The Box of Poppers

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Fucking. Hate. Holidays.

Sorry, there’s no better way to say it. I know a lot of words and I’ve tried every conceivable arrangement of nouns and verbs to properly express my sentiments toward this time of year; this is the only one that works. Hate ‘em.
It’s not the financial strain, because we do ok and the kids don’t want every toy in the world. It’s not the onslaught of family, because my people are spread so thin around the states that we never get to see each other. And it’s not the commercialization; lord knows this economy needs a swift kick in the ass.

It’s the people who aren’t there, the empty seats at the table. For me it’s their absence that defines the season.

My grandfather died when I was young. He was young, too. Kind of a tough shake. But while he was here we had some good times. He was the kind of person that made you feel that you were the most important thing on the planet.

We had our own little world, which is possibly the most important thing you can share with a kid.

Our existence was simple:

In our world we were notorious pranksters, caretakers of jokes that only we thought were hilarious. We held a strong belief that the best time to eat cookies was whenever you could eat cookies, and we tried to get as much Road Runner in as humanly possible. We adored each other’s company.
But above all else, we were fisherman. Anywhere, anytime, and as often as possible.

I don’t consider myself sentimental. I don’t have a lot of the trappings you’d normally find from a person who has enjoyed such a memorable and defining experience with someone. I have a couple of photos, a pocketknife, a picture of his horse, that type of thing. I don’t have a shrine in my house or anything like that.
What I do have is a box of poppers.Years ago my grandmother said I could look through his tackle box and take anything I wanted. I put it off for a few years. Not that it would be painful or bring back too many memories; I just don’t think I’m a good steward of stuff. Stuff is stuff, you know? If you run out, you go get more, and when there’s too much, you throw some out. It’s all part of the swag bag we get on the way to our graves. I just didn’t want my granddaddy’s stuff to be something I’d look at one day and say, “well, this is just crap taking up space…”

But I gave in and went through the tackle box anyway.
Inside was a good collection of spin gear, a nice knife and a smell that would overpower a dead maggot. I figured the kids would throw the spin gear sometime. I closed it up and took it home to go through later. When I got back around to looking through it, I found an old Martin automatic reel box at the bottom. I’d already found the reel, loaded with some old 6wt line and in desperate need of some attention, so I figured it was empty. As I picked it up to throw in the bin, I heard it rattle. Underneath the top I found a treasure trove of poppers. None of them were in great shape, which is what I’d expect to see in a tackle box that belonged to my granddad. These soldiers had been to the front. Some were chipped from back casts into rocks, feathers were gnarled and missing from toothy strikes from the deep, and many of the rubber legs had long since been stripped from their posts.So I set this box aside. I left it on my desk for months. It wasn’t trash, but it didn’t belong on a shelf. I didn’t put it in the boat, and I couldn’t just leave it in storage. I didn’t know what to do with it. I just left it right where it landed after I’d discovered it. It was in limbo.It’s kind of ironic that it was a box of poppers I found in my granddad’s box. I love throwing poppers. It’s by far my favorite fishing.There’s a calm that comes with popper fishing, a sort of trance you put yourself in when the only noise in the universe is that subtle splash as you work the fly across the face of the water, muddling the mirrored surface into a frenzy of ripples.

You pour all your focus into the slow, methodical strips that draw the fly toward your feet, alternating and undulating the pattern until some scaly beast blasts out of the water like a torpedo and ignites your reel in to a blaze of furious activity.

I don’t think you’re triggering a feeding response when you get a strike on a popper; it’s something more violent, something primal. It’s the chemical that makes creatures bare their teeth, dig in their claws, and shift their weight to their haunches. Popper fishing is a window into the soul. Not yours; theirs. It’s a vantage point from which the angler gets a brief glimpse of exactly what separates fish from accountants and dentists. It’s tapping onto the things we’ve forgotten on our journey to pay off our student loans and getting extended warrantees on our TVs. It’s simple and perfect.

