Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Wild Wondering

 For all the time being stolen from us these days, I still find myself with plenty of time to wonder.

Once upon a time I obsessed myself with the semantics of my environment; Native vs. wild vs. invasive – words with simple definitions but complex meanings. I came to see the world before me as a poorly contrived concoction. The more I saw, the more I longed for what once had been – Nature left to its own devices for millennia. It seemed impossible to imagine. I could only wonder.

I drive and walk and fly and roll on paths and corridors unimaginable to generations before. Bridges and towers, standing tall in the heavy footprint of man, mark the waypoints of my physical and mental landscape. Now and then I remove myself to woods and waters, but even what we call “getting back to nature” surely would feel foreign in the context of native history. Trees and plants and fish and birds brought here as comforts of home for those far from it. Sadly, I could not tell you which plants and animals are native and which are not. Knowing might help me imagine, but it wouldn’t keep me from wondering.

I learned just the other day that many common earthworms are non-native to our forests. Invasive, nutrient-sucking aliens denuding entire wooded landscapes. I wonder, what came before the worms? What fish would we have angled for in the absence of our preferred bait? Others have asked similar questions. In his work The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, John L. Riley adds some context to the world we now see before us:

“What happens when you remove most (and in some cases all) of the dominant fauna – the passenger pigeon, turkey, Canada goose, trumpeter swan, spruce grouse, prairie chicken, bear, elk, moose, bison, lynx, cougar, raptors, snakes, whitefish, Atlantic salmon, lake trout, and ciscoes – from the greatest temperate freshwater landscape in the world over less than two centuries? And then simultaneously reduce to life-support levels the numbers of most other native vertebrates? What happens when you remove so many species in such numbers? The result is what we have around us today.”

Every answer unearths more questions.

I wonder deeply about the historical abundance described in Riley’s work. Walking into the woods, would I have been overwhelmed by life? What would my beloved rivers have looked like before they were dredged and channelized and diverted and dammed? What trees would’ve sheltered their water? What fish would’ve spawned in their currents? What predators would’ve wandered their banks? Fossil records and museums provide answers to these questions, but my curiosity is hardly satisfied. I long to witness this lost world and, perhaps foolishly I mourn for its loss.

I wonder if my college philosophy professor was right, that the earth doesn’t care about any of this, places no judgement on what should or could or would’ve been. That it will reclaim itself, for better or worse, in spite of our efforts. I am hardly consoled. I cannot stop the wondering.

In The Once and Future Great Lakes Country Riley assures us that, even in the advent of this reclamation a new chapter will be born:

“An unavoidable corollary of Natural Selection is that nature never repeats itself. Indeed, Nature cannot repeat itself. Some may find this unsettling but, given the near total change this place has witnessed, and will again, equally as many should find in it comfort, and a new respect and humility.”

I wonder about this. Is it possible, given the current state of the world, for one to truly know wild?

I wonder, if by calculated correction or irreverent indifference, we might know again.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Moment Lost

The dashboard thermometer ticks 30 as I pull into the sparsely occupied lot. It’s mid January and the streaks of hazy golden light filtering through a low cloud ceiling are the first signs of sun in recent memory. I throw the shifter into park and soak up the illusory warmth the rays provide, scanning the lot for signs of other anglers; 4WD vehicles, fishing stickers, spare rods, or sunglasses hanging from rearview mirrors. Selfishly, I want this river to myself today. If there’s one thing you can hope for and reasonably expect to get out of winter steelheading, it’s a little peace and quiet. Judging by the looks of the half dozen cars in the lot, I may get my wish.

There are certain advantages afforded by fishing your home water, particularly in winter. Moving a fish to the fly in 34-degree water requires near perfect presentation and a certain degree of intimacy with one’s surroundings. The precise coordinates of the bucket, the presence of a submerged boulder, the length and angles of the shelf… this knowledge can all make the difference. Unfortunately, this is not my home water. It is liquid, though, and there are steelhead in it, and that’s about all I can ask for given current circumstances.

