Heads over Tails

Ive been asked by the wife to go out for drinks and dinner with another couple.  The wives are hoping that the men will find something they can connect on, like one another’s company, have something or someone in common, and develop a meaningful and lasting relationship that will blossom into double dates, family outings, maybe even extended vacations together.  

This rarely works out, but the questions that begin the initial introduction are usually the same.  Being “middle class” people, who tend to define themselves by their jobs,  a question, somewhere near the beginning, is always “so what do you do?”  

“Im an engineer for a tire manufacture.”

“I teach history at a private school”

“Im a computer programer who works from home.”

“I make hand crafted knives in my basement.”

“Im a youth pastor at a local church.”

“I work at a counseling center for at risk youth.”

“Im a stay at home dad.”

“Im the yeast scientist at a local brewery”

“Im a fishing guide”

The answers rarely sum up all you need to know about a person but get the ball rolling for a conversation that can go further into detail about what it is a person does, and maybe a window into “who they are.”

I happen to live in an eclectic town where most folks decided to “follow their dreams” and here, even more so than other places, what a person chooses as a career is a fairly good way to figure out what makes them tic, and whether you’re going to connect or not. So, you and the other captive tolerate one another’s company, be as nice as possible, and ask more in depth questions about their job to avoid awkward silences while the wives drink draft ciders and white wines, and chat quickly and endlessly about the kind of stuff that people who have known each other more than 15 minutes talk about. Ive done this plenty of times and it is not what I would call a burden, but it is something that I now do on auto pilot.  I have my answers prepared beforehand, just as the other poor son-of-a-bitch does, and I rattle them off in a way as to sound somewhat important and interesting, but not so much that they would encourage an in-depth conversation.  Lets keep this thing superficial for the moment, or at least until I get a few more five dollar pints in me. 

Sitting through one of these friendly interrogations the other night I began to think about my answers as the questions became more specific.  I didn’t say aloud what I was thinking for fear of committing the social fopa of appearing too self important,  or of boring the other party to tears. The other wife had chimed in as I and her husband were sitting in relative silence, not out of mutual dislike, but an unspoken pact we had made at the beginning to suffer through without being too much of a burden on one another. 

“So, what do you do?”

“Im a fishing guide.”

“Really! That sounds like a fun job! So you get paid to go fishing?”

“Oh no,  I don’t fish when Im working.”

“So, the customer fishes, and you just kind of help out?”

“Yes.”

“Well that still sounds like fun.  Do you fish on your days off?

“Oh yeah.”

She looks at her husband with a suggestive glance as if to say “hey you like to fish.”   He doesn’t. 

“What kind of fish do you like to fish for?”

“Oh trout mostly but ….”

This leads to a long story about a camping trip she took when she was a kid and her dad caught a trout from the lake and they cooked it and ate it, and what fun it was, and how she would like for her and her husband to maybe take the kids camping, maybe at a lake, and catch a trout, and cook it and eat it.  How it would be a fun experience for the kids even though the family is vegan, but they could cheat and be pesco-vegitarian just for the weekend. Her husband raises an eyebrow as he takes a bite of his crowder peas that the restaurant had prepared with plentyful chunks of pulled pork. 

It was during this story that I began to think about my answer.  The  answer I gave to not appear too complicated and the answer that I kept to myself.

What kind of fish do I like to catch?

All of them, any of them, none of them, it really doesn’t matter as much as you, or I, would think. Im not particular about fish.  Most of the time Im just as happy with one kind as I am with the other.  Sure I’ll get a bug up my ass about a certain fish every now and then, especially if its been a while since Ive caught one, but for the most part if it swims I like to catch it.  What I am particular about is water, and my favorite kind of waters are moving waters, and most of all broken, moving, water. 

Melrose Falls, Melrose Station, Saluda, North Carolina

When I look at a river or stream I’m as capable as the next person of appreciating the beauty of it, but this is not what appeals to me or does not appeal to me about certain pieces of water.  I can be just as happy on a trash ridden creek that locals use as their dumping ground as I can on a beautiful  piece of manicured private water.  If I were forced to choose Id probably pick the dump, but thats another horse to beat another time. I won’t get into here for fear of committing the fopa of appearing too self important, or of boring the reader to tears. 

There is a famous trout laden tailwater not two hours drive from my home.  It is home to large brown trout that are willing to rise to a well presented dry fly.  The hatches come off consistently and regularly and the fish feed readily.  It is mentioned to have been a favorite spot of one of our late, great,  left handed fly casting celebrities, with all the pomp and over crowding that that entails.  Ive waded it and floated it. Ive fished it with the water on and the water off.  Ive cast streamers, and nymphs, and fished dry flies in a glorious hatch.  Ive caught good fish and plenty of them on this water.  Ive fished it early, mid day, and late.  I have tried with everything I have to fall in love with this river, but it hasn’t happened.  The fish are there, the action is there, the water is there. Plenty of others love it, and they can have it.  For a long time Ive wrestled with my distaste for this water, and still feel a sense of guilt about it. I get invited to fish it from friends and fellow guides on a fairly regular basis.  I enjoy myself and the company Im with well enough.  I catch a few, but I am not passionate or even excited.  I look into the river and it stares back at me with a blank and expressionless face. 

