Meeting Dry one day in the early summer, I told him that my wife and I were planning a canoe trip down the Pere Marquette River, a clear, swift stream in western Michigan. The Pere Marquette has a fast enough current and enough mild rapids to make a float trip on it one of the most pleasant, effortless experiences imaginable. Also it has the reputation of being one of the premier trout rivers of the upper Midwest. Dry Flye was all praise for our trip until told that the principal purpose, other than simply to float along the river, was to look for goshawk nests—that we were not taking rods, not even cane poles. The thought of spending a week on the Pere Marquette without so much as a length of monofilament filled Dryden Flye with a disgust that he expressed quite openly. Thus it was with considerable pleasure that I reported back to him after the trip that we had caught a lot of trout after all. As I told Dryden, I have nothing against fish in their proper place, which is in a frying pan with plenty of butter, so long as I can get them there without going through the slow, square business of impaling them on the end of a hook. On the Pere Marquette we were able to get fish easily and eat them three days running. Since fishermen, like Arab poets, are always talking about fate, I suppose there is no harm in admitting that it was luck, not planning, that enabled us to do so well. Our good fortune consisted of starting downstream at about the same time as did two officers of the Michigan Conservation Department. They were poling a scow holding tanks containing hatchery-reared trout, which they periodically dumped over the side of their boat by the bucketful. Neither we nor the game wardens were much interested in speed, and therefore our two craft drifted downstream close together, giving us a fine opportunity to observe and profit from the stocking operation. One phenomenon we immediately noted was that a hatchery trout, unexpectedly dumped into a cold, swift-flowing stream, acts very much like a canoeist will under the same circumstances. The trout is immediately chilled, befuddled and frightened. In such a state of shock he has no interest in eating okapi-skin-covered hooks or any other exotic lure that anglers may present to him. However, these shivering, displaced fish were imminently vulnerable to our more sophisticated techniques. It was the work of a moment to unpack our cooking bag, swing in abeam of one of these dazed fish and scoop him up in a 12-cup coffeepot. For three days we had only to wait until just before mealtime, then lean over the thwart and draw a couple of quarts of fresh trout.
It seemed to us that this was exciting, modern fishing, but it did not strike Dryden Flye that way when he heard our story. I expected him to be a little envious of our good luck, but the very last words Dry ever spoke to me were, "There should be laws against people like you."
Fishing for trout from a canoe with a coffeepot marked, I believe, the turning point in my career as a truly creative angler. After Dryden Flye's stuffy reaction, I decided to turn my back on the whole arid, arbitrary Fishing Establishment. But I had to wait several years until another opportunity arose to advance the cause of free-form fishing. The chance came one afternoon on the Shenandoah River while I was on another canoe trip with a fellow we can identify as Red Popper. Actually, it was not much of a canoe trip, since Red was a fanatical bass fisherman. A weakness for bass has ruined more of my old canoe friends than obesity and wives put together. Taking a fisherman on a canoe trip is like trying to hurry a child through a carnival. A fisherman in a canoe is always lagging behind, absentmindedly getting stuck on rocks, drifting obliviously into rapids and having to be rescued.
On the Shenandoah, Red and I were each using a canvas foldboat and paddling solo, for a canoeist will not paddle tandem with a known fisherman any more than he will share a canoe with a pyromaniac, a drunk or a photographer. By late afternoon we had, in painful stages, reached a section of the river that canoeists call the Staircase and fishermen call Great Bass Water. The Staircase is a three-mile stretch just above the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac, where narrow ledges of rock cross the river-bed at intervals of 50 feet or so. This formation creates a sort of natural slalom run, a series of rapids and rocks that must be watched carefully to be both appreciated and avoided. Unfortunately, the ledges also back the water up into a maze of small pools and flumes, each of which, according to the mythology of local bassmen, harbors enormous fish.
Once into the Staircase, no amount of wheedling, threatening, pleading, or even backwatering could keep Red in sight. Nevertheless, as I threaded through the rapids, I kept looking backward, trying to be sure I would see him when he capsized. While looking over my shoulder, I heard a startling grinding sound from the front of my kayak. My first thought was that I had got what do-gooders usually get—a hole in my canoe from trying to be my fisherman's keeper. However, investigation proved that what I had really got was a 21-inch bass that had leaped out of the shallow water into the foldboat, where he was now lunging about noisily. To restrain the beast from punching a hole in the canvas with his wicked-looking dorsal fin, I strung him on the bow painter. Then, pulling up on a flat rock, I draped my catch over the side of the boat and struck a studied, casual pose as Red finally came into sight.
I knew how the conversation would go and was not disappointed:
"My God! Put him back in the water!"
"Put him back, hell. I'm going to put him in the frying pan. There's more to him than a hot dog, which is what we'd have to eat if we were depending on you."
"You can't eat that fish!"
"Just watch me, old buddy."