The 2005 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Fiction Award

The 2005 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Fiction Award

After our Fiction Award committee selected "Tex, Mex and the Amazons" as the 2005 winner of fly-fishing's most prestigious short-story competition, we

  • By: Rhett Ashley
After our Fiction Award committee selected "Tex, Mex and the Amazons" as the 2005 winner of fly-fishing's most prestigious short-story competition, we decided we'd better find out a little bit about the author, Rhett Ashley, of Leaburg, Oregon, since we'd never heard of him before. When we called him, Rhett told us he was 66 years old, and he responded to our resumé request as follows: "When I was 13, I ran away from home on the Potomac River in Virginia and ended up in Appalachia, working for a stone-mason uncle.My muscles liked working with stone. Many years later, after teaching and book-mobiling in Indian areas of Arizona and New Mexico, my wife and I inherited a pear orchard on the north slope of Mt. Hood, in Oregon. Old story: we ran it 'til we couldn't afford to do it anymore. We sold the orchard and decided to each do what we most wanted to do. She wanted to get a Ph.D. I wanted to sculpt stone. At first I just did it the way the ancients did: with hammers and chisels. Later I discovered grinders. I did mostly animals (the few cats I carved would sell almost immediately, but who wants to carve only cats?) and female nudes in marble and alabaster. Tucson was a good place to sell stone sculpture: it accents the desert architecture. I don't carve anymore: Polished stone sculpture would be a hard sell now that we're back in Oregon, I think. Living on the McKenzie River and only a few hours from the North Fork of the Umpqua, the Deschutes and coastal streams, I spend an ungodly amount of time just fishing." "Tex, Mex and the Amazons" is Rhett's first published work of fiction, which means that here, for the second year in a row, is a Traver Award-winning author who is not even close to being a professional writer. He's just an extremely creative human being and a fly fisherman who had a story he wanted to tell. (Last year's winner, Bil Monan, who wrote the touching wartime story, "The Surrender," also had never published anything before.) One important difference between this year's winning story and just about all of our previous winners is that it's lighthearted and funny. "Tex, Mex and the Amazons" is a story for laughing over, rather than for peering into in search of deeper meaning, and we find that refreshing. We hope you do, too. As always, Rhett's $2,500 prize comes courtesy of the John D. Voelker Foundation, the organization that honors Voelker's memory. Writing under the pen name of Robert Traver, Voelker-a Michigan Supreme Court judge, angler and author-wrote a number of books including Anatomy of a Murder, Trout Madness, Trout Magic, and Anatomy of a Fisherman. To find out more about the Voelker Foundation and its good works, which include a scholarship fund for Native Americans, visit their Web site at www.voelkerfdn.org. Along with the editors of FR&R, this year's Traver Award committee included Nick Lyons, Fred Baker, John Frey, Richard Vander Veen, Ted Leeson and Seth Norman. Our thanks to all of them for participating and for helping to ensure the continuation of quality angling literature. -The Editors We had flown over Alaskan rivers with Dr. Seuss names: The Sit-Up; the Cat's-Lick; the Sly-You; and were circling the beach at the mouth of the Chick-Cluck. At least that's what I thought I heard. I was not a happy camper. We had missed our flight to King Salmon, which meant the rafting expedition had departed without us, and now an accommodating bush pilot was negotiating our addition to a camp of women fly fishers. I could only imagine a twittering bunch of bubbleheads. The pilot was gleefully describing us on the radio as "Two little chicks that need a mother hen. They aren't exactly Seven Sisters co-eds, but neither are they lady mud-rasslers." (This was to make the ladies down below believe we were girls.) "Take them in and you get two cases of Oregon Glint Ridge Pinot Gris." (No immediate answer.) "And, um, a box of king crab." I did not like any of this. And yet the alternative of returning to Anchorage was