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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

hands free commandos


It was an early September morning, the beginning of what we call the “Fall Run” and the fishing had been unbelievable. It wasn't because I had cracked any code, I had just wandered into the right place at the right time. Things had started as the sun rose over slack-water at the top of the tide and had stayed consistent during the first of the drop. The fish were all cookie-cutter twenty to twenty-two-inch striped bass. I was casting from a high spot into a rock garden that held about six feet of water. The water was exceptionally clear and as the sun climbed higher and the tide dropped I could see the fish swimming back and forth among the rocks. The stripes had a mix of bait penned into the rocks and were feeding sub-surface. It was a big school. I had fished this spot several times during the fall in the past out of my boat and had seen schools of hundreds of stripers in these rocks. I probably would have walked by on this morning had it not been for a few tails splashing that I caught out of the corner of my eye while rigging the nine-weight.



About halfway through the drop I saw two other fly fishermen a good distance down the beach. I designated them Tango One and Tango Two. In between casts I would check their position and noticed Tango One moving closer with each fish that I caught. After I had released a half dozen or so fish he was no more than thirty feet off my right shoulder.  He made a few casts and would make the infamous “rod-under-the-arm-two-handed-high-speed-turbo-retrieve.” As he did this I could hear him talking. I didn’t pass judgment; I talk to myself when I’m fishing. 



The water had dropped enough that he could get out to a small section of sandy bottom that I had been fishing the edge of. He started to walk out and I went tight to another fish and as I was stripping it in I heard him say, “Get up here, he caught another one…it’s on fire up here!”



At this point I realized Tango One was talking to Tango Two via Blue Tooth. I looked down the beach at Tango Two and saw him begin to make his way up to where we were. It was about to get crowded and I don’t like crowds. There was plenty of beach to move to but I had a good thing going and was not keen on giving it up. I decided to hold my ground and let things play out.



I released my fish and watched as they took up spots thirty feet in front of me and to my right. I was casting straight out from the rocks. The current was running at a soft angle from my left to the right which brought my fly just a few feet in front of them on the last few strips. I thought this would send them a message to back off a little. It did not. Instead they both started casting up-current and perpendicular to my casting lane. I stood in disbelief and watched them cast. They were both two-handed-turbo stripping but they couldn’t keep up with the current and their flies were making it back to them before the lines. Situational awareness was weak with these two.


I moved another thirty or forty feet to my left and went back to casting. All morning I had been retrieving the line in short, staggered strips. Nearly every fish had taken the fly on the drop in the pause between strips. These were happy fish and not expending a lot of energy to feed because there was so much bait in front of them. I think I could have drifted a Beanie Baby in front of them and they would have eaten it. The slow strip continued to work and I brought a couple more fish to hand. Each time the Tango Twins saw me hooked up they began to cast and turbo strip faster and faster. I understand the reasoning for the two-handed strip but it’s a tool, not necessarily something needed in every circumstance. Watching them made me think of the first fight between Batman and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane says, “You fight like a younger man, nothing held back…admirable but mistaken.”



I hooked up again and Tango Two broke out his fly box. He and Tango One spent several minutes thumbing through the box. I threw another cast and let my mind wander as I Granny-stripped the fly.



I had a Caesar Salad once at Carmichael’s in Chicago. It was amazing. I was there with my friends Jay and Z (not to be confused with the rapper) to watch the Patriots play the Bears. We didn’t have tickets. We watched the game at Mother Hubbard’s with about two hundred other Pats fans and my buddy, Mike Davis from FalseEchoes.com who had driven in to meet us. The night is a blur. I don’t remember who won the game, I’ve tried to forget saying I would cover the bar tab and I think it was snowing when we walked around the corner to Rossi’s. But I remember everything about that salad. The Romaine was torn to perfect fork size, the dressing had just enough anchovy and the grated parmesan added extra taste and texture to make it a full meal. I ate slow and savored every bite. For ten minutes, I blocked out everything around me other than that salad and the Jack and Diet in front of me. Salads like that don’t come along very often. Neither do mornings like that one. So, I did my best to block out the fly fashion show the two Tango’s were having and kept fishing.



Eventually they tied on new flies and went back to casting into the current and turbo stripping. I went tight to another fish and decided it was time to move. This time I held the fish up out of the water before I released it. Tango Two dug the fly box back out.



As I made up my line I walked over to them and said, “It ain’t the fly.”



Neither one said anything but confusion was in their eyes. And they were in fact both equipped with Blue Tooth’s.



“It ain’t the fly, anything you throw will get bit. Cast straight out, let the current swing the fly and work it back with slow strips. Let the current make the fly breath. Strip it with one hand. Slow.”



