Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Kid

I watched through the drizzle as the small herd edged closer to our bird feeders and to Mary’s beloved forsythia. They’re a bold bunch here, not terribly afraid of my shouting or waving, but wary enough to walk away should I physically infringe too far into their personal deer space. Already low on sunflower and with the forsythia’s early blooms looking tasty, I resigned myself to another soggy intercession and reached for my muck boots.
But before I could slide into the galoshes, the herd, as one, lifted their heads and peered into the woods just outside of my view, around the corner of the house. There was no tension in their posture, as might be caused by a coyote or stray dog, but, instead, a wary interest. I, too, paused to see what played out. But several minutes passed with the herd’s distraction unwavering, so, tired of waiting, I walked through the house to an east-facing window to see what was holding their attention. It was The Kid.
I’ve spotted The Kid a handful of times as he’s limped through the woods, his malformed right foreleg hanging loosely as he forages. He’s a young spike buck with either a birth defect or an early injury that’s arrested his peg’s development, leaving it several inches shorter than its counterpart and with questionable sturdiness. I’ve seen him attempt to use it for support but once, while bending low to root in the leaves for food, and it wasn’t pretty.
As he approached, the herd (a collection of does and yearlings) began to move slowly away, in time with his awkward advance. They wanted nothing to do with him. As to whether their rejection was due to his gender or his disability, I cannot say, but I anthropomorphized it as both. He’s always alone.
I love observing the wildlife here, but it’s the unfortunates that really take my heart. Last summer it was a house finch whose limited flight was painful to watch, day in and day out. Like The Kid, the bird was perpetually shunned. I think that’s what affects me most deeply here of late. More than their imperfection, their isolation. Life’s hard enough when one can’t fly well or is hobbled profoundly, but to be left an outlier for it is cruel and beyond my understanding. It’s one of nature’s brutal truths, I can’t deny, survival of the fittest, but it’s difficult to swallow. I feel their loneliness.  
As the herd melted back into the woods and The Kid continued towards the house, I slid the muck boots back under the desk. I wouldn’t be chasing him away as I would have the others, even if he eyed the forsythia. And after some thought I stood by the window, quietly, where he could see me, hoping he might get used to my presence; that he might have some company, odd as that seems. At my appearance he paused and considered my intrusion for a moment, then resumed his clumsy march to the feeders, scattering the mourning doves as he arrived. 

Monday, June 8, 2020

The House Finch

I’ve grown attached to the little guy, a regular at the feeder for the past month or so. You might wonder how I can tell this particular house finch from the swarms of others that come and go from this station, but he’s not hard to pick out. There’s something not right with him.

At first glance I thought him a fledgling, small, just out of the nest and not entirely into his wings. But as he’s come and gone over the ensuing weeks his movement has never improved. There’s no glide in his flight. He struggles to stay in the air, moving in short, frenetic bursts, forward and upward a foot or two, falling back half of it, and repeating until he slowly works his way to his next uncertain perch. More butterfly than bird. I walk faster than he can fly. But he gets there, usually. It’s not clear whether his impairment is physical or neurological but staying airborne seems terribly hard work and it breaks my heart to watch. For him, it’s supposed to be effortless.

He must roost close by, somewhere at the edge of the woods that surround our house, for he’s clearly incapable of long distances. And he’s always alone as the other finches shun him, even chase him away from the feeder which is hard to watch. Surprisingly, he’s not intimidated by the bigger birds – the doves, the cardinals, the woodpeckers of various sizes - that come and go as he sits at his meal. He’s even tolerant of my presence as he's the last to flee when I approach to replenish the seed. He takes to the air only when I get within arm’s length. I interpret this as courage, but it may be that flight is so difficult that, despite the fear, he avoids it until there’s no other option. I suppose there’s a fine line between the two, if one at all.

He seems happy enough, though, sitting for long stretches at the limitless flow of safflower. He’s a sympathetic little fellow and for him I’m careful to keep the hopper full. I worry that he won’t be around for long.

At first, I assumed that my attachment was purely compassionate, that I felt sorry for this poor little creature and his handicap. But as these difficult Covid weeks have passed, I’ve come to realize that there’s more to it than that; that we’re birds of a feather, this finch and I. My flight, like his, is impaired; my range also limited by circumstance. We now both stay close to our feeders, leaving them only when absolutely necessary, invoking that odd mix of courage and fear. We are each removed from our breed. And, at the end of the day, I’m concerned for both of our futures.

