Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Good, the Bad & the Beautiful

Heyyyy, Vick-tore!
I say the name of my friend, whose full blooded Italian heritage means culinary expertise and mood disorder on a white table cloth, making my voice gravelly over the phone, an end to end connection that used to run fifteen miles but now numbers in the thousands.  His Uncle Jimmy, from the North End of Boston, perhaps a made man, perhaps not, but apparently always evincing immediate attention by the impressionable child Victor at the other end, made for a good story.  Victor is always good for a story it seems and more.

One day I made the mistake of fishing a beautiful pool on the upper Presumpscot River outside Falmouth Maine on the only stretch reserved for catch and release.  I had just moved back to Maine and begun making friends with the local fly tribe.  I had been fishing trout on Oregon's Deschutes and felt these small eastern fish less than worthy but still entertaining.  On this day I felt completely in the zone.  Fishing nymphs I slammed rainbows,  brookies and even a small landlocked salmon before the pool quieted. Alone, I had only the satisfaction of my own smile to keep me company.  As I exited the water, I happened to glance upstream from a new vantage point and felt an involuntary shudder.  "No fishing within 100 feet of the Dam" read the sign.  I didn't need a tape measure to know I was way too close and that my pool was probably home to those resident salmonids smart enough to seek shelter beyond an invisible regulatory fence. I could have kept this to myself, but hubris combined with stupidity reaps its own reward. I told Victor.

A day or so later, I noticed the light flashing on my answering machine.
The message started.  "This is Hom-ah Jahn-son and I am looking for Mr. Barry Woods.  I am a game warden out of the Gray Fish & Wildlife office.  I tried to stop you on Tuesday when I saw you fishing illegally below the dam on the Presumpscot Riv-ah.  I got yawr license plate from yawr vee-hicle and and I would like to ask you a few questions.  I am not in the office now but I will caul you back shortly."

I knew immediately it had to be Victor.  But, the sound of noise from my circulatory system in my ear drums being what it was, I listened to it again. And again. And again.  I listened to the pronunciation of each syllable of the Maine accent for some Massachusett's giveaway, the hesitations, the tone, the inflections.  I listened to each word for the slightest whiff of betrayal.  I listened to it an hour later, after my reasoning returned and my ears refreshed. Again, not a hint of bluff or skulduggery.  It laid out straight and true like the cast from a Sage RPL 8 weight.   Try as I might I did not hear Victor.  YOU HAVE GOT TO BE SHITTIN ME, I get busted the very first time I fish the Presumpscot? My happy daze over a dozen trout dissolved into a fresh reality involving a fine and public humiliation.

Since I was raised with the innate paradox of hubris and conscience,  I had always believed it worth the effort to cleanse character of sinful behavior (and, no, I was not raised Catholic, but by a single mother and practicing Christian Scientist, a story I will NOT get into here) I sought refuge again in the truth.  I called the Gray barracks and asked for Warden Homer Johnson.  The voice on the other end paused thoughtfully and said, "Well, we do have a Warden Johnson but he is not currently stationed here. I can give you his number.  Can I ask what it's about?" To which, being dumb but not stupid, I replied, "Well, I got a call from him and expect him to call me back.  Thanks for your help."

I called Victor.  I started to explain the story of the phone message and my effort to call the barracks but he broke in to reassure me. "Barry, it was an honest mistake.  There's no way they are going to bother with you.  The wardens up here are really good guys and will cut you slack.  I just hope you didn't get a call from a warden named Homer Johnson, he's an incredible hard ass." His voice broke ever so slightly.

Tears burned down my cheeks in disgrace, and I had to hold the phone arms length from my mouth. I began laughing.  Even at that distance I could easily hear chortles of contentment from the earpiece.

Thus began a beautiful friendship, based on ball busting and splashy striped bass takes.  Once while fishing the Cape,  I begged him to leave me on a flat in Nauset Inlet so I could fish a seam that had a good rip starting to dump water into a hole, ignoring his concern over the rising tide.  After dropping me, he pulled his 18 ' Parker back into the main channel and started to get it back on plane, when two guys anchored nearby in a skiff, having observed this, called to him and asked him what was he thinking?   He replied that as the tide starts to rise, and I start to wave my arms, just ignore me.  A half hour later, I knew I had a big problem, but then, miraculously came Victor's boat into view from around the next bend at full throttle.  He pulled me aboard breathlessly, even before I could thank him, saying he had found the fish in a quiet cove up the inlet and that we would have the place to ourselves.