too depressing even to think about. ("We" meant myself and a banged-up bull rider from Texas I had been stuck with on all flights since El Paso. "Texicans" we call them in New Mexico. You know the type: Too-big hat. Too-big belt buckle. Pterodactyl-hide cowboy boots.) But as the pilot tipped his wings for the landing and I saw salmon stacked up like cordwood, my attitude changed. Even if I'd missed the rafting expedition there were fish in the rivers and I was going to catch the hell out of them. The plane bounced along the beach and taxied to a stop about 300 yards from a small tent camp. The pilot hurriedly unloaded and was in the air before the first female arrived on an ATV with a 12-guage semiautomatic shotgun slung across her back. She was not a twittering bubblehead. Though auburn-haired and not unattractive, she was as sinewy as a leather strap, and she spoke with military abruptness. "You aren't women." "Course we ain't," drawled Texas. "We were told AirOrca was dropping two women." "Well, we ain't them." "Then you can't stay here. Can't fish here. Can't do anything here." "Hey, we can't leave," I pointed out. "There's glaciers to the north; the Pacific to our backs. There's no roads. No ferries. We're stuck here until the plane comes to pick up the lot of us. We're just here to fish." She zoomed back to the tents to parley with the other gals, and after a few minutes the four of them trooped down the beach toward us. The blonde one was huge-about six-one, with hands big enough to palm a basketball. Of the remaining two, one was petite, with high cheekbones and a string of bear claws around her neck, while the other was built like a body builder and had a big, shiny raven's feather protruding from her prematurely graying hair. They stood shoulder to shoulder and glared at us as if thinking about using us in a human sacrifice. "Now listen up. We are the High and Dry Flyfishers. Every one of us has been divorced at least once, and all of us came up here hoping-and I mean really, really hoping-not to see a man for an entire week. In fact, when we heard that the only available guides were a couple of pretty-boys from Montana, we decided to go it alone out here instead. So maybe now you have an idea of the trouble you're in." The silent, murderous glaring resumed for a long moment before she finally said, "I'm Cappy; me and the big girl here, Dallas, are ex-Navy officers. We share a veterinary practice. Sissy's a psychiatrist. Stitch is a surgeon." As I was trying to memorize their names-Big Dallas was easy; Sissy, the shrink, was the one with the cheekbones, and Stitch was the muscle-bound one-Cappy said, "Now what and who are you?" Tex gave them all a big, oblivious grin. "Wal, I'm mostly a bull rider. But sometimes steers. Sometimes broncs. Right now I'm resting various broke and strained body parts. Call me Tex." "And you?" "I'm a rancher," I said. "Apples, not cows. From New Mexico." "Tex and Mex," someone laughed. Here Dallas interrupted and poked an astonishingly long finger at us. "Figure out your own sleeping arrangements. Here are the rules: First, stay out of our way. Second, all dry flies. Third, what you come with is what you fish with. We don't loan you any gear; don't even ask. "You'll have your own beat each day, but we will check for infractions. Lastly, stay out of our way. Any questions?" "None here," I said. Tex, who had been staring at Dallas with unconcealed fascination, smiled and said, "I got one. Is everything real up there on the balcony?" I was stunned. Even for a Texican that was crass. The large veterinarian blushed; she took a step away, then backstepped and snapped a vicious elbow into his ribs. "How's your mezzanine?" she retorted after Tex had yelled in surprise and doubled over. Cappy barked, "Dammit, Dallas, you learned nothing in those anger management classes!" "Dammit yourself, Captain. You heard what he said." She glared at me, "What are you grinning at?" "I just love seeing Texicans put in their place." "I'm from Texas myself, and I'd be happy to clean your clock, too. Can you wash dishes?" "Well, I haven't…" "Good. Then follow me. It's my night to cook." After supper, there was a Pinot Gris period of jollity, but Tex and I were not offered any wine. Tex wandered off in a sulk, his arm pressed against his injured