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Full CreelA Nick Lyons Reader
By Nick Lyons
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Nick Lyons
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePREFACE TO THE SEASONABLE ANGLER
A generous fish ... he also has seasons. -Izaak Walton
There is a rhythm to the angler's life and a rhythm to his year.
If, as Father Walton says, "angling is somewhat like poetry, men are to be born so," then most anglers, like myself, will have begun at an age before memory-with stout cord, bamboo pole, long, level leader, bait hook, and worm. Others, who come to it late, often have the sensation of having found a deep and abiding love, there all the while, like fire in the straw, that required only the proper wind to fan it forth. So it is with a talent, a genius even, for music, painting, writing; so it is, especially, with trout fishing-which "may be said to be so like the Mathematics that it can never be fully learnt." There is, or should be, a rhythmic evolution to the fisherman's life (there is so little rhythm today in so many lives). At first glance it may seem merely that from barefoot boy with garden hackle to fly fisherman with all the delicious paraphernalia that makes trout fishing a consummate ritual, an enticing and inexhaustible mystery, a perpetual delight. But the evolution runs deeper, and incorporates at least at one level an increasing respect for the"event" of fishing (I would not even call it "sport") and of nature, and a diminishing of much necessary interest in the fat creel. But while the man evolves-and it is the trouter, quite as much as the trout, that concerns me-each year has its own rhythm. The season begins in the dark brooding of winter, brightened by innumerable memories and preparatory tasks; it bursts out with raw action in April, rough-hewn and chill; it is filled with infinite variety and constant expectation and change throughout midspring; in June it reaches its rich culmination in the ecstatic major hatches; in summer it is sparer, more demanding, more leisurely, more philosophic; and in autumn, the season of "mellow fruitfulness," it is ripe and fulfilled. And then it all begins again. And again. I am a lover of angling, an aficionado-even an addict. My experiences on the streams have been intense and varied, and they have been compounded by the countless times I have relived them in my imagination. Like most fishermen, I have an abnormal imagination-or, more bluntly, I have been known to lie through my teeth. Perhaps it comes "with the territory." Though I have been rigorous with myself in this book, some parts of it may still seem unbelievable. Believe them. By now I do. And why quibble? For this is man's play, angling, and as the world becomes more and more desperate, I further respect its values as a tonic and as an antidote-on the stream and in the imagination-and as a virtue in itself. These then are the confessions of an angling addict-an addict with a "rage for order," a penchant for stretchers, and a quiet desire to allow the seasons to live through him and to instruct him.
Chapter TwoWINTER DREAMS AND WAKENING
The gods do not deduct from man's allotted span the hours spent in fishing. -Babylonian Proverb
When do I angle? Always. Angling is always in season for me. In all seasons I fish or think fish; each season makes its unique contribution, and there is no season of the year when I am not angling. If indeed the gods do not deduct, then surely I will be a Struldbrug. Yet sometimes in October I do not think angling. The lawful season has recently ended, I have neglected my far too numerous affairs grossly, my four children have begun school and are already cutting up, my wife trots out her winter repair list. It is a busy, mindless time. But it is good that my secret trouting life lie fallow-after one season, before another. I welcome the rest. Sometimes this period in October lasts as long as seven or even eight days. But by late October, never later than the twenty-third or twenty-fourth, the new season commences-humbly perhaps, but then there it is. Perhaps the office calendar will inaugurate the new year this year. Casually I may, on a blustery late-October afternoon, notice that there are only sixty-eight days left to the year: which means since the next is not a leap year, that there are exactly one hundred and fifty-eight days left until Opening Day. I have long since tabulated the exact ninety days from January first until April first. It is not the sort of fact one forgets. Or a catalog may arrive from one of the scores of mail-order houses that have me on their lists. I leave it on the corner of my desk for a day, two days, a full business week, and then one lunch hour chance to ruffle through its pages, looking at the fine bamboo rods with hallowed names like Orvis, Pezon et Michel, Payne, the Hardy