Thomas McGuane: The Misadventures of an Angler

On the Beauty and Absurdity of Fly Fishing

Part of the allure of angling is the unexpected. That’s why we follow sports when so much else is curated generally on behalf of sales. We are offended by cheating in sports because it is an attempt to make sports predictable. We’ve all experienced predictable fishing: it’s not interesting. At the same time, not all surprises are welcome.

A friend invited me to fish his wonderful spring creek, several hours’ drive from my home, and I accepted eagerly. At streamside, I strung up my rod while watching a couple of bank feeders pick off drowned mayfly spinners. When the time came to make my first cast, I slid down the bank and broke my ankle. Instead of stalking big, wild trout in pristine surroundings, I lay in a bed of thistles trying to reach the ranch manager on my cell phone. There are better unexpected outcomes, and the annoying first-love-while-angling stories are all too abundant, but they are unexpected and positive, at least at first, before the love object becomes devious or loco. As I reminisced about a lifetime of angling, my thoughts turned to the surprises. Here are a few.

*

Early season is all impatience. You scrutinize the USGS streamflow data for your home fishery. Perhaps you know the magic current stream flow number is when you won’t be swept off your feet or you won’t have to bolo three BB split shots under a pompom indicator. At length, you think you know when it will be, barring unexpected heat or rain on snowfields. Perhaps low country runoff is finished—a long wait: Montana is a snow-based ecosystem. You come to know the patterns of melt to which your passion is beholden, the ones where you live and the ones on rivers a hundred miles away. When big Western rivers blow out, experienced locals know by color which headwater is guilty and how long that color takes to clear.

But then it happens: the cliff-face runs gather familiar luminous green light. Golden Stones are just starting their clumsy flights, the Yellow Sallies vivid as they rise against the pale stone of the cliff. But the river is marginal, flying past. The aspens and cottonwoods are newly leafed and there are birds everywhere, mocking the nuthatches and chickadees who’d stayed all winter. The redtails, our most companionable hawks, beseech one another in screeches and build nests. The ringing calls and drumming of northern flickers say that everything implied by summer at the 45th parallel is still ahead. A few items of human occupancy upstream show up: a retriever dummy, an irrigation canvas, a red-and-white bobber.

The first real fishing days were at hand, at least by my standards, which are those of someone who tries to fish with dry flies even when it is unreasonable. Dividing a stretch of water into a grid to be systematically scoured with my Czech nymphing rig has not engaged my sense of angling romance. But this early hour entailed creeping through brush along a rocketing river, albeit on a warm and sunny day, looking for spots where bits of hydrology had slowed it into slicks where I could float a fly for a few feet.

As I clambered through the vegetation, something caught around my left foot. I tried to kick it free, then felt a sharp pain in my right calf. I was standing on a rattlesnake. I watched him slither down the riverbank, and as I walked toward my house, I tried not to obsess about that fat diamondback, mouth opened flat against my leg.

My friend Dave, a doctor, has a summer cabin up the road. I told him what had happened, and he drove down to view me where I lay on the sofa. We looked at the fang punctures, and as we waited for something to happen, Dave regaled me with snakebite stories from his practice on the West Coast. He explained that most people who bitten by venomous snakes in his district are either drunk or on drugs. He had some grisly things to share and one of them helped me forget my present plight: the clever fellow who held a rattlesnake in one hand and imitated its flicking black tongue. The reptile rewarded the comedian by biting him in his own tongue.

After an hour, Dave announced “dry strike,” and we were free to resume our day. When I told my wife what had happened, she said, “Get a hearing aid.”

Every time I used the word tarpon, autocorrect changed it to Tampon and my most fervid speeches came out as “3 Tampons in the air,” “tail walking Tampons,” and so on.

Most people living around here accept rattlesnakes, but there is a trend among summer people toward eradicating them by attaching GPS locaters to captured snakes and following them to their dens in order to wipe them out wholesale. I understand the impulse and when you come from a place where wildlife is gone altogether, an unpleasant denizen like a rattlesnake probably seems more ominous than it does to those who live with them. You never get all the snakes and a false security reduces your vigilance. In any case, it’s a slippery slope. Once you decide that some form of indigenous wildlife is not to your liking and should be eliminated, then you invite others to think alike. Wolves and grizzly bears can be quite naughty and their extermination has a large constituency. Some of the West’s most disgraceful activities fly under the banner of predator control.

