Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tomhannock Sunset

I was at the lake with my kids a few days ago, but we weren't fishing. We were far too busy watching God kiss the water.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Trusty Rusty

Near the conclusion of the film, Silence of the Lambs, Sir Anthony Hopkins' character Hannibal Lecter remarks that he is having an old friend for dinner. If one was otherwise unfamiliar with the picture, one wouldn't think twice about the character's statement. Having watched the film from start to finish, however, the audience understands the threat inherent in Lecter's words. Doctor Chilton, the old friend to whom Lecter alludes, is about to have a very bad day.

It occurs to me that the title of my blog is something of a double entendre, not unlike Lecter's line at the conclusion of Hopkins' performance. No, The Rusty Spinner doesn't imply cannabalism of any sort, although fly flingers may find that the title elicits thoughts of out-sized trout slurping tiny, carrion morsels from the surface of some eddy or backwater. Today's post is about more than fly fishing though. Today's post is about the meaning inherent in the title of this forum.

The Rusty Spinner is a metaphor for opportunity; specifically, The Rusty Spinner is my opportunity. I suppose this might sound sappy or overly sentimental, but this blog is a chance for me to revisit my youth; years spent fishing and writing, amongst the more Bacchanalian activities usually associated with being a young man. Sadly, I put writing aside when I took on the responsibility of being a husband nearly ten years ago. Writing has remained on the sidelines throughout my career, the purchase of a home, and the birth of my children (birth singular ... children plural). Life has been hectic as life often is, and somewhere along the road I forgot my passion for putting pen to paper.

The great irony is that I'm an English teacher. It is my job, my vocation, and my calling to help young men and women improve their writing. If I'm very lucky I might instill in a select few students my appreciation for language. I offer this simple analogy.

As fly fishing is so much more than the mechanics of casting or tying a knot, so too is writing so much more than punctuation and grammar. Like fly fishing, writing is art; the act of writing is the act of creation. Am I the the most competent caster or innovative fly tyer? No. Am I the most eloquent or fluid writer? No.

And that's why I sit at this keyboard, and pour myself into cyberspace for all to see. For that brief moment when all the words come, I am an artist. I'm a creator. I'm a teacher who can, and still chooses to teach. I'm a man with a passion for his family and fly fishing. I'm an old dog that has learned a new trick, and in doing so has begun to remember all the old tricks. I'm a writer who has rediscovered writing.

I am the rusty spinner.


I won't go into the details as it just isn't necessary. If you're reading this then you've probably been the unhappy, frustrated or angry recipient of someone's bad manners, and while you weren't on the river with me this past weekend, you already know what happened. I won't burden you with the minutae, but I do have a question.

When did fishermen, fly flingers and bait chuckers alike, stop teaching their sons about stream-side etiquette? I ask as I didn't get the memo. And yes, I am speaking specifically about men and their sons. I've never encountered a lady along the banks of a river or stream who didn't practice both common sense and basic etiquette. As such, I'm left wondering how high one's testosterone level must be to completely abandon all sense of common courtesy and decorum.

Does anyone know? When did the piscatorial professors stop assigning the chapters on thoughtfulness and tact?

I make this promise now, before my readers and all mighty God that if my son is ever discourteous to other anglers, the offensive behavior will not be the result of a lack of tutelage.

Rant over ... BKill out ...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On No Longer Working in a Flyshop

There are those days when I miss working in flyshop. Yes, it was a retail job, and carried with it all that any retail position entails. The good, however, generally outweighed the bad. Think about it for a moment. I could talk fishing all day, tie a fly or cast a rod out on the pond, and the powers that be thought I was doing my job. Looking back on the experience, I realize just how much I learned while chatting with folks in front of the rod rack or sorting through the bugs in the bins.

Knots. I learned how to tie knots. Arbor knots and Albrights. Nail knots and Bimini twists. Perfection loops, surgeon's loops and even a spider hitch. I learned them all, tied most of them hundreds if not thousands of times, and like a diamond, a knot is forever. Barring some dreadful accident or debilitating disease, I'll never need anyone to rig a line for me. I've got it covered.

I learned to double haul. I won't be entering a casting competition anytime soon, but when Mercury aligns with Venus, I can really lay it out there. Mercury only seems to align with Venus once out of every thirty casts or so, but the double-haul isn't just about distance. It's about accuracy, and if nothing else I can thread the needle nearly every time the fish dictate I must do so.

