Tag Archives: stories

The Best Fishing Buddy

I met my new fishing buddy, Ken , during a 3 month  stay in Rexburg, Idaho. We were thrown together by some mutual friends that knew we both enjoyed fishing for trout. The story I want to tell you is why Ken was undoubtedly the ultimate fishing buddy.

Ken is not an early riser and that suits me just fine. A nine o’clock start on a fishing journey is a civilized time to start especially when the streams are only an hour away and you are both on the plus side of sixty. We usually would meet at my truck and after tossing most of his gear into the bed Ken would jump onto the bench seat of my truck and wrestle with his landing net that is always attached to his left belt loop.  As you can imagine, the 2’ long net would get trapped between the seat and his buttocks. He would pull and tug until he dislodged it and finally just sit up and let out a big sign of relief. He would never discuss why he didn’t leave the net in the back of the truck. He would just sit back , mildly enraged by the incident,   With Ken a tiff is easily forgotten as quickly as it flares.

The trip to the river is usually uneventful. Just a calm mention of where he will be taking me to fish.     Not much other conversation, just jointly staring out through the windshield. A rational conversation is something that Ken doesn’t bother with.

Once on the stream, we split up. Ken always offers me the upstream approach and he heads down the path or road for the usual upstream approach back to the car. Before he leaves he always says” see you in about a half hour unless the fishing is good”. Once I followed Ken just to see how he fished so fast. He jumps into the stream and quickly works the backwaters, the nervous waters, the soft seams and sometimes the riffles. If he doesn’t hook up in just a dozen or so casts he will claim the water “fishless” returning to the truck to move on to another destination. Fast fishing is Ken’s specialty. His short attention span requires it.

My partner, unlike many of the fisher people on the stream today, does not look like he appeared out of an Orvis catalog. As a matter of fact, his equipment and attire are rather basic. He’s clad in a generic baseball cap, standard non- polarized spectacles; a blue cotton shirt riddled with holes from errant attacks by size 10 Mustad hooks, worn Levis and studded felt sole boots. His fishing arsenal is an artic creel splattered with fish blood, an 8’ fiberglass fly rod with a floating line and 6 feet of 10 lb test material to which he attaches his beloved red bellied humpy. The rod and line are matched with a classic bright green automatic fly reel, buzzing and sputtering water as he retrieves line. All of his equipment is out of an Orvis catalog, circa 1950. Now you might think as I did that Kens attire and tools are a bit old fashioned, but when he returned one day with a bulging creel topped off with a 17” cutthroat, I was impressed with his ability to catch fish with such “antique” equipment. Although I personally don’t kill my catch , Ken is of the old school that believes he is a game fisherman and the game is to fill the frying pan. He won’t change. He has no time to learn a new way.

One afternoon Ken was not hooking up with his dry fly system and I was pounding them on a rubberlegs nymph. He would not acknowledge the fact that I was catching fish. He saw me catch fish but I know he never saw me release them. I finally walked up stream to him carrying a net full of rainbow and said “Would you like to take a fish home for dinner?” He ignored me,  but as soon as I lowered the net into the water and released the healthy trout he looked at me for the first time that day and said with disappointment in his voice ” If I knew you were going to throw it back I’d have brought it home to Vivian”. My action just didn’t make any sense to him. But Ken is quickly releaved of  any anxiousnes and competitiveness. He is just plain happy to be on the stream.
On each fishing day, Ken’s wife, Vivian, packs him a change of clothes, water and a sandwich that Ken completely ignores. He doesn’t know why she pampers him so and becomes agitated when she demands that he carry all this “unnecessary stuff” He usually ignores it all and leaves in the bed of the truck to get squashed, mangled and hot. His biggest concern about his wife’s pampering is that she will not let him drive any longer. “She says I can’t drive any more. Well, I can drive just fine”. I personally know that’s not true because every road construction flagperson that brings us to a stop must endure the rath of Ken. “Why can’t we just go around? No ones coming. Go ahead. Just go around these cars. We don’t have to wait.” Ken’s impatience sometimes shows but wanes quickly and is forgotten even sooner.

