Sep 12, 2012

Water Like People

Meeting someone for the first time is like observing a new piece of water. You may get a feeling, but often you are left wondering what lurks beneath and how to find the proverbial bucket. People are like water. Mysterious and moody yet always, a miraculous work of nature.

I tried to keep this in mind when approaching my fishing clients. You want to just jump in, but best to take it slow… you know, test the current, the depth and find just the right wading line before going for a swim, or pulling your boot out of your mouth. A question here, a question there… and careful attention to body language, breathing, words, voice tone, athleticism, perspiration. All this out of the corner of your eye. But just like time on the river, you’ve got to learn how to wade in and get them hooked.

After a while, I learned that everyone’s idea of success or their idea of a good time is different. Hooking a fish usually means a good time, but you just never know. There are so many other factors. One man’s coveted, needle-in-the-haystack, somersaulting fish could just be pocket lint to another. Hard to tell, but the answer is there if you pay enough attention. Success may simply crawl on the backs of the littlest things until it all comes together and the fish is in the net, even though the net didn’t get wet.

I get to thinking about those I have come to know quite well over the years. Sometimes you love them and sometimes you hate them but mostly you are at least drawn to them. And much like certain pieces of water that you are very familiar with, you come to expect certain occurrences and ways to appreciate what makes them, them.

Like my buddy, BM. He begins each day in the drift boat by cracking an extra cold Budweiser. But the funny thing is, is that he doesn’t even really drink it. He only takes a sip and then it’s not long before it’s warm and he has to crack another one. It’s still a mystery. He is also a lover of Rochambeau, which is how we decide who starts off on the oars. We have had some lengthy battles – always best out of three – that are followed up by commending the other about how well he got into the other’s head and how he made just the perfect presentation.

PD has a very irritable GI track which has long been a source of entertainment. My entertainment I should say. Usually, urgency strikes like a shot of lightning. One moment he is making a cast or he is in mid-conversation and the next, he is sprinting off to find a target. I have witnessed attacks in water, on land, in boats, in cars, in homes, department stores - from Maine to Alaska - all over really, as his innards seem very unconcerned about convenience or obeying a reasonable schedule.

If another angler overheard a conversation between me and my pal, JN, they might think that we were getting ready to rumble. That is, until one of us finally laughs because the train of conversation just becomes far too incredible and impolite to stay focused. This is just how he prefers it, so I just go with the flow. When speaking to me, JN likes to use sharp, derogatory remarks meant to compromise my integrity but that are so wholly ridiculous that we both know it is just a drastic stab at hilarity in general. He prefers to be spoken to in the same manner which really is a great opportunity to cut loose and let it boil over. JN is also a great impressionist. One of my favorites is his Jabba the Hut rendition – the one where he is angered by Luke Skywalker’s intolerable request to release Hans Solo from his icy tomb. In fact, he speaks the entire gamut of languages present in all the Star Wars Movies and as far as I can tell, it’s all very accurate.

My friend, JH, is a really good angler, but he is even a better eater. I first learned of this bottomless skill while working together in Alaska. At breakfast each morning we were responsible for making our own lunches for the day and JH would pack five sandwiches and would eat all five sandwiches without regret. Once back in the lower 48, he introduced me to his favorite place outside of his own kitchen: The Taco Truck. He loves tacos and they tend to up and vanish in a blink when he is around. While out on the water with JH, the question of where or when we are going to find fish pales in comparison to what types of vittles are lurking in the cooler and what might later find the hibachi. He also has a flare for those subtle delectables. One day, I was talking with another friend about his day out on the water with JH, and what we ended up talking about, for the most part, was what was on the lunch menu. There was some kind of meat product that I can’t recall, but what really stood out was the spicy batch of grilled beets on the side.

But people on the river can give you tension. Like when you are heading to one of your favorite spots and your spine tightens when you discover that someone is already there catching all your fish. Or when you scan the river only to find hordes of fidgeting figurines and boats afloat and you wonder how there could be a fish with an iota of ignorance left anywhere. Or when you are doing your best to meld with nature and feel organic but your placidity is fractured by other humans having too much fun.

