Friday, December 30, 2011

Santa in the News

My favorite time of the year is the fall with the first couple of weeks of winter thrown in there for good measure.  Even though I look forward to every season, I’ve always preferred the fall.  I guess it began with deer hunting in the fall and watching the leaves change colors on the trees.  But over time I hunted less and enjoyed nature more.  Then along came Santa.

Now the fall has taken on a different meaning for me.  I begin preparing for Christmas in January each year, but somewhere in September or October I start the transformation into Santa.  Granted I look like the Jolly Old Elf all year long, but mentally I become Santa in the fall.  For years I’ve answered to “Santa” from just about anyone I encounter, but there is something special about those last three months of the year.

A few weeks ago the Long Beach Press Telegram reporter Karen Meeks interviewed me about my world as Santa.  Here is the link to the article.


Enjoy.

Brookie Bash

At the time of my first journey into the wild in search of my first trout on a fly, I was experiencing failing eyesight due to cataracts.  I was trying to tie flies, but anything smaller than a 2/0 hook was just too small to focus.  It was time for the surgery whether I liked the idea or not.  Fortunately my eye doctor is a good one, and the surgery went smoothly, but for about 4 or 5 months my vision prevented me another opportunity to stalk the ferocious wild trout.  Then came the new glasses about a week before the annual “Brookie Bash.”

Each year the Long Beach Casting Club puts together a weekend trip to the Mammoth Lakes/Bishop area of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The idea is to catch (and release) in one weekend all five of the trout species found in the area.  The trip is named after the Brook trout found in Rock Creek, and the Brook trout must be taken from that particular drainage (also known as Little Lakes Valley); however, the remaining four species can come from just about anywhere else that can be reached that weekend. 

I drove up there on an uneventful Thursday, stopping at every restroom, uh, rest stop (yeah, that’s it—rest stop) along the way to, uh, enjoy the scenery.  It had been many years since I drove north on Highway 395 along the eastern Sierras, and I had forgotten just how far it is between, uh, rest stops.  I arrived at Mammoth Lakes in the mid-afternoon, found the condo the club had rented, moved my things in, and fell asleep for a couple of hours.  I went out for a bite of dinner later that evening, and when I returned to the condo, several of the other members had arrived and were sitting around talking and strategizing about the next two days.  These members were accomplished fly fishermen, so I listened to their strategy while making my own. 

It seemed to me that a lot of time could be wasted at a single location catching and releasing fish just for the enjoyment of it.  Not that this kind of fishing was a waste of time, but I was here to catch the grand slam, and if I caught one of the species from a location, and if there was no other species at that location, I would move on.  Catching fish is great fun, but I was on a mission.

That night I had trouble sleeping.  I went to bed about 10:30pm and woke up every hour reworking my strategy.  Finally I got up about 5:00am and headed over to the local fishing store for some advice.  I had seen them the day before when I was searching for the condo and noticed the sign on the door stating they opened at 6:00am.  And they really were open.  After discussing my strategy with them and purchasing a handful of beetles and ladybugs and Sierra Bright Dots and…   I felt better about my choice of targeting one fish at a time at each location.  Unless of course there were more than one species at that location.  Not much of a plan, but it took me all night to work it out, and it made sense to me at the time.

The Lahontan cutthroat is found in McLeod Lake above the small town of Mammoth Lakes.  At the end of the road is a parking lot near the very dead Horseshoe Lake, and from there a 1-mile uphill hike brings a person to a wonderful lake filled with the required cutthroat.  The only problem with the hike is that the nearly 9,000-foot elevation starting point is much higher than sea level where I reside.  Then it goes uphill from there.  I made the hike up to McLeod Lake, but I was definitely searching for oxygen molecules along the way.  And I caught my cutthroat.