As the day wears on, Ken will eventually get hungry and thirsty. He will usually not eat or drink anything until about 1:30 in the afternoon. Dehydration or hunger do not seem to affect him very much . He prefers his nourishment to come from the small bars and burger joints he has become accustomed to visiting over the years. All the employees know him by sight and are kind to him even when he bosses them around , complains about the prices on the menu and constantly asks them where the best fishing holes exist.  They don’t even get upset when he clatters in with his studded boots that are always trailing some sort of mud, moss or slime. He’s accepted as a regular and they accept him for who he is.
If the fishing is hot we will pass up the usual lunch stops. Of course, we get a little peckish on our ride home about 4 o’clock so Ken will say “ If you see a drug store, pull over”  When I ask him why, he’ll say “ because I would like a chocolate milkshake”. We will invariably find a small dot in the road that will mix up vanilla ice cream and Hersey syrup into a delicious cold swill. Again after complaining about the small portion and the high cost ,Ken with a childish grin will put a straw into the container and suck until the noisy slurp at the bottom signals me that he is done. Certain things pass Ken unnoticed but the childish pleasure of a chocolate shake can easily be experienced.

The favorite part of my relationship with Ken is rather selfish on my part. He knows secret fishing places.  These locations are surprisingly embossed in his deep memory. We’ll be barreling down a country road and he will quietly say” go left through this gate “or “follow this potato field to the red windmill and then we’ll get out and walk awhile.” He has taken me to wondrous places that I will never be able to find again. I’m glad of that because I was able to share them only with my fishing friend. These magical places will occupy my dreams for years to come.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, my friend Ken suffers from a disorder. He has Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Some days are better than others. Mild forgetfulness sometimes escalates to bad decision making and even mild aggression although he has never shown aggression toward me. I think our bond as fishermen makes us more like brothers and this fact relaxes my friend.

I have a feeling that this year may be Ken’s last year of fishing .As a matter of fact, because of the shortage of housing in our small town of Rexburg, Ken has been telling everyone that he will never be returning to Idaho. Maybe somehow he knows the real reason.

We all have an idea in our heads of what a great fishing buddy is. Some do the camp cooking and chores while you fish till dark. Others will tie flies for you when they know you have been losing more than your share. And others again will go so far as to offer you the front of the drift boat while they row you into position to cast to a giant trout sipping emergers. Ken has all these guys beaten  hands down because  he has taught me something that no guide or fishing expert could ever teach me.  For fear of sounding too philosophical, I must tell you he has taught me a lesson of life.
Most of us realize that we are only on this planet temporarily and at times this can be distracting. Dogs and cats carry on their lives not worrying about such things but we humans have the ability to understand that one day our bodies will fail us.  A question in my mind has always been how do I leave this world with so much unfinished business to do. Ken has taught me that if even when your body begins to show signs of fraility , your inner self will push you to continue experiencing that which you cherish. We are unstoppable  machines finishing our business. A prime example of this are the words  Ken would say to me each day before we went  fishing . He would say” Are you John, the guy I go fishing with?” I would reply “Yes” and he would get a giddy crooked toothed grin on his face and say” Let’s go catch some trout”.

 

A Brush With Death On The South Holston

We had anticipated this trip for weeks. Three days with my buddy Brad on the South Holston River, camping and fishing. It was late summer and the reports had told us that the large browns were feeding actively on surface patterns. The thought of hooking into a 20+ inch brown on a dry fly is something that any red blooded fly angler lives for. This was going to be our weekend for greatness.

We arrived at the camp and set up our site which was right on the bank of the river. Drift boats came by one after another and with just about every one that passed, a fish was caught. It was late in the afternoon and the generation schedule was going to make the river unwadable till morning so we loaded up our pontoons and headed upstream with the thought of floating back down to the camp site.

We went to a put in that was about two miles from the camp and our one man toons into the flow. The water was pushing pretty hard and I remember thinking to myself that it would be a quick float back to the camp. I had cast my line out as I rounded a bend in the river and saw a huge elm tree that had fallen into the water directly in front of me.

I tried desperately to row away from it but the current was swift and I hit it head on.

