I’m not he but his pre-cast prep instructions are executed meticulously. Hearing is believing, and believing is catching and for this moment catching is the best of all three..”
by john richen
Here: Ponderosa and Tamarack watch as a solitary child stands on a flat rock shelf staring down into a deep green pool on Central Oregon’s Metolius River. This underwater theater teems with colorful fish, visible to his searching ten year-old eyes. The boy lies down on his stomach on the rock shelf, marking trout darting in and out with pulsing underwater currents. Gliding submarines, they move up and down, side to side, each motion calculated to propel the fish into position to maximize access to the underwater fauna they feed on. Or so he figures. He doesn’t think that they do this dance for the fun of it, even at that age.
Summer beams burn into his back. Vapor from the water below pushes mossy dampness up, cools his face. Hanging over that dusty ledge he slowly drops small pebbles into the glowing, bubbling turquoise. The stones don’t disturb the feeding shapes as they wobble down to bed to rest, but the mink sniffing on a small hidden shelf across the current wonders if the large fish below the water or the small human watching them will fit more easily in his mouth.
There is a magic. The boy doesn’t know exactly what it is or how it works but he feels the pull of it. It is hooked in him now. It will never let go…
I have a memory. My father was a fly fisherman, which is I suspect how my sisters and I found ourselves perched along the banks of the Metolius at a young age. He had a reverent connection to Oregon’s rivers as well as all the required angling accoutrements — rod, reel, vest, floppy hat, rubber wading boots, vice, feathers and hooks. But he never had the time to commit himself to the task with the time or concentration that it demanded. There can be no doubt that dad wanted badly to catch fish on flies. My recollection is that he didn’t catch many but reported that the scenery fulfilled him, which, in retrospect, was the most impressive catch of all. A career and a family with three youngsters under 10 complicated this predicament. Pop worked hard at it, but the thrice a year angler approach just never really panned out for him.
In spite of this my own fascination with all things finned continued. Fly-casting was far too complicated for a youngster, it had been explained. My tool was a small white Zebco thumb caster spinning combo and a blue tin tackle box with some split shot, pre-tied hook and leader combinations, pair of flimsy pliers, and a jar of pink Pautzke salmon eggs secured via my grandfather’s basement. The split shot was the better bait as the lead pellets smelled as though brined in the campground’s notorious pit toilet. The eggs had hardened and would have been better as ammo fired from the barrel of a pellet gun. None of which mattered in the least as the whole kit was actually illegal in the fly-fishing only waters of the Metolius.
But, one could dangle the crunchy little Pautzke’s in the small feeder creeks that emptied into the Metolius. With great determination and pictures of my grandfathers’ photo displays of giant, bloody salmon trophies playing a slideshow in my head, I got down to fishing. And the “catching” part of the equation, though lacking and much desired, didn’t dampen spirits in any fashion. I was too young to feel angler’s shame or the humiliation of the empty creel.
A real fishing education would come 10 years later when I encountered my first serious ‘trout bum’. We had met when I was promoting concerts for a local college radio station, and as a fan of his band’s work, we became close friends. He had the fishing bug bad. I had done much camping but not much fishing in the middle-teen years. It was an opportunity and a command, simultaneously. The water lapping at the edge of my memories beckoned.
So, I got the map, fly gear and various directions and camp site info from my dad and returned to that pool on the Metolius. One visit there was all it took. My friend was hypnotized also. For the next few years we applied all of our fishing energy and knowledge towards learning the secrets of the fish-filled waters of the confluence pool. I struggled with the mechanics of my father’s old pole, and it was at this juncture that a first fly fishing revelation came. For all his diligence Dad had mostly been wasting time on these and the other trout waters he loved. The action of his fiberglass fly rod was too fast and heavy to delicately cast many of the very small patterns necessary; far too muscular for the delicate tippets and presentation required. There was a reason the thing launched small caddis patterns like a trebuchet and broke off the size 16 Adams in the event a fish actually rose to the fly and it wasn’t me. It was a really solid winter steelhead stick. This a technicality that carries consequence, as most fly fishermen will attest. And that consequence smells like a skunk.
