Sunday, July 13, 2008

No Frills, Hon

For those of you who wondered what happened when I dropped off the radar screen in early July, the following blog should explain a lot.

Most of you have met Pete by now. I went fishing with him in Montana last week and thought you might like to hear about it. It is not hard to tell us apart when we come around the corner…he is the tall, good-looking one. However, we both have the same manic gleam in our eye, and the same attitude towards fishing: If you even get to go fishing, that is by definition a good day. If you actually catch a fish, that’s just frosting on your cake. The thing of it is, to catch something, you have to let go. It is what it is, and that’s the way it’s going to be. You can’t change the weather, you can’t time the bug hatch, you can’t turn down the wind, and you can’t make the fish bite. You can bitch about it, and Pete and I do our fair share of that, but if you can’t change it, you have to just let it go. I fish, therefore I am. That is the Zen of fly-fishing, baby.
Naturally, we had to change our plans: Plan A was to float the Yellowstone, but the ‘stone was running 30,000 cfs, the 9th Street bridge in Livingston had water about two feet below the roadbed, and things were hanging by a thread. If you lived over on the island, tough luck, maybe they would get one of those US Army portable bridge thingies to you after a while. But don’t hold your breath, ‘cause most of you guys over there voted liberal in ‘04, and it is catch-up time. Think, Katrina, sucka.
Anyway, Plan B looked like we float the Missouri River. “Never done it” is what comes just before “let’s go” in my book, so we headed for Helena, Cascade, and points north. Kind of gives you a sense of place when Pete casually mentions, “oh, yeah, that bar is where the brother gets killed in A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT.” You ask me, it looks like the sort of place you leave your false teeth in your pocket when you go through the bat-wing doors. Nice draft beers, though.
The trip runs together for me. I think we put in at the Craig ramp the first day but it is a blur after that. It is hard to have that much fun over three days and remember it all. Probably better that way, so the truth doesn’t get you all mixed up. Pete says if you stare at a rainbow, it disappears. Maybe fishing trips are like that…you should just glance at them kinda sideways, not stare at them. That way, the trip exists in your memory the way you want it to, and it won’t vanish under intense scrutiny.
I do remember Pete, hotfooting it down the riverbank after a monster Brown trout, hollering, “bring the net”, and I am still laughing at one fish that I thought I had caught. First of all, if Pete weren’t watching my fly for me, I might never have landed a fish…I was that busy rubbernecking the scenery, which is powerful up there. A mind-set of “gawlee, lookit yonder” doesn’t help you detect a subtle tremor running through your fly line. “Strike,” Pete says. So, I did.
However, the fish had already taken the fly and was headed straight for the boat. This means by the time I lifted my rod, there was too much slack in my line, so I kept lifting…and fell over backwards out of my seat. This is not the way it is supposed to happen, especially in a boat with a combined total of 75 years of fishing experience. So by now I am on my ass in the bottom of the boat, squalling with rage. Of course, the last thing I had done before I went over was to lift my rod tip even higher and further backwards. This did not really help, because that Rainbow was gaining ground on me. However, it did throw my fly line in a hell of a wind-loop around Pete’s neck. Now things got really interesting. I was scrambling to my feet, frantically lifting my rod and line, trying to get in touch with the situation. In the meantime, the fish had run underneath the boat, and was headed for Great Falls. There was too much slack in my line for me to catch up with him, but between me and the fish, my line had a pretty good hangman’s noose on Pete. I did not figure this out until Pete said “gaaak.”
“Not good,” I said, “what with those big rapids coming up and all. Pete, you OK?”
Pete made a sound like a hung-over snapping turtle, sort of a groaning, hissing noise and rowed like a mad fiend to get us away from the rocks. Being a cool, experienced outdoorsman, fly fishing type, I said “huh?” “Fish on,” he croaked. That fish was still ahead of us, and by now had figured out that he was attached to some major knuckleheads. He was pulling so hard that he helped us get around the rocks and into some slack water, swear to God. You can’t make this stuff up. While I unwound the line from Pete’s throat, the fish spit the hook out and headed for deep water.