I also learned that people need help and reassurance, and that this is especially true of fly flingers. If one is in a position of authority, not unlike a flyshop employee, then he or she will be called on to testify to a customer's aptitude or answer a client's questions. If the employee doesn't have the answers a customer seeks, he or she must to be able to refer the client to an appropriate source. The most respected guy in any flyshop isn't the one who casts the farthest, catches the biggest fish, or can recite all of the technical specifications on every rod in the shop. Rather, the most respected employee will be the one who shovels the least bullshit. I miss being that guy.

Conversely, I don't miss being the guy who couldn't spend the weekend on the water because he had to work. On days like this past Sunday, when the fishing is spectacular even though the catching leaves something to be desired, I am especially grateful I no longer receive a w-2 from the shop.To better illustrate my point, let's just say that I was casting an eight weight and some ginormous streamers to what may have been the biggest stream-bred trout I've ever seen. Yep. The fishing was amazing, and I was there for it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Ruts and Routines

There is no denying that people are creatures of habit. We find a routine with which we are comfortable, and follow that same time-worn path, most every day. Just take a moment and consider all the things we do simply because we've always done them. We drive the same way to and from work, never varying our route. We order the usual dishes at the usual restaurants. Some of us even go so far as to mow our lawns in particular patterns (Yes, I am that guy). In roughly thirty years of fishing I haven't any reason to think otherwise of my fellow fly flingers.

I'm a rod first kind of guy. That is to say that when I pull up alongside the river, the very first thing I do is pop the trunk and pull out a rod tube. If it's a bamboo rod I intend to fish, I'll extricate the rod, and may even go so far as to give the tube a sniff (rod varnish is intoxicating). Some folks might take a quick look at the river, while still others scan the air for bugs. I need to get my hands on that rod, attach the reel, string it up, and give it precisely three false casts.

Then, shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shalt be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out! - Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975

Each and every time I go to the river, I follow that routine. It's my ritual, and when I'm forced to do things outside of my usual order I feel uncomfortable and unlucky. Of course, my way of doing things isn't necessarily everyone's way of doing things. Some folks prefer to don waders before stringing a rod or checking the water.

Adam is a wader guy. He throws those Orvis Silver Labels on with a speed usually reserved for people doing a 4:00 a.m. dine-n-dash at Denny's (you know who you are). I've never understood why he opts for the waders before all else. It seems to me that if you go with the waders first you'll only sweat that much longer underneath all that no-sweat fabric. Of course, Adam carries only two-thirds of my natural insulation, so maybe sweat isn't so much a concern. Still, there's no way a pair of waders could possibly have as much mojo as a rod. Rods are extensions of our will, old friends ready to charge into the fray alongside us. Waders smell like urine.

There are also those routines that aren't the result of habit or superstition; life has a way of forcing certain customs upon us. My experience is that as we age we fly flingers fall into a seasonal routine. That is to say that we tend to fish the usual places at the usual times. I must admit to doing this quite a bit since my children were born. When I was a younger man I was constantly exploring.

Adam and I each had our Gazetteers, and every week we followed some new blue line. We started with the Battenkill and all of its tributaries, but if there was a river, stream, ditch or puddle somewhere within 75 miles of home then there was a pretty good chance we fished it or thought about fishing it. Over the years we expanded our search for fly fishing Nirvana, and made our way to Massachusetts, Vermont, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Montana and Wyoming. Everything was fresh. Everything was new.

We haven't seen those maps since we married and had our families. These days our time is at a premium, and we try to hedge our bets. When the hendricksons are on, we fish the hendrickson run. When the sulphurs are on, we fish the sulphur pool. When the river runs at a particular CFS we fish streamers, a little higher and we stay home. Some folks might suggest we're stuck in a rut. The truth is though, that we're finally able to benefit from years spent knee deep in swamp muck, climbing over out-sized boulders, and wading through as many brier patches as riffles.

When we were young we didn't catch a heck of a lot, not as much as we do now at any rate. Sure we were lucky on occasion (I'm reminded of the time Adam took a 20" brown from a tiny tributary to the 'Kill), but for the most part the blue lines creeping across our maps didn't offer the kind of fishing for which we were searching. We eventually found our philosopher's stone, and now we jealously guard the knowledge that took so many years to cultivate.

And having found our holy grail, what is it that we do to keep our rituals from becoming ruts? How do we maintain our passion for a sport that takes us to the same bit of water, day after average day? First, each of our pilgrimages begins with the hope that the day will not be mediocre, but rather exceptional. By and large it is the promise of the next day that keeps us coming back. Second, we remember that we can never really go to the same river twice. She is always in a state of flux, and it is the riddle of those changes that we find so intriguing. Third, we find new ways to approach her challenges. We tie new flies, fish different rods, and use longer and lighter leaders. We vary our technique, and in doing so we change our experience.