For the first 15 minutes or so I watched several cruisers swimming around me, and I thought they would make a quick, easy catch.  I cast out two or three different dry flies to discover that were just not interested in the standard fare.  Then I finally tied on a beetle.  About 6 casts were all that was needed to hook a nice 13-inch cutthroat.  I expected a fight, but it seems this trout knew the routine.  He understood that the quicker he was landed, the quicker the hook would be removed, and he would be free to swim again.  So he swam over to me and waited.  I believe he had been through this process more than once.  Well I had the cutthroat, now it was time for something else.

From McLeod Lake I drove down to a place known as Hot Creek.  Again I was unprepared for the situation.  I followed several other members who had been there many times and knew where they wanted to fish.  This time the climb was only a few dozen yards downhill to the creek (and a few dozen yards uphill back to the car) to meet up with some of the pickiest fish I’ve ever encountered.  Finally I caught a small brown trout, but the rainbows in the water were not interested in anything I had to offer.  At the end of the day I let the rainbows win.

That one brown trout was not enough for me.  Although I needed to catch a rainbow while I was at Hot Creek, the brown was a welcome change after the lethargic cutthroat I caught that morning.  This brown was a fighter, and I needed a fight.  After it was over, I wanted another fight, but it didn’t happen.  Oh, well.  I now had two of the five species checked off the list, and it was time to retreat for the evening.

That night once again I had trouble sleeping.  I kept waking up wondering if I would manage to land the three remaining trout.  Eventually I got up and wandered outside to visit the morning.  The sun was very much hidden behind the mountains and the sky was dark gray but rapidly getting lighter.  I watched as two blue jays fought over some morsel, losing ultimately to a crow or raven.  I heard a door close and looked over to another condo to see someone standing outside in his underwear smoking a cigarette and scratching the various parts that needed scratching.  He wandered over to a SUV and extracted something from the back end of it, then disappeared back inside the condo not realizing he could have been on that television show about funny home videos—if I only had a video camera. 

The sky changed from a very light gray to a dark cloud mass within a minute or so, and the sun moved up to just below the top of a mountain.  The sky turned red and ugly, and my mind recalled some old saying about “red sky at morning…”.  Then the sun made its appearance, the red went away, and the day was perfect in my estimation.  I was ready to fish.

It was Saturday, and it was the last day of the Brookie Bash.  I got into my car and drove to the appropriately named Mosquito Flats at Rock Creek.  My shirt covered me well, and the gloves and buff and hat took care of most of the other exposed parts of my person.  Just to be safe I sprayed on some mosquito repellent.  I am certain I heard a high, shrill whistle and a shout from one of the mosquitoes as she summoned all of her friends to dinner.  I guess this particular repellent was especially attractive to these bugs.  Within seconds I was a walking mass of little hungry critters.  At least I had enough layers of clothing between their mouths and me. 

About 150 yards downhill from the parking lot was a bridge where the road crossed Rock Creek.  Just at the end of the bridge to the right was a ridge separating me from Serene Lake where the golden trout were supposed to be hiding, and that was the fish I was targeting at the moment.  I was told to look for the goat trail up the ridge, and that after reaching the top of the ridge, the lake would be visible just a few yards in front of me.  Goat trail my ass!!  No sensible goat would have considered climbing that ridge.  But I am no goat, so up I went.  About the time I came to the same understanding the goat would have reached much earlier, I was at the top, and there was the lake. 

I stepped into the water and waded out about 30 feet.  About 15 yards in front of me was a submerged log, and I could see some movement just on the other side of it, so I made it my target.  I tied on a #18 ladybug and cast to the spot.  One cast, one golden trout.  I stayed there a while longer casting a semi-circle around me searching for the rainbow trout that was supposed to be here and came up with another fish.  I took it to be a rainbow at first, but even though it had the pink stripe down the side, the bright red belly dots were all wrong, and the fins didn’t look right either.  I decided it had just been a long time since I had looked a rainbow in the eye, and I had forgotten what one actually looked like.  I now had four of the five trout.

