Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Down the Rabbit Hole
“Be sure to bring your headlamp.”
It was an odd instruction given that I was to meet him at noon. Everything else he’d suggested – sturdy boots, rugged clothes, large dark streamers – made sense.
“And a 7 or 8wt. But it needs to be short.”
I’ve visited a lot of odd places with Troy. He has a knack for finding local out-of-the-way fish and figuring out how to catch them. Landlocked stripers in Jordan, gars with rope flies on the Neuse, bowfin cruising those out-of-the-way Durham floodplain impoundments, contraband carp from golf courses unnamed. Not your classic fly fishing fare, but never boring and always for targets with some kick. So when he suggests that we try something new, I don’t ask anymore. I just go.
I’d been bitching all week about how cold our streams still ran, delaying the late March white bass run and keeping the largemouths’ lips locked up tight. I’d had enough winter trout (enough goddam nymphing) and was itching to get the warmwater season going. Troy’s call was a ray of hope.
“There’s something we’ve got to go do.”
We met, the next day, just a stone’s throw from downtown Raleigh, behind a long, single-story brick building occupied by two hair salons, a nail parlor, and a dingy old laundromat. Beyond the back lot, where the stylists parked, the ground fell away to a trickle, barely wet, one of the many small creeks that interlace the capitol and ultimately coalesce to find their way to the Neuse.
We rigged and I noticed that Troy didn’t have his usual gear. His favorite Orvis was replaced by a stubby off-brand stick, thick in the butt and no more than six feet in length. My 7’10” bass rod seemed huge.
We dropped to the water below our parked trucks and, to my surprise, turned upstream, not down, towards the Volkswagon dealership and the heart of the city, shortly arriving at a small muddy pool below a culvert that burrowed under Wake Forest Road. Sunfish, I thought, or maybe a few small Roanokes. Pretty dull stuff and a waste of an 8wt. I’d hoped for more.
But Troy didn’t stop at the pool. Instead, he climbed along its littered edge and hoisted himself into the opening.
“What are you waiting for?”
I followed, though not easily as the rough-edged culvert extended a couple of feet above and out over the stream, and shuffled along behind him, beneath the roadway, head bowed and back bent in the four-foot space, all the while wondering why we hadn’t just climbed to the surface to cross. An easier portage, it seemed, than going underneath.
But Troy stopped mid-tunnel, switched on his headlamp, and turned left into an opening that I had not yet seen; a passage that ran parallel, and under, the roadway median, accessed through an old steel grate door that Troy opened with no small effort. I followed him through the gate, down a handful of steep cement steps that ended at the lip of a hole into which a ladder descended; iron wrungs imbedded into the concrete sides of a ten foot drop. At the bottom, another pipe.
It’s not easy, traveling down a four-foot conduit with nothing but a headlamp. Even without claustrophobic tendencies, it’s unnerving; never mind managing a fly rod in such tight quarters. But Troy pushed on, unfazed, as the pitch of our tunnel turned downward, to the right, and the sound of mid-day surface traffic gave way to the quiet white noise of the shallow water flowing between our feet.
After a couple of turns and what seemed an eternity, Troy stopped, leaned forward to put down his rod, worked his way around to face me, and reached into his pocket to pull out a small puck-shaped container.
“You’ll want this. Under your nose.”
He twisted open the puck and I flashed back fifty years. Nightmarish memories of childhood colds, remedied by undershirts plastered to my chest with this putrid petroleum product. Vicks Vapor Rub. No thanks. I’d rather be forced to fish bluegill the rest of my days.
He stuck his finger in the glop, smeared a wad into his sparse mustache, and inched back around. We continued on, shortly to turn at another crossing pipe and it quickly became clear why he'd suggested the rub. The smell was awful. Sewer meets garbage meets dead rotting flesh, emanating from a cavernous junction in the city’s old drainage system. But it was better than the Vicks.
“This street kid told me about it. We help at the soup kitchen. When he heard that I fished…”
I squeezed up beside him at the end of the pipe and looked out into the space. The far side was not discernable in the weak light of our headlamps, but Troy thought it was no more than sixty feet, and perforated, like swiss cheese, with other pipes and culverts, both inlets and out. Below us, perhaps four feet, was a concrete floor that sloped into black water, the surface of which held all manner of unidentifiable flotsam. The place had an uncomfortable clamminess accentuated by the smell. I couldn’t fathom what we were doing there...until fifteen feet out something swirled.
