Guys Without Dolls
by Troy Letherman
Apparently I’ve got a great ass. Even in waders.
I know this because Chugach has made at least seventeen increasingly lurid comments to that effect over the past four days. Discomfort is settling in, to the degree that I can’t even contemplate the phrase tailing loop.
There have been no fish beyond a single silver salmon caught during our opening salvo, no bumps, no tugs, nothing to suggest we carry much of a clue when it comes to this business of angling. It’s three-attempts-to-tie-a-clinch-knot cold; there’s snow on the banks and—no shit—a tsunami warning in effect. Scanning through the choices in my fly box provokes about as much confidence as a cruise with Captain Hazelwood.
Chugach’s goatee has gone white in under a day and his eyes are growing wilder by the minute. The whole thing suggests a variety of crimes aren’t out of the question. He’s into the whiskey for breakfast by now; we’ve been tossed out of one strip joint and two bars and there are still three days remaining on our trip. From experience I know we’re not so much descending a slippery slope as diving headfirst from a thousand-foot ledge. At one point I actually catch myself hoping for the tidal wave, imagining a fresh pod of steelhead might nose in on the surf. Another Jameson is about the only thing that makes sense anymore.
Clearly, one of two things is about to happen: either one of us will catch a fish and thus restore a semblance of meaning to our lives, or I’m going to start stalking the cabin in thigh-high fishnets and a G-string, if for no other reason than to frighten Chugach into a change of topic.
Thankfully, Alaska’s last remaining sea-run rainbow bumped into a fly the next morning, and I say ‘bumped into’ because Chugach finned it. Still, success of sorts, at least enough to negate the need for a showdown to rival the last few minutes of The Crying Game.
This—as much as stiff hackle, as much as a little Gink left between my forefinger and thumb, as much as long rods, sweet drifts and tight lines—defines fly-fishing in my world. I do realize we’re not talking 1953 here, and the kind of casual misogyny once as common as smokes at the desk is no longer tolerated in polite company, but for me, fishing has always been a guy’s affair. My grandfather first taught me to fish and my dad continued the education. From then on it’s pretty much always been me and them, me and my brothers, me and my buddies. Like a lot of things, I don’t think it’s right or wrong, just true.
Fishing in an all-male world brings certain social realities to the fore, not all of them homoerotic in nature. For instance, just about any time I pull on waders I expect someone to say something incredibly dense about whatever fish species we intend to target that day. Under pressure, we all resort to atavistic methods, and for guys, perpetuators of the Neanderthal genome, that means pretending to know more than we do about anything and everything, and intending to prove it. The easiest way to do that is with facts—the more precise they sound, the better.
“Forty-two degrees. At 42 degrees water temperature, a steelhead will take a dry fly.” Not 40, not 41, but precisely 42. Or so a shady character known only as the ‘Ville informed Chugach and I earlier on the same trip, even before alcohol saturation led him to start ordering White Russians. His certitude, combined with the sudden penchant for chick drinks, allowed us to lock him into all kinds of dark corners, until he’d pretty much promised to never fish anything but topwater again. Needless to say he’s probably caught his last steelhead.
Also, regarding the topic of mocking, which takes up great portions of on-the-water dialogue, someone during every trip will prove to be a complete jackass simply because of something he’s carrying in his gear. I’ve got one friend, for example, who’ll be forever tagged as Disco Balls for the crime of packing, not to mention using, a hard plastic, shiny metallic, Christmas-tree-ornament of a strike indicator. I’ve even seen one guy, who’ll obviously never be a friend, tie-on an inflated balloon. Chugach thought it looked like an ABA basketball. The guy, who probably fancied himself the Connie Hawkins of steelheading, caught jack-shit, just as we suspected.
On another outing, perhaps infected with some kind of tropical fever or tripping on bad ‘shrooms, I decided to try out a Rambo-style, linebacker-lookin’ vest-jacket. That’s right, vest-jacket. Combo job. Complete with zip-off sleeves, equally handy for jungle death marches or just standing around looking badass.
Still trying to live that one down. Chugach’s photography makes it difficult.
