How Sick Are You, Really?

(Note: This article previously appeared in High Country Angler Magazine)

If you’re any kind of fisherman, you’ve probably had the finger of accusation pointed at you from time to time. Usually it’s a spouse, significant other, or family member. “You think more about fishing than you do about me”. “The guy at the fly shop sees more of you than I do.” “You never look at me the way you look at that reel.”

And let’s face it, nine times out of ten it is true. There is no hiding from the fact that as fishermen, we are, to differing degrees, struck down with the sickness. For some, the symptoms are relatively mild, the cure relatively straight forward. A couple of times a year, you head to the river for some quiet time. A few hours, a clearer head, and you are back to your normal station in life, a functioning, productive human being. For others the situation is more complex, the symptoms hold deeper, the cure less attainable. Social interaction becomes problematic, personal hygiene an irrelevance, the need to have two feet planted in water somewhere an unquenchable thirst. The question that preys most on the mind is this: How sick am I? Am I sick at all? Am I OK and everyone else is sick? Jeez, doesn’t that guy with the slightly bulging eyes look like that bull trout I landed in Idaho last fall?

So how do you find out if your sickness is mild or untreatable? Where do you go for an impartial diagnosis? Certainly not to a medical doctor. They’ll either be infected themselves, or else “one of them”, that is, a non fisherman, and so in no position to make any judgements. Psychologist? What the heck would they know anyway, they’re probably too screwed up dealing with other people’s problems in the first place. Family? Gimme a break, they’re the ones pointing the finger in the first place, so no hope of impartiality there. No, the only hope is through an honest and searching self assessment.

So grab a pen, paper and a bottle of Scotch ( in vino veritas ), and take the “Is It Me, Or The Whole Damn World Who Is Sick?” test. Answer the following six questions honestly, and for each answer score the same number of points as the answer you choose.

1: You arrive home from your latest fishing trip. Your kids: 1) Rush in to your arms, and welcome you back with cries of “Did you have fun, Daddy?” and “We’re so glad your home, let’s help you unpack.” 2) Greet your arrival home with total indifference, resuming their video game with barely a glance in your direction. 3) Run screaming to their mother, yelling “Mom there’s a strange, hairy, smelly person standing in the kitchen trying to hug us!.”

2: The real reason you okayed your kids getting that new hamster was to: 1) Teach them about the responsibilities of caring for another living creature. 2) Give them something to do so they wouldn’t hassle you so much about taking them to soccer practice or dance recital. 3) That light tan patch of fur on Fluffy’s back is the perfect shade of color for those caddis nymphs you are planning to tie for your upcoming trip to Montana.

3: That attractive blonde from the accounting department has been casting furtive glances in your direction lately, and blushes slightly every time you meet her eye. You decide the best course of action is to: 1) Empty your bladder, take a deep breath and going up to her and say that although, as a fisherman, you sadly have zero social skills, you would love to take a walk along a riverbank with her sometime. 2) Ignore her, on the assumption that once she got to know you, she’d dump you anyway. 3) Just the thought of trying to initiate a conversation with her makes you empty your bladder before you make it to the bathroom.

4: Your mother calls to point out that it has been a few months since you’ve dropped by to visit, especially disconcerting considering you live only three blocks away. Your response is to: 1) Realize that she is correct, and decide to cancel that trip to the river this afternoon, and drop by and visit, and maybe mow her lawns for her. 2) You figure she is correct, you have been neglecting her lately, and decide to drop by to visit this afternoon, but, what the heck, you’ll take the 3wt along just in case there’s enough light left at the end of the day to hit the river for a few casts. 3) Patiently explain to her that for the last few weeks the blue wings have been hatching, in fact the best hatch in recent memory. It’s only supposed to last for a couple more weeks, and you’ll be around to say “hi” after that, then making a note to have her number added to your blocked caller list.

5: Your daughter comes home breathless one evening, telling you that Steve just proposed, and she accepted. They want to tie the knot at the end of June, which corresponds with the stone fly hatch in the Gunny Gorge. Your response is to: 1) Break down in tears at the thought of your little treasure getting married and leaving the nest. But Steve is a great, sober guy with a great job, and you’d hoped all along she would choose him and not that jerk on the Harley. 2) Break down in tears at the thought of your little treasure getting married and leaving the nest. But Steve is a great, sober guy with a great job, and you’ll get him a 5 wt as an engagement present, hopefully gaining a fishing buddy as well as a son in law. And thank God she didn’t pursue things with that spin fishing jerk on the Harley. 3) Break down in tears as you realize that you’ll have cancel the trip to the Gorge this year, unless you can talk her into an on river wedding. Damn, life sure would have been a heck of a lot easier if she’d just ran off with that guy on the Harley.

