Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Durant's Ghost (Part 3 of 3)

It was pitch black and the voice of an old man – who was completely invisible except the orange glow of his cigar – had instructed me to the only rising fish that I had heard all night. I waded within 10 feet of the fish which is possible at night, but not considered proper technique by some, including the old man.

To make a short story longer, the fish rose, I waited about 15 seconds, then I dropped my fly just upstream of the sound and let it drift down. A few seconds later I heard a small splash about where my fly probably was. I set the hook gently. The fight was not an epic battle. It was more like a brief test of wills. He made a few short runs and broke the surface a few times, but he mostly sat and sulked, too proud to surrender. Typical for a good-sized brown trout. After a minute or two he relented, and I scooped him into my net. A deeply-colored, sixteen inch, wild brown trout. Not a huge fish, but large enough that he should have known better.

I turned toward the dock to tell my elderly guide that the fish was a flawless sixteen inches, but he was gone. No cigar glow, no congratulations, no “how big is he?” Nothing. Silence. He seemed to have simply vanished into the darkness.

What kind of fisherman would leave without seeing how the encounter turned out? Would the Southern guy catch the fish? If so, how big was it? Maybe he knew how big the fish was because he had caught and released it many times over the past few years. Maybe he was disgusted that I wasn’t fishing as a gentleman should and left because he couldn’t bear to listen. Maybe he had to be somewhere before sunrise.

I waded across the river and onto the dock and shouted for him: “Woo, thanks! Sixteen inches!” No answer. Just the sound of water flowing against sand, grass, and fallen trees. No sound of footsteps on the path, no car driving away down the dirt road. I walked a little farther to the grassy meadow where Durant’s Castle used to stand and shouted again. Nothing… except darkness, a billion stars, and the sound of a cool breeze rustling the tops of the pines.

The old dock from which the glow and the voice had emanated is the riverside access for the old house – Durant’s Castle, a French chateau with fifty-six rooms and seven fireplaces – where Mr. W. C. Durant, the chairman of General Motors, had lived briefly in 1930.  In February, 1931 the mansion burned down, and although he continued to come to the AuSable to fish, Durant never rebuilt, and his riverside property eventually passed into the hands of the State of Michigan which now maintains it as a fly fishing only, primitive area.

The AuSable River is the center point of this local community. It is loved and tended and respected. The fact that the fishermen and canoeists who are drawn to it provide jobs and income to this rural area probably helps, but there’s clearly more to the community-river relationship than just dollars and cents. The local folks love this river the way you’d love your mother, not your bank account.

One sad-but-true fact about many other rivers – including many of our East Tennessee rivers – is that they are used but not loved. The amount of trash, old tires, junked cars, plastic WalMart bags, beer cans, and bags of garbage on our local rivers is just plain embarrassing to those of us who care about such things. While those rivers are places where people dump their trash, the AuSable is a river where people dump their ashes… of loved ones. While fishing the AuSable we’ll occasionally encounter a guy sitting reverently on the riverbank, paying his respects to the final resting place of his father, whose ashes had been scattered on the waters of his beloved river.  This happens more often than you’d think.

A few miles from Durant’s Castle there’s a stretch of the AuSable called “the Holy Water.” While people don’t come here to bathe and be miraculously healed, this name does show the depth of respect the locals hold for this river. If a community can have a soul, this river is it.

I don’t think much about ghosts, and I’m not sure I believe in them. However, I do believe in the supernatural which does open up a world of possibilities, one of which might be an occasional visit by the ghost of a man who once lived by this river and fished its waters. Rather than being punishment for a profligate life, spending a few years as a disembodied spirit wandering the banks of the AuSable might actually be a reward for good behavior. It’s certainly closer to Heaven than Hell.

