Wet Elk by Mark Usyk

The garage smells like a wet elk. I didn’t stutter. I live in Upstate NY, and no, we don’t have any elk. I’ve never even had contact with an elk anywhere else either. Yet, I can tell you now that I know what a wet elk smells like. And my garage right now, smells like a wet elk.

Once you start fly fishing your life probably changes a little bit, and there’s a good chance that it changes a lot. If it doesn’t there’s an even better chance that you’re doing something wrong. But there’s something that goes along with fly fishing that changes your life at least the same amount as what standing in a river sending loops out over the water on a quiet summer morning does for you. Only it’s probably not a change in the same direction or with the same life organizing and prioritizing qualities that the actual act of learning to love the cast of a fly rod can bring to you. No. This fly tying stuff, which some fly anglers manage to avoid somehow, while some of us act as though we may be a little better, more connected to fly fishing because of it but secretly envy the ones who don’t participate in the practice, it can turn an organized and neatly arranged life, just like the tying bench and all flat surfaces within a twenty foot radius, into mass chaos. Or in the least a cluttered heap of feathers and fur the likes of which you couldn’t even find at a zoo.

When I started tying I began with nothing but a few different colors of marabou and some black hackles. But if you tie your own flies then you already know where this is going so we’ll just skip ahead. Once you start tying you never look at anything the same again. And more importantly, you’re always looking. And your friends know it too. And your wife.

Two years ago I thought it would be cool to start obtaining tying materials from places other than in bags on a rack. So I put the word out to a couple friends that if they shot a pheasant during hunting season I’d clean it and skin it for them if I could have the cape. I got a text a week later that read I left you a surprise out back where the dog can’t reach them. I remember thinking to myself “them?” When I got home I found five pheasants, de-breasted and waiting to be caped out. Five birds. Three males and two females. I now have enough pheasant in my storage drawers to last me the next four-hundred and twenty-four years, give or take.

Last year another friend, who both hunts, and cleans and butchers deer for other people asked if I wanted any buck tails. Well of course I said sure I did. I had grand plans of dying some crazy colors for streamers, and by the end of the season I had about a dozen. I de-boned them and used my tool box in the back of my truck as a drying space so that I wouldn’t have to answer to Holly for the garage smelling like dead animals. Coincidentally I’d used the same box to dry the pheasant capes in the back yard the year before. It worked great, kept the bugs and mice away, and the garage didn’t stink.

It’s funny some of the questions you start getting from people once they find out you tie flies and that you get stuff from wherever you can. The morning Holly called me from work to tell me there was a deer on the side of the road with a large bushy tail I knew she’d given in to the fact that this was happening and there was nothing she could do but accept it. Naturally I told her it was illegal for me to just pull to the shoulder and start hacking parts off of a dead deer, but I appreciated the fact that she’d not only accepted it, but was actually looking for me too.

Then there’s the conversations that come out of nowhere. Ones you didn’t think you’d ever have, and that the friend or family member that started it never saw coming. They may become a little bewildered by your knowledge of such things even. “Hey, there’s a dead blue jay outside my bedroom window. It must have flown into the glass. Do you want it for tying flies?” When you answer them politely “Thanks, but no, it’s illegal to possess song birds or their feathers because they’re federally protected” You get that shocked “Oh, I didn’t know that… How do you know so much about them?” You can only explain to so many people, that you’ve been offered dead birds that flew into windows so many times, that it’s simply good knowledge to have and it comes with the territory. Of course, if you’re constantly offered dead things, road kill and birds that fly into windows, you’re either in a very economically depressed part of the world where such things are probably as normal as our run to the grocery store, or you tie your own flies and the people around you find it somewhat fascinating. Fascinating enough to even think to offer you a dead blue jay in the first place.

I got a text from our friend Pat, the one who got me all the buck tails last year. He has a friend who’s a taxidermist and the question was simple and straight forward enough. I got a bunch of different deer, elk, bear, sheep, and coyote. It’s all tanned. Do you want it? Once again the obvious answer was sure do. I was picturing a bag of little scraps that would have been left from the taxidermist work creating trophy mounts. Small scraps.

The next day I got home and two bags, one plastic grocery bag and one tall bag about the size of a pillow case was outside the front door. They were full of large scraps, ten times the size I was expecting. Jake had seen it and called Holly. I’m sure the conversation would have sounded a bit odd to anyone overhearing them, but it probably seemed pretty normal to my wife and son. He told her there was a bunch of animal furs outside the door when he got home, and she told him to just leave them there for me to bring in later. The problem was they were moved from the doorway so Jake could get in, and when I got home the grocery bag had been just out far enough to get wet from the sloppy snow falling. So an old broken slatted head board in the garage that I’ve failed to throw out yet made for the perfect drying rack. Procrastination does pay off sometimes, even if in the most odd ways.

The next morning the question was asked, what’s that smell in the garage. It was a simple answer, straight forward, and in most other houses in the area would have gotten a raised eyebrow and more thorough questions. In this house, the answer fails to warrant even the batting of an eye. It’s just wet elk.