One Hundred Casts
The knee throbbed in rhythm with the fluttering current. Normal weight was no good; each subtle shift woke up the pain. I couldn’t keep all my weight left; it was too slick, and the current waved and jittered the leg and pissed off the sprain even more. I settled on about a third normal load, with my back turned to the current, leaning on the river, left leg locked.
The rain was cold smoke, and the occasional honest vertical drop. Water poured off my hat brim when I turned my head. A cold wet patch crept downward from my neck. Soon it would join the cold-metal leak just south of my left buttock. Feeling the pain is no way to fish.
I looked across the greenblack river, fighting the swell of disappointment holding in the eddy of my belly. I shook the line out and picked it up: haul and cast, one false and deliver. 12.
A bad pause, awkward and worrisome. I tried again: "Bob Rennet? We have a trip? Booked? Saturday?"
"Uh, yeah, hang on," he said. His voice was rough and uncertain. Then an irritated tone off-camera, and bumbling back again.
"Uh, yeah, you talked to me?" he said.
"Yeah. I talked to you. In July, I called you from Washington, you booked the trip, I sent you a check. Saturday, the eighth, that's tomorrow. It's booked," I said, hiding the irritation, failing.
"Well, uh, I didn't get the check, I guess," he replied, firmer.
"You cashed it. I’ve got it here. You endorsed it." The signature looked like childish Yiddish.
"Oh. I guess, uh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Here it is, right here," he said. "Right. Saturday. Tomorrow. No problem. I thought it was, next, uh week. No problem."
13 and 14 went well. Back cast fast and tight, and on the delivery haul I had a clear picture of the top half of the rod flexing, then carrying the energy forward and snap it off. The line vipped out of the basket and hit the reel, not too hard, and delivered in a crisp tight loop. Sharp, short strips and pick up when you feel the head of the line.
The knee improved. The pressure of the neoprene and the cold water seemed to contain it. The ibuprofen was kicking in. I could focus. I could fish.
The guide was a shaggy forty, heavy and pale for an outdoorsman. He smelled of beer and wet dog. He gave me a sour look at the door, and another sour look at my rental parked next to a pop-up camper that apparently hadn’t popped since the Carter administration. He left me at the door without a word then came back chewing and began to dump equipment into the bed of the pickup.
His truck was filthy. Trash washed around on the floor. I had to hold on to the dash to keep from bouncing close enough to smell him.
He finally spoke after ten minutes. "You will have to focus," he said, then said it again. He threw us around the twists of the logging road. "Pick your spot, set up, make a lot of casts, methodical like, just wait for a fish to cross your path."
I loved the advice, turned it in my hands. It was guiderly. I heard “a fish will cross your path.” I didn’t mind the reeking truck. Maybe it was quaint. No discussion of rods, lines, flies. No estimation of chances and trends, water levels, seasons, weather. No anecdotes about famous rivers or epic days or humorous near-death situations. Concentrate, cast a lot, take your skunking like a man: That was all the guiding I was going to get. I didn’t hear that at the time, of course. He turned on an AM station that featured vibrant political opinions and advertisements by the same voice. The guide tamped a big stringy hank of something into his lip with a filthy thumb. We drove.
In the upper teens, things went south. #16 tailed badly, balling up in front of me; the current slurped shooting line out of the basket and wrapped it around my legs. I overcompensated on 17 and lost it, then tried to horse the loop back in and got a "sss-POP" as the fly accelerated into the bone behind my right ear. The point was buried but not barbed. I stood carefully a moment, breathing, then pulled my hemostat and crushed the barb.
The guide sat on the bank a hundred yards downstream. I waggled out line and picked up for 18.
It was my first visit to steelhead country. My local fly-shop hero had recommended the guide. He was effusive though it had been a few years. The guide seemed professional enough on the phone.
I read up on steelhead. I bought way too many flies, and admired them hornily. I lawn-cast in the vacant lot so much the dogwalkers stopped asking if I had caught anything and just smiled and waved their little baggies.
I nearly quit in the early 20's. Cold face, stiff fingers, tingling ear-bone. The knee thumped, the water looked dead as ever. Leader and tippet were knotted and water sluiced down my forearm to my armpit on every cast. The guide slept under a hemlock tree. I felt like an idiot.
But I found a stirring, a small bright voice of sense. What was this? I was fishing. I had waited half a year for this. In empty February I would wish viciously for a green stream in a strange place in a shawl of misty rain. The small bright voice slapped me briskly across the face, and I hobbled out of the river and sat on a shredded mossy stump. I cut away the whole lower section and rebuilt it with careful bloodknots, spooled out fresh tippet, retied the fly, slapped the water off my hat, and edged back out to my spot. 25 was a cautious, thrifty cast and nobody got hurt. By 29 I had forgotten to be cold.
