February 24, 2012

Starting Points

               Man arrives as a novice at each age of his life.
                             Nicholas Chamfort

            I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.
                             Pablo Picasso

      I finish the fly with a couple of half-hitches, dab some Griff's on the head and stand up (a little too fast), noting again the lag in my equilibrium's ability to keep pace. That's happens more often now as I get older, and get lost. Time just kind of goes away. It really does. Well spent, mind you, albeit not like all time passed, but one in the same it's gone forever.
       I really do have to stretch. My lower back it doth protest and I can't feel my butt, now that I'm aware again. I start to think that 'when I was younger I could sit here all day...', but that's not really right because when I was younger I more or less tied as if I was being timed, and when ensconced behind the vise was without a doubt missing out on something or at the very least denying myself precious time to do something else. Back then it wasn't always all about fishing with flies, although I'm hard pressed to bring to mind a lot of what I did do. I have a hard time remembering what it was I did when I wasn't fishing. It must have all been pretty unremarkable, yet I to this day still have such vivid memories of my fishing from very early on. In the pot that sits simmering, all else has evaporated, leaving only that.

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     Rain incessantly plasters itself against the window, rain that falls as snow if you climb a few hundred feet in elevation. Our mountain snowpacks are more than adequate for this time of year, about 90% of normal; a good thing while being a bad thing. Mostly a good thing, but I'll reserve final judgement until the hopefully somewhat dry and early summer. I love a good snowpack as much as any foresighted, trout-conscious future-minded fisherman, but I also wish for a warm spring and relatively dry entry into the summer months so that my river will be in shape as soon as possible. I rarely get my way without there being caveats to that wish, as in scant winter snowpacks resulting in minimal run-off which, by August puts the whole system in jeopardy, or conversely, cold, wet springs which linger clear into midsummer. There have been years like those, which translate into either dangerously low flows, subsequently sparse hatches, and high water temperatures, or the opposite; big, off-color water that rages down through the system far into July. These events aren't a big deal if there is a desire for (and ability to get to) other water that has separated itself; that has become as important to others as this one is to me. I don't know a lot of guys who call this river 'home', and even fewer who would state that publicly. But the ones I have known that do? Well, they know exactly what it is that has tunneled our vision. I have, in the accumulated words of many previous posts, expounded on those virtues. But, beyond all the reasons I have for calling this river my home water, beyond all the literal glitter and shine I could possibly employ to polish any narrative of my fishing here, beyond all of that, there is a bit of (for want of a better term I will simply call it) pride involved. And I am fairly certain that this 'pride' has been the driving force behind my initiative to as thoroughly as possible understand this river and therefore fish it with as much confidence as it is possible to have when fishing a river of this nature. It's not like I haven't had numerous chances to explore other water. I have. And I've enjoyed being there, have not been immune to the feeling that yes, there are rivers out there I would love to fish a lot more often than I do. Yet, after saying this, why is it that when I am on other water does the sense of longing (and sometimes betrayal) for my home water never fail to wriggle its way into my consciousness? 

       I suppose there's more to it, more to my loyalty to the Spokane River than that which is most visible. It is true enough that early on my willingness to spend so much time plying its waters engendered a knowledge level wherein I began, over time, to enjoy consistent, even though marginal success, which in turn encouraged further forays. But what is not so visible are the days of utter frustration. There were (and still are) many of those. Frustrating or not, it was still a river with a decent population of trout that ran right through the town where I lived and it seemed, even back then when I thought about it, a terrible waste of a basically backyard resource constituting tremendous negligence on my part not to take some time to understand what I'd need to know to be successful here. Subsequently, the more I fished it, any thoughts about needing to be anywhere else quietly diminished, became little more than distant, passing fantasies. 

    Having basically taught myself most everything beyond the actual act of casting and rudimentary knot-tying (thanks again, dad), I grew into the boots of a fisherman with few, if any, preconceived notions other than understanding that there seemed to be no end to my need for knowledge, both on the water and off. I assumed nothing as far as my ability level was concerned, and so continued, at times painfully slowly, to improve.When I began to actually notice that, I was further encouraged.
    Early on, as now, reality was (and remains) the best deflector as far as ego and it's overinflation was/is concerned. In fishing solo, I had no way to measure growth other than my own gauge, which was decipherable only to or by me. Fish counts were never an issue. I was thrilled with any success, understanding almost from the outset that I learned less from the days I landed many and so much more from those days where I brought few, if any, to hand. 
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     One of the few positive aspects of aging is the clarity it can bring to some of the philosophies one develops or has bumped into along the way. Insight can often come in staccato rushes with blinding speed, leaving us more or less cognitively frozen in the headlights. More often, it sits quietly, biding its time unobtrusively perched on our shoulder waiting, winking knowingly when we finally take notice. There is a lot that is learned, or occurs 'by accident', or so it is said, a theory to which I once prescribed. I don't think that way now. Everything happens for a reason. That's a lot easier to understand upon the realization that knowledge comes when you can delineate that reason from all the peripherals and then transform that which you have defined into a viable method, or tool. Do that often enough and you begin to see that you have further developed probably your most important tool; that mindset which allows you to solve the mystery you once categorized as an 'accident'.
   That's exactly how I came to fully enjoy the Spokane River, and the satisfaction derived from swinging flies. And when I was able to extrapolate the reasons, the insight perched on my shoulder finally winked, as if to say, Steve, your journey is really just beginning.

     And so here I am. I have arrived. Not to a conclusion, or end of anything other than where I was. This points me again as I embark from yet another starting point. 