What happened next seemed like an eternity, though it was mere seconds. When the pontoon hit the tree, I was thrown deep into its branches, being plunged down into the water. I remember opening my eyes and seeing the bubbles rolling round my head and hearing that awful submerged roar of the water. To make matters worse, my legs were bent at the knees and wrapped under the trunk of the tree.

People talk about their lives flashing before their eyes; this was one of those times. I knew that panic was not the thing to do so I first oriented myself by letting my arms go limp so that I could detect the surface. My arms floated upward so I knew that I was upright, but still completely submerged. I thrust my hands out of the water and felt the sweet warmth of the surface touch my hands. It was then that I felt a branch of the tree and in what could only be attributed to the assistance of the divine; I pulled my 250 pound body up enough to free my legs and get my head above the water.

When I finally oriented myself, I saw that I was sixty feet or so from the bank, and several drift boats were trying to rescue me.  The problem they were having was the water trying to pull them into the same predicament in which I found myself.  I white knuckled the tree and watched boat after boat float helplessly past.

For over an hour I clung to the branch as icy cold water filled my waders and tried to pull me under. To make the problem more severe, the front of my pontoons had lodged under a branch about six feet in front of me and was loosening. It was obvious that they were going to break free, and when they did, the metal frame of the craft would hit me square in the face.

On the shore, Brad stood watching.  He had brought his craft to ground and was trying to figure out how to get me to the bank.  I tried talking to him but the sound of the water was so loud that verbal communication was pointless.

Finally, a father and son, riding in a home made drift boat, had the wherewithal to come up behind the tree.  They laid their oars across the branches and I slid over them into the boat.  The legs of my waders were bloated with river water, and I couldn’t stop my arms from shaking.  I had clung to the tree for so long that I could hardly open my hands.  Much the worse for wear, but I was safe.  They dropped my off on shore and stayed with Brad and I till they were sure I was okay.

Not ten minutes after I was saved, the pontoon broke free and totally ripped the limb I was clinging to to shreds.  My one of a kind Heddon Bamboo which was reportedly made for R.J. Reynolds of tobacco fame was splintered.  I was able to save the butt section with his name on it…but that is all.

Just like falling from a horse, I knew I had to get back in the water, which I did later that evening and thankfully my return to the river was met with much success.

The story of my plight spread round the local fly fishing community.  Evidently, I was not the only one who encountered the deadly sweeper, but I was the one who got the worst.  Almost a year after the event, I received an email from a guy who owns a fly shop near the river.  He asked a few questions about my perdicament and then told me that he had the frame to my pontoon in his store room.  I have yet to go pick it up…just not ready to deal with that.  I still will stir with panic when I allow myself to relive that afternoon…but who wouldn’t.

I have been to the South Holston many times since that day, and plan on an extended trip there in the fall…but I won’t do it in a boat.  I don’t think I will be ready to jump that hurdle for a long, long time.

 

Summertime and the Streamers are Easy…

Typically no one thinks of fishing streamers in the middle of summer. Especially not when fish are looking up for terrestrials, caddis or large stoneflies. In all honesty several of my best streamers days have been had in June through September, not late fall like typically thought. Last year one of my nicest and most memorable fish came after a stellar morning of fishing large attractor dries while floating the South Fork of the Snake . The morning started out great and the fish were eating hoppers and attractor dries very well, until the gale force winds kicked up in the afternoon. After 45 minutes of struggling to deliver a bushy dry inches from the bank I decided it was time for a articulated streamer, a 7 wt and a 250 grain sinking tip. Knowing the fish were tight in on the bank we didn’t change anything but switch from a dry to a streamer. In all honesty the action was much slower on the streamer but the fish that did show up to play were much bigger than that were interested in our dry offerings. We came around a eroded outside bend with some downed trees, my buddy placed the boat excellently and I made a cast back up stream into the pocket of a downed tree, just like I would with a hopper. As the streamer hit the water a large brown came off the bottom for a closer look, with one strip he closed the distance and on the second strip he committed to the eat. It was just as much or more of a visual eat than any of the dry fly eats from the morning and reminded me yet again to never underestimate summer time streamer fishing.