Once that crisis had been corrected with the loan of an actual 5 weight graphite rod and matching reel, results rapidly improved. Fish came during the daylight nights were filled with beer and whiskey, talking of fly patterns, reading water and rudimentary insect stages and identification. We’d sometimes haul flashlights to the water’s edge of the big green pools, and beam powerful columns into the deep waters, spotlighting skittish fish and bats that dropped to the water to pluck up night moths from the foam lining the swirling eddies. Sometimes we’d even drop corn in the water, just to see if the fish would eat it, but we could hear the silvery laughter — “What kind of fools do you loaded bastards think we are?”
It was a crash course in fly fishing technique, with determined students. As the pool began to yield secrets confident fishermen emerged, and our abilities seldom left us disappointed. It’s still that way. Though water can never be mastered, I can go to this place nearly any day, and with some observation, good light and a little luck catch and release a fine native trout.
Early in this education I began to carefully watch the older anglers as they worked different pieces of the river. Away from the comfortable and familiar deep green holes down stream, I’d search them out to observe their methods. There were so many questions. They’d talk if they thought you’d listen. My connection to the fishing heart of the Metolius lies largely in the benevolence of these folks and the wisdom imparted.
Though mostly cheerful they were wary of the the increasing population of curiously adorned label-conscious hot shots who had begun prowling the trails in small platoons. Serious men who jumped from their vehicles into wallet-demolishing Simms waders and $200 Orvis Fishing Fedora’s. Who crashed into the water waving branded plastic fly rods with no notion of the fish missiles launched from sunken silos beneath undercuts in the stream’s banks they had stomped down from. The old guard sensed the threat inherent in this invasive angling species that spread like weeds and soon dotted the meadows of the upper river as fly fishing bloomed into a serious growth industry with high-tech graphite tapers climbing towards the unheard of amount of $500. They were right. It started to feel like a golf course. It was unsettling.
I have another memory. We will out of respect leave specifics and his real identity on the bank and call him “The Apostle” because he is always testifying about the Metolius. He knows the river and it’s history and is a campground fixture down at Allen Springs. The Apostle is a very serious fisherman, as deadly with a a sink-tip and a small Sculpin as he is topside with a Yellow Compara-Dun. He is also a splendid teller of tales, tall or regular variety, who does his fly tossing in a beat-up straw cowboy hat and military green “Steel Shank” rubber hip boots which, even in this fading captured Polaroid, is decidedly old school.
It is summer at picturesque Allingham Bridge, a well broadcast “point of interest” postcard for tourists, hikers, fishermen and no doubt the biggest gong show on the entire system. We watch from upriver as water warriors shoehorn themselves into polypro undergarments and neoprene chest waders; jam wool covered feet into heavy cleated boots — armor up to enter waters that will likely reach up no higher than a kneecap on a day climbing quickly towards 88 degrees.
“Look at those California Smarties. Fools spend more time getting dressed than my wife.”
As a life-long Oregon kid I get this and turn, expecting to see provincial disdain. Instead there is a soft snickering and a wink. The wink is loaded: A secret signal that in spite of the flashy tackle, big talk and fetching hats these souls are actually bare and lost. Catching hatchery-grown trout under a bridge where people toss the fat pelletheads bread and popcorn all day is not the answer they are searching for.
There is a deep-water density to this that may escape others who simply laugh off his cranky regional vernacular. A river’s actual magic connection can not be accessed via Visa Platinum Card. That comes with hard work and an attention and respect for the nuances of the resource. It’s really that simple and there’s no sense in getting all trussed up about it.
So back then, to that magic river. A too oft violated fly-fishing courtesy informs that when angling you refrain from inquiring of anyone but friends the identity of the pattern they just used to successfully hook that nice fish in their net. That one that you covet. Or at least make some sort of reasonable effort to be pleasant and sociable in front of such improprieties. Some do like to boast and will offer such nuggets up unprompted and you never know, they might even tell the truth. But you hit up quietly fishing strangers for specifics on the water at your own considerable peril.
