Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What's With all those Fishing Stories

IF my grandfather wasn't gone fishing, he was taking us kids fishing.  One of my first memories is of being carried on his high shoulders to go see what kinds of fish lived below the dam in the Mississippi River at the end of our street in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.  When I was four we moved to Alabama where another early memory is of going with my grandfather to the Marion County Lake in Pikeville to see what we could catch, or throw back in the case of the catfish the county stocked the lake with.  Trash fish he said, Bottom feeders.  Memories of our annual trips back to Minnesota include aluminum boats, a big aluminum tackle box with a dent in one corner and enough yellowed plastic trays to hold my weight in lures, an optimistically sized nylon net the color of green easter grass on a cheap aluminum frame, a whole lot of fishing poles with Zebco 33 reels, spare Zebco 33 reels, wooden docks, splinters, rusty hooks, orange and white plastic bobbers, a blue Snoopy or Smurf themed pastic fishing pole with a white reel that only worked for my sister for one cast, rocket hot plastic cushions meant to protect your butt from rocket hot boat seats, life-vests, mosquitos as big as the horse flies that bit us on the backs of our arms, cheap styrofoam containers full of worms or minnows, the same cheap containers floating broken in clumps against the reeds at the edge of the lake, moody used Mercury outboard motors, several blackened spark-plugs in the puddle in the bottom of the boat that sometimes got tried one more time, sunfish, squabbling with my brothers, hearing the Tetris theme music fade while watching an expensive new Gameboy sink out of sight, the stench of dead stuff in stagnant water and the words "That Damn ..." followed by the name of either a piece of gear or of a kid.

My first memory of my cousin Vanessa is of a golden haired little girl standing on a dock with sunlight reflecting off the water behind her telling our grandfather that she didn't want to stab any innocent worms on hooks or kill any fish and yes they did too have feelings, thank you very much.


When I moved to Delaware where I made friends with Cory and Michael who I like to talk about outdoorsy stuff with because they actually get around to doing those things and I don't.  Michael is from Ohio but he's lived in Maine for the last few years.  He makes lithographs of fish he'd like to catch and paintings of mountains that have been removed from West Virginia by the coal industry.  Cory lived in California for a long time and he once told me about being on a surf board on a moonless night so dark that he wouldn't've been able to see even the water without the phosphorescent algae glowing underneath  him.  He said that unseen fish would swim through the algae and make them swirl and it was like he was floating above a galaxy.  When they invited me to go fly-fishing with them, I said something lame and noncommittal like, "Sure, sounds like fun" with the hope that the invitation would be forgotten about but that we could go hiking soon.  A couple days later Cory told me there would be fishing in the morning.  I don't know why I said I'd be there.

Although he was eager to try anything that might land a fish, as far as I can recall, my grandfather was never a fly-fisherman.  He lived in the land of a thousand lakes and very few rivers.  He was the other, more masochistic kind of fisherman who sits quietly watching a bobber bleach in the sun with the hope that some non-existant underwater carnival worker might attach a prize to the other end of his line, preferably a pike or a walleye.  My cousin, my brothers and I would bicker and roast in his little rental boat for what seemed like the rest of our lives and not catch the fish that hid in our shadow from the sun and the fish finder because the damn kids were making too much noise.  If it ever rained there was no relief in its cool because my grandfather believed that fish bite better when it's raining and we knew we would have to wait for our sunburned fingers and toes to turn white before the boat took us back to the cabin where our parents were enjoying not going fishing.

When he got desperate to catch something he would take us on a long drive outside of the Twin Cities to a place called Trout Air which was several water-filled holes in the ground on the side of a fish farm close to the road.  This was as much like shooting fish in a barrel as catching starved rainbow trout out of a ten-foot-diameter-back-hoe-dug-hole in the prairie can be.  My grandfather called it "the best fishing in Minnesota".  The first time I saw anyone trying to fish with flies (I won't call it fly fishing) was at Trout Air.  I remember clearly guys wearing full-on chest waders to stand on mowed grass and scare the hell out of everyone as they heroically whipped lures that must have weighed whole pounds and failed to flick them onto any one of the ponds within easy reach where dozens of people in shorts and flip-flops dodged blindness to pull out fish after fish on cheap worms and Huck Finn-style bamboo poles.


