Saturday, June 22, 2013

Fishing on the Shoulders of Giants: Jerry Johnson

One of the pictures on my writing desk shows my son with a toothless little boy grin holding up his first brook trout with two hands.   The picture reminds me of a lot of what makes fly-fishing the passion that it is for many. Almost all it is a reminder of my first experiences trout fishing.
Some anglers know who inspired them to become a fly fisher.  
I was a convert to fishing by the “brothers” who practiced the art of angling with “garden hackle” for pan fish.   My first experience fishing was with cane but not the split variety:  one long, in the round, piece of bamboo, a long piece of black braided trolling line, a bobber, a sinker, and a hook.   So I suppose that those most responsible for my foundation in angling would have to be my father and grandfather.  If I had to identify a person most responsible for getting me “hooked” on the obsession of angling for brook trout, my Uncle Jerry would be the one who baptized me and forever left me bemused by the transparent mysteries of trout fishing. 

“Why did it always smell like worms when it rained?” I wondered as I waited by the front door of the building.  I watched the headlights arch over the guard railing of the highway turnoff hoping the next set would turn.  It was always dark, quiet and rainy when he came to pick me up for fishing, the just before sunrise dark.  You’d hear his car before you saw it, loud and powerful.  I’d just lost my front teeth; I was in the second or third grade.  We lived in a small basement apartment behind the International House of Pancakes off of County 81 just south of the Crystal Airport, in Crystal, Minnesota. 
A big engine and loud muffler would make the turn under the streetlight.  He’d pull up to the curb and the front passenger door would swing open.  Then the big voice would beckon me onto the front seat,  “Let’s go!” 
Thrown back against the seat we speed up to the corner and out onto County 81, tires barking at the turn.  No seat belts back then just hang on to the door handle and grab the edge of the seat.
We’d go to breakfast at one of those places where truckers, heavy machine operators, and construction workers would go to get coffee before they headed to work.  A place where everybody knew him by his first name,  “Hey, Jerry!”  He had a big smile and a big handshake.  He walked through the diner’s cigarette haze and got us a place at the counter.  Coffee and Old Spice and newspapers mixed with eggs and bacon and toast.  
We walked out to the rain-dappled car after breakfast and headed into the growing gray morning.  It always seemed to rain when we went fishing,  the foggy type of rain that wets the windshield but not enough to keep the wipers from squawking every other pass.

How many fishing stories start with the sentence:  He knew this place?  This is the mystique of any trout-fishing story, I suppose.  The more obscure, the more enigmatic.  So if I said a small sect of monks who hired my grandfather and uncle to do excavating work for them, in turn they were allowed to fish the small stream that wound its way throughout the monastery’s property, would it sound too incredible?  Would it be equally implausible to say that to this day no one else has fished this tiny freshet, this gush of secrets that is the spawning gravel of my fly-fishing life? 
I was nearly falling back to sleep when we turned off the main road onto an overgrown two track.  I was probably the best kid to take trout fishing because to this day I haven’t a clue where we went.
 Uncle Jerry threw me a key attached with a tarnished copper wire to a short piece of an old yardstick, the numbers fading into the weathered gray wood.  I’d seen the key hanging from the tag board over my grandfather’s workbench in his garage.  The gate in an old moss covered rock wall groaned with disuse as I walked it open. 
“Lock’er up behind me,” he called through the open window as he rolled the big car through.  The exhaust swirled out of the dual pipes and curled up over the bumpers, the brake lights turned it pink.  I stared at the wet rust stain my hands wondering how I’d be able to wipe them clean.  Grabbing a few fern fronds, I rolled them between my hands.  The explosion of that fresh scent of crushed fern filled the warm interior of the car as I closed the heavy door.  I hadn’t noticed it outside of the car; the smell of high-test gasoline exhaust over powered it.
“Hey, you know, I like that smell—ferns,” he said as a warm smile spreading across his face.  “It says were gonna’ catch some fish today!”   A over hanging limb of hazelnut bush plucked the antenna and turned my attention toward the thick cover and tree tangled covert that hid the creek.  The muffled throb of the engine as it was goosed to make a turn up into a parking spot along the two-track road said we had arrived.  I remember being so excited that I grabbed the crude cane pole that lay on the back seat pulled it through to the front seat backed out the open front door only to have it swing shut catching the front quarter of the pole.  Opening the door I discovered that I had crushed the tip.  The pole my uncle had told me he’d have rigged specially for our trip was wrecked.