I'll finish with some words to those younger bug chuckers who might pity an old guy like me who is closer to 40 than to 20; a fella' who is burdened by the responsibilities of work and family.

Do not pity me, and do not mistake my routine for a rut. Most days I love my job, and my family could never be a burden. I hate to voice a cliche, but I've been there, I've done it, and I am perfectly happy right where I am. You go on and enjoy the swamps and brier patches, and in nine or ten years when you've figured things out, I'll meet you for the hendricksons.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Coach Klein Moment

"Mr. Coach Klein, you got your manhood! You got your manhood." - The Waterboy, 1998

After being emasculated and sent home a eunuch by a particular downstate tailwater, I was pitied by my home river and had a terrific day. I lost count, but took somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve to fifteen fish, with the best being a powerful, twenty-inch rainbow.

It's a good thing too because as a man I'm especially fragile, and need constant reassurance from women and rivers alike.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Revenge of the River Gods

There were no omens. There were no portents. The sky did not darken, and the earth did not move. There was absolutely no indication that things would go as poorly as they did. Had I any inkling the day would play out in such a fashion, I would have chosen a better way to spend my time; perhaps asking my neighbor to kick me in the testicles and steal my wallet. Instead, this is what happened.

At 5:30 a.m. Ben and I started out on a two and a half hour pilgrimage to the downstate tailwater that all the outdoor writers suggest is home to the best trout fishing on the east coast. The truck was loaded with five or six rods and their respective reels, waders, boots, nets, vests and a Thermos full of coffee. Notice the absence of beer. Had we the good sense to bring a few bottles I might today be writing a much different post, but I digress. With a smile on my face I walked out the door, blissfully unaware that I was on my way to piscatorial purgatory.

An hour and a half later we had contacted the folks at an area fly shop about renting a drift boat for the day, and stopped off for food and drinks to bring along on the float. I suppose this is when karma abandoned me, but I wouldn't recognize the moment for what it was until I later reflected on the day. Entering the convenient store we were greeted by stony glares from a half dozen patrons, each seeming to scream, "You're not from here!" The awkward silence made palpable the tension between me and the cashier. Her snaggle-toothed sneer left little room to doubt that she wanted me out as quickly as possible. I was happy to oblige as scenes from Deliverance ran in a loop across my mental cinematoscope. "I bet you can squeal like a pig. Weeeeeeee! I bet you can squeal like a pig. Weeeeeeee! I bet you can squeal like a pig. Weeeeeeee!" Ben wasn't quite so quick to perceive the mood in the room.

There are some things you need to understand about Ben. First, he's accepting of all sorts of people and a genuinely compassionate person. There's no better friend or fishing partner. Second, he's an artist whose preferred mediums are molten bronze, discarded steel, and tanned and stretched animal hide. He has worked in a foundry for years, and recently started his own business producing bronzework. Third, he has absolutely no tolerance for intolerance or incompetance.

Care to guess what happens when an artist with a shaved head, two pierced ears, a smithy's forearms and a short fuse asks a toothy, backwoods, convenience-store clerk to make him a vegetarian sandwich? Give up? The clerk foolishly rolls her eyes, flips her hair over her shoulder, and without a word dismisses said artist to tend to her regular customers. The artist stomps and curses his way out of the building. It's especially funny to watch if you're not one of those liberal, hippyesque, starving artist types (starving because you don't get your sandwich ... not because you're unemployed).

Ben's mood soured just a bit, he swore he would return and set fire to the building (his reaction demonstrates the difference between he and the average hippy ... Ben would happily set fire to people who annoy him). I suppose it was that moment, which ultimately set the stage for the remainder of the day.

By 9:00 we were 300 yards into our float, diligently working streamers to the banks. We had forgotten about Bucktooth Sally, and were sharing a laugh when we spotted a steadily rising fish. Here I should mention that the tailwater's trout are notoriously tough nuts to crack. They meet countless fishermen in any given week, and witness a corresponding number of flubbed casts, inadequate presentations and poorly tied flies. Add to this the great variety of insect life, which might be present on the water at any time, and you've set the stage for a frustrating outing. Yesterday, however, the fish were surprisingly agreeable. Ben made the process of catching them seem simple as taking one's next breath.

