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Never Sniff A Gift Fish
By Patrick F. McManus
Holt PaperbacksCopyright © 1984 Patrick F. McManus
All right reserved.
Never Sniff A Gift Fish
Blowing SmokeMany people think that my reputation as a great outdoorsman is a product of inherent athletic ability. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is that I have been cursed since birth with an extraordinary lack of coordination.For years my fly-casting technique was compared, rather banally I might add, to an old lady fighting off a bee with a broom handle. My canoe paddling raised shouts of alarm among onlookers, who assumed I was trying to repel an assault by a North American cousin of the Loch Ness monster. My attempts to pitch the family tent terrorized entire campgrounds. As for marksmanship, any game I happened to bring into camp was routinely examined by my disbelieving companions for powder burns. ("The man has stealth," they would say. "Who else could place the muzzle of a rifle to the head of a sleeping mule-deer buck? Who else could still miss?")For years I suffered the ridicule of my fellow sportsmen over what they perceived to be my ineptitude. Then one day I happened to recall a lovable old college administrator I had once served time under, Dr. Milburn Snodgrass. That casual recollection was to advance outdoor sports by a hundred years.Doc Snodgrass had taken up pipe smoking as a young man and turned it into a highly successful career, eventually rising to the position of dean. Obviously, his success was not due merely to pipe smoking. No, he was also the master of two facial expressions: thoughtful and bemused. Those were the total ingredients of his success. The man was dumb. It is my considered opinion that if intelligence were crankcase oil, his would not have wet the tip of the dipstick let alone reached the add-one-quart mark. But he was an excellent dean.No matter what problem was brought before Doc Snodgrass, his response was to sit back and puff on his pipe, alternating between thoughtful and bemused expressions. The effect suggested that Doc was bemused by a problem so ridiculously simple and was giving thought to firing the nincompoop who dared bother him with it. The problem-bearer would laugh feebly, to indicate it was all a little joke, and then rush off to find the solution himself. People thought Snodgrass was a genius and often wondered what great ideas he was mulling over as he puffed his pipe and looked thoughtful and bemused. Eventually, I would learn the truth: Doc Snodgrass was not smart enough to mull.One example will serve to illustrate the effectiveness of the dean's approach to human relations.During a campus uprising, the students demanded that the college administration do away with Poverty,War, and Mashed Turnips in the Commissary, although not necessarily in that order. Doc Snodgrass appeared suddenly on the steps of the administration building, seemingly to confront the chanting mob but more likely because he had mistaken the exit for the door to the restroom. (His thoughtful expression was probably due at first to his wondering why so many students of both sexes were in the men's room.) As he fumbled about in his pockets looking for his tobacco pouch--the search for the source of the Nile took scarcely longer--the students fell silent, no doubt saving their breath for the purpose of shouting down the words of wisdom they expected to be forthcoming from the dean. (Youths are not called callow for nothing.) The pouch at last found, the dean began to fill his pipe, tamping and filling, tamping and filling, and all the while looking extremely thoughtful. Then he began probing his pockets for a match. Finally, an exasperated student in guerrilla attire lunged forward and thrust upon him a disposable lighter, little realizing that the dean was confounded by all such modern technology. His efforts to ignite the lighter by scratching it against a brick wall produced a good laugh from the students and a consensus among them that anyone with a sense of humor like that couldn't be such a bad guy after all. The mood of the crowd lightened. A game of Frisbee broke out. Someone threw a football. A coed burned her bra.Having solved the riddle of the lighter, and tortured the tobacco into a state of combustion, Snodgrass began sucking away on his pipe as he looked increasingly thoughtful. He was, as I say, a master of the thoughtful expression. Even the hardliners among the students seemed unable to resist the impression that the dean wascontemplating the eradication of Poverty, War, and Mashed Turnips. The