So if the wind is howling, the fish aren’t looking up, rain has stained the water or like this year with everything being 3-10 times higher than usual mix it up and throw on a streamer. I think you all might be pleasantly surprised.

In the summertime I like to fish a lot of white and other bright colors like yellow. But often times like the day mentioned above, olive is hard to beat.

Top three streamers you won’t catch me without in the summer. Sasquatch in white and olive, Circus Peanut in olive and crawdad , Chubby Muffin Sculpin in olive and brown.

 

 

 

Typically no one thinks of fishing streamers in the middle of summer. Especially not when fish are looking up for terrestrials, caddis or large stoneflies. In all honesty several of my best streamers days have been had in June through September, not late fall like typically thought. Last year one of my nicest and most memorable fish came after a stelar morning of fishing large attractor dries while floating the South Fork of the Snake . The morning started out great and the fish were eating hoppers and attractor dries very well, until the gale force winds kicked up in the afternoon. After 45 minutes of struggling to deliver a bushy dry inches from the bank I decided it was time for a articulated streamer, a 7 wt and a 250 grain sinking tip. Knowing the fish were tight in on the bank we didn’t change anything but switch from a dry to a streamer. In all honesty the action was much slower on the streamer but the fish that did show up to play were much bigger than that were interested in our dry offerings. We came around a eroded outside bend with some downed trees, my buddy placed the boat excellently and I made a cast back up stream into the pocket of a downed tree, just like I would with a hopper. As the streamer hit the water a large brown came off the bottom for a closer look, with one strip he closed the distance and on the second strip he committed to the eat. It was just as much or more of a visual eat than any of the dry fly eats from the morning and reminded me yet again to never underestimate summer time streamer fishing.

So if the wind is howling, the fish aren’t looking up, rain has stained the water or like this year with everything being 3-10 times higher than usual mix it up and throw on a streamer. I think you all might be pleasantly surprised.

Summer time I like to fish a lot of white and other bright colors like yellow. But often times like the day mentioned olive is hard to beat.

Tope three streamers you won’t catch me without in the summer. Sasquatch in white and olive, Circus Peanut in olive and crawdad , Chubby Muffin Sculpin in olive and brown.

Clinch

How It All Started

On the Clinch River in East Tennessee, west of interstate 75 as it bridges the water at breakneck speed is a mass of T.V.A. power lines that keep the City of Knoxville and points beyond supplied with electricity. The water beneath these lines is deep and clear, full of large rocks and twisted deadfall.

Wading isn’t an option in this stretch of the river, but the bank is often cluttered with corn cans that linger until high water flushes them further down stream. If you want to work the river from the bridge to the power lines a water craft of some sort is mandatory.

The Clinch isn’t a world class span of water, but it does hold a respectable population of browns, rainbows, and recently they added brooks to the foray. The size of the fish caught is usually in the mid sized variety though an occasional leviathan is spotted. This river in all its normalcy is special to me because it was in this place that I discovered my love of fly fishing.

It was the summer of my 40th birthday. Up to that point in my life I had been a basic bank fishing worm dunker. The most exotic angling I ever ventured to do was cast a Jitterbug or Hoola Popper to pond bass.

The overall vision of river fishing in my mind was sitting on the bank pitching chicken liver for catfish.

My best friend had been fly fishing for a while and despite his persistent urging that I give it a try, I remained resistant. It seemed like to much work to catch a tiny fish, and frankly it just looked to hard to be fun. His consistent assurance that I would love it was respectfully dodged till my birthday.

With some money I had been given as a gift, I bit the bullet and purchased some gear. The rod was a nine foot five/six weight Phlueger combo with double taper line that I got for thirty five bucks at Wal-Mart. This seemed to me like a total waste of money, but I guessed that I could put a spinning reel on it and bluegill fish.

When I got home I called my buddy and set the fishing trip for the following Saturday. He told me to pick up some flies, we set the time, and my fate was sealed.

