Ingham County, MI
In this trio of anglers I’m the newbie to drift-boat fly-fishing, so I spend a little time acquainting myself with some of its more salient wonders—like how much more water you can cover in a day, or even an hour, and how, if you want to, you can just by-God sit your ass down and take a powder. You can’t do that midstream in waders. I’ve tried, sometimes even on purpose.
I am also trying to learn all the utterly counterintuitive maneuvers you have to make when it’s your turn at the oars to keep from knocking your buddies overboard. Cut too close to an overhanging branch or a partially-fallen tree, and you can send a guy clam-digging who only came for the fishing.
“Aim the stern where you want the boat to go,” Bruce says, which is not helpful, because in the time it takes me to translate “stern” into normal talk, which includes differentiating it from “bow,” “port,” “starboard,” “fore,” and “aft,” not to mention translating those inscrutable terms into normal talk, I could dump this craft a dozen times. I can process “ass-end” a lot faster than I can process “stern,” though it’s still counterintuitive to aim the back of the boat where you want the boat to go.
“And then just back paddle,” says Rick, which also isn’t helpful, because “paddle” makes me think I’m in something responsive, like a canoe, which normally you paddle forward, when in fact I’m in a kind of row boat—and not an especially responsive one—the width of which allows you to drift through shallows but also leaves you vulnerable to getting hung up in the overhanging trees and branches that a narrower craft would easily slide by or under. And I can process “row” a lot faster than I can process “back paddle,” though again it’s still counterintuitive to paddle backwards. When you’re rowing you’re going backwards perforce; by definition you’re going backwards, like when you’re in a committee meeting.
Plus I’d rather watch these guys fish. They’re good, and they’ve got all the cool-looking gear. And the five or six rods they’ve got rigged and at-the-ready probably cost, all told, more than my truck (the one I’ve got two sets of keys to, both sets with me in the drift boat this time). Bruce’s hat announces his support for Trout Unlimited. Rick’s is a nice wide-brimmed Aussie-style felt fishing hat that casts a large penumbra, though as the day warms Rick will wish he had one like mine: light-weight, vented, and only five bucks at Marshall’s, the cheap bastard’s mecca.
These guys are also wearing real fishing shirts and pants: many-pocketed and lightweight. I’m in jeans and a three-pocketed canvas shirt that I bought for eleven cents at Tractor Supply Company, or TSC, or Totally Supplied by China. Our sartorial arrangements are a study in contrasts. If this were junior high, Bruce and Rick would be taunting me unmercifully for my gauche attire. But it isn’t, and they’re not, though I wouldn’t blame them if they did: I look like I should be wielding an eight-pound splitting maul, not a lightweight fly rod. And if, while drifting our nymphs, we should meet some drifting nymphos who melt like butter at the sight of “outdoor wear” from Orvis or Cabela’s or Simms, I’ll be sitting alone on their cabin porch while God-knows-what goes on inside.
(This mulishness with regards to clothing has always been my métier: show up to a weekend basketball tournament wearing cut-off jeans, knee-high tube socks—with stripes—and suede high-tops. Watch the guys in fancy attire warming up at the other end smirk and exchange cocksure remarks. And then, after the opening tip, when these unsuspecting spastics are still looking past you to the next round, flat-out school the boys in the old high gym-rat style until they’re sitting on the bench, winded, elbows on their knees, dazed and flushed and disbelieving and headed for the losers’ bracket.)
This stretch of river downstream from the Holy Waters has its share of obstructions, and all the cedar leaves in the bottom of the drift boat suggest that we’ve had at least one snag already.
Two snags, actually, because Bruce caught his streamer in a cedar tree on an ill-advised back-cast, and then in short order he and Rick and I, in our attempt to undo the snag, were, for all practical purposes, wearing the damn tree.
So actually four snags total: the fly plus three men.
I had managed with something that bore the likeness of success to back-paddle (or “row”) us over to the first snag, the streamer that Bruce wasn’t catching any fish with. (Rick and I, both with hoppers on, were matching him phantom-fish for phantom-fish.) And then, before I could say for sure what was happening, the river barfed us up into the lap of the cedar.
Having rescued the snagged streamer, we went to work on the other three snags, releasing, limb by limb, the tree-entagled men, to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish.
Free now of the cedar, and drifting again, I make an observation: if three men are caught, Stooge-like, in the clutches of a cedar tree, and you’re the guy at the “paddles” (they’re oars), it’s pretty clear which of the Stooges is to blame for the farce currently playing out before anyone who might be nearby to see it.
Lucky for me the river’s not crowded today. No other fishermen are in sight, and the five kayaks manned by corpulent women in tube-tops, plus a sixth kayak at the end of the procession bearing a real looker wearing what for all I know could be her underwear, haven’t floated by us yet. That part of The Unexpected still awaits us.
