Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Incompetence Rears its Ugly Head (Again)

In a previous article I pointed out that someone – such as myself – could be “avid” without being competent. I offered a bit of proof, but in case you still are not convinced, I present further evidence.

Keith Oakes and I were night fishing on a river full of big, brown trout, creatures that are notoriously nocturnal. We heard a couple of splashes in the river in front of us, which might have been mice, muskrats, or beavers, or it might have been a trout feeding on a mayfly, so we immediately began casting toward the sounds. Casting a fly is very different from casting a lure with spinning gear. When you cast with a fly rod you typically keep the fly line and fly in the air for several casts as you let out more line, then after 3 or 4 of these “false casts” you let the line go as the fly whips and then floats down to the water’s surface. It’s during these false casts that you are likely to get your fly and line caught in bushes or branches behind you. That’s not at all unusual on wooded rivers.

AuSable River: Waiting for the sun to set

Midnight on the AuSable River, Grayling, Michigan

On one of my false casts I felt my line get caught on something, and I knew I had managed to get hung up on the willow bushes behind me. Then I decided that it must be the end of a long limb because as I tugged gently on the line it wasn’t just stuck, it was jumping around, pulling back. But even that didn’t seem quite right. There was a random sort of tugging to it, sort of a big, wobbling pull. Just as the awkwardness of it was starting to register in my brain, my line took off in a circle around me. Once, twice. I had caught a bat, and it was flying in one direction, which meant that it was wrapping itself around me, which of course meant that it was getting closer to me, like a game of tether ball where the rope wraps around the pole until there’s no loose rope left to wrap.

Well, that’s exactly what the bat did, until it ended up somewhere on my back, squealing and thrashing. Now, I say it was “somewhere on my back,” meaning that it was actually on my back, tangled up in my fishing net which was hanging from my fishing vest, but I didn’t know that at the time because it was dark, and I couldn’t see a thing. He might have been on my hat, or under my arm, or on my chest, etc. etc. And of course, all I could think about was sharp teeth, rabies, and Dracula. The fact that it was dark merely added another level of anxiety and confusion. So I tried to get my vest off, but I had to reach around to the clips on the side to get it off, and for all I knew that’s where the bat was. The squealing and thrashing continued, while I wiggled out of the vest and unwrapped the line from around me. When I finally got the vest off and threw it on the river bank, the bat was gone.

I heard a small splash nearby, so I shined my flashlight downstream and saw the bat on the surface of the water, still kicking, but floating downstream with the current. The Bat Incident was over, and I had survived. The bat, apparently, would not. But let the record show that I had him in my net for a few seconds. I’m sure a few other fly fishermen have hooked a bat, although probably not a lot, since not a lot of guys fly fish at night. But how many of them can say they got the bat to their net and then safely released him as all genteel fly fishermen do? And if he died somewhere downstream, it’s not my fault bats can’t swim.

Keith finally made his way over to me about the time the bat was disappearing downstream. “What’s going on down here? It sounded like a wrestling match. I thought you caught a huge fish, but then everything went silent.”

“Not a fish. A bat.”

“Really? A bat? So that explains all the squealing and crying.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and I think the bat was scared, too.”

So, confine your fishing to fish if you want to. Not me. I’m expanding my quarry. I’m fishing for mammals. Winged mammals. Catch and release only. It’s a sport only a truly avid outdoorsman could appreciate.

Every now and then I catch a fish instead of a bat

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Avid Outdoorsman

Someone once called me an “avid outdoorsman” in public, and I still haven’t been able to live it down. Several of my friends call me an “avid outdoorsman” every chance they get. Of course, it’s important that you understand that this title is intended by them as a taunt, not a compliment. Some exhibit their verbal skills by finding rhymes for “avid” – words like “pallid” or “putrid” – and sharing them with me via email. Thank goodness for the delete button. Occasionally, they taunt me in the foyer at church. While our families are inside praying or singing, I’m in the foyer withering under their relentless verbal attack. We’ve even had some stern looks from bystanders in the receiving line at a funeral. I guess phrases like “old mule” and “girl scout” followed by giggles aren’t acceptable in some venues.

I must admit, I was a little embarrassed by the description – until I looked up the word “avid.” In the dictionary you see words like “enthusiastic” or “zealous.” Words you don’t see are “competent” or “expert.” So, yes, I suppose you could call me avid. But I’d rather you didn’t. My friends would still jump at the opportunity to put me in my place.

Occasionally I’ll do something that fits that definition of “avid” perfectly – that is, enthusiastic but not necessarily competent. The usual result involves me lying flat on my back on a slippery rock or face down in the dirt or neck deep in a river.

Exhibit A: I was recently fly fishing in a local tailwater (the river below a dam and its lake), casting to a rising trout. After about 15 minutes of fruitless casting, accompanied by several changes of flies and leaders, I decided to wade into a different position further upstream from the fish, so I could get a better drift of my fly over the spot where the fish was feeding. I had been standing in the middle of the river, about waist deep, so I moved toward the river bank into what should have been – should have been, but wasn’t – shallow water. Apparently, for no good reason, there’s a hole between the middle and the riverbank. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

Half a second after I discovered the hole, I was up to my neck in COLD water. My waders were full of water, I couldn’t touch the bottom, and I was holding my fly rod in my right hand. So I did the only thing I could do – the dog paddle, a splashing, thrashing, noisy dog paddle. I made my way out of the hole and onto shallow ground with my rod still in my hand and my line and fly dangling and jerking downstream. As I was finally able to stand up again, I noticed that my fly line was hung up on something downstream. It felt heavy. Then I noticed that the heaviness wasn’t the heaviness of a log or rock; it was a living heaviness. Yes, it was a fish. A trout. The trout. The same one I had been carefully pursuing for the past 15 minutes.

So, the end of the story is that the only fish I caught that day was the one I caught while doing the drowning dog paddle. Of course, I told Tim and Keith that it was a special technique that I had been working on and had only recently perfected. After all, the books and manuals all say that technique – the word we use in fly fishing is “presentation” – is more important than fly size and style. So, the dog paddle technique is clearly the secret weapon that all fly fishermen are seeking, and now I’ve made it public for the first time. I’m calling it the drowning dog paddle or DDP, for short. I’m sure you’ll be reading about it in Field & Stream in the near future.

It’s something that only an avid outdoorsman, such as myself, could invent.