Perversions and Penitence
3/18/2008 Salmon River Guide: Randy Jones
Up at 5:30. Whitaker’s Lodge (read motel for fishermen – sign outside room says “No boots with cleats allowed in rooms”, and the porch boards are scarred). Over to the Diner. There is a local paper on the counter. The Governor ofState has just been busted hiring high end Call Girls using text messages. His replacement, blind and African American is to be sworn in today. There is one old-timer in the place when I sit down, fighting shakes to get a sip of coffee (age, not drink at a guess). Two others shuffle in, younger but not spring chickens (anything spring out there on this February morning has withered and blown away in the wind).
Third: (with finality) Yeah.
Cut to the River. I am holding a fly rod, true. An Orvis T3 even. The terminal tackle is finished with 5X and a sparsely tied #16 hare’s ear, less the ribbing, no flash, no wing case, no legs. We are also using buckshot, encased in a straw (“”, the guide confides in me, “ ’ are too small”), then melted into a section of shoelace. This “slinky” is attached to snap swivel -- a SNAP SWIVEL! But wait, there is one more thing – no, not a plastic bobber – we are connected to this ‘rig’ with … running line. Backing. No Fly Line whatsoever. About the only thing missing from this picture is a bail. Of course, if I had a spare spool with a bail on it I could extend my drift.
Is it, finally, the false cast that defines what is and isn’t fly fishing? Because the best case I can make for what I am doing not being spin casting is that nothing on the rig is actually spinning when I fish. Okay, Fly Rod, fly, guide with a weathered face, dinged up boat, tired windbreaker and ratty truck -- all familiar. The instruction to “Lob it over there,” -- not so much.
I am not a purist (I fish wooly buggers as nymphs, use a strike indicator on a regular basis and there is more range in my streamer selection my dry fly boxes. Um, box, actually.) I have experienced perversions before – in the face of actually catching, fly fishermen have justified all kinds of “methods”, with only the small loss of their chastity and a piece of cardboard taped over the word ‘purist’ on the door of their den. I think of the Ted Leeson story about a river inwhere the fish are deep, but no weight is allowed on the leader. But a small brick spray painted to look like a “stone fly” on a two fly rig will get your dropper down. There are limits within which you must torture yourself. Otherwise you might as well return to that day when you laid down your red and white Dare Devil spoons and on-the-belt worm carriers and left childish things like catching scores of trout behind. Wandering, wader-clad, into that desert of water (at least sometimes for everyone, surly?) called a fly only trout stream requires a measure of – what did those fellows with the hair shirts call it? – Penitence. I’m not even much of a critic after a long winter, I find. Only the mildest of imprecations rise to my lips as I break off fish #9 of the morning.
Here’s how it works – pull some line off the reel, and allow the “fly” to hang out from the rod tip about so far (does the word “lure” jump to mind?) and toss it, aiming for 11 o’clock, in an arcing, sidearm motion so as not to hang it up in that tree there. Raise the rod tip to twelve, and hold the rod at about shoulder height, keeping a straight line from rod tip to water with no sags. When the drift reaches 12 o’clock, you should feel a ticking coming through the rod (if not, lower your rod – not the tip, the whole rod as a unit – down until you do feel ticking). This is the slinky bouncing on the bottom. I have to admit, it is an ingenious system, speaking from a mechanical fishing perspective. The slinky not only gets the fly down to what my guide invariably refers to the as the “Strike Zone”, but the ticking of the massive weight on the rocks slows the drifting fly down, allowing the lethargic winter steelies more time to inspect, or be annoyed by, or whatever it is they do before mouthing your offering.