The goat trail my ass had completely disappeared on the return trip to the parking lot.  I looked down that vertical slope and just hoped that someone would find my body within a few days.  At one point I saw a car coming down the road from the parking lot and thought a well timed jump would land me just in front of the car and very quickly put an end to this nonsense.  But as I contemplated the timing, I realized the car had speeded up, and I was too late to make it work.  So I continued down grasping onto anything that looked as though it was well anchored to the ridge face.  At last I was at the bottom.  I still had my rod, my pack, my wading staff, and my life.  The only thing to do now was to hunt down a brookie.

From the parking lot, I walked about 30 feet to the edge of Rock Creek and tossed in the ladybug I still had on my tippet.  Almost immediately I had a strike.  It came so quickly I couldn’t react in time to set the hook.  After that, I found brookies to be had every few casts.  This was fun, but the more I thought about that “rainbow”, the more I had doubts about its parents.  This thing had to be some kind of hybrid, so I couldn’t actually count it as one of the five trout I needed to finish the grand slam.  I got into the car and headed back to Hot Creek.

This time at Hot Creek I decided to avoid the gorge area and fish the flat meadowland above it.  This was the ultimate in picky fish.  I ended up tying on a 9-foot 4x tapered leader with a 3-foot 5x extension and a 3-foot 6x tippet.  To this I tied a ladybug (they worked in Rock Creek) and drifted it across a dark spot I could see up stream.  Immediately there was a rise and a hit.  I didn’t catch the first fish, but I was persistent, and that ladybug or one of its sisters nailed about 6 or 7 browns in the 10-inch to 14-inch range.  I managed to hook 2 or 3 much larger fish, but my excitement overpowered the 6x tippet, and I never brought them to hand.  And I still didn’t have my rainbow.

I was about to give up and try the Upper Owens River when I remembered someone saying the elk hair caddis was his “go to” fly on Hot Creek, and I had a few of them with me.  I opened up my fly box, and looked through the collection to find only 14’s and 16’s.  I wanted something smaller, but the 16 would have to do.  I tied it on and drifted across many of the dark spots that had given up the browns to my ladybug, but nothing was happening.  I walked up stream about 30 yards and as I cast my line, the wind came up.  Great!  Just what I wanted.

I decided to keep trying in spite of my inability to handle wind.  (I’m still a novice, remember?)  I managed to place that fly just about everywhere but in the water; however, occasionally it found the running liquid and drifted over a dark spot.  Then it happened.  I got a good hit, and I set the hook.  This fish was a fighter, and on his first jump I knew it was not a brown.  I just needed to bring it to hand to have my fifth trout.

I was nervous.  This was a few inches longer and it felt much heaver than any of the browns I had landed.  I also had very fresh memories of breaking off several trout of similar size over the past few hours on that 6x tippet.  But the trout was allowing me to do my job.  Unlike the cutthroat, this rainbow fought me, but like the cutthroat, he seemed to know that once this was over the hook would come out of his mouth, and he would be free to swim again.  I managed to bring him to the edge of the bank and reach down and remove the hook.  I’m quite certain he smiled and winked at me before swimming back to his home in that dark spot.  A cutthroat, a brown, a golden, something weird, a brookie, and a rainbow.  I headed back to the condo, kicked off my shoes, found a beverage, sat down, and fell asleep.

This was the culmination of 60 years of fishing.  As I write this, I am preparing to have long overdue shoulder surgery, so my next outing will be a few months away.  I can wait.  I am after all a fly fisherman.  Oh, the joy!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chili for One

I grew up in Fort Worth and, at least in terms of food, it is the crossroads of Texas.  Influences from all parts of the state melted together in Fort Worth’s chuck wagons, uh, kitchens, and created what I believe is overall the best the state has to offer.  Yes, there are regions where certain food styles and types are as good as it gets, but all of those regions are superbly represented in Fort Worth.

It is difficult to find better central Texas barbeque than in central Texas, unless one wants east Texas style barbeque.  For that, one must go to east Texas.  The Tex-Mex food of south Texas is different from the Tex-Mex food of west Texas.  Chili is found everywhere, but certain ingredients are added or left out in different regions.  Does one add beans or tomatoes to Texas Chili?  How about chicken or pork instead of beef?  Tofu?  Forget I mentioned that one.  But each approach to authentic Texas chuck, uh, food, can be found in Fort Worth.

