The Warrior

“They only eat the black ones.” – Scott Spray

“Good morning, Daddy! Happy Father’s Day!” My wife chimed, as I shuffled into the kitchen.
“Thank you.” I grunted, reaching for my favorite mug and the smoldering hot pot of still-percolating coffee on the hot plate. She was hard at work, as per usual, scrambling eggs, buttering toast, and flipping pierogis.

“Wow, that’s quite a breakfast your’ve got going there. Do you need a hand?”

“Nope. You just sit down. You don’t have to do anything today.”

“I should probably mow though.”

“No. It can wait. You’ve been running ragged. This is your day. What do you want to do?”

No sweeter words had been spoken from my spouse since quarantine began. We’d been stuck inside working from home and teaching our daughters five days a week and were physically and mentally exhausted from the grind. My anxiety, something I’d struggled with my entire life, had never been higher. I needed a chance to get away.

“I want to go fishing.” I said.

“Okay. Go for it!”

If the ride over was any indication, it was going to be a fantastic afternoon on the water. I drove ten miles out of my way just to feel the wind in my face and play another song or two. It felt good to drive again. I missed commuting to work and the thirty minutes of serenity it delivered. The ride to my favorite fishing hole was even sweeter. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there was just enough breeze to break up the heat. I didn’t care if I caught anything. I just wanted to be standing in a river.

It was around 1 p.m. when I pulled over to the gravel access drive. There were four other vehicles in front of me, including several trucks sporting window decals of all the major fishing brands or bumper stickers of the “Rippin’ Lips” variety. I preferred less (four less to be exact) but there was plenty of river to be fished and a stroll to the river’s edge would tell me all I needed to know.

As I reached the water, an older gentlemen with a graying beard and a fly rod was sloshing his way toward the bank. I nodded hello, let him pass, and made my way roadside to grab my gear, grinning like a fool. There was no one else in sight. I would have that stretch of river to myself.

I waded in and made my way downstream in record time. I decided to wet wade, rather than mess with clunky waders. The water was warm, shallow, and clear. I loved the way it felt splashing against my calves. I would stay cool while the sun beat down from its midday perch.

I stalked the shallow center of the river, keeping a shaded eye on the deeper pools of the western bank. With any luck, I would catch a silver flash beneath the surface. A breech would be an even better reason to wet a line. My honey hole was 100 yards downstream (give or take) but I was open to new opportunities and found a beautiful example on the way. No more than 20 yards from the spot, was a pile of storm-swept limbs cluttering the bank. It would be the perfect cover for any predatory fish and there was just enough room to swing a fly beneath it if casted with precision.

“Precision” wasn’t exactly my casting forte, but I was prepared to risk the loss of a fly and give it a shot. The fly in question wasn’t really a question at all. The bass in this area had insatiable appetites but preferred a particular kind of fair over all others — hellgrammites, which could be imitated by any black wooly bugger or streamer sized 8-12. I had just the thing in my fly box and chuckled as I tied on a juicy number 10 with a green bead for a head. It reminded me of my first time fishing here one year prior and something my friend Scott Spray said to me, as he pointed it out on the map.

“They only eat the black ones, Nick. They like hellgrammites. Don’t bother with anything else. Swing a black streamer and you’ll be hooking up all afternoon.”

I didn’t take his advice at first, which is why I found the memory humorous. I decided to throw olives and prepared to leave the river skunked after thrashing the water for well over an hour.

“I’m not catching anything out here, Scott. I don’t think I”m in the right place.”

“Are you using black streamers?”

“No….I’m using olive. I thought they looked more realistic.”

“Dude…tie on a black one. I’m telling you.”

I caught my first bass shortly after and continued landing them until my throat was dry with dehydration and my shoulders slumped from fatigue. I made it a point to follow Scott’s advice from then on and carried one of his hand-spun, glass 3wts along to pay tribute a year later. Glass was still new to me and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to swing a heavy fly with it. I silenced all doubt with my first cast. The rod loaded with a perfect arch and the fly landed as intended — a few yards upstream of the overhang.

I threw in a quick mend to let it sink and followed the drift with the rod’s tip. I watched the line tighten as it passed the overhang and immediately set the hook. Chaos ensued. The water exploded and the rod bent. I raised it, reeled in the slack, and worked the fish to the surface.

“Smallmouth.” I thought. “And its going to jump.”

When it did, I was ready, and lowered the rod away to keep the line tight. I raised the rod as it returned to the water and worked the thrashing fish into the net. I’d caught my first smallmouth of the afternoon and felt the years peel away as I released it back into the weeds. The action dried up soon after and it was time to move downstream for the main event. I set my sites on a tangled patch of riverbank and slowly made my way to the treasure lurking beyond.

