Monday, December 1, 2014

A World Away

I had planned on fishing most of the morning; I didn’t plan on staying for most of the day. I got there two hours before dead low under a clear sky and a light breeze. The fishing had been consistent during the last of the drop. Sand eels were everywhere and the stripes were chewing on flat-wings with gusto. During the slack I started seeing a bunch of smaller schoolies coming up into just a few inches of water along the sand and then race back into the deep hole. A bit odd I thought. I was going to write it off as one of those things that happens when fishing sometimes until I figured out what the deal was.

It took a while because I didn’t have my glasses on. And I was watching planes. Yes, planes. The North and South Rivers are right under the flight path heading into Logan so there are always planes in the sky. These schoolies were not interested in the flat-wings. I figured I’d just keep mindlessly casting the flat-wing until the water changed. So I was watching airplanes.

I’ll get to the planes shortly. There is some back-story that needs to be explained. My sister and I grew up on a farm in western Maine in the seventies. While it wasn’t “out in the sticks”, it wasn’t suburbia either. I’m going to sound really old here kids, but I remember the weekly trips into town. It was a big deal. Don’t get me wrong, there were probably more trips into town than I’m letting on but this is my story. The weekly “trip” I’m talking about was going in town to the grocery store, the drug store, the Farmer’s Union and if we were lucky, maybe Woolworth’s or J.J. Newberry’s. The best part for me was the weekly stop at the Norway Library.

Every summer I participated in the reading program. If you read a certain number of books you received something. I have no memory of what the tangible incentive was but I remember the awesome wonder that the library represented. I think you were limited to checking out five books at a time. I would check out my limit and, with the assistance of a flashlight, usually have all of them read two days before the next trip to town. Those two days were supplemented with back issues of National Geographic and Outdoor Life. Every week those five books introduced me to people and took me to places and doing things that at the time seemed a world away.

I clearly remember one of these trips to town just before the Fourth of July in 1977. Of the five books I checked out that week, one was “Airborne: A Sentimental Journey” by William F. Buckley and another was “Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft” by Thor Heyerdahl. The librarian asked me if I was going to actually read both of them. I said I was and I did. I was eleven. Fourteen years later I would begin living my own stories at sea.

My reading time was sandwiched in between swimming lessons and farm chores with my sister. My mother, aware that chores would get done with less protest if they were entertaining, introduced us to a game to curtail the monotony of weeding tomatoes, snapping beans and shelling peas. She would tell us to watch the sky for airplanes and then try to guess where the plane was going or had come from and who was on it.  We would make up stories together, but off to the side I was imagining flying to places and doing things with the characters and people I had read about. Sailing Cyrano with Buckley, surviving at sea with Heyerdahl, running sled dogs in the Yukon with Jack London, fighting the British with Ethan Allen, exploring the West with Lewis and Clark, fishing with Ted Williams, wondering why anyone would go to Cleveland and dreaming of the ocean.

So here I was on this day, calling on this game taught to me by my mother to pass the time. I watched an airplane beginning its descent into Boston and remembered making the same descent returning from places I have fished that as a boy seemed impossible to get to. My attention returned to the schoolies in the shallows. I decided to change flies and switched my sunglasses for my reading glasses. I happened to look down into the water at my feet and instantly knew what had been going on around me while I was day dreaming. There were clouds of grass shrimp no larger than a half inch grouped together at the edge of the water.

I tied on a #4 orange Crazy Charlie. A bonefish fly but also one of the most effective flies for most species I’ve fished for. I was instantly on to stripes. No big hero fish, just a lot of river sized fish that I think are as fun to catch as the big ones. But I was sight casting to these guys in the skinny water. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars a day to do the same thing in distant places but was now doing it literally in my backyard. I kept moving up the flat as the tide came in. The higher up, the more the shrimp and the fish spread out but they were still there. I finally had to end things before I would be forced to swim off the flat.

I made one more cast. I thought of Buckley and Heyerdahl. I watched one more airplane returning from somewhere far away. I thought of the Norway Library and of all those stories contained inside of it. I thought of all the places I’ve been to and all the things I’ve done as I’ve wandered and wondered what is over the horizon or around the next bend. I looked around at the water surrounding me and the river and marsh that I continue to explore. This place is my own library, a collection of my own stories. I didn’t have to go a world away to find them. I only had to come home.