I break some shelf ice loose to make room for an anchor, and begin working down the run. The pace of winter fishing with the swung fly allows one plenty of time to contemplate their pursuit. As I take another step downstream, the increasing pressure of waist-deep flow forces ice-cold H2O through the pinhole leak in my waders and down my leg, & I think to myself,  Why am I doing this? Yes, it’s nice to be out and the snowflakes are awfully pretty and the peace and quiet is more than welcome. But the truth is, I’m hunting for a moment; Win the moment and satisfy a certain primal urge that could keep me sane for the next 6 weeks of winter. Miss an opportunity, and we're going home hungry.

As my fly turns the corner at the bottom of another long tailout I’ve still nothing to show for my efforts. The afternoon light is just beginning to fall. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. My time is running out and it’s getting harder and harder to ignore that leak in my waders. Even the dog looks cold. But the next run looks too good to turn back now.

After hours of practice my off-shoulder stoke is rhythmic and fluid, the velocity of the cast helping to pull frozen fly line through ice-choked guides. An upstream mend and a lift of the rod allow the heavy tip to bury itself in the thick winter water. As I lower the rod into the swing the fly comes under tension and begins to swim. In time it straightens below me, I strip in and repeat the process until I achieve the perfect presentation. I know it is the perfect presentation because the ensuing strike is savage, jarring line off the water. But I am frozen in place, unable to process fast enough to seize the moment. The line goes slack – I let it hang, hoping for a second chance & trying to tease the fish into a game of cat and mouse. Nothing. I take a few steps upstream and change flies in a frenzy. My cast is sloppy now, the presentation anything but perfect. A dozen more casts go untouched.

I take up loose line and turn my back on the run to look on the dog. He hasn’t left his perch on the bank throughout the whole ordeal. He gives me a look and turns from the river too, as if to acknowledge what I already know: we’re going home hungry.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Where We've Been - Part I

Part I: 

It's cold outside - the mercury says single digits. It's hard to believe that one year ago today I was standing on the bow of a flats skiff. Thanks to a cell phone camera any of us are able to look back and see exactly where we were, and when. But, not surprisingly, the photos seldom tell the whole story. Below are some of the pictures of my past year on the water - the exotic destinations, breathtaking views, and, of course, the big fish.  They're all great.  Missing, in large part anyway, are shots of the broken rods, the flies stuck in trees, road burn and sunburn, mosquito bites, bad casts, mid-river snags, and the fishless days. I had them all in 2014 - and I think that's why it was such a great year. 

January 5th - January 13th
South Andros, Bahamas

With a polar vortex looming, I boarded a plane for Nassau - heading south to the marls and bights of South Andros.  Hours later, toes in the sand, I watched the sun rise over the calmest flat I've ever seen. Sparkling white sand flats, hidden mangrove creeks, remote cays - every piece of water seemed to hold bonefish. After just one week and more Kaliks than I care to count, I wasn't ready to leave. 

February 15th - February 17th
The mountains of eastern Tennessee

Fresh on the heels of a winter storm that brought snow as south as Louisiana, it was time to go.  A case of post-Bahamas cabin fever and a warm spell in the forecast were all the inspiration we needed.
Truth be told, I'd never really considered the fact that the South had any trout fishing.  I'd heard the whispers - even from a few close friends - but still couldn't get over the mental hurdle that Nascar country, the BBQ belt, and SEC land, actually had water that held trout.  Bill Dance, rubber worms, john boats, and bucketmouth bass made a lot more sense.  Turns out the forecast was wrong - snow fell, but fish rose every day as one of the best BWO hatches I've ever seen came on like clockwork each afternoon. 

March 1st
Somewhere in Appalachia

I got the last minute phone call late the night before.

"Hey man - there's an extra spot in the boat. You in?" 

An invitation to a mid-winter unicorn hunt is never an easy sell, but as the guy that dishes out the most shit when someone chooses not to go on a fishing trip - I had no choice but to say yes. The 4am alarm came early, but a few hours later I had the best seat in the house to watch a monster musky ravage a fly that henceforth shall be known as the "Roto Ruter."


March 10th - March 18th
Isla Holbox, Mexico. 

