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2

It was too damn cold for anyone to be out here. Only crazy people went fishing on a day like this.

He was talking to himself on the drive to the water, one cold day in January with the wind blowing and the distinct possibility ice freezing in his guides. Sounds like the beginning of a story from Up North, or at least Out West… but no, this was Down South, deep in central Texas. Most people down here don’t venture very far from the central heating when it gets much below 40… when it does get that cold. But here it was, 28 degrees, and he was getting out of his vehicle at streamside, stringing up a 4wt. He had just come off a long hunting season of guiding hunters and doing a little hunting himself, and he was craving a pull on his line and some fish-slimed hands.

Most of the spots close by weren’t going to fish well, but there was a place he knew of where a couple springs welled up from the bottom of the riverbed, and fish would crowd into the warmer water those provided.

Taking a slow, deep breath, he blew a steady stream of ‘smoke’, watching it blast outwards and then dissipate in the almost non-existent breeze. It was one of those cold, quiet days where sound seems amplified… sharper, somehow.  He could hear the burble of water pushing past the concrete bridge pilings, and the sudden splashing and annoyed duck speech of mallards taking off. Listening for the quacking echo that never came. Who taught ducks to quack without echoing anyway…

Striding crunchily down the limestone graveled road, he noticed how drab everything seemed. One could see right through thickets that during the summer had been an impenetrable snarl of leaves – reminded him of the time he worked back through those thickets on a deer trail and had come upon a couple sunbathing nude. Whoops. He smiled in remembrance. Their faces had been a dramatic shade of red, whether from too much sun or too much fun he couldn’t say…

But now the branches were as naked as the sunbathers, the leaves a motley assortment of patchwork colors strewn across the ground in an ill-sewn quilt. As he neared the bridge, a great blue heron took fight with that awkward, noisy way they have that shatters the stillness. The bird glided to the next sandbar down and glowered back at the interloper disturbing the bird’s peaceful day.

Don’t worry old man, the fisherman thought. Soon enough you’ll have your river to yourself again. Cursory inspection of the cold, clear flow revealed not a flicker of fin, so the fisherman traipsed off the bridge and waded gently into the ankle deep water at the edge of the current. As he gradually meandered downstream, he had time to realize that his nose was really starting to complain about how cold it was outside and was demonstrating disapproval by creating more mucous than any one nose should ever need. Continued negotiations with the back of his wool glove ensued, and the fisherman wandered on.

The gloves reminded him of a time on a steelhead river where he had swung a fly across the current time after time after time, so many times, and then suddenly the brilliant flash of a take and the feel of lightning on the line… it had been cold then, too.

The gloves remembered.

Rounding the bend the fisherman came upon the entrance to the small backwater that held the springs.  Approaching slowly and quietly, he stooped low to avoid spooking fish.

Keeping a scraggly young bush between him and the green-clear water, he got his first glimpse – a carp, swimming slow patrol circuits along the opposite edge of the backwater.

The fisherman kept still and watched, knowing from hard-won experience that to barge in after the first fish one sees is a great way to catch no fish.

A sunfish drifted up into view, dimpling the surface like it was June. Catfish prowled the depths near an old, broken down branch resting on the bottom amongst a carpet of dead leaves.

Sniffling a bit, he scrubbed at his nose again and flexed fingers going stiff with cold. Resting on his knees behind the young shrub, the fisherman dug in his pocket to retrieve the small fly box nestled there. He glanced up at the dreary sky, gauging ambient light, and eyed the carp that was still making slow circuits. Probably not enough light to cast a line shadow, but best be careful.  Clicking open the simple box revealed a small bedraggled group of flies; he hadn’t tied in a couple months, but he had faith that a fish catcher was in the lineup.

Watching the carp again, he considered his options. Needed to sink about a foot pulling an 8lb leader, get the fish’s attention but not too much, cold water, overcast day…

His bare fingertips rested lightly on a beadhead zugbug. Weight, glimmer, silhouette, movement… yes.

The gloves slipped off his hands quickly, and the zug went on the leader with a dab of saliva and deft twists made difficult by numb fingers.