On my seventh drift, I hang up on the bottom. I give it a couple of tugs, inwardly cursing the inevitable lecture from the guide – the kind where they spend twice as much time earnestly impressing their point to you using eye contact than re-tying the leader – and all the while you are chafing to be fishing again. I hand the rod to the guide, who holds it for a minute, and then “There’s a fish on here.” I can’t argue, my snag has just taken line. It turns out some steelhead in winter are not so bothered by a sharp tugging on the jaw that they move at all. This is the first of five fish I hook in this pool, some more active than the first, an innocuous looking piece of water above a tree hanging out over the river. I would not look at it twice, or maybe I’d swing a fly through it, but with the tackle-tree there I would probably pass it by thinking I could just take a fly out of my box and add it to the other twelve hundred already hanging off it instead and move on. This is the prime reason to hire a guide when fishing for reluctant fish in new water – unless you have a week and some good advice, you will not find this particular hole. It is only five minutes from the parking lot, and to add to the five I hook (one landed, one broken off on the net) above the tree, I hook four more just below the tree in the tail-out.
By the numbers it has been a good morning, even though I didn’t get that big one at the net into my hands – into each life some rain must fall. But the fish of a thousand casts is not the same as the fish of seven lobs, somehow. The method works very well, and when your rig really gets down, and the drift sets up at the right time, you can almost tell you will get a strike – several times my guide says a take is coming seconds before it does by reading the drift. Also, with a guide, you are handed the keys to a new method of fishing – equipment, correct weight for river flow, good holding lie for this time of year, ringside seat in the boat you didn’t pay $6,000 for, etc.
I’ve worked harder for sunnies in August. As the day goes on, my instincts must kick in, and in a desperate bid for something familiar, some connection to the roots of my fabled sport, I stop catching fish.
Later, at around three, my guide unveils “the tip winner”. I’ve no doubt this strategy has wowed many a John before me – “you wanna beer?” Sadly, for him, I no longer drink. A cup of hot coffee would go a long way toward increasing my general store of good feeling toward mankind, not to mention good feeling to my toes, but a beer does me no good. What follows is predictable – first the teasing in tones that echo the middle school hallways “did ja have an intervention?” No, I just crawled around, confused and attracting attention on the sidewalk outside the skeeviest bar in town. In short, my guide is fascinated by the fact that I don’t drink. Yes, I used to. Yes, my ancestors on my mother’s side mostly died of drink, including my uncle who ran his liver to ground in his early forties. No, I don’t mind if you have one (four). It may be this interest, or more likely the fact that I haven’t touched a fish since 11 o’clock, that keeps us on the water for an extra hour or so. I can feel my guide thinking that I won’t remember my luck this morning and so his tip will shrink accordingly unless we hook up again. He is wrong, but if it keeps me fishing, I’m not telling.
In discussing “the Running Line Revolution”, Matt Supinski writes in his book Steelhead Dreams “the question ‘is this all there is, there must be something more?’ Comes to the steelheader who has caught his or her thousandth steelhead and is looking for even more thrills from the sport”. I found myself asking this question once the coffee kicked in and was fighting my first running line revolution fish. It is not the catching, but the how of it, or as a Buddhist might say, the Way of it. And no, I will not admit to this statement at the end of the next three day long, fishless steelheading trip. A path to an end. Gold and diamonds are attractive and valuable, but ripping the tops off of hills or employing slaves – no and no. Okay, running line fishing is not quite next to slavery on the moral scale, given, but even its developer Bruce Richards of Scientific Anglers had this to say “It is a legal and effective technique, what we call it doesn’t matter” -- an endorsement ringing with defensiveness. I can hear some of you wondering “but what if I buy my weight tubes from Orvis instead of using straws …?” Yes, Orvis has fallen a long way, it’s true – you must shuffle away from its pastel fishing clothes-covered corpse and move on.
On Martha’s Vineyard, where I cut my teeth with a deceiver and an #8, I looked into the history of fishing methods there. Before the 12’ surf poles with bait casting reels and action like a pikestaff, before cloth lines and tin squids whirled about the head like bolos and literally thrown into the surf, before hand lines, hell, even before the baskets the settlers used to lower over the side of boats and bring up full of the bounty which gave its name the Wompanoag natives staked nets in the estuary mouths at high tide and came back later. My point being that fly fishing itself is a perversion. God forbid we ever have to do it to feed ourselves, let alone our families or villages.
