Friday, February 12, 2016

Skunked: Fly-fishing for Muskie

A pale and milky-green rivulet of ice water flowed past the minarets of the single-lane bridge, and downstream through the corridor of oak and sycamore and osage orange. Their leafless limbs scratched and clawed at the frigid air. No birds. No turtles. No squirrels. Just wind, which blew cold and miserable in our faces as we pushed upstream in the Hyde drift boat, the newly-installed trolling motor murmuring from the stern. I stood forward, my hips pushed against the casting brace and scanned the silky water, looking for muskie. 

Dangling from the business end of a burly 10-weight fly rod in my right hand, a comically-huge bundle of fur, flash and feather, in oranges and pinks and black with iridescent strands of greens and silver and red. A deranged disco chicken. The “fly” was ridiculously large, with a matching hook that could double as a hand-gaff. When I first saw it, my right elbow recoiled in horror. You want me to cast this?

After a half-hour push to the desired spot, the trolling motor ceased and the current began to gently push us downstream. I stripped line into the tray in front of me and jerked the rod tip backwards, beginning my first cast. The chicken snapped to life and whooshed through the air towards the trees behind me. I tugged the fly-line with my left hand and the fly gathered speed as I powered through the forward cast. Instead of unfurling in a gentle loop, the gaudy offering ignored the imparted momentum and flopped and fell as it had been shot from the sky. It splashed down in the water with an awkward “bloop.” 

Strip, pause, strip, pause, strip, strip, strip, pause. Double haul. Strip, pause, strip, pause, strip, strip, strip, pause. Double haul. Repeat. Over and over. The countdown to 10,000 casts began. 

Everything looked fishy. Rocks. Boulders. Downed trees. Drop offs. Ledges. Gravel bars. Mud banks. The river was small, more of a stream and bigger than a creek, but charismatic. Stone-gray limestone bluffs appeared in each bend, and after each shoal, the river plunged into a deep, dark-blue hole. The fish could be anywhere. So we casted everywhere. Cast after cast, the fly plunked near the river bank before becoming alive with the retrieve, as it pulsed, darted, flashed and danced through the milky water. 

The first hour was sopped with anticipation. With each presentation, I believed a 50-inch muskie would explode from its hidden lair, jaws agape and eyes bulging, gills flaring and teeth flashing. It would not just take the fly … it would assassinate it. I would coolly execute a perfect strip-set, keeping my rod-tip low and driving the massive hook into the bony maw of the fish, and sending the big pike into a thrashing, splashing, fit of fury. Hell yeah, that's what I'd do.

However, over the next hour, high hopes predictably diminished, as no river monsters emerged to sharpen our senses. The casts became routine. Concentration fractured into the tiniest flecks and floated away in the unremitting hiss of the northerly breeze. While my casts and retrieves were precise, my intensity and focus were not, and I slipped into a robotic, almost hypnotic, state. The fly continued to dance and dart, but so did my mind. Rounding the 1000th cast, Jeff Goldblum’s line from Jurassic Park began repeating in my head … “Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your, on your dinosaur tour, right?”

I was warned that my elbow would ache. The forecast was accurate. Casting the gigantic bundle of fur, flash and feather required way more effort than I intended. The fly was like a wet tube sock, and propelling it to and fro caused considerable strain on my shoulder, elbow and wrist. My right hand was clenched in a permanent claw, and I worried I'd need help prying it loose from the rod cork when it was my turn to row. 

The day slowly trudged by, and we continued to place our flies into productive water but failed to garner any results. I noticed there were no other boats on the river. Ordinarily, I’d love that. Today, though, the loneliness piled upon my growing doubts. The stories we shared on the way to the river, of past trips and great catches and near misses and “oh my God, you shoulda seen it” tales seemed so distant. 

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and half thousand casts, the muskellunge passed out of all knowledge.* 

On or about the 10,000th cast, the fly splashed into the water about six inches from the mud bank. I twirled line in my left hand and removed slack. The disco chicken came alive with the first strip, and pulsed and darted over the top of a partially submerged tree. A big flash, then, the fly disappeared. 