Grey wool against the tan and white river cobble of the gravel bar. A cardinal’s call from across the river. Stinging cold nipping at nose and ears. Great to be alive.

Scrunching the gloves back on awkwardly, he flexed his hands again and readied himself. Deep breath, gout of steam. Making sure the fish couldn’t see him, he flicked the newly-knotted fly into the main current of the river where it ran a couple feet to his right. Water haul here, he thought to himself. The line and leader floated lightly, making a tiny v-wake behind the skating fly. Making sure he had a clear casting lane, the angler waited, stoic. Downstream, the heron waited. Brothers of purpose.

The carp circled, meandering, and paused to nose among some leaves.

Now. The flyline accelerated in a smooth curl, arcing up over the rodtip, straightening and dropping to deliver the fly with a tiny plop between the lethargic fish and the bank. Sinking, so slowly... but now the fish raises in the water column and spots the interesting speck dropping to the leaves in front of its face. The fisherman watches the fish, the fish watches the fly.

Intensity.

The angler watched the fly drift to a stop on a rusty orange leaf. A tiny twitch of the line, and the fly breathed and quivered. The fish didn’t move… then almost imperceptibly, it leaned forward. The fisherman subconsciously leaned as well, although he was unaware he did so.

A subtle gill flare was the only clue, but the arm raised quickly and confidently, and the thrill of a tight line thrummed in the angler’s veins. The fight was almost inconsequential, but satisfying. The carp proved to be 4 or 5 pounds when brought near and the angler didn’t hesitate to strip his gloves and wet his hands in the cold water so he could raise and admire the golden-scaled visitor from a far-off land.

Back in the water, the fish pulled away into the depths with slow, steady cadence. The fisherman stood, shaking water and slime from his numb fingers, and slipped the gloves back on. He looked downstream, through the skeletons of winter-weary trees, and decided that was good enough. With another deep breath and gout of steam, he turned, and began to crunch back to the bridge.

His need for a bite had been quieted, and besides, it was too damn cold for anyone to be out here anyway. Only crazy people went fishing on a day like this.

One of my good fishing buddies recently put together a short essay about some of his memories of a legendary fly fisher - Mel Krieger.

Thanks  Brian!

 

 

Was chatting earlier today with a fishing buddy, and we were talking about casting.  Talk eventually turned to instruction, and from there to great casting instructors.  Bringing up that subject with me will reliably elicit mention of Mel Krieger.

I thought the world of Mel.  He was one of the brightest shining stars in the fly fishing constellations that dominated my days and dreams growing up.  I admired his energy, his exploits, his technique, and his no-nonsense instruction skills.  I remember making a minor hajj to the Golden Gate Casting Ponds on a long West Coast summer swing late in college, hoping perhaps I’d find him chatting amiably with Steve Rajeff and then I’d....I’d....well, I didn't have a clue what I’d do.  Ask for autographs?  No, no, not right.  Stare?  Probably.  Stroll up and chat?  Maybe.  Ask for tips?  Ugh.  Pray?  Yup.

They weren't there, so it didn't matter.  But I did meet him years later at the International Fly Tackle Dealers show in Denver, must’ve been in the late 90s.  My Dad was working at Ross Reels, and I’d weaseled my way into a show pass and a semi-regular gig talking trash at the booth.  Got to meet Joan Wulff and Lefty Kreh, watched AK Best tie, hung out with Brad Befus, took home bags of swag and saw all the new gear.  Fun, right?

They had two big casting ponds and a fairly serious distance competition on Saturday night.  I wasn't brave enough to enter, but I was fresh back from a long steelheading trip and feeling pretty good about my stroke.  Off in a back corner some rod dealer had built a simple casting game with a timer and pizza boxes.  The boxes were staggered at 10’ intervals on either side of a narrow aisle out to 100’ or 110’, as if they were unusually squarish boulder pockets in an exceptionally straight stream.  They’d rigged a couple 8wt rods with a yarn fly, and you had to hit each box within 90 seconds -- or maybe it was two minutes, can’t remember.  Simple, but good fun.  Easy to replicate at home, too.

