By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine, September/October 2014
I spent a recent evening in the company of friends, most notably the principle of an established, and revered, fly fishing company. The evening fell late in a winter that wouldn’t give up, and our group found collective solace in a few beers, a birch fire, and some broiled sharptails that had survived the holidays in the nether reaches of the freezer. By default less than design, our wives were all busy, but we kept the debauchery in check; our indulgences were limited to a thick swaddling of bacon on the grouse, a good jolt of heavy cream in the wild rice, and a line of conversation weighted towards rods, guns, and the dalliances of the single guy in the group, who, to our dismay, kept his secrets. The evening was a necessary respite from the gloomy prospect of a fishing season that remained trapped under a few feet of ice.
In the post-dinner stupor, we left the dishes and wandered back to the fire, and poured a few belts of bourbon. There was an air of collective good-will in the room, and I felt like a prince, full and warm and a little bit tight, and ready for a good story. That’s where our host, the aforementioned owner of an established, and revered, fly fishing company, stumbled dreamily back across his best fishing days to land on a boyhood memory. His face lit up as he recounted it, and you could see for a moment how he must have looked as a child, when old Dickie, the local meat-fisher, took him out for squaretails.
Now bear in mind, this took place a way’s back, in a rural New England that was still rough-hewn, and full of good brookies, if a guy knew where to look. Our host described mountain freestoners that ran cold enough to hurt, and a dignified, fly-fishing father whose own sordid past impelled him to relinquish his son into Dickie’s command with a knowing approval. He went on to paint the picture beautifully, how together, the meat-fisher and the boy took to the woods, the meat-fisher with a packsack heavy with frying pan, and the boy with a brace of fly rods. The New England summer woods were thick and clinging back then, and the black flies were bloodthirsty foes, but the duo thumped merrily on, ever deeper into the mixed-hardwood forest.
As was their custom, they followed a serpentine path up a mountain not ten miles from our winter fireside. Once well-enough off the track, Dickie un-shouldered his load, and assembled his tackle: snelled bait hooks, lead shot, and a box full of wriggling trout worms. Our host was particular in specifying that in the refinement of this dark art, overfed night-crawlers were deemed unseemly, and not befitting of a gentlemanly pursuit such as theirs. The hooks were baited through-and-through, the rigs were affixed to the fly rods, and the duo set about to fishing.
I now know that owners of established, and revered, fly fishing companies tend to be fine anglers, and their prominence, and provenance, affords them travel to the world’s great fisheries. They’ve bent rods on everything from trout to tarpon, and are considered, by default, catch’n’release fly-rod purists. But in the dreamy recollection of my host that night, he became a boy again: in words that recall those of the late Howard Carter, the boy and the meat-fisher saw “wonderful things” in that Vermont freestoner. Moss-backed and ruby-flanked were the brook trout that the two derricked from the plunge pools, and the root-cut banks, and the foam-flecked eddies. And nearly every fish received the same treatment: a summary moment of reverence, an unspoken if heartfelt thanks, and a sound thump on the head. Dispatched, the stiffening brookies were afforded deliverance into a canvas creel made cool with stream water, to await their eventual veneration, in the frying pan that is. And so the day slipped gently past, as did the surface of the stream.
Leap-frogging ever higher, the two admired their catches and secretly competed, always hoping for that one square-tailed leviathan that might span two hands, or two spread hands in the case of the boy. But boys and meat fishers invariably get hungry when the walking is hard and the carnage is heavy, and at length, bug-bit and sweaty, the two reeled up, gathered spruce twigs, and assembled a fire. Once the skillet was smoking, a deluge of flour-caked trout was released whole into the swirling oil, to splutter and spit its way to a crinkly, golden perfection. Tonged from the pan, each trout was laid delicately on a Wonder Bread pillow, smeared liberally with mayonnaise, and inhaled piping hot. The meat-fisher and the boy worked their way through a creel-full, filling body and soul with the goodness of a Vermont summer day.
Our host wrapped up the story with a faraway look, and the reassertion that those days with Dickie, Wonder Bread, and tiny, gem-like squaretails were some of the best he’d ever known. There was as general murmuring of agreement from the drowsy congregation, all of whom, despite their gentlemanly ways, seemed disposed to let memory drift back over worm-dunkings and fish-frys of their own. And I swear that night at the fireside I could hear the spitting grease beating a staccato rhythm beneath the tinkling stream water, and I could smell softwood smoke and crushed ferns.
I relate this story somewhat selfishly, as it gave me pause, and might give you the same. Our host that night is a man who has travelled the world in the name of fishing, who is a longstanding champion of conservation, who becomes something of an artist when there’s a fly rod in his hand. Yet given a captive audience, and the space to share a finest fishing memory, he chose one that, like a tiny mountain brook trout, was small and lovely enough to need no embellishment. It was an out-the-back-door memory, wholly available to any and everyone, for the price of some mayonnaise and a loaf of bread. And it was the best for very good reason.
I wonder what we gain from being exclusive in our love affair with fly fishing, what we gain from making it rigid and bounded and superlative. I too adore the quiet sport, and at times afford myself a degree of superiority by out-fishing the grinders with a deftly placed dry. I too am rarely seen with a spinning rig in hand, and it’s been some time since I last dirtied my fingernails in pursuit of worms, or crawlers, or the other wriggly baits. I too have travelled far more than I deserve, to fish remote, wild places well off the beaten path. I too am wont to release my fish, as am I given to a pang of sadness when a tongue-hooked bleeder proves that I’ve done harm I can’t undo.
But I am also well-acquainted with my own sordid past, and the taste of trout rolled in flour and eaten whole in the out-of-doors. I have dug my share of worms, and I know how to hook them so that they remain, as Robert Traver said, ‘python-lively’. I know all about snap swivels and barrel swivels and snelled Eagle Claw hooks. And I have to admit, I’m delicately placing these skills in my children’s quivers as well, that they be able to see and feel and hear and taste the whole picture of what fishing is when they, I hope, take up the fly rod. Somehow, I see this as necessary, and I cherish the thought that in their sordid pasts, which remain their futures, there will be Wonder Bread and mayonnaise, and meat-fishers who I love and trust, informing their way in the world. The very idea of such things makes me proud.
I forgive myself these shortcomings, for, like my host, I don’t see them as such. Each trout I’ve rolled in flour, indeed each worm I’ve dug, has affirmed in me a love of fishing that has mellowed and matured, and become more poetic with years. It was in those rough-hewn outings that I came to understand my fishing as a connection to the finest sensory experiences of the world. The taste of trout tugged me into the landscape, and connected me with life, and with death. It connected me with the intrinsic value of things as pedestrian as worms, and allowed me to recognize guys who are masters of the meat-fisher’s art, and to admire their proficiency. It broadened my view and opened my heart, and I hope it made me humble.
Maybe it is the humility that I appreciate most. Maybe I’ve come to believe that if you dig around in the closet of the most tweedy, upstream-presentation-Catskill-dry-fly guy long enough, you’ll probably find a snelled bait hook with the mummified remains of a worm shriveled ‘round it, and that should be more than ok. We should forgive him, as he should forgive himself, the guilty pleasure of the joys that got him started, and the joys that persist, whatever form they take.