I once asked a question about a local creek on an online fishing forum and everyone went fucking bananas. It was an innocent query (“Are there any smallmouth bass in X Creek?”). Apparently, that was beyond the pale. I was subjected to humiliating responses and the name of the creek was removed from my post.
Fishermen are very protective of their favorite spots, with good reason. If word gets out, there’s always the possibility that an unspoiled stretch of water will be overrun with the worst kind of sportsmen: the jerk who litters, the snaggletooth who keeps 100 fish, the spaz who spills the beans to his friends, the creep with the lazy eye who uses illegal nets etc. These people exist, unfortunately. They are always physically and morally deformed. I once observed a bank fisherman fling an empty jug of Gatorade over his shoulder before limping away with an enormous stringer of undersized trout. I paddled my kayak to the shore and found a small pile of trash and fish guts.
If nothing else, the fishing forum taught me a valuable lesson: keep the good spots to yourself. Though I never posted again, I did come across a thread, years later, that mocked me for using a boat ramp to launch a kayak. They also made fun of my car for being a Japanese compact. Most grown men have no actual friends.
Last weekend I found myself on a beautiful creek whose name I am withholding. My favorite trout river in Tennessee, [Redacted], is currently unsafe for wading due to high waters. This left me perusing the sad pixels of GoogleMaps in search of new waters. I settled on a spot I had fished the previous season. There had to be smallmouth bass in there. I already knew about the snakes.
After a [Redacted] hour drive from Nashville, I arrived to find a beautiful stream with no one around. I put on my waders and ate some leftover pizza on the shore. It was early spring weather. Birds singing. Sun shining. This is the best time of year.
Hours of fishing produced little more than half a dozen creek chubs. They put up a decent fight, especially in the current, but I find them physically repulsive. Their mouths are oval and rubbery, like a carp’s. When you remove the hook your reward is a rubbery squeak. It’s revolting.
I moved from spot to spot, careful to avoid the few water snakes I saw wiggling on the surface. They all appeared to be of the harmless variety. I had encountered a baby cottonmouth the previous year, moments after disregarding another camper’s warning. I can be very stupid. Much of the afternoon was spent looking over my shoulder.
An hour later, I had my prize – my first ever river smallmouth on a fly rod. What a thrill. They put up the best fight. They jump, they tug, they run back into the current. When you pull out the hook, there’s a satisfying “tick” sound. Often they end up being much smaller than you expect.
It was the only bass of the day but I felt like a champ. On my way home I felt the back of my neck. The first sunburn of the season. I had sweated through my Coppertone. I popped on the a.c. full blast and aimed the vents at my face. I drive a hybrid SUV now. Do you like me now, anonymous weirdos of the fishing forum?
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They All Look The Same
Brook trout, nicknamed “brookies” by fishing fanatics, wiggle violently when you catch them. Their small size belies a toughness that manifests itself as anger the moment you set the hook. They seem genuinely pissed off to be dangling at the end of your line.
For me, brookies are a wonderful surprise. Rainbow trout have a beautiful pink stripe along their sides. So-called “brown” trout have bright yellow tummies with striking red and black spots. Brookies, on the other hand, have a prehistoric vibe, with sleek features and a snake-like head. They feel slimier, almost like an eel. Often they will flop right out of your hand before you have a chance to free the hook from their lips.
And yet, whenever I show non-fishermen pics of my adventures, they shrug and say, “They all look the same.”
They all look the same. Yeah, I guess they do. If the idea of standing in an ice cold river casting for small fish seems boring as hell, then photographs of trout become a blur. But if you were actually there, an image of your catch takes you back to your happy place. Sometimes I’ll swipe through the hundreds of fish pics on my phone – say, on a flight with no wifi – and remember the color of the trees that day. The cold wind on my face. The brief panic of getting my foot stuck under a submerged tree branch with the current splashing against my waist.
This is why I fish. I need to be taken away, and another Netflix series with a tired combo of graphic sex and violence is not going to do the trick. Neither is an iPad with the front page of the New York Times (“We have so many horrors to show you today”). And social media, with its noxious combo of politics, hamburger photography, baby portraits, and vacation boasting will do zero to bring your blood pressure down.
More than ever before I need a release from the sinister glow of my mobile device. My ritual of surfing for news and switching on NPR is no longer a good way to jumpstart my morning. Just today I fired up my office laptop and was subjected to the jab-jab-punch pattern of the 24-hour news cycle: meet the shadowy cabal of Russian Twitter accounts, sex robots are the future, “toxic masculinity”, “click this video to hear the screams of victims from a recent mass shooting (an ad will play first)”, a doping scandal at this year’s Iditarod, an editorial with this exact title: “The Bone-Spur Bozo at the White House” – for the love of Christ, it’s not even 9 fucking a.m.
The best solution for me is to turn off this noise and reach for the rod and reel. Or failing that, pics of my latest brookie. Yeah, they do all kind of look the same. Thank God for that.
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You’re a Fool to Give Up
If you have kids, the weekends are not relaxing. Go ahead and stay up late Friday night with the wife and share a bottle of wine in honor of a new season of Portlandia. Then go full nerdo and fire up “Lord of the Rings” after she has gone to bed. In the morning, you will feel the Wrath of Hell when your boys jolt you awake at 5:30 a.m. Your 20’s ended long ago.
