[The first draft of an unfinished story; I'm trying to figure out how to finish it. I hope to post a draft of the finishing part before the end of January]
Brad and Evan were up fly fishing on the Aspen River in late July. Brad learned to fly fish from dry fly fishermen and fisherwomen, and he was devoted to well-tied dry flies. Evan grew up bait fishing for panfish, bass, then trout. When he picked up fly fishing, he fished nymphs. He rarely fished dry flies. They were up for a weekend with their wives, Brad’s wife Hilary and Evan’s wife Clare, staying at Hilary’s family cabin on the Aspen at Porcupine Point. The cabin had been in Hilary’s family for over a century. Her family had started a lucrative manufacturing business in Ft. Wayne at the beginning of the twentieth century, making a component of the ignition system for automobiles, becoming suppliers for all the automobile manufacturers. Over the next few decades, some other companies replicated the technology, and acquired a portion of the market. Hilary’s family was in first and in biggest. While others joined the market, her family’s business was still the largest of them all. With wealth, the family purchased various properties at locations prime for American leisure activities: sailing, boating, skiing, hunting, trout fishing. In fact, Hilary’s father was one of the sixteen men that met in July 1959, incidentally the summer before Brad was born, at the home of George Griffith that led to the founding of Trout Unlimited. The family had fished the trout around Porcupine Point for five decades, and her father wanted to help preserve quality trout fishing for as long as humanly possible. Brad married into the family, and that is how he and Evan got access to the cabin at Porcupine Point, and more importantly to the fishing on the Aspen above and below the point.
Brad and Evan had recently become friends. Evan was two years older, minus one day, than Brad. They met as team mates playing in an adult soccer league. Brad was a forward or central midfielder, Evan a defender. Brad scored goals, Evan tried to keep opponents from scoring. After playing together a couple of seasons, they became acquaintances. It took a few more years of getting to know each other that they became friends. They got to know each other by talking before or, more often, after games, about their joys and disappointments. It seemed that the disappointments did more to develop the friendship. Facing the crap of life makes your legs and whole being feel wobbly, and you often need someone to steady you or to fall upon. Losing a game, even a one point loss due to an own goal, is nearly pain-free compared to the pains of job loss, or prodigal children, or other sorts of failures in our closest and most meaningful relationships. The friendship deepened. Evan had fished since he was too young to remember, his youngest memories of fishing coming from before he was in kindergarten. Brad came more recently to fishing, accelerated largely due to his recent relationship with and marriage to Hilary. Evan and Clare were married over thirty years ago.
Brad and Evan had slipped out of the cabin at daybreak, skipping coffee and breakfast except for a glass of orange juice, to head upstream over a mile to fish downstream to Porcupine Point, just downhill from the cabin. Breakfast and coffee were skipped to allow Hilary and Clare to not be awoken by the noise in the kitchen of the grinder grinding the coffee beans and of pans banging. They’d fish hungry, and breakfast after four hours of morning fishing. Brad caught two puny brown trout, six and eight inches. Evan caught one brown, ten inches. Around Porcupine Point, it was all catch-and-release.
When they got to the put in spot, Brad entered the river and started fishing. As they were fishing downstream, and as Brad fished dry flies, he needed undisturbed water, looking for dimples on the water of trout sucking emergers off the surface. He would pay out line and drop his fly just upstream of the feeding trout. Evan would follow, fifty yards behind. Fishing nymphs, he cast across and upstream to drift the nymph into likely spots, small holes or pockets, along down longs and sweepers.
One trout Brad caught was feeding mid-stream where two tongues of water came together and there was an eddy, perhaps a foot wide and three feet long. He laid out line and leader perfectly to float the fly into the tongue, amidst half-inch foam bubbles, when the trout sipped it below the surface. The other trout was taken along the west shore of a section just exposed to the warming effects of the sun’s rays, setting off an early morning hatch. Two weeks earlier at that spot, Brad landed his largest brown trout in his half dozen years of fishing the Aspen around Porcupine Point, a seventeen inch male on a #18 blue-winged olive. Brad fished with a Winston rod and a Ross reel. His reel, or perhaps even just his line and backing, cost more than Evan’s rod a reel, a 5 weight from Cabela’s. Evan’s rod cast well enough for Evan to catch fish. He tried Brad’s Winston, and it was a beautifully balanced tool for fishing tiny dry flies. It did feel nice. It was like the difference between hearing a symphony orchestra CD through a $300 stereo system and hearing it through a $1600 system with correspondingly high quality speakers, speakers that cost $2400 for the pair.
It took four hours to fish from the put-in just above where the tiny but named streamlet, the Esther, entered the Aspen, down to Porcupine Point. Reaching Porcupine Point, Brad stepped out of the river, sat in the short grass, stretched his back as he waited thirteen minutes for Evan to fish the last few pockets, the last short pool on the south side, and join him. They shared their experiences. Neither had seen the other catch or release their fish. The nature of serious fly fishermen is that they attend and focus. Brad tries to telescope his vision to the drift of the quarter-inch to three-eighths inch-long dry fly, watch for a trout it sip it under the surface, and lift the rod to set the hook. Evan attends to the end of his floating line watching for it to stop its drift momentarily signaling a trout has picked up the nymph seven feet down the leader, or more likely, where the nymph has briefly hooked a twig or the bottom of the river. They both lean forward slightly from the waist, as if trying to get six inches closer to watching their fly and line, resulting in the need to stretch their backs after the four-hour morning fishing. They both attend to breeze, trees and shrubs along the banks, rocks and branches in the river, the color of the water signifying depth. Once Brad got fifty yards downstream from the put-in point and Evan entered the river to begin his fishing, Evan barely noticed Brad, except to make sure he wasn’t fishing too quickly and encroaching on Brad’s space. Exiting the Aspen at Porcupine Point, they relaxed on the bank together and spoke their stories.