It took a critical, half-second for me to realize what happened. And, in that minute fraction of time, I forgot everything I had been instructed to do when a muskie attacked. Instead of “Strip set … keep the rod tip low ... don't panic," I opted for "trout set .. rod tip high ... freakout." My reaction was crap. Really crap. Compounding things, I inexplicably dropped the line from my left hand, giving the fish plenty of slack. Which was bad. Really bad. 

By the time I regained composure — which was all of a two count — the fish had spit the chicken, and swirled back to its initial position behind the tangle of limbs. I gave it a few more casts, hoping to annoy it into biting again, but it gave me the middle fin, and wouldn’t budge. 

And, that was it. 

I sat down to row for awhile, while my buddies plied the water for fish. Opposing fly lines whizzed about my head as water-soaked flies whistled and whirred, and the sun fell behind the surrounding bluffs, the gray day dimming further.

No fish were landed. Hell, none were even hooked. But, we had “raised” four, which I'm told is a pretty decent day for muskie fishermen. Particularly, for fly-fishing muskie fishermen. In the cast iron twilight, we loaded the drifter back on to the trailer, stowed our rods and gear, and swung our frozen feet into the welcomed heat of the truck. 

The muskellunge has been referred to as the “undisputed king of freshwater predators,” which, I think is baloney, because it’s either one of those blue catfish the size of cars that live below dams and scare divers, or David Perry. But, a muskie is an apex predator; it’s big, it doesn't suffer fools, it eats ducklings and very, very, very occasionally, huge, comically-colored flies. 

And someday … I’m gonna catch me one.

*Sort of borrowed/stolen/vandalized from Tolkien.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Whiskey River: A Saturday afternoon on the Caney Fork

They touched chests. One was shirtless; the other in a tank top. Their noses briefly brushed, their eyes locked, and they stood, passionately frozen in the instant before the inevitable embrace, both men bathed in the soft glow of the fading sun. 

They arrived by boat. Nearly two dozen people of a variety of makes and models, all of whom had traveled several miles in boats of a variety of makes and models. They ranged widely in age and in shape; a few males were bare-chested and in swim trunks, the females wore an array of swim gear while an older woman braved a faded yellow bikini and a giant floppy hat. Also scattered in the crowd, a short and stocky bare-chested man wearing a pith helmet, a mid-teens girl with tattoos covering her shoulders and arms, a younger chubby boy with a gray, wet t-shirt plastered to his ample frame, and a much older man whose droopy body and tired facial expression displayed a deep exhaustion … with the day, the float, gravity … everything. A half-burnt cigarette dangled from his crooked mouth. He appeared to be very drunk. In fact, most of the adults were drunk. Heavily so. They staggered zombie-like from their kayaks, soaking wet and sunburnt, slack-jawed and drooling, stumbling step by wobbly step up the slick ramp as they gathered empties from the hulls of their well-worn watercraft and mumbled to one another in a language only they understood. 

At the water’s edge, a heavily-scratched tandem kayak entered the frame. Fore, a middle-aged woman in a one-piece bathing suit, and aft, a shirtless, huge-bellied, 50-ish man who wore a languid grin and a whiskey-soaked squint. The woman tried to exit the kayak, but her foot hung on the plastic gunnel, and she pirouetted and fell, face-planting into a skinny pool between two moss-covered boulders. Another woman paddled up in a beige sit-in yak. She made the mistake of giggling at her companion’s calamity, who, while on all fours in inches-deep water, blasted the woman with a shocking stream of profanity. 

Trying to rally, the fallen woman blamed everything on Darrell, her bloated and beet-red boating partner. “He’s drunk, and I’m tired of this shit!” Darrell didn’t acknowledge the accusation. In fact, it didn’t appear he was even aware of his current situation or lot. He just sat, in a stupor, with a slight stupid grin on his sun-grilled face. 