Scurrying the wood methodically across the surface, I am the beautiful machine. I am the monkey with thumbs. I’m two-fisted gravity making those birds work for their trip. I am plugged the fuck in.

I don’t think my granddad planned for me to have his box of poppers; in fact I know he didn’t. At least not this way. We had a lot more fishing planned.

But I think it’s important that I did. It’s a reminder from my fishing buddy to see things for what they are, not what they aren’t.

Silence is the absence of sound. Drought is the absence of rain. Darkness is the absence of light. These words depress me. They’re weak, they’re spineless. They’re defined only by their lack of something. Is that how I want to define my holidays? With the all-encompassing beehive of activities that pummels the senses from November to January, is that how I really want to define two whole months of my life every year? By the absence of something?

My granddad knew better, and so should I. I’d like to think he planned for me to have this box of poppers sitting on my desk as a way of saying,

“Hey, stop. This is important. One day you’ll have a beautiful family, a faith, a mortgage, a political party, a check engine light and dreams that you can’t even imagine now. And all that shit’s important, that’s not my point. Just don’t forget this. Don’t forget popper fishing. Don’t forget being in that moment when you lose yourself in the process of working top water. Don’t forget that narrow funnel of focus as you strip the fly, no expectations of a strike, no preconceived notions of what monster will be stirred to the surface by your enchantments, just being a man living in a moment with his feet in the river. Don’t forget that.”

I can’t ignore that. And I won’t.
So this holiday season I’m going to try a reset. I’m going to be in the moment. Control. Alt. Delete.
The empty chairs won’t define the season for me this year; instead they’ll serve as a reminder to look my blessings in the eye and cherish them for every moment we have together.
I don’t have any great plans yet, but I’m just going to play it by ear. You want to get a wreath, honey? Sure, get two. I don’t plan on going all out but I’m just going to make my approach with an open mind.

First and foremost, though, I’m going to take out this box of poppers and get ‘em all good and wet.

Casting with the Candidates

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Everybody has to make a living, and some do a much better job of it than others. I, on the other hand, have perfected the art of doing what ever the hell I want for a living. I’m a furniture maker, I tie flies, and I’m a campaign consultant. I’d love to incorporate VCR repair into my repertoire just to really dominate the real estate on a business card, but for now I’m really happy making a living this way. In my work with campaigns I’ve noticed a litmus test that gained prominence with the election of George W. If you’ll remember, pundits explained his appeal to voters as a “guy you’d want to have a beer with.” And he was. And it worked. And ever since that’s been an examination that every campaign has to undergo in order to most effectively present their candidate to the public.

 

I’m no connoisseur of beer by any stretch of the imagination. If it ends in “light,” fits in a coozie, and incorporates boobs in its advertising, that’s probably a really good beer. Cheap and plentiful is how my liver likes ‘em. I am, however, a connoisseur of people I drink beer with, and it ain’t candidates. I’ve worked with some incredible people, people who’ve sacrificed so much for the call of public service. They’re passionate about their beliefs and there’s an uncontrollable drive to share these beliefs with everybody within earshot. Also, they’ve usually attended so many speaking engagements that they speak in paragraphs. They can’t just say, “Well, shit,”; they state their disappointment, provide clear, well thought out facts to support that assertion, then summarize the reasons they’re disappointed. May not sound that bad, but it gets exhausting after a while. Add all this up and it makes it really hard to just relax and have a beer around one of them. They suck all the oxygen out of them room and you’re just along for the ride.

 

Since I don’t drink with candidates, the “have a beer with” test does nothing for me in this year’s presidential election. It’s my rule and I’m sticking with it. Instead, I propose a new test: “Who Would You Rather Fly Fish With?”  Makes more sense than drinking. Any idea you say loud enough sounds pretty good when you’re drunk. I’ve seen it happen. That’s why so many people die in my state trying to outrun trains. Fly fishing is equal parts of skill and knowledge. You can’t just spend a fish into your net with fancy tackle; you have to know what you’re doing and how to do it. It takes experience, quick decision making and a level head; all qualities we need in the executive office.