The guide cracked a pint can of Ranier as we left the two-lane. It was 8:15 AM by my watch. Looking at my watch earned a sour defeated look. At 8:22 the empty went out the window. I looked away at the landscape, slanted and ferny.
"How has fishing been?" I said. A long pause.
"Well, it hasn't really taken off yet. The season's been a bit slow in starting; it's been kinda hot."
"Like, how slow?" I said.
"Well, I haven't been out in a few days, I haven't heard of much," he said.
"So, is that like no fish so far, or what? When do they come up the river?" My pessimism grew.
He didn't miss it. He smiled as he hauled the truck around a switchback. We headed downhill.
In the low thirties I built a pattern. I stood in a steady-current flat mid-thigh deep. The flow slowed and pooled forty feet upstream and over in front of me to the far edge. A high cut bank opposite hung over the verge of the stream, but the water was shallower. The deepest point was maybe fifty feet out and down at 2 o’clock, where the current was split by three large rocks. Downstream everything sped up and tilted and shallowed among larger rocks. At the farthest corner of the pool a boulder created a slack-water space about the size of a filthy pickup truck.
Cast 1: as upstream as I could manage and still keep the fly on a good retrieve. In the middle of the sweep I hold up a bit and let the fly swing through the current break behind the first rock. Cast 2 went straight away and not so long, with a fast start in the shallows and stripping timed to bring the fly through the eddies behind Rock 2 and Rock 3. Cast 3 was moderately long and down, stripped gradually through the near belly of the pool. Cast 4 was longer, at a sharp downstream angle to bring the fly along the foot of the pool just above the riffle. I held in that zone with strip-and-drop until the fly was dead downstream. Cast 5 was to maximum length right at the big rock. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35. Repeat.
Midway through 42 I hung rock #3. I knew it, but the variation made my heart lurch. I lifted the rod, line bowing in the current, and threw loops high above. The first one collapsed but the second carried nicely and the fly popped off, dawdled for a moment in the current, then pivoted and zipped out of the eddy. Behind it something moved--just a flicker, an indistinct vague loom. All of me stopped--breath, heart, mind, even my knee froze in mid-throb. Real? I yanked my eyes free and looked up to the bank--it seemed to melt and flow upstream, in involuntary compensation--then back down again. I saw another flicker, then another. The sun was tapping through the clouds, returning random flashes from the sliding planes of the river’s surface. I lifted the fly in, pulled my file, and edged its three facets mercilessly like I was filing down the edges of my teeth.
We skidded to a halt on the sloping shoulder of the road well above the riverbed. I opened my door eagerly, looking out and down toward the river, and stumbled through the thin berm on the roadside and glissaded down ten or twelve feet of scree into a tangle of half-buried fir branches. My right leg bounced off something and the knee went "ping!” I scored the palm of my hand on the sharp gravel. Against the grey sky the guide's face was unconcerned.
I scrabbled up the unstable slope of rock. The crew had probably felled and bladed the trees right off the roadbed. Successive passes had created the perfect mantrap; the heavy middle limbs of the tree held me but offered no purchase, and the rock slope just shifted under my hands. My knee was hot and numb. I had held onto the flyrod case all the way down; it was a good thing, because the slope continued into dense understory for about eighty feet before the angle moderated. It was not deadly but it was inconvenient. A bit of warning would have been nice.
"Are you hurt?" the guide said.
"Sprained my knee a bit, I guess," I said. My hand was an orange poultice of blood and rock dust. I retrieved my vest from the truck cab--driver's side, this time--and said "Let's go fishing."
I intentionally kept to the pattern, and resisted the temptation to look closely at the eddy behind Rock 3 or chuck another cast into the same spot or alert the media. The random sun-flashes continued, but my mind swung: they were the same, they were different. 43: down through the belly of the pool. 44: along the exit riffle. 45: to the slack-water pocket. 46: to the upper end and Rock 1.
47: across, short. I ignored Rock 2 and timed it out. The line slowed a bit over the riffle and the fly settled through the middle of the zone. I mended hard upstream and gave it a big fat money-strip across the meat of the pocket. I was holding my breath.
48, 49, 50, 51, 52. I began to cast for casting. I stayed in form and hauled hard, placing casts far up the pool, lining up small targets. The most challenging spot was the big rock downstream. A small groove above and a big space below, both hits well beyond my control range, maybe eighty feet out. 52 was wild from excessive force, but 57 took an odd oblique hop and the fly softly delivered into that sexy dark crease upstream. Never mind that a steelhead wouldn’t wedge back in that slot. I allowed myself a cheer.
My hand began to ache again in the low sixties, and the grip was slick and hard.
The walk down to the river had been agony. The guide carried a rod case and a backpack and a paper bag full of beers and nothing of mine. He gave my stripping basket a strange look.
