- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
My first love was strong enough during breakup to gnaw away the roots of the old cotton-woods along her banks and send the trees, groaning and crackling and shaggy with skinned bark, tumbling through tan foam toward Lake Michigan. Great ice floes ran with them, packing up at times in the shallows to form cold brown lakes that flooded the low-lying woods on either bank, then carrying away finally with a roar like coupling freight cars. Huge slabs of ice flipped skyward along with sords of mallard and springs of teal, spooked by the mighty explosions.
Brave men ran the river in flood-time in the heavy, cedar-ribbed canvas canoes of the day. I remember standing with my father on a newly built Federal Works Project bridge one raw morning in 1941 and watching canoe-men dodging among the floes, racing the drowned trees downriver. I was not quite seven years old and I clutched Dad's hand for all I was worth. He grinned down at me out of his mustache and said, "Bobby, don't you just love a river?"
But in summer—the summers of my boyhood—the river was calm and deep-voiced, slow-spoken as a good schoolmaster, clear of meaning but swift when it came to corrections. It taught me a lot: how to pole a raft of basswood logs and scrap lumber (Poseidon was the raft's magical name) down fast, deep runs and the best way (there was no easy way) to skid it over mud banks; and how to remove leeches (we called them bloodsuckers) with a sprinkle of salt rather than yanking them off along with a chunk of your hide. In the woods beside the river I could be Tarzan or Jim Bridger; in the river itself I could be a U.D.T. frogman scouting the reefs of Tarawa under enemy fire or a South Seas pearl diver plumbing the depths (all six feet of them) for nacreous treasure.
The fish were better, though. No imagination was necessary to start my heart racing when their long, dark shadows lanced out from bankside holds and disappeared somewhere upstream. When I had seen enough dragonflies disappear in violent splashes, enough leopard frogs vanish in midkick, with only widening concentric circles on the water to remember them by, when I noticed that often in summer at dawn and dusk the river's smooth surface was pocked with riserings as if hit by an invisible ball peen hammer, I knew I had to take action.
I rummaged through the attic and found an old rod of my dad's—an 8½-foot Heddon, all cracked varnish and rusty snake guides, with an ancient Pflueger reel. I spent half a summer's lawn-mowing earnings on a brand-new HDG oiled-silk fly line and a supply of gut leaders, "borrowed" a few bass bugs, dry flies and streamers from the paternal fly box and sallied forth one sultry June morning, the fly rod couched like a bamboo lance as I spurred my fat-wheeled Schwinn charger down to the river.
That day was a revelation. So far I had only fished "up north" during the two or three weeks each summer when my folks rented a cottage on one or another of Wisconsin's myriad lakes. I had graduated from cane poles, worms and panfish to a plug-casting rod for bass, pike and walleye. The summer after my 10th birthday, my dad started me on the fly rod, casting short distances from a rowboat for nesting sunfish in the shallows of Okauchee Lake. It was the perfect fly rod kindergarten: bushy dry flies thrown at close range to plenty of visible and aggressive targets. Nothing builds confidence in a kid more quickly than catching a lot of fish. Now I figured I was ready for the real thing: bright trout in moving water.
Ground fog hung low on the water as I approached the river that morning. The sun loomed huge and red through mist-shrouded cotton-woods; a great blue heron creaked off, annoyed, as I pushed through the alders and waded out knee-deep on a gravel bar. I was wearing hightop canvas Keds with my Levi's tucked into my sock-tops to discourage bloodsuckers, and the water felt chilly. Fish were rising out there in the fog. I tied on the biggest fly, worked off a reasonable length of line, and with my teeth starting to chatter like Carmen Miranda's maracas delivered. The fly alighted out of sight in the mist, a straight enough cast, but then the line started coming back at me on the water, crooked as a snake. Something splashed out there and the line jerked. I struck—and picked up only slack.
I had had my first lesson about running water. It took me all morning to figure out the importance of natural drift, even longer to overcome the drag imparted to the dry fly the moment the line started to belly downstream. Years later I would read that the procedure I laboriously formulated that morning was called mending, and whole chapters were devoted to it in the fly casting texts. I caught only one fish that morning—a five-inch creek chub—before the sun burned off the fog and put down the fish.
But my luck improved with my skill through the course of that summer. I learned to trail streamers down through the riffles into long slow pools, then retrieve them with rapid jerks and frequent pauses that sometimes produced pickerel and once a 20-inch Northern.
I experimented with deer-hair bugs—gaudy green and yellow-and-black monstrosities of my own devising—until I found the back eddies and current edges where bass hung out. They were tough, chunky smallmouths for the most part, and now and then a broader-shouldered largemouth. Not until summer's end, though, did I hook a trout.