SOLITUDE


          

                                                                      SOLITUDE

Henri Nouwin wrote; “Solitude is the furnace in which transformation takes place.” It is only during extended periods of solitude that your demons reveal themselves, become known to you, and you name them–as you would a child. In the furnace the soul is hammered, tempered, and forged. But it is the loneliness of solitude that people fear most, making many tragic mistakes in its avoidance; however, it is through solitude that you learn to enjoy your own company and become comfortable with yourself, in spite of yourself.

For me, solitude is the natural order of things. I live alone except for my dog Touch, and although we have our conversations, they tend to be one-sided. Before I got Touch, I would go for months never speaking a word. I once startled myself with the sound of my own voice. I had been doing dishes and had decided to make myself a sandwich. I was spreading mayo onto a slice of bread when it flipped out of my hand and landed in the dishwater. I said, “Damn”, with great conviction, and it startled me as if somebody else had shouted in my ear. Now I talk to Touch daily, which keeps my vocal-cords from becoming petrified.

 Fishing, especially fly-fishing, is a solitary pursuit. The mechanics of fly-fishing and the distance required between the fishermen preclude conversation. When one of my friends goes fishing with me I thoroughly enjoy the company and good conversation, but most of my fishing buddies are family men, and they go fishing in search of solitude and a break from the hassles of family life. Even when we make                              

 

efforts to fish together, the conversations erode into shouting back and forth across the stream until we tire of trying to communicate and wander off to fish alone.

2

          Antoni Gaudi, the architect of the Basilica Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Catalonia Spain, wanted the interior of the church to have the feel of a forest. He thought that man can feel closest to God in a forest and I think that is true. The facade of the Basilica reminds me of the small groves of pines that form where the pine forest gives way to the Aspens just below the timberline. When I see them, it’s easy to understand how the Druids came to worship trees, or why we think of Heaven as being above.

                Living in the intermountain west, wilderness and the solitude it offers is only a thirty-minute drive in any direction, yet, I have met people who have lived here all their lives having never been to the mountains. My trips into the mountains are not initiated by any desire to be spiritual, but by a desire to go fishing; however, once I’m there, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, I feel insignificant. I think of the thousands of years it took to form the mountains, the thousands of years they have stood, and the thousands of years they will stand after I am long gone. I begin to think of my mortality and the door of spiritual awareness swings open. I no longer fear going through. I have shook hands with the demons, stared into their ugly faces, and took responsibility for them. I learned that I’m not such a bad guy in spite of them and consider myself a friend. The question is not whether to go through the door, but whether the Trout will take a dry-fly.

               

 

I have fishing buddies who seem to have an investment in my solitary life style—they tell me I’m their hero. They think that my solitary existence is some heroic statement against the establishment and not the end result of some piss-poor choices coupled with a desire to insulate myself from what had become a vicious cycle of pain and rejection. They don’t realize that after twenty years, the benefits of a solitary lifestyle were long ago reaped. So when I told them that an old girlfriend from high school was coming for a visit, they shouted in unison, “You’re screwed!” They walked off slowly shaking their heads—presumably to don sackcloth and sprinkle ashes on freshly shaven heads—and went home to their wives.

                I don’t have the gift of prophesy that my friends apparently have, so I don’t know if my solitary existence is coming to an end. Perhaps my solitude will be snatched in bits and pieces now, but I know where to go to find it.

                There’s a small creek that runs through a narrow valley surrounded by green mountains. Nobody fishes it because the fish are small, but they are the most brilliantly colored Trout I have ever seen, which tells me it’s a special place, a place of healing. It’s a place I would take a friend, a friend who had a broken heart.   

OBSESSION


                                                                                 THE OBSESSION

 

                My mother was the fisherman in the family. Pop wasn’t into it, so fishing trips were few and far between; however, when we did go, mom got excited, and started her preparations the day before the trip by making dough balls. I don’t remember the exact concoction she used, I wish I did, but the dough balls weren’t for the fish, the dough balls were for the crawdads that she used for bait. She would clean the crawdads down to the tail-meat, and using a cane-pole, bobber, and hook she caught a lot of fish.

                The old man sat on the bank and read a book while mom baited and tended the poles. He never got his hands dirty cleaning crawdads, or landing fish. Mom would have three or four poles going at a time, moving up and down the river bank, catching and cleaning crawdads, baiting hooks, and landing catfish; it was her thing. When we were at the river, she was focused, and it was best to stay out of her way, and not do anything that would scare the fish. It must have been her that showed me how to thread a worm onto a hook, because I had that messy operation firmly planted in my head the first time I saw a guy fly-fishing on TV. I asked my dad what they used for bait and he told me they used flies, “How do they get them on the hook?” I wondered. “They tie them on.” He told me. I got this vision of tying a house fly down on a fishhook, which seemed to me like a tedious operation, so I gave fly-fishing no more thought until one foggy Sunday morning fifteen years later.