Some of my friends were “purists” when it came to chili.  One refused to eat my chili because it contained beans.  Another refused because it contained tomatoes.  And his wife wouldn’t eat it because it didn’t contain ketchup.  But I liked my chili.  I never considered it a competition chili, because I really don’t know what makes a competition chili.  And the competition chilies I’ve tried were boring at best, or often just too hot to enjoy.  I like flavor, and if I have to combine styles from the different regions of Texas to make my Texas chili, I will do it.  I finally reached a point where I wouldn’t invite anyone over for chili.  If they want boring, they can make it for themselves while I enjoy my chili alone.

My recipe is influenced mainly by an experience I had in Tyler, Texas, January 16, 1972.  The Dallas Cowboys were playing the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, and my car was broken down waiting for a mechanic to work on it the following day.  I was in a motel watching the game when I got a knock on the door.  It was the motel manager, and he had a cart with a big pot of chili, bowls, beverages, and other things.

“Mind if I join you?  My television is on the blink.  Brought along some chili.”

 I can’t recall a single time in my life when I turned down chili.  So we watched the Cowboys kick some Dolphin tail, and we ate chili.  It was different from any chili I had ever had.  It had real flavor.  And it had just enough heat to require a good beverage.  The motel manager said most Texans turn their noses up at it because it doesn’t fit their idea of a true Texas chili, but what is a true Texas chili anyway?

I had never asked myself that question before.  I decided that a true Texas chili isn’t determined by a regional preference, but by whether or not it’s any good.  I’ve eaten “true Texas chili” in all parts of the state, and some were good enough, and some were, well, not good enough.  To me, if it’s not any good, it doesn’t matter if it’s a “true Texas chili,” it’s just not any good.

With all that said, here is my recipe for East Texas Chili, so named because I was in East Texas when my eyes were opened to the idea that chili should first and foremost taste good.


East Texas Chili

Best when made one or two days ahead.

Serves 1 about 30 times.

    30 mixed dried chiles (ancho, negro, guajillo, California, etc.) , stemmed, seeded, coarsely torn*
    Olive oil as needed for sautéing                               
    1 1/4 pounds (4 cups) chopped yellow onions                    
    1 1/4 pounds (4 cups) chopped red onions                                 
    1 1/2 pounds leeks, cut into 1/4-inch circles, white and light green parts only
    1 pound chopped shallots                                       
    2 1/2 pounds good quality ground beef chuck                    
    2 1/2 pounds beef chuck eye roast, cut into 3/4-inch cubes     
    1 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) first (flat) cut beef brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper                    
    2 heads garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped                     
    1/4 cup toasted cumin seeds                                    
    4 teaspoons dried oregano                                      
    1/4 cup coriander seeds, crushed                               
    1/4 cup coarse salt                                             
    4 (10-ounce) cans fire-roasted, diced tomatoes with chiles, with juices
    3 to 4 bottles beer (Tecate is good, and so is Shiner Bock)    
    4 (7-ounce) cans diced roasted green chiles, with juices      
    1 bunch fresh cilantro stems, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
    3 (15 1/2-ounce) cans pinto beans with juices                  
    2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed              
    2 (15-ounce) cans garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed            
    1/2 pound Spanish hard manchego cheese, finely grated                 
    1 disk Mexican chocolate, finely chopped or grated
    1/2 cup stone ground corn flour (not masa harina)

*The best mix of dried chilies I’ve come up with begins with 10 to 12 ancho chiles.  After that, just use at least 4 other kinds of chiles.  The heat can be adjusted by the type of chiles added, but the best place to start is with a medium heat level.  Also, a few more chiles is okay especially if they are small.

