Whiskey, Potato Chips, and Occasional Tiger Muskie by Mark Usyk
Spur of the moment. It’s the only way I hit the water anymore. I used to be able to plan it, at least a day ahead maybe, but not anymore. When life falls apart there’s no planning anything. Everything crumbles around you and you’re lucky to just scoop up a crumb here and there when you can. My appetite has wasted away like my optimism. One real meal a day, usually a sandwich at lunch, the rest of my nutrition is absorbed out of the whiskey and potato chips I mostly eat for dinner these days. But the water. Yea, spur of the moment at best anymore. When it’s not high and brown from the rain.
A Monday after work. It hasn’t rained in a few days, about four I figure. That’s amazing in itself seeing as how all spring and summer it’s rained every other day. It was our first beautiful weekend that I can remember this summer so far. I met JP up in Old Forge Saturday for the debut of JP Ross’s new venture, breaking into the adventure camper trailer market. The Trail Marker was a big hit, and it got me thinking. I need to do something. Anything. Make some money. Go fishing somewhere far away. If I could do both together that’d be great, but I’d settle for one or the other at this point. I have no direction, and motivation has been at an all-time low. It got me thinking that obviously my life isn’t what I want it to be, and I’m not getting any younger. The aging process seems to be speeding up actually. Then I woke up to a view of the fog rolling off of Fourth Lake and covering the tops of the mountains surrounding it, a loon hanging out by the dock, and it just all came down on me at once. I’ve got to do something. And fishing seemed like a good something to start with. It’d been weeks. Like I said, motivation has been at an all-time low. I couldn’t believe I was trying to convince myself to go fishing.
When I walked in the house after work and no one was home, that spur of the moment thing happened. I didn’t even think about going fishing during the day. I didn’t think about it on the drive home, even though streamers waved and danced, stuck on the dash, as if trying to get my attention. I mostly just stare out the windshield lately, pondering my place in the world, not paying much attention to the feathers and fur and all the colors. They just get in the way when I try to eject a tape from the cassette player. Usually because the song makes me think of stuff I don’t want to think about. Have you ever heard a song a thousand times over your life, like say Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” only to suddenly hear it one day like it’s the first time? The words all of a sudden hit you differently, it’s not just rock and roll anymore. You want to eject the tape, but as the hackles and buck tail from the bass streamer cover up the eject button you pull your hand back. You’ll finish the song after all. It’s like the streamer wanted you to hear it to the end.
There was no one home. And then suddenly, I saw the creek in my mind as I stared into the quiet and empty living room. And just like that I threw on a pair of shorts, tightened the Velcro straps of my sandals, and got back in the Jeep. I found myself by the home team dug out at the ball field stringing up my 7wt two minutes later. Paranoid still playing in my head, but beginning to fade out. It was gone when I took my first step into sunlit clear water. The water was slow in this spot, and the rings sent out as I waded in reflected the sunlight on the rocky bottom as if scanning for life as they traveled out, finally diminishing and then disappearing back into the surface, as if they’d been turned off. I stood in a waist deep slow current. The sun was bright, warm, the water perfect. I made a cast to the opposite side of the creek, just next to a dead fall washed up on the bank, and I never even got to make the first strip. The line went tight and I set the hook.
It was just one of those afternoons where every time you thought a spot looked fishy, it was. If there was a shaded spot along the bank, the line went tight almost as soon as the Woolly Bugger hit the water. If there was a deep run in the middle, out in the sun, if it was deep enough to block out some of the light, just be a little darker than the water around it, the line would go tight. Mostly smallmouths. A couple times it was a good sized fallfish, which fight almost just as hard. Life in the creek was on the move, there seemed to be no time to waste. While you stood in the shallows admiring a fish in your hand, you felt crayfish trying to take cover under your toes or heel. Birds zoomed up and down the creek. A deer flicked its ear giving away its position in the brush. Life was on the move. No time to waste.
And then below the bridge in town as I stripped in a crayfish pattern made out of marabou and chenille with dumbbell eyes for weight, I saw it. I was waist deep. I’d just let a ten inch smallie go not ten seconds earlier when something long and dark caught my eye resting on the bottom. It wasn’t far away, fifteen feet maybe. It was facing me, there was no way it hadn’t seen me, but it was one of those fish that doesn’t spook easily, and even if you did spook it, it wasn’t going to show it. I froze.
I knew I only had one larger streamer in my fly box, so I moved my hands slowly up to my chest pack and began the task of snipping off the crayfish pattern and tying on the five inch streamer tied entirely of flash. No deer air. No Hackles. No marabou or even fake craft fur from the craft store. Nothing but flash. A black back, a blue mid-section, and a silver belly. I made a short cast just above it and out in the current, and as it sunk it passed the fish on the bottom at about its eleven o’clock. The fish turned to face it and stare it down like a top predator does. I gave a twitch.
Where the dark colors of the fish blended in to the darkness of the bottom quite well, the stripes of the tiger muskie were illuminated by the sun penetrating the depth. It looked fast, like a drag car with flashy graphics ready to launch off the line. I gave another twitch and it glided forward. I didn’t know what to do. Leave it be, twitch it again, or strip fast? I had to make a decision. Now. I chose strip fast, thinking that predators chased prey, and prey taking flight usually triggered something in the predator. You don’t run from a dog, it’ll run you down. You don’t run from a grizzly, it’ll run you down. Even a damn house cat, when it’s in the right mood, acting on its primal instincts, if you run, it’ll chase you down. I stripped fast. The fish glided forward into darkness not ten feet away from me and was gone.
I wasn’t surprised, not at all. And I honestly wasn’t disappointed. I almost knew it was going to happen from the very moment I’d spotted the fish, but I’d taken the time to change flies anyway, and I’d made the cast anyway. I wasn’t afraid of failure because it didn’t matter, and I’d forgotten about everything that did. And that’s exactly what I needed to do. I needed to find something to motivate me to make a decision and act on it instead of just sitting on my ass and fearing the future. I needed a reason to make a cast, whether it ended well or not. I had to make the cast. I needed the hope the cast offered.
On my way back upstream I caught a few more bass. One of them had a good scar between its dorsal fin and its head, one that started at the top and continued down more than half way to its underside. I’ve seen this a couple times on the creek this year. They’re talon scars from the Osprey that lives on the cell tower on the other side of the highway and hunts this stretch of the creek. It was a pretty gnarly scar, I figured he probably used it to pick up girl bass, because chicks dig scars. It also occurred to me that it was proof that sometimes when you think it’s the end, when you suddenly feel yourself being ripped out of the world you know, maybe it isn’t the end just yet after all. Maybe you live to fight the current another day. To make more casts.