Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Masterpiece


September
A little girl. Six, maybe seven. Wearing a pink and blue swimsuit, she waded into some awful-looking water. Black, with foam bubbles and strands of hunter-green filamentous algae blossoming from below. Chest-deep, she submerged for a few seconds before popping up in the exact same spot, her soaked dark hair covering the entirety of her face. Ears popped out to the sides. She wiped back her hair with an algae-covered left hand and yelled for her mother, who sat cross-legged on the concrete boat ramp nearby, staring intently at her cell phone and burning a cigarette

“What?!” 
“I’m making a masterpiece!” 
“A what?” 
“A masterpiece! I’m making a masterpiece!” 
“A what, honey?” 

This went on for a while. 

I tuned it out and refocused on the abundance of fish eerily suspended in the water around my kayak. I double-hauled the 7-weight and unfurled a long cast. The fly plopped into the water and I immediately began retrieving with short, fast strips. The nylon rope strands on the fly pulsed and danced in the water. It looked alive. Strip, strip, strip, strip, I retrieved in 4/4 time. 

No takers. Before launching another cast, I glanced to my left and saw two boys swimming my direction. I guessed they were in the 10- to 12-years-old range, and I assumed one of them was the little girl’s older brother. The lead boy was a chunkster, and self-consciously donned a white t-shirt that was plastered to his fleshy torso. Both boys were wrapped around boogie boards which allowed them to navigate the deep pool of gar-infested water. 


T-shirt boy dog-paddled his way within feet of my kayak. 

“What are you fishing for?” 
I uncorked a long cast. 
“Longnose gar.” 
“Gar? They have teeth.”
“Yep. You guys are surrounded by them right now.” 
“Really?”
“Yeah, they’re all over the place.” 
“Do they bite?” 
I paused a beat.
“Big time.” 

They stopped paddling. The boy in the back was the younger of the two. His concerned expression betrayed he wasn't big on the whole idea to even get in the water. He whispered something to t-shirt boy. His suggestion appeared to be ignored. The instigator kept looking at me, trying to gauge whether or not I was kidding. I kept casting. 

“They really don’t bite.” 
“Yeah, they do. Sharp teeth, too. Rows of them.”
“Naw … “ 
“Well, they probably won't bother you. Probably.” 

The boys mumbled to each other. Dissension festered. The younger boy began nudging shoreward while trying not to overtly alert the ringleader. Mutiny was imminent. 

The tip of my fly rod shook and line slowly pulled through my left thumb and index finger. After a five Mississippi count, I tightened my grip on the line and let the fish pull it taught. A huge longnose gar broke the surface like a tarpon, shaking its toothy beak and crashing the front half of its spotted body into the river. The armored monster then rocketed downstream and pulled coils of loose line from the floor of my kayak and engaged my reel. The nose of the yak swung around sharply and followed the fleeing fish. 
As quickly as it began, it was over. The fish somehow freed itself from the nylon and my line went limp and my excitement deflated. The pool calmed. Ah well. I turned to look at the two boys, but they were now standing on the boat ramp holding their boogie boards; the mutineer glaring at his chubby former captain. Oblivious to what had just occurred, the sister continued to wade in waist-deep water. Singing. 

Dichotomy
A western mountain stream. Cold water twists, tumbles and plunges through ancient boulders before settling into a steady flow through a meadow of purple flowers and tan sage grass that wave in the gentle wind. The bright sun glitters among the subtle turmoil creating an infinite universe of twinkling stars which burn out as quickly as they shine, each one instantly replaced by dozens of others, perpetually flashing as long as the water moves and the sun stays above the aspens. Downstream, there is a long pool. Here, you have to squint to see the shadows of the cutthroat trout that hide among the multi-colored riverstone and within the broken reflection of blue-bird skies and distant snow-covered peaks. As mayflies land on your felt fedora, you reach into your vest, nudge aside your pipe tobacco and secure a small metal box. Your name and address are written in blue ink on a piece of masking tape on the lid, along with the words, “Dry Flies.” You open the box and admire its contents, so neatly and perfectly arranged within. You carefully select a small work of art, a parody made of elk hair, dubbing, thread and hackle. Using a knot you learned from the guide you met in Alaska last summer, you tie the fly to your tippet as trout rise to emerging insects in the stream below and you melt into the cover art for the next Orvis catalog.

