They say one's true self is revealed on the stream. The discovering of who I am on the water is an ongoing journey. But one method is to examine those I have been influenced, inspired, informed and formed by — those I've shared and, in fact, inherited the stream from.
09: THE SMILE
You've got to know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run. The instinct to crank the volume and all sing along had worn off because we'd probably heard this single CD more than a hundred times in the past few days. I bought it in a truck stop diner as we headed into Branson for a weekend of fishing, because I thought it seemed to fit. But we were told by a server at the first diner we stopped at in town, that Branson no longer thought much of the gambler. The music or the man behind it. Said he'd rubbed one too many people the wrong way and "they run him outta town." Since then, we'd pretty much played it on an endless loop. Anyway, after two solid days of the most manicured, man-made trout habitat any of us had ever seen (complete with a proper British guide who netted and removed the hooks from lips of fish for you), we had left Branson in our rearview. We found ourselves on some nondescript stretch of interstate across rural northeastern Missouri, headed back to Chicago when... With fishermen, that's a loaded word. What follows is either an outrageous work of fiction, or a remarkable true story. Also important to note: you can tell someone is meant for the line, if every bit of water any road passes over, no matter how small, catches their eye. I have been mid-sentence in a heated debate and stolen a glance at a trickle. Anyway, we were on some remote stretch of interstate when...whatever conversation we were having abruptly ceased. There was a pause. Then, a bumble of words as we each said some variation of, "You see that?" Water. Suspiciously trout-like. Felix turned off at the next exit and headed for the first place that might sell a fishing license. We hadn’t needed one on the private grounds we’d come to fish, and we weren’t expecting anything on the way back. Wasn’t long til we found ourselves shifting about in line at the sporting goods section of a big-box store. We waited, anxiously fisheting. (I said fidgeting, right?) Whatever. Felix broke the surface tension by asking the guys in front us, "This where you go for a fishing license?" The big one replied, "Yeah." That was the crack of the door Felix wanted, just...any reply. "Great. You guys know this river we just crossed over on 44?" "Yeah, that's the Roubidoux." "Looked good, can you fish it?" "Yeah, there's a boat ramp up the road the other side of the highway." That's when the littler one joined in, "There's also the access in the park right up this way." "Yeah," said the big fella, "but you don't want to fish there. Down by the ramp they got docks you can get out on. In the park it's all catch-and-release shit." Which is when each of us suddenly felt like we were getting away with something. We said nothing more than whatever little was necessary to get our licenses and get out of there. We were giddy and giggling in the truck on the way to the park. The light and shadow of sun beaming through budding, early-spring branches showed even the park itself was ready for action. We leapt from the truck and started tripping into our waders. Each of us recounting the face of the big fella as he shrugged off and winced; waved off and eye-rolled; laughed off and head-shook at the worthlessness of catch-release-only water. Not realizing he had revealed to us the holiest of holies. We walked along the bank with sheer elation at what we'd lucked into. Middle of nowhere. A random flash of water under the highway. And moments later, stalking a stunning spring-fed stream for trout. New water. Nothing like it. Felix, for his efforts in artful conversation, was first to cast. And first to catch. And caught a first...a McCloud River rainbow. Lifting it from the net to remove the tiny beadhead nymph from the tip of its lip, he noticed the telltale ruby fins lined with bright white. The dark, prominent spots heavier along its band. "Wow. McCloud strain," he said, looking up at us over the rim of his sunglasses. He realized he held a mystery we did not know. He removed it fully from the net, cradled its soft belly, calmly rocked it in the clear, cold water, and told its storied path to this point. “They're from the McCloud River in California. Oldest strain of trout in America, I think. They stopped stocking these guys like maybe in the 50s or 60s, so they may also be the wildest trout in the country. For sure one of the rarest. Long way from home." Felix took a quick look around, I believe to absorb the moment in full. “There was a time it was big fashion to start spreading the wealth of stockers from Europe so more fishermen could have home waters. And these guys were among the most sought-after. Read a story of a load that 'spilled' in the Ozarks.” He gave a laugh. Then, slowly let the beautiful speckled back slip through his fingers. For the next three hours, the two of them traded off catching good-sized, well-colored rainbows, with a few more of these trophies among them. I had not been graced with a winning hand. The tension was taut. One more turn, ended in a glorious snag. One more fly lost, I was sure. One more defeat, palpable. Until I felt his steady hand on my shoulder blade. Turned and he gave me a nod. His other hand