crowd began to disperse, its members exchanging among themselves the opinion that the dean had not only a great sense of humor but a mind "like a steel trap." The truth was, he had a mind like flypaper, and not very good flypaper at that. His total intellectual arsenal consisted of his pipe and those two facial expressions.The import of the dean's pipe did not strike me immediately, but when it did, I rushed out and bought myself a pipe and tobacco and began practicing my expressions. As a direct consequence of these efforts, I began rising through the professorial ranks as if by levitation. The ugly rumor that I had flunked three successive IQ tests (there were a lot of trick questions) was silenced once and for all. Faculty and students alike began referring to me as one who had a mind like a steel trap. And I continued to puff my pipe and look alternately bemused and thoughtful as promotion after promotion was thrust upon me. Still, not all was well. There was the problem of my ineptitude at outdoor sports.Then one day I was struck by a marvelous idea. If my pipe and expressions had worked so well in advancing my career, why wouldn't they be equally effective in something worthwhile, such as hunting and fishing? The very next weekend, on a fishing trip with Retch Sweeney and Fenton Quagmire, I took along my pipe and tobacco and, of course, my ability to become bemused or thoughtful at the drop of a hat.The fishing started out routinely, with Sweeney and Quagmire making snide remarks about my casting technique. For the most part, however, they confined their merriment to a few chortles, saving the belly laughs forthe embarrassing predicament that my lack of coordination invariably lands me in.Presently, I spotted a promising patch of water, but it was made almost inaccessible because of thick brush and high banks on one side and a monstrous logjam on the other. For that very reason I guessed that the deep hole beneath the logjam probably hadn't been prospected recently by other anglers. As I studied the situation, I noticed a slender log jutting out through the brush on the bank, and I quickly calculated that by sitting on the end of this log I could cast over the hole and still remain concealed from the fish. Five minutes later I was perched somewhat precariously on the end of the log and, in fact, had already extracted a couple of plump trout from beneath the logjam. Sweeney and Quagmire, both as yet without a single strike, glared enviously at me and cursed my ingenuity. Now it was my turn to chortle. But right in the middle of my chortle, a huge rainbow zoomed out of the depths like a Polaris missile and detonated on my Black Gnat. This was exactly what I had been anticipating, and with lightning reflexes, I fell off the log and dropped fifteen feet into a bed of assorted boulders, none smaller than a breadbox. Even though my impact on the rocks caused me to wonder momentarily whether pelvic transplants had yet been perfected, I immediately arose without so much as a whimper, whipped out my pipe, and began stuffing it with tobacco. Already I detected the sounds of Sweeney and Quagmire crashing through the brush, possibly to determine if I had suffered any serious injury but more likely racing each other for the fishing spot I had so recently abandoned. In any case, I knew that great booming laughs were already gestating in their bellies.But I was ready. When their heads popped from the brush, I was calmly puffing on my pipe and looking thoughtfully up at the log."You hurt?" Sweeney asked, traces of a smile already playing in the corners of his mouth.To such a question I normally would have snappishly replied, "No, you idiot, I've always been shaped like a potato chip!" Then would have come the wild howls of mirth, the ecstatic knee-slapping, and the attempts by Sweeney and Quagmire to re-create through mimicry some of my more extravagant moves during the course of the fall. But not this time.Calmly, I blew a puff of smoke toward them and displayed my bemused look. I then returned my thoughtful gaze to the log.I will not exaggerate the quality of my companions' mental processes by suggesting that they had flashes of insight. Nevertheless, I sensed some faint cognitive flickerings."Whatcha do that for?" asked Quagmire, referring to my fall."Yeah, you could've hurt yourself," Sweeney added, puzzled.Without replying, I continued to study the log thoughtfully, occasionally tossing a bemused look in the direction of my audience of two.Thoroughly befuddled, Quagmire and Sweeney at last wandered off to resume their fishing. They clearly were of the