6: Your wife announces that she has been thinking about learning to fish. She saw on Oprah the other day how fly fishing is naturally suited to a woman’s physiology and disposition. If she likes it she’ll be able to come along on your fishing trips, and won’t that be fun? Your response is : 1) Lend her your 5 wt, and organize for her to sign on with the local outfitter’s women’s fishing program. This is your dream come true, finally something you can share together outside of your normal domestic relationship. 2) Lend her your 5 wt, and organize for her to sign on with the local outfitter’s women’s fishing program, but lovingly explain that for you, fishing is a means of having a life outside of marriage, but you are sure she’ll make many new friends along the way herself. 3) Break out in a cold sweat, and after surveying all the options, set her up with the crustiest guide you know, and tell him there’s an extra hundred in his tip if she comes home with the words “I hate fishing, and that guide’s a real jerk” on her lips.


6 – 8: Relax, you’re fine. In fact, getting out and fishing a little more wouldn’t do any harm.

9 -11: You still fit well within the bell curve of accepted social norms. Carry on as you are, but the need for constant self assessment is advised.

12 – 14: Check yourself into a psychiatric facility specializing in the treatment of narcissism and denial while you can still do so voluntarily. It will make it a lot easier to maybe get out later on.

15 – 18: As Macbeth stated: “ I am in blood steeped so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as the go o’er.” In other words, too late to turn back now. Withdraw immediately from society, buy that remote tract with the Unibomber shed on it you’ve always wanted anyway, ditch the razor and cell phone, and fish your ass off.


How To Tell The Difference Between A Kiwi And An American…

As the wind howled and the snow flew the other night, I got to thinking about how before kids entered our lives, Kym and I would be preparing to head Down Under at this time of the year. Sitting up late at night, I would be tying flies that in a few days would be cast to summertime fish on the other side of the world. And that was what got me feeling all nostalgic and inspired to put together this little slideshow of past New Zealand adventures.

Of the many things I like about winter, one is the opportunity it gives to slow down and reflect on matters both critical and superfluous. Like, do real men fish in the snow or choose to keep their cojones warm by the fire? I thought about this the other day as I checked out an ad for a popular fly rod manufacturer. In the ad, a couple of guys, grim faced and manly, are floating a river in the grips of a blizzard. Icicles hanging from their various appendages, the underlying message is this: nothing gets in the way of a real man’s pursuit of fish, and real men fish with Brand X rods. Personally, as a guide I have seen way too much parking lot bravado on a cold snowy morning turn, after an hour on the river, into sniveling shivering pleas for mercy and the nurturing warmth of the great indoors to be too impressed with this sort of marketing.

But it does raise some interesting questions, both genetic and cultural. In my native New Zealand, your average fisherman would quietly back away, lock the door, make a mental note to be more discreet in their choice of friends, and toss another log on the fire if you showed up in the middle of a snow storm and suggested getting a line wet. This is in part because down there most rivers are closed to fishing over the winter months to allow the fish a modicum of peace and privacy as they wine, dine and procreate with each other. Thus, the likelihood of such an invitation is greatly reduced. Also, while we do get extremes of weather in New Zealand, for the most part things are a little more temperate than here in the mountains, so fishing in the rain is more of a reality that in snow and ice.

Here, it seems there are many fishermen who think nothing of braving the elements in search of a hook up or two. While I have guided plenty of times in snow, sleet and hail, I have at least been getting paid to do so, and usually question the sanity of the guy paying for the experience. Of course, venturing over to South Park for a trip to the Platte is often an exercise in rolling the dice with hypothermia no matter what the time of year. There is a case to be made for heading out in inclement weather if you have driven a thousand miles or so to get to the river, but surely for those of us that live in the mountains, there is no such pressure.

So what other predispositions set apart the North American fisherman from his southern counterpart? One is perhaps an over reliance on gear. One of the traits we Kiwis pride ourselves on is self reliance. Give us a piece of #8 fencing wire and a roll of duct tape, and we’ll build or fix anything. Give us a couple of flies, a spool of tippet, and a six weight, and we’re ready to go. Compare that to your average American fisherman, with a vest that weighs thirty five pounds, eight fly rods, fifteen reels, and of the twenty-six fly boxes in his possession, the one he ‘needs’ is back at home on the kitchen counter.

Another is the difference in need for a certain level of information to feel comfortable in their surroundings. This was perhaps first brought home to me after my first year of guiding here on the Arkansas, back then primarily as a whitewater guide. The comparison and innuendo between New Zealanders and sheep is well known. [ All I will say on the matter is this: don’t knock anything until you’ve tried it. ] Anyway, take a Kiwi on a river trip, and all you have to say to them is ” Put on a wetsuit, grab that lifejacket, pick up a paddle, and get in the van. We’re off.” There is a level of trust, for better or worse, that the person in charge knows what they are doing, and all will be revealed in good time. Say the same thing to an American, and you get the following response: “Which lifejacket? How many paddles did you say? Should I sit in the front of the van, or the back. Is there a bathroom in the van? How long is the ride? Can I bring a snack? Will there be a bathroom at the river? Should I go to the bathroom now? How many rocks are there in the river? Where’s your bathroom?”

So, as we move into winter, you probably won’t see me on the river too much, except for maybe on a blue bird day. I’ll probably be up at Monarch, or keeping the crown jewels safe and warm by the fire, dreaming of long summer days, clear water and big fish Down Under. But I do salute those hardy souls who choose to venture out on the river when all measures of common sense say to stay inside.