Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fishing on the Shoulders of Giants: Bob North

The blessing of having fished with numerous talented fly anglers over the years has enriched my life and my fly angling experiences as well. Some of my most cherished friendships have been because of fly fishing and more specifically because of the river I call my home water: the Bois Brule River. I don't remember when I first heard the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants." In that regard I am "fishing on the shoulders of giants." The debt I owe to those whom I have traveled the river is a debt that I will never be able to repay. Perhaps it is better to tell their stories and past their wisdom on to others.

The fly fisher skillfully unfurled a number of false casts to get the distance right for what appeared to be a difficult cast under a low cedar. His guide, Lawrence Berube, slowly back paddled the canoe to hold it in place. The caster never lost focus, he never glanced our direction as we passed them quietly giving plenty of room to work. A small shade shrouded spot under a cedar was clearly the point of his concentration. This was how it was supposed to be I thought to myself. When you fished the upper Brule River, you fished from a canoe, worked as a team: the guide holding the canoe in the right position and the fisher concentrating to make the perfect cast. Both skills work in unison to cast for trout. Truly this was fishing together.

The sunlight played with the line and leader magically reflecting their color and slight shine. The fly, a big tuff of feathers, floated lazily through the air as each back cast, then forward cast, cut through the heavy summer air. The whole scene seemed to slow down as we watched waiting to see the final presentation of the fly. The line seemed to be an extension of the fisher’s fingertips as the fly was launched by the curving arch of the line with as much dexterity as it took to flick a moth from a coat sleeve. The tuff of feathers disappeared into the shadow of the overhanging cedar and appeared for an instant in a sliver of sunlight that poked through the dense cover. A hole appeared in the dark glassy surface. The fly was gone.

The trout never had a chance. It was played, expertly netted by the guide, and dropped into the live well of the canoe. They had done this before. The old man’s head turned and looked directly at me in way that gave me the impression that he had just become aware of my presence. With a smile and wink he said, “Well, young fella, what did ya’ think that?” Lawrence smiled and waved, and we moved on down river. That smile and wink still shines in my as memory as one of those unique moments that makes it hard to forget. A few years later I would get a phone call from an old fisherman that would make that memory burn even brighter.

School had started, and I returned to the classroom to begin another year of teaching English feeling great about the summer break. I had gained a few new clients and had a good number of returning customers so I was content with the success of my recent season of working as a fishing guide on the Bois Brule River. So receiving a phone call about going out for more trips on the river with a new client was pure gravy. Even richer when I discovered that I’d be guiding the old fisherman with the smile and the wink.

We had agreed to meet at Stone’s Bridge for a half-day trip down to Buckhorn Camp and back. He said his name was Bob North and that he had been going out on the river with Lawrence Berube for over thirty years and needed to find a new guide because Lawrence was retiring from guiding. Bob North was a well known on the Brule for his efforts in rebuilding and maintaining Hidden and Buckhorn Camps after the straight line winds came through in July of 1983.

The trip down river was uneventful. Generally, this is a good thing in everything except guiding a client on a fishing trip and especially the first trip where the client has the high potential of hiring you again. Bob make it quite obvious that he was not impressed with my abilities to get him into fish.

“Sure looks like we’ve got the stink of the skunk on us!” he blurted out after a pause in our conversations that were more job interview than fishing trip. I was not doing well in impressing my “new boss.” The Brule was more the Dead Sea than the Sea of Galilee so we decided to pull into Buckhorn Camp eat sandwiches and head back up to Stone’s Bridge.

“What you think of Reagan?” Bob asks out of the blue, taking a bite out his sandwich and giving me a look that gave me the impression that he was looking for the right answer.
“Not much,” wasn’t the best I could muster, but I had come to the conclusion that we were not getting along well, so I thought that I should not hold back on my opinions. Besides he insisted that he pay me for the trip in the parking lot before we started the trip.
“You know what they say, ‘When I was young and foolish, I was a liberal, when I grew up I saw the error of my foolish ways,’” he said as though he’d had a great deal of practice. “Reagan will turn this country around!” The two topics a fishing guide tries to avoid at all costs are politics and religion. I got the impression that Mr. North was not one that would quibble when it came to either.
“It’s OK with me as long as he doesn’t screw up the fishing,” I quipped, “Let’s go fishing.”

