Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Following the Rules

I’m a rule follower. Always have been. Product of my guilt-based Catholic upbringing, I suppose. So when I found myself nose-to-nose with a duck-faced Tennessee submarine, the first thing that popped into my mind was...

Would a noodled musky get me disqualified?

Dave saw the swirl as we sat on the bank enjoying our hard-earned lunch. At least he thought he saw a swirl. Your eyes start playing tricks on you after you’ve spent a day or two scanning the waters behind your chicken-sized streamers for signs of apex predators. But it left enough of an impression that we quickly wolfed down the remnants of our sandwiches, chugged the last of our beers, and rowed across the creek to check it out. Shallow water with a couple of deadfalls. The kind of water from which we’d moved a few fish throughout the morning. Since Dave was the one who saw the swirl he got the first shot, dropping a popper against the bank and splashing it noisily home. Nothing. Pitched it again. Still nothing.

Tom was on the sticks so I sent a streamer into the area, draping it over a submerged trunk that it didn’t clear on retrieve, burying the big stinger deeply into the swollen bark. I couldn’t roll cast it free so we worked our way over, figuring that, by then, the hole was blown. That is, if it had ever been inhabited in the first place. But as I leaned over the gunnels and reached down for the fly, stuck a foot under water, I heard Tom hoot.

Look at that!

I glanced up and saw nothing so returned to my extraction. But as my eyes dropped towards my dangling digits I saw what was causing Tom’s commotion. An arm’s length away, in that shallow foot of water, the object of our search lay suspended, a big one, calmly contemplating my wiggling fingers. Musky grande. Mid-forties, at a minimum, and thick as the tree I was digging my hook out of. Everything stopped except for the hypnotic fluid fanning of the musky’s splayed pectoral fins. He was so close I could grab him.

But would the rules allow it? Did my bare hand fall under the category of fly fishing gear only? It wasn't trolling or chumming. And just how much did I like my fingers? Hell, a fish that big, just how much did I like my arm! But this puppy was, hands-down, the tournament championship for our boat. There was no doubt. The little devil on my shoulder whispered Just win, baby.

Or maybe that was Dave.

But a shiver ran down my spine as I remembered Sister Agnes’s yardstick-enhanced lessons in ethics and I did what a good rule follower would do. I slowly pulled my streamer free of the submerged log, reached out, and plopped it in front of the beastie’s face. We held our breaths as the feathers fluttered to the bottom, settling six inches in front of the our prize winner’s snout.

I swear, the thing grinned. A contemptuous fuck you sort of grin. Then it turned, slid silently under the boat, and disappeared into the deep, green Tennessee waters, thus violating the final and most important rule of the Hardly Strictly Musky tournament.

Don’t Be An Asshole.

But then, I’ve come to learn that musky don’t seem to care much about our rules. Or us in general. So if that's how it's going to be, next year I’m bringing a gaff. Maybe put some hackle on it so nobody notices. Won't look much different than some of the big stuff we're already throwing.

Forgive me, Sister Agnes, for breaking the rules, but musky are straight-up assholes.

Monday, May 8, 2017

That Guy

There's always one. The guy that jumps out of the boat after ten hours in the heat, the cold, the sun, the chop, the wind, the whatever, and grabs his rod to run to the next dock, the adjacent flat, the muddy hole behind the launch, to see what else he can catch. He's the guy that takes the guide aside at the end of the days for extra casting lessons (when, in fact, you'd trade your firstborne for his current stroke). The guy that you have to go looking for when you're packing up to head back to the lodge, though he's easy to find. Just look for water. He's the guy whose fishing day never ends.

You know. That guy.

It's no accident that he fishes your, and everyone else's, socks off, day in and day out. He comes off the water and suggests that he's had a tough day when you know that he slayed them. He's a fish catching machine because he lives it, because he loves it, and you have to tip your favorite fishing hat to that.

You know. That guy.

I love that guy.

