How Did She Do That?

13 Dec

I was probably born to be out there every chance I got.

Growing up on the very end of a dead-end street that stopped at the Flat River in central Michigan, the bayous, flats and woods down river attracted me from day one … even despite the dire threats Mom made if she caught me in or around the river itself.

We grew up fishing bluegills, bass and pike and chasing rabbits and an occasional pheasant with my dad, the basics for a sporting life were instilled early: never point a gun at anything you don’t mean to kill; keep a tight line even when the fish is running, and never take anything from the wild you don’t plan on eating.

But that was it.

About the time I was 11, my older brother, Richard, got a fly rod, one of those spring-loaded reels with a DT6 floating line (DT stood for “double taper,” and that kind of size determination was abandoned sometime around the release of the movie “A River Runs Through It.”)

About the time my brother went off to the service, I was introduced to A.J. McClaine, Ted Trueblood, Corey Ford and Ed Zern – all members of the staff at Field&Stream Magazine. There weren’t many magazines in our household, but my best friend then and now, Steve Wyckoff, had plenty of outdoor magazines lying around his house, and one day I picked one up and started reading.

A new world of respect for everything we find out there opened to me on those pages. I don’t know if it’s me or the magazine, but a few years ago I took a trial subscription only to cancel it. I found it too slick, too hip, too sophomoric and too basic.

But in 1960, to a kid in Greenville, Michigan, those writers were worldly beyond belief. I could imagine myself fishing an aspen-lined Rocky Mountain stream for cutthroat with Ted Trueblood. That was not his real name, but who would have idolized Cecil Whittaker?

And, while I’d never seen a Bloody Mary or known anyone who drank such a thing, I could imagine being a member of Zern’s 5th Avenue Rod, Gun, Bloody Mary and Labrador Benevolent Society. I must have sent 50 letters to the magazine trying to earn one of those lapel pins, but it never happened.

And as I read Steve’s hand-me-down issues all that year, wondering at the skill and knowledge of Fishing Editor McClaine, I started coveting the thrill of “matching the hatch” and that lead directly to my brother’s fly rod, gathering dust in his closet.

As it turned out, years later, I caught my first brook trout in the Flat River, but that was way upstream from Greenville, not down below my house, just downstream of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

On my stretch of the river, the target specie was horned nose dace, a small rough fish that feeds on anything that doesn’t eat it first. A big one goes six inches or so. But it turned out that they take a fly off the surface, no matter how badly cast or presented, just like a trout.

By the end of my 13th summer, with help from my mentors at F&S, I had mastered all the basic casts and presentations for dry fly success.

I have never become a true fly-fishing expert. I don’t know bugs, terms or tackle to any great extent. I have tied some of the worst looking flies – from nymphs, to sulpher drake caddis, to huge pike flies, and I’ve caught fish on all of them, but that just proves how impossibly easy catching fishcan be – especially if you’re fishing in Newfoundland or some backwater beaver pond that has never seen an artificial presentation.

By the time I’d earned my driver’s license, I had completed my apprenticeship on the small streams in my county. West Branch Creek and Fish Creek in those days offered native and planted fish, and along with Steve and other buddies, we quickly learned their secrets.

The big name streams in Michigan – the Pere Marquette, Manistee, and Au Sable – were a different story. Then, as he always had, Mr. McClaine came through with an article on “reading the river,” and he talked about learning to break the big water down into a series of small streams flowing alongside each other.

Armed with that concept, it was just a matter of time until the evening I found myself standing crotch deep in the Big Manistee River, near Sharon, where the river flowed narrow between two small islands.

I was fishing bait, and had drifted a worm down into the run that cut under the bank, and had just felt the first hit from a trout down there. With visions of meeting one of the monster brown trout the river is known to hold, I let the fish run away with my bait, knowing it would then stop, spit the bait, turn it and inhale it again, this time swallowing it to the point my barb could find a hold.

As I waited for those sensations to be delivered up the line and down the rod, I noticed a hen mallard, with a whole bunch of little fluff balls trailing behind her, swimming up the river.

Those babies had to have just hatched. They looked like the tops of dandelions gone to seed; as if any gust of wind might send them out of control.

I held motionless, watching their approach with real interest.

When the hen got abreast of me – probably 20 feet to my right – she lost her nerve, and turned tail downstream with her brood in tow.

As they disappeared around the bend, I set the hook on my prize and reeled in a keeper, no monster, brown.

After dealing with the fish I put a new worm down in the hole just as I saw the hen coming upstream again, brood in tow. And, again, just as she got abreast of me, she lost her nerve and fled.

She tried to swim past me four times as I waited, wondering when she’d realize I was no threat to her or hers, but each time she would get just up to me, not near, just abreast, when she’d turn and flee.

I was so interested in her, I forgot all about my bait. I just stood there in the failing light of dusk, within arm’s reach of the shore, and waited to see what she’d do next.

I saw her coming up the river again, but this time she was alone, and she was certainly having a tough night. Flapping an obviously injured wing, she was quacking, splashing and struggling in a heart-rending display of wildlife tragedy. As she gamely fought her way up to my level, something dawned on me and I turned to look at the game trail running up the island practically under my elbow and sure enough there were the babies, in a single file – I’m sure I counted them, but don’t really recall just how many there were – but something like a dozen anyway.

Those little birds were scooting along as fast as their little legs could carry them. They got about 20 feet upstream of me, made an immediate left and plopped themselves into the water, swimming like crazy out into the middle of the current.

I turned back just in time to see the hen undergo a miraculous recovery. She flew to the head of her brood, landed and wiggled her tail feathers in what seemed to me to be a jaunty “so there!” gesture.

I’ve recalled that episode with wonder and awe over and over again in the past 48 years of being out there. I’ve seen many momma birds put on the busted wing act over those years to draw me away from a nest, but I’ve never figured out how that mallard got her babies to play their part.

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