The river by the site of Durant’s Castle is a pleasant spot, and if I were a ghost, I’d spend some time there, too. And if the mood struck, I might even point out a rising fish to a passing fisherman so he’d have a story to tell his buddies when they all reunited at the old wooden dock after a night on my river.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Old Man and His Fish (Part 2 of 3)

 After spending several fruitless hours standing in the dark on Michigan’s AuSable River, waiting for mayflies and fish to arrive, I waded downstream toward the old, wooden dock where I could see the orange glow of a lit cigar. Not wanting to disturb a fisherman who was stalking a fish, I called out to him, and an old man’s voice responded slowly and clearly from out of the darkness: “I’m not fishing, but there’s a good fish rising on the other side. I can’t get a good cast to him from here, so you’re welcome to give it a try.” The current wasn’t heavy, but if the river here was over four or five feet deep then he’d have to wade up or downstream to a shallower spot to wade across.  Apparently the old man couldn’t or wouldn’t wade across the river to get to the rising fish.

A typical stretch of the AuSable
 “Are you sure?” I responded. He of course understood that I wasn’t asking if he was sure there was a fish rising. I was asking if he was sure that he was willing to give it to me.

“Sure. I live here and fish this water all the time. I’m done for the night.”

That was all the explanation I needed. “Thanks. I’ll see what I can do.” I stopped and listened for a few seconds until I heard the splashy rise of a fish about 20 yards in front of me. It was exactly where it should have been: directly across from the orange glow and the voice in the darkness, and on the opposite side of the river.

So, I waded silently downstream at about the same speed as the current. Wading upstream against the current would have been noisy, but wading with the current is like walking on air. You step and glide, step and glide, all in slow motion. Under the water’s surface, it probably looks like astronauts walking on the moon.

As I approached the rising fish I moved a few feet further out into the river because the fish would be facing upstream toward me. An unusual feature of night fishing is that you can wade to within 8 or 10 feet of a rising fish as long as you don’t make any sudden, splashy moves. The stars on a clear, moonless night create just enough light for an upward-looking fish to see a fisherman’s dark silhouette against the night sky. So a stealthy approach is still important, but the darkness reduces the distances dramatically. In daylight a fisherman would need to be 20 or 30 feet away from the fish; at night, 8 or 10 feet will do. I also turned sideways in the water to create a smaller wall of resistance against the current as I stopped alongside and slightly behind the fish.

I waited and listened for the delicate splash of a rising fish.

Although I couldn’t see them, there was obviously a steady supply of dead Drake mayflies floating over him. Every 30 seconds he’d rise to the surface and suck in another bug. He had no idea that a human was lurking about a fishing rod’s length away in the dark, weapon in hand, waiting and listening, observing his habits, meaning to do him harm (but intending to release him if things unfolded according to plan). If fish could write stories it would make a dark, sad tale of the crime noir genre. An innocent, unsuspecting victim and a cruel, crazed stalker. Cold darkness. Dreadful surprise. The rush of fear. Pain. Panic. A brief fight. Surrender. “Hello, Clarice.”

Close Range at Night
I’ve had these kinds of thoughts occasionally while on the river, but I’m more likely to think of them afterwards. The victim-stalker scenario can either cause you to stop fishing, put your fishing gear in the back of the truck, and drive away in shame, or it can raise your adrenaline level an extra notch as you experience the thrill of a crime of passion. Neither of those options is the sort of thing to be proud of, so it’s best not to dwell on them while standing around with a fly rod in your hand waiting for darkness to descend.

The old man didn’t approve of my fishing style. As I waded up closer and closer to the fish, I heard him mumble something about “wading right on top of the fish.” If he was familiar with this river then he would have known that wading close to the fish is possible at night. Apparently he didn’t think it was sporting. There are a lot of unwritten rules in fly fishing etiquette, and they differ slightly from one person to the next. Just as I wouldn’t approve of using a Woolly Bugger or Sculpin in this situation, he didn’t approve of “dapping” my dry fly above the fish. In his world, fly fishing is properly done by casting the fly, not dangling it. Under better circumstances I might have agreed with him. After all, one of the joys of fly fishing is the swoosh-swoosh-shoot of the fly rod and line. But, as you’ll recall, this was not a night of “better circumstances.” I had been on the river at least six hours and hadn’t made even one cast. If I’d had a treble hook and a chunk of rotting chicken guts I would have used them. If caught, I could play my East Tennessee Hillbilly Card by claiming that I was from out of state and didn’t know any better. Stereotypes are unfair, cruel, and stupid… but sometimes they come in handy.  [To be continued]