Fish Stories by Mark Usyk

I talk to my dog. A lot of people talk to their dogs so don’t start looking at me like an idiot if you’re not a dog person. My dog, I don’t care what science says, understands every word I say. When I’m climbing into the Jeep and he’s standing there in the drive way staring at me I always make it a point to tell him I’ll be back, I won’t be too long, or that I’m just going to pick up the boys from school and we’ll all be back soon. When he’s hanging out at dinner time, waiting to see if there’s any leftovers bound for his dish, when there isn’t, I always make it a point to apologize. Sorry Bear. Nothing for you tonight. When he’s standing in front of me on a rainy day, staring at me with that face of wanting, I tell him like I’d tell the kids, it’s raining, you’re not going out. Sorry, you’ve got to deal with being indoors today. He understands every word. I don’t care what science says.

He’s getting up there in years too though, moving a lot slower, his eyes and hearing getting poor, a lot more gray showing in his beard. So some of our conversations are like those of a couple retires sitting in the local donut shop. We had a conversation about politics and this year’s elections the other day, but this is a fly fishing blog. So no politics talk. If you want to know what an 84 year old dog thinks of our choices this year you’ll have to come over and ask him yourself. If you’re the type to talk to dogs that is. Just remember… Dogs are a good judge of character.

I talk to most animals though I guess, even the ones that I know don’t understand me, and even the ones that can’t hear me. Like deer on the side of the road. Just stay there, don’t you do it. You can wait, don’t do it. And then there’s the fish.

I look at fish like just another community, I find myself trying to relate them to people all the time. I don’t know if it’s to fool myself into thinking I can better understand them or what, but I do it. To catch the fish you’ve got to be the fish…unless you can make the fish be a person.

I’ve always wondered what it is that goes through the brain of a tiny fish that attacks my streamer that’s just as big as the fish itself. Find a spot where there’s a bunch of minnows hanging out like kids on the playground and drop a small streamer into the crowd. If that streamer is two inches long and there’s not a minnow over an inch and a half in that bunch, they all still rush the streamer and pick at it like a bunch of bullies poking and jabbing at the geek in school. When the streamer hits the water they all turn and rush to surround it, staring it down, probably calling it names and taunting it. Then the first one steps in and pokes it. The other bullies gain courage and they all begin to one by one poke and jab, calling it names and threatening it, daring it to hit back, pulling and pushing it in every direction. There’s probably even one or two off to the side with cell phones videoing the whole thing to upload it on Facebook after it’s all over. Little fish are the bullies of the playground. I like to throw a rock into the middle of them and watch them scatter, put them in their place.

Then there’s bluegills. Little assholes. They’re bigger than the minnows, but they could never fit that frog popper in their mouth. But they still hover underneath it, grabbing at the rubber legs hanging below and behind the foam body, pulling it under now and then, like a big brother would reach over on the couch and pinch his little sister and then act like nothing happened when she yells for their mother.

Don’t get me started on Carp. Carp are jerks.

But the one single fish that stands out in my mind from this past year, the one single fish that had my mind working overtime, had me lying in bed and questioning everything I thought I knew about fish was the biggest trout I ever caught. That 21 incher I landed out of the trophy section of the West Canada on the fourth of July. (See “I’m a Horrible Dry Fly Fisherman” July 5th.) That fish was messing with us and I don’t think it was because it was just a dumb pea-brained animal that didn’t know any better.

The trout was hitting bugs so hard, jumping so violently, that thinking back on it now, maybe it wasn’t such a lucky catch after all. Maybe he wanted to be caught. Maybe those trout had a club somewhere on the river bottom where they sat around at the bar like war veterans and told stories of the goofy looking fisherman that they all let believe had caught big fish because they knew what they were doing. Maybe the joke was on us. Sounds crazy I know, but a fish doesn’t get that big by jumping in broad daylight and making a spectacle of itself anywhere except on a catch and release section of river. These fish knew they could have some fun and then go hang out with the boys later that night and tell their stories. Do fish tell fish stories too? Or would that be fish telling human stories? Maybe we’re more like the fish we chase than we realize. Or I guess it’s entirely possible, that somedays it’s better to be lucky than good. But somehow, I really like to think about a bunch of big trout sitting at the bar, rolling up sleeves to show off battle wounds and telling tales of the one they let walk away from the river thinking it was all skill that landed him that great fish.

There was a guy at my old job that just thought he was the greatest fly fisherman on the planet. He’d go out of his way to hunt you down and tell you how good he was, how many fish over 20 inches he’d caught during the season, that I should go with him and he’d teach me some stuff. And you know where he fished almost all of the time? That’s right. The Trophy Section of the West Canada. I liked the idea even more of these trout having club down there somewhere. I figured this guy’s picture was on their wall, the face of their greatest inside joke, a fountain of never ending stories. He was part of the initiation of the new stocked trout moving into the neighborhood, the bigger and older holdover fish telling the new smaller and younger stockers that they weren’t allowed to sit at the bar until they’d fooled old Buzzy. Yep. I think they’re a lot more like us than we give them credit for.