Not long after the utterance above has caught air an actual Smarty, looking sharp and wandering vulnerable and separated from his squadron, crashes hard into the water of one of The Apostle’s favored side-seams precisely at the time he quietly works to revive and release an exhausted native red-side rainbow. A moment has been shattered. This is not cool.
“Say! Hello!” The Smarty leans forward, peering down into the net at the alarmed rainbow. “Niiiice fish! Looks like something is working pretty well today. A salmonfly imitation?”
“Naw…” Irritated, The Apostle drops the front lip of the net and lets the tail loose. The trout disappears quickly into the green. He turns, pushes his cowboy hat back on his head and speaks, slowly… “They’re on this Lavender Girdle-Bug. Size #4, I think. With eyes.” He pulls from some personal pocket a huge purple sparkled pimp-hat pattern from hell with feathers sticking out every direction, rubber legs, and little plastic cartoon eyes that roll around. Must carry it for Bull Trout fishing down below Wizard Falls or maybe just emergencies such as this. It is an impressive “bug” to be sure.
He doesn’t flinch or smile or laugh as he locks the Smarty in a serious gaze, “On a 6x tippet. You need to use about a 12′ slack-water leader as well. Fish are pretty spooky here today.”
“Gotta really set hard.” Pulls his arm and rod back with an emphatic jerk. “They come up and sip on them. Real soft bite.”
“Huh. Really? 12′, 6x leader? Wow. Boy. Not sure if I have one of those in my vest.” The Smarty, confidence shaken, seems slightly stunned assembling this absurd rig in his mind. “Well, thanks for the tip. Have to try one of those Griddle Bugs out.”
He wanders off scratching his head searching for a purple griddle bug and a 12′ 6x Slack-water leader in his sixty-four pocket vest.
The Apostle wades to shore, and pulls a bent Vantage from a soft pack in his damp cotton shirt. “Should get some fight out of a few branches if he doesn’t pull an ear off somebody first,” muttering, to no one in particular. He sits down on a rock next to where I finish work on a slot dredge double nymph spark-plug dropper rig.
Looking down at the mess of flies and line finally gets the best of him. “Naw. Way too much work. There’s a time and place for wet-fly fishing. Not one of them now. Hold on a sec. Cut that set-up off.”
“Wait, are you serious? I just spent the last 10 minutes…”
“You nymph guys make my head sore.” Left eye winks through his own bluish cloud. Once a Vantage, now a smog. What is it with the winks and this guy? Maybe the smoke?
“Here.” He hands over an Apostle-tied size #6 Clark’s Stonefly. The thing is all browns and golds and shine — a work of art. “If it was me I’d tie a 3x bumper on that tippet and then put it right up on the right side of that chute right there. Drop it onto that foam line, then ride the edge of that eddy.” Tracing a fly’s route through the seam with his cigarette now. “You follow me here?”
“Good. Oh and, if it was me I would also check all my knots.”
I’m not he but his pre-cast prep instructions are executed meticulously. Hearing is believing, and believing is catching and for this moment catching is the best of all three. The cast is wobbly, but almost on target. “Control that slack line as it floats in towards you,” The Apostle’s voice, father away now but on point. “Steady it …rod tip on fly…careful, careful …no drag…the sweet spot. There. There. Yep, see, and…
“THAT’S. YOUR. FISH!”
The scene rolls outward from a distant past where the shouts slip away and a 17” native brown trout explodes skyward from a rippled, shining painting framed by a tomorrow, now, where a modern gratitude still pulls on that fish, this fish I have no business catching. There are rainbows between the worlds. Here is one. Reel with me.
I duplicated this technique exactly as The Apostle instructed 20 years ago on a recent return to the Metolius. Once again releasing the fish gift brought by his advice, I sensed a wink, although he has been long departed. Sadly I notice that the reflective breed of fishermen in my memories have been increasingly replaced by a louder and more tormented form of fly angler. Intense fishermen who launch tufts of deer fur, metal and thread back and forth as if their life depended on it. It might. Who knows?