I took a break from our booth during a quiet period and found that the pizza box casting course was likewise empty.  I picked up a rod, stripped out and stretched a pile of line, set the timer and started casting.  I hit every box out to 60’ on the first try, and I was feeling pretty good about myself.  It took me two tries to hit the box at 70’, and I missed the 80’ box on my first throw.  Plenty of time on the clock, no stress.  I stripped in some line and worked back into my stroke, double-hauling like I’d been born doing it.  I looked back over my shoulder to watch my backcast -- still textbook -- and saw Mel Krieger standing about 10’ behind me, arms crossed with a stern look on his face.

Oh shit.  I missed the grab on my backcast haul and dropped 80’ of line on the floor behind me.

Oh shit.  Mel’s watching.  He’s not happy.  Scrambled to pick up the slack.  Started flailing with too much line out, couldn’t load the rod.  Stripped in more line.  Short cast, mangled the plane, threw a pathetic tailing loop, stripped in aga----BUZZZZZZZZ.....thanks for playing, you lose.

Oh God, what a mess.  I was red and sweating, my shattered pride coiled in knots on the floor along with my loops.  It was like missing a layup with Michael Jordan watching.  BECAUSE he was watching.

I’m not sure what he saw that he didn't like.  Could’ve been the burritos, who knows?  He was all smiles when I looked back again.  He chuckled and ambled over, chucked me on the shoulder and said something like, “Pretty good there....for awhile.  What happened, son?”

I shuffled and stammered, finally mumbled something about him scaring me.  “Little ole’ me, scare you?  Hahaha...”  Didn't really make me feel better.  But then he asked where I was from and who I knew and started an amiable little chat.

10 minutes later I floated back to the Ross booth on a Dickensian Cloud:  it was the best of times and the worst of times, simultaneously.  My hero had noticed me, even conversed with me.  And I had made a fool of myself.  Uff-dah.  But I still thought the world of him, and I’ll never forget that encounter.

I looked up his bio today and discovered, sadly, that he passed away in 2008.  Here it is, four years later, and I didn't even know.  I feel chagrined, out of touch with what was once a familiar realm.  And yet, his star in the most rarefied of my personal constellations will never dim, no matter how infrequently I manage to look to the sky these days...or to the water.  RIP, Mel.

Brian Clark

2

So it turns out that the snook trip was just too much to encapsulate in a series of short stories like I prefer to write - we would've been on 'Snook Trip 23424545234' and y'all would be thinking that this was not only boring, it was getting out of control. Much like the Matrix series. So, in order to avoid that catastrophe, I'm going to sum it all up as best I can with a photo gallery and quotes from some of the characters that showed up for this event.

 

.

When asked about what they remembered of the trip, I got a rich hodgepodge of memorable moments. I had to whittle down many to a few, but here they are, unedited and straight from the horse's... mouth.

"Rain, fishing the flats, walking up 3 flights of stairs, Bobo the clown, Cops, the jetty walk in flip-flops, Getting Curtis' hitch stuck in the road when trying to back out of a driveway, while cops where pulling people over left and right, Curtis' getting stuck in the first ten feet of sand road, the great view from the top balcony, the mo-ped fisherman, the smokey ass grill, the sea hares, all the ladyfish tearing up shrimp...

"...how it smelled like someone dropped a deuce when the kitchen faucet ran."

"Running out of gas, eating lady fish, did i mention cops, new friends, paddling in the dark for hours looking for a lost clown with a blow up doll, hooking a snook and not landing it, night fishing in the lights while drinking a beer listening to live music getting photographed, Cops, beer, rain, wind, ticket for 8 over, sweet pad, great new friends, losing the blow up sheep on the bridge, and last but not least getting everyone home safely and COPS."

 

Did he mention cops?

 

Hard to top off that boatload of memorocity, but my favorite memory from the trip was when several of the guys decided to brave the weather and go hit the flats for a while. Not only did we catch fish, but we ran into a local fly slinger who asked us where we were staying. We described the place, and he kinda chuckled and said ah yeah. That place used to be a gay bar.

Without missing a beat one of the guys piped up with something like 'Hey, that makes sense - Paul was getting a good feeling about that place; a good vibe, if you will."

 

Oh yeah. It was one of those trips.

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