and Farlow reels, the latest promises in fly lines, the interminable lists of flies, the sporting clothes. Yes, perhaps this year I shall buy me a Pezon et Michel instead of that tweedy suit my wife assures me I need, or a pair of russet suede brogues with cleated heels and fine felt soles. In my mind I buy the rod and receive it in the long oblong wooden box, unhouse it for the first time, flex it carefully in my living room. Then I am on the Willowemoc or the West Branch and I thread the line and affix the fly and the line is sailing out behind me and then looping frontward, and then it lies down softly and leader-straight on the water, inches from the steadily opening circles of a good brown steadily rising. Yes, there is every reason why I should buy a Pezon et Michel this year. And a pair of brogues. Or perhaps one evening after I have lit the fire, my wife may be talking wisely about one of the supreme themes of art, love, shopping, or politics, and she will notice that I am not there. "You're not at all interested in what I have to say about Baroque interiors," she says. "You know I am, Mari. I couldn't be more interested." "You didn't hear a word I said." "Frankly, I was thinking of something else. Something rather important, as a matter of fact." My wife looks at me for a long time. She is an artist, finely trained and acutely sensitive to appearances. Then she says, with benign solicitude-for herself or me, I cannot tell-"But it's only October." "My mind drifted," I say. "Not the Beaverkill! Already?" "No. To be absolutely truthful, I was not on the Beaverkill." "The West Branch of the Croydon? Fishing with Horse Coachmen?" "Croton. Hair Coachmen. Actually," (I mumble) "actually, I was on the Schoharie, and it was the time of the Hendricksons, and ..." And then she knows and I know and soon all my four children-who know everything-know, and then the fever smokes, ignites, and begins to flame forth with frightening intensity. I take every piece of equipment I own from my fishing closets. I unhouse and then wipe down my wispy Thomas and my study old Granger carefully. I check each guide for rust. I look for nicks in the finish. I line up the sections and note a slight set in the Thomas, which perhaps I can hang out by attaching to it one of my children's blocks and suspending them from the shower rod. (My children watch-amused or frightened.) I rub dirt out of the reel seat of the Thomas. I take apart my Hardy reel and oil it lightly. I toss out frayed and rotted tippet spools. I sit with my Granger for a half hour and think of the fifteen-inch brown I took with it on the Amawalk, with a marabou streamer fished deep into a riffled pool the previous April. From the bedroom my wife calls. I grumble unintelligibly and she calls again. I grumble again and continue my work: I rub clean the male ferrule of my Thomas and whistle into its mate. Then I dump all the thousands of my flies into a shoe box, all of them, and begin plucking them out one by one and checking for rust or bent wings or bruised tails; I hone points, weed out defectives, relacquer a few frayed head knots, and then place the survivors into new containers. I have numberless plastic boxes and metal boxes and aluminum boxes-some tiny, some vest-pocket size, some huge storage boxes. Each year I arrange my flies differently, seeking the best logic for their placement. Is the Coachman more valuable next to the Adams? Will I use the Quill Gordon more next year? Should all the midge flies go together? Only three Hendricksons left. Strange. I'll have to tie up a dozen. And some Red Quills. And four more No. 16 Hairwing Coachmen. And perhaps that parachute fly, in case I make the Battenkill with Frank. There is little genuine custom in the world today, and this is a consummate ritual: the feel of a Payne rod, its difference in firm backbone from a Leonard or a parabolic Pezon et Michel; the feel of a particular felt or tweed hat; those suede brogues with cleated heels and fine felt soles; the magic words "Beaverkill," "Willowemoc," "Au Sable," "Big Bend," and "trout" itself; the tying and repairing; the familiar technical talk, the stories. Fishing is not for wealthy men but for dreamers. Have I always had so serious a case? Practically. That is the safest answer I can give. Practically. I cannot remember a time when I was not tinkering with my equipment; I cannot remember a time when I did not think about fishing. And each item of tackle is charged with memories, which return each winter in triumphant clarity out of the opaque past: a particular fly recalls a matched hatch on the translucent Little Beaverkill near Lew Beach; a nick in my Thomas recalls a disastrous Father's Day weekend evening on the East Branch when I almost lost the rod and forfeited my married life. And the mangled handle on my Hardy reel summons that nightmarish fire that