was extended, ready to help. I handed my rod over and watched. He aimed the rod tip down, letting all the line on the water drift down past the hang-up, raised the tip and then gave the entire rod a firm flick. This sent an energy through the line with just enough thrust left at the end to unhitch it from the obstruction. He smiled the way only he does (and, fortunately, often does), in a way that levels everything physical and metaphysical in a flash, and calms you. He handed the rod back. "One more time." I didn't fuss or worry. Didn't think at all. Just did what he said. Cast back upstream. I saw the tiny fly hit the water. Then watched the line tip. But this time, without stressing about catching (or not catching). Simply watched. With a stillness. Yet with every sense piqued. Until I felt. That gentle, twitchy tug. And at that same instant, his hand on my shoulder. I lifted the rod, tightened the line, and all serenity was shattered by hoots and hollers. Somehow keeping my knees under me, I stayed standing, and landed a very respectable bow. Not a McCloud, but a beautiful thing indeed. One I will, in fact, always measure others by. Not for size. But for satisfaction. A grace and gratitude that can only be found here. I released, turned and high-fived. Jay.
08: THE CUTUP
Nightfishing. With mammals as bait. In the dullening of long, scorching Midwest summer days, mice find new energy. Their blood starts pumping and they start to scurry as the sky goes dark. In their dashing about, many hit a mudslick or a wet log, a deceptive overhang of grass, or in a myriad other ways misjudge the sturdiness of the earth beneath them. Others just make the daring call to swim for grass that looks a little greener. One way or another, they wind up in the current, kicking furiously for the bank. They are one of the choicest items on a trout's menu. When such a delicacy is presented, trout tend to lose their normal manners and discerning standards. The defenselessness of their prey and the cover of night give them a boldness and abandon they usually don’t exhibit except in their most territorial of moods. We came up early to check out the location of the fishing school we were set to teach that weekend, check in on the accommodations and check various logistical tasks off our list with time left for getting a little line on the water. At a certain point, we’d managed to each catch a couple average browns, hiking through corn crops and stalking banks lined with high, green grass under smoldering evening skies. Biding time. For this moment. I conferred with Jon over which pattern to choose. The realism of so much deer hair stacked tight along the hook and trimmed at the front to mimmic the pointed face of a fieldmouse, complete with tiny pieces of felt glued on for ears and a strip finished at the end for a tail. Or the impressionism of a large brown piece of foam tied along the hook shank with stubby rubber legs, a bright orange butt and stub tail, all designed more for the profile, the shadow it represents from below, than anything else. Jon leaned against the van drinking his IPA and made his case for the impressionist option. A philosophical thesis that basically came down to “gotta love the bright, burnt butt.” As usual, Jon wasn’t in any rush to get ready. Basically because he’s always ready. But the one who had really pushed for this escapade was antsy. He was geared up, standing with rod in hand, willing the
07: THE GRACE
I watched him scan the fly tables, in that stance he always took when he was in unfamiliar territory—standing straight, with hands clasped behind his back and a simple, respectful smile. But his eyes were busy absorbing, trying to compute. He always said he never really liked fishing because he never felt like he was very good at it. And so, it seemed time spent with a worm on a hook wound up feeling like a fruitless, frustrating distraction from things he could have been getting done. The only kind of fishing I'd ever known him to do, though, was with a spinning reel, throwing poppers or spoons or baited hooks. The only water I'd ever really known him to fish was in places we'd camped all those years ago—massive blue-hole springs and swamp rivers through Florida and southern Georgia. And certainly, in a small motorboat on the Okefenokee, say, if we weren't having any luck fishing, he was quick to stow the rods and go hunting gator. For the thrill, not the kill. Hunting to find them, and see how close we could get to them. If you could touch them with an oar and spook them so they retreated back under the surface, you won. Which he often did. But here, in the local fly shop, I thought I saw that old anxiety bubbling up from somewhere deep down, or long ago. This was one of my signature surprise visits. Trips I’d make at random from Chicago down to Shelbyville, Kentucky, without telling. Trips I’d been making ever since the cancer started getting particularly bad and unpredictable, and I couldn’t afford (financially or emotionally) to drop everything and rush down every time there was cause to worry. I decided to take stock in another way. I decided to make these unannounced trips that seemed to give a fresh surge of life when he was doing ok, and lift him up even when he was really on the mat. Because he knew the days I was there were his and mine to do with as we pleased. No rules or dietary restrictions. No talk of anything we didn’t want. No apologies or amends.