    Some years ago, maybe five, or six, it really doesn't matter, I went steelhead fishing for the first and only time (so far) in my life. It was just for a few hours after my boss at the fly shop and I had finished a four day stay in Wenatchee to make some money washing windows. We were getting pretty damned good at it, too. Had all the gear. On the way back, as promised, Bill turned the overloaded Ford pick-up off the highway and we headed up the Methow River valley to meet up with another gentleman who worked at Bill's Blue Dun Fly Shop in East Wenatchee. It was to be, for me, a rather momentous day. As 'luck' would have it, I hooked and landed a magnificent wild buck. Much to the chagrin of my mates, I was the only one to land a fish. My first, and only, so far, steelhead. The whole sequence is forever indelibly etched in my mind. And, to make it even sweeter, I was fishing a fly, a kind of spey/hybrid that I had conceptualized and then tied. To make it even sweeter, I was fishing that fly with a fourteen-foot one-inch seven-weight spey rod, probably these days closer to what people like to call a switch rod. Because of the extent of my roll-casting on the Spokane, I'd rather easily fallen into a modestly effective single spey delivery which worked well enough for me on this day as far as my knowledge of such things went at the time. I knew going in that I'd feel pretty self-conscious about my readily apparent lack of steelhead experience, so I took my place at the end of our threesome as we worked our way down through various runs, a good plan, because I kept one eye on my fishing but paid a lot of attention to what was going on in front of me. Both Bill and Jeremy were adept, and comfortable with their spey rods. I would stand there secretly in awe as they easily popped long casts using a variety of methods. Only when I was pretty sure they were busy would I make mine, suffering through many short, ill-spent drifts when my novice attempts would go awry. 
      But, unwittingly, I found that I'd made a good choice when I decided to be the caboose. The last run we fished through was the most promising looking water of the day. There was a fast-running trough across the river that tumbled into a deep, somewhat turbulent, slowly widening run, and it wasn't out of the question for me to be able to reach it. It looked so fishy that my hands started to shake! It was hard to understand how both Bill and Jeremy had fished down through it and come up empty! Now it was all mine! 
   Being the last in line, I could more slowly step my way through. I really had the sense of something good happening if I could just get a couple of good casts to the far side of that trough. The fly, carried downstream as it sunk, would begin swinging up and across out of the bottom of that trough as my line went taut right where the current slowed. I had to gauge where I spent time, though, as it was well past three in the afternoon and I knew that when Bill reached the narrow chute at the top of the bend below us, we'd be done. As I watched, he set up for a double spey. His line seemed to reach out forever, turning over perfectly to land the fly at full extension just feet from the opposite bank. That's another picture that's forever etched in my mind. I was  truly inspired! 
    I was straggling a bit and knew it, but hadn't surrendered to the creeping feeling that I wasn't going to make something happen here. I  put a nice cast into the air, and watched my pink and cerise fly land well across the trough. I threw a mend at it, and waited as it travelled. Jeremy was now a good two hundred yards downstream, and I remember him hollering up at me, "Waitin' on ya! You okay up there?"
   I remember looking downstream and noticing how far down he really was as I readied a response. I never got a word out of my mouth, though, which didn't matter in the long run because at that instant all hell broke loose. 

      I remember the moment when I finally saw him. I remember how I trembled, the long list of things could possibly go wrong now drumming through my head. The take had been electrifyingly brutal. Four hundred and forty volts streaming in a nanosecond up my arms and into my brain. I'd never experienced anything like it. I remember feeling totally at the mercy of the energy let loose, seeing my line disappearing into the dark green of the pool downstream, curving, and at that very instant a sleek, bright fish careening spasmodically into the air nearly fifty feet upstream. It was my fish! How could he have gotten up there? And then, as if he'd had a sudden change of mind, turning and bolting downstream right past where I stood, my line now slapping against the guides and rod as he took it, desperately seeking freedom. 
    I remember seeing him finally swim abreast of where I now stood, some hundred and fifty yards downstream of that trough. He swam slowly upstream past me. I saw the fly embedded in the corner of his mouth. I remember turning him below me after he'd bolted again, trying one more time to escape. But his energy was gone, finally gone. I brought him to my feet and managed to tail him just as Jeremy reached me. 
      "I'll be damned", he said quietly, slapping me on the shoulder, "Jeezus, you caught yourself quite a fish." 

        I will always remember how it felt to be so blessed, to not only hook but to land such a beautiful fish. On my first outing. I remember how emotional I got, embarrassed, hiding it from my fishing mates, not wanting them to see the tears that welled in my eyes. 
      I remember turning the big buck up into the current and holding him there, feeling his strength slowly return. And as I released him, he hovered there for a bit, right in front of me, before sliding quickly back out into the deeper water. It was almost dark. Time to hit the road.

    Looking back, I'd like to be able to say that I wasn't expecting to hook a fish the very first time out. I'd like to say that. But, in the back of my mind, I felt that I had every bit as good a chance as either of my fishing mates. I'd read the water correctly, I'd put the cast where I knew it would be most effective, and, by luck, I had the right colors. Turns out I was the only one of the three of us who put pink through that trough that day. I was also the only one to land his fish.    

       I have not fished for steelhead since that day. Not that I have not dreamed of doing so... But I know that now the days hold promise. I will again. That time is coming as sure as the sun will shine. There are  things I first must do. I must prepare in every way I can. I must be ready. I will be ready. Ready to learn. To grow.
     It's the logical next step; taking those lessons I have learned from fishing with flies into the next world will give me a good starting point. I will have a solid platform. Best of all? The best is yet to come.

       I can't wait. I absolutely cannot wait!

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