Cross-fade to a murky and near-stagnant bend in a southeastern river. Here, ancient boulders are buried far below the sorghum flow; the original channel flooded long ago by warrior engineers. The limbs of toppled oaks reach above the surface in suspended desperation as the thorny branches of bodocks stretch from the river bank in vain attempts to save their drowned cousins. You swat at the mosquitos on your pale legs and brush away the horsefly on the bill of your sweat-stained cap. The air is massive. Heavy. To the west, the grayness of the sky darkens to a menacing indigo. You launch your kayak from a concrete boat ramp that abruptly ends short of the river's edge. A late summer drought has drained the stream of flow, causing you to wade out in order to find navigable water. You cringe as your sandaled feet shuffle through the mud-and-grit bottom, and rocks and snail-shells find their way between your foot and sole. The soft roll of distant thunder is heard and a sudden cool breeze sways the tops of the trees. Yellowed hackberry leaves, assaulted by late summer aphids, drop in the water around you. Dead leaves and the dirty ground. After hopping into the kayak, you paddle slowly to the depths of the pool, where the garfish cruise creepily through the water column. In the face of a growing wind, your first cast is still long and crisp. The fly lands softly and momentarily perches on the surface like a giant cottonwood bloom. You bring it to life with a brisk strip, followed by a practiced cadence. The fly responds and dances and darts inches below the surface. As you admire the animation, your offering is dispassionately devoured from below. 

Masterpiece 
A slight drizzle began to dimple the surface of the river and I checked my leader and fly. The business end was a four-and-a-half-inch-long bush of untangled and brushed nylon rope. I had added a few strands of silver flashabou and tied everything together with red thread. The hook was a long-shanked streamer hook that I had cut at the bend to remove the hook point. When wet, the fly slowly sank and when stripped, it darted to and fro much like a “walking the dog” jerk bait. The shredded nylon pulsed in the water, giving the presentation a very lifelike appearance. The leader and fly intact, I stripped out some line, loaded the rod with a backcast and shot a long cast into the river, which was now soaking up the needed rain. 

A few casts later, a gar attacked the fly. It was a big fish, probably five-feet nose-to-tail and an easy 10 pounds. But, instead of grabbing the offering and swimming away, it just hacked at the fly with its narrow beak. I just sat there and watched and the fly sunk like stunned prey. That was probably the wrong approach, as the fish sulked away and disappeared, leaving my rejected fly suspended in the water column. Dammit. That was a good one. 

Behind me, the conversation began anew. 

“Mooooooooommmmmm!!!!!!” 
“What, honey?” 
“My masterpiece!” 
“Your what?” 
“My masterpiece!” 
“Honey, what are you talking about?” 

She emerged from the black water, her arms locked around a basketball-sized globe of dark green algae that had been painstakingly procured from the bottom of the wretched stream and bundled with care by a seven-year-old girl wearing a pink-and-blue swimsuit, which was now festooned with slimy remnants of her prized creation. With each step, more of the thing that should not be slid off, and filaments stuck to her skin like leeches. She laughed as she trudged through the water towards her mother, who squealed with delight at the hellish gift her daughter brought her. She began taking photos with her cell phone. 


A cute little baby gar
The day waned, as did the bite. A few small fish came to hand, but the big ones — which continued to stalk my fly — were only curious, or not fooled, or not hungry. I paddled the short distance back to the ramp, stinking of gar slime and bug spray, and stepped out of my kayak into ankle-deep bacterial water. The girl and her family were gone, and the masterpiece had either been returned to the abyss or taken home and kept as a pet. The skies cleared as the sun started to set, and the black river suddenly glowed orange and shimmered as a toothy beak broke the surface with a pop and swirled back to the murky depths below. 




Sunday, August 31, 2014

Soft hackles


“How’s the finger?”
“Ahhhh.” Sitting cross-legged in a living room chair, watching Fox News and backlit by the sepia glow of an approaching sunrise, my brother dropped the remote and raised his bandaged digit. The disgusted look on his face told me I’d be fishing alone this morning. 
“They generating?” 
He took a sip from his cup of coffee. Up since well before me, Tim was probably on pot No. 2. 
“Nah. Turned them off at 7 last night. You should be good. I’d go up and fish the riffle. There are big browns up there.” 
The river was cloaked in a dense, blue-ish fog, but just upstream, I could make out the fuzzy silhouette of a fly-fisherman casting in the pre-dawn gloom. 
“I think somebody’s already fishing it.” 
“That’s Mr. Davis. He won’t be there long. Probably just long enough to smoke a cigar.” 
I yawned and instinctively stretched. 
“I won’t bug him. I’ll stay a little downstream.” 

I threw a bottle of water and a cereal bar in my Orvis sling pack, dropped my blood pressure pill in my left shirt pocket, my cell phone in my right, and slipped on my waders. The air was heavy. The steps down to the river were slick and randomly mined with raccoon turds just hours old and laden with wild cherry pits and sunflower seeds. Dodging the droppings, I carefully slipped into the cold river where I was immediately enveloped by the fog. 

