Real Men Don't Fly-fish
"A fishing-rod is a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other."--Samuel Johnson
"There's no taking trout in dry breeches."-- Cervantes
For whatever reason, fly-fishing is what the middle-aged yuppies are up to. This new breed of fisherman wears a beeper and totes a cellular phone in his split willow creel. He takes fish towels, fat free pretzels, and ice chests of Perrier on his excursions and wears fingerless nylon gloves to prevent sun spots. He has never eaten a mullet or a mudcat, and he speaks politely to his catch before releasing it.
Yuppies spare no expense when it comes to prissy-fishing. They buy fishing rods that sell for what used cars used to, with gold-plated reels internally jewelled like Swiss watches. The line costs as much as reels, so if you tangle one in your trolling motor, you're liable to go to bed with a sick headache. But this is only the fiscal surface. These guys wear $100 vests with silver hemostats and $9 toenail clippers hanging down. They buy laminated maple landing nets and wear fancy-ass hats with pen lights and clip-on magnifiers.
The fly-fisherman's shelves are lined with Nick Lyons, Sparse Gray Hackles, Isaac Walton, and videos of "The River Runs Through It." His fly case is the masculine equivalent of a jewelry box stuffed with the exotic feathers of rare birds. He exalts in his wet flies, dry flies, streamers, and nymphs.
Basic outfitting requires a tax-wise loan, but to compound extravagance, these idiots are involving their wives, who were too genteel class to fish before Victoria's Secret started featuring chic fly-fishing apparel. In my mind, when you take your wife fishing, you're swapping leisure for labor in the first place and courting bankruptcy to boot. But the most pitiful sub-species of the new flit-fishermen is the upwardly mobile good old boy who actually knew how to catch a fish before these pale piscatolgists invaded the Southland like fireants and armadillos. These poor bastards live on the cusp, trying to please upwardly mobile wives, who'll cut them off if they don't pronounce their suffixes and slick back their hair. Mutating from redneck to yuppy, they fish in better clothes than they work in and flick woolly buggers when they'd rather be running bush-hooks or shocking up a flathead cat. They stand on the bank in new waders and Orvis vests, whacking the waters into froth, overdressed as boar hogs in Chantilly lace.
Veterinarian Dr. Henry Hart, a recent convert to fly-fishing, espouses the theory that the sport's popularity derives from the subliminal excitement derived from probing dark canyons of the subconscious. Fish, like the symbolic fodder of dreams, are titillated to the surface with a limber rod, a surrogate phallus, in a process that can be particularly edifying well into advanced maturity. Hart stays current in psychology because he has to housebreak neurotic poodles and keep peace among the gaggle of middle-aged musicians in Relapse, his rock 'n roll band. Incidentally, Dr. Hart attributes the universal phobia for reptiles and fears of falling to residual conditioning inherited from evolutionary ancestors who lived in trees, where they were safe from everything but arboreal snakes and the suck of gravity.
Jerry Benson, the new fly fishing guru in town, is one of those responsible for the prissy-fishing rage. He offers a how-to class in fly casting through Continuing Education at Darton College, and he welcomes women, who are lured to the sport by the expensive sportswear and upbeat china patterns in Fly South, his mail order catalogue. Women cast fly-line better than men do, which is another good reason to leave your wife at home. Finesse, Jerry says, accounts for that. Fly-casting is almost the only sport where you don't follow through with the stroke, so women are often less jaded by habit. It's a limp-wrist art executed between two and ten o'clock, identical to flipping a stuffed olive with a cocktail fork. A female fly-fisher, Pam Middleton for example, looks like a bright waterbird in her billed hat and with one leg raised in a 4.
Jerry hasn't acquired a lot of places to fish yet, besides the Olympic-sized pool in the Darton gym, so one day after class he invites me to a holding pond behind some projects off Oakridge Drive. The lock is rusted off the chain link gate, so we enter easily where boggy banks fester with KFC boxes, car batteries, happy-meal toys, and styrofoam cups. Our footprints release flatulent and sulphurous gasses as we prepare to launch the boat. I thread fly-line through the snake guides and tie on a Matuka-Mylar streamer. The water, thick as paint and red as spaghetti sauce, coats my fly line, and I'm wondering how to get the stuff off.
"A friend turned me on to this spot," Jerry says. "Nobody fishes it. There's no telling what we'll catch." He's right there. The holding pond is downstream of Riverside Cemetery, where 400 caskets popped up during last summer's flood. Something very macabre could be bobbing around in this pond.
"There's plenty of structure to hold fish," he adds. He's right again. For generations of inter-city prosperity, residents have been tossing broken and stolen items over the barbed wire. Big wheels, truck tires, automatic weapons, and shopping carts can be seen jutting through the surface.
