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Raising Cane

By Roger Emile Stouff


I fished with Jake quite a lot when we lived close to each other back in Louisiana, but when I got transferred to St. Louis, of course, there was little more between us than telephone calls every few months and regular emails.

In fact, I hadn't seen Jake in person for ten years, until my daughter's wedding, which brought me back down to the Bayou State. Jake, being Angie's godfather and all, was of course present at the ceremony and we enjoyed several cold beers catching up during the subsequent reception, during which we decided to go fishing the next day before I had to haul tail back to the city.

Man, I can't tell you how good it felt to be back where I knew what I was doing when it comes to fishing. Learning to fish in Missouri was a challenge, but I had somewhat gotten the knack of fishing trout in waders on cold streams. What I never got used to was the snobbery I encountered among some anglers who, when I confessed I was from Louisiana, would turn their noses up at the mere thought of catching bass and bluegill. What the heck was I supposed to do? There were no freshwater trout in the swamp.

But Jake and I were in familiar territory again, and he took me to his favorite fishing hole, a nice private farm pond which only he was allowed to fish, because his son, Sam, had married the farmer's daughter, giving all new meaning to the punch line of that infamous joke. Jake said there were largemouth bass in there big enough to snap a boat rod, but we were fly fishing, so we weren't worried.

We rode down a rough shell road in Jake's pickup, laughing about times in the past when we'd investigated potential fishing spots as located by aerial photographs at the courthouse, going through barbed wire fences, getting attacked by yellow jackets, sloshing through marsh, only to find the "pond" we saw on the photo was actually a low spot precisely three inches deep. But this pond, Jake promised, was a winner.

He hadn't changed much, I noticed. We were both the same age, mid forties, but the years of geologic surveying under the Louisiana sun had weathered his face to a lined landscape broken by a boyish smile. I still had more hair, I teased him, and he agreed that in St. Louis, people tended to keep their hair longer because they lived easier lives.

At last the pond appeared around a bend in the gravel road, a nice one indeed: Perahaps three or four acres, not many trees surrounding it so that casting the fly rods would be easy. There seemed to be a few stumps in the pond, and though Jake had told me it was about six feet deep, good structure was requisite for a good bass pond. There were patches of vegetation here and there, also prime fish-holding territory. I was impressed.

"Let's get after it," Jake said. "Gotta get you on a plane to St. Louie tomorrow morning."

"Man, I could just stay here," I agreed as we hopped out of the truck and Jake pulled down the tailgate. I immediately reached for my rod case and unzipped the canvas. "I miss this grungy old state."

"It's cleaned up a lot over the last ten years," Jake noted with a sly grin. "'Bout the time you moved to Missouri, in fact."

"Well, things'll be even better when your pitiful butt goes-what in the heck is that?"

Jack had opened his own rod case and carefully removed a fly rod made of split bamboo. "My new toy," he said proudly.

"You didn't tell me that," I complained.

"Wanted to surprise you." Surprised I was. We had both talked many times of picking up an old bamboo fly rod, the kinds of rods our dads talked about fishing and that we saw on the internet now and then, but had never been really serious enough to actually shell out the high dough for one.

It was eight feet long, I guessed, maybe eight-and-a-half. He had fitted it with an old Pfluger reel. The varnish was immaculate, the eyes clean, and it was a thing of beauty and purpose. "What did that set you back?" I wondered. Bamboo rods were expensive, except the cheaper production rods, and I knew Jake better than to believe he bought one of those.

"Well, now, that's quite a story," he grinned, but there was something lurking behind his smile. You don't stay friends with someone for thirty years without knowing the little nuances of expression, tone and stance. "Let's see what's poking around in that pond and I'll tell you about it, if you feel like listening."

You don't know someone that long without understanding them a little. Or a lot. Well as I knew Jake Gauthier, I knew there was something he'd been waiting to tell me for a long time. We claimed spots on the bank - nicely mowed, I noticed - and began working the stumps about thirty feet out with popping bugs while the morning was still cool.