Fly-fishing seems, in it’s current stage of evolution, mostly an urgent pursuit of numbers, size and gear dollars on display. A fashion show where brand allegiance, $500 English fishing reels, and particular trend in head covering defines a hierarchy of anglers looking to prove something although it’s never entirely clear what that something might be.
Unconcerned with such foolishness, the river flows thru it all. It couldn’t care less and there’s the real Zen of it. It’s there for fishermen to catch their trout from sure, but also, the metaphor and symmetry implied by a river like the Metolius will pull a messy head back into sharper focus if you let it. It offers these things indifferently, on it’s own terms. You don’t write the business plan. It doesn’t do contract riders or mission statements.
One way or another it will move forward, with or without you.
The old fishermen on the Metolius have gone, but their presence still radiates from every slow eddy and blue-green pocket as the trails that track its course crunch below cleated wading boots. I still ask them questions. They still talk if they think I’ll listen.
These days I watch folks fish the Metolius almost as much as fish it myself. Not because I am old or tired, but because of a curiosity as to what remains to be learned from those who line the river’s banks. I am not certain what to look for, but do it just the same. My wife is quick to point out molting Smarties to me when we walk the river. It’s a game now, and she is adept at identifying them as they march purposefully about in the wild. I’ve simply grown bored by their antics.
Instead I watch for the softening of a complexion as a fish is released, a visible semblance of gratitude for a moment granted. A small magic pebble dropped in a soul. It’s a different sort of angling. I don’t mind listening to riffles being busy sitting on a rock in a mountain sunlight, watching fish feeding as fish do: efficiently. I no longer see the time spent in observation as wasted moments taken from casting…
Fishing became something far more than an engineered solution to the problem of catching a trout some time ago, although the transition was hardly perceptible or even intentional. It just happens I guess. But I don’t mind.
A sunburnt high school kid whom I’ve met a day earlier watches the water intently as I halfheartedly dream a dry fly through a gurgling channel above the upper river’s Allingham Bridge one last time before heading home. These final casts are unfocused giggling messes launched mostly for closure. A metaphorical absorption of…
The meditation shatters as a lanky bearded man in an aquamarine Patagonia Angling Fez, who I had upriver estimated to be muling twenty-seven pounds of fishing ordnance in his seventy-eight pocket Gore Tex fishing tunic, emerges from a split in a leafy shrub, eyeballing the slot I’m tinkering about on.
“WELL?” His holler cuts thru the water’s sleepy tumble drone.
“Well what?” I shrug, confused.
“HOW MANY?” Peering at me through polarized Revo frames. “BIG ONES?”
I know better than this. This guy could care less about anything I have to say. This is obvious bait but I bite it anyway.
“Just started here. Not really…ah…did alright below Bridge 99 earlier. Soft curl-back of eddy, where log comes in from the East Side. Los…”
“I caught five,” Standing closer and quieter now he interrupts, holding up the hand that isn’t gripping his Winston with 5 fingers fanned wide. “Bigger than the one you saw me land earlier.” Scans the water in front of where I stand. “Mind if I share this hole?”
There comes an irritation. Slight elevation of diastolic pressure. A souring in the stomach.
Fuck you! Hit him! Girdle Fly! He’s an asshole! Look at that dumb hat! Liar’s Derby! You wimp! Let me in! Go!
In the fleeting moment it takes for these out flows to pour through unspoken they are gone. In flows the more measured conclusion that there is absolutely nothing of any import to say. I’m half-assing it in prime real estate right now. He knows it and I know it. At least he’s asked permission. Most wouldn’t bother. Just smile, step aside and wish him well.
“Sure. Actually I need to head back to Portland, so have at it.”
He drops into the waters with tight nod, wades into the freshly vacated seam where I once stood, and begins launching a deep-water dredge setup into the green, oxygen-blasted pocket where dreams lie waiting. Coldly efficient. Machine-like. Chuck and duck. Serious carnage this way comes. Guy looks like a walking mushroom cloud with arms. Seems only natural that he would fish like one also.
He crouches alertly, ready for the kill. Perhaps he enjoys himself? But you’d never guess by looking at him…
Fly pole unstrung now I walk down river back toward the car. The kid with sun burnt head that has been watching the pool from the bridge approaches.