On the nearby rip-rap was a small boy, standing and staring wide-eyed at the legion of horribles populating the ramp. Next to him, his grandfather sat on an old red cooler and carved up the day's catch with a buck knife, tossing the entrails of several rainbow trout into the nearby river. He seemed to be doing his best to ignore the regrettable scene occurring just a few feet from them, perhaps emboldened by the barrier of discarded kayaks and canoes that were piled between his grandson and their clambering horde.

Awkwardly, we were there, too. At the end of a long, but productive, day of fishing on the river, Mark and I stood at the end of the ramp with our friend’s canoe, waiting for him to back down his trailer. The ramp, of course, was blocked by discarded rented kayaks and the zombie crew, so it wouldn’t have made any difference if he were poised and ready to back the trailer down … he couldn’t have made it to the water. Mark stood knee-deep in the river, his feet planted on the last few inches of grooved concrete. His right hand grasped the port side bow of the canoe, and he maintained an athletic stance, knees slightly bent, head up, and poised and ready to move quickly. His eyes were concerned and alert. I stood off the starboard side, but on dry land, my two feet not-so-firmly placed on the piled rocks surrounding the ramp. We had caught a lot of trout during the day, but the memories of the float were about to be erased. 

To our left, an argument broke out. The face-planter ripped into Darrell, who woke from his coma and growled an abhorrent retort, and punctuated it with a very loud and very angry “bitch!” His thundering proclamation resonated with a near lifetime of cigarette tar, and bounced off the water’s surface and rumbled between the river banks. It caught the attention of every person nearby. Unwittingly, we all became audience. 

He awkwardly exited the kayak, but did not fall. He gathered himself at the foot of the ramp, wobbled slightly, and pulled up his shorts, which clung precariously to the weirdly narrow waist and hips below his immense belly. He was really sunburned. A deep and hateful crimson. Glowing and glowering, he vomited forth obscenity upon obscenity, directed up the ramp at one of the men in the group. A tall man wearing a multi-colored tank-top emerged from the huddle of people and claimed his ground in a defiant pose. We presumed he was the target of the diatribe.

“Look, this ain’t got nothin’ to do with my son,” he exclaimed to Darrell.
“You don’t f____n’ talk like that in front of a woman,” replied the antagonist, spittle flying from his purple face. 
Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. 

The clan merged in a loose group, and the two men met in the middle. Standing nose-to-nose, they screamed at one another. They bumped chests, causing Darrell to gather himself as his worn-smooth Crocs slid on the wet ramp. The entourage constricted the two combatants, who reeled off a series of taunts. Their shouts eventually settled into an odd groove, with added emphasis placed within each return. 

“Shut your f____n’ mouth!”
“Shut YOUR f____n’ mouth!” 
“Shut YOUR f____n’ mouth!” 

This went on for a while. 

The grandfather continued to carve away at trout, shaking his head and hoping his grandson paid no attention to the adults behaving so poorly. Of course, the kid stared. Mesmerized. Frozen. Horrified. 

I looked at Mark. 
“Should I get my GoPro out?”
He quickly considered the idea. “Yeah, get it.” 
Before I could surreptitiously step into the water and retrieve the camera at the back of the boat, Darrell got dumped. 

I didn’t see who threw the first punch, but honestly, I’m not sure a punch was even thrown. Darrell went spilling down the ramp, scattering a few of his crew and flopping awkwardly into the seat of a faded red kayak. He sent three other empty kayaks skittering across the rip-rap, one of them in my direction, causing me to side-step it carefully as it slid toward the river. He tried to scramble to his feet, but his ample frame was wedged in the sit-in kayak’s opening. Stuck and panicking, he was set upon by the tattooed teenager and the chubby boy in the wet gray t-shirt. And, they just pummeled him. The two kids took out at least a day’s frustration on the older man, bashing him repeatedly with blows to his head. Darrell tried to stand up, but his legs and arms churned at the air as if he were an upturned turtle. The girl landed haymaker after haymaker; her lips drawn in a sneer, her fists jack-hammering away on her drunken opponent. 