I sat there, ashamed, and said, "Vic, that's the difference between you and me.  I would never have left the fish."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

From Oregon to Oregon Beach

How often does life present intersections of meaning whereby we find ourselves immersed in a moment that we find vivid and real, only to find that it connects to other realities?  Does that make sense? Have I told you that I majored in English and Religion?  If not, perhaps you could tell, inasmuch the neural network has now been in place for some thirty years.  I speak of course of fish, not some abstruse theologian.
This collection of moments occurred on a certain beach on a spit of land, known as Cape Cod, a vast glacial moraine, the terminus of an ice age glacier  whose foot receded and dropped the ground down contents of mother earth's best and hardest rock, igneous and metamorphic (I presume), leaving a vast ecosystem based upon sand and scrub pine.  I love this place as it is in my veins, for we now that saltwater is the same ph as our blood, and that many of us are destined to return to its gyre.  I have to state here, for the record, that Larry Dahlberg and I have similar imaginations inasmuch as we both wish to be cremated and our ashes placed in a plug that can be easily broken off in the maw of our favorite gamefish.  For Larry it will be a muskie and for me it will be a bluefish, preferably a surface take, splashy and messy and full of evil intent.  But I digress.
After a hiatus of fifteen plus years, my law school friends and I re-acquainted as a group in Cape Cod to extract joy from its coastal waters.  I had high hopes for them to be introduced to bluefish and stripers, in that order.  Of course, as fate often does, we actually accomplished these goals, with some brief hesitations.
Our best event was striking bluefish from the beach on Vineyard Sound.  Never having been party to their ravenous natures, my friends were spellbound.  Hit upon hit upon hit, on the surface, slugging it out, eye's sclera flashing yellow and incensed, aiming toward hand, finger and throat, the mayhem continued unabated for at least two hours, although I did not keep actual track. I recall all four rods doubled over, yelling, laughing, and the unleashing of joy, as only the office bound can do when confronted with the best of all alternatives.
These were good fish, four to eight pounds, hot and agitated, and wanting only to slam the shit out of the next surface commoting popper, be it a pink Pili popper or a white pencil popper.  We saw the same fish target, execute and miss, once, twice, and three times.  This was classic excellent bluefish action.  My friends received the finest treat.
Next were large stripers, a different personality.  Bursts of sprinter speed, finicky yet positively charged, they held us captive in a rip until my friend Steve connecting on his first cast, brought a large bass to shore across a cobbly beach and I made a misstep.  This was a good fish, hefting 18 lbs and with a tandem hook sluggo in its mouth.  After subduing it, Steve asked quite reasonably for a picture.  My boga grip being attached to my waist so I could not easily free it for him to hold, I released the fish and told him to grab it by the lips.  Big Mistake.  As he hefted it, the fish initiated a slow motion head shake that freed itself from his hand and pulled the free trailer hook downward into his left index finger, to the curve of the shank.  I saw how bad it was.  I saw the fish in the rip.  I saw how bad it was.  I saw the fish in the rip, just where they were supposed to be. " Fuck".  "Fuck".  For all the effort and sublime pleasure forgone.  For my friend in need of immediate attention.  For life whose balance while, not hanging by a thread, nonetheless felt worn and tortured.  My first cast elicited a strike and a miss.  What would fortune have held for me had I not had to go to Hyannis's ER? I will never know.
After doffing his Yankee's hat at 6am at the intake desk, Steve was asked what his level of pain was?  The pictoral board showed happy to crying, from one to ten.  Steve thought about it, I am sure he thought hard, and mustered a "2".
Hmmmmmm. A "2"? I left the beach for a "2"?  My first thought was to tweak his finger to see what a "2" really felt like.  My second thought was to leave him in good hands and return hours later after he had a chance to flirt with all the ER staff sufficiently.  My last thought, as expressed to him, was that I had taken shits higher than 2 on the pain scale and that I left fish to bring him to this place of healing.  Next time I will leave my friend on the beach until the moment is past.
But it is the stories, and not the fish, that end up being burned into our consciousness.  Or so I rationalize! Ha!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Fever

