I CAME INTO FISH from my mother’s side of the family. Every Sunday the matrilineal clan would gather to nosh on lox, red as a California sunset, herring, both kippered and creamed, and whitefish. It was the whitefish that proved my undoing. The sight of those wrinkled silver corpses with dumb eyes dull as coal gave me the shivers.
“Clean your plate,” I was told. My stomach, nose and mind rebelled, and I refused. I suffered through waking nightmares in which I was force-fed gefilte fish blanketed in blood-red horseradish. At the table, quaking in a cold sweat, I vowed never to eat fish again.
Catching fish, however, became a passing fancy in my youth. In Michigan, it seemed, a freshwater lake was no farther from home than a sidearm cast. Tutored by my grandfather, and his son, my uncle, I spent hours in the backyard with a spin-casting outfit and a rubber plug. Every so often uncle and grandfather would visit to gauge my progress, and before long we were taking fishing trips to Michigan’s northern waters — Big Manistique Lake, the Au Sable, the Pine.
Father and son were often at odds, but fishing was like a surgeon’s knot that held their relationship fast. And it provided some of their lighter moments together. My uncle, Richard, teased his father, Julian, about a double-treble-hooked mouse the elder prized, proclaiming the rat incapable of delivering on its design. Julian, born and raised in Tuscaloosa, would squint and drawl, “Son, that mouse is better lookin’ to a nahthun’ pike than chuck steak to a cocka’ spaniel.” Although he insisted on its efficacy, I don’t know that the mouse yielded anything but ribbing from his son. When he died several years later, his tackle was inherited by my uncle. Now I like to remind him that he’s the mouse’s keeper.
One year they took me to Michigan’s Big Two-Hearted. Thigh-deep in the roiling broth, I felt as much a creature of the water as one of the land. The ultralight spin casting rod I held was more ornament than tool, because I caught nothing but weeds and rocks and limbs. But no one was keeping score, and it was fine to wade in cold, swift waters rimmed with the lush greenery of conifers and hardwoods.
YEARS PASSED AND other interests took hold. Angling was a distant memory until Mammoth Lakes fishing guide Gary Hooper offered to introduce me to fly fishing. I knew the soft spoken and no-nonsense Hooper to be a fine guide, and I longed to get back into a trout stream. Besides, after reading The River Why, I aspired to a kind of angling upward mobility, having come, after all, from a line of bait fishermen. So one day in early June, Hooper and I headed to Hot Creek, a technical stretch of the Owens River with a traditional catch-and-release ethos, notorious for skunking well-outfitted fisher folk. That day the combination of snow melt and an early-season thunderstorm had Hot Creek looking like vegetable soup run amok. It flowed brown and murky, and strands of uprooted willow ripped downstream.
“Challenging conditions,” said Hooper, as he lifted his ball cap and set it back down on his blond crew-cut with graying sideburns. He instructed me in the tying of the nail, blood and surgeon’s knots, how to cast a nine-foot rod with a reel that had no bail, and where to look for fish.
And then he fished with a grace that came from unpremeditated movement. Snap went the line. Out went the fly. Up came fish. Hooper gently netted them, unhooked them, held their wriggling bodies upstream for a moment and let them go. Meanwhile, the other sportsmen along the banks were whipping their lines to and fro.
“That’s called false casting,” said Hooper, rigging another rod, shaking his head. “Folks think they’re fly fishing when they do that. Thing is, fish can see all that line flying about, and it spooks them.” He grabbed his rod to prove the point. “The longer you keep your line in the water, the better your chance of catching a trout,” he said, unhooking another one from his line.
“Your turn,” he said. He handed me the 9-foot graphite rod. I affixed a red chenille barbless hook to the leader, and knotted a tuft of yarn on the tippet, which Hooper called a strike indicator.
Trout, Hooper had explained, feed each day, regardless of the conditions. Being opportunistic creatures, they’re apt to hover around licks of water where half-drowned entymologica flow into their waiting mouths. After sating themselves, the wily and lazy trout dart back to await the next hapless meal. Hooper pointed to a riffle running down the middle of Hot Creek, a place where the stream licked a small sandbar, and then coursed into a groove between mats of vegetation. Trout were lurking on either side of those vegetal banks, he said, and I should set the hook the moment the strike indicator stalled.