“Don’t know what it is. The kid doesn’t either. But to live down here... Gotta be badass.”
What flashed in my head was the scene from Star Wars - down the Death Star prison garbage chute. Luke and Han and Chewy and The Princess, bobbing about in the junk while something horrific swam below them, tickling their feet.
Troy chuckled at the reference and dropped down from the pipe.
I waited above for there wasn’t much room on “the shore.” And even in old clothes I was reluctant to get too close to the mess. I’d stink for days. But Troy never flinched.
“Third time’s a charm, big boy. I’ve brought the meat today.”
He’d already been down here twice?
And when he said “meat” he meant it. A huge deerhair sculpin, the size of a sewer rat, black, with a 2/0 stinger in the head and a second in the tail, both weedless to get through the trash. Mousing simply wasn't enough.
If I had to bet my life on a man catching a fish, I’d bet on Troy. Some folks just have the knack. They may not be pretty or sophisticated or have all the flash gear, but they know how to outsmart a fish. All you have to do is watch for a moment and you’ll see it.
He squatted at the edge of the effluence and watched for another swirl. He was poised as for bonefish, sculpin in his left hand, the fly line’s head out of the rod tip, ready for a quick hauling roll and shoot. That’s all the room he had, anyway. Troy looked like a heron, stoically waiting.
And waiting. I began to wonder if the swirl I’d seen was an illusion. If it was the exotic effect of toxic fumes finding their way through my un-vapor-rubbed nose and penetrating deep into my brain. But just as I’d decided that this was all insanity, there was a ripple at the edge of our visibility and Troy took his shot.
The huge streamer landed, with a splat, just out of lamp range and a foot to the left of the disturbance. Troy gave it an immediate pop strip and then paused. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing, until some nearby trash bobbed, ever so subtly. Troy twitched his rod tip with an equivalent genteelness.
All hell broke loose.
Trash and dark water exploded. Troy gave a mighty strip-set and his reel started screaming; reverberating eerily in the small concrete space. Fly line flew out like it was tied to a Ferrari. Forty, fifty, sixty feet. Beyond the bounds of our small dark enclosure. The beast, in his madness, had gone down an outflow and kept right on going.
In an instant he was into the backing and, without hesitation, Troy did what any good fisherman would do. He followed. He pointing his rod after the fleeing prey, ducked his head, and ran splashing through trash down the rabbit hole. In a wink he was gone.
It took my heart a moment to stop pounding and my brain a bit longer to sort out what had happened. But when it all went quiet I found myself alone in the dark, listening as Troy’s awkward footfalls echoed softly into the indeterminate distance. And when I finally started breathing again there was only the sound of lapping water and floating garbage rubbing against the sides of the cistern.
I called, but heard no response beyond my own echoes. I waited.
Time looses its hold when it’s deep under ground. In the dark, the seconds and minutes get lost, turn back on themselves, and wander helplessly about. I waited ten minutes, or three hours, it might have been either.
Troy didn’t return.
I needed to move, to find my friend, to get the hell out of there. I needed to locate somebody who could help. I tried to retrace our steps but in the vast drainage maze my sense of direction came undone. Always go up, I eventually decided, and followed anything with a positive pitch until I began to hear the sound of tires on pavement and saw pencils of light that, as I got closer, illuminated another wrought iron ladder. It led up, thank you God, to a manhole; a manhole that emerged on the sidewalk of Salisbury Street, downtown Raleigh, two miles from the hair salons.
I pushed open the cover and crawled out to the pavement as onlookers stared. Ignoring them, I pulled out and unwrapped from its plastic baggie my cell phone, intending to call 911. As it searched for a network I wondered what to say. They’d think I was crazy and, given what we’d been doing, they were probably right. The connection happened quickly, there in the heart of the city, but before I called Emergency and made a fool of myself, I threw a Hail Mary. I called Troy. No answer. More desperate, I texted.
Where are you?
To my surprise and great relief, the “typing” icon immediately popped up. He was safe! He was responsive! A rush of questions flooded my brain. Did he land the beast? What was the damn thing? Did he get a picture? Was he back at the trucks and could he come here to get me?
But the joy was sort-lived. The typing stopped and the message was delivered.
him gone u come bak bring mor meeet
Photo Credits: I wish I could claim these images. Instead, I enlisted my good friend, the uber-talented Thomas Harvey, to help me create something unusual. What he came up with simply blows me away. Thanks, bud. This stuff is badass.
Oh. And happy April 1st.