Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Great Two-Boat Float

We met at Kroger at dark-thirty, sleepy-eyed and wondering why the hell we set such an early departure time. I arrived first, but only because I had to run into the store to purchase some hot-dog buns in order to round out our pre-ordained gourmet shore lunch menu. Barry drove up next, smiling through the pre-dawn gloom and looking ready for a day on the water. The perpetually happy Ohioan even grinned through the realization he had forgotten to renew his fishing license and trout stamp. Fortunately, there was a gas station that sold both down the street, and Barry drove off. He returned, license and stamp in hand, before the next angler entered the parking lot.

This fishing trip had been long-planned and even attempted on a couple of occasions, but for various reasons, it just never seemed to work. But, everything finally came together this weekend, although our river of choice was unavailable due to an unfriendly generation schedule. Undaunted, we went to Plan B. We were going fishing.

Barry and I stood outside our trucks under the glow of the parking lot lights, looking at our feet, not saying a word. My cell phone buzzed with a text message, shaking us both out of our respective stares. Mark (call sign: Skiff Boy), who was towing one of the two boats we were to use during the day (the boat is actually a skiff, hence the nickname), had left the house without the grill and had to turn around to go back and get it. He was running 15 minutes late. Dave (known as “The Guide”) and Woodski showed up just a few minutes later, with The Guide’s drifter trailing just behind them. They were in predictably good spirits. The Guide is aptly named and spends a lot of time on the water. He’s a die-hard fisherman and like Skiff Boy, a fly-fishing guide. He is perpetually haunted by waters and spends most of his waking moments dreaming of fishing. He and I get along really well.

The Guide predicted a big fish day. The biggest full moon of the year was scheduled to occur tonight, after all. Hopeful, yet not overly optimistic, I yawned and promptly slugged down a mouthful of coffee. It was too early to get too fired up.

Skiff Boy finally arrived, roaring up in his old Jeep, Hyde skiff following close behind. We loaded up our gear and left Murfreesboro behind in the predawn haze.

A few of us spend a great many weekends on the water, but Barry and Woodski have limited opportunities for vastly different reasons. Like several of the crew, Barry’s a family man, and his priorities typically align with the activities of his children. However, when he’s presented with a soccer-free weekend, he’ll do his best to find his way into one of our nearby rivers, casting a left-handed loop toward fishy-looking places. Barry’s a pretty smart guy, as evidenced by his yearly trips west to trophy trout waters. Upon return, he impresses and depresses us with photos of him holding huge trout amidst poster-worthy backdrops. The dude can fish.

Woodski is a fellow fly-tier of Polish descent, whose past year of fishing as been interrupted far too often by health issues. However, he’s bounced back from the most recent physical test and looks to be the picture of health. Woodski carries an incessant, effervescent grin beneath his graying beard, betraying his sunny outlook on life and barely, just barely, hiding his biting wit. He was glad the trip had come together, and the rest of us were excited that he was able to join us.

Sadly, our sixth man and group ringleader, Jim (who carries many nicknames, although for this blog, we’ll go with Don Julio), wasn’t on the trip. Don Julio is the founder of our little group – an unofficial and completely-deniable society of fly-fishermen who are both proud Americans and fairly-able anglers. We often tease him for his inability to row a boat (once, he actually produced a note from a doctor excusing him from this duty) but it’s just a classic example of him being one step ahead of the rest of us. After all … who wants to row when you could fish instead? Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to row or fish on this journey, as two days before our trip, he was stricken was some sort illness (he claimed allergies, we surmised he had been bitten by a tse-tse fly and was suffering from sleeping sickness … ) and was forced to stay behind, probably in some sort of giant plastic bubble and/or government-enforced quarantine.

Disappointed but undaunted, we pressed on without our fallen leader.

An hour-and-a-half after we left the Kroger parking lot, we drove up on the gravel-bar below the dam and were greeted by a dozen or more fishermen and their watercraft, readying their boats for the long-trip downstream. The proverbial conga line was forming. But, going into this, we knew we'd have company, so no one seemed deterred by the extra anglers ... and as it turned out, they were all on an apparently-more-stringent time schedule, because after they launched, we never saw the rest of the fleet again. In fact, we had the river to ourselves for most of the next 10 hours.

And, what a 10 hours it would prove to be. I fished with Skiff Boy, while the other guys piled into The Guide’s drifter. My captain is an able-bodied seaman who probably takes the most ribbing of any member of our unofficial fly-fishing society. But, that’s because he possesses a large amount of a highly-prized yet underrated competency – the ability to laugh at oneself. He’s also an excellent fly angler and guide, and a fellow musician with a shared appreciation for ‘80s hair metal. When we do occasionally stumble upon fishless stretches of water, the void is usually filled with discussions about music. And, Monty Python quotes. That was comforting, considering we had over nine miles of water ahead of us.

After launching, I took my place in the bow as Skiff Boy manned the oars of his beloved boat and piloted us downstream. I nymphed a 5 wt through the first few riffles with zero success, before finally fooling a fat stocker rainbow at the drop off of a deep pool.

For years, I was a die-hard nymph fly-fisherman. To me, there was something eternally gratifying about selecting a small, hand-tied bug and strategically drifting it through moving water, locking my sights on the indicator as it bobbed through the current, watching for just the slightest alteration in its movement, which betrayed the subtle take of a bespeckled trout below. (Note: All fly-fisherman must follow the strict code to adopt overly-descriptive and flowery prose when describing their “art;” it’s code that cannot be broken; I am forever bound to it – I think by once purchasing 7x tippet – and as such, I can never, ever dare to acknowledge that nymph fishing ain't that much different than floating a bobber and a cricket – that comparison is strictly verboten.)

