The Accidental Angler: Speed dating vs courtship

There is a stretch of the Madison River in Montana below the town of Ennis that is only open to walk / wade anglers. A boat can be used to access the many braided channels, but any fishing must be done while standing on terra firma.

The Madison River below Ennis

We parked at one of the several access points, then began to hike downstream until we hadn’t seen another angler for a while and judged we were clear of the eighty percent who seldom stray more than a quarter mile from their vehicle. I elected to enter the river at a place where a couple of small islands created deep side channels against the bank on their near side, with wider, shallower riffles on the far.

The day was blue and mild, stark contrast to the previous when we’d floated a portion of the river upstream of Ennis – leaden skies and a cold wind, squinting hard in the flat light to detect the subtle takes of fish that rose occasionally to the small dry flies we cast.

I stepped off the bank and into the flow, wading out to the tail of one of the islands where I stood in the shallows, deciding what flies to start out with. While the promise of a warm fall day was in the air, a trace of the previous night’s cold still lingered. If there was to be any dry fly action, it likely wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon. I selected a large indicator dry then two feet below it tied a weighted nymph to bounce along the bottom of the shallower riffles and hang suspended in the deeper runs.

Standing quietly in the water, the gentle push of the river against my boots, carried downstream with the flow any desire to hasten in to action. The snow capped Ruby Range defined the western horizon, while closer a few cottonwoods along the shore bank still clung stubbornly to the last of their foliage.

I took my time working up the first run, savoring several feelings: being grounded in the river, the flex and load of the rod, the arc of the line out and across the water, the settling of the flies as the current carried them back to me. The first riffle yielded two small browns followed by a larger rainbow. Hooked against a tangle of shore roots, it leaped and dove and broke me off before I had time to get in synch with its movements.

I retreated to shore and sat on the grassy bank, feet dangling over the edge just shy of the water, laid the rod in the grass next to me and began repairing my leader. At that moment, float fishing seemed like the angling version of speed dating – always on the move, a quick cast, a twitch and jiggle of the fly to see if there is a reaction, then on to the next encounter, and the next. There is constant communication and interplay, not to mention the physical presence, between oarsman and angler.

Wade fishing, on the other hand, seemed more akin to a gradual courtship, reminiscent of older times, when the pace of life was slower, our culture less hung up on the drug of instant gratification. More time was taken in ritual and observation. There is just the angler and the river, and sometimes, if enough attention is paid and time invested, there is a meeting of the minds.

I decided against tying on another fly, at least for the present, instead choosing to sit and listen. I remembered the beer I had stuffed in my pack, the cozy still keeping it cool in the warming day, and popped the top.

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Once upon a time on the Mohaka….

I’ve been thinking some about mortality lately, in part due to venturing into my fifties. In vehicular terms, you’ve just passed the 100,000 mile mark. All manufacturer’s bets are off, and the needle on the tank shows closer to empty than full. In part it’s the season, the sun low and fleeting, nights long and cold, nature stripped bare. In part, the sudden passing of a family member, and realizing the folly of believing there will always be a tomorrow to finish whatever is put off today.

When my time comes, there’s a river in New Zealand I wouldn’t mind having a few ashes scattered on. It’s called the Mohaka, and it flows out of the Ahimanawa mountains in the east-central North Island. In twenty five years of river running, its has given me moments of elation and anguish, inspiration and fear. I’ve had my best day of fly fishing ever on its waters – no camera to record it, no other soul to witness it, just me and the river. I’ve stood on its banks knees weak, insides knotted with dread, a crew member from my raft missing in its raging waters for over an hour, and felt the waves of relief when he was found, safe and sound. It has been the scene of my most challenging guide trip – three days for no fish – and also the provider of my biggest tips.

When a recent family event necessitated an impromptu trip back to New Zealand, a day on the Mohaka was my number one recreational priority. I managed to hook up with Steve, a friend who’s been fishing and hunting the central North Island for the best part of three decades. In that time of guiding the rich and famous he’s walked away from helicopter crashes, dodged the slings and arrows of outraged husbands, caught more fish than is decent, and like most guides probably drank enough to kill several small elephants in the process.

It had been over five years since I’d had oars and feet planted in a New Zealand river, and in terms of my fishing technique, it showed. Despite knowing better, it always seems to take a while to reintroduce myself to the realities of New Zealand fishing. You tend to not get too many opportunities, so a fish missed as the result of a clumsy cast or mistimed hook set or too tight a rein always leaves you pondering, wondering: will the river will give you another chance, or has she shut the door on your face and turned the key? Gentle Colorado-style hook sets get treated with head shaking disdain, while attempting to arrest that first charging run with a drag set too tight results in bent hooks and the kind of language that would make a sailor blush.

Fortunately this day, the Mohaka was a patient mistress. My first fumblings were tolerated, and after taking a break for lunch and a beer, I got my mojo working at last. The reward for me was a couple of lovely fish, a rainbow and a brown, a day spent on a special river in perfect company, and the commitment to ensure that it is not another five years hence before I again get to immerse myself in the sights, sounds and smells of one of the most special places on Earth.

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You take what the river gives you

“Are you sure you don’t want to put the boat in the garage overnight? It feels like rain, maybe snow.”

Not for the first time in my life, I should have listened to the Voice of Wisdom, or Wife, as she is more frequently known.

“Pfffft. What’s a little rain? It is a boat, after all.”
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Next morning I reminded myself of this exchange as I shoveled and swept several inches of heavy, wet snow from the boat, more falling from a leaden sky. Common sense would have dictated pushing the trailer into the garage and going back to bed, but over the years experience has taught me that sense and fishermen often share little in common. In my own defense, I would like to point out that had I not being getting paid for rowing the boat, I would have been back between the sheets in an instant. As a guide however, my motto in such circumstances has always been that if the fishermen are dumb enough to want to go, I’m silly enough to take them – an attitude owing as much to relative poverty as much as anything.