A fly fisher’s art is fairly straightforward: understand which of a variety of dead and dying insects the trout are eating, then present an imitation to them to swallow, set the hook before the fish realizes the fly is a phony, and then keep it on the line long enough to net it.
It took a few tries, but soon I was able to flick the nymph just above the sandbar. I let the current take it, and when it reached the end of the channel, I lifted the line out of the water and snapped it back to the sandbar. On one attempt, the strike indicator twitched. Assuming the line had hung up on weeds, I let the nymph drift.
“That was a fish on your line,” said Hooper.
”If a fish was on my line, why isn’t it still there?” I asked, incredulous.
“The trout spit the fly out.”
“Trout spit? Why?”
“Because the fly didn’t taste like a fly.”
“Hold on, Gary. You mean to tell me trout can taste?”
“Maybe we should use a fly that tastes better.”
“Maybe you should keep your eyes on that strike indicator, and set the hook the next time you see it bob,” said Hooper.
Thus scourged, I lifted the line out of the stream and threw it back to the sandbar for the umpteenth time and let the current have its way with it. Eventually the yarn stalled. This time I knew exactly what to do.
Or I should say my deltoids and biceps thought they knew what to do. By the time my brain figured it out, I had jerked the rod’s tip to the heavens, snapped the line, tripped on a rock and fallen into the creek.
“Shit!” I bellowed.
A platoon of Tilley hats bobbed up, looked away, and a flock of Orvis rods resumed their flagellations.
Hooper’s half grin and soft chuckle said it all: It had been a big one. He handed me a new leader to tie onto the line. Yep, it had been a very big one.
It wasn’t the chuckle that smarted, because I understood that the kindly Hooper was recalling his own attempts to master the sport. Recalling a Buddhist apothegm counseling non-attachment — ironical given the setting — I took some deep breaths and sidearmed a new nymph upstream.
Eventually I saw the yarn stall again, and sensed a subtle sine wave commute through the line, graphite, and into the fleshy part of my thumb. I raised the rod skyward, felt the hook set in the trout’s jaw.
“It’s yours,” said Hooper. “Just let it run.”
The trout sped downstream and I allowed line to strip from the reel and through my fingers. When the line went taut, the fish broke the water’s surface, flexed its freckled torso, and dove into the current.
“Nice little Brownie,” Hooper said. “OK, reel him in. Keep that rod up.” Line held high, knees flexed, right hand gently rewinding the small windlass, the fish eventually presented itself a few feet from my stance.
Hooper netted the trout, and brought it over. I reached in, palmed its turmeric belly, eased the hook from its mouth, dipped it into Hot Creek’s turbid waters, and relaxed my fingers.
I called my uncle in Michigan that evening, and extolled the art of fishing with flies. He was eating cold cuts and tippling a Budweiser.
“So, you’ve become one of those doctrinaire snobs, eh?, he said. “Thanks all the same, but I’ll stick to my spin-casting rig. And guess who’ll be catching all the fish?” Despite the assault, I knew he understood. On Hot Creek, for a few exquisite minutes, I had been so entirely steeped in the moment that the doing of the thing was dreamlike. I’ve come to learn that it’s that sensation that keeps most folks in the sport.
Years have passed, and my uncle still fishes. I do not. Still, it’s comforting to know that cooler-sized tackle box sits in southern Michigan, home to a simulacrum of a mouse slung with a pair of treble hooks. One day, perhaps to honor his father’s memory, my uncle will shake his head, reach for the rodent, knot it onto his line, cock the bail on his reel, and launch it into the inscrutable waters of Big Manistique Lake. To his amazement and delight, the mouse will attract the advances of a monstrous northern pike. My phone will ring that evening, and he will be on the other end, laughing.
Brad Rassler’s writing has appeared in Sierra, Alpinist, Ascent, Outside Online, and other outdoor publications. He and his longtime partner, Jane Grossman, live in the foothills of Nevada’s Carson Range, where they raise neither children nor chickens. Brad is the Editor in Chief of Sustainable Play.