Watching Jake cast that rod was like watching a maestro conduct a symphony. He was always a better fly-caster than I was, though I'm no rank amateur. But Jake could roll cast and double-haul and make presentations that left me speechless. I lacked about a dozen, okay, maybe two dozen, feet in distance under him, too. He was simply the finest fly-caster I had ever known. No one I had met on a stream in Missouri could compare.

But that bamboo fly rod augmented his art. The line was like some kind of extension of him, to use an oft-overworked fly fishing phrase.

I missed the fish that struck at my popping bug because I was watching the movement of that cane wand so intently. Jake laughed at me as I mended the line. "Pay attention, boy, you'll catch more that way," he chided.

When I began to point out that he hadn't even missed a fish, at once he snapped the rod upward, the cane bowed into a graceful arc, and a fitful splashing out in the pond near one of the stumps shut me up.

Carefully, dragging with his palm and coaxing with the rod, Jake guided the fish to the bank. He squatted and thumbed the jaw of a nice bass, two or three pounds.

But there was no kidding, no speculation on size, no grinning satisfaction on his face. Jack was deadly serious as he negotiated the popper's hook from the largemouth's jaw with a pair of forceps. "It's a Granger Victory," he said, but his voice was low, almost as if he was speaking to himself. "The rod, I mean. The model is the 'Victory' made by the Goodwin Granger Company out of Denver. I was fishing up near Monroe last year. You know how I like to do that once a year or so...


Fly fishing in north Louisiana is in many ways a different affair than in the south.

Though there are cypress-studded lakes and bayous similar to those of the southern portions of the state, fly angling near the Arkansas border is most happily enjoyed on clear streams and rivers. There are still no trout at this latitude, but Jake enjoyed fishing bluegill and the rare smallmouth bass, in addition to its bigmouth cousin.

Mostly it was change of scenery, he admitted. The fishing was no better or no worse, but up there in the piney woods, in the hills and with all the natural rock, he felt like was at least marginally at some exotic fishing location like he read about in the magazines. He had invested in a good pair of waders, a vest and the other necessities of a proper stream fisherman which are seldom, if ever, necessary in the southern part of the state. Most areas down here are unwadable, as you'd sink in mud up to your chin.

Jake liked to hike into the Kisatchie forest area, miles away from any public recreation facilities, to fish in solitude. Very seldom did the four-wheelers or even another angler ever disturb him, and he could fish all day, leaving just in time to hike back before dark. Sometimes, he'd stay the night, sleeping in a tent by the creek.

At dawn, while the mist was still up and the air cool, he'd scarf down some breakfast and coffee from the open fire, grab his fly rod and head for the creek.

One particular morning, he was stunned and dismayed to find that there, on a special little water where he had the day before caught several nice decent bream, an old man was fishing not fifty yards downstream. He actually stood there on the bank for about fifteen minutes, fuming, trying to decide if he should find another spot. But that would have meant breaking camp, packing up, moving along, and the rest of the day would largely be shot. Hoping the old fella wouldn't linger too long, but probably knowing better, he decided to stay.

The fish were rising and ready to swipe at anything he put before them, and Jake landed several bull bream and one great largemouth within minutes. He noted that the old guy downstream was casting beautifully, but hadn't gotten a strike, or if he had, no fish had been landed. Irritated that he was revealing that there were, indeed, plenty of fish to be caught here but unwilling to give up, he kept fishing and bringing them in.

When he glanced over again, the other angler had left unnoticed. Jake was relieved, and relaxed. He hoped the old man wouldn't tell many people about this little creek, or the guy fly fishing and tearing them up that morning.

"Good tight loop."

He was so startled he nearly dropped his rod into the stream. Twisting around, he saw the old man seated on a fallen timber right behind him, near the camp. "I like your cast," he said. "Good line control, easy snap. Good."

Jake smiled politely, muttered, "Good morning, thanks," though he was irritated. The intruder, he said, was dressed in waders and a gray fishing vest. He wore a narrow-brim sandstone fedora, had long, delicate fingers and whispy white hair peeking out from under the hat. But Jake recalled that most striking were his eyes.

"Like the cleanest stream water you'd ever seen," he told me. "So clear, they were blue. You know what I mean? Water that's so clear it turns blue. That's how his eyes were. Really beautiful eyes."

