Ingham County, MI
I confess to Almighty God and to you my FPR Bruthren and Sistern that, after last year’s annual meeting, I almost killed FPR founder and president, Mark Mitchell.
I’m certain no jury would have convicted me of Murder 1; of negligent homicide I’m not so sure.
Mitchell and I, along with FPR Treasurer and then website editor Nancy-Boy Jeff Polet, had escaped to my fishing shack northeast of Grayling to consider the future of FPR but also teach Michigan’s noble brook trout who’s boss. I had promised Mitchell an easy five-hour wade, a wade of no significant depth or difficulty but of magnificent trout and scenery. Polet was to read the hours away and then collect us at the stepping-out place five hours downstream in time. The marker was a bridge—a bridge, as it turned out, over untroubled water, for we never got there.
But, upstream of the bridge, at a place I fished as recently as last summer, we stepped into the water and began flailing at it. There are fish there. I’ve caught a few creel-full myself, though according to the regulations I released them.
But after about seven hours of wading—not the promised five but seven—and in the dark of night mercifully mitigated by a full moon, though in temperatures dipping already into the forties, we were still nowhere near the bridge. By my calculations Mitchell was a good quarter-mile behind me, for as darkness fell, and then really fell, I had stopped fishing altogether and was heaving like all hell in my waders for the bridge, sore annoyed that the fishing gods were endowed with the power both to hide all the fish and move an entire bridge several miles downstream.
As the divine Robert Traver once put it after a particularly difficult trek to a fishing spot, I felt like both Lewis and Clark.
I came to a bend that was very deep and silty, and it was there that two thoughts occurred to me: not only didn’t I want to spend a cold night in the woods; I also didn’t have any desire to drown. One thing was certain, however: I had to get out of the stream. Getting around the bend while still in the water was out of the question.
In the dim light of Sister Moon I could see just well enough to cut my leader. I had to break my rod down so that, with minimal entanglement in the tag alders, I could pull myself out of the water with my one free hand. So I cut the leader and pulled apart my two-piece Orvis.
Whereupon my rod tip dropped into the water.
I made one quick stab with my free arm to grab it, going as deep into the current as I could, to no avail, though fully reminded now that a cold arm in these conditions is colder when wet.
My options were to fish or cut bait, as they say, though I’m not a bait fisherman, so I sacrificed the rod tip, grabbed a tree limb, and pulled myself out of the suctioning silt. Then, after a pause, I took a step away from the water toward terra firma. But my next step was further down than I expected, and when I landed I rolled an ankle on a tree root.
And, I admit, I called upon the name of the Lord, using first, middle, and last names.
But, as the sweet singer of Israel put it, the Lord heard me out of his holy hill. For there, right before me, in dark outline, was a familiar structure—a small campground outhouse, which I recognized as a feature of the spot where I intended to put us in the stream. The stepping out point, the bridge, was still a five-hour wade away.
In case what I just wrote went over anyone’s head too quickly, allow me to summarize: in the dark, after seven hours of wading, stymied by the current and the depth of the water and the make-up of the streambed, at what I thought was an uncharted bit of forest along one particular point in the hundreds of river miles this river flows, I pulled myself out in a place completely familiar to me—the place I intended to step into the river seven hours ago. Or to put it another way: either I got lucky, or there is a God.
And almost immediately I began to think about the meal that Mitchell and Polet and I had been planning to make for ourselves—the steaks, the bourbon to accompany the grilling, the bread, the asparagus, the wine. And then only after imbibing that little anticipated fantasy did I remember that Mitchell was still out there in the dark, and only after a few more beats of the mental metronome did it occur to me that, since he was in unfamiliar water, I should maybe, in accordance with the sweet grace that goes by the name of Charity, call out to him.
So into the cold cavernous dark stillness I called.
“Mitchell!” I called, thinking that (again to quote Robert Traver) I might go “hoarse from shouting down the echoes of my own voice in empty halls.”