The spot in question was a bulging portion of river that resembled a small lagoon. It was shaded, had plenty of structure, and a slack-water pool beyond the bait line that was deeper than it appeared. It didn’t look like a promising spot to the naked eye but a decent pair of polarized sunglasses told a very different story. It was loaded with bass of all varieties and you just had to be smart in the way you fished it.

I added tippet to reduce the drag, retied the fly, and aimed the cast upstream and close to shore. The strike was immediate and I could tell by the way it fought that it wasn’t a smallmouth. I’d fished enough as a kid to know when I had a panfish on the line and that is exactly what the water produced.

Rock bass were abundant in the lakes and ponds of my Northern Michigan roots. I wasn’t much of an angler then but tolerated panfishing the most. It was instant-gratification as opposed to the hours of watching and waiting that accommodated other game fish. The fact that my mother rewarded us with packs of baseball cards for the most fish caught had something to do with it too.

I caught enough to fill a creel with little effort and enjoyed every one of them. They fought like prize fighters and the little 3wt made them feel like breeching humpback whales. And there were plenty of small mouth sprinkled in as well. Somewhere amidst the rock bass melee, I’d noticed that whenever my casts fell short of the pool and made it to the current, a smallmouth would hit it further downstream. It was quite the revelation. I switched tactics, purposely casting short to drift with the bait. The fishing picked up after. I pulled quite a few smallmouth out of that run. More than I could keep track of and each hit brought a smile to my face. I was having the time of my life.

And the best was yet to come.

I stumbled on to my second fishing epiphany of the day by happy accident. The last smallmouth I’d caught darted downstream towards a rocky area beneath the long, drooping limbs of a water oak. I’d been avoiding this particular spot for fear of snagging my prized streamer, which was now torn to the point of unraveling but still catching fish. I looked at it and then back at the water oak several times, weighing the consequences. It wasn’t “just a fly” anymore. It had been bitten, ripped, chewed, spat, and dislodged from the mouth of over twenty fish and was still fighting. I’d grown quite fond of it.

“What a warrior.” I thought. “I should have you bronzed.”

Still, the river beckoned. Bigger fish and a greater glory lay beneath the limbs of that oak. I could feel it in the cork of my flyrod. I let out some line, threw a few false-casts, and sidearmed the fly into the current beneath the limbs. It was a perfect cast. My best of the afternoon. And I would be rewarded for it.

I thought I was snagged at first. The leader was taut but in an unfamiliar way. I reeled in the slack and raised the rod for more information. It gave at first. Then it didn’t.

“That’s a fish!” I thought. And set the hook.

The glass rod bent to the cork as the bass left the rocks and bolted downstream. The fight had begun. I pinched the line and stayed off the reel to let the fish work. When it went for the bank, I worked it to the left. When it went for the rocks, I worked it to the right. When it dove for the weedy bottom, I raised the rod. I gained ground little-by-little, doing everything I could to keep tension on the string, and the fly in its jaw. My hands began to sweat and I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. I wasn’t sure how big the fish was but the rod made it feel monstrous — like nothing I’d ever experienced — and I was winning.

The warrior’s bright green head was the first thing I could see as the bass neared my legs. A fat, dark body followed and I went for the net before it could try anything funny. It was indeed a bass and the biggest I’d ever caught on a fly. I was beaming from ear-to-ear. The sense of pride and accomplishment was intoxicating.

I removed the fly from its jaws, snapped a quick photo, and returned the bass back to the depths to fight another day. I then turned my attention to my discarded fly — my “warrior” — fighting the current at my side. The bass had shredded it to the hook and the bead moved freely from eye-to-shank. A bit of black thread and a couple strands of crystal flash was all that remained. It would fight no more. I clipped it off at the eye and pinned it to my cap for safe keeping.

“That’ll do it.” I thought. “It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

But there was still one thing left to do. Celebrate. At some point during my flyfishing journey, I’d theorized that a can of beer, cold or warm, tasted the sweetest in the middle of a river. It was time to put that theory to the test and silence the non-believers once and for all. I tucked the 3wt beneath my arm, fumbled around in the depths of my pack, and removed a can of my favorite IPA from its belly. I popped the top, sucked off the warm foam, and knocked it against the bill of my cap to toast it’s passenger. It was indeed the sweetest drink I’d ever tasted.

“Cheers to you, my friend. Cheers to the warrior.”

If you enjoy this blog and would to hear more from me, check out the Traditional Outdoors Podcast. We have a little bit of everything on the show and I think you will enjoy a seat at our campfire. Otherwise, good luck and tight lines.