"Not bothering you am I?" the old fellow asked. "I'm not trying to elbow in. Wasn't much happening over there, and these old bones were looking for a place to rest before I head back to the camp. This here old pine log looked like the only place available. Hope you don't mind."

"Sure, rest up," Jake said. "It's a mighty fine looking pine log for resting up." He smiled a little more friendly. No sense being rude, he reasoned, until given damn good reason.

The old man said, "Franklin Bowles."

"Jake Gauthier."

"Pleasure."

"Likewise."

A bull bream - orange-breasted and thick as a bible - snapped up the popper and went spiraling in side-slab desperate runs for escape, but Jake brought him easily to hand after proper playing.

"That," said Franklin Bowles, still seated on the pine log, "is a most wonderful specimen of sunfish."

"Not too bad," Jake agreed. "Though I don't hear them called sunfish very often."

"No? What do you call them around here?"

"Oh, bluegill, bream. Down where I'm from, in the south, they call them perch."

"Ah, hell, it's all the same. Damn fine fish, no matter. Used to love to fish those little fellas when the streams up home got too full of fishermen to cast a No. 12 black gnat twenty yards."

"Where's home?" Jake asked.

"New York State, U.S.A."

"Long way from home," he noted.

"Found out years ago, home is where the fishing is. Don't even much matter if you catch any or not. Anyways, I moved here and opened up a little tackle shop after my Margie passed. Her family was from these parts. We met when I was stationed in Pearl, she was a nurse at the hospital. The kids have moved and out, Kansas, one in California. These old bones, in addition to needing an occasional resting up on a pine log, figured the cold wasn't bad as it was in New York, so I hauled myself down here. The shop gave me enough money to keep from dipping too hard into my bank stash."

He reached into one of the many pockets of his vest and fished out a silver flash, which he uncapped and took a short sip. "Care for?"

Jake was as absolute a fisherman as there was, and though he never drank so early in the morning, he was a good enough guy to understand that he was being offered a friendly gesture of good faith between anglers. He took in his line, went sit down by the old man and accepted the drink. It was good scotch, a little rough with mist still on the creek, but eye-opening good.

He noticed that the old man carefully cradled a bamboo rod in his lap. "That's a beautiful piece of cane," Jake said.

"Oh, it works fine for me," he said, looking down at the rod intently. "I never got a feel for those plastic rods," he motioned to Jake's graphite five-weight. "Cane talks to you, plastic is good for ink pens and baby rattles. No offense."

"None taken," Jake laughed. "Nowadays, the cost of a good bamboo rod is pretty hard to reach for a working man."

Franklin Bowles snorted and took another snort. "I sold a few in my shop." He extended the flask to Jake.

"Do you miss the trout?" Jake waved off the flask. "Too early."

"Sometimes. No fish lovelier than a trout. But I never was a trout snob. I'll catch these sunfish and bass all day without a complaint one. Heck, I'll catch carp if the mood strikes me. Fishing is no place for snootiness. But there's not a fish lovelier than a trout, and yeah, sometimes I miss the feel of a good rainbow on the tippet."

"Well," Jake said, rising. "Let's get our feet wet and see if there's still some fish in this spot. Won't be trout, but I have a feeling there's some beautiful bass hiding just under that fallen maple over there."

"Oh, you go on," Franklin Bowles said with a wave of his hand. "I said I wasn't elbowing into your spot, and I meant it."

"You're not elbowing, I'm inviting you."

"Go on, now!" he snapped, but not unkindly. "Show me one of them bass under that maple so I'll believe they're there."

Jake laughed and went back to the edge of the creek. There was enough room for his back cast, so he didn't wade far, stayed within earshot of the old man. He laid out his line and with a few false casts, put the orange and black Spook neatly under the overhanging snarl of limbs.

Immediately a boiling and splash, and his line went taunt. The rod arched over like a half-made question mark, relaxing the tension on the line, coaxing, coercing, romancing the bass. Out in the creek, the leader cut v-shaped wakes through the water as the fish darted here and there, seeking escape.

"You got him where you want him!" Franklin Bowles said, but not loudly.