That is not why we do it, either. Those steelhead fought ok (good), and I had fun (a blast), but I was not really sorry when 8 of 10 broke off – I mean not really sorry, the way you are when you know you may not hook another one until next century – and that feeling of abiding sorrow is why we do it, right? Right?? No, for real, I am a depressive kind of guy, but I don’t fly fish because it gives me more reason to feel bad, I am just ok with fly fishing because I am used to dealing with that kind of emotional state. Hmmm. Maybe I just like to fish (Down Freud! Bad Doc!)
When the film is developed in my disposable camera – I did mention my guide was a bring beer instead of coffee on a 32 degree day kinda guy, didn’t I? – and the photo of me holding that 6 pound silver swims to light, I suspect the expression on my face will be a smile, but the eyes and indeed the whole upper part of my face may look … bemused. Because I am thinking, mulling already why it is not all that catching and clutching a steelhead should be. And of course it is early in the day, so the pain of numbing feet and wind blistered skin has not yet distorted my features.
Once the guide has dropped me at my car, been paid off and turned eagerly toward the other kind of watery local hole, I am left with only one option. It is not yet dark, and I still have my waders on so I go to the gas station for a coffee and then return to the river. One piece of valuable information I gathered from my days’ fishing, and it was not when the guide pointed vaguely off to the left and said “right there, about twenty feet out,” is that these fish are ON THE BOTTOM. And I am no longer using a section of anchor chain. I must rig an indicator nymphing rig with enough weight the get down like eight to ten buckshot. I must design that self-sustaining moon lander as well, but there’s plenty of time left for that after dinner when the sun is down. Needless to say, I flail around until dark, possibly spooking fish with my giant orange indicator but otherwise affecting them not at all.
Whitakers’ Lodge may be a fishing motel, but it does have a nicely equipped fly shop attached, where I rented and finally bought my Korkers. I spent a few minutes in the morning considering purchases the way one does before a trip – i.e. in a haze of raised expectations having little to do with reality. A round faced and (I don’t think of rats as having round faces, so this is a little unfair, but it gets my point across) rat faced little man came in. He was a teacher out on spring break, and he addressed the shopkeeper in a familiar way which obviously annoyed him. He fussed about not being able to find something, and griped about all the fishermen, and boasted about how he had caught fish yesterday using only an indicator rig, and today he was going to prove to a friend that “it could be done”. In short, he is the kind of guy we all hope we are not when we go into a fly shop.
At the end of the day, as I was pissing (at last) in the snow bank, I was caught unawares by a couple of fishermen, who scowled at me in the way we all do when someone else is transgressing in a way we ourselves do but others shouldn’t. Public urination! Who should it be but my fly shop schoolteacher. Our cars were parked next to one another, and his friend asked how I had done today. I replied that I had done well, giving a précis of my morning 2 of 10, noting I was with a guide. The Teacher jumps in declaring that they have caught several fish using only an indicator rig, and how great it was for his friend to learn that it could be done.
What struck me was not a revised opinion of this fellow, who I would still step in a pile of shit to avoid, but the fact that I still had sympathy with his sense of accomplishment. I had just spent two hours with an indicator rig without touching a thing. It was an accomplishment – his catching, not my failure. It didn’t mean you had to direct your own brass band, but there was a kind of honor in it. Imagine what it would have felt like if the man who had been hogging the main pool in the fly only section swinging a spey fly caught one!
That evening I spend reviewing the possible methods at my command. I decided against trying to emulate the slinky rig, even though they sold them at the fly shop and it would have been as easy as pulling out my credit card. No, I bought instead some heavier weights than I usually carry in my bag, and returned to the river the next morning. I rigged up with an indicator, and tied on an egg pattern instead of the tiny nymph like I’d been using yesterday on the theory that my fly would spend less time on the bottom and so should be highly visible – also, the nymph had done nothing for me last night. I fished my way down to the hole where I had had so much success yesterday. I fished above the tree, with no result, and moved below the tree thinking I had to alter my approach, wondering what I could change. The indicator dipped, and I set up on it expecting the snag I was becoming used to, and instead was rewarded with two short, strong runs, followed by a disappointing loss of tension. Despite renewed effort, there was no second hook up. But I will not soon forget the sudden electricity of that one take. It is the kind of fishing that makes you wonder about the job market and rent prices.