Poor little house finch. I wonder if he dreams of soaring. I know that I do.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Elephant

No one will look at the elephant. No one will speak of it though it sits just outside the front window of the Dalwhinnie, all gray and dank and dour, staring in at us as we gather for breakfast. Heads down in our eggs, our coffee, our phones, we try to ignore it, knowing full well that every man around the table knows that it’s out there and that knowledge is killing us. There’s talk, but it’s small. Inconsequential. A mouse next to the brooding beast that drips outside the glass. Even the eye contact among us is fleeting, lest the elephant be reflected in our glance for others to see.

We know what the elephant wants. It wants our submission. It wants our surrender. It wants to come in and sit down on us, to crush us under its massive flanks, to envelope us in its forlornness, its despair, its gray void. It wants to take away our Beaver Island fishing day.

Kevin says that there’s one thing worse than missing a day on the Lake Michigan carp flats due to the weather and that’s dying in his boat. At our core we know this, but we are slow to give in to the inevitability. The longer we can ignore the creature just outside the window the longer the carnival can go on. So we each pretend that the elephant’s not there and wait for someone else to break the glass. We sit, the six of us, and hold our breaths, knowing that eventually the beast will get what it wants but not wishing to be the first to give it the satisfaction.

In the end it’s done for us. A passing local casually asks “You guys going fishing in this stuff?” and with that the great gray pachyderm waltzes in the thrown open door on twenty-knot winds, jumps up on the table, and does a pirouette on the paper napkin dispenser. We all look up, first at the local, then at the elephant, and Steve dispatches them both with a short, simple “No.” The tension is released like a midway balloon at the end of the water shoot game and the elephant disappears before it can get a proper gloat on.

We breathe again, and start thinking about tomorrow and the next act.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fragments: Actual Fishing

Contrary to the run of play around here, this is a fishing blog. I suppose that a Fragments from the water should be included. Stay wet, my friends.

Q: So, Kevin, what makes a good carp flat?
A: Carp
Beaver Island, MI, June 2015

They were rising like porpoises in the Pipeline. Big, fat Elk River cutthroats. To what we weren’t sure but the first red-assed ant we floated through there got hammered so the game was on. Now, there’s no way there’d be ants riding that torrent, but the red-asses looked enough like something else to work so we went with it. - Elk River, BC, June 2014

“Technical.” “Presentation.” Scary words after four days of fat, stupid cutthroats on hoppers. - Missouri River, MT, June 2014

First fish in Alaska, a robust four-inch rainbow. Outstanding. - Agulapak River, AK, August 2015

An hour flight to the coast, slightly upstream, looking like tidal marshes of North Carolina but for the mountains on the near horizon. Nicked silvers as they came into the fresh water, sea lice still attached and bright as a new dime. Hooked up on my second strip and all hell broke loose. Flexed the Scott all day long. James said fifity fish. He might be right, though I stopped counting at three. - Bristol Bay, AK, August 2015

I couldn’t set a hook to save my life. A fish needed to be suicidal, impale himself on the fly for me to stay buttoned. Thankfully, cutthroat can be like that sometimes. - Caribou-Targhee National Forest, ID, August 2018

When you’re a rookie on the flats it’s hard to discern between not being able to see fish and there not being fish to see. - Long Island, Bahamas, June 2013

Grayling in numbers, a few rainbows, colored up silvers, a sockeye, and a lake trout. A variety on flesh and bead. Should have gone to the strike indicator earlier but James insisted on calling it a bobber and I couldn’t bring myself to it. - Wood-Tikchik State Park, AK, Sept 2015

Monday, March 11, 2019

Fragments: Alaskan Airspace

The journal entries from my Fall 2015 adventure in Alaska are rife with references to flying. They deserve a Fragments of their own. In chronological order:

As comforting as it is to have your gear with you, carrying on a rod case has its downfalls. You have to listen to everyone’s fishing stories at each gate.

7:30am - Sitting on the tarmac at RDU. “We have a minor maintenance item. Shouldn’t take too long.” Yeah, we’ll see. Visions of missed connections dance through my brain. I knew the day had started too well, skating through TSA as I did. Like catching a fish on the first cast.
7:35am – Rolling again. Just the gods tugging at my ragged edges. They do that when I fly.

I’m toast, though the sun has not yet set. I’ve gained four hours as I’ve flown to the west and I feel the weight of them.