Three casts after tying on a dimunitive BWO pattern, Ben hooked and landed his first tailwater trout. The cast turned over nicely, the fly drifted perfectly, and the brown took without any hesitation. It was really a pleasure to watch; I remember commenting that I wished we had a video camera. Just downstream another fish dimpled the surface. Ben's turn on the oars. My turn on the bow.

And it continued to be my turn for the next 30 minutes or so. That's how long I worked over that fish. I started with an olive dun. Nothing. Moved to an emerger. Nada. How about a trico dun? Not today. Sulphur dun. Are you kidding me? Caddis. Hehehe. One thousand, eight hundred seconds passed and my adversary had me so flustered I was stepping on my line, dropping my backcast, over-powering my forward stroke, and throwing a tailing loop wide enough to lasso a bull. As often happens on those rivers inhabited by trout that just don't play, I was forced to submit to a superior intellect and move on down the road. I tucked my tail and my pride between my legs, sliding forlornly back to the oars.

The reaction of those first few rising fish characterized the remainder of the day. Ben was totally relaxed, almost Buddah-like in his approach. He ignored the tailwater's dogma, and cast whatever flies spoke to him from his box. He caught fish, while I abided by doctrine. I tried to fish technically, matching specific bugs, and fishing a particular way. I should have forgotten everything I think know about the tailwater, and simply focused on having a good time. I'm sure the change in attitude would have paid dividends. Instead, I was stubborn and couldn't buy a pull.

A short while after I had begun to lose my composure, my cell rang with the sound of The Police, "Message in a Bottle." I had a text message (I know ... kind of cheesey, right? ... but it's cheesey in a really cool 80's music kind of way).

At this point, please don't make me explain why I keep my cell powered on while I fish. Suffice to say that I am a husband and a father before I'm a fisherman, and the phone is there for for emergencies. Sure, Ben will text or call from time to time, but he was sitting just behind me. Had the message been his, he would have been swimming to the take-out point. The message was from my wife, and it read "Mikey got hurt." Mikey is my son, and my son was hurt.

If you're a parent then you know what I experienced in the next few moments. If you're not a parent then allow me a few sentences to demonstrate a parent's panic-stricken stream of consciousness.

"Mikey got hurt."

"What do you mean he's hurt? Is he alright? Did he fall ... in the bathroom ... in the driveway ... from the swingset ... down the stairs? Did he scrape his elbow or break his leg? Did he manage to get past the fence, and into the road? My God, was he hit by a car? Was he even outside? Maybe he got into the kitchen knife drawer? Dear God, Dear God! Why didn't I better childproof the kitchen? I'm a lousey father, a terrible non-childproofing father. Mikey got hurt. Mikey got hurt!"

All that and more in the time it took me to speed dial my home.


"What happened? Is he alright? Is Mikey alright?"

"Who? Oh, Mikey. Sure, he's fine. He just fell and scraped his knee a little bit. Why are you calling? Shouldn't you be on the river by now?"

That, ladies and gentlemen, demonstrates one of the fundamental differences between men and women. My wife, brilliant as she is, cannot achieve clarity in only three words. She cannot briefly and succinctly communicate that my son's injuries are minor, there is no need to worry, and have a great day. Instead, she leaves it all up to her husband's juvenile imagination; an imagination fueled by Freudian tendencies toward sex and violence, which in its turn draws on every gory detail of those vintage 80s slasher films in which it indulged. My mood, and my experience on the river, did not improve.

It wasn't long before I lost all control, and did something I haven't done in nearly twenty years. No, I did not let go of my bowels and soil myself. I last did that as recently as six years ago. Instead, I did something that for a fly flinger is both more embarrassing and much more painful. Distracted and concerned for my son, frustrated by my seeming ineptitude with the long rod, I lost track of my cast at the pivotal moment and struck myself with a hook ... in the ear ... up to the shank ... well past the barb. Did it hurt? Yep. It was nestled deep into the cartilage. Was I surprised? Yep. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I woke up hogtied with a rawhide dog biscuit in my mouth. Did Ben laugh? Let's just say he said he wished we had a video camera.

At this point I think it may be best if I spare you the remaining details. Instead, I'll summarize by saying that the river gods continued to embellish their twisted psyches at my expense. Ben finished the day having made the acquaintance of somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred fish, and I can't be sure I even had a legitimate strike. My waders leaked, and I made the mistake of literally pissing into the wind.

Know what the really funny part is? Now that I've had the time to digest and file away the day, I sincerely cannot wait to do it all again.