*

We can’t hide from technology, and when I’m fishing with someone who tells me I’m at a huge disadvantage with a down-locking reel seat, I really feel it. But one approaches this new world with hardearned wariness. Last spring, I was tarpon fishing on the west coast of Florida. I was having a good day and decided to tell a few pals. I sent text messages to my friends staked up around Pine Island Sound and Bokeelia to tell of them of my good luck. But every time I used the word tarpon, autocorrect changed it to Tampon and my most fervid speeches came out as “3 Tampons in the air,” “tail walking Tampons,” and so on. Anyway, I recommend vigilance while embracing technology in your quest for meaning, and be prepared for it to surprise you. We don’t know who is behind these tricks; they live somewhere in “technology.”

*

My cousin Fred, my oldest fishing partner, lives in Little Compton, Rhode Island, where as boys we fished from the rocks and checked the incoming fishing boats offloading at the pier, especially the swordfish boats back when swordfish lived long enough to reach heroic sizes. Their bills adorned the doorways of fishing shacks throughout town. Fred remembers one consequence of fishing by another little boy.

The nurse’s problem began with 12-year-old Cap Phillips fishing for stripers up the shore from our summer house. Cap hooked into a good-size striper and managed to get it to shore where he was perched on a rock. As he was taking the fish off the plug, it thrashed and Cap wound up with a hook deeply embedded in his hand. “Mister!” called Cap, as he came around the corner of our house. “I need help!”

We took him to the fire station at the Commons, hoping the medic on duty would withdraw the hook, but greater medical skill was required. His father, Bud, a local fishing guide, took him by car to Saint Anne’s Hospital in Fall River. In the emergency room, the nurse giving him a tetanus shot pricked herself with the needle, and by doing so, set off the AIDS protocol. Cap was then questioned about his sex life and drug history. Finally, he exclaimed, “I’m twelve years old! I’ve never even kissed a girl!”

*

The increasing number of women coming to fly-fishing should be instructive to the rest of us. They fish differently. It has long been a mystery that most of the biggest Atlantic salmon have been caught by women. One conjecture is that they aren’t so fixated on casting a straight line or moving on too quickly. I met an Englishman at dinner in Reykjavik who had fished the Alta all his life, where the Holy Grail is a fifty-pounder. I don’t know how I ended up at that meal and the guests seemed baffled by my presence, too. All I could do was eat and listen. In the 1940s, the father of this Englishman persuaded his mother to try fishing—just once—instead of reading under a tree, as she preferred. She went for one day and caught a 50-pound Atlantic salmon. A half century later, on her death bed, in and out of a coma, she looked up at her son, the baleful Englishman telling the story sitting by her side, and said, “You’ll never get a fifty-pounder.” And with that she died.

*

Waterbone hostility in Florida is even more acute than formerly, when routine abuse of clients by their guides was the limit of hostility, and such was the meekness of anglers in those days that retaliatory measures were rarely taken. First prize at last year’s Boca Grande tarpon tournament, an emblem of the new order, was an AR15 assault rifle.

At many of the larger Florida boat ramps, people sometimes pull up lawn chairs to watch for mistakes and accidents. Not everyone is handy at backing bumper-hitch trailers and so exciting humiliations may be on view and the goobers in lawn chairs look on with undiminished hopes for disaster.

I was waiting to splash my own boat and ahead of me a man was preparing to launch an old Hewes skiff from his Mercedes SUV. I watched from the side of the ramp on an elevated dock that gave me a good view of the operation. Next to me was a lawyer from West Palm Beach, tall, in a rust-colored leisure suit, dark circles under eyes nearly concealed by rainbow-frame Oakley sunglasses, a weary face that had seen it all, and an odd hairdo that combined a slight pompadour and over-the-ears sides. My attempts to talk to him didn’t go far beyond the information that he was a lawyer, delivered in a languid New South accent. He lit a cigarette from a well-worn Zippo and watched the launch with minimum interest.

