August 14, 2012

Dog days

         Standing midstream in a middle-aged season, waist deep and spectacularly clueless, you shuffle randomly through your alternatives over and over, like a disillusioned spiritual seeker trying to pick a new religion from the yellow pages.
            Ted Leeson, Inventing Montana

     One more cast. Then, very deliberately, I'll settle in to another thorough search through my boxes, looking again for a fly that's until now somehow been overlooked, or, one I finally convince myself to try even though it's been in there, patiently taking up space, forever. Just the fact that I'm mentally scheduling another box-check long before I cast is a pretty good indicator that all is not well.

      This has been a tough post to put together, or, to be more to the point, not the one that I planned to write. I had such lofty hopes for the summer's fishing on my river;  the higher than 'normal' run-off lasting so much longer than 'normal', testing my ability to stay cool during those days and days of watching the maddeningly slight incline on the graph begin to approach what I was waiting for.  But, as the days of this exceedingly strange summer have unfolded, each one ending in an eerily similar fashion; I silently beg each sunset to please slow down before admitting again that even if I do stay on into the darkness it probably isn't going to happen, and then finally allowing the reality of it all to convince me to trudge back.  So, with this as a sobering backdrop, I decided that what the heck, honesty, in all it's sometimes grim trappings, may well be the best policy. I'll write it as it is. As it is so far, anyway. 

    To be quite frank, I went so far as to postpone any writing for several more than a few days, supported by the promise of each new day that this malaise, this rather unnerving period that has so bewilderingly gripped me, would gently lift and pass. That I'd somehow get back on track, that I'd once again be on top of my game, laughing off my troubles to once again crow at great length about the virtues of my flies and fishing and the wonderfully engaging trout in this river I call my home water. Still, however, the days pass, into the necessary number of weeks in order to call it a month, plus now a few more days...

      And, as yet, much continues not to happen. My schedule is unchanged, sometimes fishing twice a day, and it's getting on into the fifth week, this doldrum; this conundrum. 
     The flows have only recently dropped enough to allow me to wade my familiar haunts with as much confidence as is warranted for a man with 62 year-old legs and increasingly suspect equilibrium. My casts remain strong and true. My flies are time-tested here and have been, at least up to this stage, consistently trustworthy. Certainly that would be any fisherman's recipe for success. It always worked well in the past, and going into this year I had no reason to think differently. Why would I?

       But something is stuck. I'm getting no traction. I'm not sure why that is. I'm not sure if it's me or the river, the fish or my flies. The weather could be partly to blame. Maybe it's degrees of all of the above. The worst part of this mystery is that I'm running dangerously low on reasonable conclusions. Any reasonable conclusions, reasonable or not. This extended drought, this mid-season blank has got me questioning everything I've ever done here to catch fish. My confidence has been ambushed, snared, hanging upside down wild-eyed with fear and almost out of reach. Almost.

     In the majors it's called a slump. Time to head back down to Triple A for a confidence boost against the pitching. On the basketball court I'd be what's known as 'cold', shooting nothing but bricks, which means some extended bench time or being the tag end of a multi-player trade that eventually lands me in Yemen playing for a sheik with ulterior motives. But, even then at least there would be options. The only options I seem to have left now amount to barely reasonable explanations, and that's a pretty empty bag to be holding. I'd prefer answers over explanations, or better yet a tight line, but so far neither of those have been forthcoming. The joy of looking down on my favorite runs at the beginning of each fishing day has been coated with a thickening patina of anxiety.  

     I just finished reading what I can say with conviction is probably one of the best, most insightful, thoughtful, perceptive books ever written on the subject of fishing with flies, Inventing Montana, by Ted Leeson. And one of the chapters in his book deals precisely with that which I am experiencing right now, which, as I read, was at the same time humorous and scary. (I remember thinking, oh, now that will never happen to me). It deals with what Thomas McGuane, in his book The Longest Silence calls just that; 'The Longest Silence'.  Simply put, it is that particularly inordinately long period of time spent fishing without, for one reason or another, hooking or landing a fish. I highly recommend both of these books, but I think that Mr. Leeson's book, especially the chapter entitled "Sirius Matters", deals with the matter of 'dry spells' in a fashion that will call each of us out and force us to really think. I say that because I am forced to concede that I never thought that 'it could happen to me'. It was always for some one else to suffer through. I never thought I would be singled out for such a time. Indeed, I never gave it even a moment's thought. 

      Until now. It seems to be my turn.

      Confession. I'm compelled to admit to losing a little sleep over it. This continuing saga of several days of unbridled, uninterrupted failure tend to grind on me a little bit, and I seem to have rather easily fallen into a pattern of crawling out of bed after hours of staring into the darkness to sit at my vise late into the wee hours of the morning working with permutations and variations (feeding the silliness) that roll ceaselessly through my agonized brain, trying to convince myself that one of these new ones will be the key that unlocks that door. One of these flies will be the deal breaker. Then I climb back into bed, hopefully satisfied that I have found the answer. Until the next night.

