Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cold Wind, 20, the Keystone Steelheader and a Fat Cigar

This evening, as I sat eeking out the last couple of hours of an eventless late shift, I was hit with a revelation. Fishing restores the mind. Yesterday, I went fishing all day. And today, no matter what the situation at the office, no matter what the emergency or the emerging political circumstance, my thoughts were clear, unencumbered by stress or fear.

For a long time, I thought that this happened only to people like myself who love fishing so much. But now I think it’s bigger than that. I think that fishing is good for anyone who tries it for a day, especially if fish are caught. The unhurried appreciation of time that fishing affords, in the context of a skill that one may learn at one’s own pace; in the presence of unfettered daylight, the sounds of water and wind, the earthy smell of falling leaves – all these things have been etched in the memory our genes, and they remind us and reconnect us to the deep wellspring of nature and the simple and pure joy of being alive.

But as usual, I am starting at the end. Yesterday morning, with the sun yet to rise, in the cool gloaming by the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, no such convenient wisdom was going through my head. Where are the fish? is all that I was asking at that point. The waves were terribly high and the sound of their crashing obliterated any other semblance of peace that the morning might hold. The gale-force winds that were forecast had as yet not entered the stage.

Finally, as the light grew brighter, the float gently rocked and popped, and I knew my first fish was.... gone. I’d had an extra large at Tim’s... don’t know why I missed that... should be awake by now... The float jiggled again, and this time I made no mistake. Still ensconced in darkness, the fish was probably as sleepy as I was. It did not fight too hard, which made for an easy release.

In the next hour or two, I caught three more. The last one was especially spirited, and my arm was quite sore after I finally brought it to shore. A quick picture or two of its lovely pearlescent raiment, and then it was back to the river. Suddenly, as though someone had flicked a switch, the wind started to roll in. Its cold searching fingers crept into my collar, down my back, through my own fingers. Soon, it was howling. I think it was the door of the seasons opening, Autumn slowly and surely engaging its metamorphosis into Winter.

I endured several hours of this nonsense, getting rained on and snowed on, alternating hands on the rod to warm them one at a time, while I continued fishing. At times, the wind was so strong that I had to lean forward when I walked against it, and I had to take my rod apart or have to control the wild contortions that the pugilistic gusts imparted on it. In all, I visited 4 more tributaries, essentially touring my “back yard” to get an idea of what was going on with each one. I survived to announce “not much” – yet – in the way of fish. They are all mostly low and clear, although the recent rain did give them all a measure of colour.

At one point in the afternoon, I almost pulled the plug and went home. There was a long stretch with no fish, and the wind was finally starting to make me go mad. I had visions of roe bags in birdsnests. What was that all about? Boredom makes you do funny things. I was getting pretty frustrated. Then, as I followed the bank of one of the rivers, I almost stepped on a little baby. I picked him up to examine him, make sure he was ok, take a picture. He was ok, but he seemed almost as dejected as I was. Small wonder, given the circumstances. I put him back where I found him and was on my way.

Finally, with an ending that seems to be repeating itself, the creek nearest to home – and also the smallest that I visited today – provided the biggest surprise. But it also must have made me look like a true-blooded idiot. Let me explain.

To achieve the level of bufoonery that I did, first: light a nice big cigar (that one of your considerate co-workers brought back to you from Cancun ... note the irony of lighting such a beauty on such a day as this). Then, as you are lighting it, start drifting. Flick your lighter several times, in your attempt to light this cigar. It’s a bit on the big side, and the wind is playing havoc with the flame, so keep trying. Finally light the cigar. Put the lighter in your pocket. Oh my god! Where’s my float? Set the hook, and behold a large fish. It is so large and the creek is so small that, every time she shatters the surface, she seems to grow. Before you get a good look at her, you’ve thoroughly drenched your eyes in smoke and she looks like 40lbs jumping around like that. She takes you down-stream and you pull her back up. You think “aha! she’s only about 8lbs, and looks like she’s almost...” SPLASH! Now, she has jumped up and landed in a logjam. She slips through the logs, with your hook and line in tow, and you are now cursing because you had this fish dead to rights. You curse again because a puff of smoke just got into your left eye. OUCH that stings. But it’s a brand new “Schtoaggie” and you don’t want to spit it out. You persevere. The fish is pulling away madly up river. Your line goes across the river, down through the log jam, then zags more than 90 degrees to veer upriver. Farther upriver now. You pull on the line, like an idiot, amazed at the strength of your mainline. It’s not breaking and the fish slowly comes back down. Now it’s under the log pile. You are going crazy anyway, with the smoke in your face, the wind howling this big fish beaten but out of reach, you decide to wade across to the logjam. Mistake? The fish seeing the giant legs of some unknown bloodthirsty intruder speeds away again and the tip of your rod virtually slams against the wood. You back-reel furiously, you let it run loose. You try this ridiculous "loogan" cha-cha several times until you finally get close enough to push and pull at some these logs and lo! one of them gives you about a half inch through which to squeeze your tired line. Jubilant, you move back to shore. You realize ....b- b- b- brrrrrrr I forgot to strap the cuffs shut on my jacket and now there is water down my back! You curse. You pull on the line. It’s still stuck. You go back in, you reach down deep along your line and find the obstruction, pull it all out; amazingly it drops into the depth and your line is free. You go back to shore. You get a fresh spill down your back, because you are an idiot (not you.... me...) You quickly now do up your cuff. The fish is loose. She is very tired and so are you. She pulls away down river and you follow. You kneel to lower your profile as much as to keep your rod tip from banging around in the overhanging branches. You wrestle now, and so does she, your shoulder says “uncle” and finally you have the fish by the tail. She is gorgeous. She is full of the symbolism of battle, of bounty, of life, of Joy.

But you curse again. You just noticed that the pin has fallen off your reel! Without the pin, the screw that keeps the spool secure to the backplate, your reel is useless and you can't fish anymore! You don’t panic like you did back in spring 2006, though. This time, you calmly put your rod down behind you and photograph the life force that you are holding by the tail. You cradle her and admire her while she revives. Soon, she’s off, and as the mud settles you see a shiny object just beside your knee. You reach down to pick up your pin. You give thanks as you push it deep into one of your pockets. Without looking, and as the cold starts to creep into your bones, you reach back behind yourself to pick up your rod.

Your hand squeezes only water.

You don’t even have the nerve to curse, now. It’s like being in an accident. You are in shock/denial. You turn around to look. The rod and reel are gone. No footprints on shore, so there was no thief. You begin to feel faint. The mud is still swirling a little. You wait til it clears. You still don’t see the “twins rod”, the one you won on the day your boys were born. You start scraping through the mud like a mad explorer looking for treasure in the sand. You feel around frantically. You call yourself names. If I am someone else watching you do this, I start laughing. But no such luck. Where did it go?

I finally risk standing up, knowing that my first footstep could snap the blank, should the rod have somehow sunk into the mud. I look around, I proceed as cautiously as possible. There it is. Twenty yards downriver, my gear has gone and entangled itself in another logjam. I am thankful again. I retrieve the rod, rince out the reel. Look around one last time. Ouch!

I had forgotten the cigar! It was still lit and had burned down right to the nub.

Twenty minutes later, I was at home with two two-year-olds hanging on me with smiles.

A little more than twenty hours later, I compose this entry and take a moment to agree with my wife who says wisely “you’re funniest when you’re not trying.”

If you just read this whole thing, ain’t THAT the truth!


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