The bass suddenly leaped, danced on its tail for a few moments, and collapsed back into the creek to fight some more. Palming the disc drag, Jake guessed the fish went five, maybe six, pounds.

Franklin Bowles remained quiet, and Jake was thankful there was no irritating torrent of instruction coming from the old man. He let Jake manage the fish as best he could, which was quite good. It took nearly ten minutes, but when Jake thumbed the fish' jaw and lifted him out of the water, the elation was tangible.

"Now that," said Franklin Bowles, "is what I mean about home."

"I think I agee with you," Jake beamed. "What do you figure, four pounds?"

"Don't be shy, boy," the old man said. "Five, easy. Maybe more, but let's not get greedy. Call her five, and that's respectable enough."

"Five it is," Jake agreed, unhooking the bass. Carefully, he lowered her back into the creek and let loose her jaw. Unhurried, as if nothing dramatic had just taken place, the bass twisted off and away.

"I might have a little swig out of that flask now, if you don't mind," Jake said.

"Help yourself."

He sat next to Franklin Bowles, and for a time, they talked about fish they had caught, those they had missed, and those they had never seen but knew were there, lurking just beneath their fly, following a midge but refusing to take it.

"Those kids of mine," Bowles said. "They aren't much into fishing. Too busy. Too busy chasing after life. They don't seem to understand what it is they're chasing after, because they keep getting disappointed when they catch a piece of it. But I'm proud of each of them, in their own way they're good people."

"World's a different place," Jake said. "That's why I hike up here. The public fishing spots are so full of aggressive, intense, clock-watching people they make me nervous just being around them."

"Right as rain," the old man agreed. He touched the butt of the bamboo rod, and stared at it. "Most times, they won't even speak to you when you talk to them. They look at you like you're a pest, just a damn old man wanting to jabberjaw. Nobody I'd want to share a flask with, I can tell you."

"Well, I guess I'll consider myself honored," Jake laughed.

"Damn straight. Time was, fishing was a gentlemanly sport. I don't mean snobby, now! I mean gentlemanly. Fisherman knew each other, talked about it, shared in it. Kinda like a religion, I guess. You could pick a good fisherman out of the crowd by the way he handled his gear. A man who throws it all haphazard-like against a tree while he's cooking dinner, or flings it into the truck like a bundle of firewood, well, he ain't much to think of. You got kids?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Jake said, and Franklin Bowles laughed, slapping his knee.

"Well, if you did, I can tell you'd teach them the right way to treat a good fishing rod. I didn't mean anything when I talked about your rod, because I can see that it's a fine casting and fishing instrument by the way you handled it. I imagine you'd raise your kids right when it comes to fishing. My kids, like I said, they're good people. I'm proud of them. My son is in California, works for some computer company. Two girls are married, one teaches school, the other a hostess at some five-star steakhouse. No grandkids, though. I miss that. If I had grandkids to teach how to treat good fishing tackle..." He drifted off, as if thinking about the things he'd say, the methods he'd teach, unheard and unlearnt, abandoned to drift away on some misty creek burned by sunlight into oblivion.

Jake lit a cigarette, offered him one, but he refused. "Lungs too old for that stuff. Remember, when I was younger, nothing tasted better than whisky from a flask and a good smoke on the stream." Again, he looked down at the cane rod, ran a forefinger around the reel seat. "You know, when I was a young man, I fished from New York to Maine. Caught a helluva lot of nice trout back when every Tom, Dick and Harry wasn't out trying to impress his neighbors about what a gentlemanly fly fisherman he was. A gentleman angler," and here he fixed Jake with a stare, "doesn't give a jolly goddamn what anybody else thinks. He doesn't fish for his neighbors, he doesn't brag. In fact, he fishes for himself, and for the fish. Isn't that right?"

"Well," Jake said, flicking ash. "I don't know that I'd consider myself a gentleman angler. But I know that I don't like fishing in a crowd, and I only talk fishing with people I know fish like I do. I don't like competitive fishermen. I made that mistake once. Fished with a guy from Baton Rouge who was more interested in numbers, pounds and ounces, than anything else."

