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.

Kilkenny - Mexico Olympics

Kilkenny - Mexico Olympics
Now THAT'S Roads and Tracks