North River, MA
July 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dwelling on Thresholds

It just happened to me a while back. I don’t know why. I don’t think I suddenly got born lucky. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time. Sometimes life throws something at you that you never see coming. Something so unexpected it leaves you wondering, did that just happen? It took me a while to ask. Yeah man, it happens.  And it happened on the water and in the sun. Of course it did, why would it not? All good things happen there. Remember (if you're over 45) the album you ran to the drugstore (we went to Laverdiere’s) to buy for one song because you just would not get through the weekend without it. You memorized every word, every chord and then put it away for another day. You listen to the song again a short time later but this time you listen to the whole album and you realize that the first song was good, but the rest of the album is great, like opening presents, one after another. The lyrics, the music, the backbeat…it all connects and lights you up. It rocks your world. Yeah, just like that.

What’s this got to do with fishing? Nothing, it’s not supposed to. But it reminds me of two people I met while I was fishing and their story.  And theirs weaves itself into mine.

It was three years ago, just after Labor Day, after all the summer people had left the beach. It was that awesome four or five day stretch when the water is flat under a bluebird sky, the nights cool and the days warm. Bluefish weather. And for the previous two mornings they had been in shallow on the beach just as the sun came up. I had been hitting the beach for a half hour before work and had managed to catch a few on topwater. Bluefish in skinny water on the beach? Yeah, I wanted more.

I stepped on to the beach and saw an older lady standing behind an easel painting. On the sand next to her was a cooler with a boom box sitting on top of it. That’s right, an honest to goodness 1980’s era boom box. AM, FM and cassette. One hand held a paintbrush, the other a red Solo cup. As I walked I could hear music. I got closer and could hear her singing along, “…and it’s ever present everywhere…”

Van the Man and ”Warm Love”. I smiled remembering road trips, campfires, good red wine and singing with my sister. I walked past her and said good morning. All I heard was, “Oh, bloody Hell!”

I turned and said, “Excuse me, ma’am?”

“Oh, not you.” She pointed to a man fishing a few hundred yards down the beach and said, “He got bit off again. I told him he needed wire.”

I laughed and said I could probably help him out. She asked me to wait for a second, opened the cooler and pulled out a plastic jug filled with an orange liquid. She scooped up some ice, filled another Solo cup and asked me to take it to the man.

“His name is Peter, tell him I ran out of grenadine. I’m Lizzie.”

I took the cup and walked toward Peter trying not to spill it as I crossed over the rocks. Tequila and orange juice and a bit of lime juice I think…I liked these people immediately. I walked up to Peter and handed him the cup.
“Lizzie sent this…said she ran out of grenadine.”

He took the cup and smiled. “She knows I like it better this way anyway.”

We introduced ourselves and I asked how the fishing had been. He cursed and told me had been bitten off three times and only had twenty pound mono and no wire. He cursed a lot. I liked him more. I pulled out some sixty and tied up a bite tippet for him and added it to his leader. As I did this he told me he and Lizzie lived in Florida, on some great snook water in Naples. Every August they would travel north and spend time with friends on the Cape and here on Humarock.

I handed him his rod back and he dug out a fly box and pulled out a fly. He looked at the popper tied onto my leader and held up his fly. “This is the ticket my friend, I only have one left.”

I looked at the fly and felt his world and my world collide. It was one of mine. I didn’t say anything, I just smiled.

“Lizzie got me a dozen of these a few years back at Baymen Outfitters down in Duxbury. He’s closed now. The kid she bought ‘em from said these are like crack for stripers. I don’t know what it’s called but I wish I knew where to get more of these ‘cause my snook love ‘em. And so do these [expletive] bluefish. [Expletive].

Crack for stripers. I knew who sold them to Lizzie.

Peter and I started fishing next to each other and the bluefish were angry but amicable. Peter landed a couple while I messed with their minds with the popper. After Peter released his third blue, I asked him to let me put on a fresh piece of sixty for him. As I went to work changing the tippet, he waved to Lizzie and told me their story.

They had both divorced late in life, after their children had grown up and made lives for themselves. Somehow they both ended up in the same 55-and-over community in Naples and were introduced through mutual friends at a beach party. Later they learned that each had been smitten by the other but played it cool not really knowing what to do at their age. It took time but he finally he approached her at the mailbox one day. He said after the awkward first few words the conversation just rolled freely as if they had known each other for a long time. They found they shared more interests than not and had similar life experiences. A friendship formed that quickly grew into a deep love that surpassed anything either had ever experienced.

“That was eleven years ago. It happened pretty quickly. It hit me like a wave. But at our age you kind of have to grab on, hold on and hope for the best. There are no guarantees except that the band can’t play forever…dance while you can, my boy, dance while you can.”

