Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Photo Bin - April 2015

People. As has been recently noted, Mary says I don't put enough of them in my photographs. She's usually right about such things (a most troublesome characteristic, I assure you) so I'll try to do better in this month's bin. Pictures with people...

I'll start with a goodbye, of sorts, though hopefully a temporary one. Out of the blue, last summer, Tim Shulz dropped me a note of introduction from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, relaying that he would be coming south to the Triangle on a several month sabbatical, and wondered if I might share some local fishing intel. Instead of simply advising, we shared a number of waterways (and a brew or two) during his relocation, including a fine couple of days last week on the Davidson.

And since I'm also bad about depicting fish in my images, above is evidence of Tim's fishing prowess. One of those monster Davidson browns. Good thing you got him early, buddy. In a few years he'd be puttin' a hurtin' on that bamboo twig that you wave.

Safe travels home, my friend, and just in time for the UP fishing season. Well played, sir.

For the past few years, our Easters begin with an egg hunt and potluck brunch with good friends in our neighbor's funky woodland garden. Time with this crew of usual suspects is always a joy, especially true as we celebrate the arrival of spring. This year's weather was spectacular and the eggs well hidden. Can't ask for much better than that.

And since it's spring, it's time to start thinking about next winter's heat. Some friends were clearing a few dying trees from their paddock area (llamas and donkeys) and asked if I'd like some wood. Sure, I replied, if they had some nice hardwoods. I arrived home, a few days later, to find a bit more than I expected lying above the house; beautiful white oak that'll burn quite nicely. I've got some serious splittin' to do. My new exercise plan.

Finally, a photo to improve my people-per-picture ratio. Here's the crew from this year's 4th annual Live Free Cornhole Tournament, honoring the memory of my step-son and benefiting the Georgia Tech scholarship that we've established in his name. A solid week of rain broke clear for just a handful of hours, perfectly accommodating the scheduled time of the gathering. Umbrellas and towels, brought in the expectation of a dreary day, were set aside and a wonderful (and competitive) time was had by all under bluebird skies. The only water that fell were a smattering of tears sprinkled amidst the laughter. That's exactly how such memories should be treated.

I guess people aren't so bad after all.

What is a Photo Bin?

Thursday, April 16, 2015


What do the pictures that you take say about you?

In an ongoing effort to improve my photography, I have begun to attend a small county-based camera club. (There are, no doubt, many of you who think I should join a writing group as well, but one impossible task at a time, if you please.) As a new member - and somewhat of an oddity as a fly fisherman - I agreed to present a slideshow of some of my favorite fly fishing images. Twenty-to-thirty minutes’ worth of show and tell. Selecting and paring down to a manageable number of photos was a tough proposition, but when I sat back and looked at the final set of seventy-seven, I learned some interesting things.

In no particular order, these revelations were:

I dig abstraction. The photography of our sport, and I guess of sports in general, is hyper-realistic. Crystal clear images of action. Each droplet of spray, each scale, captured in minute, perfect detail. An instant of precision. The best do it very well and I envy them for I have neither the talent nor the lenses to manage it. But at the end of the day, I find myself gravitating to more obscure and interpretive images. A vignetted panorama of orange and yellow speaks to me of a Baja sunrise as well as any sharp-edged photo. But then, it certainly helps if you were there.

I'm fascinated by water and light. Many of the images that I chose featured prominently the dance of sunlight on waterways. You can’t be a photographer and not worship light and you can’t be a fisherman and not love the water. Blending them both is a joy. And we’re fortunate in that the sport puts us on the water when the light's at its best; the golden hours around dawn and dusk. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to do – fish, take pictures, or just look and appreciate.

I like it dark. I seem to have an affinity for low light images. Shadows and silhouettes. Mists and mornings. Small details appearing out of the gloom, focusing your attention on a few simple, finite elements. High ISO and low visibility. Things of dreams.

I'm just an old softie. “Painterly” my buddy Bob White calls it. A reduction in clarity and adjustment in saturation can bring a brush-stroked look to an image. And when the colors are soft and the subject lends itself to it, you get pieces that looks like they came off of an easel rather than out of a camera. I’m fascinated by the creative process, in general, and to mix the medias in this way is most interesting.

I hate humanity (or at least wish it would take a long walk off a short jetty). Mary has one regular criticism of my photography. "Where are the people?" It's a legitimate question as I seem to point the camera at everything else - horizons, objects, even nothingness - but seldom at people. And when I do, it’s usually at their backs or in silhouette. Of the seventy-seven images in the slideshow, only two depict faces with enough detail by which the subject’s own mother might recognize them.

I’m not sure what this means.

I break the rules. I shoot into the sun. I tilt horizons. I assume crazy angles. Most of the time I know that I'm doing it. It's important, I think, to know the rules to break them effectively and if you're going to go astray, do so with a purpose. But I have to admit that now and again I am the benefactor of one of those happy photographic accidents that occasionally grace the clueless.

