Wednesday, October 8, 2014


A little girl. Six, maybe seven. Wearing a pink and blue swimsuit, she waded into some awful-looking water. Black, with foam bubbles and strands of hunter-green filamentous algae blossoming from below. Chest-deep, she submerged for a few seconds before popping up in the exact same spot, her soaked dark hair covering the entirety of her face. Ears popped out to the sides. She wiped back her hair with an algae-covered left hand and yelled for her mother, who sat cross-legged on the concrete boat ramp nearby, staring intently at her cell phone and burning a cigarette

“I’m making a masterpiece!” 
“A what?” 
“A masterpiece! I’m making a masterpiece!” 
“A what, honey?” 

This went on for a while. 

I tuned it out and refocused on the abundance of fish eerily suspended in the water around my kayak. I double-hauled the 7-weight and unfurled a long cast. The fly plopped into the water and I immediately began retrieving with short, fast strips. The nylon rope strands on the fly pulsed and danced in the water. It looked alive. Strip, strip, strip, strip, I retrieved in 4/4 time. 

No takers. Before launching another cast, I glanced to my left and saw two boys swimming my direction. I guessed they were in the 10- to 12-years-old range, and I assumed one of them was the little girl’s older brother. The lead boy was a chunkster, and self-consciously donned a white t-shirt that was plastered to his fleshy torso. Both boys were wrapped around boogie boards which allowed them to navigate the deep pool of gar-infested water. 

T-shirt boy dog-paddled his way within feet of my kayak. 

“What are you fishing for?” 
I uncorked a long cast. 
“Longnose gar.” 
“Gar? They have teeth.”
“Yep. You guys are surrounded by them right now.” 
“Yeah, they’re all over the place.” 
“Do they bite?” 
I paused a beat.
“Big time.” 

They stopped paddling. The boy in the back was the younger of the two. His concerned expression betrayed he wasn't big on the whole idea to even get in the water. He whispered something to t-shirt boy. His suggestion appeared to be ignored. The instigator kept looking at me, trying to gauge whether or not I was kidding. I kept casting. 

“They really don’t bite.” 
“Yeah, they do. Sharp teeth, too. Rows of them.”
“Naw … “ 
“Well, they probably won't bother you. Probably.” 

The boys mumbled to each other. Dissension festered. The younger boy began nudging shoreward while trying not to overtly alert the ringleader. Mutiny was imminent. 

The tip of my fly rod shook and line slowly pulled through my left thumb and index finger. After a five Mississippi count, I tightened my grip on the line and let the fish pull it taught. A huge longnose gar broke the surface like a tarpon, shaking its toothy beak and crashing the front half of its spotted body into the river. The armored monster then rocketed downstream and pulled coils of loose line from the floor of my kayak and engaged my reel. The nose of the yak swung around sharply and followed the fleeing fish. 
As quickly as it began, it was over. The fish somehow freed itself from the nylon and my line went limp and my excitement deflated. The pool calmed. Ah well. I turned to look at the two boys, but they were now standing on the boat ramp holding their boogie boards; the mutineer glaring at his chubby former captain. Oblivious to what had just occurred, the sister continued to wade in waist-deep water. Singing. 

A western mountain stream. Cold water twists, tumbles and plunges through ancient boulders before settling into a steady flow through a meadow of purple flowers and tan sage grass that wave in the gentle wind. The bright sun glitters among the subtle turmoil creating an infinite universe of twinkling stars which burn out as quickly as they shine, each one instantly replaced by dozens of others, perpetually flashing as long as the water moves and the sun stays above the aspens. Downstream, there is a long pool. Here, you have to squint to see the shadows of the cutthroat trout that hide among the multi-colored riverstone and within the broken reflection of blue-bird skies and distant snow-covered peaks. As mayflies land on your felt fedora, you reach into your vest, nudge aside your pipe tobacco and secure a small metal box. Your name and address are written in blue ink on a piece of masking tape on the lid, along with the words, “Dry Flies.” You open the box and admire its contents, so neatly and perfectly arranged within. You carefully select a small work of art, a parody made of elk hair, dubbing, thread and hackle. Using a knot you learned from the guide you met in Alaska last summer, you tie the fly to your tippet as trout rise to emerging insects in the stream below and you melt into the cover art for the next Orvis catalog.