They both took heed and made casts straight out. It only took a few SLOW strips and Tango Two was on. Tango One stuck his rod under his arm and dug his camera out to capture the moment. As Tango Two held the fish for the photo, Tango One, who had left line in the water got bit and as the fish took the slack up in the line his rod went flying out from under his arm. It was a shit show for a few seconds but he grabbed it before it got too far.



All I could say was, “Wow. Hands free.”



I turned to head up the beach and one of them asked me if I was done for the day.




“Nah, I’m gonna’ go get a salad.”





From the Journal
2 August 2017

Monday, July 3, 2017

Running Lines


I know the road without having to look at it. I’ve travelled over it more times than I can remember.  It twists and turns and flows along the straightaways under a cathedral of pines. It struggles up the hills in the heat of the sun and coasts down the backside into the shade.  It takes me from the water and leads me to it.

I’ve run this road. I’ve felt the change of its elevation in my legs and the inconsistencies of its surface through my feet. I’ve cursed it for taking my breath and praised it for allowing me to catch it. I’ve run effortlessly down its center and struggled along its soft shoulder. I’ve run it alone in silence and deep in conversation alongside my sister. Together at times but more often on our own we’ve run that road to gain distance from something, to find a way through dark times and get to the other side. Sometimes we’ve run just to keep moving. Sometimes we’ve run just because we’ve needed to. It’s one of the things we share as siblings. The road isn’t about pavement and miles, it’s about life and living.

Turning off the road on to the dirt lane that is the driveway, the boulders and trees that line its short length filter the noise and calls of the world behind them. It’s different on this side. The transition from one to the other is unexplainable yet palpable. It’s not unlike the feeling of returning home after an extended absence; familiar and comfortable but momentarily awkward until greetings are exchanged and the proverbial dust gathered since the last visit is brushed away.

The camp stands to one side as the trees give way to the water. It sits in the back of a small cove that looks south down the length of the lake.  It’s called “Camp” but it’s really been the summer residence of my sister and her family for several years. Eventually they will make their permanent home here. Ironically, as I have come to live on the water and in the sun, so has she.

The road has brought the family here today. We’ve come together to share a meal, stories of the past and news of the present. The day has been overshadowed by sorrow for those now departed but brightened in the solace of us all being together. I sit back and look at my family gathered around the picnic table and fire pit. Sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. And our grandmother who at ninety-four inspires us all with her youth and grace. 

From behind my camera I capture some of the moments as I listen to the conversations around me. It suddenly dawns on me that my sister and I are no longer the kids in the family. It should be obvious; her kids are grown and moving on with their lives, my daughter will be headed to college soon and our “little cousin” has a son of her own. I suddenly feel old and time slipping away. I grab a beer, my fly rod and head for the dock. I look back and no one seems to notice. At least nobody says anything. I’m not being rude, they all get it.

I watch the line unroll in front of me as I cast and listen to the voices by the fire. The line loops and curves and straightens out as I bend each cast around mushroom rocks and tree roots reminding me of lines on a road map, the folded-up paper ones we used to buy at the gas station. I think of the roads in my life; Route 26, Route 2, Route 15, I-89, Route 16, Route 7, I-95, Route 3, Route 6, Route 44. Once they were all just ways to get to where I was going, one place to the next. I understand now they were also ways to get back. Memories of the miles, of parts of me lost and others found, the road changed me. But here, with my sister and among family, at least for a few hours I’m the same as I always was.


The line goes tight and the water erupts in the rocks in front of me. It’s the second smallie I’ve pulled out of those rocks today. I lean down to release the fish and stare into its eyes.

“I’ve come a long way for you, my friend.”

It stares back as I lower it into the water and then is gone.



Another piece, another part of the story, more of the road. I finish my beer and stare at those rocks. I’ve sat here during storms and watched as one breaks the waves and shelters the one behind it. I hear my sister laughing back at the fire. After all the roads taken, miles travelled and storms endured, my little sister is still the rock in my life.




Thompson Lake, Maine

10 June 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Edison, Bukowski and four dollars



A while back I was at the Mobil getting gas with my coffee and ran into a guy I know who had bought one fly from me at a fly show the previous winter. We were about two months into striper season so I asked him how the fishing had been. He told me that he had not caught any striped bass on the fly I sold him and asked if I offered a money-back guarantee. I choked a little on my coffee and inquired where he had been fishing. He told me the location and reiterated that the fly had not caught any fish. Either time he had been out.

“Either time, as in twice?”

“Yeah, both times, nothing…I don’t think it works.”