Strange how, despite the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, a seasonal fever strikes with the same pulse quickening and mind captivating intensity.  I know this feeling.  It always happens at the beginning of the season, after a long winter and the imagination has run cold.  It starts like a dry throat looking for water, as tackle fliers start to arrive in the mail.  It starts when you have watched the same episode of Larry Dahlberg's "The Hunt for Big Fish" again and again, and though you can't stomach to hit the delete on the DVR, you still feel...unsatisfied.  You find yourself poring over old tackle, sharpening old hooks, looking at the fly inventory, checking reels, reviewing tides and moon phases for the upcoming season in your mind. You check the same listservs again for recent information and fishing reports.  Such an irresponsible use of time.  There is guilt associated with this fever.  It lingers after you have clicked the "Buy" button on a particular plug you have been meaning to try out.  You reason that even if you never use it you can always save it and covet it in the future, perhaps even sell it, like the "Hab's Squid Popper" still in its original wrapper, its plugmaker notoriously meticulous and respected and now dead, the plug beginning to accrue appreciated value.  You have the reverse Atom, in cider color, still in its package, acquired for a song from the Army Navy store in downtown Portland, Maine.  That store in Monument Square is now closed.  The plug remains.  You even have an image of that plug being cast by spinning rod off a small skiff when you were in 7th grade, its bottle shape lolling on the surface, slowly filing with water, driving huge bluefish crazy.  You wish you had saved the big jointed Pikie that you ran behind an umbrella rig, a plug that was brutalized and ultimately sacrificed in the teeth laden maw of those gator blues.  When you lived in Maine, you used an old ceiling beam in the basement, above your tying bench, to hold retired lures and flies.  They earned their place on that beam, bite by bite, and bit and bit.  So when you look at those plugs and flies, a fish, a snapshot, a moment would be resurrected from the past, the ocean smell, the burn of salt in a finger cut by the line, the sunrising to reveal slashing fish and frenzied bait.  The fever is not stemmed by being fed, it only grows more ravenous.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Salmonberry River- Eden in the Moss.

AARP- Not just a gastronomical sound! Well, it really is. But enough of the aging process.

I did actually hear this sound last weekend from my gut, after hiking back on mile 11 (notably between milepost 814 and 815 on the Tillamook R.R.) on the Salmonberry River, a coastal, rain fed, Oregon river, a tributary of the mighty Nehalem river, hosting one of the few untouched native runs of steelhead that top 20 pounds. This was an adventure I had savored in my imagination for more years than I care to admit.

I set out from home and arrived at the confluence by 8:00a and suited up. The river was renowned but had lately taken it on the chin by a tempest in December 2007. The flood cit out the bank beneath many turns of the railroad bed, leaving it literally hanging free in many places, testament to man's inability to envision the rigors of nature. The repair would be astronomical, into the tens of millions, far in excess of the value of using the route by the Tillamook lumber companies that used it. They now ship their wares by boat. What is left is decrepitating and will make the route impassable, even easily by foot, in a few years. So, my timing is good to enjoy a route that is relatively accessible, for the moment.

I elected to hike two hours before fishing because the sedimentation of the lower stretch of the mainstem renders the stretch broad and featureless. Hiking farther up the mainstem the river turns into classic steelhead water, deep pools, rapids, edges, cobble, the very thing that attracts fish and with them fishermen.

When I finally started to fish, I nymphed with a "lifter", a beadhead egg pattern. Finally, walking along the railroad bed, I saw holding water above a rapid with one large fish across the river, holding, dropping, then returning to position. The drop to the river is steep and the path must be selected carefully. I dropped down well below the fish's line of sight. Wading out I knew that I had few plausible shots before the fish would spook. Carefully, I made four casts and worked the drift out the the strike zone. Almost surreally the indicator stopped and I reacted. The fish boiled, its mass tight to the line. It was a good fish- I saw it and felt it. It shook its head, moved head down, thrashing hard, its tail momentarily breaking the surface as it worked against the pressure. Bright and heavy, it started to move upstream and at that moment it came unbuttoned. My sense of time when attached to a good fish is always sealed in the moment. I can't say that I was disappointed because it was unexpected, even though I had believed I would catch it. That is the paradox of fishing. Released, it moved upstream to safety, while I reeled in and watched my hands begin to shake.