Tantalizing peaks as we fly from Anchorage to Dillingham and seat 5F is a window. Unfortunately, it looks straight into the engine cowling of our SAAB 340. Shit. I get a good, brief view as we bank hard to the north but I don’t have the camera ready. As it turns out, the mountains are just getting started. But so are the clouds. There’s no winning.

There’s talk of the president’s arrival at the small Alaskan airstrip in Dillingham. Big news. Concerns about folks who live in the bush not knowing about the visit and trying to fly their small aircraft in for supplies. No radios, no warning. What to do? Escort with F15s? Shoot them down? It’s a worry.

Flying has been a bit of a nightmare for me. My Baja debacle two years ago (mostly of my own doing) got that ball rolling. Commercial flying is no fun anymore. At the mercy of the airlines. Delays, packed planes, tight connections or long layovers. Flying the Beavers gets rid of all that. Delays are elemental, quite literally; understood and more easily tolerated, and the flying is at levels that let you appreciate the world. Closer to the real.

I've been here but two days and I’d happily put down the fly rods and just soar for the rest of the week. Black spruce, juniper, birch, scrub willow, alder, fireweed, caribou moss, salmon and crowberries. The Autumn tundra is stunning when viewed from a De Havilland.

After flying back through iffy weather in the tiny puddlejumper, we prepare to load into the ground transportation for our return to the Dillingham airstrip and our departure for home.
Now comes the dangerous part of the trip.”
Statistically speaking?
Yeah, but not just that. Look at this VAN.
I see his point.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Fragments: On the Road

More of the Fragments series. Miscellaneous excerpts from my journals. Today, realizations that fishing travel is not without it's challenges.

3:30am. Alarm rings. Seems like I just closed my eyes. Probably did. But we need to hit the road north for our early flight out of San Antonio. Where’s your ruby slippers when you fucking need them? - South Padre Island, TX, April 2012

Four guys standing in front of the airport at 2am. Piles of gear. Crammed into a cab for the Days Inn at the truck stop. Crashed hard. Hotel at the intersection of interstate and industry. Woke to the sound of diesels. Shuttle back to the airport for our rentals, less than four hours after our arrival. Toasted already and we've just gotten started. - Missoula, MT, August 2014

The ferry is a roller coaster. Attendants running back and forth with crisp white barf bags, both empty and full. The Polish couple behind us is playing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” on their cell phone. We all hope to God that she’s right. - Culebra, Puerto Rico, March 2015

Flew out of Raleigh at dawn. By 1:00 I'm nicking drum off the pier while waiting for the others to arrive. Buzzed on Kaliks by 4:00. Damn fine start for the week. - Abaco, Bahamas, February 2016

Destination fishing is not all sun and hookups. If you can’t find a way to enjoy yourself with your mates or the locale on a crap day, save your money and stay home. - Dulac, LA, January 2018

Hitting the wall on day seven. The roomy SUV that comfortably held the four of us has shrunk to clown car proportions. But I’ve been here before and know that it’s just something I have to push through. An inevitable part of the road trip cycle. So I grit my teeth and try not to lose it. Hang on tightly to my last nerve. By day eight it’s all good again and will stay that way. But, on day seven, I seriously hate my fishing partners - Location and time withheld to save a few friendships

Kilometers, not miles. Goddamn I always forget. - Fernie, BC, August 2014

Monday, March 4, 2019

Fragments: Self Awareness

More of the Fragments series. When reading back through old travel journals I regularly stumble onto things that shine a light into the dusty dark corners of my "self." Here's a handful that do just that, whether I like it or not.

The truth is too precious to be beaten to death for such trivial narratives. I might forget some things or the facts might not quite fit the point, so, for expediency, I’ll just make them up. But don’t worry. They’ll be true enough. - McAllen, TX, May 2014

What do you do?” I’m never sure how to answer that. I’m retired? I fish? I write, though not professionally or seriously? The real answer is probably “I do nothing” but that’s harsh, both as a response and a confession. - Anchorage, AL, August 2015

Destination fishing trips only seem real while I’m in them. Not before. Not after. They’re a slice out of time, completely disconnected from the bulk of my life, but they teach me a bit about my life. Each trip seems to have a lesson. What lesson will this one bring? - Dillingham, AL, August 2015

Saturday night sick. Too many Kaliks, too much fried conch, a splash (or three) of Kahlua on ice. It all didn’t mix. Sat hugging the toilet thinking “What if I die here?” I seem to have that thought often on these trips, though seldom for this reason. - Abaco, Bahamas, February 2016

