The New Guy

The New Guy

Seeing a river through new eyes

  • By: John Gierach
Inviting Jim Babb along on the fall trip to the Frying Pan River was the most natural thing in the world. In one way or another he was known to all of us as an experienced fisherman, a good guy and a compatriot: that is, some kind of misfit who, against the odds, had managed to pass for near-normal in the big world as the editor of a high-end sporting magazine. And he was going to be in Denver for the International Fly Fishing Retailer Show anyway. It was a classic no-brainer. I don't remember how many years ago it was that A.., Ed, Mike and I began arranging this annual trip to coincide with the end of the Retailer Show, but I do remember that it was more than just a scheduling convenience. We all now end up going to the show for one reason or another, and it's always worthwhile. But after a few days of exposure to the indoor, business end of the sport, the obvious antidote is a week of camping and actual fishing. Of course we're not the only ones to think of that, and in the weeks surrounding the show there are tackle industry types scattered all over Colorado's rivers. Still, there are those lost souls who close the show and just go back to the office. They deserve our pity. Anyone who wouldn't stretch an expense-account plane ticket into a few days of fishing is bucking for a heart attack, and any company that wouldn't wink at that kind of shenanigan should just get the hell out of the tackle business. Before the trip, Jim and I had that obligatory phone conversation about the fishing. He said he'd heard that the Pan was "difficult." I said that the river's reputation was slightly exaggerated, but that it did have its moments, admitting that even after 30 years there were still days when I'd find myself staring at rising trout while my skull slowly filled with a substance resembling damp steel wool. I said not to worry: I'd seen him fish and knew he was up to it and that we'd have whatever specialized flies he'd need. We both understood that even on technical water, having the exact fly is no more than five percent of the equation, but believing you have the right fly can bump it up to 15 or 20 percent. Even as I said it, I remembered how I'd felt when I'd heard the same kind of thing: "Sure, it can be tough, but a fisherman of your caliber won't have any trouble." No pressure or anything. I shepherded Jim around for the first few days on the river-trying to be a good host even if I'm not much of a guide-but except for the loan of the occasional fly, he didn't need help. He fished with that unhurried smoothness some fishermen have: with no strain, no wasted motion and not much apparent effort. You might not point him out and say, "That guy's good," but you'd notice that he was catching a lot of fish and you might wonder why. Then, on the second day, he caught a large and difficult rainbow on a size 24 parachute Blue-Wing Olive. It was a fish you might not have spotted in the first place-rising an inch from a rock in a backwater way across the river-and then there was the long accurate cast, the elaborate mend, the tricky drift and a set that would take up a lot of slack and come up just right, without bending open the little hook or popping the fine tippet. Jim just sort of caught the fish and after that I stopped hovering. The five of us were camped in our usual spot on the river at our friend Roy Palm's place and the weather was on the wintry side of fall, with a cold, steady daytime drizzle predictably turning to overnight snow and stiff, frosty mornings. We lived in waders and rain gear to stay dry and kept a fire going in camp constantly. We'd bank it up when we left to fish or turned in at night and then blow it back to life from the coals. I honestly think we had three or four days' worth of fires off a single match. The previous year in that same spot we'd had an awful wind storm that literally wrecked the camp. We'd been upstream at the time, trying to fish tiny dries in a hurricane-force gale, and when we got back to camp we found it in ruins. The tarp we'd stretched between trees as a rain fly was shredded and so was the rain fly on Mike's pup tent. A.K.'s entire dome tent had been pulled up and smashed against his pickup, irreparably twisting the aluminum poles. A lawn chair and a folding table were wadded up beyond recognition. A large cooking pot was missing (probably blown into the river and sunk) and an 80-foot-tall cottonwood had blown over, missing my parked pickup by no more than six inches. Mike said, "Bummer," and that was the extent of the whining. The wind had died and there were a few trout rising in the camp pool. This year the fallen tree was neatly cut up into a cord of firewood and we burned a third of it to stay warm, proving once again that in the fullness of time, everything works out well enough, if not actually for the best. You always subject the new guy to these pointless stories of past horrors and heroism. It's part of the normal drill: a polite alternative to marking the boundaries of your territory with urine. Of course in the long haul the river belongs only to God and the people, but the more years you have in on it the more of a claim you feel you have, so there's always a little bit of proprietary strutting. The guest completes the ritual by pretending to be interested. Still, fitting in is not always a foregone conclusion. We all know that these old established gangs of fishermen can be like gated communities, or maybe halfway houses, complete with unspoken rules and walking wounded. They're all unique, but all weirdly similar. Maybe there are signs of past or even current substance abuse, or a residue