But Mitchell heard and hollered back, at first faintly, then in increasing volume, until, following the sound of my voice, he stormed through the bramble alongside the stream and presented his ruddy face (and empty creel), demanding of me where I “thought the goddamned bridge only five hours downstream might actually be.” (I paraphrase, using Polet’s native tongue; Mitchell doesn’t talk like that.)
We took the two-track out to the main north-south road, I on a bum ankle, and signaled Polet to come get us, this by means of Mitchell’s pre-WWII flip phone.
And soon we were standing around the roaring coals at the fishing shack, libations in hand, preparing what was probably the best steak dinner I’ve ever had. And then later we sat around the fire inside the shack so that I could enjoy being excoriated by two FPR board members, formerly my friends and allies, for my bumbling incompetence.
In the morning, over coffee, we launched the idea for another FPR book.
“Wait,” said Mitchell. “We have to write this down. On a napkin. These things always get written down on napkins.” (He must have been thinking about the rap session during which, with his leg slung over the arm of a chair in some non-descript place—like a hotel room with a print of the Laughing Cavalier hanging on the wall—he sketched out the whole idea for the Front Porch Republic.)
But, being at the fishing shack, we had no napkins, so we used the cardboard carrier to a six-pack of Michigan beer. It was a good relaxing morning, a morning of lively exchange and fine coffee, though I could have done without the intermittent abuse, which ended, as all good things do, with our heading south. South is seldom the right direction
I tell you that story to tell you this one.
About a week ago my old pal Bruce and I decided we should fish the brown drake hatch, which is late this year. (We should have been on to hex flies by then.) But on a Tuesday morning we were in no hurry to leave East Jordan and head south—for once the right direction—to the Holy Waters on the Au Sable (near where I almost killed Mitchell), because on that Tuesday morning the air was a mere 48 degrees.
We did, however, eventually head south, I in my pick-up and Bruce in his Jeep, behind which he towed his drift boat. Soon enough we were floating and flailing at the water in air temperatures that had risen to only fifty-two. In June.
Midway through the drift we came to some terrific waters that are nearly unwadeable (except for the fact that I have waded them before—and now the natives in the hills sing a song about me) and dropped anchor. For about twenty-five minutes we did pretty well, but then the action slowed down and then stopped altogether. Streamers, emergers, dry flies—nothing worked.
After drifting another couple of hours we got out and transported the boat to another launch site that, after a good long drift, would allow us to get out of the water at about the time we wouldn’t be able to see it anymore—ten o’clock or so. Again, because of the strange weather, especially the low temperatures, the fishing wasn’t great. We could see some drakes on the water, but the hatch, such as it was, wasn’t really enough to lure the big browns out of their holes.
My last catch came after I dropped a dry fly—expertly, I might add—just above a log I was certain there’d be a fish behind. And there was, and he took it. It was a fat brown but not a big one, eight inches or so, and that was the last fish we saw brought in that day. Bruce, who is four times the fisherman I am, missed a couple of much bigger ones, but, as darkness settled and the really cold air moved in, it became clear that, at least in our situation, an old angler’s line was called for: “you should have been here last week” (or, alternatively, as Traver’s imagined Italian guide, assuming the fishing will improve, says, “you shoulda be here anexa week”).
We landed where we’d left my pick-up, and suddenly a deep panic came over me, the kind of panic that hits you when you are certain beyond a doubt that the one thing you need you do not have. I went through my pockets, emptied my gear bag, looked in all the cup holders on the drift boat, pawed through all of it again, and then admitted not unsheepishly to Bruce that I was pretty sure I had left my key in his Jeep. The other was locked inside my truck.
Bruce is the best of men: he’ll take the blame when the blame’s not his to take. And when the blame’s obviously yours, as on this night it obviously was mine, he’ll figure out a way to act as if he doesn’t care. And that’s because he doesn’t. He knows luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure. He’ll deflect everything. He’ll laugh it all off. There isn’t a better soul I know of on earth.
So I wasn’t afraid of being verbally thrashed to within an inch of my meaningless life—as I nearly was with Mitchell and Polet—when I broke the news of my dumb-assery to him. But then a ray of hope shined down on me! I remembered that I keep a magnetic key holder inside the front bumper of my truck. It should still be there, I thought.
