On assignment with John and A.K.
- By: John Gierach
I was on a river in western Colorado with my friend A.K., and we were working hard. Really. A.K. had written a new book and I'd volunteered to take a long series of color slides showing him demonstrating all kinds of specialized and sometimes complicated casts. You know the kind of photos I mean: The ones where not only do the light, focus, background and composition have to be good, but the fly line must be frozen in the air at precisely the right place to illustrate the text. It was a game of exquisite timing.The difference between tripping the shutter too soon, too late or just right was infinitesimal, and although A.K. really can perform difficult casts over and over again, he will occasionally blow one. The manuscript called for 60 captioned photos. I won't tell you how many rolls of film we burned. It rained steadily on the East Slope of the Rockies that week, while over on the West Slope we had clear, calm, bluebird mornings that were perfect for photography, followed by cloudy, blustery afternoons with rain squalls as chunks of that eastern monsoon front broke off and rumbled down from the Continental Divide. By 2 pm on most days, the weather became useless for the kind of photos we were after, but they were good for fishing. So that's how we came to be on the river at a time of year that isn't particularly popular with fishermen. According to the published hatch charts, the spring midges and Blue-Wing Olives were over by then and the Green Drakes, Red Quills, Pale Morning Duns and Tricos were yet to come. So what we had on those stormy afternoons in late June was a deservedly popular river with almost no other fishermen on it. At first glance, it seemed both inviting and eerie. You think, Oh boy, there's no one here. Then you think, Why is there no one here? But the food chains in trout streams grind along at their own pace, and as usual, the dead spot in the hatch chart wasn't as dead as you're led to believe. During that week, the last of the small Blue-Wing Olives-the size 22's-were still petering off in scattered pockets here and there, and the first of the Pale Morning Duns were just starting to emerge. Both hatches were sporadic and on the thin side-with one all but over and the other just barely beginning-but they were there, and if you hit it right they'd overlap, with enough bugs on the water to get isolated pods of trout moving to the surface. There were also the incidental bugs that sputter off any trout stream in summer, but that no fisherman would call a "hatch:" some caddisflies of various sizes and the normal smattering of midges, mayflies, ants and beetles. We even saw the occasional early Green Drake, even though the main head of the hatch was said still to be weeks away and far downstream-all the way out of the river we were fishing and miles down the next river. I'd have said there weren't enough of the big Drakes around to interest the fish, but then A.K. was casting a size 10 White Wulff dry fly for the photos, and most mornings he'd get a strike or two on it. After a few days of that, he sheepishly clipped off the point of the hook so catching trout wouldn't distract us from our photography chores. We developed a routine. After a morning of shooting photos, we'd drive the 30 miles to the nearest town in A.K.'s pickup and drop off the film at a lab that would process the slides in a couple of hours. After a long lunch we'd go over them, deciding what was left to do and what we wanted to re-shoot. (More than once, against all odds, I managed to get flawless shots of every cast A.K. flubbed and none of the good ones.) Once we'd decided what was done, what was left to do and what had to be redone, we'd drive back up to the river as the sky clouded over and the rain squalls began to build. The calm air and the good morning light would be gone, the mid-day summer doldrums would be over and the dull, shadowless light and cooler temperatures would have some bugs and a few trout moving. The running joke became, "Well, hell. I guess there's nothing else to do but go fishing." This was a roadside river that made for easy scouting, so most days we'd just drive along at a fraction of the speed limit, scanning the water and stopping at every turnout until we found some rising trout. Sometimes it was a nice, long run or a series of plunge pools where we could spread out. Other times it would be a single slick that we'd take turns on. Your turn would be up when you caught a fish, missed a strike or had to change flies. Now and then we wouldn't be able to find any risers, so we'd just go to a good-looking run and wait for a hatch. Either way, the river was all but vacant, so we had our choice of spots. A.K. is a fairly serious dryfly fisherman, so he often would wait: Watching the water, going pensively silent and puffing on one of those stinky little cigars he likes, sometimes with the hood of his rain jacket up to keep off the spitting rain. Once he stood in a single spot for a full half hour, asleep on his feet for all I could tell. Then he calmly waded in, made a cast and noodled a 16-inch brown trout from under an overhanging limb against the far bank. This was the only trout that rose in 50 yards of river in the space of 30 minutes. Talk about precision. I usually lack that kind of patience, so after a while I'd wander away and either nymph fish and pick up a trout or two or maybe work slowly downstream swinging a nondescript, medium-size wet fly through the runs and pockets. Swinging wets on a tight line is an ancient method that still works, as sloppy and unscientific