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Fool's Paradiseby John Gierach
The truth about fishing trips is that they're often more about where you go and how you get there than about what you catch: not really about the fishing at all, in other words, although without it you wouldn't have gone in the first place. You naturally plan your trip for when you think the fishing will be at its best and try to make the most painless travel arrangements — aiming at what you hope will be a satisfying narrative arc that begins and ends in your own driveway — but the earmark of every fishing trip is still uncertainty. If it weren't, why even go?
However you travel, there are questions that go unasked because they're unanswerable but that hover there in the middle distance nonetheless. If you're driving, will your pickup break down? If not, will it make it up the last pitch on that four-wheel-drive road? If you're flying, will your flight leave on time — or at all? Will your checked gear arrive at the same place you do, and if not, will someone have a spare rod you can borrow?
The airlines say they'll deliver your luggage to you if it comes in late, but they're picturing a hotel near the airport. I still remember my relief when a guy from Air Canada finally delivered my fly rods to me in the lobby of a hotel in Halifax at two in the morning. By the end of the next day I'd have been two more flights and a boat ride away and the drama might have ended differently.
And then there's the fishing itself. Even if it's a familiar fish in a recognizable setting, there are bound to be regional quirks. On the Namekagon River in Wisconsin, the smallmouth bass were exactly where I expected them to be and they'd eat the same commercially tied deer-hair bugs I always try first, but there they were noticeably partial to the yellow-belly version instead of the otherwise identical white-bellied ones I brought from home. Fishing is full of those minute details that actually matter.
If you're after a new species of fish, you're pretty much in the dark and you only have a short time to turn on the light. A lot of being able to catch a particular kind of fish in a particular way boils down to instinct bred of familiarity, but even if you have the instinct, you're still in unfamiliar territory. (That's why it can take a second or even a third trip to really crack a fishery.) You're an adult with your head on straight and you know the drill, but some of this stuff isn't easy and you've seen people emotionally broken by a bad skunk.
And there are bound to be potential hazards that are especially dangerous because they're outside your normal day-to-day experience. They could be as big and obvious as grizzly bears, as small and neatly camouflaged as rattlesnakes, or as obscure as a regional strain of cow parsnip with sap that burns your hands when they get wet.
Or maybe it's bush flying. Small planes are more homey and comfortable than big ones (they're sort of like pickup trucks with wings), but they have worse safety records, and it's not comforting to learn that the majority of all aviation accidents are caused by simply running out of gas. A bush pilot in Alaska once said, "The only time you can have too much fuel on an airplane is when it's on fire."
Some trips are punctuated by little shocks of realization that are profoundly exotic. A friend was once fishing somewhere in Mexico, wading ankle-deep where he was safe from sharks and stingrays, when he saw a track in the mud and asked his guide what it was. The guide said, "Jaguar, señor." Things like that heighten your consciousness to the point that you're more acutely aware of your surroundings than usual. That's why your memories of a fishing trip are invariably more vivid than your memories of the same number of days at work.
Of course most of us are perfectly safe on even the most adventurous fishing trips, and statistically most accidents happen at home or while driving within twenty-five miles of your front door. It's not that your house and neighborhood are so dangerous, but they're so familiar you become complacent to the extent that you won't notice the dog's tennis ball left on the stairs or a new stop sign on the corner. Whatever else happens on a fishing trip, you pay attention.
I prefer driving to flying for reasons that will be obvious if you've been on a commercial airliner in the last few years. (Jim Harrison once said that commercial flying wouldn't be much worse if they towed you behind the plane in a gunnysack full of fish guts.) Driving gives you a feeling of self-reliance and allows time and distance to pass at a more human pace. If you're going a long way, it takes a long time — as it should — and you get to see the landscape, vegetation, wildlife and maybe even the climate gradually change. That's a romantic idea and I don't apologize for it, but there's also the practical effect that you're not jet-lagged and time-warped for your first few days of fishing.
