Thursday, February 20, 2014

Delirium


“We’ll plan to be at your house around three.”

My internal computer is running on reserve battery. The statement doesn’t fully register.

“… A.M.?”

“Uhh, yea.”

On the heels of my last fishing adventure, I know I’m in no position to ask for sympathy. Plus, my buddies have done all the legwork – the meal plans, lodging arrangements, car packing. All I have to do is show up. The last thing I’m going to do is argue.

“I’ll see you at three then.”

I press ‘End,’ pocket my phone and start to do the math. I left the comforts of my Belizean lodge room roughly 33 hours ago. I slept in shorts and sandals on the C concourse floor at Hartsfield-Jackson last night, snuggling alongside hundreds of other stranded travelers. It has taken me only 24 hours to develop a life-long disdain for the soft, snow-fearing Atlantans who are to blame for this mess. I’ve missed two days of work that I can’t afford to miss. If my flight arrives in Cleveland when they say it will (it won’t), I’ll see my pregnant wife for about an hour, unpack, repack, sleep for three, and start driving south.

At this point in my angling career, there’s only one fish that could justify this insanity. 

The next 12 hours are a total blur and I’m in and out of daydream through all of it. When we finally hit the water the madness is just beginning to bloom. We’ve arrived to Dixie in the throes of winter with hopes of taking a thousand-cast fish on a fly, against all odds. The internal juggling of real vs. surreal, sound vs. unsound, dream vs. memory are struggles that will ultimately come to define the trip. In the meantime though, there are angling objectives to achieve.





The water is a deep wintergreen and casts a glow around our flies as we retrieve them in steady, anxious pulls. The lines are heavy - 300 and 350 grain sinking varieties, and the rods are built to handle the load. I realize right away that if I want to survive this trip with any cartilage left in my critical joints, I had better cast efficiently. We play with different retrieve speeds and casting angles and cover all parts of the water column. We’ve accepted that we won’t catch a fish, but expect one on every cast. I don’t need to have caught a musky to know that this is how you must fish for them.


We give each other feedback, checking our depth, coordinating fly selection, trying to eliminate as many variables as possible. The focus demanded by this type of fishing is a natural stimulant and the Seinfeld episode that was the last 36 hours of my life quickly becomes a distant memory. I’m fully engaged with my fly as it dives, kicks and darts, completing every retrieve with a figure-eight at the boat. In this water and on this river I’m not really sure what I’m looking for behind my fly, but I’ll know it when I see it.




When I see it, I wonder why I’d wondered: it looks like a musky and it looks like it wants to eat my fly. I employ the figure-eight off the right side of the bow and the fish is on it, hovering two feet behind the fly. Twice he slashes at the fly and misses. I cover both sides of the boat, plunge the rod tip deep and keep the fly moving long after the fish has disappeared. My heart, I’m certain, has gone minutes without beating. I need to sit.

John suggests a bigger fly – bigger than the 10” baby clown I have on. Thankfully the boys have come prepared with heavy artillery. We settle on a trophy-trout sized morsel from Alex’s box. We row upstream 100 yards, administer a couple of Budweisers for peace of mind, and approach the target again.

The menu is muskie five star this time. The fish savages the fly on the second strip, and I retaliate with a violent strip set.  Delirium spills over in the form of elation when the fish finally slides into the cradle. My sanity has been salvaged.






I’m banished to the oars for the rest of the day and I’ve never been happier about it. Not a quarter mile down the bank John raises an even bigger fish but can’t get him to eat. A few casts later the fish shows for a second time but still, no committal.

Two fish in twenty minutes has us feeling pretty giddy: The red and white can hatch is on. With a couple miles left to float, the wheels stay on long enough for John to put a second fish in the cradle. 




Back at the Executive Motel the boys sit down for some tinkering at the vises. There's a working blueprint now, but the pattern needs revision. Two shanks, or three? More flash, or less? We all agree that the most important variable is being in the right place at the right time, but a good confidence fly can only help the cause.




The second day is much slower, maybe to bring us back down to earth. Only one fish moves to a fly, and before we know it dusk sneaks up on us. Tomorrow we'll meet up with Matt Miles to run a different stretch of river. Feeling confident about our chances we trailer the boat, stow the rods and head to the local college bar. We quickly make a roomful of friends by queuing a long list of Allman Brothers tunes on the jukebox. A few whiskey & ginger's later, when somebody else's playlist kicks in, we take it as a cue, close our tab, and start walking back to the truck.

Except there is no truck. There is, in its absence, a sign that even the three of us can read.


6:00 A.M. comes calling a wicked cry, but there are angling objectives to achieve.



It's a rough morning and gravel roads aren't helping. Lurching into an 11-weight cast after cast without a fish to show for it doesn't help either. By late morning we all need a control variable. An early lunch seems like a good idea. Musky lesson #37: always control the control variables.


Moonshine: Also a control variable.



I spend the morning with Matt, picking his brain and casting to his waypoints. By mid afternoon I’ve had 3 fish move to the fly, including a croc-mouthed behemoth that will haunt me for months. We shuffle boat arrangements, talk a little strategy, and keep sliding downriver. It’s not five minutes later when Alex and I notice the commotion in the boat ahead of us.









River blessings always come at a price. Before we jump the all night train home, there's some vehicle maintenance to take care of. 


The next day it's back to teetering on delirium. Musky is a powerful drug.

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