The thing I remind myself in such circumstances is that for me, this is just another day at the office. For the guy who has driven here from Ft Worth or St Louis or worse, Oklahoma City, this is a once or twice a year event and he is not going to let a little snow discourage him – at least for the first half hour, after which the realities of a day spent sitting on a raft in below freezing temperatures often starts to sink in. There is also an element of long-dormant teenage macho that comes to the surface, fly shop bravado that sees the fishermen stand around in a jocular group, reassuring themselves that all is well, and they are not going to let a little snow put them off going fishing, like someone from California would.
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We cut a faintly pitying sight at the G Street boat ramp Sunday morning, rigging rods and stowing gear while the snow swirled. Even the kayakers there for the slalom competition seemed to look at us with bemusement. If there was a silver lining to the cloud, it was that the extra moisture had helped to bring the river up from its previous day’s low of 170 cubic feet per second to somewhere around 200. The drought of 2002 served to lower the bar with regard to what was considered a viable water level to conduct commercial float fishing trips, and it seems 2013 is destined to lower it further. That year was the last year I guided commercial whitewater trips on the Ark, and the thing savvy guides learned above all else was that their attitude was the sole determinant on whether or not people had a good time. Some guides carried with them a small black cloud, lamenting the state of the river, while others looked for new ways to have fun and entertain. That year was my best for tips. So far this year, while the monkey on the oars has had to work harder, the fishermen are having as much fun, and catching as many fish, as any other.

By the time we reached the Stock Yard Bridge the clouds and snow flurries had moved on, pushed out of the valley before a frigid six-layer wind that bit at any exposed flesh and made a mockery of accurate casting or mending. At such times one takes solace in the fact that, as a downstream wind, it was pushing us ever closer to the take out, which we reached tired and happy, miraculously right around beer thirty.

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November, November

The phone rang. It was Mr Pink on the other end. “Wanna float?’ he asked. I looked out the window, dubious to say the least. The trees were bending before an unrelenting wind, tumbleweed tumbled, even the birds were walking.

“It’s a little breezy don’t you think? I replied. Menacing grey clouds enveloped the Sawatch Range and were fingering their way down between the peaks of the Sangres. A great day to reacquaint myself with my hearth, I thought. One of the reasons why you live a few minutes from a river is so that you don’t need to venture out on days like these.

“Nah, it’s nice down here – barely a breeze, and the sun’s shining.” Pink lives on the river in Howard, in many ways something of a parallel universe to Salida, separated not by a wafer thin membrane, but a few miles of blacktop. “We’ll float from my place to Vallie Bridge. Should only take a couple of hours.”

Not for the first time, my wife regarded me that look that is equal parts amusement and pity as I announced my plans for the afternoon. “You’re doing what?” I shrugged,and seeking respite from her gaze, headed for the refuge of the garage to dig out my waders and gear. The day before, I’d biked Cottonwood , sections of the trail blanketed in six inches of snow, so how bad could it be?

As it turned out, Pink was right. While an occasional wind gust rattled through the cottonwoods, sending dead leaves scratching and scurrying across the ground, the sun rode high over the clouds on the peaks, bathing the river in a late fall glow.

As we pushed away from shore, it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d floated the river in November. Does an aging memory play tricks, or is November the new October, weather-wise? Either way, it was great to be out there again, feeling the motion of the river beneath the boat, trying to guess where a hungry fish might reside on such an afternoon.

While the activity wasn’t prolific, we each felt the weight of a fish on the end of the line, enough stragglers camped along the edges of eddies and riffles to make the afternoon worthwhile, a success by any measure.

All in all, you’ve got to love living in a place where, even when there is snow on the ground, you can mountain bike one day, and float fish the next. Thanks for the call Pink.

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The Last Of The Summer Wine….er…Tecate

Who among us can say exactly what happened to summer? Just yesterday it seems, the trees were budding out, the kids were fresh out of school, and the anticipation of the season lay out before us like an untouched banquet. Plenty of time to leisurely sample the delights of warm summer nights, camping trips, biking, vacation time, shorts, skirts and flip flops. Then all of a sudden, you realize its September, and half the things you set out to do are still in the ‘Yet To Get To’ bin. Leaves are starting to turn, the nights drawing in and getting cooler. At my age, I am pleading with life to slow down, so rather than say ‘why can’t winter go by as fast as summer?’, I ask ‘why can’t summer go by as slow as winter seems to?’

Of course, when you are guiding, it is even harder to take time out as summer is the season for making the proverbial hay -having a lot of free time on your hands is not a good sign. But still, wouldn’t it be nice if there was say one month every year where the normal rules of economics, not to mention supply and demand, were suspended, and we could all just take time to follow our bliss. Instead, fleeting moments of relaxation and leisure must be planned and jealously guarded.

Fortunately, for most people taking a guided trip, a day on the river is such a moment, to be savored, enjoyed and filled with as much laughter and frivolity as possible. Taking things too seriously is a no-no. Acknowledging your mistakes, celebrating your inadequacies as much as your victories, and relishing the decadence of a cold beer on the river before noon are all part of the experience.

This day was just such a day. The high drama of missed hook sets, fish broken off, lines tangled and flies lost were all in evidence, as were the joys of inch perfect casts, flawless drifts and beautiful healthy fish in the net. I never get tired of hanging out with people who are intent on having a good time, and who’s first inclination is to laugh when things don’t go according to plan. Such people are fun to be with, exude healthy energy, and while summer may have gone by in the blink of an eye, they help make sure it leaves me with a smile on my face.

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