                I was heading home through the north Georgia Mountains after spending the weekend helping a friend with a historical preservation project. The sun hadn’t been up long enough to burn off the fog and visibility was poor. I was slowly making my way along when I spotted a guy fly-fishing a pond not far off the road. I pulled over to watch. It was a pretty scene. The fog obscured the man from the waist down; the tip of his rod vanished into the fog above him; the fly-line disappearing and reappearing with the rhythm of his cast. After watching him land a couple of fat Bluegills, I decided to walk over and get a better look at what he was doing. He was standing at the end of a dock that projected into the middle of the pond and when I walked out to where he was standing he was adding another nice fish to his stringer. “Those are some nice fish.” I said.

                “Yeah, I think that’s enough for Breakfast.” He replied. We talked about fishing and he showed me the fly he was using—a yellow and black Bee looking thing—and he gave me a quick casting lesson. I was hooked; I was just as hooked as the fish he was taking home for Breakfast. I stopped at a sporting-goods store on the way home and bought a fly-rod, reel, line, and some flies. From that point, if I wasn’t fly-fishing, I was thinking about fly-fishing.

                I bought books on fly-fishing where I learned that I needed more stuff. I needed more and better fly-rods. I needed a fishing vest—one with lots of pockets—and all the stuff to put in it. I needed a tying vise and tying materials. I needed hip-waders and chest-waders. I needed marriage counseling and a good lawyer. I was possessed by obsession, driven by neurosis, and gripped by fixation. I went to all the fly-fishing meccas and began hanging out at fly-shops, where I learned that I needed more stuff. I read everything I could get my hands on about fly-fishing and studied the life cycle of aquatic insects.

                When I tried to get my wife to relocate to better fly-fishing country, she said that she didn’t want to leave her friends. When I found out that it was just the one friend that she didn’t want to leave, I got the paperwork done and relocated. When I found myself a member of a sub-sub-subculture, collecting Bamboo fly-rods and exclusively dry-fly fishing, I realized that I had a problem; I needed to make more money. I took a job that was seasonal, working six months out of the year so my summers could be devoted to fly-fishing. My winters were taken up with repairing rods, tying flies, and pouring over BLM maps looking for ways into places that I had yet to fish.

                I was incapable of holding a conversation for more than five minutes unless I was talking about fishing. I would watch my dinner date’s eyes glaze over when I mentioned my new reel or a new fly I had come up with. I didn’t want to talk about feelings. I wanted to talk about how a Phillipson taper was better in the wind than a Garrison taper. When I would mention that I had just dropped three grand on a fly-rod, they would get a look in their eyes that I have only seen from scared cats. Relationships lasted until I heard, “Do you have to wear that funny looking hat everywhere we go?” I was incompatible. . . . I bought a dog.

                One day, coming down the canyon after one of the best days of fishing I had ever had, with my Chesapeake Bay retriever sitting on the seat beside me, it hit me. I was living the life that I had read about in all those fly-fishing books. It had only cost me one marriage, four relationships, and a lucrative career. I had arrived.

BOOM BOX SAINT


Word count: 832

                                                                                   BOOM BOX SAINT

   It was my secret place, a place that was like an old friend, a friend you share things with, not just a beer or a pinch of Copenhagen, but inside things. For years I had the place to myself, so when I started running into other fisherman and campers I was defensive and angry. These people needed to get out of my face and go find their own spot. At first it was just one or two here and there and that wasn’t so bad. They seemed like good people, kindred spirits, looking for the same thing that I was looking for, a place to go when you needed to heal your soul, a place to take a friend who had a broken heart.

   It was here that I would perform the yearly ritual of keeping a few Trout for dinner. This of course put me out there on the fringe with some of my friends who would have considered me a murderer, no better than some North Georgia corn-soaker who followed the hatchery truck around until it dumped his dinner into the creek; but, I gave little thought to those friends as I rolled my fish in cornmeal, fried them in Bacon grease, and wash them down with cool creek water liberally laced with Irish whiskey.

   I shared one such meal with a doctor who was traveling across country to New York promoting a children’s book he had illustrated; he gave me a signed copy, which I still have, and it’s one of my prized possessions.