 

So here’s how I think it’d go.

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Mitt’s a gear head first of all. Maybe that’s not a strong enough word. Mitt has an Orvis shop strapped onto his back. If they made a kitchen sink, he would have it. It’s a late summer afternoon and he has two boxes of poppers in every color and size. Waders, just in case the water drops from 80 to 60 while we’re out. The guy brought a 4, a 6 and an 8 wt to cover all the bases, and extra spools for all three. He didn’t pack for the trip; he packed for ALL the trips. If I say, “hey, the shoalies are done here, what say we drive to the other side of the country real quick for somesteelhead,” he’s ready. And he’s constantly in his fly box. Each fly gets a couple of chucks then he ties on a new one. Caddis to clouser, hopper to dropper, streamer to stonefly. Guy’s bound to catch something, and he can twist a clinch so fast you hardly notice.

 

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And then there’s his cast: incredible aim, like he has a rifle sight on the end of his rod. He’s pitching bugs in the brush like a sniper. I’m not saying it’s the right bug, but he’s deadly with his presentation. On the rare occasion that he hits a snag, he doesn’t try and roll cast it out of there, he just stomps up and cuts his tippet where he can get to it and moves on to a different run like it never happened. Overall, though, it’s a textbook cast. He’s well read on the subject, talking a lot about casting angles and the importance of opening up your loops in certain situations. My only real criticism is that he’s audibly counting cadence through his false casts, and when he shoots line he whispers, “and theeeeeeeeerrrrrreeeee.” It’s a little off putting, but the guy can throw.

 

With Obama, it’s a different story. First of all, when we pulled up to the river a bunch of tubers where yelling andlaughing as they floated downstream. You see, there are three different companies ferrying teenagers up river since Conservation relaxed it’s rules on recreational boating in this bit of water, so the fish are pretty stressed out with all the splashing and screaming. But it’s the spot we have, so we’re going to fish it. He packed simple, maybe too simple. He’d gotten one of those online fish reports that guess the flies and the feed, so that’s all he brought. He brought a slow action bamboo 5wt; it looks like a simple rod but there is a good bit of engraving in the reel seat and butt cap. I’m not crazyabout bamboo rods; I know they just don’t cut it for my kind of fishing and I tipped the only one I ever had, rendering it completely useless. Still, though, this is a great rod from an aesthetic point of view.

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His fly box is just staple bugs. Nothing fancy. He’s tied on a wooly bugger and he defends that choice with a clear, concise argument, explain that this is one of the most productive flies in a variety of fishing situations, you can strip it to mimic a leech or a baitfish, and widely heralded as a “must have” in any fly box. Hell, its such a compellingargument that I’m even thinking of tying one on even though I’ve brought 2 to my hand with a gurgler.

 

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His cast is incredible. Beautiful loops. He even does that thing from “A River Runs Through It” where you just waggle the line in the air so it looks like a doctor’s signature. And it all happens in slow motion, too. It’s incredible. After my 3 fish in hand, I notice that he’s still doing it. Hasn’t wet a single fly this whole time. With all that time in the air, you start to wonder if he’s trying to trick the fish into thinking there’s a flying swarm of wooly buggers getting ready invade theirwater. When he finally shoots the line, he immediately gets a bite. Boom. But it’s a bluegill. It counts. The guy still caught a fish, just not exactly what we’re looking for. Before you can even comment on the little guy, he’s back in the air. A beautiful, dead straight roll cast picks up the line into another 5minutes of back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He’s not catching many, but it’s an inspiration to watch.

So at the end of the day, neither of these guys is perfect to have in your boat. There’s more tackle and talk on your bow than fish on the line. They each have their strong suits, you can certainly improve your game by taking either one along for a day, but theyjust don’t smack of “fishing-buddy” material. I’ve made a decision long before we hit the water, but I’m not especially excited about it. I think we could do better, I think we’ve done better, but you can’t pick the weather, you can onlypick your flies. Instead, you’re left with the impression that you’d be better off fishing with locals, guys that grew up around here and know the water like the back of their hand.