Place stemmed and seeded chiles into a food processor and pulse until the pieces are about 1/4- inch or less in size.  Place chiles in a bowl, and pour enough boiling water over to cover.  Soak until chiles soften, at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

Pour about 1 tablespoon olive oil into a large skillet and heat over medium heat until hot.  Add onions, leeks, and shallots (in batches if necessary and adding more oil as needed); cover and cook until tender, about 7 to 10 minutes per batch.  Remove to a very large deep stockpot, and keep warm over very low heat.

Add the ground chuck to the skillet and cook until browned.  Remove to the pot with the onions.  Sprinkle cubed beef all over with coarse salt and pepper.  Add to pot without browning; stir to mix everything together.  Set aside.

Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid.  Place chiles in a blender.  Add 1 cup soaking liquid, garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, oregano, coriander, and 1/4 cup coarse salt; blend to puree, adding more soaking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls if very thick.  Pour puree and remaining soaking liquid into the pot with the beef and onions.  Add tomatoes with juices, 3 bottles of the beer, roasted green chiles, and chopped cilantro stems.  Stir to coat evenly.  Bring chili to a simmer.  Cover and cook 2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring oven to 350F.  Spread corn flour onto a baking sheet and toast for 5 minutes.

Uncover the chili and cook until beef is almost tender, about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.  Add beans; stir to coat, and cook about 45 minutes longer.  Season chili to taste with salt and pepper.  Tilt pot and spoon off any fat from surface of sauce.  Stir in all of the manchego cheese, Mexican chocolate, and toasted corn flour to thicken.  If the chili is still too thin, add a little more of the toasted corn flour.  If the chili is too thick, thin with remaining bottle of beer, otherwise enjoy the beer with the chili.

Can be made up to 2 days ahead.  Cool 1 hour.  Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled.  To reheat, bring to room temperature (about 2 or 3 hours) and over a low heat warm for about 30 minutes before turning heat to medium-high.  Gently stir every 10 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking.  (Wait—it's probably already stuck from the initial cooking.)  If necessary to thin the chili, use beef stock and/or water.  Beer will give it an odd taste if used during reheating.

Garnishes:  Fresh cilantro leaves, Chopped red onion, Diced avocado, Shredded Monterey Jack cheese, Warm corn and/or flour tortillas.  Cornbread is good, and so are tortilla chips.  I like oyster crackers with it.

This recipe also works well enough with all pork, but do not mix beef and pork.  1-inch chunks of cooked all beef sausage also work well with this recipe.  Just add about 2 pounds of the beef sausage along with the cubed beef, and continue with the recipe.

Considerations for substitutions or additions:  1 cup tequila (omit the beer and add beef stock and/or water to make up the difference) -- 1/2 bottle dry red wine (omit the beer and add beef stock and/or water to make up the difference)

2 pounds pork baby back ribs -- 2 pounds pork loin -- 2 pounds beef tenderloin
2 pounds sausage -- 2 pounds beef short ribs -- 2 pounds tri-tip or sirloin
2 pounds lean ground beef -- 2 pounds lean ground pork

This is a versatile recipe—just do not mix beef and pork, or it will taste strange.  Trust me.

Roaring River

It’s hard to believe, but for 50 years I wanted to learn to fly fish.  It took me 10 years to attempt it the first time, then 40 more years to attempt it the second time.  I have fished all my life, and some of my earliest memories were of sitting at a water crossing over a paved back road somewhere around Fort Worth with a cane pole and a string with a hook on it.  My family brought me there because it was usually possible to catch small perch or bream, and this was the experience they wanted me to have.  It worked.  I’ve had the desire to fish ever since those days.

The lakes, rivers, and small Texas stock tanks were always a short distance away.  A bike ride, or later a car ride, would get me to a body of water where I could dream of catching “the big one.”  Weekends, evenings, vacation days, all were times for fishing.  Camping was just another excuse to go fishing, although camping and hiking were fun even if I couldn’t fish for some reason.

My grandparents bought a weekend home on a nearby lake, and so did several of my grandmother’s sisters.  This meant a gathering of family nearly every weekend, and soon these weekend homes became permanent homes.  No one cared to live in the old neighborhoods anymore if the excitement was at the lake house.