I suddenly thought of Thomas Edison saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work” when describing his work to improve the filament in the incandescent light bulb.

I reached for my phone to show my customer pictures of a dozen fish recently caught on the same fly he was questioning but chose the high road and bit my tongue. I thanked him for his business and gave him back his four dollars.

Half of it in coins.

Just because.


I thought about that encounter a couple of mornings ago as I sat in traffic on the commute to The Cube. Cruising north at seven miles per hour I watched people in the other cars applying face paint, taking selfies, updating their global status and one dude rolling a number. Traffic came to a halt as a radio commercial touted the “immediate results” of some magic pill. Instant gratification seems to dictate most of what we do. Mass media, marketing and advertising, social media influencers, hashtags – we’re all manipulated by the profit in impatience.

We’re messed up, I get it. At times I’m both a perpetrator and a casualty of the game and to be contrite I’ll be checking Blogger an hour after I post this to see how many views it gets.

There is a phrase we use in fishing about a particular catch being a “fish of a thousand casts.” Much like Edison and the carbonized filament, there are times that the difference between fishing and catching is the result of persistence. Despite all the fancy gear, the electronics technology and real-time information available today, in the end, it comes down to putting in the time, cast after cast, sometimes day after day.

A friend of mine from Nantucket, Chris Lydon, recently sent me an email that illustrates this.

“I have been dying to get a bass on those foam popper flies since last season. I don’t know why, but it’s been a personal mission. I spent a lot of time at the end of last season searching for my final bass with them to no avail. I’ve been tying it on a lot this year so far. I have had countless missed strikes, explosions and tail swirls but yesterday I finally got the deal done. All the heartache was worth it. In my opinion, there is no more exciting way to catch a bass than watching it come up and clobber a popper.”
 
Photo by Chris Lydon
  
Persistence.


Charles Bukowski said it best; “Any asshole can chase a skirt, art takes discipline.”

I have no idea in what context Bukowski made his remark. If you've read Bukowski, well, use your imagination. I’d like to think it’s universal and can be applied to just about anything, especially fishing.

Merriam - Webster lists one definition of art as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.” The same could be said of fly fishing.

The season is upon us. Be persistent.

And keep making art.


South River, MA
25 May 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Next Cast



This morning was my first real day of the fishing season. I’ve been going out and prospecting for the last month using most of that time to look at changes in structure from the winter storms and erosion and trying to figure out if or how these things will affect fish movement this season. But today was just about fishing; just me, the river and the spaces between casts.

It was raining hard and windy as hell when I walked out into the marsh. That was just fine with me. It meant I would most likely be alone. More than the hunt for the first striper of the season, this was a grasp at being unseen and taciturn for a few hours. I quietly took my place in the grass as the herons and cormorants jockeyed for new positions around me and a red-tailed hawk patrolled the flooding marsh from above. After a few minutes the disturbance of my arrival was absorbed, the cormorants moved on and calm fell across the salt meadow with the fog and the rain.

I started casting, working the upstream current knowing that nothing was going to happen until the tide change. As the water flooded the sod bank and filled the grass so did my mind with what I have been avoiding. Like the basket of laundry still in the corner, I keep finding distractions and reasons not to fold, organize and put it in its place. I laughed out loud because she would have liked that analogy. And I laughed again in the moment of that thought as the rain fell harder and the wind picked up a little. This is the exact second she would have called to ask me some obscure question while I tried to keep the phone dry and fly line untangled in the wind.

But she didn’t call. So I kept casting. Mom passed away unexpectedly nearly two months ago. I still hadn’t let it out, I hadn’t let myself. I spoke at the funeral and nearly broke down reading memories written by the family. Among the tears and between bouts of strength and weakness I read the words but I didn’t let it out. Back on the pavement, submersed in the noise of the world of everyone else it’s easy to practice avoidance. There in the marsh, washed in the mud and the water of my world there was no place to hide, no reason to avoid what had to happen.

So as the tide slacked, the rain let up and the wind laid down I let it out. A little at a time, building in intensity and volume until I had no control of it and could only let it flow out of me. In the view of the heron and the hawk I let it out. I wondered if my sounds would disturb them and cause them to move. It didn’t. And so I kept casting.

There was a day that mom spent with my daughter and I on the boat. We had beached it on a sand bar and walked back into the marsh to a small creek I knew would be holding a fish or two. I made several casts with mom and Abby looking on and mom asked me what my favorite part of fly fishing was. I answered, “The next cast.”

