Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Between Feast and Famine

There are places that exist only in darkness. Narrow strips of highway bisecting the occasional conglomeration of synthetic light. Neon beer signs, glowing gas prices and glimmers of moonlight on a cloudless night provide the only proof of their existence. Theses places exist somewhere between A and B, between sleep and dreams, between last year and this year. If you're lucky enough to hit a REM cycle while belted into the passenger seat, they cease to exist at all. They are the cities and towns and truck stops and trailers that dot the map en route to a destination waterway. With sleep nagging at your consciousness, there is an urgency to put these places behind you. With a hurricane on your heels, you can't put them behind you fast enough.

We came with a stated goal of finding steelhead, solitude, and a change of scenery. Perhaps more than anything though, we came because our home rivers were about to overtake their banks. As it turns out one of the best places to ride out a hurricane is on a steelhead stream hundreds of miles away.  Whether it has steelhead in it or not is a matter of semantics.

The trip served as a dichotomous snapshot of Mother Nature's mood swings; On one side displaying her most benevolent gifts to the angler in the form of wild trout and steelhead at the peak of their colors...

On the other, days and days of rain with no end in sight. Rivers swelling to historical levels, cities and towns and lives being washed away.

Meanwhile we're reminded to count our blessings as we seek solace somewhere between feast and famine, hoping that when the rivers come down the most we have to worry about is whether there are steelhead in them or not.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

High Grade Stuff

I don't know if it was the machine guns or the "We have nothing to give a shit about" attitude they exuded that unnerved me the most. The weapons, though clearly dated, were presumably just as lethal as the day they were made. A boyish figure perched on the roof of the tattered building looked up from his cell phone briefly to examine us. In the shade of the palms below the others continued their exchanges almost without notice of our presence. As we tied up, the barefooted foreman of the group moved towards us casually, wearing dirty cutoffs and a ragged t-shirt. As he hovered over the boat from the dock above I handed him the cash, as I'd been instructed by our liaison. Since as far as I could tell were were 100 miles from nowhere and my bride and I were the only ones not hip to the program, I assumed I wouldn't be receiving any change.

As he turned to walk away, she turned to me and whispered in my ear.

"They have machine guns."

"It's OK," I whispered back, hiding my own unrest. "They work for the government."

As it turned out our unease was somewhat unwarranted (they did have machine guns), a sadly stereotypical symptom of a couple gringos operating outside their smartphone comfort bubble app. After only a few moments the ranger returned to the dock and handed me my change with a smile.

"Good fishin' guys, and 'av a nice day!"

So this is how a Belizean national park operates, I thought to myself as our guide pulled away from the dock and the boat tore off for the horizon ahead. He barely slowed as we reached the edge of the mangrove maze, zipping through this channel and skipping that one, zigging here and zagging there with nary a sign or signal to dictate where or why. I thought back to my visit to Holbox and took a moment to marvel again at the magician-like craft of a guide fully immersed in his element. Gus Orviston, perhaps my favorite fictional character of all time, described this phenomenon as "native intelligence" in David James Duncan's classic, The River Why. I am reminded of the passage:

"A native is a man or creature or plant indigenous to a limited geographical area--a space boundaried and defined by mountains, rivers or coastline (not by latitudes, longitudes or state and county lines), with its own peculiar mixture of weeds, trees, bugs, birds, flowers, streams, hills, rocks and critters (including people), its own nuances of rain, wind and seasonal change. Native intelligence develops through an unspoken or soft-spoken relationship with these interwoven things: it evolves as the native involves himself in his region. A non-native awakes in the morning in a body in a bed in a room in a building on a street in a county in a state in a nation. A native awakes in the center of a little cosmos--or a big one, if his intelligence is vast--and he wears this cosmos like a robe, sensing the barely perceptible shiftings, migrations, moods, and machinations of it creatures, its growing green things, its earth and sky. Native intelligence is what Huck Finn had rafting the Mississippi, what Thoreau had by his pond, what Kerouac had in Desolation Lookout and lost entirely the instant he caught a wiff of any city. But some have it in cities--like the Artful Dodger, picking his way through a crowd of London pockets; like Mother Teresa in the Calcutta slums, Sissy Hankshaw had it on freeways, Woody Guthrie in crowds of fruit pickers, Gandhi in jails. Almost everybody has a dab of it wherever he or she feels most at home--like H2O in his tweeds at a hall full o fly-dabbling purists. But the high-grade stuff is, I think, found most often where the earth, air, fire and water have been least bamboozled by men and machines."