as it seems, and that delights me. Some fishermen who have rediscovered it in recent years can spout theories about why it works-it imitates a swimming caddis pupa, for instance-but I think it's a simple matter of trout psychology. That is, your average trout is less like an entomologist and more like a hungry barn cat, wound tight and operating on the predatory rule that if it runs, you should chase it and kill it and then see if it's good to eat. In other words, you swing wet flies for the same reason that you should never run from a bear or a mountain lion. Done properly, wetfly fishing takes lots of room. Like an Atlantic salmon fisherman or a steelheader, you make your cast, fish out the swing, take two or three steps downstream and repeat the process, making lazy roll casts and covering the water in two- or three-foot-wide stripes. These days, fishermen are more likely to stand in one place and pound the water with nymphs, not because it works so well, but because on too many rivers there's no room to do anything else. The same would be true here later in the year, but the mid-summer fishing was supposed to be poor, so just about everyone was elsewhere chasing the main event. It was fun trying to sniff out the odd bank riser, or the occasional short, sputtering hatch, or to provocatively swing a wet fly through a hundred yards of river, not copying anything in particular or expecting to clean up, just prospecting for a trout with a short fuse. It was also luxurious to have all the room we could ask for to do that. More and more now, A.K. and I enjoy this kind of moderately slow fishing where a trout or two can certainly be caught, but where you can't count on much more than that. After all, the one place you almost always want to be is on a trout stream with a fly rod. Once you're actually there, it seems unreasonable to impose further conditions. The more common view of the sport now is that it is, or should be, one big spectacle after another, while those odd and delightful opportunities in between are too often referred to as "bad fishing." But there's a specific beauty to a trout stream between the big hatches that will attract more fishermen than fish. It's not showing off for company now, but just padding around in slippers with a cup of lukewarm coffee, waiting for something to happen. Of course, we'll rise to the occasion if things get exciting, but it's easy enough to fall back into just being two old friends fishing together, both of whom, through sheer force of time spent, have long since caught their share of trout. That doesn't mean we're done by a long shot, only that the pressure is off. So we eventually shot our 60 photos and got in some fishing, too, which was sort of how we'd hoped it would go. We also lived high on the hog in a rented cabin because A.K. had managed to charm his publisher out of an expense account to cover room, food, gas, film and processing. It was a pretty posh cabin, too, with a full kitchen, a satellite TV that we didn't watch (couldn't figure out how to work it) and two bedrooms separated by a short hall and two doors: enough space and lumber to muffle A.K.'s hideous snoring so I could get some sleep. I have to say I enjoyed the whole setup, although having my tab covered as the official project photographer made me feel competent one minute and, if not fraudulent, then at least out of my depth the next. I have published some photos over the years-mostly spreads with articles and a precious few old magazine covers-but in recent decades as real pros have entered the field, those of us who could once sell a reasonably informed snapshot have begun to fall by the wayside. And why not? After all, a good photo is a long way from a great one and, as too many art directors have told me, my "models" (my friends, that is) are too old and dopey-looking and are fishing with tackle that's years out of date. I mentioned that once when we were all around a campfire together and got precisely the response you'd expect. This is how I once imagined the life of a fishing writer: you'd stay in log cabins with all the amenities, whiling away your days with a little work and then some fishing, while some vague publisher somewhere paid the bills. It almost never actually works out that way, and even when it does there's always an annoying catch. Still, some people do assume. Once I went down to the local feed store and one of the two guys behind the counter said, "Settle a bet for us. You get paid to go fishing, right?" "No," I said. "I mostly fish on my own dime and then get paid to write about it." "Oh yeah," the guy said, "I guess that is different." People having slightly skewed ideas about what you do isn't a burden or anything, and in fact it can lead to some interesting insights. I went to a shoe repair place a few years ago to have some hiking boots re-soled and when I gave the man my name for the work order he said, "You're the guy who writes that fishin' column in the newspaper, ain't you?" I modestly said that yes, it was me, and he turned to the man next to him behind the counter and said, "Well, the guy wore out a pair of boots, so it can't all be bullshit." To prove a point, A.K. had wanted to come in under budget on the expense account-but not too far under-so we'd planned to go into town at least one evening while we were there to eat an expensive dinner. We'd even chosen a restaurant that was supposed to be good, but pricey. As it turned out though, the fishing always ran late, so dinner was a thermos of coffee and ham sandwiches on the river. Try as we might, we're both cheap dates when we're fishing.