“Hunt the Experience”

“The beginning is often a poor place to start the story of a duck hunt. The true devotee of the wind-swept autumn waters hunts many other things besides ducks. He hunts the unfolding secrets of the dawn and the message of the wind. He hunts the curling waves and the tossing tops of suppliant trees. He hunts the poignant loneliness of a tender, departing season and the boisterous advent of one more rigorous. All these he hunts and, old or young, he finds them as they were before—primordial, healing, and soothing to mankind in his whirling world of complexities.”

-Gordon MacQuarrie, “A Pot-Hole Rendezvous”

I hunt experiences. I’ve been very honest when asked. I hunt and fish to write and would’ve starved long ago if my life depended on it. I would do everything quite differently if forced to do so for sustenance.

A foolhardy squirrel hunting adventure recently added weight to these words. It involved a church charity contest pitting at least twenty firearm-wielding, small-game hunters with beagles against four idiots and their longbows. It didn’t end well for the idiots. It never has. We’ve yet to make a single harvest in several years of participation. We get up early, we fling arrows into the trees until we get hungry, then head back to the church for coffee and desserts while everyone else is weighing in. It’s been a riot. We wouldn’t change the laughs for all the squirrel cacciatore in the world.

It was during this hunt that my friend Cary, one of the aforementioned idiots, muttered something that really spun my wheels. We’d just whistled several shafts across the tail of a terrified black squirrel, when he muttered something about a gun. “Sometimes I do it for the feeling. Sometimes I do it for the groceries. When I’m doing it for the groceries, look out, it gets ugly.” I understood what he meant. I’d felt the same chasing turkeys on several occasions. There is nothing wrong with ugly. There is a time and place for ugly and there is a time and place for elegant. Both of them get the job done but the tools, processes, and frame of mind vary greatly.

Whichever you strive for depends on your goal — a successful harvest notwithstanding. That part is obvious. No one is fishing with empty lines or hunting with empty bowstrings. MacQuarrie wasn’t pumping an empty 12-gauge. His gun was loaded and ducks were shot, but that was only part of his experience — a small one at that. This was the running theme of his entire catalog of works and why I hold them close to my chest. In fact, I’ll be very sad if the friend from whom I borrowed them realizes they are missing.

I prefer classic outdoor literature to anything written today. The world was slower and it was a more romantic time. The pursuit was paramount — no matter the weapon or animal — and the results were always secondary. Hemingway took plenty of game in Green Hills of Africa but the results pale in comparison to detailed passages like this:

“To go down and up two hands-and-knee climbing ravines and then out into the moonlight and the long, too-steep shoulder of mountain that you climbed one foot up to the other, one foot after the other, one stride at a time, leaning forward against the grade and the altitude, dead tired and gun weary, single file in the moonlight across the slope, on up and to the top where it was easy, the country spread in the moonlight, then up and down and on, through the small hills, tired but now in sight of the fires…”

-Ernest Hemingway, “Green Hills of Africa”

He didn’t have the storytelling tools we have at our disposal today. He had to invest time and words to set the mood and make the mundane elements interesting. That is where the real art was made. Writers like Hemingway and MacQuarrie excelled at keeping the romance alive when sharing their experiences. They understood that every outdoor adventure had a predictable beginning and end, and focused on the poetry in the middle. Their audience was less distracted, in addition, and had more time to read and appreciate what they were reading. That isn’t the case, today. The world is too noisy.

Storytelling is different now. The audience is different now. People live post-to-post, sharing the bulk of their lives with the masses. Hunters can shoot a deer, post a photo or video, and summarize the story in very few words. Most have nothing to show if there isn’t an animal on the ground or a fish in their hands. The average sportsmen doesn’t want to read a paragraph about returning to camp or watch a fishing video without a monster trout on the line. There is too much content available to appreciate what is being seen. We are over-saturated.

Think about the last time you had a lackluster day afield and thought “well…nothing worth posting about happened this trip”. I have. And I can guarantee many of you have as well.

Chew on that a moment, think about how insane it is, then remember these words:

“It may not have been post-worthy but it was absolutely worthwhile.”

My friend and podcasting partner Steve (Angell) called me to chat awhile back. He told me he wanted to start using the phrase “hunt the experience” for Traditional Outdoors. I loved it. I thought it fit the show and was a fantastic message to send. We started using it the next day and its been our creed ever since. Steve even made a video about it. He’s proud of it and I am proud of him for making it.

Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it. It says everything it needs to say without saying anything at all.

You can watch the Hunt the Experience video here. If you haven’t, please check out our podcast and consider subscribing. We would love to have you at our campfire. If you are interested in Gordon MacQuarrie, I highly recommend you start here. It is a fantastic read. Follow it up with the Ol’ Duck Hunter trilogy if you enjoy it. It changed my life. Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook if you want to talk outdoor literature and have recommendations. I can’t get enough of it and can give your recommendations, as well.