06: THE GUIDE
"Nah, we got it. Right...ok. Thanks." He hung up, and sighed. "Thanks a lot." He leaned against the truck and looked out at the gray clouds hung above the mountains. Only for a moment. I imagine he was projecting a vision in his mind of what needed to happen. Because I think he figured since we’d all traveled from Chicago to Bozeman to be on his home water, that from the moment he started dialing again, we'd be following his lead. Which was the truth. But I imagine he also thought all responsibility rested on his shoulders. Which couldn't have been further from it. He punched send and waited for his fiancé to pick up on the other end. "We're it.” He moved the gravel with the oversized toe of his wading boot. “They don't want to send the chopper unless they have to, and it costs too much anyway. Yeah. Ok...you know the pull-off? Yeah. See ya when you get here." He hung up again, and slid the phone in his vest pocket. "She's gonna leave work now and go get the kayak. Should take her forty-five minutes to an hour to do that and get out here. I say we go hang with them and then we can hike back this way closer to when she should be here." Jay and I agreed, and we began walking back to where we'd left Nikki with Felix. "I wish I'd said something," he mumbled as he led the way back along the riverbank. "Don't do that, man," Jay said from behind me. "It was nobody's fault." "Agreed, man. 100 percent. This is not on you." We broke through low brush here and there as we hoofed along the bank at a pace. "I mean, not springing for the chopper? That’s on you..." That got a laugh outta Jay, and a head shake from our faithful guide. It was a start, but the weight of his guilt still pushed against us like a current. It was nice to cut through it at least a little, though. These kind of high-test nerves have no place on the river. We walked up on Nikki first, casting her signature forward loop, controlled with a snap-thrust of her wrist, which she had adopted into her physical
05: THE CHARM
We were on ‘35, a two-lane highway above Green Bay, headed past Wisconsin's northern border into the UP, to a town called Marquette, Michigan. But if you put Green Bay, Sheboygan, Milwaukee, Racine, and all those unmistakably Wisconsin cities and towns out of your head; if you just guessed by what was rolling by out the windows, some stretches might just have easily been Pennsylvania or upstate New York. Other stretches, you could swear were in Colorado. Felix had been in contact with him the whole way up, but we were taking our time. We’d call to say we’d stopped off to eat. Or that, even though we’d already eaten, we’d stopped off to check out some random bar because it looked to good not to. We’d call to say we were having to stop at rivers. Having to. There were smaller creeks like Springer, Beattie, Ruleau and No See Um, and bigger water like the Cedar, the Bark, the Ford and of course the Escanaba. The trees growing taller and firrier as we traced higher on the map. Each time they would check in, he'd caution Felix to watch out for wolves and bears. Felix would end the calls with a laugh and I’d say, “Wolves?...Or bears?” He’d shake his head, “Both!” Felix and I had fished the southwest of the state ever since we’d known each other, and never seen either. “He’s a blues cat. He don’t know ‘bout no wolves or no bears. Ha.” The last stop we made before we declared Marquette next stop, was to look at a river we never saw a sign for. But we agree it was beautiful. Big, fast water, we could tell was high, but still looked so damn good we pulled out our rods and jumped the guard rail. We’ve tried since to pinpoint it on the map, but neither one of us is absolutely certain which meandering blue line it was.