ribs. I sat by myself and listened to roaring rounds of toasts, one of which was made in tribute to "The Elbow." I eventually sidled up to Sissy, who I found to be the least intimidating of the four. Sissy had produced a vise and a laptop tying bench and was wrapping Pollywogs. After a while she let me try my hand, but I couldn't seem to get the hang of spinning pink deer hair. Mostly, I just pretended to tie while eavesdropping on the surrounding conversation. An inebriated lady mentioned boating: three of them had rowed in college. Martial arts? All of them had studied Tai Chi, Shorin Ryu, or kick-boxing. Exotic fishing? Patagonia, New Zealand, Kamchatka, Iceland. Amazing ladies. I felt inadequate-small, you might even say-in comparison. "Tie basically anything, as long as it's a dry fly," Sissy explained, apparently failing to notice that my first bundle of deer hair had exploded in my fingers and now lay scattered all around me on the gravel. "It has to be a dry. After all, it's the High and Dry Flyfishers." I hadn't brought a single dry fly. "Can I have just one 'Wog?" I wheedled. "No." I quickly changed the subject. "When you are toasting, I hear 'Twobeedee' and 'Threebeedee.' What's a 'Threebeedee'?" She laughed. "B.D. is shorthand for Baker's Dozen. Like, a 'Threebeedee' would be about 40 salmon." Then Cappy stalked over and broke up the fun. "Rules, Sissy. Remember? No coaching. No coddling. No flies. No materials." I walked away feeling lonely and lost. I climbed up onto an old water tank platform to see what kind of bed site it would make. Perhaps I could roll my sleeping bag up inside a tarp like a burrito, and at least be safe from the rain and dew. I wondered if I would count bears in my sleep. The next day I sneaked out and tried fishing with forbidden wet flies. They did not work. I tried swimming them; weighting them; tying them in tandem. Finally I gave up and just beachcombed, eventually finding a whalebone on the beach. The second day was as fishless as the first. I tried exciting the fish by tossing rocks at them-after all, it works for Jim Teeny, doesn't it? I tried chumming them with bits of sandwich. I tried dapping for them with nymphs. Not a single take. On the third morning I decided dryfly thievery was the solution. I waited until everyone had left camp, then poked my head into their tents. Not a single fly. Damn. I would have to tie my own dry flies-but with what? Tex walked up. "Hey, pardner. Look what I got." He held up feathers. "I got hooks and thread. If you got fur or foam, we're in bidness." I remembered I had foam ear plugs. "I've got foam. Did you notice the wolf-fur hood on Cappy's parka?" "Yeah." He was grinning. "And she wasn't wearing it this morning when she left." Later we were hunkered down with a fly clamped in the pliers of Tex's Swiss Army knife. We threaded the hook through the earplug, cemented it in place with Liquid Bandage, spun a feather around the body, and tied in a wolf-hair tail. I looked at it dubiously. "It looks like an earplug with some feathers and fur." "Maybe to us it does. But it don't look like an earplug to a salmon 'cause he ain't never seen one. Let's tie up the whole package of twelve." Tex held the pliers and I tied while he gave me an update on his personal war with the Amazons, as he called them. "You know those locked-in salmon in the Sigh-You braid? Well, I been catching 'em for two days. This morning Dallas caught me there using wets. Hell, they were only gonna die there, so why not catch 'em, don't you agree?" I didn't. My gut feeling was you shouldn't harass a stressed fish. I shook my head and said nothing. "Dallas gave me hell. Called me a bunch of names that hurt my feelings. Then she broke my rod." "You're kidding, right?" I was shocked. He looked rueful. "No. I said something smartass and she broke it." "You didn't go ballistic?" "Actually, I was awed. Angry women are like rodeo bulls or mustangs. All spirit, y'know?" "That's ridiculous." "No, it ain't. You have to break 'em. High-strung women, I mean. Like you do mustangs. Mustangs ain't worth a damn 'til you break 'em." "Women aren't horses. And if she was a horse you couldn't afford to stable her, anyway. Question is: how are you going to fish without a rod?" He gave me his best cowboy smile. Pure Gene Autry. "Why, share