Long drives can also make you appreciate the little things. In parts of eastern Wyoming the sight of a single tree can lift your heart, and on a rainy trip it's possible to find the almost infinite settings on your intermittent windshield wipers deeply fascinating. You're probably still on some kind of schedule when you drive, but unlike with an airline, if your partner is an hour late getting started, no one's gonna give your seats away to strangers.
If you have a moderately roomy four-wheel-drive vehicle (I drive a medium-sized, six-cylinder pickup), you can go where you have to and bring what you need — within reason on both counts. Everyone knows that having four-wheel drive doesn't mean you can't get stuck, it just means you can get stuck in more desperate situations or even wreck your car. Once, on the worst four-wheel-drive road I'll knowingly go on, I found a brand-new Jeep Wagoneer — complete with a temporary tag in the back window — abandoned with a broken axle. Years later, just past an especially gnarly spot on that same road, I followed the narrow, greasy trail from a cracked oil pan but never found the vehicle. This old logging track is my absolute benchmark for difficulty. There's a worse one nearby known as Oh-My-God Road, but I've never been on it.
As for cargo room, you can get a lot of stuff in the six-foot bed of a pickup, but remember that you'll have to paw through everything you brought once you get there and that whatever you're looking for will be on the bottom of the pile. Packing lightly is symbolic of paring away the clutter of your life at least for the duration of the trip, if not permanently, and when it's done right, it can make you feel young and nimble. For years after I left home, I didn't (that is couldn't) own more than would fit in whatever vehicle I was driving at the time. That lean core still exists, like a fossil obscured by more recent deposits, but I can only unearth it now when I'm packing for a fishing trip.
For that matter, if there are too many comforts you can't do without, even for a week, maybe you should just stay home, although of course definitions of necessity and luxury are entirely personal. I know people who'd never think of going anywhere without a cell phone, even though they often don't work in the rural West or far North. I don't own one myself, and when someone asks "How can I reach you?" I thoroughly enjoy saying "You can't; I'll be fishing." I'm still waiting for Americans to realize that being in constant communication is not an advantage, but a short leash. Cell phones have changed us from a nation of self-reliant pioneer types into a bunch of men standing alone in supermarkets saying "Okay, I'm in the tampon aisle, but I don't see it."
The new satellite phones are obscenely expensive, but they supposedly work anywhere. That can be handy in a dire emergency, but owning one also means there's now no place left on earth aboveground where you can hide.
I do swallow my pride and fly now and then for the same reason everyone else does: to save time. I'd actually love to drive someplace like the Northwest Territories for big grayling, but I balk at the prospect of weeks on the road for a week of fishing. So I just book a flight. My one rule for trips is: Always try to spend more time fishing than you do traveling. Still, I'm always uncomfortable flying on big airlines out of big-city airports. There are dozens of little tricks that make air travel go more smoothly, but I don't know any of them, so I invariably end up in the longest, slowest line, and when I hear one of those announcements asking you to report suspicious activity, I immediately begin to wonder if I'm acting suspiciously.
On the other hand, I have done enough flying over the years to get my packing down to a science. It's really pretty simple: you bring everything you'll need and nothing you won't need, while at the same time staying under the baggage weight limit. I usually check a single twenty-eight-inch canvas duffle (always with trepidation) and walk on the plane carrying a small backpack and a short rod tube that passes as my "personal item," which is normally defined as a briefcase or laptop. In a pinch, I can get all three pieces down to a total of forty pounds, which is the lowest allowable weight limit I've ever encountered on a float plane.
A friend of mine keeps detailed, permanent lists of what he packs for various kinds of trips, constantly going back to cross out things he brought but didn't use and add items that might have come in handy if he'd had them. Some of these lists have been fine-tuned for decades and, needless to say, the guy is the most efficient traveler I know. I admire that kind of thinking, but apparently I'm incapable of it. Instead, I depend on a series of mental snapshots from previous trips. I don't quite have the knack my friend has, but I do okay.