[insert picture of fish here]

Where’s the fish? There’s not a single fish in the entire fly fishing slideshow. Not one. I was shocked when I realized it and can only come up with two possible explanations. First, that they are apparently not what’s most important to me - that it’s all the “stuff” around the endeavor that draws me to the sport. I’m okay with that. After all, I regularly suggest that the most boring part of fishing stories is usually the fishing itself. It’s everything else that’s of real interest.

The second explanation is a simpler one, and the more likely. I'm not fisherman enough to catch anything worth photographing.

Perhaps I've learned more than I really care to know.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


She throws up her hands, pushes her chair away from the ponderous pile of papers, and barks an epithet worthy of a well-seasoned sailor.

These forms and computations are ridiculous! I’ll never get this done by the 15th.

Sorry to hear that, dear. Can I get you something?

No, I just need a break. Clear my head. What are you up to?

Just getting my gear ready for spring bass fishing.

What kind of fishing pole is that?

Fly rod. It’s a fly rod. Not a fishing pole.

(She knows this, but likes to pull my chain.)

It’s a 6wt. My favorite stick for our local shoals bass.

What does 6wt mean?

It means that it’s a rod that is used to throw a 6wt line.

That’s awkward. Naming something because it’s used with something else.

I guess.

What’s a “wt”?

It has something to do with how much the first 30 feet of the line weighs, though I suspect few folks know the exact parameters. You usually just buy it to match the rod you have.

The rod is numbered based on the line that you need but you buy the line based on the rod that you have?

(I shift uncomfortably on my feet. She gives me a break and doesn’t dig deeper.)

So that’s a 6wt line on it then, right?

Well, no. It’s a 7wt line. This 6wt rod’s a bit fast, acts like a bigger stick, so I like to up-line it a step.

Then it should be called a 7wt pole.

Rod. And no, I don’t think so.

(She looks at me, expecting a better explanation. I’ve got none. After an awkward moment, she shrugs and moves on.)

And that string on the end. Is that a 6wt or 7wt?

That’s a leader. And no, it’s a 2X.

2X, huh. Okay. So that’s lighter weight than a 6wt?

Well, not really. It’s apples and oranges, lines and leaders.

Okay. Would, perhaps, a 3X, a heavier leader, be better sometimes? Up-leadering?

Umm, maybe. But, actually, a 3X is lighter than a 2X. Rod and line numbers go up as they get bigger. Leader size goes down.

Oh great. That’s confusing. And the fly. Is it a 6wt, 7wt, or 3X?


It’s a small clouser. A #4.

#4. You’re kidding. Do those numbers go up, or go down?

Bigger numbers are smaller flies. Like leaders.

Good grief. And the reel? What number is that?

Well, that depends on who made it. All manufacturers seem to have their own numbering systems.

You realize, of course, that none of this makes sense. Your 6wt pole – I mean rod – identified in an endless "chicken and egg" loop with the line, should really be a seven. Your leader numbering is completely different and goes down instead of up, like your flies, but on a completely different scale. And your reels are, well, who knows about your reels. Have I got this right?

(I’m defenseless.)

Yes, you’ve got it right. But, I swear, once you get accustomed it all makes sense. It’s all odd numbering systems based on history and innovation, effected by interactions with one another with slippery sorts of guidelines and rules. It’s a hodgepodge, and can be confusing as hell to the uninitiated, but I think I’ve gotten it pretty well figured out. Well enough to get by.

Perfect. It sounds just like our taxes. They’re all yours, sir. I’m going out to work in the garden.

Apologies: First, to all of those who might be reading this who are not familiar with the mathematical absurdities that are pervasive in the sport of fly fishing. This post only scratches the surface. It's part of the charm of it all, I suppose. There can be no other explanation.

Second, and most importantly, to my dear wife who really does have a handle on this stuff, but is just as bemused at it as this conversation represents. She has every right to be. Love you, dear, and the garden looks great.

Monday, April 6, 2015


It appears that a follow-up is in order.

In response to your hundreds of concerned emails (well, Jim B. did write to inquire of his loaned headlamp), I’m happy to relay that the reports of poor Troy’s demise were greatly exaggerated. He awoke on the 2nd in a seedy motel just outside of Clayton, smelling of Vapor Rub, sewage, and Shalimar. He conveniently claims to have no memory of the previous 24 hours.

While we’re thrilled with his resurrection, it does bring to light some serious credibility issues with regard to the originator of last week’s fishing report. But then, dear reader, you already knew that.

The good news is that Troy recovers quickly from such episodes (practice, of course, making perfect) and was ready to get back on the water. We whacked a couple-hundred white bass in a short three-hour stretch (no April Fools joke, I swear, it was silly), laughing and joking and retrieving our two-inch chartreuse-and-white clousers from the lips of fish after fish as if nothing had happened the day before.

And you know, my friends, it's quite possible that nothing had.

But then again...

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.

“Suit yourself.”

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.

“We’re here.”

We're where?

“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.

Something big.

“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.