|Around the Fire|
Even in the worst of times, the annual trip is always the best of times.
At least once each fishing season, on rivers and streams and lakes and ponds from sea to shining sea, small groups of old friends gather together in familiar places at familiar times to replay familiar scenes and renew their connections with, well, everything.
As my particular crowd goes, I’m a newcomer. Will and Marcel and Shawn have made this trip the third week of June for more than 25 years, and Norm and Barney’s intermittent visitations date back that far as well, and Chucky began coming here as a small boy with his dad, who dropped out before my time, and Tom began coming about 14 years ago, and I began coming some 11 or so years back.
We straggle in to camp on the Penobscot from our homes in Vermont and Massachusetts and Maine, pitching our tents in the same places, tying off the tarp where we always tie it off, building the fire where we always build it, cooking the same meals we always cook: Marcie’s boiled Vermont ham and pea soup, Shawn’s T-bones and venison sausages, Chucky’s burgers and dogs, my rectal-rooter chili and our annual combined accretions of gamebirds and ducks, moose and deer. We drink a bit in the evenings, some of us sometimes more than we ought, and we tell the same stories, and laugh at the same jokes, and marvel at the same endless idiocies of modern existence.
It’s a fairly raucous crew with a relentless focus on two shared goals: catching large landlocked salmon on flies, and making our fellow campers laugh hard enough so beer comes out their noses. In mysterious ways this grounds our year with an emotional anchor none of us would feel comfortable talking about but which all of us would miss were it not there.
My friend John and his circle of old friends have one of these annual events as well, and in the interests of scientific comparisons I tagged along last September to their yearly campout in Roy Palm’s backyard on Colorado’s Frying Pan River.
It was a familiar scene: old friends straggling in to camp from homes in Boulder and Colorado Springs and Lyons, pitching their tents in the same places they’ve always pitched them, tying off the tarp where they always tie it off, building the fire where they always build it, cooking the same meals they always cook: Mike’s spicy fire-roasted chicken, John’s elk chili, Ed’s elk stew, A. K.’s bacon and eggs. There’s a bit less drinking in the evenings than with our crowd, but again the twin goals of catching tough fish and cracking up your campmates take precedence, and underpinning the relentless humor is the same baffled bemusement at the endless idiocies of modern existence.
The campsite is right alongside the Frying Pan, which cuts cold and clear and beautiful through an album-cover canyon carved from sandstone as red as an Irish setter— a perfect blend of riffles and runs and pools and eddies sculpted partly by nature and, at least on his halfmile of water, partly by Roy, who rolled some rocks and shifted some gravel and sculpted a new ecosystem with the twin goals of nurturing fish and humiliating fishermen, both of which it does admirably.
June on the Penobscot can be cold and rainy one day and withering hot the next, and September in the Colorado Rockies is no different. A chill rain sent us shivering into our tents early the first night, and we awoke entombed in snow. The next few days we floundered about in wading shoes encased in great galumphing basketballs made of snow and mud, and we’d fish the water around Roy’s place for a few hours then head back to camp and hover over the fire, smoking ourselves like bacon until someone, thawed a bit and nominally dry, would wander over to the campground pool and see faces eating flies, and pick up his rod and start working out line. Then we’d follow along one by one, dispersing up and down the river and working through the various pools and riffles in our various ways, catching a few fish, some of them very nice, but inevitably heading back to the warmth of the fire and the relentless campaign to force fluids from our campmates’ nostrils.
Ultimately the weather improved and the fishing did, too, and we spread out into the public water upriver because fishing only private water seems somehow wrong and perhaps too easy, even though it’s anything but easy to fish the home waters of an authentic Western fly-fishing legend who could catch trout on a dry fly in a storm drain if he put his mind to it.
A. K. went to an excessively popular pool below the dam unofficially called The Toilet Bowl, where crowds of fishermen cast for immense indifferent browns that loaf about like great dappled zeppelins snarfling in mices shrimp by the bucketfuls and ignoring flies by the squadrons. But not, of course, A. K.’s flies.
Ed and Mike fished the lower end of a long stretch of riffles and runs, and John and I fished the upper end, and we all caught trout that weren’t huge but which anyone with a proper sense of perspective would describe as very nice indeed. The fish were difficult enough so that each required a specific plan and usually a fly change—sometimes many fly changes, each progressively smaller until we bottomed out around size 26. And sometimes, no matter what we did or how long we messed around with tippets and flies and drifts and mends, the fish simply could not be caught. Which is precisely as it should be.
Once, John and I were fishing opposite sides of the same pool, and we each caught three very fine and very tough browns, colored up like brook trout with bright red adipose fins and muscular flanks as yellow as cheddar. I caught mine on a Pale Morning Dun, which were hatching on my side of the river, and John caught his on a Blue-winged Olive, which were hatching on his side of the river. I tried a BWO and caught nothing, and John tried a PMD and caught nothing, and as we were less than 20 feet apart at the time this illustrates both the obduracy and the entertainment value of the Frying Pan’s persnickety trout.
The last day turned out to be so satisfying no one fished after supper at all despite plenty of bugs on the water and plenty of faces rising to eat them. It isn’t that we’d spent the day catching whole crowds of enormous fish. Somewhere around a dozen each, for a guess, and averaging 14 inches, for another guess, and ranging up to 18 or so inches, for another guess. And mostly on teeny-tiny dry flies, for more of a certainty, caught mostly by casting to fish seen rising and deliberately targeted. They were all difficult, and they all came on public water that doesn’t get fished so much as it gets relentlessly hammered, and they all were selective in maddeningly satisfying fashions.
So we sat around the fire that last night, warming our hands and recounting the day, rolling burritos and toasting them in the flames, talking about fish we’d caught or hadn’t caught, about trips past when the wind blew so hard cottonwood limbs crashed down all around, and the time they’d had to sleep in their trucks because outlaw bears were vandalizing the countryside, and about the rude awakening I’d had the night before when two outlaw mice slit through the fabric of my tent and were fist-fighting over a granola bar an inch from my nose, and about whether the best name for a blues-rock band made up of geriatric fly fishermen who’ve spent five damp days crouched unwashed and unlaundered around a cottonwood fire would be Bad Haggis or Smoked Goat.
And then the next day the camp came down as it always comes down, and as they always do everyone speared their best fly into the wall of Roy’s outhouse, autographing and dating and leaving it for the mice to defoliate over the winter, a pleasant closing ceremony that in my own crowd has its parallel when Chucky returns our presiding pink flamingo to the hollow tree where it spends the year.
That’s basically how all these annual events go, as near as I can tell. Modern-day anglers restlessly travel the globe, fishing new places, catching new species, meeting new people, imbibing new experiences and endlessly looking for, well, something. But at least once a year we all seem to convene our core circle of friends and strictly follow a familiar script written less in our heads than in our hearts, a brief sabbatical from the endless idiocy of modern life where the fish make fun of you and your friends do, too.
James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from Amazon.com.