The only real glitch in my packing program came a few seasons ago when I'd seen so many people breezing through airports with wheeled bags while I lugged mine on a shoulder strap that I finally began to experience duffle envy. So I bought a wheeled duffle: a great big one that would take a three-piece, nine-foot rod tube and that was described in the catalog as "heavy duty" in every conceivable way. It was a little unwieldy, but the main problem was that it weighed fourteen pounds empty, and with my usual kit it could go slightly over the baggage weight limit of fifty pounds for a single bag. The first time I used it, a snippy guy at Denver International charged me extra for being a pound and a half over. But then on the return flight from Anchorage a nice lady said it was a little heavy but close enough and then asked me how the fishing had been.
On the next trip the bag passed muster in Denver, but at the Minneapolis airport — with still-wet waders packed inside — a friendly guy at curbside check-in hefted the bag and said, with a slight Swedish accent, "I think it's a pound or two over, but if it is, we don't want to know about it, do we?" It was good to know that you can still count on the kindness of strangers at least half the time, but in the end it was more suspense than I could stand, so at least for now I've gone back to my old bag. If you'd like to buy a large, slightly used piece of luggage, my for sale sign is on the bulletin board down at the Laundromat.
I guess I've never completely understood the fisherman's compulsive urge to travel, even though I've been giving in to it for better than half a lifetime. I started young, when I was footloose and curious and when my natural agility allowed me to avoid some perils and my resilience let me recover from the rest. Also, when things went wrong, as they inevitably did, I was more likely to think it was funny or that it had some obscure significance. I don't mean in the character-building sense my father would have appreciated, but more along the lines of the bohemian goofiness I aspired to. I remember hitchhiking across the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State with a friend at age seventeen for no other reason than that neither of us had ever seen the Pacific Ocean. We camped on a lovely secluded beach and were completely freaked out when the tide came in and swamped us. It wasn't funny until we got a driftwood fire going and started to dry out, but then it was hilarious.
I still travel as much as I ever did, if not a little more, but I've noticed that where I once adored the act of traveling itself, I'm now more likely to just endure it in order to get where I'm going. I'm always delighted to finally arrive somewhere, but beforehand, in the planning stage, I can find myself as avid as ever but slightly less eager. Apparently that's not unusual because in recent years, when the question of whether or not to go on a particular trip comes up, friends my own age have begun to say things like "Well, if you don't do it now...," leaving the rest to your all-too-vivid imagination.
Interestingly, I grew up with men who weren't particularly adventurous when it came to travel. They seemed perfectly happy to fish casually close to home: say, within one or two counties. They knew the water, the fish and the seasons inside out, and although they weren't what you could call fashion-plate sportsmen, they'd fish circles around the people you could call that. This was in the Midwest, in the heartland of the Protestant ethic, where it was considered vaguely sinful to be anything but satisfied and grateful for what was right in front of you. Down at the barbershop, you might point at the cover story in a dog-eared copy of Field and Stream and say "Boy, I'd like to fish there sometime," but it's doubtful you ever would.
Partly because of that example and partly from dumb good luck, I now live in the northern Colorado foothills, and what's right in front of me are four species of trout in several hundred miles of pretty little mountain streams and lakes. I'm satisfied and grateful for them and actually depend on their somewhat predictable circadian cycles for part of my sanity, but I travel anyway.
I like to think it's biological: some holdout from the days when we had to follow the game or starve, so that by now we have a million years' worth of genetics telling us to pack up and go, even though we no longer understand why. It's the same thing that makes caribou migrate across vast distances and mountain lions stake out territories covering a hundred square miles. Even the three horses across the county road from my place have it. They live in a lush, eighty-acre foothills pasture that's all a horse could possibly want, but they spend much of their time staring over the barbed-wire fence at the next pasture, which, as far as I can see, is exactly the same.
It was a long time ago and I don't actually remember, but I'm sure I started traveling in hopes of bigger fish because that's the usual pathology and there's nothing unique about me. Sometimes it panned out, but even when it didn't, there were new things to see and new people to meet.