My effort felt rewarded even though I will spend the rest of the day wondering why I hadn't sharpened the hook or been better able to anticipate the take. Six hours of walking for four seconds of thrill. How bizarre the calculus leading to satisfaction.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Turning 5-0 and condensing experience into meaningful sound bites

So, at the almost ripe middle age of fifty, I feel that time urges me to share some observations about my most favorite avocation.

This journey began when I was ten years old and was taken "deep sea fishing" on the Lynnway Marine in Lynn, Massachusetts. This was a small party or head boat that brought us barely outside the harbor's entrance, where we dropped our lines using Penn Senator reels and Christmas Tree rigs, which are small pieces of fluorescent tubes tied in sequence, pre-dating Sabiki rigs by over thirty years. Mackerel were the target and they obliged.. and obliged... to the tune of forty fish, brought home in a plastic bucket and cleaned in the backyard on a cement bench. I am certain many were not eaten as no one I know has ever asked me over for a mackerel feed, and for good reason.

Yet even with the slight heft of a mackerel, the moment of hook-up remained etched in my memory, a living connection between myself and the natural world that was tangible, mysterious and fun, all of which are components of any joyful experience.

And so began an odyssey of sorts, evolving over may years, and including summer days left by my mother at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, Massachusetts, learning how to catch panfish with worm and bobber, how to pull nightcrawlers from the suburban lawns of my neighborhood, watching mesmerized as an old-timer waded out and caught huge largemouth bass casting rebels along the edge of a patch of lilypads with spinning gear. He illustrated in stark relief the difference between pretending and knowing, faith and certainty.

I fished for stripers from shore during their crash, a cycle of desoluteness, in the mid-1970's and 80's. I recall snorkeling at the age of 13 off of Rockport's Cape Hedge beach and encountering a small school bass that took me a moment to identify... because I had never seen them before. They appeared and disappeared, striped apparitions hovering above the sandy bottom, perhaps 18 inches long. If they lived today they would be over thirty odd years old and far larger than the all time tackle specimen Al McReynolds caught. I spent many hours thereafter trying to figure out how to connect with these fish. I even fished hard in 1974 and 1975 off of Truro for a week with a friend who had a 14 foot dory and a 20hp outboard. We trolled christmas tree rigs with large jointed pikies, tony acetta spoons trimmed with pork rind, hoochie trolls, and large rebels. We cast reverse atoms that took on water and cut long sliding curves on the retrieve. Never did we see or catch a bass, always bluefish and the very largest kind, some topping fifteen pounds. As I look back it is astounding that we found no bass off of Horseshoe Shoal in Cape Cod Bay, only bluefish. I am, however, forever indebted to blues for having tenacity and incredible power, even on conventional gear with wire.

I am embarrassed to admit that I did not finally connect with bass until I was almost thirty, in part because I left fishing behind as I pursued school, livelihood and love. My first bass came while casting a surface popper off of Old Silver Beach in a summer evening, off a jetty. I cannot even recall the stage of the tide, except that there was decent depth. The fish hit almost immediately, as if I cast on top of it and it defended its space by a slashing strike. I looked at it with a mixture of relief and alarm. I saw a fish that had long eluded me and at the same time, since my in-laws lived up the street, I saw I would be plagued by impulses to find more. And that is what happened.

After pursuing trout out west, I came to that moment where I knew salt flowed through my veins and could not be dismissed. More later.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fear Not the Darkness