“Lost him,” I said.
“Good thing,” said Pete. “No telling where he would have drug us next.”
“You gotta point,” I said, “any more beer in that cooler?”
“Sure,” said Pete, and handed me another Moose Drool.
“Thanks,” I said, “want me to row for a while?”
“Nnnuuuhhh, that’s OK, I got it,” Pete said, with a nervous glance at the up-coming rapids.
“Sweet,” I said, “say, can you row me a little closer to that grassy bank?”
It wasn’t all screw-ups; we had our finer moments too. Pete slid us around a big rock along the bank and anchored in the slack water. Water was swirling around the rock, which was causing a mighty good-looking eddy. “Cast back up in there,” Pete said. Bingo. Monster trout. Netted and released it after an epic struggle between man and nature. Nothing to it.
“I need a break,” I said, “you take a shot.”
The boat was parked about 75 feet from shore on the edge of a slack-water pool, so Pete unlimbered his dry fly rod, stripped out about 65 feet of line, laid out a tiny dry fly under a willow tree, and landed it softer than a baby’s bottom. The fly sat there for an instant, like a bug on a mirror. Slurp. Pete suddenly had all he could say Grace over, and then some. That monster Brown had probably not been caught for several years. Seeing as how no human could get a fly in front of him, Mr. Brown did not know how to act at first. He just towed us around the slack water for a few minutes, obviously thinking, “Who are these bozos? Don’t they know they’ve hooked Elvis?”
You know you have a big fish on when he makes your boat anchor drag…that’s big! After a couple more guided tours around the lagoon, the fish obviously decided, “that’s enough, I’m outta here” and took off down stream. It didn’t take long before Pete was into his backing. For those of you who are keeping track of technical details like that, you need to pay out almost 90 feet of fly line before you get to the backing. Point is, that is a long, strong fish, to take out that much line after he has been wrestling with you for about 15 minutes already.
But wait! Wait! It gets better. Pete is busy landing his fish of a lifetime, when what comes drifting along behind us? Yup. Two other boats, rowed by two of Pete’s pals slash fellow guides, and four dudes. A total of six more witnesses. Sweet. “Uh, nice fish, dude,” mumbles one of the guides, suitably impressed, as Pete struggles to lift this thing for my camera. All in all, you gotta say it was a satisfying experience. I did think it was a little over the top when one of the other boat dudes asked Pete to autograph his Orvis hat, but whatever.
Don’t get me wrong; it was not all non-stop action. Down times don’t bother us much. By the time things slow down we need a little break from catching fish anyway, and we can always entertain ourselves with our second-most favorite pastime, which is bad-mouthing Jim Wolf for not coming on the trip with us. At one point, I was letting my new Moose Drool breathe, so Pete grabs my rod and catches a fish. This fish takes off for the Badlands at warp speed, and my Hardy reel makes that distinctive screech that only a Hardy can make. Orvis should make an alarm clock with that sound as the alarm…no fisherman could sleep through that noise. Now if only Orvis paired it with a hunter’s alarm clock that makes a noise like a Labrador getting ready to throw up, no sportsman would ever be late again. No way anybody that knows anything about Labradors can sleep through that noise.
So anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, Pete and the Hardy. Pete listens to that reel scream for a couple of seconds, then turns back to me with a gleam in his eye and says, “Quick, call Wolf! I want him to hear this!” I took such a giggle fit, that by the time I figured out we did not have cell service in the middle of the Missouri River in the middle of nowhere, the fish had broken himself off. Pete just shrugged, and said “we’ll call Wolf later.” You kind of had to be there. ‘Course if you were Wolf, it wouldn’t have happened if you had been there, would it? Nah, that’s too metaphysical for a blog like this.
All in all, a pretty idyllic way to spend some time. We would get off the river about dark, which is pretty late, that far north. There are not many IHOP’s in North West Montana, so you take what you can find. Any bar and grill will do, as long as it has a liquor license. It only takes one or two drinks to induce a coma after the sort of days we were having. This made for some pretty quick pillow talk before we crawled into our sleeping bags, dosed ourselves with 99% DEET to keep the mosquitos away, and turned off the flashlights. The last night we imbibed enough all-purpose brown to render us philosophical, but not enough to interfere with our vision; in other words, we were about right. It was a million-dollar night, with every star in every galaxy since the Big Bang on display. We were leaning back against the tail-gate of the pick-up, basically saying “whoa.”