She, of course, was full of questions about what I meant. I tried to explain to her that with each cast you can learn a little more about the place you’re in, the fish you’re trying to catch and in the end, somewhere between the casts, a little more about yourself. I made a few more casts and after seeing a small wake along the edge of a riffle, adjusted one mid-cast to put the fly just up-current of it. As soon as the fly drifted through the riffle it was taken by a small striper. As I held the fish in my hand to release it she said she had seen my attention shift to that spot in the water and adjust the cast and understood what I meant. Over the years the term “the next cast” came up in many conversations about adjusting to life and moving through it.

So this morning, in the spaces between casts, I cried and I let it out, more and more and then finally less and less with the next.


Mother’s Day is next Saturday.

Call her.


North River, MA
4 May 2017

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Jud


I was scrolling through emails the other morning and saw one with “Sailing with Jud” in the subject line. It took me by surprise because the only Jud I know has been successful in avoiding electronic communication and social media. Back in the day the answering machine messages from him usually started with, “Hey, you wanna’ go on an adventure?”

This blog is supposed to be about the people and places encountered in the backwaters while fly fishing. Jud and I have never fished together but our friendship grew through many adventures in places I would consider to be “backwater” so I’m making an exception here.

I met Jud Thurston in early October 1990, when he and I were part of a crew sailing a Tartan 34 from Bermuda to New York City. I was living and working in Burlington, Vermont at the time and he lived just over an hour to the south in Chittenden. Jud and I were paired up and had the overnight watch. In the interest of full disclosure, he did most of the sailing during the first part of the trip because I spent the first 36 hours with my head over the rail. It might have been the Heineken’s at dinner the night before. Or the Dark and Stormies the afternoon before. Regardless, I couldn’t look at a green beer bottle until 2014 without getting a queasy feeling.

Over the course of the trip helping Jud with galley duties, the night watches and sailing the last days through the tail of Hurricane Lili we became fast friends. He was an ice climber and we spent a great deal of time talking about climbing and he agreed to teach me.  A few weeks later I went to Mt. Washington with him and a few of his climbing buddies and my education began.

By 1993 I was climbing on a regular basis and had been accepted into the group of people Jud climbed with. He and I made several trips up Mt. Washington over the winters but nearly every year we would all meet as a group at the Harvard Hut (Cabin) for “Opening” and “Closing” weekends. The hut and Huntington Ravine became as familiar to me as my own home and the group of misfits we climbed with became extended family. These weekends became something of legend with sunset après climb parties on the wood pile followed by some pretty extraordinary meals carried up the mountain and laid out on the old plank table like Thanksgiving. And quietly at the center of it all was Jud, the silently agreed upon Mayor of the Harvard Hut and leader on the mountain. One of our group, Tony, used to talk about Jud leading a climb, setting up a top rope and climbing one piece of ice over and over, sitting on the rocks in Tuckerman’s just watching people or putting together one of those banquet meals at the Harvard Hut as “doing The Jud.” It was a nod to the respect that those of us who know him, and those who know of him, had for him on the mountain and as a man.

We climbed a lot of places during those years; Smuggler’s Notch, the Bristol Cliffs, Frankenstein and Lake Willoughby. A few stand out in my mind, like my first time at Willoughby. Our friend Graham was leading the climb that day with me in the second spot. We were climbing one of the practice slabs, I don’t remember which one but it was a nearly vertical two-pitch climb. Looking up at it I wasn’t sure I could do it. I looked at Jud and said, “You’re fu#*ing kidding me.”

He looked back at me and said, “What…yeah…no...you can do it.” He said shit like that all the time.

“You can climb the first ten feet no problem, right? The rest of it is just like that, only higher.”

I made the first pitch but I was scared out of my mind as I tied into the belay point with Graham. I started out the second pitch strong but fear took over as I reached a small overhanging bulge at the crux. I stopped just short of it and as I hung there evaluating my next move I developed “sewing machine leg” in both legs and popped off the face of the ice. I only fell about five or six feet before the rope took my weight but it felt like a mile. Once I realized I wasn’t going to die I got my tools back on the ice and kicked in my front points. Now I was pissed that my friends had dragged me up this piece of ice I had said I couldn’t climb. Anger quelled the fear and I got over the bulge and topped out with Graham. I told him I hated him and sat down to wait for Jud.

It took Jud about five minutes to climb what had seemed to take me an hour. When he topped out I told him I hated him as well.

“What…yeah…well...you’re up here…knew you could do it.”

It was a quiet walk to a spot where we could rappel down. There’s something about rappelling down a cliff that makes everything better. When I kicked off the edge I was still pissed. When I got to the bottom I was ready to climb again...after apologies were made.