There was still a good bit of current left over from the previous day’s generation, and the push of water tried to nudge me downstream as I made my way across the river to a small island. From there, I planned to wade upstream through the fog, and stop a respectable distance down from Mr. Davis. I would fish back to the house, nymphing along the way with a streamer already selected as “option B.” The end strategy included fishy-smelling hands, a frayed tippet and some awkward fish photos on my iPhone. I'd text those to my friends back home, most of whom were currently on their way to spending their next eight hours on earth in an 8 x 8 cubicle awash in the harsh light and dull buzz of fluorescent lights, as they “multi-tasked” their way through conference calls and surfed the web for fishing reports, fly-tying recipes and weather predictions for the upcoming weekend. I would dedicate my performance to my brothers left behind, and hope my texted photos of freshly-caught browns and rainbows would only bring them joy. And pain. Sunshine. And rain. 

The trout staged upon this expansive riffle first got to see my homemade, ragged-looking sowbug pattern drifted below a leggy grasshopper fly which also served as an indicator. They hated both offerings; my hubris probably undercut by karma, and perhaps by a bit of angling incompetence. After about 20 minutes of watching the hopper bob and weave through rise rings of feeding fish, I went to option B.

I tried a streamer Dad had tied. It’s an awesome pattern that incorporates some unique material, giving it a very life-like and tantalizing appearance underwater. It pulses and waves and looks very much like something — a minnow, a crawfish, a hellgrammite, etc. — a trout would want to eat. And, eat it they do. Almost always. Except on this morning. 

As my worry began to mount, I double-hauled Dad’s wonder fly across the river. While the casts were long and felt pretty, the trout gave me the middle fin and rudely rejected the presentation. The little scaly bastards. Through the fog, I couldn’t tell exactly what the fish were feeding upon, but I guessed midges. Hell, they’re always eating midges. Tiny ones, too. The hatch I dread to match. 

I’m not a soft-hackle fan. But, when fish are rising and seemingly everywhere and your lanyard fills and becomes the land of misfit flies, you tend to get desperate. For me, soft-hackles are desperate measures. It’s very much of a “well, I might as well try these” approach. 

Using a long, fluorocarbon leader and tippet, I rigged up a tandem rig consisting of two poorly-tied red-and-black soft-hackle flies (technically, the pattern is called the “Red Ass”). Casting long steady loops slightly downstream, I let the current pull the belly of my line while I retrieved — quickly and steadily — in short strips. The flies skated just a fraction of a inch below the surface, and hopefully attracted the interest of the trout, which were very actively feeding. 

The fog had begun to dissipate, seemingly devoured by the relentless beast of the August heat and humidity. Dad plied the waters of a pocket downstream with his streamer pattern. He wasn’t having much luck. Yet. It was only a matter of time before he dialed it in. I watched him in the periphery, as my fly line steadily chugged its way down and across the stream. On the second cast, the line zipped tight and shot skyward, shedding a long spray of water which caught the emerging sunlight and scattered and fell like sparks from a blown transformer. Fish on. 



The spunky rainbow fought hard, but was ultimately brought to hand, unhooked and released. The next cast was a repeat, and the pattern continued for an amazing seven straight offerings. Rainbow, brown, brown, bow, cutt-bow, bow, brown. For the next half-hour, this continued, as seemingly every cast resulted in at least a bite, if not a fish. None of the trout were big, but all were colorful and fought hard. In the midst, I yelled downstream to Dad to let him know what I was using. He was studying his flybox, with his rod tucked under one arm and an empty tippet end pinched between his lips. He mumbled something that sounded like, “Um, ok.” In The Official Language of Fly Fishermen, that meant, “I’m going to try this caddis pupa pattern instead.” 

Suddenly, the fish stopped biting my flies. I slowly made my way downstream, one unproductive cast at a time. The trout had clearly decided to eat something else. And, Dad’s bent flyrod and tight line revealed exactly what that was.  

I reeled in my fly line and looked at what was left of my soft hackles. Two nearly-bare hooks, each only covered with a thin layer of black thread. Their hackles had been chewed away — probably several fish ago. I clipped off the flies, tossed them in my fly box and searched for a more appropriate selection. 

“Hey Dad, do you have another caddis pupa?” 


The question floated downstream, over the moss-covered rocks and the gentle riffle and through the angled sycamores and honey locusts before it was eventually drowned in the happy noise of a splashing rainbow trout and the subtle giggling of a man who had once again figured them out.