Selecting flies for my first trip was the equivalent of trying to translate the Magna Carta into Mandarin. The Friday before my trip, I went to a fly shop on the west end of town. It was a small place tucked at the very back of an old strip mall. Several trucks were parked out front, I pulled in along side them and peered through the mosaic of stickers adorning the window.

Gathering my nerve, I walked in the door and was immediately greeted by and old black lab who bumped me with his graying muzzle. I rubbed his head and walked on in, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I am quite sure that I looked as lost and out of place as a Nascar fan at a performance of Swan Lake.

“Can I help you?”, the guy behind the counter asked. He was polite enough, but his voice held a hint of indifference which implied either I had walked into the wrong store, or I was as lost as a ball in high weeds. It didn’t take him very long to get me figured out.

“I’m heading up to the Clinch. What are they hitting?” Let me just state now for the record that if you go into a fly shop and ask that question, you might as well have a red flag dangling over your head. I am sure the guy behind the counter could see the donkey ears and buck teeth protruding from my face.

“Pheasant Tail”

He may as well have said Pig Ears.

“Do you have any?” Oh, this was getting bad. By now the donkey tail had emerged from my back and a Hee-Haw was welling up in my throat.

“Over there in the flies.”

“What size?”

“Twenty.”

I looked around and found the tray that said Bead Head Pheasant Tail size twenty. It was the only slot that was nearly empty. Just a small was of very small hoods with tiny gold beads.

At this point I was sure that this guy was playing me. I could hardly see the eye of the hook let alone try to fish with this thing.

Embarrassed, I picked up a few, put them in a cup, paid my money, and walked out with my donkey ears drooping and my fly swatting tail tucked meekly between my legs.

The lab looked up at me sympathetically from his spot by the t-shirt rack. I felt like he had seen this all happen many times before.

I am an information junkie. When I get interested in something, I devour as much as I can to learn about the intricacies of whatever the subject might be. I had spent several days scowering the internet on everything i could about fly fishing. I watched videos of Joan Wulff and Lefty Kreh as they showed the basic mechanics of the cast. I would sit at my desk with a thick highlighter and practice ten and two, ten and two.

So, returning from the debacle at the fly shop, I strung up my rod and went outside to practice. The one thing I remember is hearing that awful crack each time I came forward with my cast. My research had informed me that unless I carried a suitcase of flies to the river with me, I needed to fix that issue. I slowed down my ten and two and finally reached the point that I could lay down a solid ten feet of line in front of me without issue. By nightfall I felt okay with my cast much in the same way a teenage boy feels okay around a girl that he knows is way out of his league. He likes it, he enjoys it, but in the back of his mind he knows that once she sees through his charm to the large zit on the end of his nose, the whole gig is up.

I guess in retrospect, it was a blessing that we were fishing from a boat. I had fished area lakes in a boat many times so I kinda know the score. This also meant that I didn’t have to buy waders, but I had seen enough about fly fishing to know that I had to have a vest to hold my gear. Downstairs, in a bag of old yard sale stuff, I found a cheap khaki hunting vest that would have looked good on Marlin Perkins or Jack Hannah, but me? Not so much. Of course I had nothing to put in it but a plastic cup of Pheasant Tails and a three pack of leaders. Minimalism at its finest.

Saturday morning. The big day had arrived. I was up and gone before daybreak. The boat ramp that was our rendezvous point was about forty minutes away from the house and as I drove I tried to run through what I had read. I was actually getting nervous! Not about the fishing part of it, I had been catching fish my whole life. I was nervous about how I was catching them. I hate being labeled a greenhorn.

Its funny how odd things linger in your memory. The first thing I noticed when I reached the boat ramp and stepped out of my ride is how much colder it was right at the river, and I thought to myself that the water would have to warm up a bunch before the fish would feed. Shows you how much I knew.

Neither my buddy nor I are small boys. Our collective weight would bring top dollar at a cattle auction, so when he showed up with our watercraft I began to get worried. The “boat” was a hard plastic kayak kinda thing that was small and light enough for him to load in the back of his truck, and when we shoved off and headed upstream it did not escape my attention that we were mere inches from taking on water, yet remarkably it moved our middle aged spreads across the surface quite well.

