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
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
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
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."
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
"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
"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
"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
"Now that," said Franklin Bowles, "is what I mean
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
He quickly packed up and hiked back to the truck
swiftly, loading his gear into the back then driving
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?"
"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
"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."
"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
"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