For the record, that guy on South Andros was my new bud Nathaniel Riverhorse Nakadate. A mighty fine fisherman, writer, musician, and as unique and entertaining a soul as I've encountered in quite some time. Watch for his work in The Flyfish Journal where he's a regular contributor.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tough Love

I’ve been thrown out of bars. I’ve been thrown out of school. I’ve been thrown out of the house. But I’d never been thrown off a skiff before.

Bring it in. Put on your boots. You’re walkin’ back.

To be honest, I probably deserved it. (I typically come by my expulsions righteously.) I’d blown shot after shot. Torrie had busted his ass to find us fish and I’d screwed it up time and time again.

Eleven o’clock. Eleven! You’re lookin’ nine! Square up on the boat, mon.
Put it in front of the fish. He don’t eat out his tail.
I said forty feet. That’s
[pick any number less than forty].
You don't see those fish? There’s ten of them!
No. You’re OTHER right!

So he dropped me off and he left me. Pushed off with Jason on the bow and headed out into the sprawling flat, instructing me to walk the edge of the mangroves with the sun at my back and keep going. He’d pick me up on that far point, a mile or so out. Maybe.

It had been frustrating, fumbling all those opportunities. Bad line management, poor accommodation for wind, poor fundamentals. I’d stood on the bow at the ready and took deep centering breaths to calm the inner tension but the moment Torrie said “fifty feet, twelve o’clock, moving left,” the yips came tumbling out. And it’s not like I hadn’t done this before. No this-is-my-first-time excuses. I just sucked.

But this humiliation was uncalled for. This being left to slog along, alone, was unjust. It wasn’t right. Yeah, I’d disappointed myself and I felt guilty about disappointing the guide, but this? I walked and felt pissy about it.

But it’s hard to stay mad in the islands, wading along firm sands on a bluebird day in crystalline, emerald-green, shin-deep water. A light breeze filling your nose with the hint of salt and promise. A fly rod in your hand. There’s a reason that the islands are so relaxed. It’s in the air.

The flats seeped in, replacing everything else. The ripple of wind and the reflection of sun made the waters dance and the feeling of isolation comforted me. My tensions slipped away, left in the blue mud trail that extended behind me. All that mattered was the next waft of breeze, the next breath, the next passing cloud. The call of birds and the hush of slow steps in shallow water. I gave in to the place, in to the peace, completely.

They appeared in my peripheral vision. I saw them, not because I was looking for them, but because I wasn’t looking for anything and they were something. Anomalies. Subtle wrinkles in the fabric of the flat. Movement slightly askew from everything else. Two of them.

And before I thought too much about how it happened, my drag was singing and I soon held one of the pair in my hand. A splinter of silver, chipped from the flats, reflecting everything in each perfect mirrored scale. Wet lightning. And as quickly as it had arrived it slipped back into the warm salt, paused for a heartbeat at my feet, and was gone.

Take that, Torrie. I don’t need no stinkin' guide. I can do it myself.

But, I had to admit, I had done everything he’d said. Read the fish as they approached. Put myself and my line in a position to act. Moved the fly when it needed to be moved, stopped it when it needed to be stopped. Closed the deal. I’d been listening. I’d been thinking. But I’d been trying too hard.

So I smiled and waded on, soaking up the day and nicking a fish here and there, each almost as an afterthought to this splendid stroll on the flats. And quicker than I would have liked (though all day wouldn’t have been enough) I caught up with the skiff at the prescribed far point where the guys were digging into the cooler. Before I could say a word, before I could give Torrie a piece of my mind, he looked up from the box, a huge smile on his face, and extended a cold Kalik in my direction.

I been watchin'. Knew you had it, mon. Could see it in you. Just needed some time to yourself to make it right.

He had seen what I was missing and he had given it to me. Not the cast or the vision or the physical act. I needed the headspace to go with those tools. The room to figure it out in the very best way. My way. He'd put me where I could only disappoint myself, knowing that I wouldn't.

