Coca-Cola Bass by Mark Usyk

This lake was so dark, it was like looking into a 2 liter bottle of Coca-Cola. On some waters you can move along the shore line, searching. Your baseball hat and a raised hand shielding eyes from a sun just barely beginning to break the tree line, it’s first blinding rays piercing through the tops of the trees where they meet the sky like ragged spear points against pale blue. On some lakes you could do this, and spot fish. See them, cast to them. But not on this lake. Here there was no sight fishing. The smallmouth bass themselves were so dark, and with the island on the lake with the ospreys that circled looking for a meal, they stayed down well below the surface, camouflaged to the point of invisibility. Their bronze was more of a patina, like a brass hinge that had seen a hundred years and never a polish rag. The water was the color of Coca-Cola. The bass were the same. You cast to a likely spot, and hoped for the best.

The places we find ourselves at in life aren’t only just physical places. The places I’m referring to are mental. But in many instances it’s a physical place that changes where we are mentally. I won’t hide the fact anymore that I struggle with depression quite a bit. I’m not sure if I’ve been ashamed, or embarrassed, or if it’s just my nature to ignore the obvious and hide it with a smile when it’s something that creates discomfort, unrest, or an all-out desire to withdraw from everything and everyone. The fish that swim in the rivers and lakes are most often the only thing I can find myself relating to on many days. We’re just trying to survive each day, to stay cool and calm in a world ready to eat us at the first sign of weakness. Neither of us really want to be found, the irony being I’m out to find them.

The idea of taking complete strangers out fly fishing on a lake I didn’t know was horrifying to me at first. But by the time JP had convinced me to take the job over about a week of coercing, the threat-con level had been down-graded to scary. I bought another 7wt, another reel, and another bass taper line. And in the last three days before I was supposed to take a week’s vacation off of work to go “work” I tied poppers and streamers at a kitchen table that looked like a battle field where a bunch of rabid chickens had gone to war with a herd of circus clown deer. It looked like the lab of a mad flyentist. I ate my breakfast on the coffee table in the living room, where I was able to find an opening among all the fly boxes and tippet spools, the fly rod tubes and various other objects of the affliction, to set down my bowl of Captain Crunch.

I guided a handful of complete strangers over a period of four days. None of them had ever cast a fly rod before. Every trip out was more or less the same, but always different. First there was the getting to know each other. The part where they’d tell me that they’d never fly fished but had always thought it was just for trout, or that they’d never even really fished at all. One woman admitted to using the cliché child’s Snoopy fishing pole once while at a camp with someone else’s kids, and that was the whole extent of her fishing experience.

Next there was the “This is the principle of why a fly rod works” speech and demonstration. I’d quickly explain to them as simply as possible that the line was the weight, the only reason the weightless fly could be cast, that the rod was what propelled the line, and that in the end, it’s only fishing. You had to forget that you’d never done it before and just cast. Ten and two, flicking paint off of a brush, bla bla bla. Pretty loops were fun and nice to look at, but that they were smallmouth bass we were chasing. And smallmouth bass care less about how the line does or doesn’t gently fall to the water and more about whether they can eat something they see moving. If they could just get the popper out away from the boat fifteen feet or so, they’d have a good chance at seeing a splash, and probably even a fish. I only had these people for a couple hours most of the time, three and a half or so at best. I wanted to spend ninety-eight percent of the time fishing, and only two percent of it being them worrying about not knowing how to do it. The goal was fun and forgetting everything else not on the lake, otherwise, what’s the point?

Next came the awkward casting, and the banter that accompanied it. “Oh, that was a bad one.” “Oh, that’s not what I wanted to do at all.” “Whoops, I’m tangled. I don’t know how I did that.” This went on for a little bit, but a wonderful thing happened each time out during this phase of the trips. They’d be struggling with trying to figure out the whole casting thing, when the last thing they expected would happen. Their popper would disappear in a splash, sometimes nothing more than a small boil, and sometimes a violent attack. They were never ready for it, and would freeze up at the sight and the sound of me yelling “Set it! Set the hook!”  They’d always miss the first one. And then, just like that, the nervous banter during the clumsy casting would come to an end. Replaced by focus, a new determination fueled by proof that it was possible, and a great deal of new hope. The boat would become all but completely silent after the initial excitement. There was only new fly anglers trying to catch a fish, and a guide at the oars keeping them within reach of the most likely water.