By the light of what the Brits inexplicably call an electric torch I reached into my front bumper, and lo! the magnetic key holder was there!
I removed it, opened it, and found it empty.
I searched the ground to see if the key had fallen out when I snapped the box open. It hadn’t. There was no key, not in the key box, not on the ground. And there was only one explanation—one utterly implausible explanation: that my knuckle-headed teenager had removed the magnetic key holder, used the key, and replaced the key holder without putting the key back in it.
Implausible? you ask. Let me put it this way: the number of times my two sons have put anything back—anything—is a combined zero. And yet one of them put the magnetic key holder back—minus the sonofabitching key!
(I confirmed this later when I got home. My older boy, whose relation to the truth is like Dean Martin’s to sobriety, admitted as much: he’d used the key, had not replaced it in the key holder, but had returned the key holder to the inside of the front bumper.
(To quote a song from Oliver: “one boy, boy for sale; he’s going cheap, only seven guinea. That or there abouts.”)
There were two other guys strapping down their drift boat in the dark. I went up to one of them and asked if he wouldn’t mind waiting around a minute.
“Why’s that? he asked impatiently.
“I think I’ve lost my keys,” I said.
“What do you think I can do about it? he replied in what was either petulance or condescension, I couldn’t tell, maybe because it was a combination of both. This yonder socket had obviously been skunked on the river.
“Maybe give me a lift?” I said, stating what I thought was the obvious.
“I’m not going your way,” he said, giving his ratchet strap one last crank, disappearing into his truck, and roaring off into the darkness. A bucking fait fisherman, no doubt. I’ll warrant he behaves like this every time he presents a wad of Ben Franklins and still gets turned away under a red light in an unsavory part of town. To hell with this malodorous nether eye! If he were a fish he’d be a chub or a sucker!
I called him by the name I thought he deserved to be called by and then rained down imprecations and invective so eloquent, and sustained at such unimagined lengths, that even Twain’s river pilots would have marveled in astonishment at their artistry.
“Shall we flip for who goes to get my car?” Bruce asked? That’s S.O.P among fisherman caught in such a bind. But there would be no flipping. Bruce had had a hip replaced over the winter and was awaiting a second. I’d be the one hoofing it back to the Jeep, a hike that would take at least an hour and a half. The only reason I shouldn’t have been the one to bear the punishment is that at least the guy hoofing it would be able to stay warm. It was 11:00 PM, and we were alone under a magnificent sky, but in air now in the forties again. We’d come full circle on that account.
I said we should call the county sheriff and let him bring his slimjim. Bruce might have said, “we?” because he knows my relation to the cell phone, but he whipped out his fancy gadget, found a number, dialed it (or “dialed” it), and handed the pernicious [de]vice to me.
I gave the dispatcher our location, and forty minutes later two sheriffs arrived.
They were amiable and wanted to talk about fishing, so while they broke into my truck we did, and after another thirty minutes or so we were on our way to get the jeep and the trailer.
Soon we were back at the launch, loading up the gear under stars too numerous to number, strapping down the boat, and getting ready to go our separate ways after a day of mediocre fishing and monstrous dumb-assery, Bruce to his place north about sixty miles and I to the fishing shack, which hadn’t yet been unwinterized after having been winterized seven months ago. I’d have electric lights but no running water. Who knew what I’d find in there? It’s not an animal-tight structure, much less an airtight structure.
In the fishing shack I found a fragrant woodpecker dead on the floor beside the fireplace. I gave him a toss out the front door, spread out my sleeping bag, and then lay down for a five-hour nap. In the morning I’d have about 180 miles to cover.
When I headed south to Dumb-Ass Acres—south is almost always the wrong direction—the air temperature both in and out of the shack was thirty-eight, but by nine-thirty that morning I was home, ready for coffee and a hot shower.
The moral of these stories is: if you go fishing with me, you will freeze to death in the dark unless you have a cell phone.
But as for me: I will not carry one. Why should I? Everyone else is sucker enough to have one.