A few years ago my fishing partner and I loaded up the truck with the old blue canoe and hauled ourselves 16 hours northeast of our present position in which we reside to another idyllic (ie.rural/uninhabited) spot in northern new Hampshire. We kind of seek those things out you know.
The old canoe has it own story as we bought it ten years ago and it was, back then, a project (or piece of crap as my partner will say) as it had been a rental canoe that had been ungainly dropped off the trailer resulting in insults and injuries to the old boat. I’m sure that it had given many a day where it allowed itself to be treated poorly at the drunken and inexperienced hands that guided it down the Licking River in KY. The injuries included broken gunwales and bough and the insults to the class of the 17’ wide and “built like a tank” canoe were probably too many to mention and too crass to bring up now. We bought it cheap and with a little creative use of diamond plate, it continues to serve us well. The plain and simple fact is that it’s ugly but serviceable and has kept us on the right side of the water for years. I’m talking about the boat—not my wife although she has done her fair share to keep me above the water during our relationship.
The intent was to rendezvous with some family in New England and take a few days of fishing the upper Connecticut River near the border of Canada, a not quite remote area but certainly not over populated. They call it the Northeast Kingdom and after having walked, canoed, and fished the area I can certainly see why they call it that. Over the years I have picked up a few things about fishing and if I were to collect them in one place they would appear as tattered bits of information written on napkins, maps, and errant pieces of paper—very similar and a smart indication of how my brain works.
The information acquired would need a full time person in position of responsibility to maintain the “library” of collected life and stream experience. My wife regularly begs off this responsibility but the piecemeal assembly might include a few things about streams, rivers, ponds, and potholes as they relate to fly-fishing. But the more I learn about the craft, the more I understand that I don’t really know anything. Casting is always an ongoing education of trees and hooks and lost flies but muscle memory keeps me going. Starting to tie my own flies, I quickly realized that I have a sincere lack of understanding of entomology and while I could reproduce a pale morning dun from someone else’s recipe book, I had no true understanding of what the dun was or how/where it popped up on a river and it has been a long and arduous (but fun as hell) process to educate myself on the insect world. Fly-fishing is an ever-expanding universe of information that has to be catalogued and attended to so that one can be even considered a competent fly fisherman.
I can stand and stare at the water like a true professional though and I give off the fairly bullshit air of competency when I grandly pronounce “ohhhh, they’re in there” and look good doing it. But I think the old sweat stained baseball cap, beat up fishing vest, and multitude of wrinkles around my eyes do more for my credibility than any actual ability. It would be very similar to how Gary Cooper looked in an old western. At least that's how I like to think of it but in my movie moment there are no cowboys or dashing good looks. Alas, my fishing is nothing like the movies.
My movie moment might be summed up by the scene of movie hooking up a trout on the White River of Vermont in a pool above a series of rushing water and slick river rock and promptly losing my footing. I lost my composure soon after.
Yes, I went swimming.
Full on swimming with a fish on.
Picture a man with water in his waders going down a class II rapid trying to establish footing while keeping an arm and rod out of the water. Picture the beautiful scenery of Montana in the movie A River Runs Through It and the heroic scene where he rides the river for an inexplicable amount of time and distance. That was not I. Fill in the reality of a giraffe trying to walk for the first time: awkward, ungainly, and simply not elegant.
I ended up losing the fish and walking the mile back to the cabin wet, cold, and sheepishly wondering if anyone had been watching from the bank.
We fished for a days and fed ourselves from the singular but well stocked gas station and had the occasion to catch a couple. One was a native wild brown at the bottom of a steep ravine and a pocket of water and this fish remains still today of one that I’m proudest of. Size didn’t matter that day but the manner in which it came did. I felt some instinctual pull toward that spot and demonstrated at least enough of the minimum technical skill to land that fish.
The gas station gave us enough larder that supported our camp (beer, hot dogs, etc.…) but as the days of holiday waned and I had to be back to the rigors of my existence (and the responsibilities that pay for my ability to fly fish so often) I was getting hungry enough to consider eating one of the trout we worship, chase, and respect.
My fishing partner and I were fishing a part as we usually do—I remember that she was fishing a nice and deep pool next to a train trestle, when I decided to go up the river. There were a few people milling about the river that day and a few of them were fishermen. Keep in mind that this is northern New Hampshire and the ratio of fishermen to river was low. It’s a pretty rural place.
I must have walked about half a mile up the creek and found no-one on a calf deep stretch of river that had a nice river rock base and deep channels undercutting trees and fast moving water along the bank. Looking into my box I decided on an old tried and true new England fly (the Gray Ghost) which I had picked up from a fellow that ran a garage outside of his house somewhere in the north woods. The garage was filled with expertly tied flies at a pleasing price and moose sheds. We bought a few flies that day and the gray ghost was one of them. We should have picked up a moose shed, too just because you never know when you might need a quality shed.
The Gray Ghost was successful that day as I fished a 1’ wide pool behind a river channel that ran about a foot or two deep and was right next to the bank. The rod twitched as I drifted that wet fly down the stream bank and that beautiful rainbow was holding in a small pool behind a rock. He was just waiting for his dinner to float through. There was that telltale bump that every fisherman waits for and the hopeful set seemed to work—fish on! A furious ten-minute battle ensued as the fish ran time after time and the longer it took me to land it, the further my desperation and intent to bring this fish to net grew.
Success was finally realized—it wasn’t the fish that got away that day and I quietly worked my way down the river to meet my partner as the evening was drawing to a close. The train trestle proved sturdy enough for the weight of accomplishment that I carried and approached her from the height that allowed my observation. I’m sure she could have seen the aura and glow of her hunter/gatherer husband from a hundred yards away. But she didn’t let on.
“Oh, there you are”, she said quietly as not to disrupt her casting motion or interrupt her attention to the task at hand.
She Cast again. .
“Hey”, I said bursting with pride and success. I kept my eyes low and on the pool she was casting at and my voice deceptively calm.
“Any luck?” she asked?
She’s not a woman of many words, Wait. I take that back as she has plenty of words when the time suits her.
“Oh, I had a bite or two”, I mumbled. Inside I was screaming, “Just wait until you see what I have in the pack!”
“I’m getting hungry” she replied quietly. Cast.
“Let me throw another couple”, she said. Cast.
So I sat and waited by the truck with the old blue canoe and let her finish out that hole. Later that night we ate that fish fried in cornbread and if memory serves me well, the fish wouldn’t even fit in the 18” cast iron frying pan that was part of our camping kitchen. I’ve told that story dozens of time over the last few years ago with pride at my displayed skill and intuition. The fish tasted great and we had a beautiful evening drinking bourbon and a “free” dinner (licenses, tackle, travel expenses not included in this estimation of “free”). And as it usually turns out, she had caught a couple lunkers in that clear Connecticut River pool and didn’t even mention it until later in the bourbon.
About a year ago, as I was telling the story again to a very appreciative and rapt audience she quietly put an aside to the conversation, “You know, Joseph, that frying pan is really only about 14” and the fish didn’t even fit inside of it.”
So, just like the story of that old blue canoe, those ragged and torn notes, and my fly-fishing career, I was handed the even and obvious truth quietly and without rancor in a simple statement. It’s a lot like fly-fishing if you pay attention.