The beer tasted damn good.

We finished the day on the boat with a few more close shots, thirty and in, as the tides dropped out. I blew a few of them, but didn’t sweat it that much. Torrie was quiet until he called it a day and watched as I made my wind-em-up cast, clearing the coils on the deck with two leisurely flicks, sending out sixty feet of line, straight as an arrow. Twelve o’clock. No pressure.

I could hear him chuckling from the platform.

Note: Okay. Torrie didn't really throw me off the boat. Pardon a little poetic license. But I was sent in the described direction, on my own, after a frustrating morning. The rest is true, right down to the reason that he sent me off. My deep gratitude and respect goes out to an extraordinary guide, Torrie Bevins of the Andros South Lodge, for recognizing what I needed and making it happen. I look forward to walking the Dirty South with (or without) you again, my friend.

Oh, and pictured at the top of the post is my buddy Steve Duda of The Flyfish Journal who, if I recall correctly, was heading out on a similar walk our second day on Andros South. We jointly agree that wading's the very best way to play this game.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Photo Bin - February 2017

Catching up, here. The February bin is brief. Not much was done with the cameras, or much of anything else, outside of the single significant event of the month.

Thank you, Duke Hospital. She's doing great.

What is a Photo Bin?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Photo Bin - January 2017

To demonstrate how truly disconnected I've been from the usual routines, it's three weeks into March and I'm just getting to the January photo bin. Hell, I don't even remember taking these pictures. Okay, not true. But it feels like it.

At this point, it might have been easy to just let it go but this post kicks off the seventh year of Photo Bins. Blows my mind. A throw-away concept that has stuck around and, let's face it, carried the blog on and off for some time now. The bin makes me good for at least a post a month so I guess that I'd better keep it going.

The shot above is one of those images that comes together through the combination of a little inspiration, a little luck, and a little twist of perception. A big white oak and Carolina blue skies reflected in the salamander pond above the house. Cool stuff.

A standard shot for the January bins - our New Year's gathering of crazies. For nine years running, on the first day of the year, we've gathered at the neighborhood pond and, on the stroke of noon, take a quick bracing plunge. My thanks to buddy Paul for holding my camera for this one. I don't think the image stabilization was good enough to overcome my shivering.

A couple weeks later, the full wolf moon. You can practically hear the howls in the distance.

And it's about time I started wrestling this blog back to its intended purpose. It is, after all, Mike's Gone Fishin' so let's get back to the fishing already. Right? How about we start with the first outing of the year, a quick run north to The Smith, Virgina, and a good day spent bending the 5wt with my buddy Darrin. A nice beginning to the fishing year.

And then a couple of days east, poling the tidal creeks of Swansboro in search of schooling reds. Unfortunately, school was out so we just nicked a few speckled trout and called it a weekend. Tip of the hat to my host Troy for another good outing, fish or no.

Perhaps the best catch of the month, though, was this fine piece of leatherwork handcrafted by my new friend Lee Slikkers. Combines two of my passions into a single unique piece. Lee's a man of many talents so check out his beautiful creations, both leather and bamboo, at www.slikkerssplitcane.com. Fine leather goods and bamboo rods. Don't get no better.

Well, that does it for now. Short and sweet. Catching up. Thanks for your patience. We'll get things going again here soon enough.

I promise.

What is a Photo Bin?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Day After of Hearts

I suppose that an update is in order. It has been a month since my awkward Valentine post, penned as I sat in a surgical waiting room. I left things hanging.

That Day of Hearts we learned that there was indeed arterial blockage. No real surprise, but what we had hoped could be remedied by a simple stent or two turned out to be more complicated than anticipated. My precious Valentine would need bypass surgery. Soon.