But Jerry wants to determine the emergence cycle of aquatic and terrestrial insects. He wants to fathom the entomology. "You've got to match the hatch," he says, snatching at a cloud of airborne bugs. He peeks into the barrel of his clenched fist. "Culex pipiens," he says, "mosquitoes." He holds up a minuscule dry fly that looks like it was tied from eyelashes or nose hairs. "Mosquitoes are swarming," he continues. "If they don't hit an adult female, I'll throw the nymph."
"You can tie mosquito nymph? I can't even see mosquito nymph." A Hudson hubcap is embedded in rusty mud. Jerry poles over to it with the blade of his canoe paddle, lifts it, and passes it. Through my bifocals I can barely discern tiny wiggle-tails kicking around like spirochetes. "You can tie those?"
"Well, actually a heart surgeon buddy of mine ties the nymphs, using loupes, the optics doctors wear to suture blood vessels. If you can sew a mammary artery, you can tie mosquito nymph." Thoracic surgeons are natural fly fishermen. They can tie microscopic bait, pronounce the scientific names of insects, and afford the equipment. Dr. Tony Hoots, it's said, can tie a gnat.
Since yuppies tend to take up fly-tying too, you better not take your cockatoo to Westover Animal Hospital unless you want it returned with bald spots with some of the plumage into Henry's tackle box. Most fly-fishermen are health care professionals--gynecologists, dentists, nurses, chiropractors, and vets. You get snagged by a barbless hook you don't even have to leave the trout stream for the ER. There's usually a podiatrist or brain surgeon at each elbow.
"You going to pitch a dry fly?" I ask Jerry.
"Yeah, you go deep."
I can't go very deep, I think. The water is hub high on a corroded tricycle about eight feet out from shore.
My first cast lands like a mound of angel hair pasta, but I lash the tip of my rod until I straighten some of it out.
"Too much declination on the back cast," advises Jerry. "Cast to that half submerged tire. Tires are good fish attracters." I sling a haymaker and begin stripping line. Suddenly I feel a tug. "I've got one on!" I screech.
"Don't horse him," Jerry cautions with paternal pride--he's half my age-- "you've got a light tippet."
"Get the net ready," I order.
"No, work him over here. I'll lip him." Jerry puts his rod down, grasping the gunnels. He leans over, adjusting his polarized sunglasses to see through the petroleum slick.
"What do you reckon it is?" I ask.
"I don't know but I saw a white flash. It's some kind of tube-shaped fish that swells when you tug him and contracts when you give him slack. He's hooked in the upper lip, though. I can see the fly."
Jerry reaches through the iridescent film and lifts my catch, which stretches at the neck and balloons at the bottom. "What have we here?"
"What the hell?" Jerry's eyes widen.
"I don't know. A Trojan, maybe?"
"Ugh!" he flings it back. It burps an air bubble, ripples once, and sinks out of sight--catch and release. I worry that Jerry is going to rub off his epidermis with the fish towel. An opaque film adheres to his forearm, like elbow-length latex gloves, but he is determined that student not outdo teacher. He'll not be skunked by beginner's luck. He picks up his fly rod and assails the water until he gets a strike from perhaps the only animate object in the pond--a living fossil. It resists sluggishly, but at least it's an actual fish, or a distant progenitor of one. He tugs it through a clot of algae alongside the boat. This time we use the landing net. The popeyed thing is coated with yellow mucus. It has a whiskered, Edgar G. Robinson mouth. Unwilling to touch it, I lift the tippet, hoisting the head as I chop the neck with the paddle. The thing Jerry has caught groans and croaks, flaring scabrous gills and coughing gouts of dark blood. Chancres along its side look like they could have been made by the suction of tentacles. Maybe something else lives in the pond.
"Whatcha got there?" I inquire.
"Looks like a walking catfish."
"I thought they became extinct during the pleistocene."
"Maybe not, they gulp air and supplement oxygen intake with their swim bladder. They may be the only thing can live in a pond as polluted as this one. This one would've crawled off to a cleaner spot it hadn't been for that fence."
"Maybe that's why they put fences around holding ponds in the first place--to keep 'em stocked."
I remove Jerry's fly, discovering hemostats are good for removing hooks from fish you can't stand the idea of touching, the stuff bad dreams are made of. We contemplate the fish for a while before shoveling it over the side with an oar.
"You gotta get used to fishing in ponds like this one," I tell Jerry, "It's all we'll have when the Republicans get through with environment legislation." I slap a mosquito on my forearm. "Hot damn!" I scream as it stings me like a hot needle.
