Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing
By Mark Nickerson
I knew it was going to be a special day as Dries and I walked to the
river. Not because it was New Year's Day or the first day of the rest
of my life, or any of that schmaltzy, Oprah Winfrey stuff. Not even
because the river had that dulcet, green glint that whispered of the
possibility of steelhead. No, it was because Dries didn't have a rod
with him. And he knew it. I could tell by the little smile trembling
at the corner of his Fu Manchu. So, assuming Dries wasn't surreally
cocooned in the aftermath of a really, really good New Year's Eve bash,
I figured I was going to be enlightened or amused. Either way the day
was bound to be special.
Now anyone who knew Dries knew how much he revered his bamboo collection.
While his moniker bespoke of his love for the dry fly, that obsession
was inextricably wed to his passion for old cane. A trip to the water
with Dries always held the added mystery of his Cane-For-The-Day selection.
Would it be the hollowbuilt E.C. Powell big stick for steelies? The elegant
little Leonard for tossing 22 Adams at the spooky trout on Carbon Flats?
Or maybe 'my favorite' the Paul Young Para 15 cannon he sometimes packed
to fire big caddis at equally big trout on the Lower Sac? Whatever, it
was hard to picture Dries without also seeing one of those beautiful old
rods arcing languidly through the morning mist. And here he was, marching
to the river, replete in waders, vest and boots and nary a rod in sight.
Yep, this was going to be interesting.
As we deployed at the river, I deferred to Dries, as I was in the
habit of doing, and silently surrendered the better run. We both
seemed to take this for granted. I was never sure quite why I did
this, but it did afford me the opportunity to psychoanalyze myself
while managing my drift. Today, though, it seemed especially galling
to surrender the best run because it didn't appear that Dries was
going to make especially good use of it. As it turns out, I was a
little less than half right.
It didn't take long for me to rig my ten foot, seven weight and
start working my spruce fly deep through some beautiful holding
water, and for those few moments I almost forgot my eccentric partner.
Like most fly fish junkies there was little - short of a dead body
floating downstream - that was likely to interfere with that first,
holy communion with a favorite stream. And if the steelhead were in,
well - forget that corpse. So when I finally looked upstream and spied
Dries I froze as stiff as a lake trout yanked from an ice hole in a
blizzard and tossed aside for later cleaning.
He had assumed what I took to be a perfect lotus position in about
a foot or so of water. Well, I guess it was an 'almost' perfect lotus
because his hands were outstretched as though he were holding a
good-sized fish for a 'grab & grin.' Any chanting or "oooohm-ing"
that might have accompanied this posture was blessedly redirected
on an upstream breeze and will forever remain a mystery. Increasingly,
the word interesting appeared not to have been the perfect descriptor
for this New Year's Day. Portentous, or Kafka-esque, were beginning
to seem a more appropriate fit.
Dries had never struck me as an aesthetic. Sure, he was European
and had some of those eccentricities we Yanks associate with Euros.
He smoked like a coal plant chimney, lathered mayonnaise on fries
and thought bicycle racing was cool, but I was a Left Coaster myself
and had known more than my share of free spirits. As I tried to connect
the dots on this one, there was a slight pause in my drift and my
predatory instincts instantly took control of the wheel. The pause
became a sharp jolt and I fed a loop of line to the armed torpedo
headed away from me at detonation speed. When I set the hook against
the downstream run a dark back exploded from its liquid lair and
twisted round to reveal a dazzling, platinum belly. "Get a good look,"
the fish seemed to shout, " 'cuz this is all you're gonna get, cousin.
How about the pink cheeks? Did you get a gander at those?" And with that,
the line went slack and my steelhead mania instantly metamorphosed
into its inevitable Janussian counterpart: steelhead depression.
It was then that I looked upstream and saw the fish wriggling
in the lotused Dries' outstretched hands.
Dumbstruck! I'd gone from high to low, and back to high again
in seconds. Thank God there was no sugar in my system yet! Couldn't
have survived it. If I'd had my cell phone I'd surely have called
the Vatican and asked for two priests: one for validating miracles
and one for exorcisms. I'd let it be their call as to which one
they sent. There was no mistaking it though - that fish, or its
twin, was firmly but gently in the grasp of my fishing partner.
I fumbled for my digital camera as I stumbled upstream. The beatific
smile on Dries' face and the gleam in his eyes were as other-worldly
as the situation itself.
"Damn," I muttered, "why doesn't somebody make one of these things
with a zoom lens that real people can afford?!" It never occurred
to me in that manic moment that any image I might capture would be
of a very ordinary looking fly fisher in a slightly unordinary pose
clutching his momentary trophy. But I had to have it. And I did.
No sooner had I recorded my (his?) miracle than the steelie was
gone and Dries' hands were as empty as the sad, outstretched
fingers of a starving African child. Now that was a Kodak moment!
As my trembling hands switched the camera to view mode, Dries
rose to his feet and reached for his bedroll (where had that come
from?!). Yes, it was there! The fish was there!! Dries was slowly
walking away from the river and into the receding morning mist.
My brain had shattered into a thousand satellites, each spinning
its own hypothesis. He'd had a rod stashed in the bushes. No, he
was sitting near a spawning bed and the trout's protective nature
allowed him to scoop it up. An accomplice? No, Dries had evolved
to another level of fly fishing - from no indicators, to no weight,
to no nymphs, to no hooks, to no rod - Wait, run that last one by
me again. I turned to the form that was almost a shadow now and
all I could think to blurt was: "Dries, now that you've got this
no-rod thing going, can I have the Paul Young Para 15?" The reply
that drifted back was devoid of its familiar European accent and
sounded strangely Asian. "Cain. My name is Cain now (or was it Cane?)."
I took that as a yes.
I still have that photo of my old fishing partner. It's funny how
soft and round he looks. And the inner peace - I'd never noticed
that before. I'm sure he's happy wherever he is. And when he attains
that next level, I bet he won't even need the grab and grin shots
anymore. Me? I'm still trying to master that parabolic action
of the Paul Young. ~ Mark Nickerson
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