There will be an early breakfast, episodes of “Paw Patrol”, spilled yogurt on the couch, diapers, a couple of meltdowns. Then some birthday parties, soccer practice. Congratulations, but it’s only 11:45 a.m. and you have the whole day left. Now your wife is suggesting a trip to the zoo. This is the job.
But I do get one day to go fishing. For that I’m grateful. It’s no small thing to ask someone to watch two kids by themselves, but I’m pretty good at asking for favors. I’m also not bad at apologizing, which is key when I inevitably come home late.
This past Saturday I headed out to the Caney Fork River later than I had hoped. Sunrise is the best time to fish for trout. You avoid swarms of kayakers, the heat, and other fishermen. But I had stayed up late drinking ale while cheering on Frodo and Sam, so it was 10:45 a..m. and hot.
I put on my waders, tied on two flies (a gray scud and a very small red midge), and headed down to Center Hill Dam. The Caney is a tailwater, which means it’s an artificial river created by a dam. Some of the best action is right below this imposing structure, where the water is coldest. It was a good place to start.
When I got there I saw about fifty dads who had the same idea. They were standing in clear water, shoulder to shoulder casting in between kayaks and canoes launching from the shore. Not a one would admit their mistake. Crowded nature is such a drag.
I walked towards the forest and took a trail down to a more secluded spot. On the way I passed an old-timer who I could tell was getting ready to chat.
“It’s reaaal slow out there, this morning,” he said. ” We were out there with a group of soldiers from Healing Waters and we got just one fish between us.” We chatted about how tough the summer had been. How the year before, you could easily catch 20 or 30 rainbows with little effort. I lamented arriving so late.
“You know what the best time is to go fishing, right?”. I waited for the punchline. “When you can.” True enough.
I marched off and found my spot. It was quieter and nearly dad-free. I found some ripples that looked promising and began casting. This is the golden moment.
But the old-timer had been right. No bites. After two hours without any action, frustration began to set in. The few fishermen I saw were having no better luck. We began exchanging platitudes about stubborn fish and traded tips on the right color fly. The small talk was forced. Often you ignore one another unless the bite is off.
I set my rod down on the bank and had my first gulp of water in an hour. It tasted fantastic. I had forgotten I was baking in the sun, hungover. The back of my neck was stinging a bit too. I had sweated through my sunscreen.
For the next two hours my luck barely changed. I had a few fleeting taps but nothing more. It was just enough action to keep you from quitting altogether. I kept forgetting to hydrate and started to feel like an imbecile. Here I was, baking under the Tennessee sun for nothing. Kayakers kept passing by, asking what the score was. They would often apologize for disturbing me.
“I’ve been skunked so far,” I’d say. “But it’s not your fault.” This would happen every 15 minutes. It was like a speed dating version of small talk. They’d wish me luck and float away. Some of them were completely pickled. Drunks sweating on the water. Many were shirtless with cherry red sunburned skin. I wondered if they would make it to the pull out, which was miles away. Imagine dying due to dehydration and Miller Lite.
I’m a nature lover to the core, but the whole point of fishing is to have a little success. Anyone claiming otherwise is trying pull off some sort of lame Mountain Man Philosopher angle. I could have strangled a guy like that. After missing another tap or two, I dropped a few loud F-bombs. A passing canoe had young children. Oh no. No one wants to be that guy on the river. I was embarrassed enough to check my phone to avoid any eye contact. It was time to head home.
While sloshing back through the shallows I noticed a couple of beautiful brown trout. They were the first ones I had seen all day. They appeared to be feeding, spinning around in the water to gulp whatever bugs were floating down river. I was already late but I couldn’t resist one last cast. One Last Cast — that last Hail Mary effort — is really a figment of a fisherman’s imagination. It usually involves an extra 5 – 50 minutes that could easily serve as a precursor to marriage counseling.
I tied on a minuscule red midge and tossed it into the shallows. The water was hazy, almost slimy from an algae bloom. BANG. I had something. My rod immediately bent in half and the line shot out of the reel. I attracted a gaggle of onlookers, who cheered me on from their kayaks. Their drunkenness was suddenly a good thing. They hooted, “This guy’s got a good ‘un!”
I had to be careful. The hook on a small midge is incredibly tiny. Too much pressure and he would break free. I walked backwards towards the shore and took my time. I needed to tire him out. As he got a bit closer I reached behind my back and grabbed a net. After two failed attempts to scoop him up – he kept darting away – I landed him in one glorious motion, lifting him up to the sky in triumph while a dozen tipsy rednecks roared. It was glorious. I was a hero. Fuck those Mountain Man Philosophers and their phony bromides about “men spending years fishing without realizing it’s not fish they’re after”. That’s how losers talk!
“You’re a fool to quit,” I mumbled out loud. I was talking to myself after hours of cooking under the sun. “You’re a fool to give up.” It was loud enough for my fans to hear. My neck was red too. I removed the hook and spent a few minutes reviving the poor guy. It took a few moments, after which he glided backwards and sat quietly, pouting.
I hurried back through the waters to the car. It was getting late and I was already in trouble. A hero in big trouble, at least.
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