Franklin Bowles nodded sadly. "It's the way of the world, I guess. Plastic rods and pounds and ounces. See this rod, this is a Granger Victory. The model is the 'Victory' made by the Goodwin Granger Company out of Denver. It's about my favorite. I have a couple Heddons that I like a whole lot, too, and a Leonard which will make you weep with every cast, I promise you! I remember when they started making 'glass rods. I tried one and put it back on the shelf in my own shop. I sold a lot of them, and felt like a damn crook every time I did. Like I was selling something cheap to good paying customers, some of them were my friends, too. But it was the thing, and now and then, someone would say, 'Franklin, when you going to hang up that ol' cane piece of crap and get modern?' Didn't matter to me what they said, because I still caught as many fish as any of them, huffing and chugging line like they were throwing a dock line to a tugboat. A cane rod will never tolerate that kind of foolishness! A bamboo rod does all the work, you just have to tell it where you want it to go, and it goes there."

The beautiful bamboo was, indeed, a striking piece of craftsmanship, with its nickel silver hardware and bright cork. But Jake was a product of his time, and he secretly doubted that any such antique could compare to his state-of-the-art graphite wonder.

He must have read the look on Jake's face. "Now, casting cane is not like casting plastic, like I said. Don't get me wrong, I was being a trifle sarcastic. I know there are some dang fine plastic rods out there, I've seen them being fished. But I tell you, Mr. Gauthier, casting bamboo is to casting plastic what a good French Bordeaux is to Mogen David, you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Jake said.

"No, you don't. But come and let's show you."

The old man got to his feet, and led Jake over to the edge of the creek. He released the fly - an olive wooly bugger, Jake noted - from the slight recess in the reel seat and wiggled out a dozen feet of line. Then he handed it to Jake.

"Strip out a bit, and let her load," he said. "Don't rush her! She's a lady. You have to treat her like one. She's not a whore."

Jake obeyed, and with a bit of line out in the water, he made a cast, which fell neatly at his feet in a tidy pile, floating downstream quickly.

"No," Franklin Bowles said. "You aren't talking with a two dollar pickup, son. Treat her like she's the girl your mother always wanted you to marry."

"This is kinda kinky," Jake laughed, and Franklin Bowles laughed too.

"You get the idea," he said. "Just putting it in terms a man can understand. Give that rod some reign, and let it do what it was made to do."

He forced himself to relax, and gently but briskly raised it, felt the cane load under his fingers, brought it back and up, paused until the gentle nip of the fly stretching out full told him to bring the rod smartly forward, not heavily, then lower at the last moment, and the wooly bugger actually stripped a few inches of line from the reel when it reached the end.

"Good thing you didn't snap the tippet!" Bowles laughed. "Strip out some more, and try again."

Jake did, and before long, he was outcasting his graphite rod with an ease he never believed possible. When he forgot, starting ramrodding, Bowles would say to him softly, "Treat it like a lady, son," and thus reminded, his casting became precise and effortless again. Not elegant perhaps, but he could feel that the road to grace was at his feet.

For a few hours he cast, and he caught, with the old man coaching him, until he "grew the feel" of the bamboo rod, and he knew that fishing anything else would be impossible from that moment forward. It neared lunchtime, and Jake supplied a stringer of big bream that they pan fried under the pines.

After lunch, Franklin Bowles said he'd be on his way. Jake asked how far he had to hike to get to his car, and Bowles only said, "A near piece."

"Well, it was nice meeting you," Jake said, offering his hand.

"Same here," Bowles said, and returned the shake. "Thanks for letting an old man chew your ear for a little while."

"My pleasure. And thank you for letting a young plastic-idiot cast that Granger."

"A rod's got to be fished," he said, and he looked out, over the hills, to some spot on the horizon where, Jake thought, he seemed to be wishing he were. "It's got to be fished by a fisherman, or it's just so much wood. It's got to feel a fish on its tip. When a man learns what it's like to raise cane, he'll never be the same."

"Well," Franklin Bowles said, as if somehow reluctant to leave. Then he waved and smiled and walked off into the woods, heading west.

Jake fished the rest of the afternoon, catching and releasing a few good ones, a lot of mediocre ones, and a bunch of small ones. Finally, when he estimated he'd have just enough time to break camp, pack up and make it to the truck before dark, he unlined his rod and broke it down, wading out of the creek.