Pete drains his night-cap, looks back up at all those stars, and says “I’ve been wondering.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“You think there are trout on other planets?”
Boy cracks me up.
Anything that good has to end, but I wasn’t too bummed, since I was on my way to fish Clear Creek, which is a small spring creek just west of Redding, Ca. The cabin I stay at has a couple of miles of private water to go with it, in the middle of 10,000 acres of the Kutras ranch. Pretty cool experience. The owner’s grandfather won the ranch with one roll of the dice in 1930, and it has been in their family ever since. Look up private seclusion and you will find a picture of Clear Creek.
I have been staying there for several years now, and I have my routine down. I get up really early, and fish until it gets hot. When I say hot, I mean hot. Landing in Redding, the pilot said it was 112 on the valley floor. The view in that area is never much, because it is a high mountain desert area and it is sere and bare by July. Not much to see at the best of times and these weren’t the best of times due to all the forest fires in the area.
The smoke haze was so strong it affected the light. Smoke haze bleeds the color out of the world and renders it a grayish brown. The smoke also makes people hinky, because everybody’s Neanderthal DNA is hollering “Get out!” Besides, California makes you question people’s DNA anyway. There is a lot of human jetsam that floated out here in the 1930’s and just stayed. A lot of them have a far away look in their eye, like human lemmings that have bumped up against the Pacific, and are waiting for someone else to jump first, so they will know it is time to move on. When you see some shirtless emaciated dude in overalls and flip-flops, rasta beard and the whole BO thing emerge from a cloud of smoke carrying a billboard that says “The End Times Are Near” you think to yourself that the guy might have a point. I was going to say they got more flip-flops out here than a John Kerry Presidential campaign but I don’t want to make my liberal friends mad…either of them.
Fortunately, Clear Creek is higher up in the mountains. This means it cools off at night, and life is sweet at 65 degrees and 15% humidity. As it heats up the next morning a nice breeze springs up, flowing up-canyon. The breeze blows until late afternoon, then shuts down for a while. You don’t make any sudden moves for a couple of hours, until the breeze starts blowing back down the canyon, and it is time to fish until dark. After I wear my arm out catching fish, I take an all-purpose brown or two on the porch over-looking the home pool, do a steak on the grill, sleep, wake up, and repeat. Good routine.
After a couple of days of this, I made my way out of the canyon to get some more steaks and ice. When I headed back towards the cabin, I noticed the smoke haze from the local forest fires had really gotten thick. There were cops and firefighters all over the place, and the little store in Shasta was full of locals, talking about mandatory evacuations. Uh-oh. A fire had popped up on Iron Mountain, and a freak wind was pushing it to the northwest, right towards Clear Creek. It took me about a nano-second to decide that I had caught enough fish for a while, and that the better part of valor was for me to get the hell out of the mountains. It is amazing how fast you can pack, when you want to. By late afternoon, I was back in Redding.
It turns out that Redding was the staging area for all the firefighters, and they had filled up all the motels. After a fair amount of driving and calling I found a Howard Johnson Express with a couple of rooms still available. Ho-Jo’s Express is what you might call down-market…ahead of Brown’s #2 in Port Royal, Va. but behind the Knight’s Inn in Elkton, Md. The lady behind the counter gave me the key, told me they had free internet, assured me the AC in my room worked, and pointed me towards the ice machine. When I asked if they had breakfast in the mornings, she just shook her head, smiled sympathetically and said, “No frills, Hon.”
I went out of there thinking “No frills…no frills? I’ve caught a ton of fish, I’m alive, I’ve got clean sheets, hot water, AC, and broadband. Other people’s idea of frills sure are different from mine.”
I hope you have all the frills you want. Me, I gotta go back to work. See you soon.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lives in the Balance