We rowed upstream for several minutes through a thin wisp of fog that hovered inches above the water. Occasionally I would see a ring of a fish on the surface but other than their interruption the river was smooth as glass. I was amazed at how quiet everything became as we headed toward my date with destiny.

When we stopped rowing and set the boat free, I cast and fixed my gaze on the orange stick on foam indicator. I really didn’t know what to expect; then it happened. I have no real recollection of the hookset, or the fight, all I remember is that the indicator went under and then I was holding a 12″ brown. I was amazed at how smooth and cold it was, and how this was the prettiest fish I had ever seen.

“Meet your mistress.”, my buddy said with a twinkle in his eye.

Another boat, a real honest to God boat with room and a trolling motor came downstream to us. I knew the two guys from highschool and after a few pleasantries it was suggested that I get in with them so I could stand up and cast. That is when things started to get interesting.

I made an ungraceful but successful transition from the tiny craft that required my friend and I sit and cast to a large boat in which I could stand.  This made things much easier.

I was placed in the center of the craft and after some good natured ribbing targeted at my buddy and the realization of just how rediculous we must have looked going down river in something that looked more like a bath toy than something two grown men would ride.  The trolling motor was engaged and we headed back upstream and my new guide gave me some ground rules; Don’t get your feet tangled in the fly line, make sure that when you land a fish, you don’t lean over the side of the boat to far, and when you are casting make sure you say “casting!”.  This last one was of particular importance with three grown men in the boart and it did not escape my notice later on in the morning that when I said “casting!”, they froze and kinda leaned away from me.

We had a brief conversation about how the day had gone so far, what fly I was using, what I had been up to since high school.  Looking back on it now, I am sure that he made a quick inspection of my gear and no doubt rolled his eyes.  I mean this guy has one of just about every Hardy rod known to man and here is this 40 year old greenhorn standing in his boat with a yardsale hunting vest, a Wal-Mart rod and reel combo, and this bright greenish yellow double taper fly line.  I am sure I looked smoooooooooth.

These guys were laying out forty or fifty feet of line with ease and I would frail about like I was one step away from turning a cartwheel and might occasionaly get twenty feet of line out of the rod tip.  These guys were also catching fish.  A lot of fish.  I on the other hand was slowly being induced into a hypnotic state by the orange indicator that bobbed along unhindered in the current.  I watched helplessly as hookset after hookset occured on either side of me.  I was amazed.  All three of us were using pretty much the same fly but thus far the results had been desidedly different.

I don’t know if there is any information out there to support the impact of high tension power lines and their effect on the feeding activity of aquatic life forms, but as bad as I was at this fly fishing stuff, I can only attribute what happened next to the genius of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin.  As we crossed under the power lines, the indicator I was staring at, the indicator which had indicated nothing but my ineptitude for hours…moved.  It wasn’t aggressive, it just slowly and steadily began sinking deeper and deeper in the water.  I had hung up on rocks and tree limbs all day and was down to just two or three flies in my plastic cup so I gave a quick tug to try and pull it free.

Then, from the bottom of the Clinch River, under the shadows of the power lines, not ten feet off the side of the boat, something pulled back!  A wave of nausea washed over me as I felt the strong pull of something that was fighting for its life.

“FISH ON!”, I cried.

“My God, I’d say so!” came the reply.

My rod was bent midway and whatever it was, was big and had swam under the boat.  I began shaking and honestly could not feel my legs.

The fight seemed to go on forever and when the net was dispatched a huge rainbow trout was brought on board.  The biggest fish of the day for all of us.

I would love to say that after a gratuitous grip and grin photo op, I gently placed this football with fins back in the water and watched as it settled into its natural place.  But I didn’t.  I kept it.  Not so much for the meal that it would soon provide, but for my ability to show it to my wife.

“Oh my gosh! That is a trout?”, she would say a few hours later.

She had the same misconception about these cold water gems as I did.

As I dressed out the fish that evening and prepared it for the oven, I caught myself planning my next trip.

Those power lines may not hold any valid effect on the fishing, but for me it is a magic place.  A place where passion was born…three feet under a little orange indicator.