As Peter tied his fly back on, I reached into my sling and opened one of my fly boxes. I pulled out the exact fly he was tying on and handed it to him.

“This is called the DNA Baitfish. I tie it in blue back and green back. Lizzie probably bought them from my buddy. We call him The Deacon, he used to work for Captain Dave at Baymen. I tied a lot of flies for the shop when it was open.”

I told him the name of my business and that in exchange for his company and conversation that morning I wanted to hook him up with some more flies. His face lit up, he thanked me and we went back to casting and talking. We fished for a while longer and I told him that I was going to have to go to work but that I would meet up with him the following morning with some flies. He walked up the beach with me and told Lizzie the story of the flies. Lizzie gave me a hug and asked if I had time for breakfast. I told her no but that I would meet them at Sands End for breakfast the next day. As I walked away Lizzie cranked up the music and I watched them dance to “The Bright Side of the Road” right there, in the sand. Like no one was watching.

The next morning we met as agreed. When I walked in, they were sitting next to each other in the window seat, holding hands and laughing. Hoodies, flip flops and sunglasses; pretty much the epitome of cool. We had breakfast and I asked them more questions about their story and their lives. After a final cup of coffee I gave Peter a bag with two dozen of each color of the flies and watched tears form in Lizzie’s eyes. She asked what they owed me.

“We’re square, meeting the two of you, hearing your story, that’s more than enough. I hope someday it happens to me. And if it doesn't, at least I know the possibility exists.”

I got up and shook Peter’s hand. Lizzie stood up and gave me a hug. She whispered in my ear, “The possibility is always there, everywhere, it will find you. Let it happen. Listen to the music.”

“…and it’s ever present everywhere…”

Lizzie might be right.

Humarock Beach, MA
12 November 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dog Tales

A man backs his boat trailer down the ramp and pauses for a moment as he catches the gold reflection of the late afternoon sun off the water in the side mirror. He sighs knowing this is one of the last perfect days of extended summer. Despite the temperature being almost eighty degrees he can sense the change in the air. It’s that special time of year when warm sunny days and clear cool nights bring bait inside in large schools, on to the flats and into the grass. And with them, fish.

He eases the boat back and checks the trailer in the mirror on the other side of the truck. He sees his companions’ face watching the trailer in the mirror, eyes focused in deep concentration and anticipation. He asks, “You ready?”

Without moving his body in the seat the dog looks back at him over his shoulder and says, “Yeah dude, hit it, let’s go!”

Yes, dogs can speak.

They drop the boat in, park the truck and trailer and hustle down the dock, the dog leading the way staring back at his human every few steps to make sure he’s coming. They stop to talk to a friend who is just tying up on the other side of the dock. The dog sits at the man’s feet for a few seconds and then unable to endure the conversation any longer trots down the dock and jumps into his boat and stands post on the bow. The man takes this as his cue, slips the bow line and boards the dog’s skiff.

Before idling out into the river the man strips out line on the eight-weight, checks the leader and fly and sets the rod in the bow. He throttles up and points the boat downriver as the dog takes his customary seat next to him. They’ve done this hundreds of times, these few moments between leaving the dock and getting to the first spot to check for fish still as exciting as the first time. It’s that way for both of them.

The man thinks of a phone call earlier in the day. Friends had invited him out to do something…watch a ballgame at a bar or follow some trivial pursuit…but as usual he passed knowing something more meaningful might be found in the backwater. His declining of the invite was met with, “Why, you going fishing with the dog? You gotta’ get a life.”

No response was given. Looking into the dog’s eyes now as they motor downriver he knows he didn’t need to give one. Very simply, this is what he and the dog do. They’ve learned this life on the water together, each defined by it and by one another. The man shifts the boat into neutral and the boat drifts out of the channel toward the grass.

The marsh is flooded with a plus tide, the afternoon light starting to fall, the water like glass and the grass standing still in the quiet air. Periodically the calm is broken by pockets of baitfish fleeing for their lives in front of wakes pushed by predators. The man shuts off the engine, raises the motor and poles the boat into the carnage zone. Both take quiet steps up to the bow. The man picks up the rod as the dog takes his seat next to him taking obvious care obtained from experience not to sit on the fly line. Two false casts are made and the fly lands between clumps of marsh grass. Fast strips bring the fly through the grass and on the pause it is inhaled from below. The dog stands up, tail wagging back and forth. The line goes tight and the fish fights back thrashing at the water with its entire body. The dog steps up to the point of the bow to watch the action play out. The man brings the fish boat-side and kneels down to release it, holding it for a few seconds for the dog to sniff it. As the fish is let go, the water beside the boat suddenly erupts with dancing bait and slapping tails.