   Then somehow the word got out. Car loads of yuppies began to show up with their brand new gear and ball caps sporting logos for high-dollar fishing gear. They looked down their Ivey League noses at me in my ratty, fish and jelly stained vest and my patched waders. They hadn’t been in the sport long enough to appreciate my antique bamboo rod and probably thought I was just some eccentric old fart, or a bait fisherman in disguise. They had pretty women with them who wouldn’t look you in the eye, as if they were ashamed of the company they were keeping, and their dogs—always retrievers—seemed starved for attention. One scratch behind the ear usually had them hanging out at my camp for the rest of the weekend—the dogs that is. Then the real bait fisherman showed up.

   One afternoon a car with what appeared to be two whole families and some change pulled down the hill and into my camp. They jumped out and scattered like a flock of turkeys. The older children headed upstream throwing rocks in the water; the men headed down stream with their fish poles and bait cans; the women, toddlers, and babies headed for the middle of the stream where they began changing babies, throwing the diapers into the bushes, and shampooing their hair in the creek.

   I decided to head down the creek to get away from them and do some fishing. When I passed the men, I noticed that they were fishing with worms in a section of the creek that was reserved for artificial flies and lures. Thinking that they may not be familiar with the regulations, I stopped and explained to them that they were in the wrong section and told them how to get to the bait fishing section. They nodded and I went on my way. Later, on my way back to camp, I seen they were still fishing with worms. They had a long stringer of fish that was clearly over the limit and I told them again that they were fishing in the wrong place. One of them turned and sneeringly asked me in a heavy Latin accent, “Are you the Game Warden?” I said, “No. I’m the son-of-a-bitch who is going to take down your license number and give it to the Game Warden.” With that they packed up and left. After they left, I filled up a thirty gallon trash bag with the dirty diapers, pop cans, and trash that they had left in their wake.

   Shortly after that I made my last trip to my hideaway. I was camped in my usual spot, and on Friday night I had the place to myself, but Saturday morning a group pulled in and set up camp next to me. Everything seemed fine until the sun went down. Then a party broke out. They cranked up a “Boom Box” full blast, and the drinking, shouting, and loud music went on until about four in the morning when they gradually drifted off to their tents to crash. I waited until I was sure they were good and passed out. Then I quietly broke camp and loaded up my truck. When I was ready to pull out, I slipped through their camp and found the “Boom Box”. I placed it on the trail in front of my truck and run over it on my way out. 

GETTING LOST


1,500 words                                                                           Getting Lost

           

 

 

             The thing that I love most about fly-fishing is the process of becoming immersed in the act, loosing myself in the mechanics of it, forgetting everything but solving the immediate problem of why I’m not catching fish. I often tell myself, mostly when I’m not catching fish, that it isn’t the catching of fish that is important—but it is; it’s the only indication, that out of all the things that could be done wrong, you are doing them right. You don’t have to be a fly-fisherman to leave your troubles behind when fishing, but sitting in a shack watching a hole in the ice, or sitting on a bucket staring at a bobber, waiting for a fish to find your stink bait, leaves a guy with too much time to think, too much time to let the dark thoughts creep in, thoughts of failed relationships, missed opportunities, and fiscal cliffs, causing you to reach for a bottle—and a gun.

            The escape that fly-fishing offers is in the focus required to be successful. For me this starts in the planning stages of a trip, in choosing where I want to fish and which rod I want to use. I may have a rod that I’ve neglected for a while, or one that is a particular favorite that I need to commune with. There may be a piece of water that has been nagging at me, whispering to me, begging me to return. I start thinking about what that water looked like the last time I was there and what it looks like now.

            Depending on the time of year, I can make a good guess at the stream conditions. In the spring, the water can change from day to day, but in the summer, after the spring runoff, the choices of where to go and what to use can be made with more certainty. However, when you get to the stream, you may find all of your prior headwork undone by water color, level, and rate of flow. In the spring, the water can be put off color by the runoff washing sediment down from the sides of the mountains. In the summer, a stream can be clouded by a passing thunderstorm. These showers can be quite localized, affecting one side-canyon while leaving others untouched, causing just a small section of a creek to change color. If there has been a recent burn of a side canyon, or network of canyons, the effect on a stream can be extreme and even dangerous. It’s surprising how little rain it takes to send a ten-foot wall of water rushing down a small canyon.

            If the water is only slightly cloudy, I’ll fish it, but if I can’t see the bottom and debris is floating down, I find somewhere else to fish. I have a rule: If I can’t see the bottom I don’t wade. If the water is murky due to the spring runoff, you could step in a hole and go in over your head and get swept down river with the rest of the trash. Sometimes the creek may be clear but running at a high level, and this can make for some good fishing, but crossing the stream and getting into prime casting position can be tricky.