Headed out for Box Canyon. Snowing. Wet, nasty snow. Two weeks ago I was in the Bahamas, standing on the bow of a skiff under brilliant blues skies and warm, tropical breezes. At home, today, it’s 85. What the hell am I doing here? I know where I belong. And where I don’t. - Last Chance, Idaho, April 2017

I’ve decided that I’m not a particularly entertaining fishing partner. An observer rather than a participant, if that makes any sense. - Beaver Island, MI, June 2017

My father was the next thing to a hermit but on rare occasions he loved to be out. To visit. He was the life of the party but often in ways he did not intend or recognize. He was a one-off but did it with great enthusiasm. I suspect that I’m more like him than I'd care to admit. - Pittsboro, NC, date unknown

Lesson #3: Pack duct tape. I always break something. - Craig, MT, April 2017

Note: My thanks go out to my big brother, Chris Hunt, for the image at the top of this post, taken as we kicked around in the light surf off the back porch of the house we rented just outside of Nassau back in 2013. In truth, I have much, much more to thank him for than that. Get back on your feet soon, bud. There's more fishin' to be done.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Fragments: Craig, MT - Aug 2014

It exists for only one purpose. Trout. It wouldn't be here without them.

An easy vibe, older gents in their Simms and Patagonia puffies and quick-dries; younger wearing the same but somehow making it look different. Hats, sunglasses hung around necks. Three fly shops, a restaurant, a bar, a takeout breakfast. And cabins. Talk at Headhunters and Isaac's is easy and jovial. Everyone’s been or is going fishing so what’s there to complain about?

Mornings are abuzz with the comings and goings of drift boats. Anticipation of a big day. Whether it’s realized or not it’s all good, or it should be.

Big portions for big appetites. Dogs come and go everywhere making it a good place by my reckoning.

The world is away. Cell phone and wifi signals are scarce so you quickly get used to being disconnected, adding a small melancholy based in shared loneliness. An isolation.

At the bunkhouse:
“Got room for three people?”
“What kind of people?”

Do any other kind come to Craig?

Note: Not much going on, either here on the blog or out on the water. To jumpstart these pages I've taken to leafing through my ragged pile of old travel journals and attempting to decipher the barely legible notes scribbled within them. Low hanging fruit for a writer on the rebound. This, then, starts a series of brief Fragments. Unedited passages originating from hither and yon that might have evolved into something but were ultimately left to languish in their moleskines. Raw material relegated to musings, word pictures, and random odd thoughts. Unconsidered, undeveloped, unread fragments.

Until now.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Mike's Gone Missin'...

No one’s seen him ‘round these parts in months, nigh on a year. Not since McMinnville. Some say those Tennessee backwaters swallowed him up whole or that a big mama musky ate him as a snack, the bony little bastard. Others claim he’s giggin' with some skanky blues band, touring the dive bars and low places along the Gulf coast for gas money and beer. Getting thrown out of most. And there’s a lady in Pittsboro that swears he’s off working on the next Great American Novel. But, let’s face it, if he’s writing it ain't on no novel. More likely he’d be stuck in an endless editing loop on an obscure six hundred-word piece, hoping some fly fishing mag might lower their standards, just enough.

Sure, there have been sightings. Unsubstantiated, of course. Odd trickles of reports. Idaho. Michigan. The Louisiana marshlands and south Georgia swamps. Then there's the quiet suggestions that the fishin’s been shit around his home waters for so long that he’s given up the sport entirely - and with it, his soul. Who knows? One thing’s for sure. Wherever he’s been, it hasn’t been here. This blog's been silent as a tomb.

But lately, there have been whispers…

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Musky Math

Musky. The fish of ten-thousand casts. Fact or fiction? Actuality or self-delusive justification for our hours of failure? Truth or elegant lie that we tell ourselves because we suck at catching the bastards?

Let's look at the numbers.

Actually, before we dig into the math, we ought to examine the premise that these fish really do exist and that they are not the part of the formula that requires proof. Admit it, many of us have never seen one in the flesh, despite how long we've been chasing them. They're sort of like dividing by zero. They make no sense.

A quick Google of the word "musky" (well, of the word "muskellunge" as "musky" sends us down internet paths we'd rather not follow) leads us to the species esox masquinongy and to pictures (mostly drawings, actually, which should make us slightly suspicious) of the large, toothy critters we have all imagined someday catching. Since anything we find on the web is true (and especially indubitable since the term is in unpronounceable Latin), I think we can safely assume that somewhere such a creature exists. Probably swimming right next to its cousin the mermaid.