She doesn’t wink, she does not smile

No grimace or glare

She does not laugh or cry at the many men

Who stare, into her uncanny gaze

A department store mannequin

Lobotomized victim of voodoo psychology

Open mouthed, conquered, broken, restrained

Hollow eyed, drooling down her chin

It is odd and possibly wrong that I have such a visceral reaction to this river, but I can’t help myself.  I know when I am there that if I return tomorrow things will be relatively the same.  The water runs at a certain cubic feet per second for a certain number of hours each day.  Later, a siren blasts and gates open and for a short time a dramatic increase in the flow.  The water subsidies a short while later and the lazy river returns.  For the most part this happens every day, on schedule.  A schedule dictated by men in suits who hand down their decree to men in hard hats.  This is an industrial operation.

Many anglers find this to be very convenient.  If you wish to plan your once a week, month, or year outing you can check the schedule online or with a phone call and know that you can drive 2, 4, or 6 hours from the metropolis where you live, surrounded by concrete and steel, to a trout stream flowing cold and clear from beneath a monolithic structure of concrete and steel, where you will find the water to be relatively the same flow and level that it was the last time you were here.  It is also highly likely that the same three or four patterns you used to catch fish on your last visit, will work just fine on this visit as well.  There is very little variety here.  I suppose there is comfort in ordering up your day and having it just the way you know it and like it.  I suppose it is of great comfort if you only get to do this once in a while and so I do not begrudge those who fish it and enjoy it.  I do pity them, which I am sure is just as much if not more of an insult, but one I am unwilling to apologize for.  

But I digress.

The intention of this story was not to bad mouth a hallowed and much loved tailwater.  I only mention it for some juxtaposition.  The disgust I feel for slick faced tail waters is the yin to the yang of my love of freestone streams (or the yang to the yin if you prefer, the metaphor works both ways). The intention of this story was to ramble on to you, the unfortunate reader, about what I love.  You, you poor soul, who now have chosen thus far to be tasked with the burden of being the ear to this bloviating fool who was just last evening kind enough to spare his captive dinner guest. 

Courthouse Creek, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

Ive quoted him many times before but “the weeping philosopher” Heraclitus of Ephesus famously said 

“No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man."

Heraclitus obviously fished free stone streams, and as he was a melancholy soul I have to assume he was fly fisherman.  Stepping into the waters of a North Carolina mountain free stone stream I inhale deeply into my lungs.  The wet and clean air fills my chest and hits my top of my head with a rush like the first draw of a morning cigarette, the first gulp of dawn hour coffee.  I can feel my pupils dilate to their full width before rapidly shrinking to a pin point.  

There’s a needle in my vein.

The mist and fog that hangs heavy over the cool river and slips ghostly through the rhododendron and hardwoods, wraps up the picturesque scene; a scene of rocks and broken white capped water, waterfalls, drops, undercuts, ledges and lips,  and carries it all away.  The beauty and wildness, drank and breathed in for a moment, is erased and all that remains are shapes and lines:

Diagram of Fish Holding on Small Creek, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

v < > ^ X O —> a vignetted narrowed focus. 

A diagram on ruled paper lays before me.  The varied speeds of fast and slow water, the V shapes behind the rocks; the entangled and braided currents become a map of the river and on the map  arrows —> point to the few places where a fish may find the holy trinity of its preference.  

Rest: where the current slows.

Security: where the water is deep.

Food: where the current is close.

This spot looks like this:

O

To the left, right and above the holding lies are symbols that look like this:

X

X is where the fly goes.  Put it on the X and the currents will bring it into the O near the top, ends or edges of the V.

Small Stream Fly Fishing, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

The puzzle lays out before me for miles.  I move up river switching back and forth between the view screens.  The postcard other worldly nature scene, and the ink on paper blue print of a free stone trout stream alternate in my minds eye.  At times I allow the latter to overlay on the former but this always causes some level of conflict and I have to decide which to see at the moment.  

Her mood swings wildly

Playful and coy she hums a tune

Around a bend and without warning

She turns

Violent mania

Shouts

Screams

Roars

I step and place my feet carefully

It is slippery here and the consequences dire

Her indifferent mawl waits to grind my bones

Beyond the rage she whimpers and calms

An unembarrassed giggle belies her lack of shame

Nature does not apologize for her nature

You knew this when you started

When you moved against the flood of this unstable disposition

You’ve been moving backwards through time

In the end, at the beginning,  meek and tiny

From which grew the compelling force

Looking at his watch my counterpart tells his wife that they need to get the kids to bed.  She agrees and starts another topic of conversation with my wife.  The waitress notices our glasses are near empty and stops by the table to ask if anyone would like another drink.  I decline, as does the bored but gracious man in the polo shirt and golfers hat sitting across from me, our wives order another.  After finishing their drinks they say good bye to one another, hug, say how much they enjoyed the evening and that we should do this again soon.  I shake hands with the gentleman in the polo shirt, he shakes hands with the malcontent asshole in the ratty old t-shirt that still smells of sweat and body odor despite having been washed and hung outside to dry.  They parked out front and we are parked out back and so we go our separate ways from the table.  At the car my wife asks which one of us is putting the kids to bed tonight?  I pull a quarter from my pocket.

“Ill flip you for it.”

“Ok, you call it.”

“Heads.”