(There’s always Something Unexpected on a fishing trip. It’s one of the reasons you go fishing at all—to find out what it is. You just hope that, whatever it is, it isn’t death, or, worse yet, five corpulent kayakers in tube-tops.)
The conditions offer plenty to make us think we might do well today, including bank grasses and a breeze to bend them, which normally means that hoppers, once aloft, will get blown from the grass to the water and set loose a feeding frenzy.
But—and here’s another study in contrasts—there are impediments too. There ain’t a cloud in the sky anywhere—not coming, not going, not straight above. And there’s been no rain to speak of since the Detroit Tigers last won two straight, so the water is a little low and very clear. Combine clear low water with blue skies, and what you’ve got is a home-field advantage for the fish. We can see the dark darting forms of several nice fish even in what would normally be called “holes,” but all this means is that our 6X tippets look like braided ropes to these brookies and browns, and our fake hoppers look like, well, fake hoppers.
Rick and I, catechized in the Reverend Maclean doctrine (that John, the beloved, was a dry-fly fisherman), feel obliged to give Bruce a little grief for his ready willingness to put on streamers, but he’s got a point, obviously. If the fish aren’t coming to the surface for your dry flies, you might as well try going down to where they are—or “sink to their level,” as St. John might have put it.
But nothing is working.
Then Bruce gets one of those strikes you hope you don’t have to deal with: a stupid brookie smaller than the fly you got him on.
Except as Bruce brings the fish in he starts laughing and tells us it’s not even a trout. It’s a chub—a vile piscatorial creature that, like treble hooks and bait fishermen, has no business being in these blessed waters.
So I state a rule: we now have to catch two brookies to break even. One trout means you’re no longer skunked, but if you bring in a chub you’re in the hole and will need an extra one to cancel out the ichthyological abortion that just insulted you and your dry fly by going after it.
(The chub is an ugly bastard, and I cannot help observing aloud to Bruce and Rick that, were it a hundred times bigger, it would be an Asian carp threatening our inalienable rights and all the core values that lie at the heart of The American Way, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of wild brook trout.)
And then—sonofabitch!—I bring a chub in, which now requires a little improv on my part. I don’t think the big browns are going to be fooled today in this crystal-clear water, not even along the shady bends, so I call an audible. I tell Rick, who’s at the oars and about to switch with me, that if he can get a brook trout eight inches or longer, it will cancel out both chubs, and we’ll be back to even—or, in the language of match-play golf, all square.
“Changing the rules as you go along,” Bruce observes in that muted measured way of his.
“Have to,” I point out, which is true, because we need all the help we can get: in addition to the horror of the chubs, there’s the matter of Bruce’s newest rod, which he has just stepped on and broken. Mr. Unflappable is so angry he even says “shoot.” No exclamation point. I feel obliged to tell him to watch his mouth and double down on his anger-management treatments. (The last time Bruce was pissed, no one except Noah had ever even heard of a drift boat.)
When you’re not catching fish but are destroying equipment, you need diversions, so I tell a few jokes, including the fool-proof one about mule dick, and Bruce tells a few too, and then Rick and I go antiphonal on our favorite passages from several of John McPhee’s books, both of us admitting that we own The Founding Fish in first-edition cloth but haven’t read it yet.
Rick then tells me about dropping out of his doctoral program at Chicago lo! these many years ago. His “superiors” assumed, even in those days, that he would be his own object of inquiry, and he immediately intuited, as today’s navel-gazing auto-ethnographers have not, that studying yourself doesn’t count as research. Plus it’s plainly narcissistic. So now, in semi-retirement, and having avoided the indignity of a Ph.D., Rick studies trout, as any sensible man would. It occurs to me that maybe fly-fishing could cure sociology of all its idiocy—since so far nothing else has worked on the least fraction of it.
It also occurs to me that Rick was probably at Chicago in the days of Norman Maclean, and so, in between not catching fish, I say this aloud, and Rick, in between not catching any himself, allows that this is probably true.
“I bought a chainsaw off a guy who was one of Maclean’s students,” I say, a propos of almost nothing, but which, given the number of rises we’re seeing—zero, to be precise—almost proves to be interesting. “This guy had a Stihl in mint condition and even better stories about Maclean,” I say. But just as I prepare to rehearse them I stop short on account of The Unexpected. For this is when it happens: a caravan of kayaks comes floating by, each, as I said, manned by a woman of immense proportions and each inappropriately clad. What comes to mind, naturally, is that old Au Sable chestnut: what are the chances that the Swedish Bikini Team will parachute out of the sky and bring us some sandwiches? Because what’s happening right now is maybe the precise opposite of that.
This phenomenon, we all note, is rare. It’s not uncommon for a caravan of kayaks to disrupt the fishing. But it is a tad odd for all of them to be barely buoyant on account of their fleshy and too-exposed cargo.
And then comes the last kayak, plenty buoyant, and in it a sleek river creature in minimal black swimwear that, for all its brave vibration, could be Julia’s own silks. No chub, she, nor chubber.