But, despite the success of the tried-and-true nymphing method, I largely cast it to the side two years ago in favor of a more brutal delivery: fishing with articulated streamers. Having been jerk-stripped into this approach by listening to podcasts by Kelly Galloup, I now often leave the dainty nymph rod at home in lieu of a 7-wt, sinking line and a big ol’ box of marabou hell. My right shoulder is now twice the size of my left, I sport a callous on right ring finger from repeatedly stripping dirty fly-line through it, and my tackle bag always has a huge bottle of Ibuprofen and a lot of waterproof first-aid tape in it. But, that’s what the hunt for big fish will do to you. (Note: While I cannot disparage nymph fishing without fear of reprisal from local Trout Unlimited chapters, I have their full support in comparing the Galloup form of streamer fishing with its not too distant cousin – bass fishing with jerkbaits. My note’s note: If I’m making fly-fishermen seem like petty people, it’s only because we can be. To further perpetuate this, please know that dry fly fishermen do not like streamer- NOR nymph-fly-fishermen. In fact, I’m convinced they don’t like anyone. But for the sake of this blog, they do not have a vote here. Plus, dry-fly-fishermen will never read any of this, as they are not aware of the existence of the internet.)

I digress. Back to the stream. Channeling my inner Galloup and ignoring the reward of the first successful nymph drift, I promptly reeled up my line and stowed the 5 wt.

“Think I need the big rod,” I said to Skiff Boy, before I could quickly pull the awful-sounding words back into my mouth.

I picked up the 7-wt and double-hauled a zoo cougar into the calm water of a deep pool. Several strips later, a feisty largemouth gobbled the fly and after a short-but-angry fight, I lipped the green fish. Crap. They were right. This IS bass fishing.

But, after resuming the float, the streamer approach failed to gather much reaction from the trout, who had suddenly started rising throughout the river. Skiff Boy asked for a turn in the casting brace, and I relinquished my post in favor of the oars. He promptly caught about a dozen trout, fooling them on a scud pattern he had tied. Freakin’ guides, man.

Scud Boy

We continued to meander downstream, picking up rainbow after rainbow. Just ahead of us, The Guide, Barry and Woodski were having similar luck, as the fishing gods really blessed us with some very cooperative fish on this day.

Just before our pre-determined gravel-bar lunch spot, I drifted a nymph through what had almost always been a relatively-benign stretch of water on this stream. However, today, it was teeming with life, as trout rose in rhythmic feeding patterns, allowing me to pick off several good-sized rainbows. But, in the midst of the run, the indicator slowly sank and I laid a hookset into a solid fish – much larger than what we had caught so far. It breached, revealing the very broad side of a 20-inch-plus brown trout, then rocketed upstream, sending me scrambling to put the line on my reel. Several times the fish lunged toward nearby cover, but each time, I was able to turn it just before it reached the line-snapping tangles of downed trees. Skiff Boy expertly managed the skiff as the trout repeatedly dove under the boat, desperately looking for some way to shake free … but after a few tense minutes, Mark netted the 22-inch male brown. There was much rejoicing.

I'm the one in the blue shirt.


After taking a few photos, we delicately released the trout and watched him swim off, seemingly no worse for the wear. An awkward high-five later, followed by a quick run through a small riffle, Skiff Boy and I rowed up on the gravel bar, greeted by our three fishing partners, all of them sporting trout-catchin’ grins.

It’s been quite awhile since this entire group had been on the river together, so we did our best to make the most of the float. That included a shore lunch. Skiff Boy prepared the grill and I unpacked the supplies for our gourmet meal of hot-dogs, chips and Oreos (when grown men get together and eat, they often choose a menu best served to a T-ball team). Fifteen minutes later, we munched on heavily-charred dogs, sipped on cans of beer and sat in relative silence, reflecting on what had been an absolutely outstanding morning on the river.

The second portion of the float provided some productive fishing, but not as stellar as the upper section of the river. That was both expected and accepted, as we did our very best to make the most of the trip. I took the oars for a good portion of the remaining float, getting my workout as Skiff Boy dead-drifted his way through several good stretches of water. He picked up a few more rainbows, and after switching out on the oars, I picked up a couple of trout myself. Downstream, the Guide’s boat continued to feature a heavy dosage of bent rods, as we meandered our way to the take out spot.

The Guide, The Barry and The Woodski

As the sun set and we approached our final destination, two barred owls perched mid-way up a Sycamore tree gave us the dark-eyed stare as we floated their home waters.

Heave, Skiff Boy, heave!

The lingering daylight faded as we loaded up the boats and the vehicles, and hands were shook, backs patted and photos compared. As we packed things up, the largest full moon of the year made an appearance on the horizon, and we stood and watched the huge orange globe steadily rise above the watercress fields. It was a GREAT day to be on the water, sullied only by the absence of our good friend, Don Julio. To show him how much we missed him, we texted him pictures of our catches throughout the day. Probably made him feel a lot better. Hey, it was the least we could do.

The ride home was an enjoyable one, until I realized later that my dry-bag had leaped to freedom at some point after departing the ramp, relieving me of a really nice fly-reel, my good rain-jacket and a roll of "in case of emergency" toilet paper. The loss was sadly my fault (although I desperately wanted to blame anyone else), as I absentmindedly left the bag on top of the rod shelf of the boat. Dan = Idiot.

But, despite the hit to the wallet this loss will induce, reels and rain-jackets can be replaced.

Memories like these can’t.

Good times, my friends. Good times.

The last known photo of my yellow dry bag.