yours, of course! I can cast farther than you. So you let me cast. Then I hand the rod to you. You play him in. I rassel him to shore. Teamwork. Just like team roping." I opened my mouth to argue, then realized I had not caught a single fish. "I want to catch one. Just one. For the family album." Tex laughed. "All it takes is technique." "How come you got technique and I don't?" "Cause I spied on the Amazons and figgered out their technique," he said. "That cliff, what they call The Bluffs? We'll peek over. If an Amazon is down there, you watch and I'll explain it." Indeed, Stitch, the muscular, kick-boxing surgeon, was below us. We could see about 70 salmon amassed in front of her. A few fish nosed about the sides of the river. Tex whispered, "The middle fish are not the takers. The fish near the banks are the takers. Stitch will cast over the middle fish to the ones next to the bank. Now, the important thing to remember is: The fly is like a piece of yarn you tease a cat with. A cat won't snatch it until it's twitched. Look, Stitch is putting the fly up to the bank, letting the fly drift down a few feet. See that fish about three feet downstream? Stitch will start her twitch pretty soon." When Stitch twitched the salmon stiffened, and like an arrow pointed itself at the fly. "Pure instinct," Tex whispered. "Pure predator impulse." On the second twitch the fish was in motion and on the third twitch it opened its mouth and engulfed the fly. "There," whispered Tex. "She waits until the mouth comes down on the fly. See? There's only about a half second to set the hook. Watch; she sets the hook, then jerks back about three times for insurance." It was, to me, a dawning. A revelation. An epiphany. We crept back several feet to where Stitch couldn't see us. I was incredulous. All the missing parts to the puzzle. Except Pink Pollywogs. "You think our…?" "You BigTimeBetcha! No more wets. We got our own dries now. Ear Wogs!" "Ear Wigs!" I offered as a better name. We both laughed, then remembering Stitch below us, stifled our glee. We hiked down near the mouth, well away from any Amazons. We waded out with my rod. Tex let a lot of line out, then jerked it into the air, did a lot of lasso-type circles while I ducked, then fired it over to the other bank. He handed the rod to me and began a litany of instructions: "Let it drift six feet or so. Now, twitch. Another four seconds. Now twitch." Bam! I was so startled I didn't set the hook. Tex gave a sarcastic look at his watch. "OK, strike any time now." "Sorry." I handed him the rod. "Let's do it again." This time I hunched forward, watching intently for the take. Sure enough, on the third twitch the nose came up and swallowed the fly. This time I was ready and set the hook. Then began a comedy of errors-bumping, shoving, dodging, getting line-tangled-but somehow we got the fish in. Then we began to argue about the sex. If the mouth is farther back than the eye. If the nose is hooked. If the belly is rounder. On some fish it was just hard to tell. "It would be so easy if fish had balls," Tex lamented. We took pictures, each of us posing with the salmon, then released it. Beginner's luck, I thought, but then we landed another, and another. Seven fish chewed up the first fly, so we put on a second one. After a dozen salmon we didn't bother to count anymore. "It doesn't matter," Tex said, "we would just lie about it anyway." That evening there was a big bonfire and the High and Dry crew toasted each other. "Twobeedee," was called, and "Threebeedee" was shouted back. I was considering announcing our breakthrough when Tex strolled up with a long piece of frayed rope he'd tied into a loop. He was tossing it around and snagging any little thing that resembled a horn. He winked at me and I had a sudden premonition of trouble. Dallas had just announced a Fourbeedee and stepped forward to clink glasses when Tex's loop dropped over her shoulders. He jerked the rope, pulled a pigging string from his back pocket as she fell, and proceeded to whip a tie around her ankles and then her wrists. Then he leaped up and shouted, "Six seconds flat." He bent back down and was whispering something in her ear when all hell broke loose. The three women still standing went berserk. Someone pulled me down from behind. Someone else tied my