The best procedure is to back down until the stern of the boat is sufficiently immersed to float it slightly, set the emergency brake, block up a rear tire, and launch the boat. That’s not what the driver, a chubby fellow with a white goatee, did. He backed to the right spot to pause, and then I suppose, reaching his foot for the brake, found the accelerator and launched boat, trailer, and automobile straight back into the bayou, where the boat floated to the top and the car went to the bottom.

There was a moment when tragedy seemed at hand, a moment to which the lawyer in his leisure suit failed to react: I glanced to him anxiously but my gaze went unreturned. The pale roof of the SUV glowed from underwater.

The driver swam to the surface. He was wearing a Dallas Cowboys blue windbreaker, filled with air. This caught the lawyer’s interest, and he slowly raised the cigarette to his mouth for a puff as he watched the swimming driver. His words seemed to come from deep thought as he watched.

“That’s cool,” he said. “I hate the fucking Cowboys.”

*

Jim was an avid young fisherman from the hills of Oklahoma, a real angler who had worked out some remote and difficult places to flyfish for bass or anything else that looked like a serious opportunity. He’d had several jobs, selected for their compatibility with fishing, but the last one, telemarketing, had put him on the road to Florida. “I got tired of people hanging up after telling me to eat shit and die.” The abuse seemed to linger in the distant gaze that accompanied these memories of the direct speaking style of Oklahoma telephone customers.

I don’t know where Jim is now, but when I last heard, he was headed for the Keys and there is no evidence that he has emerged. During the time I knew him, he was visited by various friends from home, rough-and-ready fellows towing battered jon boats who really knew how to catch fish.

We left in my skiff on a sweet morning of southeast winds and nearly cloudless sky to a small basin fed by salty creeks, one of which led for a considerable distance to a circular pond that may have been excavated by the Calusa, who built the tall, distinct mound near it. The bar at the mouth of the creek had enough oysters on it that I thought it best to shut down and pole into the creek with Jim on the bow and ready. Small snappers scattered at our arrival— you could already tell this was a lively place—and as I moved along, I could see just enough tidal movement to assure us that ambush feeders like snook would be active, as well as assurance we’d be able to get out. This was not a place you would want to get stuck for a full tidal cycle while the infinite biting insects had their way with you. From time to time, Jim took a picture of one thing or another as part of drinking in this lovely place, setting his phone on the deck between shots and scanning the ledges of shadow beneath the mangrove walls where snook liked to plot. They plot against other species and they plot against us.

In this windless place, a clear tide was moving gently, the very thing that would keep us from stranding but the same thing that would keep fish looking in the wrong direction; that is, away from us, a difficult opportunity for presenting the fly. Not that any cast would be easy in this narrow corridor where any variation from a straight backcast would have the fly in the mangroves.

Fishing looks fairly innocent, and mostly is, but an affluent old fellow teaching his “niece” to fish in a remote locale is not unheard of.

I saw the snook from just a bit out of casting range. It was a big fish turned into the tide and to our advantage, as it was facing our way. It was picking off glass minnows that were carried toward it, requiring very little effort. I was most concerned that I would bump the boat with the push pole and really didn’t dare lift it from the water, risking a splash. I made a small unnecessary grunt to alert Jim, who nodded slightly and glanced down to make sure no line was under his feet. We managed to get into casting range without disturbing the snook, and Jim began a few careful, low false casts.

On the deck, his cell phone, set to vibrate, buzzed to life. The snook burst off in a cloud of sand and disappeared. Jim cried out, bent to grab the phone, glared at the screen as he checked the caller’s identification. “I told her to never call me again!” He sat on the foredeck and cradled his head in his arms. It was not clear what I should say. I actually remembered her. She drove a red Saab, worked at Southern Commerce Bank in Punta Gorda, and always seemed to be in a bad mood. I hoped Jim would never tell her about her success.