Thus spake... a fisherman devoted to the transitory moments that allow such excesses. I had the chance to fish, and fish hard, in early October of 2010. My best fishing buddy was set to retire and start turning eight or more wheels on his rather excessive RV. He had not fished with me for more than a year. I had a full weekend. Full, at least in the sense of 48 hours of uninterrupted time, coinciding with the new moon tides of October, which brought the fastest tidal flow of the year and the highest tides amid the peak of the southward migration of fish. We had high hopes and enough stored middle age energy to suggest possibility.
I had spent several weeks of sleepless tossing and turning, devoting my unconscious to tracking a list of suggestions for my conscious time. I replaced braided line. I shipped extra soft plastics. I concerned my waking hours with children, spouse, dog, and big bass.
When the moment(s) came, I arrived early with clean, fresh knots. My first fish on a new surf rod weighed in at 20 pounds, tied for one of my largest bass. Not a good omen. For I know, after more than a few days at this game, what fortune presents, and seldom does it allow two such opportunities. The next day I landed a 12 pound fish for the table along with its kindred cousin, the bluefish, in a momentary blitz at South Cape beach. These were well-deserved fish but hard won in their own right. When Dan arrived, after I had the chance to scope out the terrain, we fished hard and found little. I did land a 15lb bass (seen in the picture) but other than some bluefish, that was all. The good news is that a weekend with your best fishing buddy has less to do with fish than life. And so, we persevered, from Race Point to Wellfleet, where we observed two late model cars enjoy a cleansing dip from an unusually high tide. Their owners probably sea kayaking and would return to cars with fish swimming over their floorboards.
And so Cape Cod continues to crawl under my skin and soul, making me wait with unkind anticipation, when our futures will next cross.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Hubris of Drag

I never learn. Or at least my reflexes don't, and since they must reflect some unconscious element of my character, apparently in dire need of improvement, I must take serious note of them. I have lost a few fish in my life, most of the modest sort, and for excuses too easily given and then forgiven. The lost fish that hurt the most are those that, in the quiet moments of reflection, usually done in questionable company and with too much to drink, make you realize you missed something truly, irretrievably special. A large fish. An old fish. A beautiful fish. A fish who cost you a toll of exhaustion, money, and ego, all repaid with a pigtail of broken promises. A fish that would have provided bragging rights to extinguish the glee of others in their own mid-tale of piscatorial accomplishments.
My most recent lesson, and one which I do think has finally penetrated like a ball peen hammer to my frontal cerebral cortex, was on the Pacific Ocean (it should be a proper noun if you have ventured out on it), thirty miles offshore of Astoria, Oregon, a place we arrived at only after crossing the Columbia River bar and making tedious passage for three hours until the water turned from muddy green to luminous navy and cobalt. A small group of flyfishers, half of whom had not partaken of this relatively new and accessible form of saltwater recreation, Pacific Longfin Albacore, formed this merry band of brothers.
I had devoted a few hours tying and preparing large deceivers out of synthetic hair, ultra-hair, bucktail, grizzlyed saddle hackle, flashabou, and krystal flash with epoxied eyes and a deadly stinger hook tied tandem off the Gammie main 7/0. The flies looked good. I added blood red gill with marker. I even thought to bring swivels, realizing at the last moment that flies on the troll tended to twist. To the best of my ability, everything was in order.
These fish are ridiculous. I have heard people say that tuna are a slugfest, a down and dirty game involving grunting and ridiculous rod angles. While this is all true, they are amazing. Gaffed, they present like taunt lycra bags stretched over superheated muscle. If they are allowed their head down, their tails, which look frayed and worn, cut the water like an amphetamine drumbeat. I have caught smaller versions, the aptly named False Albacore, on the fly which I had thought "red hot," a description which now seems...false. Longfin Albacore have outsized pectoral wings designed to cut the water and provide lift and draft(?), their finlets blaze yellow (God knows what they are for) and they have a body that should, by rights sink to the deep, except for a tail stock that tapers to a knuckle and fin.
I have never lost a flyline to a fish, at least not an entire flyline. My first fish brought that hubris, that, what are thinking fish to try to take me this far into my backing. I tightened and the backing bit into itself, parting like two mismatched lovers after the hangover wears off. Hubris makes us think that we can contain the explosive fueled run of a fish who knows nothing of the "game" and all about the tension on its jaw that seems to come from nowhere and tries to control its freedom. It must not be panic, at first, but instinct, which finds a gearbox and moves the levers and makes the thrust possible.
My failing is to think that any first run can be contained by hand and reel and drag. It must be endured and appreciated, like the decanting of an Oregon Pinot Noir. I love the moment that the knob strikes my index finger with such force as to cause nerve damage. We should all fight so, when the moment is at hand. It is hubris to think that we can control the fate of a fish, much less of ourselves.