Have you ever met someone that you knew - absolutely and positively knew - shouldn't be allowed to swim in the deep end of the gene pool? We're talking about someone who lacks the gray matter to remember to hold his or her breath when bobbing for apples, let alone reasonably handle the responsibility of reproduction. Fortunately, I don't often meet people who are that far gone, but one recent encounter does stand out in my mind.
Last month, I floated the river with Shawn (no ... Shawn isn't the subject of this diatribe). The air was crisp, the sun was bright, and the water was just right for a float. We brought along a new boat, swung some new flies, and drank what I suppose was more than our share of pale ale. The river gods saw fit to grant us a few hook-ups, and even if nothing we caught was too terribly large, it was enough to be satisfied. By anyone's yardstick we had a fine day.
What made the trip especially gratifying was that river seemed to have recovered a little bit.
This year's trout season witnessed a brutal summer. The heat was absolutely relentless, and the effect of this heat on the river was exacerbated by the dryness of a Saharan July and August. The river was as low as I've ever seen it, and warm enough to effectively cook the few wild trout that inhabit its riffles and pools.
If you're an occasional reader of The Rusty Spinner then I'm sure you're capable of imagining the scenario. Browns and rainbows were packed like so many canned sardines into the river's springs. Big fish. Small fish. Even crayfish. Everything with an earnest desire to survive faced nose first into a handful of cold water seeps. Round about the second week of August, I received a phone call from a friend that lives on the banks of the river.
"Mike, you should come up for a visit, and be sure to bring a rod."
"Today Frank? Why? What's going on?"
"Not sure why, but there are ten or twelve browns - each well over twenty-inches - packed into the spring by the house."
Two things helped me to keep my composure, and refrain from giving Frank a tongue lashing. First, he's an older dude, somewhere in between 70 and 80. Older guys get a pass every once in a while; they've paid their dues after all. Second, he broke his neck last summer, but when he did he went right on tilling his garden. He's a tough old bird, and his 160 pound, wiry frame could probably do a fair job of kicking my ass.
"Frank, do you know why those fish are there?"
"No, do you?"
"Yes, Frank, I do. They're jammed up into that spring because it's providing them with the only cool water, and probably the only oxygen for half a mile. If those fish move out of that spring they'll likely die."
"Yeah, Frank ... oh. Do me a favor, and keep those browns between the two of us. I'll come up for a visit, but I won't be fishing."
"Great. I'll have Barb make us a few sandwiches."
And so it went for most of the summer. I avoided the river and its trout because I knew that not to do so could have serious implications for anything I hooked. Mind you, I'm not against killing a fish. Fishing - even the elevated, sometimes snooty sport of flyfishing - is a blood sport. I mean, come on, the whole point of the game is to impale your quarry with a chemically sharpened piece of Japanese steel. In most parts of the world, that's not a very nice thing to do.
So, while I'm not against killing a fish or two, I am against killing anything - fish or otherwise - senselessly or needlessly. That's why I spent the hottest part of the summer chasing bass and carp. That's also why I wanted to murder the fella' Shawn and I met at the end of our recent float trip.
He was a young guy, maybe in his early to mid twenties, with a shock of red hair akin to Raggedy Andy. When he saw Shawn and I drift to the gravel bar and pull our boats ashore, he made a bee line for us. Without even taking a breath, he started in with the expected questions.
"How'd you boys make out?"
"Enough to keep us busy."
"Anything of any size?"
"Just a couple of dinks."
"Fish here often?"
Softly and to ourselves ... "You'll never know."
Shawn did most of the talking. After eight hours at the oars and more than my share of a twelve pack, I wasn't in the mood to make a new friend. Besides, it didn't take Big Red very long to spill his guts and start bragging. As a rule, I avoid braggarts as much as is possible.
"You boys shoulda' fished here over the summer. Woooo boy ... it was something. The water was real, real low, which was great. The fish were concentrated in every riffle. You could catch ten or twenty in a day. Some big ones too. When I tell people about this place, they just don't believe it, but I bet you guys do. Man, it was just an awesome summer."
I almost lost it. This guy should have known better. He was young, but he was hardly a kid. Taking as much pleasure from the river as he did, he clearly had a responsibility to exercise a little common sense. But that isn't the point of this missive.
The point is this ...
I had a responsibility to take advantage of a teaching moment, and offer something to that young man that he may not have received from anyone else. I couldn't be sure that he knew enough to stay off the water when the river was in such poor condition. I failed to live up to my responsibilities as an angler and a steward of the river. I failed because I was tired, and because I generally avoid speaking to other fishermen. I am secretive to the point of being antisocial, and this attitude does nothing to help the river.
So, from now on I won't be such a curmudgeon. I think the river is a special place, and I have to accept that other folks might think so too.