 

Wait, this wasn’t helpful at all.

 

Cold beer, anyone?

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Zen and the Art of Lying

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There’s an inherit propensity for reinterpreting the truth in fishing. Fish grow moments after they have been netted, experiencing substantial gains in size and duration of fight. That’s just part of the game. It’s not a lie by the standard definition; it’s adrenaline and enthusiasm for the hobby lending a more fantastic color pallet to the stories we paint for our fellow fishermen.  It’s a tradition as old as the sport itself. No one faults the angler for his enthusiasm in retelling his adventures with an ever so slight dusting of fiction.

But there are circumstances where you just flat out lie. Period.

“Where’d you find that guy?” is a question I get when I’m sharing photos of my trips. I never seem to have a good alternative to the truth on deck, so I stammer to direct the conversation off my honey hole. Sometimes I’ll go idiot, like I spaced out and my canoe just drifted up onto this spot like Gulliver finding all those little bastards. Other times I’ll go vague, leaving out important details that render my description completely useless (“you know that bit of the river by the rocks with a tree?”).

But sometimes, on very rare occasions, I’ll just lie. I don’t do it on purpose; it’s a protective instinct, like when mother bears charge to guard their young or when my wife won’t let the kids watch The Walking Dead with me. It’s not done out of malice, I don’t get any joy from this, and I feel dirty when it’s all over.

For me, fishing is equal parts adventure and cognitive ability. You read the water, you interpret conditions, and you apply your knowledge of the target species to find an answer to the question, “how do I get a fish in my hand?” But more than anything else, you’re a lucky bastard floating in a boat in some of the most beautiful country you can find. So when you find a spot, you’ve made an investment. It’s yours. And with ownership comes responsibility. You don’t want that pristine stretch of water to turn into a Starbucks for anglers, with lines from bank to bank chucking string at the fish you worked so hard to find. You want to preserve it, not just for you, but for the sake of all humanity. Actually that’s not true, sorry; you want to preserve it for you. To say it any other way is just adding to the bullshit on my ledger.

Most important of all the reasons to guard your spot, you’ve made a connection. Something speaks to your soul when you find that perfect spot. To add a bit of cheese to this description, you’re the one with what matters in this world when you’re on this holy ground. That spot is the journey to Mecca, the Lakota’s Vision Quest, and Enlightenment all rolled into one. And you found it. Anytime you need to recharge your soul, you know it’s there for you. It doesn’t work like a drug, where you’re eternally chasing that initial high; it’s incredible and inspiring every time you visit. With each visit you gain more insight, pick up more details in the beauty that surrounds you, and become a better angler, no, a better man because of this journey.

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With all this spiritual crap on the table about becoming a better person, it seems kind of odd that the premise of this article is that I lie about where I fish. I get that. So here’s the solution I’m working on:

I’m classifying my spots; what’s what, who’s who, and who gets where (make sense?). And when I say “spots,” I mean specific, detailed locations, not just, “yeah, that was in the river.” The three categories are as follows, in descending order of importance to my happiness and general well being.

3. “The Vending Machine”- This is a spot that’s just spitting out fish. It’s like a high volume production facility for angling bliss. Often these are a pain in the ass to get to or aren’t exactly gorgeous country, but it’s first quality fishing.

2. “The Honey Hole”- Pretty self-explanatory. Deviates from the above in that it’s beautiful and often more off the beaten path from a Vending Machine. Gives your soul some elbow room and your rod a habitual bend. Nice fishing by any standard.

1. “Nirvana”- Great band, even better spot. Absolutely gorgeous, remote and isolated, and mind blowingly good fishing. If there is someone else there when you arrive, he’s lost and doesn’t know what he’s on. They’re probably taking pictures, not fishing, because this place is what it’s all about. This place is the reason you go places you’ve never been before in the hopes that you’d stumble on this rainbow unicorn of a fishing spot. It’s a place that simply makes sense in a way that is so rare and important that for the rest of your life your moral compass will use it as a reference point in all the decisions you will make. This place matters, and your connection to it defines you more and more with each visit.