*

For many, marriage is an adversarial arrangement with a commonly renegotiated détente at its center. Because of associated surveillance, few activities fail to arouse suspicion; same-sex golf groups would be an example, unless a member wears a wire and exposes the lurid dialogue. Fishing looks fairly innocent, and mostly is, but an affluent old fellow teaching his “niece” to fish in a remote locale is not unheard of. I recently learned of a vastly wealthy Florida developer whose wife was justifiably in the condition of perpetually smelling a rat. His enormous yacht was an obvious site for misbehavior, and so his wife oversaw all loading and departures for Caribbean waters. She failed to discover that he was bringing women aboard in empty fuel barrels. True story. Another group of Florida developers arranged a private jet trip to remote waters, again with departure supervised by spouses. A stopover in Costa Rica facilitated boarding by sex workers. Once established on the remote island, the sportsmen failed to anticipate the boredom of the sex workers with island life when our sportsmen were at sea trying to catch fish. The anglers returned to extremely disgruntled company, and the women shunned them for the rest of the trip, refusing to dine with them and demanding specialized cuisine from the compliant lodge staff.

*

It’s a familiar picture to lifelong fisherfolk who have read electrifying stories about their beloved sport in the hook-and-bullet press: a tiny rise, a dimple, a blush of subsurface movement signals the start of a long and punishing battle. I was on the New Fork of the Green River in Wyoming. A foul-up at the fly shop meant that I had two licenses for each day I fished, which gives rise to a split personality, one self fly-fishing and the other sunbathing.

I was fishing with Ben Brennan, who has long experience on the New Fork and an undiminished love of the sport, plants, wildlife, and the intricate realm of aquatic insects. Combining his extraordinarily quiet speech with my poor hearing, we learned to emphasize the sights. We saw wonderful things during our day, most of all a breeding pair of goshawks coursing slowly over the river, the clearest view I’d ever had of these forest birds, normally seen hurtling through trees, dark and mysterious as bats. The New Fork is an odd place, a sweet, sinuous river bottom, full of life and big trout, surrounded by abandoned subsistence ranches, fracking facilities, and overgrazed land. Each of our companions said independently at one time or another,  How would you like to live around here?” It was a first-rate opportunity to learn what the energy industry thinks of landscape.

Wyoming has very restrictive riparian laws, meaning the landowner also owns the bottom of the river: you can’t wade, you can’t get out of the boat, and you can’t anchor. Here, where land values are high and the Jackson metroplex within striking distance, these laws are enforced. The owner himself may occasionally be viewed in his new hat and on his horse. In remoter parts of Wyoming, where good fishing also exists and where the riparian laws are the same, the landowners are working too hard ranching to worry about somebody going fishing.

I  fished some attractor dry fly or another; the green and gray drakes never quite happened but a smattering of Golden Stones and Pale Morning Duns kept the fish looking up. The fishing was very good, and in the middle of the day, the cast I mentioned earlier, a fish made a mere dimple of a rise. I told Ben I thought it was a tiny fish and Ben agreed, but then I felt the serious weight of a big fish churning deep in the river. I really wanted to see this fish most of all and to land it, of course; but losing a fish is not so bitter if you have seen it. I fought on as Ben stood by with the net.

After several powerful runs, the trout was almost next to the boat, a big male brown, not quite close enough but Ben tried for it anyway. The fish teetered out of the net. I decided that there was no sense prolonging things. I had a strong leader, and accepting the risk, I pulled hard to lead the fish closer.

At  that point, the fish I had in fact hooked, the five-inch fish of the storied “dimpled” rise, still holding my fly, fl ew out of the brute’s mouth. The big trout swam in furious circles to have lost a sure meal.

Ben shouted to put the small fish back in play. I stripped line until I could feel its weight on my leader and launched it. The sprat landed with a splash and the big trout found it quickly, gulped it, and held on hard until Ben could net it.

It was my biggest fish of the trip and, so far, my only venture into live-bait fishing for trout. I look askance at those stories that begin, “At first I thought it was a snag.” I will want it to still be a snag at the end of the tale; I don’t care how long the fight lasts, preferably a very  long time with a genuine moment of self-loathing at the end, as a committed dry-fly fisherman resorts to bait.

*

As with the anglers who have preceded you, when you go fishing, you are committed to the idea that you don’t know what will happen. It’s possible you are tired of living a life in which you seem always to know what to expect, but there is risk. A frontier story says that if you twist a mule’s tail, you won’t be as pretty as you once were but you will know more.

__________________________________

From The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane. Copyright © 1999, 2019 by Thomas McGuane. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

Thomas McGuane
Thomas McGuane
Thomas McGuane lives on a ranch in McLeod, Montana. He is the author of ten novels, three works of nonfiction, and four collections of stories





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