It was then that they heard the first distant boom: a paddle held by a beginning canoer banging against the gunwales of the canoe. A moment later it occurred to Brad to take advantage of the sharp turn in the river at Porcupine Point to see if they could get some entertainment from the amateur paddlers attempting to negotiate the sharp right turn. The approach to the bend was a narrow slot, made narrower by a small sweeper on the upstream end of the slot, then a pile of boulders, football to basketball sized, mid-stream half-way down the slot toward the bend. It was further made narrow by most paddlers’ recognition of the privacy—relatively speaking of course—of the cabin owners sitting, usually in lawn chairs sipping coffee or iced tea or Tom Collins or Manhattans, depending on the time of day, on the north bank of the bend in the Aspen at Porcupine Point. They might have envied the location, or rather the owners of such a location with peaceful view—relatively speaking of course—of a wonderful stream. Whatever it was, most paddlers tried to avoid the north, more private shore. It provided a funnel, part natural and part cultural, into the sharp right bend in the river.
A trained paddler would read the funnel and right hand bend, make the correct decision to go wide, hug the north bank—privacy of cabin owners be damned, this is public water—follow the main flow around the bend and, most critically, avoid the big sweeper on the inside of the bend. Jutting out from the south side of the river at Porcupine Point, just past halfway around the bend, a sweeper lay over the river, the bottom of the sweeper suspended exactly twenty-two inches above and almost perfectly parallel to the river until its formerly upper branches dipped into the water. Inexperienced paddlers, which means most paddlers, took what they thought was the short way around the bend—on the inside. As they began to round the bend on the inside and saw the overhanging sweeper, they’d try to paddle madly to get north around it. But the way the water bent and eddied, it tended to push the back side of the canoe quickly east, turning the canoe sideways and pointing north. The least experienced would do the right thing and let the back end of the canoe come around, duck into the canoe with the rear paddler going forward onto the floor of the canoe and the front paddler laying back to stare at the sky, and let the canoe float backwards under the sweeper. Clearing the sweeper, they get upright in their seats, and work it around to point the canoe downstream again. Those who thought they knew something, often the male in a co-ed canoe who usually sat in the rear thinking that since he did much of the steering he was captain of the vessel, would give directions to paddle backwards, which had no positive effect. They’d continue to turn sideways. This time they’d hit the sweeper with the front third of the canoe into the branches at what had been the top of the tree. They’d both attempt to lay backwards in the canoe, hoping it would fit under the sweeper. The front occupant would then grab branches thinking he (or she in the co-ed canoes) could then pull the canoe forward and get around the north end of the sweeper. Instead, they usually came to grief, rolling the canoe and taking an involuntary swim. The water was only waist deep. But it was cold, spring-fed water. People involuntarily swimming in cold water, thinking it was the captain’s incompetence that got them their baptism, often had unkind things to say to the captain. The captain, if he was dumb enough, responded that if she had paddled harder instead of screaming and laying back in the canoe, then his plans would have succeeded. Divorce lawyers and family therapists are known to post advertisements and 800-numbers at canoeing take-out points.
So Brad got the idea for some mid-day entertainment. With waders on, leaving his rod and vest behind, and before the first canoes appeared, he waded to the upstream end of the funnel where it was shallow, about two feet deep. He began to rearrange the pile of boulders mid-stream half-way down the slot toward the bend. He stepped upstream and retrieved more boulders to add to the pile. The aim of his engineering feat was to move the funnel a few feet north, to close off to all but the most experienced and most polite paddlers the natural wide route which would get you most safely around the bend, but also brought you within spitting distance of the privacy of the north side cabin owners. While Brad was setting the trap, Evan would listen and watch for the front of a canoe to make its first appearance two hundred yards upstream and give a warning to Brad. Brad would take a sabbatical from his engineering, wade over to the bank, and talk with Evan. While seeming not to pay attention, they were eager to see the degree of success. Each time after a small flotilla of canoes would pass, Brad would recalculate and renovate the project.
Evan had gone back to the cabin when Brad started the project. Hilary and Clare were up, it being 10 am and all, but still in their pajamas and bath robes. They had had breakfast, and Hilary had made good dark roast but not bitter coffee from Sumatra Mandheling beans. Evan got travel mugs for he and Brad, filled them, and brought them down to the river. When paddlers would come and Brad would take a break from his construction project to see what re-engineering was needed, they looked innocent enough, wader clad, earth-tone shirts, Evan with his brown felt fishing fedora, a couple of early fifty-year-old gentlemen purveyors of the fine sport of angling with a fly for trout, sipping high quality coffee. Those in the canoes didn’t realize it was high quality coffee. It could have been Chase and Sanborn for all they knew. But by the lean looks of Brad and Evan, by the well-dressed pair, paddlers assumed, and assumed rightly, that they were drinking fine coffee. They also assumed they were kind, well-intentioned gentlemen.
By 10:30, the construction project was good enough. Besides, canoes were coming so steadily that Brad lacked time to wade out, reposition or add another boulder, and wade back. Now it was time to hang up the waders to air out before late afternoon fishing, break the fast with toasted English muffins and eggs fried over easy, talk with Hilary and Clare about their plans for the day, and head back down to the river to be entertained by paddlers attempting to navigate the right hand bend at Porcupine Point.