“Yep, time to call it.” Moping.
“Been thinking about that thing you said. I’m not gonna use 6x up here anymore. Keep breaking them off. It’s a bummer.”
“Good. What are you throwing anyway?” That other voice inside, still wound tight, blurts out “Lavender Girdle Bugs?” before I can shut him down.
“Mostly these Cheeto flies I’ve been tying in the RV. They work alright. Sometimes.” He holds out an orange palm of Cheetos wrapped on hooks with red thread and small white feathers tied off the back.
This stops me in my tracks. I don’t know when this whole Cheeto thing started up here, but I can distinctly recall tying bread flies, popcorn flies and peanut flies to lure the submarine trout below Allingham Bridge at about the same age as this kid. I can remember staring into the deep waters and watching those big fish feed, mesmerized by their fluid underwater confidence. Needing badly to connect to their ethereal power.
I laugh out loud. Learning the secrets of the Metolius is a real bitch. It is. But like his ancestors Bread Fly, Popcorn Fly and Peanut Fly — Cheeto Fly is not the answer.
“Ummm, look. Even with those nice feathers you’ve tied on them those uh, flies, are actually considered bait you know.” I find and extract a new size #6 Clark’s Stonefly from a plastic box.
“Here. Someone gave this to me, in this same place, pretty much, when I was was about your age.”
“Wow. That was a really long time ago.”
“Yes, thank you, it was a really long time ago. In any event, he told me to cast it in that chute right up there.” Pointing. “Right there. And to let it ride down along that current line to the right. You following my finger?”
“Yeah, on that foam seam. I see what your saying.” The kid pokes the fly into the cork handle. “Hey, thanks. That’s cool. I’ll try it out.”
“No problem, I owe you. It should work.”
He glances at me, unsure. “Owe me? What do you mean?”
“Right. Never mind. It’s a complicated story. Look, there’s massive trout up there too. There’s big fish throughout the whole river up and down from here. I get it, fishing from the bridge is fun. And it’s a good place to learn some stuff. But just because you can’t see them other places like you do in here doesn’t mean they’re not there. You gotta explore. You gotta think like a wild fish. If you were a big wild fish, where would you hang out? Not under a bridge waiting for a Cheeto to float by I’ll bet.”
“Well, I dunno. Cheetos are pretty tasty. But as a fish, I hear what you’re saying.”
“Cheeto’s are bad for everything that eats them, and that includes you. Look at the color of your hands. That’s just not right, man.”
“Alright.” He’s smiling now. “Hey, do you want a Mountain Dew?”
I give him my best shot at a wink, which frankly just looks stupid, almost ruins the moment, and hardly does the memory of The Apostle any justice. I roll up soggy waders and boots into a dusty gear bag, toss it into the back of the 4-Runner and head west into the pine and cinder scented afternoon.
Here’s the problem. I can’t be sure how it all plays out. But I’m partial to stories with tidy endings. So in my heart the tale ends like this: Sun-roasted kid eats the Cheeto flies himself and ties on the stonefly pattern for the fish. Not on 6x. He wades into the water wearing just his shorts and some water sandals. Yes it is cold, but here is a fisherman, not a sissy. He winds up and launches that bug shakily into the slot where it takes charge and dances on top of the flutter just like it would if it was horny. His line is pulled tight, but not too tight. Because this is his moment. The rod tip aims high and guides that Clark’s Stone (Size #6) perfectly into the foam seam, no drag at all. If I was a trout I’d eat that. Time stops. The mirror implodes. The line goes live, hooked to another space. Another moment. An exhilaration granted only to the fisherman and a smiling river spirit. There pulls back a toothy 20″ copper-sided brown trout memory. Here is a mighty tugging. Back and forth. There is here. Here is there. Here they are. Right now. Both reeling in this radiant Metolius moment under Ponderosa and Tamarack where a hungry mink watches unimpressed as shouting boys bleed pebbles of joy into the waters the trout splashes across and…
“THAT’S. YOUR. FISH!”
Then, river story told, I wear that kid’s grin the entire drive home.