When I can get myself up and moving, I love the morning.  Maybe because I rarely see one.  It's the only time of day I always romanticize and think about in poetic terms.  The morning is dramatic in phenomenological you had to be there kinds of ways.  Everything seems primordial, far off sounds carry close and I feel like I'm part of the world rather than observing it.  Not too long after the sun came up Cory and I were quietly drinking coffee outside and enjoying that haiku time when the fog carries the low light and everything is waiting to be.

Michael showed up and we rode bicycles down the hill and our ears were cold and pink by the time we stopped on the footbridge over White Clay Creek.  Cory and Michael had already decided that they wanted to try this spot.  From the way they looked it over, you wouldn't have known they'd ever been there before.  The water is very clear and from the bridge I couldn't see any signs of anything living.  Several yards upstream there is a small dam.  Below the dam there are large rocks.  The dam creates turbulence which aerates the water.  The rocks below the dam add more turbulence and oxygen and at the same time give fish something solid to hide behind so they don't have to fight the current all the time.  Cory asked Michael what he thought.  "Looks good.  Let's do it."

We stashed our bikes out of sight.  Standing on the foundation of the bridge they turned their backpacks out.  Each of them had a pair of waders, collapsible rod, reel, spool of line, and a little plastic box with six small compartments containing about as many different kinds of flies that each imitate several different kinds of bugs.  A discussion about wooly-buggers, surgeons' knots, the fact that Gerber makes the worst knives in the world, and something called tippet immediately put me out of my element.  I jotted it all down so I could look it up later.  

Michael must have seen what I was writing and showed me his line.  Fly-fishing line is thicker than regular fishing line but I was surprised to see that it's brightly colored and about as thick as yarn.  It's made of nylon and has a little loop on the end.  You tie a length of regular fishing line to the loop and you tie your fly to that.  "They used to be made of horse hair and they were a pain in the ass to keep in good condition.  They had to be treated with wax before every time you used them and they still broke a lot any way."  So, fly fishing was originally a gentleman's pursuit, the first necessities being that the fisherman had access to horses and a lot of free time.

Even after looking it up I don't understand what tippet is.

There are many kinds of flies.  The most common are wet flies intended to look like a drowning bug, nymphs that look like larvae, streamers which imitate tadpoles and small prey fish and then there are dry flies which are by far the most commonly used.  Cory and Michael were fishing with dry flies.  If you've ever seen a fishing fly, it was probably a dry fly which is meant to look like a bug floating on the surface of the water.  Most of them are made of rooster feathers tied to a hook with floss (the same as you use between your teeth), wire, polyester thread or even tinsel depending on the type of bug being imitated.  Rooster feathers are used because they're stronger and stiffer which helps them take advantage of surface tension and float on top of the water like a bug would.  

My two friends put on their waders and Michael got into the water and started casting.  Cory walked along the edge of the creek looking for signs of fish.  I had been looking the whole time and still hadn't seen anything other than the rippling of light through the water and leaves tumbling under the surface.  More leaves floated on the surface and Michael caught a big one on one of his first casts.  Cory disappeared out of sight for a while, came back and fished above the dam, disappeared, came back again.  This was a quiet spot and Michael and I talked a little bit.  He told me that mid-Atlantic fly-fishing is a totally different ball game and that he was trying to get his head around it.  Maine is really bouldery.  Here, there are pockets of deep water.  There's fast water, but then there are really slow stretches.  I guess he developed some ability to think like a Maine trout and the trout around here had different priorities.  

Cory finally came and fished below the dam with Michael for about three casts before he turned to him and asked if he wanted to move to the big dam.  "Yeah, I think so, I'm not sure there's anything here."  As we packed up and headed toward the other dam I told Cory that I hadn't seen one fish the whole time were were there and asked what made them think there might be fish in that spot.  He said there could have been because it had all the right characteristics, but that they had been skeptical because they hadn't seen any fish either.  "Do you really even care about catching a fish?" I asked.  Cory shook his head and made a face that said something like nah, I just like being out here, but a fish would be nice all the same.


Rainbows are the most popular trout with fly-fishermen as they are seen as exciting fighters that jump out of the water and are strongly biased against being caught.  Steelhead, also called salmon trout, are prodigal rainbow trout.  If a rainbow lives in a waterway with access to the ocean it will go to sea for a couple years where it will grow a lot bigger and develop more of a silvery color and then come back to settle down and make babies.  Trout don't die after spawning like salmon and can go to sea and back several times.  They are a North American species related to Pacific Salmon and native to the western side of the Rockies.  