Regarding the article posted below: I have had a gratifying number of responses to "Lives in the Balance." I am trying to answer them all, but if you have not heard from me yet, give me a few days, as I work through them. Thank you all.

I have posted an article about safety in our sport at It is entitled "Eventing Lives in the Balance," which is taken from a Jackson Browne song of the same name. You can find it on:
and also to the left in my recent articles section.

I have been thinking about this for quite some time, and this article is the result of my thinking so far. Due to space/time considerations, I left out far more material than I included in that article. Another title I thought about for the article might have been "Horses like to jump, too."
One of the many questions I am attempting to raise with this article is to bring out the perennial question of just how much the rider should guide/interfere in the approach to fence. This argument has been going on for almost a century now, almost as soon as Federico Caprilli's revolutionary new " forward seat" was adopted.

Wilhelm Museler was one of the most widely respected practioners of the art during the middle 20th century . One might suppose that a German dressage master would be in favor of controlling the stride to the fence.Think again. Here is what he has to say about it: "With increased experience, routine and practice, a horse will automatically correct his approach."(RIDING LOGIC, 1949 edition, pg. 163) Not the sort of statement one would expect from a German dressage rider, but there it is. I must say that Museler's experience and mine are one and the same.

When I first moved to the USET in the middle 60's, I had a difficult time adjusting to the USET 3DE training methods in use at the time. I had been brought up in the sort of system that Museler recommended, and I was unable to ride in the way that our coach, Maj. Stephan von Visy, wanted. My very first cross-country school ever with Kilkenny was not going AT ALL well using this new technique. Gen. John T. Cole was there watching that day. Gen. Cole had been the reserve on the 1932 Olympic show jumping team, when my father rode in Los Angeles, and our families had remained friends since then. Gen. Cole called me aside and delivered a pretty good ass-chewing, as only General officers in the Old Army could. I won't bore you with the details, which were many and various, but the gist of it was "Boy, leave the thinking to him, his head is bigger than yours!" That worked like a charm for me, and I made a career of it.Another Old Army family friend was Gen. Frank Henry. Gen. Henry remains the only US rider to ever win Olympic medals in two different disciplines at the same Olympics. He won the GP Dressage silver team medal, team gold in Eventing, and individual silver in Eventing in the 1948 Olympics in London,England. My point is, the man knew how to ride.I asked him about "finding a distance" one afternoon, and he replied "Oh, you mean hand riding. Col. Chamberlin would never let us hand ride." He went on to tell me a story about how the Old Army resolved the argument. Sometime in the late 1920's, a group of Cavalry officers were gathered in front of the fireplace at the Officer's Club at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Ft. Riley was the U. S. Army Cavalry School, where all the troopers and officers were brought to receive instruction. All the Advanced Officer's classes were taught there, and it was the Olympic Equestrian training center. (That was the reason my father and mother bought Rimrock Farm, which was just outside the military reservation, to be close to their friends after my father retired.) Apparently there was a fair amount of whiskey being passed around, and it did not take long for the same old argument about jumping to break out. The Colonel in charge suddenly pounded his fist on the table, and started issuing orders. The US Army would take 100 4-yo remounts who were just coming into service, and put them in a special six month program. Fifty recruits that had just passed their Basic Equitation course would be assigned one horse each. In addition, ten experienced First Lieutenants and Captains would be assigned to the program, and given five remounts apiece to ride. The program would culminate in a jumping test. The riders drew the horses out of a bowl, putting back any horse that they had ridden. The Col and two Majors were the judges while each horse went around a course at the old Hippodrome, just outside Ft. Riley proper. (The next time you see a photo of a U. S.Cavalry officer and there is a limestone formation running horizontally in the background, that was taken at the Hippodrome. The formation is called "the rimrock" hence my family farm's name.) I asked him which group of horses scored better, the ones that had been ridden by skillful riders, or the ones that had been forced to survive with out help. "Well" said Gen Henry, "it wasn't even close." The best and safest horses were the ones that had been allowed to figure it out for themselves.That is enough for one night...I will return to this topic soon, as this was of course not the final word. Related distances had yet to rear their head, and I will discuss that in later posts.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I married off another one of my fishing buddies the other day. Sad, really. My ex-second-best fishing buddy is standing up there at the alter while the preacher does his thing, and you can bet my buddy is not thinking about whether he should switch to a #18 Callibeatis, or stick with the #16’s. You know, important fishing stuff. In the meantime, I am back there in the crowd, trying to keep from having a full-out hay fever attack due to all the flowers and feeling sorry for myself.
