otherwise conventional salmon fly. This rig sinks the fly deeper and adds a mechanical flash that can sometimes open the mouths of recalcitrant king salmon. (And if hardware is too nontraditional for your sensibilities, I can show you hundred-year-old tackle catalogs offering flies fitted with blades and propellers as evidence that our grandfathers weren’t as stodgy as we thought.) Honestly, I was skeptical myself at first, but I was fishing a flapdoodle behind a 5/0 pink bunny fly when I cracked 30 pounds on king salmon, so I came around pretty quickly.
More often, though, it’s just a new fly pattern or some nuance of drift or a counterintuitive mend in the line; something so close to what I’d been doing all along that it was almost indistinguishable, but still just different enough to make a difference. These are the things you learn incrementally, but that accumulate over time into something like instinct.
It took me a while—probably too long—but even when the fishing is good, I now like to stop casting occasionally just to look around; not to bag snaps to post on Facebook, but to form memories in the old, manual way that gave rise to the phrase “the picture doesn’t do it justice.” After all, it’s less about the fish themselves than about the unlikely and often beautiful places we go to find them as well as the time-consuming slog of getting there in the first place. And if nothing else, when someone asks what the place was like, it’s nice to have an answer.
Most guides understand a little sightseeing and leave you to it, while others—often the youngest ones—freak out, thinking you’re either bored or that you’re having a stroke, and stopping to explain yourself has a way of ruining the moment. It’s best if you can arrange to wander off by yourself for a while (travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote, “As soon as I was alone I could think straight”) but guides don’t like to leave their charges unsupervised because God knows what kind of trouble they could get into. Fishing guides sit up late some nights swapping stories about their hapless clients and the idiotic mistakes they make.
The same thing goes when I’m back in camp. Given the interminable chores, demanding logistics, and a revolving crop of new and often clueless fishermen every week, it’s amazing that these places run as smoothly as they usually do. It’s even more amazing that, even in close quarters, most of the work goes on behind the scenes, where you never see it. So, although I might feel like a frontiersman when I come in off the water to build a warming fire in my cabin, I’ll remind myself that it was someone else who cut and split the wood and stacked it on the porch. I spent too many years doing other people’s dirty work to ever take for granted those who now do it for me and it’s one more thing to think about when it’s time to ante up my tip.
Once, not that long ago, contact with the outside world was not only all but unheard-of at these remote fishing camps, it was something to be dreaded. Case in point: it was over thirty years ago now that I was sitting at the dinner table at a fly-in lodge in northern Canada when the cook came in, put her hand on the shoulder of a man sitting across from me, and said, “You have a call.”
The table went silent. Forks froze halfway to mouths. In those days, a “call” meant that someone was trying to reach you on the shortwave radio that could be heard crackling and spitting in the kitchen like electronic bacon—our only tenuous link to civilization—and since it’s only bad news that can’t wait till you get home, you imagine the worst: accidents, house fires, death…
But this time it was only business—something urgent at the man’s law firm. We could overhear Lorraine, the lodge owner’s wife, a hundred fifty kilometers away in Goose Bay, saying she had his partners on the phone from LA and was prepared to relay the conversation. Shouting in order to be heard over the static, our colleague said, “LORRAINE! TELL THEM I’M FISHING!”
It was a good answer and should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. The man stayed on the radio for quite a while, but we’d stopped eavesdropping and gone back to chattering about the day’s fishing. Compared to real disaster, a problem at work was too mundane to hold our interest. The poor guy finally came back to the table half an hour later, looking exasperated and followed by the cook, who’d spirited his dinner away to keep it warm in the oven until he was ready for it. “Bless her heart,” as my grandmother would have said.
Some people think being this profoundly out of touch is dangerous. They’re probably right, but forget that it’s no more dangerous than driving to the store for a quart of milk. My father used to have a plaque over his desk at work that read “Illigitimus non carborundum,” Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and although he didn’t live to ever fish at a place this remote, he’d have savored the idea that in a fishing camp the bastards not only couldn’t grind him down but probably couldn’t even reach him.