Things were looking dire in the half-light of dusk. We hadn’t been on the water for more than five minutes and Bob started his critique of my “resume.” “You sure you know what you’re doin’?” and “You don’t seem to know any more about fly fishing than you do about politics,” and variations of the first two mixed with a questioning of the whole idea of night fishing and the sanity of those who take up the pursuit. After about a half hour of Bob’s critique, he settled into a string of low grumblings with occasional outbursts.

“I can’t see worth a damn,” he remarked after a long period of river silence and quiet concentration. In the growing darkness, I still could make out the fly he was casting as it drifted back towards us. I prayed for one fish, one fish that we both needed. A big brown trout to come out of nowhere and just blast the oversized Rat Faced McDougal he was casting. Right on cue, the fly disappeared in a enormous slashing rise.

Over the years, I have come to discover that perfectly competent fly fishers suffer the temporary loss of skill when the lights go out. Bob was no exception. Whatever prowess he’d developed over the years fishing with Lawrence Berube disappeared. The image of that the caster on the Brule I had in my mind dissolved.

After a few moments fumbling with the line and reel, Bob got control of the fish, which turned out to be a brown trout of about four pounds, and regained enough of confidence to play the fish and steer it to the net.

The whole temperament of the evening changed. Bob’s interest in night fishing peeked, his confidence restored, he was a man on a mission and for the rest of the short trip back to the bridge we caught fish. Fish obliged us by hitting the fly so hard that they set the hook on themselves. The bag limit back then was ten fish per day, and we nearly filled out Bob’s bag limit in little over an hour. We neared Stone’s bridge, Bob dragging the fly in the water next to the canoe while I moved the canoe into a better position. This would be the last spot to try before the night was over. I could hear the metal of the hook faintly tapping on the side of the old aluminum canoe. Something slammed into the side of the canoe at the water line startling us both. Quickly realizing he had a fish on, Bob managed to get control of his line and the fish the whole while laughing at the sudden surprise.

“That’s ten! Let’s head for the barn,” he exclaimed. With a complete bag limit in the creel we headed for the landing. “I didn’t think much of this night fishing, but I could be a new convert,” Bob conceded as we approached the landing. “This was worth the price of admission,” he said with a genuine sense of awe.

With a feeling of total vindication, the canoe slid in near the landing. Before I could get the canoe settled next to the elevated part of the landing Bob stood up. This unexpected maneuver would have concerned me more if I had known how unsteady on his feet Bob really was. For some reason I thought that he has been out with Lawrence for years so he knew his way around a canoe.

He gave away the unsteadiness of his stance when I felt him rocking the canoe from side to side. I reached for the stubbing poles too late. Bob shuffled his feet in a move to turn and take a step onto the landing, however the motion had the opposite effect. Instead of stepping up, the motion to turn caused the canoe to tip in the opposite direction depositing Mr. North into his beloved Brule backwards and head first.

I managed to stay with the canoe and right it by pitching my weight to the high side of the roll. His legs were still in the canoe when the boat righted keeping his head and torso underwater. I flipped his legs into the drink and quickly leapt into the water. Grabbing him under the arms to get him on his feet and making sure he could stand on his own, I threw the gear that I saw floating in the river back into the canoe. Helping him out of the river, I heard a mumble about going to get the car. What I thought I had regained in a trout feeding frenzy disappeared in what most guides will tell you is the worst thing a canoe guide can do short of murder: baptism. Mr. North was wet, his ego bruised, however he was not injured.

As I collected gear to load into his car, I imagined that if I saw Bob North again it would on the river with another of my peers. I heard the car pull up to the landing, but I couldn’t bring myself to look the old man in the eyes. The ambivalence of having one of the best and worst days on the river reduced me to wishing the whole day would end. I kept thinking just get the stuff in the trunk and get the old guy on his way.

I kept my back to him. The trunk opened. I just couldn’t turn around. I wanted to avoid him at all costs. There wasn’t much more I could do but turn and start loading the car. Before I could turn, I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned my head to look, I noticed a wet twenty-dollar bill lying on shoulder.

Bob headed back to the car and sat in the front seat with the motor running and the heater turned up on high. I loaded the car. Bob rolled down the window when I closed the trunk and shouted, “I’m cold, and I’m going home. If it’s alright with you I’ll see you next week same time, same place.”

The Lincoln Town car pulled out of the parking lot, the low growl of the engine faded into the night. Mr. North and I would meet again before the end of the fishing season. For nearly twenty seasons, Mr. North and I would fish the Brule together. We would talk about politics and religion and would rarely agree, and we would catch lots of fish.

Keep a tight line,

Steve Therrien

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