It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of. The conversations would eventually begin again, but now instead of random dialogs about what family or friends had been up to or who had been doing what at work, they turned to questions about this whole fly fishing thing that was now enveloping their mind. What were they doing wrong in their cast? They wanted me to watch and tell them. What did they do when they hooked a fish? What kind of flies would they use for other fish? Would they use these same rods? Smaller? Bigger? Where was my favorite place to fly fish? My biggest fish? How long had I been fly fishing? Could they do it where they came from…California? Texas? Oklahoma? The answer was you can fly fish for practically anything, anywhere. The gears were turning in their heads, I could see it.

There was a cooler on the boat, and while it was my seat while at the oars, it also contained a good mix of water, beer, wine, and other such celebratory beverages. But most of the time no one wanted to stop for a drink. They wanted to keep casting after that first miss. After the loss of a yellow popper with black bumblebee stripes to a tree branch, I was retrieving a new one from my neatly arranged popper box and the client who’d lost the popper remarked at how professional the box looked and asked if I’d tied everything in it. I said I had, but that it was too early in the week to be judging books by covers, or guides by fly boxes. I told him that I tried to live my life the same way I organized my fly boxes… With good intentions. But that just like the fly boxes, good intentions are only so good and last only so long, and that sooner or later you go to the box to find a specific fly that will change your luck for the better and find only an unorganized mess. Chaos was probably the better word. Just ask my ex-wife.

Most everyone over the four days caught a fish, if not a couple, and they were all thrilled having never fly fished before and each only having an honest couple hours’ time at it. After they’d held their first fish in their hands, I’d be sure to tell them the true story of my first fish on a fly rod, a four inch creek chub on a dry fly that took me the better part of six months to finally catch. I was hell bent on learning it all on my own and suffered through it the whole time, wondering if it was all worth it for months of casting to end with a minnow. Obviously, I would tell them, it was. Because here I was years later on the lake with them.

There were a handful of great stories that came out of week, but my favorite happened on the third morning, an hour into the first trip out of the day.

Stacey was the whole reason for the week at the lodge, it was her birthday and so her family and friends, thirty of them, had all flown to NY and driven into the Adirondacks from various far away states  to help her celebrate it. So it was fitting that the most dramatic and exciting fish of the week was found on the end of her line.

She was standing on the back of the boat by the motor, casting from the rear bench platform when her popper vanished in a huge and loud boil only ten feet from the boat. She lifted the 7wt and set the hook, and that’s when the smallmouth put the transmission in granny low and pulled straight down to the bottom and stayed there. Stacey looked at me with huge round eyes and the rod doubled over and the line began to head away from the boat, and then when it could go no further, it would change directions and put all its energy into its new course. Twice she got it up close enough to the surface to make out the golden flashes of its belly, and it must have done this before because it was an expert at dodging my net. It was impressive really. And a little embarrassing.

It must have found some new motivation to escape, because I could see the fear in Stacey’s eyes as the rod began to vibrate while her knuckles went white. “What do I do!? Should I pull!?” Before I could answer she hunched over the fly rod handle two handing it and looking like a football player protecting the ball in his hands from an onslaught of opposition, and gave it all she had to yank the fish from the darkness below. My mind panicked, I figured the 8lb leader was going to break for sure, and then it happened. The fish decided if she wanted it to come up, well then by God it was coming up. The rod was loaded with all kinds of bend, the leader stretched to its limit, and the bass propelled itself upward. The rod shot the fish like a catapult, the bass decided if it was going to go out, it was going out with style, and as it passed over Stacey’s head, I reached out beside the boat with my long net and caught it at about shoulder level. Her father was in the front of the boat and I believe I heard her stop breathing for a second over his explosion of laughter. We high fived. Dropping them off at the boat house for breakfast I was reliving the whole thing over in my head and trying to decide if I felt like a fishing guide or someone who’d just been fishing with a couple friends. I decided both.


Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies available on this web site…