Anders Halverson tells us via his book An Entirely Synthetic Fish that after the Civil War American industry and agriculture were polluting eastern waterways so effectively that most fish species, including native brook trout, just weren't there anymore.  Those same industries were creating huge fortunes.  Large amounts of money and the lack of an environment to get out and conquer combined to create a new kind of white American male called the wimp.  Halverson cites Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who defined the problem; "Such a set of black coated, stiff jointed, soft muscled pasty complexioned youth as we can boast in our Atlantic cities never sprang from the loins of Anglo Saxon lineage."  Other prominent men of the time agreed that potential knock-on effects that might even undermine American democracy.  In 1857 a George Perkins Marsh proposed a solution.  Fishing would save white men, America and democracy.    

California's rainbow trout were tougher than the brook trout native to the east coast and could live with the pollution of the rivers.  The first rainbows were imported to New York in 1875.  Before long a man named Fred Mather was farming rainbows and other game fish to be released into eastern and mid-western waterways.  Then, in 1880, he went fishing in Germany and discovered brown trout.  Browns are the most difficult to catch because they are smarter and more skittish.  In 1883 a German steamship called the Werra brought fertilized brown trout eggs to America.  They have adapted to life in American rivers and streams very well and do not need as much stocking as rainbows to maintain their populations.

Also in 1883 Charles Orvis and Frank Cheney published Fishing with the Fly which included writings by fly-fishermen from all over the U.S. and contained passages like this; 
...he that hopes to be a good angler must not only bring an inquiring, searching, observing wit, but he must bring a large measure of hope and patience, and a love and propensity to the art itself; but having once got and practiced it, then doubt not but angling will prove to be so pleasant that it will prove to be like virtue, a reward to itself.‎
Evidently enough young Anglo Saxon wimps received Orvis' book or one like it from concerned grandfathers that a whole new industry was able to take off and eventually expand around the world.  They may have started out fishing in nearby creeks and rivers but the best fishing soon became a reason to travel to Montana or Wyoming.  Today fly-fishermen save up for trips to New Zeland and Africa in search of rainbows.  


A quarter mile down stream from where Cory and Michael had started fishing there was a bigger dam with fewer rocks below it.  The same unspoken strategy was employed there, Michael picking the most likely looking water and sticking with it, trying to figure it out, and Cory doing a kind of overall recon to see if he could spot a fish to throw a lure at.  

At first I was mostly aware of the sound of the water falling over the dam.  It's loud and fills your ears and makes it hard to hear much of anything.  You get used to it pretty quickly and forget that you’re hearing it or missing any of the other sounds in the world.  I sat and looked around.  Except for the crude looking dam, we were in a beautiful place.  The low morning light was shining through the fall leaves, little whips of fog floated above the calmer patches of water, and there was just enough chill in the air to make me not really cold but aware of my body so that my mind didn't wander too far from the present.  I spent a long time watching the colors of the leaves change as the sun rose behind them and burned off the fog.  

When I turned back to the dam I was surprised after to see Cory settled into a spot beside Michael.  I watched them for a while and made a few sketches.  Cory wore a bright orange trucker style hat and a well-worn Northface vest.  He looked like someone who spends time in state parks.  Michael wore a knit beanie and a flannel shirt under his over-pocketed fishing vest.  He looked like he lives in the woods.

I can see that it takes years to hone this craft.  That it is an art.  Cory has been doing this for a long time and still whips the line audibly.  There's almost a WHOOSH and it snaps at the end like a whip.  Sometimes he snaps his flies off of the end of the line.  Michael's been doing it a little longer, his line is always curved, tracing a drawn out infinity symbol through the air before he lobs the fly where he wants it - more or less.  

As I watched them Cory suddenly yelled and there was a confusion of pulling line, bent rod, excited shouts, Michael moving toward Cory trying to reel in his own line and at the same time trying to grab his net from the loop on the back of his vest.  Before I could get over to where he was backing onto the bank he had the fish splashing in the inch of water at his feet.  He pulled the line and started to lift the fish.  I never saw the fish break loose.  It was just gone.  He looked disappointed and happy at the same time.  Michael told him one or two things that he could have done better.  Cory listened with a face full of eagerness, like a kid who wants to go on a ride again.  He shouted over the water as Michael waded back to his spot "Was that a rainbow?"

"That was a rainbow."

Cory had a big grin under his wooly beard.

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