It was one of those crossroads moments: my past and all accumulated knowledge lay behind me; to right and left were the roads of argument, theory, history. And ahead lay a brave new world, if only I could avoid right, left and the past, and walk straight ahead.
“Give me your rod, I’m going to set you up with a bobber,” said Mark, the first American guide I had ever met, hired or fished with.
“A what?” I replied, looking at some pink bubble he was threading onto my leader.
“A bobber, a float. With a bit of lead, it’ll git you down where the fish is feedin’, and that’s pretty deep on this river.”
I heard echoes of the lessons I had learned in England, Africa and Ireland compete with each other in my confused brain. I could hear my scholarly father telling me that to get a fly down deep you cast upstream with a weighted nymph and skilfully let it tumble down to waiting prey. I heard my toothless African guide James declaim: “You must put weight on, maybe one and maybe two, to meet the fish at the bottom.” And I heard an army of “purists” and “experts” speaking from the volumes stacked on my Irish bookcase.
They were all shouting “Get thee behind me Satan” and waving their hands in front of them to repel the ghostly horror of a fly fisherman using not only a weight, but a float, like a “Coarse” fishermen pursuing Carp or Tench or Rudd. These were the people I had started fishing with on canal and river banks. This was how I myself had started fishing in Hong Kong reservoirs, with a float, some split shot and bread paste in search of minnows.
But I was a fly fisherman now, and all the lore I had learned from books and riverbanks made me think I was somehow superior to the fisherman who plumbed for fish they could not eat, kept them in a “keep net “until they went home, and then emptied their catch of the day back into some murky pond or canal. Not for me “ground baiting” or “trotting a float” or “ledgering.” Oh no. I was a carbon fibre creature, delicately propelling tiny flies with mystical names like “Greenwell’s Glory” and “Royal Coachman” onto expensive waters in search of Forbes List fish – Trout, Sea Trout and Salmon.
And suddenly there I was at the Crossroads. Ennis, Montana to be precise. “Population 834, 11,000,000 Trout” a welcoming road sign said. And I wanted some of them. This was my first American fishing trip, and aside from a few boisterous Whitefish and small Trout prised from the banks, I had yet to try the classic American method of floating in a boat down a river with a guide, casting along the way, stopping occasionally at deep holes, covering miles and miles of trout-y water in a day.
My guide, who by now had affixed the “bobber” to my leader and hung about six lead split shot not far from a big, ugly black fly, was called Mark. I had met him the previous day at a “takeout,” which is where guides take their boats out after a day floating downstream. They launch them at a ……launch. And employ a small army of drivers to “shuttle” their car and trailer down to the takeout while the guide earns his crust getting his clients fish.
He was busy getting two very drunk men in their 20s out of the boat, which was harder than it sounds. A day floating down a river leaves your balance a little skewed. And if you’ve consumed a case of cold Heineken and half a bottle of Jack Daniels each and are wearing waders as well, that little distance between boat seat and bank can be tricky. They both acted like puppies on ice. Both ended up on their faces on the bank with Mark hauling them up as paternally as a fellow 20-year-old can. The two fishermen beamed happiness and oblivion to their plight. “Okay fellas,” said Mark, sweeping beer cans from the bottom of his Clackacraft boat into a plastic bag. “Just let me get this boat onto the trailer and I’ll take you back to your hotel.” I walked over, introduced myself and asked how the fishing had been. “Got a mess of Heinekens and one Jack Daniels,” he replied with a smile. “I think they had a great time but the fishing was accidental. So were the 10 fish they took between them.”
I took an instant liking to Mark and hired him straight away for $350 for the next day as the only client. I didn’t want anyone else watching my initiation into the art of fishing from a moving boat. There are two sorts of boats; inflatables, which are easier to push around rocky passages, and the solid variety often called Mackenzie boats, although the Clackacraft is the current vogue. They come fixed with anchors at the rear operated by a foot pedal, comfortable seats front and back out of which you can cast sitting or standing, and enough space and hideaways to stow ample gear and food in the popular and pricey Yeti cooler. (My friend Bob Triggs eschews the more expensive cooler for the budget Coleman, variety on which he has written “Not Yet a Yeti.”)
Clockwise: Clackacraft, John Mckinnie in his own Clackacraft, inflatables
“You never fished this way huh?” asked Mark, somewhat alarmed by the look on my face. “It’s a traditional way on this river and will git you fish. If you want to fish without a bobber I can fix that too, and we can fish nymphs and lots of lead, but you’ll get hung up on the bottom and you need to get real deep with a moving fly, This way, with the bobber, does it. . ‘Sup to you.”
So I climbed aboard and went floating down the Madison river with Mark; he met his girlfriend called April in April, married her in April the next year, and was expecting their first child in April which, if it was a girl, would be called April River, and if it was a boy would be called River April. Talking to guides from then on became something I would look forward to. I was lucky to be initiated by such a generous and contented young man. Later I would meet the occasional sourpuss guide and a few utter bores (mostly in Ireland), but the guides I have met in America are cut from quality stock, shaped by a love of fishing and polished to a fine finish by some of the most beautiful waters in the world. “We get people coming down here who think because they’ve spent two thousand on gear and another three thousand on a Lodge that they deserve to catch fish. I tell ’em, you can’t (it was pronounced kant) buy fish They’re a gift from God,” said one of my favourites, John McKinnie.