The rest of the horde encircled the fallen man, as he struggled to pull himself upright. The two kids paused and stood back, breathing heavily. The tank-topped man towered triumphantly, his chest out, his arms slightly bent at his side and his hands clenched tightly. Finally standing, Darrell slurred curses before being set upon again by the young’uns. This time, the boy went for the body, while the girl seethed malice and continued to fire away at Darrell’s noggin’. He flopped back in the kayak. Blows continued to rain.

At last, the man in the pith helmet provided some needed leadership and corralled both children, and cautiously helped Darrell to his feet. Darrell’s face was now even more red, not from sunburn, but from the rat-a-tat-tat of little fat fists. The tank-topped man advanced, but Mr. Pith put himself between the two wannabe pugilists, as the chubby boy stood aside, wheezing. The tattooed girl kept her eyes locked on her target and paced. Like Tyson in his prime. The drunken entourage lingered. 

Nearby movement caught my gaze. Trailer lights appeared at the top of the ramp. Mark still stood knee deep, his eyes still wide and an even more concerned look covered his face. We exchanged glances and thought the same thought. He’s not going to try to back his trailer down now, is he? 

The horde was focused on the remnants of the fight. Mr. Pith maintained a Referee Mills Lane stance, having waved the contest over, and keeping Darrell at a safe, arms’ length away. Voices from the crowd urged Darrell to stop, but he continued to try to make his way at the tank-topped guy, who now looked a little embarrassed. His buzz had been killed. The woman who face-planted at the beginning of this tale was crying and repeating Darrell’s name. This soothed the beast slightly, and his cussing tapered off. He had already used every foul word invented, in every conceivable tense and in every conceivable sentence structure. Now, he just grunted softly. 

A respite of silence ensued, and a cool breeze blew across the ramp, and seemed to cleanse the air of malice. One of the women standing nearby handed Darrell a Croc that had fallen off when he was getting his ass kicked by the children. He acknowledged her gesture with a polite nod. The tattooed girl still glared at him, wanting to get in one more good shot. Part of me wanted to know the back story there. The better part of me didn’t. 

The group began to part, but only because someone noticed the boat trailer zig-zagging its way down the ramp. Most moved, while a few had to be nudged by their compatriots, numbed by both alcohol and the spectacle they had just observed. One woman didn’t move at all, choosing instead to stand right in the path of the trailer, which veered off-course, its right wheel falling off the side of the concrete. We heard the brakes squeak, as our buddy maneuvered to correct. The woman just stared blankly, in what appeared to be a textbook case of “drunken stupor.” Mark politely alerted her to the trailer and truck coming her way. A long, very weird pause followed, and the zombie woman creepily croaked, “I don’t know what the hell you want me to do.” Set slightly aback, Mark had to chase down the appropriate words. “You might want to move to the side, ma’am.” 

After a half-dozen-or-so more corrections, the wheels of our friend’s trailer finally touched the water, and Mark and I guided the boat onto its waiting cradle. Amidst the grinding, groaning and squeaking of the winch’s crank, we heard Darrell offering contrition to most of his party. I didn’t see if one was extended or accepted by the kids who beat him silly, but I was now just focused on getting the hell off the ramp. 

As we made our way to the waiting parking lot, Darrell stepped in front of us and furnished a handshake. To his left, the tank-topped man, whose expression very clearly suggested remorse and reconciliation.

“Man, I’m sorry for ruining your weekend,” Darrell rumbled. We wanted to reply, “Man … you just made our weekend,” but, instead, just traded niceties and assured him we were fine. He was defeated, but still proud. As he released Mark’s hand, Darrell uttered his final words to us. “Go Vols.” 

From the parking lot, I looked back at the river. Mid-ramp, Darrell and the tank-topped man were embraced in a placatory hug. They were surrounded by friends and family, in a tightly-knit huddle in the fading light of a faded day on the banks of the Caney Fork River. 

As we headed home, we passed a Smith County Sheriff’s Department patrol car, and watched it pull into the lot, drive slowly to the top of the boat ramp … and stop.