Now how often does this happen? How often does a rare being drift by when you’re already getting skunked and can actually afford to take your eyes off the surface of the water? If this were Sesame Street, and it almost is, we’d be singing “which one of these things is not like the others.”
Bruce offers a friendly hello calculated to be disinterested; he is mindful of how creepy the stupid slack-jawed male gaze must be for most women. I, for my part, immediately avert my eyes, because I find that I’m writing—against my will, mind you—a joke involving a wet fly, and the joke requires strict concentration. But then the fruit of this juvenile gag seems so low-hanging as to be beneath even me, if you can believe that, so I leave the pulpy yarn on the branch to ripen and die of its own too much—if a misapplication of Macshakespeare be permitted here.
Besides, as we all know, having seen these waters before, there’s bad taste awaiting all of us downstream: some bonehead who doesn’t deserve to own waterfront property has decorated a riverside tree with about twenty brassieres. A sign tells anyone who happens to be floating or wading by that this is “The Bra Tree. Donations Accepted.” Every time I see this my thoughts turn inevitably to politics: if there has to be a Deep State, and apparently there does, it should do something useful, like confiscate the property and give it to three stooges in a drift boat. I, for my part, would at least upgrade the brassieres to beer cans or books by John McPhee. I just hope our kayaking companions—the first five, anyway—don’t, when they get there, contribute their tube-tops.
When that last kayak is clear of us I can’t help trying to puzzle things out—you know, piece it all together and fill in the details. I mean, how do you make sense of what just happened—The Latest Unexpected and the study in contrasts it offered? “Do you suppose,” I surmise aloud and uncharitably, though in the catch-and-release spirit of things, “that the last kayaker is a fitness coach at the Fat Clinic, and today is Fun Day for the clients in Pilates for Plus Sizes?”
My dignified companions do not dignify this with a reply but, instead, drop anchor and pull out the fixins’ to make up our sandwiches, since the sky-diving Swedish Bikini Team has apparently forgotten about us. We make and eat the sandwiches, pound some bottled water, and for dessert devour a package of Oreo thins. Then it’s on to more flailing at the water and not catching anything.
At length the skies turn a little cloudier, for dusk is at hand, and we think our luck might change. The ants haven’t worked. The hopper-droppers haven’t worked. The flies I can’t remember the inscrutable names of haven’t worked. Then we find a spot where there seems to be some feeding going on, so we drop anchor and work it for a while, all of us, but with the same results. I personally miss six strikes, because I’m a hack.
But as a hack I feel pretty good about myself, because I’m with two pros in contrasting togs who aren’t doing any better than I am. May God reward them for their bad luck, so essential to my self-esteem, even though talk of “self-esteem” always puts me into a cold sweat: fear rises, like a river monster from some troutless hole below, and grips me to the very marrow—the fear that I might have majored in sociology, that chub of all academic pursuits.
In the end we will have drifted for about twelve splendid and incomparable hours. We pull out at that same launch where, about a month ago, I made the discovery that the key needed to get Bruce and me into the vehicle awaiting our arrival there was, in fact, in the vehicle we’d left up-river—a tale of woe faithfully rendered in a previously published essay.
But this time we’re good to go, even though we have to break down the gear and load up the boat in the dark—and even though the match ends 2&1 in the river’s favor: even though, indeed, we’ve been sent down to the losers’ bracket. And soon Rick has gone his way in his Subaru, and Bruce his way in his Jeep (towing the fat-bottomed boat that makes the rocking water go round), and I in my truck, heading back to the fishing camp, ready for a short nap and then, after the whippoorwill wakes me, a drive south, which is always the wrong direction on the compass.
And the sad drive south gives me a chance to reflect.
On what? On the wholly-unplanned confluence here of MacLeish, McPhee, Maclean, Macshakespeare, and McOfabitch—and the lost opportunity to include Macbeth, aside, maybe, from an oblique nod in the direction of the weird sisters?
No: on what I’ve recently read in John Gierach’s Fool’s Paradise, a little summative wisdom for the day prior, a day clearly well-spent on spent water that was all too clear:
It was fun trying to sniff out the odd bank riser that might eat an ant or beetle, or the occasional short, sputtering hatch, or to provocatively swing a wet fly through a few hundred yards of river, not copying anything in particular or expecting to clean up, but just prospecting for the odd trout with a short fuse. It was also luxurious to have all the room we could ask for to do that.
And, says Gierach, there are those who deal with not catching fish, or catching only “dogs,” as he calls them, “by fishing ‘ferociously,’ . . . but I’ve noticed that the happiest fishermen I know have simply developed a definition of success that includes any trip they live through.”
Plus there’s always The Unexpected, which this time turned out to be, improbably, a caravan of kayaks and a study in . . . well, I still can’t piece it all together, but “contrasts” will do for the nonce.