A collection of boats soon followed, and fishing (or sometimes poker) was the center of attention.  Except for my great-uncle Sam, everyone spent time on the water with a pole and some kind of bait.  Sam would have been out there too, but no one wanted to have him in the boat with them.  Nothing could please the man.  The water was too rough to fish.  The water was too smooth to fish.  Too much wind to cast.  Too still.  Too many boats.  Too fast.  Too slow, etc.  But he still wanted to fish.

One weekday I was off work for some reason, and I went to the lake expressly to take him fishing.  Maybe I was feeling a bit guilty, or maybe it was insanity, but I did it.  I told Sam that I was willing to take him out on the water, but I wasn’t opposed to coming back without him.  He seemed to understand that I might not be kidding, but he got into the boat anyway, and we headed into the waves and across the lake to an inlet filled with cattails and reeds.  Sam referred to them as the tulles.

When we got there, Sam turned to me and pointed over to the spot he wanted to anchor.  He was all ready to cast his line by the time I stopped the engine, and by the time I dropped the anchor he was bringing in a rather large bass.  I couldn’t believe it.  His second cast to a different spot brought in a second bass.  My attitude to Sam was changed forever.

Sam had been a fisherman all his life, and he knew what he was talking about when he groused about the wind, waves, speed, etc.  This man could read the water, and I wanted to know how he did it.  This was the start of a two-year friendship with my uncle that baffled everyone else in the family, although I learned to fish in a way that surprised everyone else as much as Sam surprised me that first time out together.  But I was a bait and spin fisherman.  While there is nothing wrong with that, it was not quite complete.

I remember the first time I saw someone fly-fishing.  Actually I had seen it before on the television, but I hadn’t paid any attention.  It was just someone waving a fishing pole through the air and slinging their line and hook all over the place.  But this time was different.

It was the summer of 1959, and I was almost 10 years old.  My dad took the family on a trip from our home in Texas to Roaring River State Park in southern Missouri.  For my brother James and me (baby sister Carolyn stayed at home with the grandparents) it was a long hot trip in the car.  Roadwork in the Ozarks slowed down the process of getting there with stops for construction equipment to clear a path for cars to move through behind a lead car at about 20 mph.  It was a slow game of ‘follow the leader.’  We spent the night at a campground near Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then finished the trip the next day to the place that became my favorite destination for more than a few years.

We set up our camp immediately beside the small fast moving river, made a fire, and baked some potatoes.  After looking around for about an hour, the sun went down, we ate the potatoes, and then went to bed early.  At least James and I did.  I think our parents were a little bit tired of us by then.  Like I said, it had been a long hot trip in the car.

The next morning after breakfast, we went exploring the area.  There were many other campers set up nearby, and in most camps I saw the strangest fishing poles I had ever seen.  I thought it was something unique to Missouri that the reel was attached behind the handle instead of in front of it.  Then as we walked farther up the river’s edge, I saw people waving their strange poles back and forth, occasionally letting the bait hit the water, only to pull it back out again after just a few seconds.

A year or two earlier I had seen this type of fishing on television, but it was boring.  I was a kid, and I wanted cartoons, and the tuner knob on the front of the TV set went spinning until I found them.  Now I was seeing it for real, and I couldn’t understand how this was called fishing.

Back home fishing was a string, some kind of a float such as a cork, a hook, and a worm.  Usually this was attached to the end of a long pole or stick, but not always.  We had a couple of casting rods, steel rods with open and closed faced reels, and these were used by Mom and Dad.  The worm was skewered onto the hook and then tossed into the water to sit until something happened.  I was having trouble with the process I was witnessing here in Missouri, and it seemed these people needed to be taught a thing or two about how to fish.