The man and the dog look at each other, smile and in unison say, “Holy shit! Did you just see that?”

Yes, dogs can speak.

I was that man. I have lived those moments described above many times but as I wrote this I was thinking about my friend Rich Walker and his dog Tucker in Charleston, SC.
I met Rich through social media while following the exploits of Tucker. Fishing dogs intrigue me. I’m a dog person so I’m much more likely to engage dog owners in conversation than non-dog people.  In talking about our dogs, fly fishing and redfish we found that we have some commonalities in our backgrounds so we hit it off. When I head south to get schooled on reds in the grass by Tuck, I'll be bringing the rum.

They have been together for nine years and have been fishing together for almost all of it. Tuck was a quick study and it took only a few outings for him to figure out that if he didn’t chase that thing at the end of the line when Rich threw it in the water, crazy things would happen and sometimes a really cool looking creature would come back at the end of the line.
Now Tuck knows what a waving tail is, what a wake in the water means and what the humans in his skiff are going to do when they see these things. Seriously. Ask him.

Yes, dogs can speak.

In the course of fishing together and taking pictures and video of casts, misses, catches and Tuck, Rich and three fellow anglers joined forces and created Flyline Media. This media group came about not as a business venture but as a collective, drawing on the skills and talents of each of its members to capture through film and photography the moments that inspire them to return to the water time and time again.
The goal of the end product is to present still and moving images that inspire the uninitiated as well as the seasoned angler and to promote the art and life of fly fishing.

Great art and moments in time that are not forgotten are generally brought forward by those who think and act outside the proverbial box. The guys at Flyline are the types who deconstruct boxes. Actually, I think they kick them apart. Having heard for years that tailing reds on the flood tide would not eat a surface presentation, they formulated a thesis that it could be done and set out to dispel this myth. The results are presented in their film, TALL TAILS: Legend of the Gurgler.

For those of us who knew the creator of the Gurgler, Jack Gartside, it will have special meaning. Jack would have loved this.

And while you view the film, watch Tucker and watch his face.

Yes, dogs can speak.

*Photo's from Rich Walker, Ryan Rice and Flyline Media

 North River, MA
7 October 2014

Friday, September 12, 2014

33 Hours

Entries from the journal as I scribbled them a few years back, a quick out and back trip to Martha's Vineyard…

Zero Hour
The ride across Vineyard Sound has been quiet. And wet. The forecast for this excursion is rain and seasonably cool. I don’t mind the rain or the temperature it’s the wind that could make this miserable. Right now it’s not bad, maybe 10 knots. Three months ago when I made these arrangements I hoped for clear skies and flat conditions but I’ll take whatever Mother Nature throws at me. I’ve got thirty-three hours to fish straight through until I catch the last ferry tomorrow night back to The World. The goal obviously is to catch as many fish as possible, I’ll settle for one to officially enter into the Derby. Four species: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. It sounds like that increases the odds in my favor but it doesn’t. I’ve written off the bonito, am less than hopeful for a shot at an albie, guardedly optimistic about a bluefish and somewhat positive I can catch a striper. Will any catch meet the size requirements of the Derby regulations? Who the hell knows. Does it really matter? Call me Eeyore.

I sit in the truck and wait my turn to disembark the ferry. I don’t know the island all that well but have been here enough to know my way around well enough to get lost with confidence. I laugh to myself because nobody knows where I am. And nobody here really knows me so I can disappear. I told the office I had some personal things to take care of for a couple of days. In the midst of a train-wreck on the tracks of life, nobody questioned what I was really doing. I wonder if I don't go back will anyone notice. I need some time away from it all. I let it go. I leave mainland life behind as I drive off the boat. I’m on The Rock.

Hour 2
After the obligatory stop at the Black Dog for Abby’s t-shirt and a hot cup of coffee, I’m about to go “boots wet.” I stopped by Menemsha Texaco for a few supplies and to get mentally oriented. The rain stopped on the ride out here. By the time I drove around to the other side it started back up. No matter, I’m rigged up and ready for the walk along Lobsterville Beach. The tide is outgoing just past slack. I’ll fish here up until the low and see what I see. The eight weight has an intermediate line and a two feather flatwing, the nine has a sinking line and a small Clouser. Locked and loaded.