of lost jobs, wives, houses, dogs or any of the other things you can lose over time; or a guy who still wakes up screaming from Vietnam nightmares. Maybe there's the quiet undertow of old differences that were dropped without being entirely settled, but dropped and all but forgotten nonetheless in favor of shared history. This extends far off the river and that part of it is entirely genuine, although it's also somewhat residual. You could say that none of this is actually about the fishing and be pretty close to right. On the other hand, you could say it was precisely about the fishing and also be right. To all outward appearances, camp life involves little more than sitting in chairs drinking coffee and talking, but the scene could not be successfully transplanted to a sidewalk cafe. However it shakes out, you're always at a disadvantage as the new guy. You never quite know what to expect, there are inside jokes you won't get and you'll never know what subjects are taboo unless someone tells you-and no one ever does. What you get is a trip to a new river with people who know it pretty well. What you provide is your own novel approach to the fishing and some relief from years of conversational inbreeding. In the end, you'll do just fine if you help with the chores, don't complain and remember that fishermen have everything to learn from each other and nothing to prove. Of course it helps if you're a good fisherman, but in all save the most competitive camps, that part is optional. The official acceptance speech finally came from Roy, who said to Jim one night, in his usual diplomatic way, "When I heard you were an editor from back East, I figured you'd be some Gucci-wearin', stuck-up son-of-a-bitch, but you're actually OK." The hatches that week consisted of the usual suspects for the time of year and the bugs came off well in the cold, gray drizzle that both trout and mayflies like, never mind the discomfort of the weather. You desperately want your river to show off for a guest and I beamed proudly every time we found rising fish, as if I had anything whatsoever to do with it. I ran down the hatches for Jim, thinking it might be helpful. You know, the predominant bugs, the common masking hatches, the rare and sometimes important appearances and the odd stuff even an observant fisherman might miss, like the small yellow crane flies that are too easily mistaken for Pale Morning Duns. I told Jim I could remember when the now-common Sulphur mayflies were unknown on the Frying Pan. You never saw them and you never heard about them, even from the local hot shots who knew everything. Then one year they were big news-a new and heretofore unknown hatch-and within a few seasons, Sulphur duns and spinners were standard equipment. Where did they come from? At about that same time, the big mayfly known as a Slate-Wing Drake began to vanish. This was a beautiful size 12 Red Quill that some said was a late-season, reddish brown variation of the Green Drake while others claimed it was a separate species altogether: the Ephemerella coloradensus. This was once an important autumn hatch with its own pattern, but I haven't seen one in at least a dozen years. Where did they go? Things like that can seem profoundly puzzling, but then Ruedi Dam, the bottom-draw structure that turned the Pan from a freestone to a tailwater, was built less than 40 years ago, and a fisheries biologist once told me it can take a century or more for a river to adjust to the changes in water temperature and chemistry. In the limited view of fishermen, things seem permanent here, but in truth the river is still figuring out what to do with itself. We're just along for the ride. I also couldn't help but point out to Jim some luscious-looking stretches of river that you could once fish, but can't now because they're posted. This seems to happen everywhere eventually. The old laidback landowners move or die or get taxed into bankruptcy as property values increase, only to be replaced by wealthier, less generous types. As always, one man's real estate deal is another man's swindle and there can be hard feelings as old cabins bloom into mansions and "no fishing" signs sprout overnight like mushrooms. As Gauguin once said, "Life being what it is, we dream of revenge" and in recent years we've seen the development of "aerial poaching," or standing in public water and casting into private. One afternoon between hatches, I even started in on how the fish used to be bigger here, but lost steam after I saw Jim's sidelong glance. It does seem true, but then over the years we've drifted away from the shoulder-to-shoulder hog holes up under the dam (the most famous of which is known as the "Toilet Bowl") into lesser, but also less-crowded water downstream that we've since come to know and love. And when I go back over old photos and see that the Frying Pan fish don't seem as big as I remember, it's not entirely reasonable to assume that the snapshots of the really big trout must have gotten lost. Jim listened to all this politely, understanding that the old-timer's litany we all grew up hearing becomes irresistible once you realize that the list of things that just ain't the same anymore will soon include you-if it doesn't already. The new guy is a captive audience for this kind of self-indulgence, but even as you drone on you begin to envy the way he shrugs it off. He's fishing well, catching trout and looking at a new river with fresh eyes-seeing it as it is now instead of compared to how it used to be. More than once Jim said, simply enough, "This is beautiful," and he was right. It's my own little corner of what matters, and I thought, How could life possibly go on without this?