feet, and I couldn't get back up. As soon as I was immobilized the screaming women piled on Tex. In less than a minute both of us were lying with our faces in the gravel and our hands tied behind our backs. The women untrussed Dallas, then the four of them grabbed bottles of wine and whiskey and went running up the beach, leaping and howling and drinking straight from the bottle in celebration of their triumph. The two of us struggled a while before resigning ourselves to our situation. Tex started musing. "You know, I don't heal quite like I used to. I've got to give up rodeo before it kills me." I opined, "You probably won't quit until they carry you out on a stretcher." After a long silence he asked, "What is it about orcharding that you like?" "The quiet. Just me and the trees." "Sounds boring. Nice though. How long you done it?" "About ten years. It's been in the family about fifty. On a bad year I'd sell it in a flash if somebody offered me half what it's worth." We lay there in silence listening to the sounds of revelry growing farther and farther away. Much later, Sissy came back alone to untie us. "I did a little rodeoing in college," she chirped. "I tied you up quicker'n you did Dallas." "Now how come that don't surprise me?" Tex said. Next morning there was a new, relaxed atmosphere in camp. People smiled. Cappy assigned us the best beat. And by noon Tex and I had caught and released almost 30 salmon. We started walking back to camp in high spirits. We had scored a Twobeedee. As we neared the place called The Bluff we heard a tremendous splashing below. We crawled to the edge and looked down. A rope hung over the spot where Dallas had climbed down. She was playing a big salmon. "My gawd, it's huge," croaked Tex. "Just look at the size of him. He's half again bigger'n the others." We didn't notice the quaking willows at first; nor did Dallas down below. But as the brown bear emerged and headed directly toward her at a trot, we began yelling. Following a moment of paralysis, I knelt down and kicked my legs over the edge of the drop-off, fortunately finding a foothold on the first try, and then began picking my way down the steep rock face with the idea in mind of distracting the bear once I reached the beach. For his part, Tex heroically grabbed the rope and swung Tarzan-like down the cliff. But on perhaps the third big swing, the rope twisted and he spun into a boulder with a stiff leg. You could see the knee buckle and he let go of the rope and fell face forward, reaching out with his arms to break the fall. As he hit, the elbow of his right arm snapped and collapsed. And yet he still got up and staggered forward. When Dallas finally realized what was happening, she hesitated for only a split second, then turned and charged toward Tex. She caught him with a shoulder in the mid-section and he doubled over like a sack of grain. This slowed her, but she continued to run ploddingly toward the rope. As I leaped the final five feet to the beach I heard her giving commands to Tex: "Grab my belt in back. Keep your weight centered on my shoulders and, for Pete's Sake, don't try to help. Let me do it all." Then she was carrying him up the rope with slow, straining, hand-over-hand pulls, her studded wading boots giving added grip and lift. Meanwhile, I was discovering that my plan to distract the bear had worked only too well. Though the animal had slowed to a fast walk, it was coming straight at me with a look in its eyes that was anything but playful, and I had no place to go. I glanced about for a log or a stick-anything to put between me and the bear. But there were only rocks. I grabbed two grapefruit-size rocks and began banging them together. And screaming. That's what I had read somewhere: Face a brown bear head on, make noise and don't run. So I screamed and banged the rocks together like a crazed caveman. For naught; the bear kept coming. I was dizzy. I felt faint. My vision clouded with tears. About six feet away, the bear skidded to a halt. Up close, the smell alone was enough to make me retch, but the long talons and dirty teeth scared me more. When he flattened his ears and growled, I panicked. I threw the rock in my right hand at his head. It struck him in the ruff and he hardly noticed it. The second rock thrown with my left hand completely