            When the water is running higher than normal, a familiar stretch of water can look totally alien to you, and what was a nice riffle with well-defined feeding lanes now has no distinguishing features, and what was a back eddy is now part of the main current. But reading water is reading water; the back eddies and riffles are still there, they’ve just moved; the fish are still there, they’ve just relocated, moving to places where they expend less of their energy to stay in position.          

            The night before any trip into the mountains I check the weather report, looking at wind speed and direction. Once I have an idea of the wind conditions, I make my final choice of destination and what rod I think will work best. Knowing what kind of wind I am likely to face gets me thinking about leader length and weight.

            Besides the wind, whether or not the day is sunny or overcast can determine length of the leader and tippet weight. On bright sunny days the Trout are more likely to see you coming before you are within casting distance. With the object of keeping the heavier fly-line as far away from the target area as possible, a longer cast may be necessary, requiring a longer leader. A combination of bright sunlight and clear water may make lighter tippet material desirable. If planning the trip, checking wind charts, choosing rods, leaders, and tippets hasn’t gotten your mind focused, deciding what fly to use will probably do the trick.       

            The idea that you are trying to fool fish with artificial representations of natural aquatic insects will cause even the most casual fly fisherman to become a half-assed entomologist. Learning what insects are likely to be present on a given stream, at a particular time of the year, and at what stage of development, can seem beyond the understanding of the poor fisherman; however, you quickly learn to reduce the long Latin names to the one and two word names of the artificial patterns that represent them. The different stages of most riparian insects can be reduced to two, the nymph, or underwater stage, and the hatched out adult fly. The kinds of flies, for fishing purposes, can be reduced to four; the Stone, Caddis, Mayfly, and terrestrial: Terrestrials being insects that live out most of their lives on dry land such as crickets, ants, and grasshoppers.

            To represent these flies, thanks to generations of nefarious fly tiers, we have hundreds of commercially tied flies to choose from. Indeed, you can sink into depravity and tie your own flies, concocting your own evil recipes, naming them after your ex-wife—Dirty Alice. I have known old-timers who fished all of their lives using one fly, the Double Renegade, and they catch a lot of fish, so it really doesn’t need to be that complicated.

            When choosing a fly, I go through the ritual of shaking the willow bushes to see what flies are resting in them. I strain the creek with my aquarium net and try to match what I collect with something from my fly-box—then tie on an Adams. I sometimes tie a dropper nymph to the hook-bend of my dry-fly; it’s a good way to figure out what the Trout are up to.

            Although I have plenty of commercially tied flies in my box, it’s more fun to use the ones I tied. Tying flies is an excellent way to occupy your mind during those long winter months when you are cooped up in the house, when you, the dog, and the old hides equally stink. As spring approaches and my fly-boxes have been replenished, I begin playing around with the traditional patterns and coming up with my own versions. Most commercial flies are tied in Taiwan now, but I still run into locally tied flies in out of the way little fly-shops, and when I do, I pick up a dozen or so to help the guy out. I also tie my own leaders and enjoy experimenting with different formulas for those.

            Casting is another aspect of the sport that has its devotees. Some people enjoy going to casting competitions and hardly ever actually fish. I am not a great caster. I only have a few casts that I have mastered well enough to get by with. Once I learned how to adjust the plane of the cast to avoid obstacles behind me my life became much easier, as long as I remember to look behind me first. I use the traditional forward cast and the roll cast mostly, but the reach cast and single haul cast are handy tools as well.

            I try to get on the left side of a creek and move up slowly, casting tight to the left bank with a forward cast, then working the fly across with a series of roll casts until I get the fly next to the right bank. I found that a roll cast delivered at a forty-five degree angle toward the right bank will have enough built-in mend to give the fly a long drift without having to mend the line, and for me at least, it works better than a reach cast.

            Every aspect of the sport presents the angler with opportunities for becoming totally engrossed; from making your own rod and tying your own flies and leaders, to learning all the casts and how to read the water. You can find books written by experts on every facet. You can take it as far as you wish. You can take it too far. You can take it just far enough to get lost in the process.

KINDRED SPIRITS


Word count: 1235                                         Kindred Spirits

By

ROBERT ROBINSON

I came west from the southeast, where the rivers are wide and their banks muddy. One river that I fished back east was more cesspool than river, and it makes me cringe now when I think of what must have been on my hands as I stripped my fly-line through my fingers. Most of the bridges had a fisherman’s access, a place to park with a foot path leading down to the river and along the bank. One day as I approached one of these bridges with the intention of wetting a fly, I could see that the side with the easier access was occupied and I would be forced to take the side with the much steeper path.