He had said over the phone that he was making me a special pole for our trip, a smaller version of the one we used for fishing sunfish at the lake with Grandpa.  Instead of trolling line it had a fine monofilament line and a hook, no sinker.  “That’s because we want that worm to wash right down in that stream,” he expounded as we pulled out of parking lot after breakfast,  “like we just tossed it there for those brookies to eat.  Stinks slowly with just he hook,” he explained using his hand to indicate the worm just floating and fluttering along with the current.

“Hey, Stevie, that’s the beauty of these things,” he said taking the pole from my hand and pulling out a pocketknife.  “See here pal, you just cut the broken part off,” the knife cut through the thin cane tip clean.   He quickly nipped the line as well   and tied it back on the new end.  Handing it back to me, the hook stuck in the butt end, he said  “Be sure and watch out for the tip now when we walk by the brush, it gets tangled pretty easy.”  He winked and turned as he pulled his rod and creel from the trunk.
We walked an old grassy path toward the creek, under a canopy of hardwoods.  The stream snaked itself through a narrow grassy meadow where it disappeared into the woods again.  In the meadow, the stream was wide enough so you could step on the rocks and cross in a number of places.  The over hanging grass on the banks and the darkness of the water at the turns drew me towards the water.  My uncle’s hand steered me clear of walking through the grass to the bank.
“Hold on pal.  Save that water for me.  I’ll show you my secret spot,” he said, in almost reverent tones, stepping ahead of me on the trail. 
The creel bounced on his hip as we walked the trail out of the meadow and into the trees.  The stream flowed through moss-covered rocks that lined the banks with mixed hard woods creating a canopy.  Grasses and ferns hung heavy with rain near the water. 
“There will be a fish behind that boulder,” he said pointing his rod, “so remember to slip your worm off to the side of the rock and then let ‘er float around in behind.”
Farther up the trail we encountered a grove of old cedars whose heavy green foliage darken the path.  The water poured over a series of shallow ledges.  The trees had dug their roots into the limestone so that they appeared to grip the rock with great gnarled fingers.  We came to a pool at the base of a cliff where the stream poured from a narrow opening in the wall of limestone that rose above us.  The over hanging foliage at the top dripped rain water and the exposed rock wall seemed to weep, but it was the dark opening, the source of the tiny stream that amazed me and held me fast.  I watched as the silver tongue of flow as it entered the pool.  The hole created in the turbulence there darkened the water and gave the pool the appearance of a great eye.    

Jerry showed me how to the bait the hook:  “…hook the ring of the worm, not the way we tread the worm on for sunfish.”  He gave me the pole and told me to swing the worm over the hole and let it drop on top of “the tongue” coming from the rock… “That’s the only way you can catch ‘em is this hole.”  He told me to “… put ‘em in the creel, “ and pointed at the old wicker basket he left on a rock.  “There’s ferns in there already, but put some more on ‘em when you come down the trail,” he instructed.  “You ready? “ his question was as if we were about to embark on a quest of greatest consequence.
I accidently dropped the worm into the pool at my feet.  Looking up to see where my uncle had gone, I saw that he had turned around in the trail to watch.  Walking backwards, he called out, “The worm box is next to the creel.”  I set the pole down next to the pool and walked over to the rock.  The cut off milk carton with a hunk of moss as a cover sat next to the wicker creel.  When I got back to the pole, the line had swung down stream and the hook was bare. 
I baited the hook and attempted to swing the worm out over the pool and onto the tongue.  I came up short but allowed the worm to fall into the pool. A school of hungry minnows attacked the worm.  It reminded me of a scene in a Tarzan movie where Tarzan tricked the bad guy into swimming into a school of piranhas.  After another baiting, I put more effort into swinging the worm out over the pool and out onto “the tongue.”
I remember it took me awhile to get the timing right so that the worm landed on the tongue.  The sound of the water pouring into the pool, the movement of the water as it spread away of the roiling head, and the dark overcast seemed to have suspended time.  Perhaps it was my first encounter with what I have come to know as the many facets of “river time”:  the suspension of time, the loss of feeling for the passage of time, the “honey, I am sorry I am late, but I lost track of time.”
The worm disappeared into the opening in the rock only to reappear in an instant disappearing again into the whirling currents directly under the opening.  The line straightened immediately and bent the tip of the pole.  The throbbing of the pole as I lifted brought the trout twirling to the surface, out of the water, writhing on the end of the line as it swung toward me, only to drop off of the hook.
The darkly colored fish lay stunned at my feet.  I pounced with both hands and clung to the treasure. Then I was touched by it all.  The rich earthy aroma, a mixture of moss and wet soil and decaying leaves and bark, cool and clean and fresh and full—of blooming and growth, of vibrant expectation, of all that would come and came from the all cedars that dotted the banks of the all creeks, rivers and streams. From the wavering beds of watercress that seemed to glow with a deep mysterious vibrant green, a color that can only emerge from sounds of dripping water as it tumbles off of limb and leaf and falls to the grass and puddles on the banks, of the musical tune a spring run plays as it courses over and between rocks, of the voices that speak in whispered tones through the rush and push of a riffle, of the distance roll of a large rapids as it empties into a lake or pond or that silent sound of whorl in the current’s flow, spinning minutely, as a wide section of river sweeps by like a great movement of the earth’s mechanicals.  It was there in my hands in colors so rich and true.  The eye catching blue and red spots that speckle the flanks, the vermiculate patterns glowing a olive-yellow, the white on black fin markings, the orange and the olives of it skin, hiding an iridescence that reveals itself in just the right light, a light at the margins of our sight,  an iridescence that connects us somewhere beyond our conscious understanding, somewhere from the very beginning of the movement of water, the very beginning of flow, of life.  I still search for it in every brook trout I catch.   