It’s a natural response. Especially when slipping away to the river, or the flat or the muddy pond may be as much about escape as it is about casting line. I doubt that we all flock to these places with the main goal of making friends, but if you are open to it, like your willingness to part unfamiliar water with your fly, then who knows what might happen. You just might discover someone worth seeking out again and again.

One long-ago-morning I was awakened by three loud knocks on my Mercury Tracer Wagon window. At the time, my only responsibility was to fish. The thousand bucks in my pocket had dwindled to about 500. I was halfway through a month long, fly fishing road trip and this particular morning, I found myself knocked out in my rig, which was parked in a road-side turnout, at the edge of the Rapid River in South Dakota. A man who, upon first glance, resembled Ted Kaczynski’s elder, unkempt uncle was inspecting me through the window and waving. After recalling the location of my father’s Navy Issue bowie knife under my pillow, I cracked the window.

“Hey, you goin fishin?”

“Yeah, I was planning to,” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes.

“Great, I’ll grab my stuff. “

I laid there blinking.

“What’s your name?” he asked while holding out his hand, waiting for me to roll down the window for the handshake.

“Mike,” I managed.

“Hi Mike. Name’s John and I’m the best goddamn fly fisherman in the Black Hills. Put some clothes on.”

Not long after this fateful introduction we were shin deep in Rapid River Water and his words over my shoulder-as he told me where to cast- were coated by a strange, unfathomably foul odor which almost made me lose my balance on the slick rocks. Onions and alcohol for sure, but the other ingredients were too far lost inside the blend.

He offered me his one and only fly. I think it was a beetle, but it was all chopped up, and the next thing that happened was that I couldn’t stop catching trout. One after the other, I skipped their little heads in while he barked enthusiastic cries and I’ll be dipped in it, if he didn’t do a little jig-dance right there in the middle of the stream.

“See, I told you Mikey boy. I’m the best damn fisherman in the Black Hills! Come on now, let’s go for a ride.” He patted me on my back.

That day passed like a dream. You know, when you’re dreaming you just sort of take off and you just go where you go – sometimes to the strangest of places – but it is always true, those places and the things you do and you are somehow game for it all because that is just what is happening.

It was the most fun. Bouncing down an obscure, dusty logging road somewhere in America with one of America’s own, most enthusiastic children in a haggard yet mostly determined Ford pickup. We ended up at a lake that was home to big trout that we both caught on the ratty beetle. He told me about how his father would bring him to this lake when he was a just a kid, and that here at this very spot was where he learned to do the jig dance after catching his first trout that was surely only a few inches shorter than he was at the time. I could tell he still missed his father, but he seemed very happy to have me along.

The last time I saw John was that very evening. I was standing in his yard, in his overgrown weed grass waving as he sped off – him waving too – in his rusty beige Ford. He said that he would just be a few minutes. He needed to run into town to pick up some chops for the grill and some beer. But he would not return, at least not during the two hours I spent sitting on his porch swing and wandering around his yard of pulled apart cars and three wheelers. I drove to town to find him, but he would not be found.

Water like people.  Remember that time when you hooked that big fish where you had never fished before? You looked upon the eddy line and saw how it all came flowing back together at just that spot, up above, where the log wiggled in the foam. If you casted there just maybe you could get the drift… But no, that wouldn’t do at all. You couldn’t cast from there, but maybe from there. Yes, you would cast from below and feed line to the river and just maybe the fly would travel all the way up to the top and drift over her head from behind. It would take you a good long while, because it was hard to get all your line into the same bubble line that led to the foam. But you did well to pick it up and try again before the slack was gone and it ripped too much. You didn’t even wipe away all that sweat in your eye. Remember that?

You followed that water as if you were dreaming. It was beautiful, your openness to that water. Kind of like that day we met. Remember that? You were casting and I was hiding out in the brush, waiting for you to take off because I really wanted to fish there and you saw me out of the corner of your eye and shouted out, Hey, how’s it going? Yeah, I was a little put off. I didn’t really want to fish with anyone or anyplace else for that matter. I was kind of pissed that you were in my hole.

Yeah, I remember, you say.

But that turned out to be an awesome day. Man we slayed ‘em that day didn’t we? And then later when I finally got back to my car and you had left that note with all those flies stuck in it under the windshield wiper… What got into you anyways? That doesn't seem like you.

Man, you needed all the help you could get, you say.

Aw get over yourself Lefty.


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