Dad let me sit down to watch a man for a while, and just when I was about to say something to him, he was approached by another man (obviously a friend) who had him turn to his left a small amount.  That was when I realized the fisherman was blind.  He cast his line out one more time and caught the largest fish I had ever seen anyone catch.  He reeled it to the bank, and with the help of his friend, released it.  RELEASED IT!!?  What was he thinking??  Even though he was blind, he must have known that was one big fish!  Then he went back to casting.

I watched these strange fishermen for most of the time we spent in the park that summer, and by the time we headed back to Texas, I was just as hooked as that big fish I had seen the blind man catch.  I had discovered this was called fly-fishing, and I wanted to learn how, but my opportunity was many years in the future.  For now, the best I could do was a string, some kind of a float such as a cork, a hook, and a worm.

Late in the year 1969, I went to work for a large chain department store with a sporting goods department on the lower level.  This became my hangout on breaks, lunch, after work, and anytime I could find a few spare minutes.  The next spring new fishing equipment arrived and to my amazement, a fly-fishing rod and reel was part of the shipment.  I knew it needed to go home with me, and it did.

There was no other equipment in the store to go with it, but that was okay.  It gave me an excuse to visit the various hardware stores in the area where fishing equipment was sold.  I had seen the fishermen in Missouri several times by then, and I knew just what I needed.  The list was short.  Flies. 

After visiting Buddie’s Hardware, Jimmy Jack’s, The Big Hammer, Stud’s, and a dozen or so other places where flies might be found, I struck out completely.  Not only the flies were missing, but also anyone who knew anything about them.  I then realized I had never met a fly fisherman outside of Missouri or the television.  So I gathered up my string, some kind of a float such as a cork, a hook, and a worm, and I went fishing.

I was sitting on the bank at Grapevine Lake watching the cork bouncing in the water.  I knew there was a fish playing with the worm, but I was preoccupied with the thought of flies.  Where could I get my hands on some?  Then I saw him.  He was wearing a nice hat, sport coat, tie, slacks, hip boots, and had a basket slung over his shoulder—and in his hand was a fly rod. 

I don’t remember how I got there, but I realized suddenly I was standing beside him watching him cast.  He was in about two feet of water, and so was I, but without the hip boots.  Within seconds, he landed a nice smallmouth, and dropped it into the basket.  He turned around and gave me a “What do you want?” stare for a couple of moments, then cast back out again a few times, and again brought in a nice smallmouth.

Finally I found some words to say, and he responded without throwing a beer can at me, so I knew immediately he wasn’t from around here.  It turned out he was from Missouri.  Why didn’t that surprise me?  We talked for a while about fly-fishing, and how I had become interested in it.  I had the rod and reel, but no flies. 

He smiled a strange, knowing smile and opened a small case he carried in his pocket.  In it were several dozen flies, and he pulled out 4 or 5 and handed them to me.  He said these should work around here, and he could easily make more, but I really should try to find someone to show me how to handle the rod.  It’s not as easy as it may look.  I told him I had been watching people fly fish for several years now, and I thought I could figure it out.  He smiled that strange, knowing smile again.

I headed home that evening and immediately tied the biggest of the flies onto the leader at the end of the line.  How could I miss catching a fish with a set up like this?  But I had to wait a week to find out.  There was the problem of a job with which to contend.

It seemed to me that week was about 4 ½ months long.  Then it rained.  Not just any rain, but the kind that brings Fossil Creek to the flood stage in a couple of hours.  So I had to wait another week, and another week.  Then I made it back to the same fishing bank where I had met the fisherman from Missouri a few weeks earlier. 

I took out my rod and carefully assembled it, attaching the reel at the bottom and threading the leader (with the fly already attached) through the guides, and pulling out extra line for tossing in the water.  I stood there admiring my new approach to fishing for a long minute.  It was a thing of beauty.  Eight feet of fiberglass with a tiny fly dangling at the end of the line.  Never before had I held anything like it in front of a fishing hole.  I was in love.

While I was transfixed by the work of art I was holding in my hand, a small audience had gathered behind me to gawk at the pole with the reel below the handle.  “Hey, you!”  “What you got there, boy?”  “Don’t you know how to stick a reel on that pole?”

