A School of Fishermen

I am not afraid to fish alone. In fact, sometimes I prefer it. I enjoy the complete solitude and hours of uninterrupted thoughts. I focus better not having to worry about where my companion has wandered off to or whether or not he/she is having a good time as well. I can move faster, cover more water, and enjoy the freedom of fishing to a greater extent.

However, on any given day, fishing with a friend can turn an ordinary fishing trip into a fishing event.

It all begins with the drive to the water. This can be a quiet, thought-filled drive or an all out road trip, in the Animal House sense of the term. We usually meet in the early, predawn hours and silently pile into one truck or the other. We take turns driving of course, making sure that OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgas expenses and wear and tear on vehicles is equally distributed over the course of the fishing year. We have lunches and thermos bottles, coats and cell phones. All are stashed here and there in the cab of the vehicle. We have taken to rigging up at home so we don’t have to mess around once we hit the water. We get pretty excited once we get near the river, and it is difficult fooling around with tiny flies and tippets when you are raring to fish. Fingers don’t work well when the adrenaline is flowing high or the thermometer is dipping into the 20s.

The drive itself is a series of one-hour treks between bathrooms these days. Maybe it’s our aging prostates or shrinking bladders or gallons of coffee and diet Pepsi, but it is hard to make it all the way in one straight shot. Thankfully, we know where all the McDonalds and relatively clean convenience stores are on our way to the streams. This also gives us a chance to get a couple Egg McMuffins or Powerbars into our systems, calories we will surely burn. The talk is always good-natured and enlightening. We talk about work (most of us are teachers so there is always complaining to do about other teachers and parents and administrators and grading papers), and we talk about our families. We rarely talk politics or religion, though once in a while we can’t help ourselves, but anything too serious eventually gets ignored and a new topic arises. We don’t always see eye to eye, but respect the differences in our opinions. These talks really provide just enough entertainment to keep us interested and distracted from the slow-to-pass time. Cheap therapy at just over $3.50 per gallon.

Of course, we talk about fishing as well. We ponder what the river will be like that day. Discuss stream flows and fishing reports. Look up at the sky a lot, stick our hands out the window to check the temperature. Predict the hatches. We also enjoy reliving past trips, remembering the successes we have had and goofing on each others’ mishaps. We like to rib each other, but know it is all in good fun.

Usually somebody provides the music, the soundtrack for the drive. It might be a playlist on an iPod or a mix CD or some Springsteen, Dave Matthews, or Pearl Jam. We rarely turn the volume up too loudly because, after all, it is not music but companionship we are seeking. Recently, on longer road trips like our seasonal voyages to the Bighorn, we bring along a couple comedy CDs, generally well off-color and testing the boundaries of good taste and morality – Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Paton Oswalt, Brian Regan, Mitch Hebgen, George Carlin, Ron White. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese comedy greats have provided us with countless hours of entertainment on long hauls across Wyoming and nurtured our repertoire of one-liners which we dole out in an almost non-stop monologue, a cryptic language meant only for those in the “know.” On more than one occasion, the person driving has nearly lost control of the vehicle because he could not see the road through the copious tears and fits of spasmodic laughter. Needless to say, this makes the trip far more interesting.

Once on the river, it is generally all business. Chatter is minimized to the task at hand and is generally conducted with hushed voices and in close proximity. It is nice to have somebody to talk strategy with. Even though we fish the same five or six rivers 90% of the time, each section of those rivers is different at different times of the year and we all have a different approach. We fish year-round, so in the same fishing hole, June and December are distinctly diverse outings. We kind of guide each other at times as well. One guy will stand over the left shoulder of another or in the “sight window” where he can see the fish if glare prohibits the angler from doing so. We help each other know when to set the hook, let each other know if a fish is on the move, and net larger fish for each other once they are on the line. We take pictures. Shake hands. Take a nip of Jameson’s from the flask. Enjoy the moment together.

There are times we will even “tag team” a particularly large and stubborn fish. We will rig up different flies and take turns making 20 or so casts until we spook the fish, catch the fish, or give in to the fish. We help each other with fly selection, technique, and general fishing knowledge. We are better fishermen as a group than any of us are all by ourselves.

100_0690Lunch is rarely long, but generally shared. One buddy of mine, who has just begun to have success in the sport for the most part, brings the best lunches to the river. It doesn’t matter if we are eating out of the bed of the truck or at a picnic bench or in the middle of a canyon we have hiked into. He will bring smoked salmon, sliced avocado and tomato, fresh bagels, cream cheese, hot coffee, and chocolate. It is his “ritual,” he says. I love his rituals.

But most of all, we laugh; the trip is a constant roast of each other. The other day I happened to be catching a rather good number of fish, while my buddy was not having as much luck. He wasn’t skunked, but I was pulling in three to his one. After a while, the earnest “good job” or “nice fish” turned into sarcasm. While I played the fish, maybe a bit longer than I needed to for the size, he quipped, “Now if you could only learn how to land them.” Funny guy.

We have a lot of respect for one another, and know we are all good fishermen, but we keep each other humble by reminding each other of our moments of disgrace: the head first fall in the middle of a tiny stream, casting with no fly on for five minutes, casting to a rock you thought was a fish and swearing it ate, burying a size 2 streamer hook  in your thumb after trying to retrieve your $5 fly from a branch in a moving drift boat. We love showing off the trophy pictures or counting fish landed into the double digits, but when we can bring each other back down to earth, we jump at the chance.

DSCN0109And the trip gives us hours of discussion afterward. On the ride home we relive our glories and curse our failure. For days afterward we can play the “remember the time when” game. We have days to compare other days to, places that remind us of other places, and fish that will forever remain our benchmarks.

I still love to fish alone. Solitude is in short supply these days, so I take my share of it when I can. Knowing I can make it alone gives me strength. But it is the sharing of these moments with others that make them special. It is the communal nature of fishing that makes it a brotherhood (or sisterhood). It is the moment spent together in victory or defeat that makes it worth the effort. And the effort is lessened, the joy heightened, when all these moments are shared.

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