04: THE REBELLIOUSNESS
The dark was swallowing the sun, whose only trace now was a slim purple line dissipating into tall rows of corn. The group of us were laughing and drinking, telling stories and generally giving each other shit. Times like these, in the spaces between casts and the catching of fish, are the greatest release of all. There was a sloshing of ice water as Jon announced last call and passed a couple pack-n-carries to everyone (pack in, carry out). The gate of his hatch closed, eliciting a few woots, a couple fuck-yeahs, and one yahooey! Hers. We hiked into the high grass, a few in the group with their headlamps on, toward the stream we could not see but could hear as vividly as in a dream that seemed unimaginably real. Jon was at the head of the line, “Remember, it’s starlight except when you’re taking it out of their lip.” Another, further back, “So if you’re scared of the dark...too late.” She fired into the night through an exhale of cigar smoke, I could tell by a choked, barely-audible sort of half-whisper chuckle, “You boys are the only ones who seem to need nightlights!” It’s a rare and wonderful thing how laughter carries in the wide open. One wonders if the sound of it strikes excitement and curiosity in coyotes when it shoots randomly through the night from somewhere far off, the way their howling does us.
03: THE HOOK-UP
“Banana?” If I had consulted the list of things I expected any buddy of mine on a fishing trip to offer me as we headed out at first light to get some line on the water, while my head was still trailing my body in the race to wake up...Bandana would have been there. Lotta uses for a bandana out here, not the least of which is wetting it cold to wipe your face and speed the waking up process. But "banana"? I’m not sure that would even be on the grocery list I left on the fridge back home. “Yeah, I’ll take one.” C'mon, what else was I supposed to do? Plus, I never knock any tradition a fellow fisherman has (if that’s what this was), until I’ve tried it or seen whether it works for them. So, we headed up Highway 61 at a good clip, windows cracked. Crisp, cool air streaming in. Eating bananas. “So you want to stay tonight?” I shrugged, “If you can, I’m in.” He nodded, “Ok.” He paused. “We gotta get another hotel, though.” And immediately, two things happened: 1. I looked at the peel in my hand and thought, That was really good. No shit. A cup of motel coffee while you get dressed, then a banana for the road. Trust me. 2. I thought, You mean we have to get a hotel. Not another hotel. Because where we stayed was a motel. I always stay in motels. Or Inns. The right Inn can definitely work. “What do you mean?” “Didn’t you think the bed was a little worn?” We came over the top of the hill, it was a straight shot to the water now. “I guess I’m getting older, but even on hunts now, with the dog in tow, I’ve got to have a good bed. I’ll spring for it.” I tucked my peel in the empty bag he had thoughtfully tied under the dash. He obviously hadn’t read the slogan on the sign of the motel we’d just stayed in, “Stay by choice, not by chance,” or he’d have known it wasn’t about the money. Also, we hadn’t fished together in
02: THE BRILLIANCE
Woke early. Sat up with a rail-splitting headache. No wonder, after having arrived to the cabin late (blamed officially on traffic in Chicago, and again in Grand Rapids, and highway construction; and unofficially on taking too long a detour to poke at the Manistee on my way up), then a proper welcome from his family, and then our own catching up once they had retired, a late-night card game...and after that, anybody's guess. I pressed on, though. Got up, grabbed my clothes and made my way upstairs from the basement guest bedroom to get a quick shower. Cleaning up didn't take the edge off. I needed coffee. Snooped around til I found the makings and got a pot brewed. Poured a mug, took a swig and sat bent over it...because the blood in my brain was more run than riffle when I was so situated. "Up early." His sister, just approaching her third trimester, paused before rounding the corner to the kitchen. "Yeah. What time is it?" "Early. You don't look good." I coughed a laugh and shrugged. "Well...long as one of us does." She coughed one back. "Hungry?" I smiled best I could and gave a nod. "Or you could go back to bed for a bit." I stared at my reflection on the surface of the black and half-shrugged. "Up now." She was in the kitchen, laying bacon out on the griddle. "Are you?" She smiled. It was still dark out. Took the light a while to get above the forest around the lake. So I laid back and listened to her going about fixing a small feast. Cracking, stirring, pouring, slicing, and all the while, a sizzling.
01: THE SHADOW
There was a wrapping on the window — clack clack clack — that tussled me from a deep sleep to the reality of the frigid, backbreaking backseat that had been my bed for the last few hours, and the headrush and heartburn of a beer-bourbon-repeat hangover. By the time I focused my eyes, he was gone. No one to complain to. So I shook off the soreness, sat up, and leaned into the door to open it since the car was listed on the shoulder of the road. The cold damp and gravel poking under my feet woke me further. I popped the hatchback and pulled on my waders, wrestled to get into my boots, put my fly boxes, leader wallet, tippet spools and floatant in my shirt pockets. Then, I lifted my