I wanted Uncle Jerry to see it.  I carried it over to the creel and slid it through the square opening in the woven lid.  Picking up the worm box and pole, I headed back down the trail.   The air was thick with the scent of fresh rain and the distant rumbles of a storm.
When I got to the meadow, he was standing looking down the small stream that wound its way through and back into a tangle of alders and distant trees.  At his feet, two brook trout almost a big as mine, lay in the grass, gilled and gutted.  A flash of lightening in the distance drew my attention to the distant darkening sky.  He turned toward me, in his big hand a third fish, larger than the others.  The cut from anal fin to the gills a red line started to spill blood over his fingers.  The guts and gills came clean from the fish in one motion.  He knelt and washed his hands and the fish in the cold water of the stream.  I picked up all three fish and slid them through the hole in the cover, pulled more ferns and put them over the trout.  Uncle Jerry nodded and smiled at me and turned looking back up stream.
“Pretty, pretty ain’t it?”  Pretty wasn’t a word that I expected from my uncle, and I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the fish in the creel, the mist as it swirled in the breeze over the meadow, the pool and the rock wall, the stream as it flowed over the limestone, the cedars, or all of it.  Or maybe it was just that moment when you realize that it is all good, the being in that moment, truly there with the all of the senses receptive, mind cleared, soul wide open.

When we opened the creel at the car, my uncle lifted the largest fish from the wicker and ferns.  “That’s the one you caught, the best fish of the day,” he lied.  I didn’t know what to say.  I knew that it wasn’t my fish, so did he.  He smiled that infectious smile that you now see on the faces of all his sons.  He took a bottle of beer out of the trunk and popped the cap off and handed to me saying, “Just a sip now.”  I handed it back to him, and he winked at me, and I smiled a big toothless grin.
I rode all the way back to my Grandmother’s house with the smell of trout on my hands.  When we got there, we would be treated to an early dinner of fresh brook trout and fried potatoes.  I didn’t stop to fish that rock he told me about and never went back to fish that little mysterious creek--couldn’t find it if I wanted to.  I never fished with my Uncle Jerry again.  He recently passed away as do all trout anglers.  It would take me another decade to awaken the passion for fly-fishing and brook trout.  It has been over fifty years since the first time I had the smell of brook trout on my hands.

An old fishing partner of mine used to say that “trout fishermen come home late, smell of strong drink, and the truth is not them.”  I guess that may be true.  I know from time to time, when I see the white stripe on black fin or whiff a bit of brook trout on my hands, I smile and remember my Uncle Jerry, his secret place and my toothless grin.  It must have been as big a toothless grin as my son’s toothless little boy grin with his first brook trout.

Did I mention that I have three uncles… they’re all named Jerry?  It’s the truth!

Keep a tight line,


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