The guide’s cavalier attitude and fear that I couldn’t fish out the day had sprained my confidence. Then finally he said something real. “This is the first slowdown after a long stretch of flat riffle downstream,” he said. “And it’s the best slowdown in about a mile upstream. Don’t look like much, I know, but it’s a good producer. From here up, great spawn water-quality, you got gravel, wood cover. It produces a lot, and they come back.”
He spit heavily. “Take a hundred casts,” he said. “It’s early, not too many fish up, but what’s up will be bigger fish. Run this here through it, over and over, to meet the fish just arriving.” He finally looked at me, bleary blue eyes and stubble, a surprise of honest. “It’s early, yeah, but this is the big fish time up here. The front of this run is some real big fish. No place better than here, either, with the water low and the weather so hot and all. Make a lot of casts, be patient, wait for one to cross your path. Methodical.” He handed me a fly, a nondescript chartreuse woolly-bugger-like streamer. “Take a hundred casts,” he said again, and walked up the bank.
No repeats of the vague energy behind Rock 3; I was already rooting the memory mercilessly in case it was the crowning achievement of the trip. The sun-flashes had stopped and the rain had returned. 66, the beginning of a cycle, got loose on the haul and shot backwards into the weeds along the stream bank. I over-stroked 68 and slapped water on the false cast, then tried to fight it in again before giving up and stripping in. It took me a moment to tease out the wind-knot and then I had lost track of my pattern. My vision was blurred. My knee was ominously quiet.
Readjusting my vest, I felt a large lump in my back pocket and remembered: a can of Heinecken, shifted from the mini-bar fridge to the miniscule motel freezer compartment and frozen hard overnight, stashed in the vest for celebration. Always carry the means for a celebration: a beer, a good cigar, a flask of Irish. I kneaded the cold lump a moment regretfully, then shrugged and stood in a weird, indecisive moment, unsure whether I was there, or anywhere. I waved the rod tip a moment in the flat braided flow upstream.
I hauled up for 70 and was astonished to find myself falling forward into the river. The knee wouldn’t bend and I lost the rod putting my hand down through two feet of fast water. I didn’t believe it until my hand hit bottom with my face two inches into the icy current. Once down I rolled over and sat out, grabbing at the rod as I floundered along a few yards. Once stable I couldn’t stand; the knee was a stiff cold stretch of wood. Finally I levered it back to straight and gimped back to my spot, pins and needles and a weird pressury warmth. I was wet to both shoulders. My wrists were so cold they seemed hot, then just cold. Water was under the bib of the waders and under the gore-tex short jacket. The vest was a sodden weight like a dead animal around my neck. I took a long pause, hunched and crooked on one good leg. Downstream the guide was pissing, looking up into a hemlock.
I got mad, and I hallucinated. The sun-flashes were back but it was raining as hard as ever. Little flickers in the side of my sight, black streaks to balance them. I needed a rest but I was afraid to unlock the knee, afraid that if I sat down on a streamside rock I wouldn’t get back up. I was afraid that the guide would see me, would come back upriver and shake his head at me, would gather me up and stuff me in that vile pickup and drive me away back to my life.
I fought back, imagined my beer, popped in front of him: not a Rainier, but cold and green like the river, opened nonchalantly as we stood, men blanked by fish but still appreciative in a philosophical Norman Maclean kind of way, then the THOK! of the beer opening up and him looking at it, cottonmouthed and fading, dry now two hours, grainy and chalky from a short alcoholic nap in the rain. See it on his face: where did that come from? but too proud to ask. Then proffered to share, a toast to the river, a move by a better man.
My casts were spattering and flailing. 71 overshot sharply and fetched up on the far bank, and the belly of the line drew downstream and hauled the streamer in a hasty unmendable rush across. 74 was aimed far but tailed into a spinning ugly splash. 75 went well left of target and delivered inside-out, wind-looping into an ugly circle. “Jesus,” I said to myself. “I’ve been screwed.”
That morning I had waded out, knee shrieking at the odd footing, and began stripping out line into the basket. I’d asked questions: “A steady retrieve, or strips, or what? And should I vary it, or just keep to a pace? If I want to change. . ..” I had looked back at the guide and found him gone, walking heavily up the stream bank, a new beer in hand.
I was able to steady down for the early eighties, keeping to my pattern but shortening up the casts, not really fishing. The exercise no longer had any point, and I found myself watching the trees and the sky.