Another staple of the all-male fly-fishing excursion is the unfortunate and yet unavoidable peek into the digestive goings-on of whatever buddy happens to be along on the trip. The need to report is a product of male sociology, of course; the rest of the horror show is not helped by the accumulation of standard angling fare—bacon, eggs, pork ’n beans, black coffee and gallons of booze, universally low-end. Without question the worst about this I’ve ever encountered is a friend identified in Wanted posters as the Wookie, a man celebrated in certain anarchist circles throughout the Pacific Northwest, and by a few cannibal tribes of the South Pacific. On my first trip with him, to the Nushagak River in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, we were remanded to a small but nicely constructed cabin at river’s edge. First through the door, I made the near-fatal mistake of taking a bed adjacent to the bathroom. It was a small cabin, by the way, so small that the Wookie could sit on his throne, lean out the bathroom door, stretch his neck around the corner and stare into my face as I lay on my bed. I was made aware of this new feature in my life because that’s how I awoke one morning, his yellow-rimmed, bloodstained eyes staring into mine.
After several seconds of pure terror, I managed to focus on his words.
“Do you have any idea how close your head is to where I’m…” he asked.
It might only be on the inside, but I’m still screaming.
Back at home, passing myself off as your average, take-the-trash-the-curbside-on-Monday type of civilian, I have to ask why I continue to put myself into such situations. Clearly you can skate mouse patterns to leopard rainbows without also sporting a monster headache borne of Black Velvet and Rainier. I imagine you can also spot-and-stalk tarpon without having drank-out half the Key West watering holes the previous night. You might even come tight to a Nush coho without praying for the smell of napalm in the morning. But then what stories would there remain to tell? Of fish and fishing? Does anybody really want to hear about another seventy-foot cast, made into the teeth of a gale, the fly actually dropped into the maw of a passing fish? (Mental note: extend range of cast as needed to impress; mention rod manufacturer by name, apply for Favored Nation status and hope for free gear.)
Having read one knot-tying manual too many, I’ll happily go without, thank you very much.
Instead I’ll continue to fish with my buddies, or else rue the consequences. Like my last trip of 2010, when I was marooned on the Goodnews River without a friend along for the ride. After several very good days of railing salmon on poppers, gurglers and ’wogs, I took to the camp’s horseshoe pit with a fifth of Lewis & Clark in hand. Hours later, having lost convincingly at ’shoes, I was again stationed in a Weatherport at the edge of camp. There I awoke to a churning, sometimes even a burning, in my belly. Really, this was awful stuff—abrupt pains, strange noises, potentially swollen organs: my stomach was in utter revolt. What stood between me and release were the bears; each night I’d lay in bed at camp and listen to a couple of Alaska’s famous bruins tread back and forth through the alder that flanked my tent, on their way to and from the swamp-water eddy about thirty feet away that was packed with sockeye.
It was pitch black outside, no one else in camp was awake and the bears were certainly around. My belly rumbled again and I was forced to stand. Hoping to avoid a peek outside, thinking I might eek out some comfort in stages, I tried for the slightest relief.
Bears be damned: gritted teeth, flashlight in hand, fifty-yard sprint to the bathhouse. A riot on the toilet. The boxers went into the trash can; I went into the shower.
But, relieved of the ailments that caused me to throw caution to the wind and break from the tent, I now realized a tricky situation had presented itself. In my pain, I’d neglected to grab any clothes when exploding from the starting blocks. I now had to traverse the same fifty yards of bear country, and if I were mauled, as I now completely expected to be, there’d be no one to explain just what I might have been up to, running around a fish camp at 3:30 a.m., buck naked.
If I had a buddy with me on the trip, he could at least stand over my scattered remains in the morning and tell everyone that it was just par for the course—always trying to show off what a great ass I have. Even in waders.
NOTE: Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska Magazine and lives in Palmer, Alaska. When he’s not running boys around to soccer practice or entertaining his better half, he’s prowling places like Sweden and Vegas and Seattle. That is, when he’s not on the water with a fly rod in one hand a bottle in the other.