missed him. And then the sweetest sound in the whole world reached my ears: The boom of Cappy's 12-gauge. On the first boom the bear swung his head, slinging snot and slobber on my face, and on the second boom he turned and ran. I collapsed to a kneeling position in the sand and shook for several minutes. I eventually climbed very slowly up the rope, hyperventilating all the while. On top Sissy greeted me cheerfully. "I got it all on digital camera. Can you believe it all happened in less than two minutes?" Dallas was strapping Tex onto the ATV luggage rack. She patted him occasionally. He looked meek. She looked calm. Their relationship had clearly changed. Cappy sat in the ATV saddle, reloading the shotgun. "He's hurt bad," she said matter-of-factly. Back at camp Tex was tended to. They swarmed over him, binding his leg, splinting his elbow, bringing him hot tea. Most of the actual medical work was undertaken by Cappy and Dallas rather than by Stitch, the people-doctor. Fitting, I thought, veterinarians working on "rough stock." All the women tisked and clucked and cooed when Tex admitted that the same knee had been busted twice before. They gasped with admiration when he refused to allow them to radio for an evacuation plane. He said, "Hell, I been hurt worse 'n this, and climbed back in the saddle the very same day." This was an obvious lie, but they gasped nonetheless, and suddenly I felt a stab of intense jealousy. Why weren't they oo-ing and cooing about me? I was the one who'd stood up to the bear-even if it had been just a small, three-year-old juvenile. An irate "Well, I guess David who stands up to Goliath deserves no credit, eh, girls?" slipped out of me. This outburst probably surprised me more than it surprised them, but they stopped their ministrations and looked at me curiously. Finally Stitch chuckled and began singing: "Who's our hero? Alley Oop. Alley Oop. Who's our hero? Alley Oop." Embarrassed, I fled down the beach. On the last night, after supper, the women crowded around the digital camera. Sissy cooed, "Look at Oop; how brave!" But mostly they ran and re-ran the crumpling of Tex's leg. It seemed to fascinate them. Finally came the magic question: "How'd you do fishing today?" In unison Tex and I shouted, "Twobeedee!" They all looked at us. "On what?" Cappy was suspicious. "On our very own dries," bragged Tex, who had spent the entire day coaching me from the seat of Cappy's ATV. He pulled a fly off his Stetson to show them. "It's an earplug!" the women chorused gleefully. "Ear Wog," Tex corrected. "Ear Wig," I argued. "Twobeedee on this little thing?" "Absolutely," I replied. Then the toasts started. Wine, brandy, whiskey. Later, an inebriated Cappy asked, "Are you two cowguys, cowgoons, cowbouys both divorced?" "Yes," I answered. "Twice over," Tex said. She laughed and said, "Then you're both High and Dry foosher…fishergoons, too!" Later, Cappy, Sissy and Stitch were assailing me with new, drunken verses of the "Alley Oop" song when Dallas and Tex appeared, she supporting him with an arm around his waist. "Oop," said Dallas almost bashfully, "We want to buy your orchard." I didn't know what to say at first. "It loses money three years out of 10, you know." Dallas merely shrugged. "That's all right. All that means to me is snipping a few more love-sacks off of golden retrievers named 'Lucky.'" I felt a sarcastic reply was in order. Something like, "A lot of money won't turn you Texicans into New Mexicans." But I didn't say it, because I suddenly recognized that Tex and Dallas had morphed into a civil, almost sweet, couple-thereby proving, perhaps, that two jerks can cancel each other out, at least temporarily. In a serious voice I said, "In New Mexico there's a saying: 'Sell your land, sell your mamma.' I can't sell you my orchard. "However,"-I looked at their clasped hands-"I know of a few other orchards that might bow to the pressure of a lot of cash." Suddenly Tex and Dallas were hugging me and calling me "Oop" and, more disturbingly, "neighbor." They were laughing and putting their hands on each other's butts when they thought no one was looking. And they were dreaming aloud about orchards and apples and the possibility of relationships that did not end in anger and bitter resolutions. For my part, I was ready to go home.