Cross-fade to a murky and near-stagnant bend in a southeastern river. Here, ancient boulders are buried far below the sorghum flow; the original channel flooded long ago by warrior engineers. The limbs of toppled oaks reach above the surface in suspended desperation as the thorny branches of bodocks stretch from the river bank in vain attempts to save their drowned cousins. You swat at the mosquitos on your pale legs and brush away the horsefly on the bill of your sweat-stained cap. The air is massive. Heavy. To the west, the grayness of the sky darkens to a menacing indigo. You launch your kayak from a concrete boat ramp that abruptly ends short of the river's edge. A late summer drought has drained the stream of flow, causing you to wade out in order to find navigable water. You cringe as your sandaled feet shuffle through the mud-and-grit bottom, and rocks and snail-shells find their way between your foot and sole. The soft roll of distant thunder is heard and a sudden cool breeze sways the tops of the trees. Yellowed hackberry leaves, assaulted by late summer aphids, drop in the water around you. Dead leaves and the dirty ground. After hopping into the kayak, you paddle slowly to the depths of the pool, where the garfish cruise creepily through the water column. In the face of a growing wind, your first cast is still long and crisp. The fly lands softly and momentarily perches on the surface like a giant cottonwood bloom. You bring it to life with a brisk strip, followed by a practiced cadence. The fly responds and dances and darts inches below the surface. As you admire the animation, your offering is dispassionately devoured from below. 

A slight drizzle began to dimple the surface of the river and I checked my leader and fly. The business end was a four-and-a-half-inch-long bush of untangled and brushed nylon rope. I had added a few strands of silver flashabou and tied everything together with red thread. The hook was a long-shanked streamer hook that I had cut at the bend to remove the hook point. When wet, the fly slowly sank and when stripped, it darted to and fro much like a “walking the dog” jerk bait. The shredded nylon pulsed in the water, giving the presentation a very lifelike appearance. The leader and fly intact, I stripped out some line, loaded the rod with a backcast and shot a long cast into the river, which was now soaking up the needed rain. 

A few casts later, a gar attacked the fly. It was a big fish, probably five-feet nose-to-tail and an easy 10 pounds. But, instead of grabbing the offering and swimming away, it just hacked at the fly with its narrow beak. I just sat there and watched and the fly sunk like stunned prey. That was probably the wrong approach, as the fish sulked away and disappeared, leaving my rejected fly suspended in the water column. Dammit. That was a good one. 

Behind me, the conversation began anew. 

“What, honey?” 
“My masterpiece!” 
“Your what?” 
“My masterpiece!” 
“Honey, what are you talking about?” 

She emerged from the black water, her arms locked around a basketball-sized globe of dark green algae that had been painstakingly procured from the bottom of the wretched stream and bundled with care by a seven-year-old girl wearing a pink-and-blue swimsuit, which was now festooned with slimy remnants of her prized creation. With each step, more of the thing that should not be slid off, and filaments stuck to her skin like leeches. She laughed as she trudged through the water towards her mother, who squealed with delight at the hellish gift her daughter brought her. She began taking photos with her cell phone. 

A cute little baby gar
The day waned, as did the bite. A few small fish came to hand, but the big ones — which continued to stalk my fly — were only curious, or not fooled, or not hungry. I paddled the short distance back to the ramp, stinking of gar slime and bug spray, and stepped out of my kayak into ankle-deep bacterial water. The girl and her family were gone, and the masterpiece had either been returned to the abyss or taken home and kept as a pet. The skies cleared as the sun started to set, and the black river suddenly glowed orange and shimmered as a toothy beak broke the surface with a pop and swirled back to the murky depths below.