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So here’s how the new system gets implemented. Ask me where I got a fish and it’s from a Vending Machine, I’ll give it to you. Fly Fisherman and bait chuckers alike. I don’t think you can do too much damage and I love to encourage the sport, so have at it.

If it’s from a Honey Hole, I’ll take a fly fisherman there, but you’ll have to take notes if you want to ever find it again. Bait chuckers of a higher bro status I’ll take, but again, no directions. And the bro status needs to be pretty high. I’d prefer people without boats, or people who don’t have an overwhelming sense of adventure because I know they won’t become regulars. I’ll also take non -fisherman who just want to get out in the thick of all that beauty and really plug into the world around them. A decent level of bro status needed for that, too. Mainly because I don’t want to be stuck in a boat with a dick for a few hours.

If it’s from a Nirvana, well, first of all you hacked my phone because I don’t post pictures of these places. Secondly…I guess there isn’t a secondly, really. This is where my system begins to break down. I’m just going to lie. You can’t have it. I’ve taken my daughter to a few and I will continue to do so, but I think that’s where I’m going to put the line. It’s not that I want to hoard nature, which I realize is sort of the antithesis of this attitude of preservation and naturalism that defines my life, it’s that I need this place, and I need it just how it is.

I remember during Katrina there was a subtle distinction drawn between looting and scavenging: one was a necessity for survival, the other was a reprehensible crime. I’m looking for a similar distinction in the little white lies I tell when people ask me where I fish. I don’t see it as malice or a flaw of character, it’s an effort to preserve the things that matter most to me, the things that ground me, and the things that illuminate all the blessings that this world has to offer.

So if pressed, best case scenario you’re walking away with a Honey Hole and a Vending Machine, maybe two Honey Holes if you’re lucky. Just take it; it’s a good deal. It’s going to have to be up to you find your own Nirvana.Image

Ugly Flies

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You don’t tie for the fisherman; you tie for the fish. My “Yoda” in fly tying gave me that nugget on day one. That being said, I still take time to at least show a modicum of craftsmanship when I’m at the bench. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little extra time to put some class on a fly; you’re not lashing fenceposts together, you’re practicing a subtle art with hundreds of years worth of valuable knowledge and traditions. It’s humbling when you think about it.

This isn’t one of those flies.

There’s no need to name it, hell, there’s not even really a need to talk about it. This fly is the Meg White of my fly box; it’s just there to get shit done and you’re better off not dwelling on it. What little craftsmanship is spent on the design is lost in the waddie-goodness of this floating lump of crap, and there is no way to noticeably discern between the initial beta versions of the fly, the rushing-out-the-door-gotta-tie-this-bastard-real-quick versions, and the final, “well thought-out” versions of this fly. This thing just is, and even though it’s just about the most offensive thingto slink from the jaws of my vice, it’s my favorite fly right now.

It gets me these guys. Grass Carp.

I’m awful at guestimating weight, and I don’t carry a scale because I really don’t give that monumental of a shit to take up valuable space in my pack, but everyone of these has measured in at a minimum of a yard in length. They’re big boys. And they’re pissed when you set up. Pissed. You get to see what all that backing looks like flying out of your screaming reel and your rod bends like it’s a crazy straw. When you finally start gaining and you think you have him tired, the minute he sees you it starts all over again. It’s just an ass whooping, ten minutes of pure bliss.

So if you ask to see my box, just know that these guys are in there, and they’re in there for a damn good reason. We don’t have to talk about them; we don’t need to go over the ridiculously simple construction, we don’t even need to go over a materials list. Really. It is what it is. But as long as I can put these guys in my net with this unholy turd of a fly, it’s going to have an open invitation to the business end of a 4 foot stretch of 1x tippet.