So, having established that musky are in fact real, we can safely begin to pursue this whole ten-thousand cast business. But how? While John Gierach's recent statement that "all fisherman are liars" may be a bit on the harsh side, you must agree that relying on anecdotal data from this particular population is more than a bit sketchy. We need to find a finite, quantifiable, confirmable set of data on which to test this whole postulation.

Luckily, I have such a dataset. The 2018 Hardly Strictly Musky tournament. This past weekend I and host of other hopeful anglers spent a few days chasing our obsession on a handful of western Tennessee watersheds. The numbers were quantifiable. The tournament duration was set, the participants registered, and all catches were reported and fully documented with photographic evidence. From this, then, we can begin making our calculations.

Let’s start with the anglers. Ninety, to be exact. Ninety chasers of the holy grail. Ninety Don Quixotes.

90 anglers

The tournament itself was held over a period of two days.

90 anglers X 2 days = 180 fishing days

But wait, it’s not quite that simple. A large number of the anglers arrived a day early and hit the rivers. Some to scout for the upcoming competition, some to test out their gear, but most just to enjoy a day on the water because, well, why not? Let’s assume that a third of the ninety anglers did this.

180 fishing days + (90/3) fishing days = 210 fishing days

Now, a Hardly Strictly Musky fishing day is a long day, physically and mentally, because you’re fishing for musky which means that you’re working your ass off for essentially a lost cause. Starting times varied widely across the subjects. Some hit the boatramp at daybreak. Others chose to get a leisurely gas station or Smoke House biscuit. More than a few were delayed by their slowly diffusing inebriation. Let’s average it out at, say, 8:00am. Most everyone finished up about 5:00 as the evening festivities commenced at 6:30, confirmed by the simultaneous clusterfuck of boats at the major takeouts. Let’s call it nine hours, minus an hour for lunch.

210 fishing days X 8 hours = 1,680 fishing hours

An adjustment needs to be made here as a large number of the boats in play were drift boats, effectively taking the rod out of one of the angler’s hands so that he could man the sticks. You’d think that would be a bad thing, being the rower, but after a couple of hours slinging a wet sock around on 450 grain sinking line with an 11wt, manhandling a cranky boat feels like a nap. Let’s conservatively estimate that at any given time 20% of the participants were “resting”.

1,680 fishing hours x .8 rowing adjustment = 1,344 fishing hours

Let’s then figure that a single cast and retrieve takes less than a minute. At a constant rate that means 80, maybe 90 casts an hour. Of course, we’re all not machines and time out is required for sips of beer, lamentations, and the occasional retrieval of flies from streamside vegetation. Let’s play it safe and call it 60.

1,344 fishing hours x 60 casts/hour = 80,640 casts

Now, we really should consider that this particular population deviates from the norm. Yes, I know anyone who goes fishing for musky with anything less than dynamite, much less a fly rod, must deviate from the norm, but that’s a psychological study, not a mathematical one and we’ll set that aside for the time being. For our purposes, the statistical deviation I refer to is that there exists in this dataset a large percentage of fishermen who have chased these beasties for some time and have established a certain elevated level of expertise. It might even be safe to say that they are twice as likely to catch one than the average angler. Let’s be uber-conservative, however, and say that they have an extra 25% of a chance.

80,640 casts x 1.25 expert factor = 100,800 casts

Here’s where the tournament data saves us. We know exactly how many fish were caught. Exactly. No one claimed to have caught a fish on the practice day and you can bet that if anyone did, everyone would have heard about it. Believe me. You wouldn't hear where, but you'd know one had been caught.

Eight fish were caught on Day 1 of the tournament. Two were boated on Day 2.

Ten fish total.

That’s right. Ten.

100,800 casts / 10 fish caught = 10,800 casts to catch one goddam musky

Now, these numbers are preliminary and there's a wide variety of other factors that might be considered. Moon positioning. Competitive juices. The HSM hangout/hangover factor. But we’ll not mess with them in this first pass. They would just be minor puts and takes in these calculations and my head hurts enough already. Besides, we got where we wanted to go.

Proof. Fact. Musky. The fish of ten-thousand casts.

Thanks, Hardly Strictly Musky, for bearing out the numbers.