A week later she underwent a double Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting procedure, or CABG, the acronym pronounced like the vegetable, conjuring the image of the dense leafy head of lettuce-like consistency nestled in her chest cavity. The term felt awkward for a few days. Pipes were transplanted and rerouted. Her heart, already the most amazing thing I’ve ever encountered, was made an even more of a wonder.

Five days later we were home again and the long road to recovery began. This past month has been about pain and expectation management, two disciplines she should be a master at having lived with me for twenty years. That and soups and casseroles from every direction. More months lie ahead as she heals and prepares for many more Valentines Days to come, but the outlook is bright and a full recovery is expected. She'll be better than new in a whipstitch. 

Fishing, of course, has been set aside for a while as my life is here for the time being. Supporting her as she’s supported me all these years. I’ll sneak away soon enough, but only when I know she’s strong and in good hands. There’ll be time. This blog will resume before too long. I promise.

What’s important right now is that my Day of Hearts wish came true. That the only heart I that I wanted is still mine.

And will be for quite a while longer.

I must extend my profound thanks to family, friends, and neighbors who were here for us in any way that we might have needed. Without them... Your ongoing support is appreciated more than you can imagine. We are blessed by your presence in our lives. We thank you from the bottom of our, well, you know.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Day of Hearts

Today is a day of hearts. Frilly paper ones, professing undying Hallmark devotion. Floral ones, by the dozen, care of Cupid’s weary delivery boys. Culinary ones, consumed in a collective conflagration of candlelit tableaus. But the only heart that I am concerned with today is that which beats in her breast, for, as you read this, I am probably sitting in a surgical waiting room while she’s being prepped for a cardiac catheterization. Waiting. Worrying. My own heart, hurting.

She works harder than I do. At everything. Not because she has to, but because it's who she is. She's a wonder. But lately, as she’s busied herself about, she’s been feeling some discomfort that a stress test has determined to be probable arterial blockage. Given her family history, it’s no surprise, but it’s stunning just the same. I was supposed to be on a plane for Abaco this week, but the doctor’s pointed use of the phrase “without delay” changed all that. I sit here instead, no regrets, happy that we've gotten out in front of this and scared all the same. February 14th has new meaning.

So there's no elaborate cards, or flowers, or romantic dinners this particular day of hearts. It's become quite simple.

The only heart that I want is hers.

Monday, January 30, 2017


I had the great pleasure, the other day, of having lunch with the man who was a great resource and influence for me as I got back into fly fishing, some 20 years ago, and who later encouraged me to begin writing about it. It had been too long since we'd last gotten together and I was thrilled to see him doing well. As we parted, he called me over to his car and handed me this well-loved Pflueger 1492. There's no telling how many trout it had connected with over the years, but, knowing him, a lot.

The next day he sent me a link to a webpage that showed the history and progression of these Medalists, challenging me to identifying its age. It's just like him to not simply give me something, but to also make me reach, to teach me something with it; a gift more valuable than the reel itself. I owe the man more than he'll ever know, as do many who he's mentored over the years, fly fishing and otherwise. We should all have such positive role models in our lives.

And, Frank, it's a 1959. Thank you...

... for everything.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Photo Bin - December 2016

Hello. Remember me? I used to post around here every now and then.

Lots of excuses for my absence, none good. The holidays, not fishing enough, the distraction of guitars and travel and winter colds. Piddly stuff. But, in truth, the slowdown has been long-running. Were it not for these photo bins, the blog would be barren. Funny, as photography is far from my strong point. It's a source for talking points, however, so it seems as good a way as any to get started again.

The holidays raced by, and crawled at the same time. We spent the better part of two weeks on the road, north, starting with a family gathering in what I affectionately call the frozen tundra, Mary's sister's house in Indiana. It was a grey and frigid visit, this time, in stark contrast to our visit of just a couple of months earlier.

Luckily, whatever the weather, it's always warmed from inside by family in abundance.