Sadly, more and more of these camps now have Wi-Fi reception, so instead of lounging and talking in the evenings, fishermen rush off to check emails from work or learn about their kids’ soccer games, and that old sense of timeless isolation has been lost. It would be easy enough to turn everything off and get it back, but no one ever does.
The sport has changed and any of us who thought it wouldn’t were being naïve. (We changed it ourselves when we took it up in our twenties and thirties. That’s why the old guys kept giving us the hairy eyeball.) And that fisherman in Michigan was right: it’s gotten more expensive. A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a new, high-tech leader nipper that retails for seventy dollars, or nearly three times what I paid for my first fly rod. I wondered if this was an example of inflation or a sign of what’s happening to the sport, but decided it was the latter because you can still buy the traditional leader nipper—a pair of fingernail clippers—for the price of a cup of coffee.
Something else that didn’t cost much was my rubber snake. It’s a pretty convincing facsimile of a coiled rattlesnake, thirteen inches across and not quite as big around as my wrist, with its rattle elevated menacingly and its mouth open to expose rubber fangs. This is rattlesnake country, so it gave me a good start when I saw it at a yard sale, coiled on a card table amid the screwdrivers and coffee cups, and as soon as I recovered, the twelve-year-old boy who still lives inside me had to have it.
At the time, some of us belonged to a fishing lease on a trout stream in Wyoming—an ordinary freestone creek made better because only a handful of us ever fished it. The catch was, the place was said to be lousy with rattlesnakes, and because some members brought their kids and dogs there, we were asked to carry sidearms and dispatch any rattlers we saw. I was skeptical of the stories. In the years I fished there, the only snakes I ever saw were harmless bull snakes or plains garters. But I nonetheless loaded my dad’s old revolver with snake shot and dutifully carried it every time I fished there.
It also happened that one of the people I fished the lease with had a thing about rattlesnakes. I don’t mean the healthy respect we all have, but something approaching a phobia that made him twitchy at the thought of them and caused him to jump at things like the clicking of grasshoppers in the weeds. He was the one guy in the group who didn’t carry a sidearm, but the sight of the rest of us strapping on our six-guns every morning must have kept the whole snake business fresh in his mind.
Now, I’ve never been a big practical joker, but as the new owner of a realistic rubber rattlesnake, the obvious gag suggested itself. So, I brought the snake along the next time we fished the lease and waited for my chance to plant it in the trail ahead of my victim, or maybe just plop it outside his tent, where it would be the first thing he saw in the morning.
But as I waited for my opportunity, I started to stew about it. The trouble with practical jokes is that if they fall flat, you not only look like a fool, but tempt revenge just for the lame attempt, while if they’re successful, they demand serious payback, and the more successful they are, the more diabolical and unexpected that payback will be. For that matter, the meanness of playing on someone’s weakness that you thought would be funny might feel creepy after the fact, or maybe the inherent cruelty that made it seem like a good prank in the first place ends up revealing something about you that you’d rather not have widely known. And they’ve been known to go terribly wrong: maybe someone falls and breaks a leg or, God forbid, has a heart attack.
At a certain age, you’ve made so many dumb mistakes that you’re able to identify the kind of faulty thinking that leads up to them, so after carrying the snake around in my pack for a day and a half, I finally stuffed it under the seat of my pickup and abandoned the plan. And then an odd thing happened. Up till then I’d been fishing poorly—pooching easy casts, missing strikes, breaking off fish—but once that stupid snake was out of the picture, I began to fish brilliantly and ended up catching the largest trout I ever landed there: a big fat brown that measured so close to 18 inches that I forgave myself the offending fraction of an inch, as any fisherman would have.
We eventually dropped out of that lease for reasons I no longer remember—time passes; things change. The rubber snake now sits coiled in a corner of my office on top of my old Remington typewriter as a reminder of that brown trout, what led up to it, and that although fishing is no longer really about success, catching fish is still somehow right at the heart of the game.