raged in on the crest of furious winds during the dead of winter, buffaloing up out of the stone church next door and doing its work quick and voracious as a fox on a chicken raid. I remember the policeman's light flicking through my little study. My fly-tying table-with all the hooks and hackles, threads, and bobbins-had been decimated. I had raced to the closet, its door seared through. With the borrowed flashlight I searched into the hollowed-out section of the wall. My vest, in which I had most of my working tackle, hung loosely from a wire hanger. It was almost burned away. On one side, several plastic boxes had been chewed through: the flies were all singed or destroyed; nothing could be saved there. Little items-like tippet spools, leader sink, fly dope, clippers, penlite, and extra leaders-could be replaced easily enough: they were all gone. My waders were a lump of melted rubber; my old wicker creel was a small black skeleton on a rear nail; an ancient felt hat was a mere bit of rag; several glass rods without cases had gone up; a fine old net that had always been there at the crucial moments was only a charred curved stick; and a whole shelf of storied angling knick-knacks had collapsed and lost itself in the wet, black debris on the floor. In a corner, the aluminum rod cases were roasted black (Frank Mele later got Jim Payne to check them out: they are no doubt the better for it). And in the debris I found the Hardy reel, its chamois case burned away, the fine floating line devoured, the plastic handle mutilated. And every Carlisle hook I ever see-long and impractical-recalls my first trout, my first fishing lie. My first angling experiences were in the lake that bordered the property my grandfather owned when the Laurel House in Haines Falls, New York, was his. At first no one gave me instruction or encouragement, I had no fishing buddies, and most adults in my world only attempted to dissuade me: they could only be considered the enemy. It was a small, heavily padded lake, little larger than a pond, and it contained only perch, shiners, punkinseeds, and pickerel. No bass. No trout. Invariably I fished with a long cane pole, cork bobber, string or length of gut, and snelled hook. Worms were my standby, though after a huge pickerel swiped at a small shiner I was diddling with, I used shiners for bait also, and caught a good number of reputable pickerel. One went a full four pounds and nearly caused my Aunt Blanche to leap into the lake when, after a momentous tug, it flopped near her feet; she was wearing open sandals. She screeched and I leaped toward her-to protect my fish.
I also caught pickerel as they lay still in the quiet water below the dam and spillway. It was not beneath me to use devious methods; I was in those days cunning and resourceful and would lean far over the concrete dam to snare the pickerel with piano-wire loops. It took keen discipline to lower the wire at the end of a broomstick or willow sapling, down into the water behind the sticklike fish, slip it abruptly (or with impeccable slowness) forward to the gills, and yank. After the water spilled over at the dam it formed several pools in which I sometimes caught small perch, and then it meandered through swamp and woods until it met a clear spring creek; together they formed a rather sizable stream, which washed over the famous Kaaterskill Falls behind the Laurel House and down into the awesome cleft. Often I would hunt for crayfish, frogs, and newts, in one or another of the sections of the creek-and use them for such delightful purposes as frightening the deliciously frightenable little girls, some of whom were blood (if not spiritual) relations. One summer a comedian who later achieved some reputation as a double-talker elicited my aid in supplying him with small frogs and crayfish; it was the custom to have the cups turned down at the table settings in the huge dining room, and he would place my little creatures under the cups of those who would react most noticeably. They did. Chiefly, though, I released what I caught in a day or so, taking my best pleasure in the catching itself, in cupping my hand down quickly on a small stream frog, grasping a bullfrog firmly around its plump midsection, or trapping the elusive back-dancers as they scuttered from under upturned rocks in the creek bed. Barefoot in the creek, I often saw small brightly colored fish no more than four inches long, darting here and there. Their spots-bright red and gold and purple-and their soft bodies intrigued me, but they were too difficult to catch and too small to be worth my time. That is, until I saw the big one under the log in the long pool beneath a neglected wooden bridge far back in the woods.
Excerpted from Full Creel by Nick Lyons Copyright © 2000 by Nick Lyons. Excerpted by permission.
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