I came to like bush pilots because, even though most are at least as competent as their uniformed counterparts, their lids aren't screwed on so tight. Of course lately some of them have begun to mimic that clipped airline officiousness, but the euphemisms sound hollow in the cabin of a four-seater. On a recent flight out of a salmon camp, the pilot announced that an emergency beacon would automatically deploy in the event of an "off-airport landing." A plane crash, in other words. I much preferred a pilot-comedian named Bernie I flew with years ago who said, "If we go in, tighten yer seat belt, put yer head between yer legs, and kiss yer ass goodbye." An old but effective joke.
The big bad world does try to reach its tentacles into the backcountry, and sometimes it succeeds. I remember the first time I went to a lodge where the clients were asked to sign a waver of liability (it's fairly common now). You know, "the inherent dangers of weather, boats, bush flying and grizzly bears that are beyond the control of blah blah blah..." I thought, So it's finally arrived, and had a brief vision of herds of lawyers coursing over the tundra in search of litigation: a much more pervasive threat than an angry bear or a blown piston at two hundred feet.
Bad timing and bad weather are the two most common problems, but in any given place there are dozens of factors beyond anyone's control that can screw the pooch, so beyond packing the right clothing, appropriate tackle and some flies that might work, it's best not to have too many expectations about a fishing trip. I know that's a big order, since you go fishing primarily to catch fish and open-mindedness is the most fragile mood known to the human race. But if you can manage it, you can appreciate almost anything that happens instead of just the one thing you were planning on. An old friend of mine always declares success on the premise that we said we were going fishing and we did. The point being, you can be happy or not, it's sort of up to you.
The same advice goes for fish size, although, again, I've chased big fish off and on for years and have caught up with them just often enough to keep me going. When I went to Labrador for the first time, it was because I wanted to see that enormous, lovely, roadless chunk of northeastern Canadian wilderness, but also because here at home a real good brook trout is twelve inches long, while up there a good one is twenty-five inches and weighs six or seven pounds.
All fishermen (and some civilians) are impressed by big fish, and when I get back from a trip that went in that direction, I always carry the snapshots around in my pickup for a month or so in case anyone asks if I've been fishing. I may know in my heart that success was due mostly to beginner's luck and good guiding, but I think it's permissible to let the photos speak for themselves.
But then the whole big-fish business can just as easily wreck a trip as make it. What if you travel a thousand miles at great expense only to catch foot-long trout, either because that's all there is or because you just can't catch any of the big ones? The usual refuge of militant consumerism doesn't work in fishing for the simple reason that it's usually no one's fault, although that doesn't keep some from complaining anyway. The point is, however much you spend on a fishing trip, you're not purchasing fish. It's more like buying into the poker game I used to attend before I realized that someone at my skill level shouldn't play cards with a guy named Poker Bob.
And even if more than one big-fish trip pans out, there's always the danger of becoming spoiled. I've seen it happen, sometimes to people you wouldn't expect to have that particular character flaw. For instance, a well-known steelhead fisherman once said he'd finally lost interest in trout altogether because "twenty inches just isn't twenty pounds." I do some steelheading myself and I know what he means, but I've left instructions that if I ever turn up my nose at a twenty-inch trout, I'm to be put down like a sick dog.
Naturally, I don't think I'm spoiled (no one ever thinks they're spoiled), and I can say that, even when I catch plenty of good-sized fish, my central visual memory from one trip will be of a brilliant male scarlet tanager perched on a birch twig, and from the next the poignant sight of a crippled caribou well on its way to becoming wolf bait. It's probably just a little extra age and my Midwestern upbringing, but I now seem happy enough to take what I get — and you do always get something — but I suspect it wasn't always that way. How else would I know that it takes years to reach anything resembling a state of grace, and that once there, you can still be evicted at any time for bad behavior?
Copyright © 2008 by John Gierach
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