impression that I had deliberately planned and executed the fall from the log, possibly as a scientific experiment for a secret government agency. Success! Before shouting "Eureka!" however, I salved my injuries with emergency first aid, which consisted largely of defoliatingall the flora within a five-foot radius by hissing a stream of colorful expressions, and hopping about like a rain dancer trying to terminate a five-year drought.I could scarcely wait to test the pipe-and-two-expression ploy on wits quicker than those of Sweeney and Quagmire. The next weekend I was fishing alone on one of my favorite rivers and happened to run into a chap whose name turned out to be Shep. He obviously was an expert fly caster. His wrist would twitch and eighty feet of line would shoot toward the far bank, the tiny fly settling on the surface of the water as softly as a falling flake of dandruff. Even as I watched, he netted one of the finest trout I've ever seen taken from the river."I think I'll keep this one," he said to me. "Now the big ones, I always release them.""Big ones?" I said, ogling his hefty catch. "Why, yes, I never take any of the big ones home myself. In fact, I often don't take home any small ones or middle-sized ones either.""Now, that's what I call true sportsmanship!" Shep said, casually dropping a fly three inches from the far bank. "Say, there's plenty of room here. Why don't you try a few casts yourself?"I had already dug out my pipe and lighted up. "Well, maybe, but first let me see you do that again, that, uh, cast of yours."He obliged me with a repeat performance, this time placing the fly a mere inch from the bank. I puffed my pipe and gave him my bemused look."Something wrong?" he asked, a note of unease in his voice.I puffed away, looking bemused, as he made anotherawesome cast. He was showing definite signs of discomfort."It's my elbow, isn't it?" he said. "I've never held my elbow the way you're supposed to. Maybe you can give me a couple of lessons."I knocked the ashes out of my pipe, changed to the thoughtful expression, and unleashed a powerful twenty-foot cast, the splash from which lifted a flock of crows cawing into the air from a nearby cornfield.Shep leaped back. "Are you okay? That was a nasty spasm you had just then."I silenced him with my bemused look. Then I stoked up my pipe again, alternating between thoughtful and bemused expressions. That destroyed the last of Shep's confidence. Ten minutes later I had him totally under my power and was even giving him a few casting tips."There you go again," I scolded him, "casting over twenty-five feet. You have to learn control, man, learn controll""I know," Shep said, whimpering, "but I just can't seem to get the knack of it.""Well, then, try this approach," I advised. "Just pretend you're a little old lady fighting off a bee with a broom handle."Naturally, I was delighted to discover that this bit of business with the pipe and two expressions not only transcended my lack of coordination but conveyed the impression that I was actually an expert angler. Within six months, I had applied the technique to all the other outdoor sports and found that it worked equally well. Now when I missed an easy shot at a pheasant, say, I would no longer hang my head and look embarrassed. Instead, I'd stick the pipe in my mouth and look bemused."You sure scared the heck out of that ol' ring-neck," my companion would say. "You've got to be darn good to miss a shot like that!"To date, my greatest achievement with the pipe and two expressions occurred on a backpacking trip into a wilderness area of the Rocky Mountains. Sweeney, Quagmire, and I were hiking along a trail when we came across a bear track of approximately the dimensions of a doormat."Bleep!" hissed Sweeney. "Look at the size of that track!""It's fr-fresh, too," whispered Quagmire, swiveling his head about. "L-looks like grizzly. Can't be far away, either."As I now do under all such circumstances, I dug out the pipe, calmly filled, tamped, and lighted it. Just then a grouse exploded from the brush at the edge of the trail and gave all three of us quite a start. Nevertheless, I puffed away on my pipe and looked bemused. Both Quagmire and Sweeney said later they were extremely impressed by my reaction. After all, it's no simple thing to puff a pipe and look bemused when you're running that fast.Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 by Patrick F. McManus
Excerpted from Never Sniff A Gift Fish by Patrick F. McManus Copyright © 1984 by Patrick F. McManus. Excerpted by permission.
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