Hour 5
The rain continues and man is it dark out here. The wind so far has been benevolent but it really doesn’t matter so I’ll speak of it no more. I ran into some bluefish, had one on the nine weight, not large by the feel of it but it was on nonetheless. Until it bit me off. I moved fast to add a 60lb bite tippet but the blues were gone by the time I had my shit together.

Hour 6
They’re back. Shallow and moving fast. I left my gear up the beach and ran after them like a mad man. I was able to get a few casts into them and fooled the smallest one of the bunch with an orange popper on the seven weight. The size of the blue is irrelevant; the black and white varmint has now been dismissed.

Hour 10
I’m at Big Bridge. I can’t describe the rain other than the air is full of water. I spent some time at the end of the jetty blind casting. Crickets. Ghost Town. Silence, no phones, no computer…I’ll take it. Powering up on Diet Coke and a Clif Bar. Optimism exudes as I head up the beach.

Hour 13
20” striper in the surf on a black lobster buoy popper. Scoreless in terms of the Derby but I feel like I just took Andy Pettitte yard.

Hour 15
I’ve moved up to a spot just outside of Oak Bluffs. I’ve had luck here in the past. It continued. In what little light there was I found some happy stripes on top near some shallow structure. Olive and white Slim Jim on the seven, my last one. Some follows, some short takes and two little guys to hand. Yeah, it’s still raining.

Hour 17
Vineyard Haven. Stopped for more Diet Coke and Snickers at the bridge on Beach Road. The fish from OB had me charged up but fatigue just knocked on my door. I can hear splashing under the bridge. Gotta go.

Hour 19
The splashing at the bridge may have been an auditory hallucination. I just drove out to Tashmoo. Pretty sure I saw a toothless kid in one of the trees playing a banjo. Eerie does not fully describe driving out here in the dark and rain. Geared up and ready to stand on the jetty and wait for Albert when it gets light. Yeah, a little windy. I figured I’d be alone but there’s a dude already out here.

Hour 22
The water at Tashmoo is like the salad bar at The Sizzler on a Saturday night. Shit everywhere. We did see albies splashing - for about 3 seconds a hundred yards off the jetty. I set over and dredged off the beach with the nine weight hoping for a stripe but I think it’s time to move. I just found half a tin of Cope in my fleece...trying to quit but I've been awake for a long time. Sitting here in the truck, soaking wet and cold with most of my worldly possessions in the back seat I realize that right now, right here, there is really nothing else I want. Maybe an albie. Excuse the profanity but I f*c#ing love this.

Hour 23.5
Gas station coffee…nectar of the sleepless. Half a dozen guys walked up from Edgartown Light as I started down. Change in plans, I parked the truck and jumped on to the ferry to Chappy. For some reason the water along the beach just looked fishy. My buddy Z caught a baby jack here once. I’ll take anything. The rain has let up and a pretty woman smiled at me as I passed by her car…blonde hair, baseball hat with the pony tail through the back…yeah man, life is looking up. And then I realized she was talking on the phone and was not looking at me. Crickets. Typical. Whatever. Game back on.

Hour 24
The water here on Chappy is fishy. There is bait everywhere and every few minutes something cuts through it. I’m thinking snapper blues.

Hour 24.75
Nope, little rat stripers as far as I can tell. Three of them for sure. I’ve resorted to the trusty orange Charlie. Never fails on rats.

Hour 27
Back at Lobsterville headed down the beach. The rain turned back on with a vengeance. Apparently there were albies off the jetty this morning. Nobody I talked to said any had been caught. Judging by the number of people there they are expected back this afternoon. Too many people for me, I need open space and obscurity.

Hour 29
It stopped raining. It’s just gray and wet. I just noticed the smell permeating from my waders. It’s more like a cloud. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got trench foot. But the hunt is on. There are fish out there periodically hitting bait on top, stripes I think.

Hour 31.5
Back in the truck. Fishless. I’m talking to myself. I brought two beers with me. I’m on the second. I’ve got a little time left. A few minutes at Big Bridge, a few minutes at that spot outside of OB. Maybe.

Hour 33
I’m calling it, heading to the dock. No fish to enter into the Derby - seemingly a failure but it’s not. Not in the least. It's been a training run for future exploits. I caught another (or maybe the same) 20” striper just before I left the beach at Little Bridge. In the light of my headlamp I watched him swim back into his world. Now I’ve got to return to mine.

I drive on to the ferry and feel the weight of the mainland back on my shoulders. It sits there, as heavy as it was when I arrived. I can carry it. The water is glass and I see stars in the sky as we leave the harbor. All storms eventually pass.

Vineyard Haven Harbor, MA
Mid-Derby Sept 2010