I started to tell them it was a fly rod, but these cowboys just wouldn’t understand.  They had to be shown.  I raised the rod and drew the line into a small loop behind me and tossed the rod forward.  Well at least the line didn’t get tangled, and the laughter behind me wasn’t too loud.  I straightened out the line and began to flail it back and forth just like the fishermen I had watched on the banks of the Roaring River. 

Everything seemed to be working.  The fly was moving smoothly back and forth, each time gaining a little distance as I pulled line off the reel.  Then I decided it was time to let it hit the water.  I hadn’t heard the snorts, snickers, or laughs behind me since I started this action, so I guessed they were impressed with my movements.  And one last time I moved the rod forward to cast the fly into the water. 

It was not to be my day.  The fly never made it past my ear, although the hook made it through my ear.  Oh, the joy!  The audience was having a field day.  All I could do was dig out my pocketknife and cut the line.  I left my wonderful rod on the ground beside the Missouri flies, walked over to the car and drove to the emergency room to have the hook removed.

The nurse may as well have been one of the audience members.  As quickly as she could, she made certain every member of the staff on duty that day (as well as everyone waiting to see a doctor) had an opportunity to see the decoration I was wearing.  When the laughter settled down, someone among the crowd cut the barb off the hook and removed it from my ear.  Of course there was the bandage the size of a cinnamon roll, the obligatory shot in the arm, the exorbitant bill, and the lecture.  At least it was a short lecture.  “You do know the hook goes into the water after sticking a worm on it, don’t you?”

Sometimes embarrassment doesn’t easily go away.  When I returned to work the next week (without the bandage), everyone already knew about my encounter with the fly.  I discovered that my doctor/patient relationship had been set aside to ridicule me to everyone he knew—and he knew a lot of people.  Fort Worth wasn’t a big town any more.

“Don’t know how to use a fly swatter?”  “Fish like a yankee, hooked like a yankee.”  “A real Texan knows the right way to fish.”  And those were the nice ones.  It didn’t stop me from fishing again, but for the next 40 years, I didn’t touch a fly rod.  I knew if I did, the audience would gather for a reunion.

Well, time passed, and I landed in Long Beach, California, where for nearly 14 years I lived just a few blocks away from the Long Beach Casting Club.  I would drive by the park where it is located and see activity around the cement pond from time to time, but either I was unaware of what was going on, or I had a long standing mental block that prevented me from being aware of what was going on.  Either way, I was clueless as to the nature of the club.  Then along came Clark.

Clark is my neighbor, and we had known each other for a year or so when the subject of fishing came up, and quickly it morphed into his love of fly-fishing.  He mentioned the Casting Club and I was all ears.  Let me rephrase that since the ears are a rather sensitive subject.  I was listening.   He gathered up a couple of his rods and took me to the casting pond where I had my first instructions in casting.  Boy, did I have much to learn, but my mind wandered back to the days when I dreamed of doing this, and I was once again hooked—figuratively, not actually, this time. 

Within weeks I was a member of the club, was learning to tie flies, and was spending all my spare time practicing at the casting pond.  A number of people took an interest in me showing me their techniques and skills, and then teaching me to do what they were doing.  And I practiced.  I liked the idea of using a piece of yarn instead of an actual fly for practice, but I wanted to catch a fish.

Clark took me to a small creek a couple of hours away where during the course of the day, I managed to catch and release (note the word “release”) two wild rainbows.  The fact that they were a total of nine inches together was irrelevant.  They were fish, and I caught them.

A couple of weeks later I walked out onto the beach across the street from where I live and threw a fly into the water.  Actually it was a Clouser’s minnow, and it eventually found a halibut, a small halibut, but a halibut nonetheless.  About 45 minutes later I caught its younger sibling.   Both are still swimming out there somewhere.

I still have the spinning and bait casting outfits, but right now the fly-fishing rod is about all I use.  Okay, I have only six months of experience, and I’m a complete novice, but finally I can say I fly fish.  Oh, the joy!