"You swatted my fly," says Jerry. "See if you can work it out without bending the gape."
"Let's go somewhere a little more natural," my fly-fishing mentor suggests the next day. F.P. Fairweather, another of Jerry's students, gets us invited to Fred and Fran Hand's Cottonmouth Pond outside Pelham, Georgia. Cottonmouth Pond, far more natural than the holding pond off Oakridge, is a pretty lake surrounded by azaleas, weeping willows, stumps, alligators, and snakes.
We launch our fishing craft, but..."Three can't fly-fish from the same skiff," Jerry announces, "I think you're ready for the old belly boat, Vic. F.P. and I'll fish from the skiff, where I'll provide pointers."
"F.P. can have the belly-boat," I offer. A belly boat is a $295 inner-tube with a crotch strap. You use it with $170 neoprene waders and wading shoes that range from $75 to $115. Of course, over the shoes you wear swim fins you can order from Orvis for $130. About the time you get outfitted, a belly boat is about the same price as a bass boat without the trailer.
Jerry hasn't brought his neoprene waders because he's afraid I'll excrete uric acid into them after a few hours in the water. Without waders, sitting in a belly-boat is like wearing a wet diaper. My white legs dangle in duckweed and among God knows what reptiles. I kick to the far bank and listen to the MY RUMP of bullfrogs, watching Jerry and F.P. about fifty yards away, false casting like windshield wipers.
Finally, I quit coveting a dry place in the boat and start actually having fun. I start catching red-belly bream hand over fist, wearing them out, and threading them on a stringer trailing behind me.
The only good thing about a belly boat is the worst casts still catch fish, since you're right in there amongst them. F.P. calls the larger sunfish "tittie bream." Smaller individuals of the same variety are known as butterbeans or little sum-bitches. Jerry is trying to coach F.P.'s diction.
I make a roll cast I'm real proud of. The leader unfolds beneath a willow overhang and my rubber spider splats against a dark log before dropping penultimatly upon still waters, waiting for a bluegill to suck it in. The spider lies in the center of centrifugal ripples on the chrome surface, flexing its rubber legs. Good action. I've been saving money, buying my flies at Doyal's, adding hooks to Halloween arachnids with suction cups you lick and stick on window panes. Wow, this is the life! But the "log," disturbed by the fly-line that just lashed its flanks, moves, sighs, and plops into the water. I immediately recognize the former log as a snake about the size of an oxen backstrap. A cottonmouth moccasin, for which the Hand pond was named, has entered the water and submerged beneath the onyx surface. Appropiately terrified, I kick away from the bank with considerable torque. Cottonmouth moccasins can't bite underwater, I tell myself, immediately realizing the lie. The bastards eat fish. Moccasins specialize in biting underwater. FISH. I remember I'm trailing a stringer like a stalk of bananas. I think about casting off the stringer to reduce drag-- catch and release-- but as I pass Jerry and F.P., I see Jerry's rod bend double then snap. "Damn!" he cries, "An alligator just snapped my fly rod!"
"An alligator took my Marabou streamer and ruined my new rod.
"Oh shit!" I feel my glands contract, squirting adrenalin into my vascular system, mainlining, as my haunches shift into overdrive.
"Don't worry!" Jerry says. "It's a Redington with a lifetime warranty."
I'm leaving a blunt wake and a rooster-tail, but a slight change of direction wraps the slimy stringer of fish around my naked leg. A dorsal fin pricks my calf and I know I'm snakebit at the very least. It's a delicate balance to commune with nature without becoming a link in the food chain.
"Look at him go!" yells F.P. I feel the cool breeze on my bare legs as the belly-boat lifts and hovers, the tips of my swim fins spanking the surface. The next thing I know I'm on the opposite shore standing on wobbling legs by the truck while the Hands' rottweiler gallups up snarling and holding me at bay.
"From where we were," Jerry says when they pull in, "You looked like a ballerina with an inflatable tutu, except for all that arm flapping."
I inspect my catch. Several bluegills have bite-size crescents missing from their tails. Something in my subconscious has been nipping away.
"I keep having this dream," I confess to Dr. Hart when I take my dog in for parvo shots, "that alligators snap off my legs, my belly-boat gets top heavy, I flip over and drown."
Dr. Hart is wearing a ridiculous shirt with kitty cats all over it and a baseball hat studded with dry flies. He pinches his chin. "The reason you're scared of alligators is you feel guilty about something. You running around on your wife?"
"Well, you're up to something. You don't have to tell me about it, but you may need to take up some socially uplifting hobby. Your stool sample indicates you're not wormy, so I recommend fly fishing--very soothing psychologically."