When you think about it, good fishing buddies and good Labradors are hard to find. And once you find one, you hate to lose him, especially to a girl. The only thing you know for sure is that marriage is going to screw it up. Here is what the conversation used to sound like when two fishing buddies planned a fishing trip:
“I was thinking about fishing that creek we caught all those little ones on last year this time.”
“One with the skunk?”
“Works for me.”
“Meet at the parking lot behind the Piggly-Wiggly at 6:00 am?”
“Say 5:30, I wanna make sure we’re the first ones there.”
See what I mean? Two hearts beating as one.
Now here is what it sounds like after a year or so of marriage:
“Hi, it’s your fishing buddy, who has a severe case of cabin fever, and badly needs to go somewhere and catch something.”
“Ahh, hey, man, I’d love to…hang on a minute.”
(Muffled sounds of domesticity, including baby crying)
“Ahh, man, hey, I’d love to but I’m not sure I can…wait a minute…yes, dear, I got the new Huggies at Costco on my way home…yeah, and the Enfamil and the organic baby yoghurt too…sorry man, it’s been a little hectic around here…hey, did I tell you about what the baby did last night…it was the cutest thing…uh, yeah, I can get back to you, if you want…sure, great talking with you, too.”
See what I mean? Fishing buddies have a short shelf life. There is a pretty narrow window between not being able to get them off their elbows to go fishing with you, to not being able to get them off their ass.
Remember that old joke about how you should never sleep with anyone crazier than you are? Not exactly true when it comes to fishing buddies. It really helps when you are able to tell your significant other “well, yeah, I really messed up, but what about him…he makes me look good.” A fishing buddy should always make you look good by comparison.
And when it comes to crazy, you want to pick partners who are at least as crazy about fishing or hunting as you are. How crazy? Well, on a recent trip I walked into the next motel room and one of my buddies was watching “American Fly-fishing” on OLN…and he was fondling himself! It was a hell of a fish, come to think of it.
It also helps if your buddy is younger than you. This means you have someone to do the heavy lifting, while you mutter stuff about “stenosis,” “systolic infarction,” and other mysterious and painful conditions. If Buddy is CPR-rated, so much the better. However, he is not allowed to field-dress you before bringing you back in a fireman’s carry when you have The Big One a long way from the truck. Not good. It will also help if your buddy has strong political convictions. It does not really matter which side of the spectrum they come down on, and it can be a plus if they have the opposite view from you. You will be able to stay awake on that long drive home while you are arguing about the topic du jour. Wander past him while he is casting to a rising trout and mutter something like “lily-livered liberal” or “conservative knuckle-dragger” to him. He will immediately get his back cast hung up in the rhododendrons, and you can sneak into that really nice pool just ahead of him…which is more important than politics anyway. Stuff like this can lead to fisticuffs during the presidential primary season, but shrug off the whole affair as just another good fishing buddy gone bad, and find another one. Only next time make sure New Buddy doesn’t have a wicked left jab-right hook combination like the last one. That hurt!
You need to decide up front what your attitude towards fishing is and pick your buddies accordingly. If you are a “counter” then hang out with a guy who keeps a running total on his solar-powered Blackberry. The last thing you want is to land a good fish, squall triumphantly “Yo, that’s the fastest I have ever landed 30 fish before noon”, and have your pal look off into the trees and say something like “oooh, look, it’s a cross-eyed tomtit” You guys are not going to make it. On the other hand, if you are into the quality of things and you run across a “counter”, just shoot him. Any jury will let you off for temporary insanity, because counting will most definitely drive you crazy. I am kind of in between when it comes to counting. I use the John Gierach scale…I either catch “none”, “a few”, or “a bunch.” That pretty much covers any situation.
Now, size matters, and a fishing buddy must unquestioningly accept your estimate of the size of the fish you just landed. It sounds good to say “wow, I could barely get him in the net!” The role of a fishing buddy is to say “ good fish, man, way to go” in reverential tones. However, the truth is that the fish was some poor 9” colorless rainbow that fell off the stocking truck about an hour ago. The only reason you had trouble getting him in the net was because you had completely messed up your line. When you have a cats-cradle across the mouth of your net and the loose fly line wrapped around your head, it stands to reason that it is going to be hard to get him into the net. But what does Buddy say? “Way to go, man!” A real buddy is always there for you.
Booze plays a big part in fishing and you need to find out about your new pal. You are setting up a disaster of some significance if both you and Buddy are gargantuan, fighting, loud, rude drink-‘til-you-drop boozers. It is a really good idea for at least one of you to be a more laid-back type with a Platinum AAA card… then you can go bail for the rowdy one in the morning. Two quiet drunks can work, but things might get a little comatose around the cabin if you are rain-bound. The best is if you take turns between rowdy and bail bondsman, that way you never get bored. While you are at it, decide on your favorite tipple and stick with it. It can be a problem when you bring only one bottle of fine single-malt for a two day trip, and your beer drinking buddy says he’d “like to try him some of that.” I don’t mind sharing at all, unless it means I might run out of scotch, in which case me and Buddy are going to fall out.

Kilkenny - Mexico Olympics

Kilkenny - Mexico Olympics
Now THAT'S Roads and Tracks