From Indiana it was on to Chicago for the week before Christmas. I am fascinated by the city this time of year. Downtown is alight like a Christmas tree, though the dark expanses in the highrises show just how many folks escape to the 'burbs or places elsewhere (warm?) for the holidays.

Thankfully, the blues dives keep hoppin'. Cheery watering holes, made more so by the festivity of the season. If you've gotta have the blues at Christmas, here's the place to have them.

After spending time with family, my favorite thing during these holiday visits is to sneak out after the grandkids have gone off to bed and wander the residential streets of Old Town, particularly on Christmas Eve. Like the highrises, the normally parked-up streets are empty as folks have escaped the city, and the quiet, semi-dark avenues are a delight to walk along. A different experience for this southern country boy.

So there you have it. I'm back on the board again, post-wise, but there's plenty of catching up to do. Hell, it's almost time for another bin. We'll see if I can't do better than that in the coming weeks.

No promises.

But then, you knew that.

What is a Photo Bin?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Photo Bin - November 2016

This month's photo bin is a bit of a departure, although, given the slippery nature of these things, it's difficult to define exactly what it's departing from. Doesn’t matter. Truth is, a significant piece of my past came to an end last month and I’m feeling a bit melancholy about it. The bin seems as good a place as any to pout.

To a large degree, I grew up in the place. Not your typical incubator, a bowling alley, but it was mine from the age of eleven. I spent my happy time there, every Saturday morning, in junior bowling league. We learned to compete. We learned to be good teammates. We learned that kicking the ball return was bad form. We learned to be ready when it was our turn. We learned that throwing harder wasn’t necessarily better. We learned to make adjustments in increments - five boards on the approach, three at the arrows – both a lesson in geometry and a life strategy, though on occasion you had to scrap it all and let it rip from deep inside. We learned to cope with winning and to handle losing, perhaps our most important lessons.

When I could drive, I began to bowl in the adult leagues and I learned the same lessons all over again, but in different contexts. I scrubbed my first fender in the underground parking lot. I went to the university across the street while participating in leagues three nights a week and working three others, tucked behind the pinsetters, fixing ball returns, clearing 180s and deck jams, re-spotting foul-fallen pins and pretending to study my calculus in between calls.

I got my only A, those first three disastrous semesters, in a PE bowling class. I called the instructor's bluff on the first day and picked off, cleanly, a ten pin, then a seven, and upon re-rack buried a strike. He penciled the grade in and that was that; the highlight of my academic career.

I left the university, for a while, but not the lanes. I met my first serious girlfriend there. I met my first wife. My boys slept soundly in their portable bassinettes to the lullabies of crashing pins and ran the concourse as soon as they were mobile. We just let them go, knowing that they were safe and that growing up there was good.

I threw a 300, August 10th, 1987 (it says so on my ring), back when a 300 meant something. Only the second in the house’s then thirty-year history. Back before the days of perfect urethane surfaces, blocked oil patterns, and space age bowling balls. Old school lacquered wooden lanes and beastly Brunswick machines built by the Otis Elevator Company. Back when anyone over the age of five put three fingers in the ball. I threw it on lanes 11 and 12, a pair that I’d never really cared for. To this day, nearly thirty years later, I can account for every moment from the eighth strike on.

The place was my haven for thirty years, but life changes and I let it slip away for other things. In truth, lots from that time has slipped away, I’m afraid. But I’ve always known it was there. Now it’s not.

Progress is a beast that preys on the old and the weak. An ancient alley, wood and old iron, ultimately gives way to our society’s insatiable need to consume. There’ll soon be a new, sterile Target for the college kids to buy their “stuff” in place of that touchstone for a number of generations.

The doors closed on November 28th. I went back one last time, the day before. Business had ceased, but the place was filled with folks, like me, coming back to remember. Most milled around the approaches, the lanes, the concourse. I snuck into the back, behind the machines, and sat for a while…

…feeling right at home at Western Lanes, once again.

Thanks, Mary, for this shot.

What is a Photo Bin?