Growing Up and Giving Back
I look back and scarcely know myself. I am forced to rely on the testimony of witnesses. These attest in my youth I stood in the same place for an excess of six hours at the top of the Slide Hole on the Upper Clackamas River near Portland, Oregon, slinging a spoon halfway to creation while my new wife offered nothing but encouragement and admiration. She is still doing so, but I digress. That happens increasingly often.
That was thirty five years ago, when summer counts on the Clack were generous and I had not yet discovered The Faith.
In mid-September, we were up to our slightly un-youthful midriffs in the Bulkley, on the last of six mornings of a very tough sled. Some trips – not lately – one loses count because of the number of steelhead. More often these days, one does not keep track because it is hard to keep one’s spirits up. It had been one of those weeks. I know there were for me two days of pure, uninterrupted casting practice.
Ultimately worthy as part of what C.S. Lewis called The Great Dance, but in immediate human terms, very discouraging. Several evenings of minimal interaction with anything but a mood-altering beverage. Steelheaders tend to drink some. You possibly might, too.
Our last morning we began the search with two hours of the usual late season litany – long casts with Skagit heads, heavy tips, and burly leeches into the deep water beyond the big ledge rock of river right down at Bob’s Bay below the airport. There were cows. They were more interested in what we were doing than were our subsurface friends. Abandon ship. Across to River Left.
My partner staked out the top of the run, casting lovely and fruitless loops in the watered down light of the year. I was installed above a very likely looking little bucket, the easier wade due to a wrecked knee and five days of floundering. This is not another “the fish crushed my fly mid-swing and my reel screamed like a middle school girl” story. Plenty of those elsewhere. I caught two fish in ten minutes. At this point, something occurred more miraculous than finding a fish at the end of a tough week. Let alone two fish. I turned upriver and hailed my partner, asking him to come down. Our guide looked at me with something resembling alarm. “WTF is this idiot doing?” This is THE DEAL. Right here.
My partner reels up and trails down the bank. “I have caught two here. It has been basically a wretched week for both of us. Why don’t you step in here and see if we can spread the meager joy we have encountered this week? Alleviate the pain”. He steps in and gets four in the same place in 20 minutes. I am up at the top, catching the same no fish that he was. At that point, he waves me in and I proceed to lose a large fish on the strip. Game over. One hour. Six for nine.
In the pursuit of our favorite fish on the swing, this kind of steelhead adventure is as rare as a person in the center of the political spectrum in America. While I can dream, it is very likely that I will not stand again in this life at the top of a ridiculously fishable piece of river full of steelhead that have temporarily taken complete leave of their senses. The kid on the Clackamas all those years ago would have beat that bucket to death until the guide dragged him out of there. It never would have gotten anywhere near my cortex to step out of that run, but there I was.
Now, let’s not get too Gandhi here. I have noticed no significant recent progress in my soul toward the One Inner Light. I still want lots of stuff. I will admit that I stepped out never dreaming that my partner was going to catch four more in there. Had I known that, I would have tarried one fish more. Perhaps two. Perhaps three. I am reasonably altruistic, but I am also addicted. It is not the default to truncate a really good buzz. What is happening to me?
The rest of the day was massively uneventful except for my partner catching a glorious fish on his maiden voyage with a skater at the tailout of our last run of the day. I finally lost my week-long battle with the ledge rock and put a firm punctuation on the end of the trip by falling in.
I write songs for an un-living, so I am not the stoic type. Still, I have noticed changes on my somewhat suspect sensitivity spectrum. I now cry at movies based on Nicholas Sparks books. I know … But again, the songwriting, and my favorite film is still Casablanca. But these days I cannot watch or read anything with sad endings, and I think I am getting worse.
I was discussing these unfamiliar waters with a close friend who is also a minister renowned for his skill and gentleness as a counselor. I sought guidance as to whether I was beginning to lose my mind. He offered this. One of his parishioners was an ex-Marine and a full bird colonel. At about 60, he started tearing up at the mere sight of his granddaughter. My friend asked me if I had been to a doctor. “No, other than half the orthopedic sawbones in town.” He explained to me that as the testosterone ebbs, the estrogen starts to get the upper hand. So far, I am not going to the restroom as a group with my friends, but I think he has it pretty well nailed.
This less brave new world is coming for most of us boys. Not all of us. In an idle moment nearly freezing to death one morning on the Naknek this year, I sought counsel about these changes from my guide, being knowledgeable about both crazed steelheaders and estrogen. Being a woman, you know. She opines “maybe you have just caught enough”. But then she pointed out that she has clients older than I am who are just as driven and competitive as ever. Particularly about the size of the fish. I confess I am at peace with no longer being that person. I have discovered that there is a lot of peace in holding down a rock at the top of the drift, dispensing counsel worth what you paid for it, and leading the cheers. I am starting to work on the guides I know best, getting them into the water with a rod instead of wandering about all day on the bank with a net and their phone. It turns out that netting a big fish is really cool. Most of them hook more fish than me, so it adds a little excitement to the day.
Maybe it has nothing to do with my bloodstream. As Sage says, maybe I have just caught enough. But I don’t think that is all of what is happening. A lovely take on the swing is still pure joy, and I will soldier on for days in pursuit of such an encounter. However, I no longer suffer the pangs of hell when I lose a fish. In fact, if I get a nice run and a few jumps and get a decent look at the fish, “That will do, pig.” And this is the most amazing of all. Before God and these witnesses, I have quite small interest in actually getting fish in the net and commencing the photo shoot. Been there. Done that.
It was necessary to life as I knew it once upon a time. But all big steelhead look the same, and I just look cold and older. I landed a big fish last week and took a great picture with my guide, who holds fish better than I do and is pretty photogenic. That is the one on the phone. Changes. It has come full circle to the search, not the endgame. Whatever hormone or providence has brought me here, it feels right.
Swing people are the most passionate group with whom I have had the pleasure to commune. A very diverse group often having nothing in common except an eagerness to trek to any river, anywhere, any time to entice just one more of these fish. Yet even this amazing, wonderful adventure is not the very lifeblood of our being. It adds great meaning to the main currents: family, community, country, children, health, God or the lack thereof, and the last journey down the river that we will all make. Those are the bedrock on which our lives truly rest. We will rise and fall in those figurative waters rather than those threatening to put me in over my head with my next step. And that is as it should be.
But understand: I am deeply grateful for the quest for these gravely imperiled, magnificent creatures, and for the unique cast of characters I am blessed to meet on the water of the rivers that belong infinitely more to them than to us.
And that young man a decade ago on the Clackamas… a lovely hen on the absolute last cast, pushing darkness with a perilous scramble up the riprap to the car. Life was very good that night. It still is.
Craig Laurie is a lifelong angler who began his journey at eight years old, stalking the wily bluegill in the
pond down the road from his parent’s house in Modesto, California. Sixty five years and many rivers
later, he swings flies for anything large that will chase them. He spends his time on his home steelhead
waters near Portland, Oregon, and embarks on as many expeditions as possible to British Columbia and
the Rio Grande of Tierra del Fuego.