An idea opened in my head, a thought that had been there for the day or maybe longer. I cast, and I spun it out: The guide was irrelevant. He drove the truck. It was no more use to blame or belittle him than it was to calculate the cost per pound of fish caught on my flyrod compared to the per-pound of corn-fed rainbows holding on crushed ice at the Giant Food. The professionalism of the guide, the weather, the place and time, the capriciousness of steelhead, these were all the natural elements of the world I had chosen. The blown knee, now throbbing from ankle to testicles, was just another obstacle, a branch overhanging a rising fish. The ugly karma was not a factor in my thinking or my relationship to the ocean where where steelhead came from. If I thought of it, or let it bother me, I was less a fisherman. That made me a customer, a sport. The guide was a complication, a reduction. If he had been brilliant, funny, experienced, well-prepared and inspiring I would not have noticed. It was my fish to catch, or not, whether there were any fish there at all.
And the catching or not, that was suddenly unimportant. I wasn’t a competitive angler, but I was as everyone is conscious of the numbers, of the sizes, of the highest jump and the longest run and the most vicious strike. It rolled up on me, in a spreading vision of things that included me, standing in this river and shrugging out another cast to the top of the pool, it occurred to me: the drive to fish that moved me so far and so long was a more deep and complex thing than I had imagined. It was a sad and pleasurable realization like the ones parents have when their children do something well.
87 was downstream again, toward the big rock, and I pulled back inside myself to throw it. I pulled in arms, shortening the stroke. I rocked on feet and included hips, and pushed the rod forward, holding the haul, no muscling. I kept half an eye on the backcast. I watched the shooting line for another second, turning the reel in toward the basket as the line shot out, adding the little turn of the grip to minimize wobble after the rod unloaded. The line went liquid, spraying up and organizing itself through the stripping guide. I looked up to a good loop spending itself, more distance than my game-trained muscles made in a dozen broken-down casts before. The fly rolled clear across the big rock, draping over the down stream lip and out of sight in the very back of the pocket. Drag drew it gently and I stripped it blind once, twice, until it appeared in the heart of the soft, deep water.
I had been told to wait and feel for a moment when the rod lives and the line leaps out. But it never happened. I listened to that advice and cast a thousand wobbly loops, listening to the rod, and never heard a thing. Some were better than others but I never got that satori when it came together and I knew it. Instead, a thousand or twenty thousand casts later, I could move the line and the fly a respectable distance and put it more or less where my hopes were aimed. I felt cheated until I realized that the point had been made, if in a different way.
And now I watched that fly trace its way through the dark, dead water and had my satori. It flashed in slow, silver dignity behind the fly, unreal and vaporous; the practicing, the wiggling of rods in the fly shop; the hobnobbing with local legends at fishing shows; the logistics and the endless driving; the tying of ranks of flies in the cold midnight study; it was all foundation and formality. Without water, there was no soul to the exercise. It took moving water giving its sense in a second conformity to river-stones and scent. Not fish, but water.
Then in that moment of daze, I wondered if the slow silver swash in that pocket had been real. The fly was stopped, dead-setting sideways through the belly of the pool. But the water behind the rock was exactly still still, flat and black at that distance with a braiding of ripple from the point where the current broke across the mouth of the pocket. I shook my head and stripped up the fly. It was worth it, that moment, and I began to reach out the Heinecken, fly rod under my arm, line trailing away.
But I looked downstream where my guide was now supine on the forest floor, hat over face. From distance he looked like a pile of abandoned clothing. He’d said a hundred casts; a hundred casts, he’d said.
Into the low nineties, then, closing on the goal, haul and deliver, fish the pattern. I found my trance again, in a few casts; maybe I’d been in it since the morning. The light was higher now, still diffuse in rain but showing afternoon. The pattern held, deliver and strip, mend, shake, run the fly with a pivot through the fern-green of the water laced with lines of white. The ache and friction in my hips and wrists became a subject of thought, and the fly flew its own way across the pool. I ran one across the top of the big rock, and the next one through the heart of the pocket; on the next cycle I laid the fly in the middle then mended three, four, five times with perfect partial roll-casts and kept the fly within a foot of one spot, turning downstream each time then spinning to hop up as the line rolled by, dying right at the leader nail-knot--a trick I’d seen before, but never tried.
I had no more movement, no more flickers, no more thought. I wasn’t fishing; I was casting, one hundred casts, or one cast. It was in that moment of drill, that clear but resistful movement of arms and minds, that I realized that I must be well over the hundred casts; I had cycled two or three times, the rain had redoubled, the man downstream now stood against the hemlock’s trunk. I laughed and delivered to the middle rocks, looking ahead to the big pocket, aware that this was the payoff now.
But it was time to quit. The flyline was tacky to the touch and knotting in the basket; I was soaked, from the slow pressure of the Pacific rain, and comfortable enough when moving but with the edge of cold touching ribs and neck. My knee was a warm, distant core of ache in my waders. I had done enough. I had fished out my hundred casts, against the current of hope and expectation; I had outwaited hasty fate and the pull of the pessimist. I had caught something after all.