But, so far I haven't found it, and I swear every night as I turn off the light the hell with it, tonight I'll just stay in bed and let it ride...
... and an hour later I slide out of bed and into the chair and switch on my tying light, again.

      Mindset is everything, especially now. I am amazed, or possibly embarrassed, at how much self-value I've hung on the ability to hook fish. I've never been a fan of being 'just happy to be here' as regards the ability to simply enjoy the fact that I'm standing in a river doing what I was put here to do, because I've somehow convinced myself that I was put there, in that damned river, to catch fish. Some would offer that that's what I get for hanging my hat on such a fickle enterprise. The thought that I might go hitless for a period of time never entered into my consciousness, and were someone to advance that particular futurism my way, well I'd be hard put to even consider it. There will always be those days where a strike or a fish is harder to come by, but usually, with patience and perseverance, at the end of each day I could look forward to the hike back to the car feeling somewhat satisfied with my effort, and therefore the results. 
     The conscious thought now is almost diametrically different, and that's territory where I've long forgotten how be comfortable. And that 'discomfort', if you will, is beginning to manifest itself in my ability to reason with even a modicum of competence. 

     'They' say patience is golden; patience is a virtue.  'They' are, for the most part, quite right, but, that it's also, I've discovered, much easier to be patient when success, no matter how subjectively infrequent, is still usually somewhat close at hand. In the time line of our daily fishing history, despite the occasional panic attacks we are usually never too far from a hookup and not too far removed from the last. The matter of the distance between them is simply not a factor that attracts concern. Patience keeps us dialed in, on target, as we move from dot to dot on our timeline, because the next dot hasn't ever been that far off. It's a bit humbling when you are finally faced with the reality that the next dot, though you know there is one, could very well be a million miles over the horizon of your spinning ball and no matter how fast you spin it, that dot is not coming into view. So you do everything faster, making that ball really spin, hoping against hope for that grace-saving bump on the line. But, all that is revealed, aside from the same quiet emptiness is the rippling effect, the chagrin of muffed opportunities when they do arise, because by now you're so completely off your game that you've totally lost touch with what made you love this place, these fish, and your methods for attracting them. Church starts to sound like it might be for you. Or therapy. Or alcohol...
       I'm prone to wondering if maybe it's some sort of payback for all the success enjoyed over the years I've spent here; some karmic dispensation or reconfiguration for reasons I am not as yet able to discern. I tend to think along these lines when I have no other explanation for the current dearth of landed, or even hooked fish. Not suddenly, I have become aware that it's insinuated itself slowly, inexorably into the broader avenues of my overall consciousness, like the chill from a pin-hole sized leak in my waders that I discover on the coldest day of the year in the coldest water I've ever waded and I'm miles from the warmth of my car heater.

      I've even attempted to equate my current maledictive state as a calling out of sorts. A challenge. And indeed it seems that it is just that. The problem I have with the idea of a challenge is, as I see it, that any possible solution that I may successfully engineer could seemingly fall in the direction of a change in method. I've been swinging flies, specifically, of course, soft hackled flies, for almost as long as I've fished this river. Outside of a handful of fish brought to the net with nymphs, dries, or monstrous streamers, soft hackles have long been my meat and potatoes. The name of the game here for me has always been the caddis in all of its different stages of development, and soft hackles perform a majority of those tasks more than admirably. Add to that the seductively mostly mindless method of swinging flies and, well, you've just pegged the main reason I love to fish that way here. I've long thought that of all the ways we've fished with flies for trout over the years, this way is the most suitable, enjoyable, and yes sometimes it is mindless, but it  works, on several levels, including being the picture I keep in my mind's eye of me fishing my home water. It just works.

       A scene from a couple of years ago comes back to me. My son and I were fishing a favorite run of mine. I had elected to jump ahead several hundred yards so that I could swing my soft hackles through while he worked down more slowly, alternating nymphs with dries. I remember hooking one nice fish early on, and then drawing blanks the rest of the way. I sat down at the bottom of that run on a nice flat rock in the sun to watch Aaron fish his way down. An old man watching his son. I remember this now because I was struck by how patiently, unhurriedly he worked his way down, waist deep, wading quietly and carefully as he worked a simple Troth-styled imitation I'd given him earlier. There were no fish rising, and yet, as he stood above the last rocky spill of that run, his fly floating drag-free through a series of convoluted hydraulics, a very nice rainbow rose and his caddis disappeared. It was a wonderful fifteen minute display of all the good things we try to embody in our own fishing. He calmly raised his rod, the line went taut, and I almost cried. Perfect.
    I remember that morning vividly now, and I am reminded of lessons I have learned, but have allowed to grow dim. And, as that memory replays itself over and over, I am made aware of the One Big Lesson, again.

      There will be fish. There is an end, just as there are beginnings. Guess I'll go see if I can tie something up... 

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