So we pushed off and floated down the Maddison, which was high and fast, Mark advising me to cast close to the bank either at 90 degrees to the boat or 45 degrees downstream. The fly was as big as my thumb, jet black and woolly, and had eight rubber legs. Mark said it was a stonefly imitation called a Girdle Bug, so called because the legs used to be made out of the rubber from women’s underwear. Given the changes in women’s underwear since girdles, it made me think what flies you could tie out of thongs or Brazilians.
But this line of thinking was interrupted by the clunk of six split shot in the collar of my fishing jacket. Casting this rig was like trying to cast a piano stool. All learned technique became irrelevant. You have to learn to cast a very unbalanced and clumsy line in which the bobber is the least of your worries; the heavy fly and split shot are problematic enough. And then you just about get the fly, weight and bobber into the water and it’s time to lift and recast, because you’ve floated past the spot you selected. Then there are the phoney “takes” when the bobber dips because of a weed or some stones. All this learning takes place as the bank, trees and sky go past in a blur to the sound of Mark saying, “get in closer to the bank, no, closer than that, much closer, the fly almost needs to come off the grass………”
Twenty minutes later a sudden dip on pink plastic and I had my first fish, a small, pale and visibly shocked Brown Trout. We both had WTF expressions, but the fish’s was more justified. He’d gone for a big lunch and ended up looking at a middle-aged human and Montana’s endless blue sky and then he ended up several metres downstream from where “lunch” had been served.
Some time later I forgot about casting a piano stool altogether and the rig was going out beautifully, drifting over hot spots and locating fish. It all came together in a way that fishing sometimes can but, unhappily, often doesn’t. At one point, we banked the boat and I fished a deep trench with a tiny Lightning Bug at the end of the same weighted line and bobber. Near the end of the trench, the bobber disappeared and I found myself connected to something so strong the rod tip went from upright to horizontal in a flash that nearly cost me my footing. I let it take line and it soared off downstream, coming out of the trench in a silver flash and then continuing to motor towards the next town. I went scampering after it, Mark put the boat back in the water and followed me, urging caution and care.
When we got the fish to the bank and the safety of Mark’s net, it was a Rainbow, only about three pounds. I say only because it felt bigger, and there was no way I was disappointed. It was the first of the big fish we caught that afternoon, many of them kype-jawed Browns with jagged teeth and deadly stares. Throughout the afternoon we changed flies many times but never stopped using the bobber. I was bob bob bobbing alone with the rest and best of them on a gorgeous piece of Montana water.
And have done every year since, when it’s needed. Nor do I think it breaks any rules. It might raise the expensive hackles of a few purists but I see no virtue in NOT catching fish the “right” way. It’s the same nonsense at the Kenya Fly Fishers Club where the use of weights is outlawed by some hangover from colonial times when members imported rules from British chalk streams and all the attendant snobbery. I wouldn’t use the technique on British or Irish waters because I’d get thrown off and, in any case, it wouldn’t work from the bank, which is where I fish from mostly. In Ireland we fish for salmon and sea trout using floats with prawns and worms attached and it’s legal and accepted. And bloody difficult.
Fishing the Big Hole in Montana this year, several of my guides asked me if I minded using a bobber. They’d met British anglers before and come up against the “discerning” British upstream purists. But I don’t mind and we didn’t use it all the time. There were parts of the river that lent themselves to dry flies, parts where a weighted nymph was appropriate and many portions where a chunky multi-coloured streamer was the way to get deep-lying specimens’ attention. They all worked.
Robert Johnson’s Crossroads is about a man hitching for a ride in rural Mississippi. Some have extrapolated that it is about him meeting the devil and selling his soul in exchange for musical success. There’s even a monument of three electric guitars celebrating this myth at a Clarksdale crossroads , where the encounter was supposed to have taken place. http://www.openculture.com/2015/07/the-story-of-bluesman-robert-johnsons-famous-deal-with-the-devil-retold-in-three-animations.html
But I don’t buy this. I think it’s just about desperation. Johnson was a juke joint player, almost a musical beggar, and led a poor and short life of 27 years, died poor and left a legacy that transformed popular music for generations, made him not a single cent, and made hundreds of modern musicians very wealthy. Including Eric Clapton, himself a fly fisherman.
My son and I rate Cream’s Royal Albert Hall version of Johnson’s song as the finest ever recorded, and Clapton’s solo on that recording as the finest electric guitar solo of all time. We put it on in the car in Ireland and nod our heads vigorously, like they do in Wayne;’s World. But with feeling.
I cannot hear it now, without thinking of that Crossroads moment I had when I met Mark on a Madison riverbank in Montana. The last line in particular – “I believe I’m sinking down” – ignites a wry, private smile, and many happy memories. Thanks Mark.
Hargeisa November 18, 2017