But there, leaning against the pine log, unnoticed until then, was Franklin Bowles' fly rod.

Jake picked it up and looked into the woods. Bowles had been gone for hours. How had the old man forgotten it?

He quickly packed up and hiked back to the truck swiftly, loading his gear into the back then driving into town.

There was a little bar and grill he always had supper at, and the waitress' name was Peggy. She took his order of cheeseburger steak with lots of onions and a stuffed potato with her usual flirting joviality, but as she was turning away, Jake stopped her.

"Listen, where's Franklin Bowles' tackle shop?" he asked.

"Bowles?" Peggy looked puzzled. "Bowles. Don't know that name. Hey, Art!"

"What?" Art was a big, greasy man, the cook. He stuck his head out of the kitchen door.

"You know anybody name of Bowles?"

"Hell no!"

"Jake here says he has a tackle shop. There ain't no tackle shop in town name of Bowles, is there?"

"Just Wal-Mart," Art said, and laughed heartily at his own humor. "Last tackle shop besides that I remember was some old guy from upstate New York."

"That's him," Jake said. "I guess he retired. Where's he live, in town? I have something I need to return to him."

"Retired?" Art wiped his greasy hands on his apron. "Hell, no. He died back, oh, twenty years ago. The old shop is a daiquiri place now."

Jake sat back in the cushioned bench seat as Art went back to the kitchen and Peggy went to fill his order. He sat for long, long moments until someone said, "You've been fishing up Hawson's Creek, eh?"

He turned. At the booth next to his was a man perhaps in his sixties, smiling oddly. "Yes."

"Way up in the hills, I'll bet," the man said. "Past the deadfall along the ravine, up where the creek bends south."

"How would you know?"

He nodded smartly at Art. "These young folks don't remember. Or they don't pay attention. I been here all my life. I made boats in the boatyard on the lake when it was there. Oh, I remember Franklin Bowles! Had many a good scotch with him in that old tackle shop. Fair enough guy, for a Yankee."

"You knew him," Jake said, but he was still too stunned to make sense of what he was hearing.

"I knew him," the old man nodded. "But that's neither here nor there. Nobody remembers Franklin Bowles around here anymore, except a few old farts like me. Hell, most of these young 'uns don't even remember the stories about Hawson's Creek."

"Stories?"

"Nothing worth listening to." The old man picked up his hat and left a dollar on the table. He looked at Jake again. "Mostly tall yarns about an old fly fisherman who fishes that creek early in the mornings, never catches anything though. They look up a bit later, and he's gone. Kind of a local legend. A ghost story, you could say."

He nodded to Jake, and shuffled out of the café into the night.


Jake's line hung limply, slack. He was staring off across the pond to the spot on the horizon where the sun was arching away from the earth. I tried to think of something to say, but failed miserably.

By and by he turned to me, and he said quietly, "You know what I think?"

I could say nothing, but looked at him questioningly.

"I think that old man had been fishing that creek for years before he died. Maybe decades. I think he was still fishing that creek that day, too."

He looked off again, out somewhere past where I could even hope to see. "I think Franklin Bowles was ready to go on. I think he was just looking for somebody to pass this old rod on down to. No kids to take an interest in it. A rod's got to be used, it's got to feel a fish on its tip, or it's just a piece of wood. That's what he said."

Jake looked at the rod in his hands. It glowed amber and nickel silver, a thing of beauty and function. "I think, he was looking for the right person. I don't know why, but he found me."

He stepped a bit away from me. One step, that's all, but I sensed some sort of detachment. He took slack out of his line and, with a grace deserving of the rod in his hands, hauled the line out gently.

I watched it arc out behind him, and I could almost feel the gentle tug as the line straightened to full, then with a snap of his wrist, sent the fly lightly into the water where it belonged.

"I think," he said, coming back to me now in a way I didn't quite understand, "That Franklin Bowles is smiling right now."

And with a sly grin, he handed me the rod. "Come on, old friend," he said. "Let's raise some cane." ~ Roger Emile Stouff


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