Thursday, December 29, 2011

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!

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