Never was there a clearer picture of a non-native at the mercy of a native than me at this moment. The beauty of the guide-client relationship though is that it is that type of submissive relationship that the angler, if he is smart, is happy to engage in. One thing was sure, I was happy not to be at the helm. At last, we reached a dead-end pothole in the mangrove forest and our guide Louis killed the motor. Using his pole to position the boat in coordination with his apprentice Alex, he angled the bow to face the back corner of the pothole.

"Grab your rod and be ready," he cautioned. "This is the tarpon highway."

I stepped onto the bow and unhooked my fly (a purple streamer of my own design which, much to my satisfaction Louis had chosen from my selection), and began pulling line off the reel. I could feel my heart rate accelerating, but I was feeling confident and surprisingly calm given the months of anticipation that had been building up to this very moment. It seemed like only seconds before I heard Louis shout and looked to see his pointed finger...


I instinctively went into the casting motion but was interrupted before I could finish my forward cast.

"NO! Snapper, Snapper!"

My heart sank as my eyes confirmed it. But before my brain could even process the thought I heard shouting again.


With a simple pick up and lay down I lead the first fish in the school perfectly by a full body length. 

"Wait, wait..."

I watched as the fly sank to the fish's depth.

"Streep. Streep. Streep-streep-streep..."

I pulled straight back with my line hand as the fly disappeared into a black hole. Like pulling the pin on a grenade, I waited for the impending explosion. On cue, the fish came somersaulting out of the water to eye level. Once, twice, three times. I cranked down on the drag to keep him from the labyrinth of mangrove roots and squealed with excitement as Louis lipped the fish boatside

After a couple rounds of fist-bumps and grip-n-grins, we exchanged glances.

"Lets go find a permit," he said. 

Twist my arm.

As we slid out of the mangroves and onto the flat, the hum of the motor went silent and the boat waked to a crawl. Almost simultaneously a school of 4-5 black tails which had been heading straight for the boat veered hard right, feeling the pangas wake and disappearing into oblivion. No shot, but we'd established that we were in the right place, and also that my guide was eerily dialed in today. I stepped onto the casting deck brimming with confidence again and started scanning the flat.

In one way, I'm a bit embarrassed and disappointed that I never saw it. In another way though, it was simply another testament to the Native Intelligence factor. Given the coordinates (10 O'clock, 50 feet) and a reference point (the edge of the white spot), I made the cast on blind faith alone. If I can take any credit for anything, it's that the fly landed it where I wanted it to land. After that I just kept following orders until all at once I felt like my heart was being pulled out of my chest cavity.

15 minutes and a couple near heart-attacks later, I was 2/3 of the way to a grand slam and holding my first permit. 

Surely the third leg would be a walk in the park. Bonefish, I'd learned, are like the Belizean whitefish. While under certain circumstances they can pose quite a challenge, they are not terribly difficult to catch by most accounts and are often overlooked entirely by more experienced anglers visiting the region. Still, I'd never landed one and that alone was enough to get me excited, never mind the fact that I was vying for the coveted grand slam. 

I'd blame missing the first one on overconfidence. The fish was so committed to the fly that he ate it three times, with me assuming he'd more or less attach himself to the fly and instead pulling it away from him each time. The second one I figured was a fluke - surely I'd done everything right, but the fish didn't stick. Still, Louis and Alex insisted I needed to wait longer.

"Let him burn you first, right? Then, streep! Right?"


So on the third fish I waited 'til he burned me. Then I broke him off.

Effin-ay. I'm not really going to farm a slam on a bonefish, am I?

OK, so it took four shots to seal the deal, but anybody who's ever tried for one will tell you, a slam is a slam. And so as not to be the forgotten one in the bunch, the final fish took me well into my backing, and then broke my rod for good measure. I was so giddy I barely even noticed. 

After that I put a few more little rockets on the 8-weight for good measure before my thoughts turned to celebratory cocktails. I must have looked like a dog with his head out the window, grinning in the wind the whole ride home and thinking that perhaps my wife and I should go fishing together more often...