Heading south to dodge the snow again, the annual Mexican tarpon tradition continued. The island and the fish have somehow withstood the test of the time - and upon arrival you're transplanted to another world far, far away from the one you left behind.

From my Dad's first tarpon on the fly, to stunning sunsets that would impress even Captain Jack Sparrow, or heading out with Sandflea to discover new hidden mangrove lakes with never-been-fished-to 'poon, the 2014 Holbox installment was one I won't soon forget.  

April 12th and 13th
The mountains of western Maryland

As trees started to bud, JD and I took notice. With a few "warmer" nights in the forecast we packed the truck and headed to the woods. The morning chill and bare hillsides suggested that we were early - that perhaps our enthusiasm had gotten the best of us. In a sport where timing is so crucial, it looked like ours was off just enough for it to matter.

But when the first fish slowly rose to a big foam dry fly, it was clear to both JD and I that spring had finally arrived, and the longest winter we could remember was finally over.   After months of dragging split shot and slinging heavy streamers, I was looking forward to being, as John Geirach would say, a seasonal purist. 

April 25th, 26th, and 27th 
Penn's Creek, Pennsylvania.

After a long hike in with all our gear, we stumbled upon camp buried under years of leaves.  Throughout my high school and college years a trip to Penn's had been an annual ordeal, but with jobs, families, and life growing bigger every year, our ragged band hadn't made a trip in half a decade. Nonetheless, JD and I found exactly what we'd hoped for - the creek still ran cold and clean, mayflies were hatching, and the trout were happy. We drank too much whiskey in camp, and although the next morning's after effects were worse than they were when I was younger, the takeaway from the weekend was simple: thankfully, some things never change.

June 29th and 30th
The mountains of western Maryland.

June came and it was time for the boys weekend. Along with the weather, the fishing was really coming along - but Jimmy had just become a father, JD was overseas, and Alex suffered a blowout on his way down in the Big O. Despite being shorthanded, Jeff, Stu, and I pressed on - with the whoop factor (enthusiasm for drinking) climbing as we raced towards the mountains. The rest is a little hazy - but I don't remember anyone saying they wanted to party small time. I can't wait for this weekend again this year -  and my fingers are crossed for the full squad.   

August 7th - 10th
West Branch of the Delaware - Hancock, New York.

August rolled around, and with the temperature seemingly reaching a local maxima, Ben and I decided to get out of town. I reached out to a few friends about the fishing on a few of our east coast favorites; amidst the "so-so's", and "it's alright" one text stood out: "Dude, get here." We hit the road the next morning.

With the late spring in the Catskills, every hatch was behind schedule.  Mid-August, a time when the river's surface should be barren, turned out to have some of the best Sulphur hatches of the year. Each night as the sun went down, every fish in the river was looking up. They were snotty and unforgiving, but we managed to get a few.


I think the first call came in March; Clark left a voicemail. 

"Hey BAM - it's...Clark. Hope-yer-doin-well-buddy. So it looks like I've got a group of 16 guys coming in for a week in September, and I'm going to need some help..."

 I never thought it would happen - but six months later, on a Monday morning I was hurtling westbound in a Boeing 727 destined for the Rockies. The timing couldn't have been better - I'd left my job the Friday before, and with my start date for my next career move not until the end of the month, I had three weeks of freedom ahead. Nothing to do but guide my old stomping grounds, and of course, fish.

As I pulled out of the Billings airport and glanced at the weather I saw snow, wind, rain, and sun. It was fall in Wyoming - and the forecast couldn't have been more fitting. Homecoming was on...

I read somewhere that fall isn't a season - it's just the time of year when seasons change. After spending three weeks with family, friends, gorgeous ranches, and trout - I had five-ish hours in the air and one couple hour layover to change myself. The reality was that I was heading back; it was alright, though. I'd hit Wyoming at it's peak - for the precious few weeks of fall. Thanks to air travel, a few thousand miles of distance, and a drop closer to sea level I was looking forward to a shot at hitting my favorite season again back home. 

Part II - coming soon. 

Follow the dudes on Instagram - @bambam3229 @jlampros2