After stringing up my rod, I walked over to look at the steep, muddy path. It looked more like a drop-off than a path, but I thought I could make it. It’s funny how you can deceive yourself when you want to get to a fishing hole. Looking over at the opposite bank I caught sight of the other angler. He was sitting on a bucket with his tackle box, bait can, and cooler within easy reach. His poles were propped up on forked sticks and I counted three bobbers floating about thirty feet in front of him. He was a bait fisherman. Not a problem I thought; after all, he was a fisherman, and therefore a kindred spirit. I raised my hand in greeting, but my gesture was ignored. Not a problem I thought; after all, there was plenty of river for the both of us.

Looking down from the head of the path, I noticed some old bridge pillars sticking about two feet out of the mud. I had made it about half way down when my feet shot out from under me. I remember looking up at my boots as I went over the embankment and landed on one of the old pillars. I lay there for some time with the wind knocked out of me, making strange sucking sounds. When I was finally able to sit up and pull up my shirt to check the damage, I had a gash under my left breast that ran around my torso and disappeared from sight. I looked to the other bank thinking that I would see my fellow angler showing some sign of concern, perhaps even offering to come and give me a hand. What I saw was him disappearing over the top of the hill with his fish poles, cooler, and bucket. It wasn’t until then that I noticed that my “kindred spirit” belonged to a demographic that nowadays prefers to be called “little people”.

Using the offending pillar, I pulled myself upright and slowly made my way back up the hill, gasping out Randy Newman’s hit song “Short People” through clinched teeth.

Over the years I have met some good people on the water, developing friendships that sometimes lasted for decades, and sometimes lasted for only a day. Some of these friends I still fish with, but some have passed on, and we now fish waters of memory.

I had taken a job that placed me slap in the middle of some of the best fly-fishing in the country. I had weekends off, so on Fridays after work I headed for the river, set up camp, and fished until late Sunday evening. Fishing a big western river was not only new to me, but mind blowing. I didn’t have a clue. I would pound the river for twelve hours straight and catch one or two fish. It was frustrating, as I could see other fisherman hauling in one fish after another. I tried to learn from watching the more productive anglers, but it wasn’t working. I was submerged in a festering morass of ignorance. The other fishermen seemed unfriendly and unwilling to impart any information. After all, I was just another rube with out of state plates. My inexperience shinned like a glittering jewel in a goat’s ass—I had an old fiberglass rod when everybody else used graphite, my waders could be more accurately described as ditch boots, and my fishing vest was a pair of bib overalls. Clearly, I had not paid the initiation fee to be in their fraternity. But help was on the way in the shape of a kindly old man named Ed Jones.

I met Ed on a cold, foggy Sunday morning. He was sitting on the back of his jeep struggling into his waders, and when I walked up to him he looked me up and down and exclaimed, “Well goddamn!” It was a greeting that I would hear from him many times in the coming years.

Ed was in his mid-sixties. His head had a thick covering of white hair and his frame was bent from years of hard work. The joints of his hands were swollen from Arthritis and he had special magnifiers on his thick glasses so he could see to tie on his flies. As he geared up we made small talk. I told him that I was from back east and would be in the area working for the next few months. He told me he fished there rain or shine every Sunday. He told me that he thought of the river as his Church, and it was on the river that he felt closest to his Maker. I noticed that he kept looking at my rod and I started to feel a little self-conscious.

When he was rigged up and I was about to be on my way, he grabbed my rod and began rebuilding my leader complete with flies from his box. As he worked on my leader, he explained to me what he was doing and, more importantly, why he was doing it. Satisfied that he had me squared away he handed me back my rod and told me to follow him.

That day under Ed’s tutelage I went from catching one or two fish a day to catching four and five an hour. When we parted that evening he said, “I’ll see you next Sunday.” It was a fishing date that I kept for the next three months. A few years later, I relocated to the area and we picked up where we left off.

Over the years Ed became crippled with age and came to rely on me to help him. I built his leaders, tied on his flies, and helped him with his waders. He leaned on me as we moved up and down the river, his weight becoming lighter with each passing year. We had gotten into the habit of calling each other during the week to talk fishing and make plans for the next Sunday, so one week when I hadn’t heard from him by Friday I gave him a ring. I was surprised to hear a strange voice on the other end; it was his son who informed me that Ed had passed on earlier that week.

I haven’t fished that river since that last Sunday we fished there together. I go there though, to look, sit, and think. When the clouds slide down the mountain and hide the river in foggy mist, I can almost see him casting—there—at the edge of sight . . . and I say, “Well goddamn.”

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.