The other climb that will always stand out in my memory is my first lead up Pinnacle Gully on Mt. Washington. It was me, Jud and another guy I had never climbed with. I had been up Pinnacle enough times to feel comfortable on it and had no hesitation when Jud told me to lead it. Setting the first piece of protection halfway up the first pitch, hanging there by the front-points of my crampons and one ice tool; just three tiny points of metal stuck in a frozen waterfall to prevent me from falling while I one handed an ice screw into it…that’s a rush bested only by knowing my friend and climbing mentor had the trust in me to lead the climb.

Once I topped out and set up the belay, I took a minute to look down the gully and out over Huntington Ravine before giving the signal to Jud to climb. I was exhausted and cold but had never felt so alive. When Jud got up to me he tackled me with a bear hug. It had been an accomplishment not just for the student, but the teacher as well.

Not all adventures were on the ice. There were whitewater trips to the Upper Hudson and the Kennebec with some of the Harvard Hut gang. The infamous Big Trade where I swapped my motorcycle with Jud for a whitewater kayak and a pickup truck full of paddling and climbing gear. An epic weekend at Sunday River skiing bumps on White Heat in t-shirts one day and ten inches of powder under the lift lines on Oz the next. The gig Jud got for he and I and Graham serving as “Mountain Experts” and safety climbers for a VISA / American Skiing Company commercial shot at Killington.

 And there was the Traverse.

I got a call from Jud one summer evening. It was the usual, “What are you doing this weekend, wanna’ go on an adventure? How ‘bout part of the Presidential Traverse on Saturday?”

We met in the dark on Saturday morning at Pinkham Notch, left a vehicle there and drove around to the Appalachia Trailhead on the other side. We hit the trail just as the sun was rising and clicked off Mt. Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clark and Washington; got down to Pinkham, picked up the other vehicle and drove to my family’s camp in Harrison, Maine to get a beer, quick swim and clean clothes and made it to Rick’s Café in Naples in time to get a table on the roof deck for dinner and tequila as the sun set over Long Lake. We covered a lot of terrain that day. On Sunday, just to unwind, we met up with our buddy, Hank, for a leisurely rock climb at Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, NH. Classic doing "The Jud."

None of this has anything to do with the backwater and yet it does. I watched Jud with his kids when they were growing up at their home, on hiking trips, ski trips and climbing with his son, Ben. It left an impression on me and as I’ve raised my daughter I’ve emulated some of the things I learned from him as a father. As he brought his kids up in the mountains, I’ve brought Abby up on the river. Jud’s spent his life working as a carpenter and a mason, he’s one of the most powerful people in mind, body and spirit I’ve ever known. He has incredible strength and endurance, the kind earned from working with your back and hands and honed by taking pride in what you do. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from him is the ability to find the calm in the space that exists between the edge and the abyss below, not just on the mountain but in life.

On one of my last trips to Mt. Washington, after climbing in Huntington in the morning and then going on one of Jud’s famous afternoon “walkabouts” our group got back to the Harvard Hut in time for cocktails before dinner. As they began happy hour out on the wood pile, I set about organizing and repacking gear while Jud started getting things ready for dinner. When I finished, I walked outside and Tony dug a beer out of the snow, handed it to me and said, “Let me buy you a beer, Little Jud.”

It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.

I hope we have a few more adventures left in us.

Jud Thurston.

Friend, mentor, last of a breed.

The Jud.



South River, MA
19 April 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Those Days



Not every effort needs an award for justification. No rewards for just showing up. Not every meal has to be a banquet. Not every day has to end with a parade. Some days it’s just about seeing what happens.

We put in at the end of a road codenamed “WBLM”... for two of us it had significance as a nod to the 207. For the third it didn’t matter. Tarpon had been the objective but the wind and irregular light had other plans. We didn’t care. A stop at the Kickin Back Food Mart had provisioned the boat with gas station Cubans and Italians from the cooler and twenty-four Bud’s on ice.

We made a short run and then poled around places like the Budd’s, Raccoon, Crane, Riding and Sawyer. We took turns on the bow casting at mangrove roots, patches of grass and dark shadows we hoped held a secret. In the awkward silence of a slow day conversation turned from the technical aspects of fly rods and casting to movie reviews, trucks, boats, Def Leppard lyrics and estimations on how long it would take to get to Cuba.

The day was not without its moments. There were a couple of run-ins with small barracuda and snapper that momentarily halted the boat deck presentation of several lines from the movie “Ted”  and a brief on the water safety inspection.


Chalk it up to dues paid, experience gained and the continuing search for the best Cuban sandwich. A day removed from the rest of the world exploring new water and sharing beer-can philosophy with good friends. A day often thought back on and appreciated for what it was.


It was, one of those days.