Trips

Trips

They're more about where you go than what you catch

  • By: John Gierach
The truth about fishing trips is that they're often more about where you go and how you get there than about what you catch. You naturally plan your trip for when you think the fishing will be at its best and try to make the most painless travel arrangements, but the earmark of every fishing trip is still uncertainty. If it weren't, why even go? However you travel, there are the usual questions; usually unasked, but there in the middle distance none- theless. If you're driving, will your pickup break down? If not, will it make it up the last pitch on that four-wheel-drive road? If you're flying, will your flight leave on time or at all? Will your gear arrive at the same place you do, and if not, will someone have a spare rod? The airlines say they'll deliver your luggage to you if it comes in late, but they're picturing a hotel near the airport.I still remember my relief when a guy from the airline finally delivered my fly rods to me in the lobby of a hotel in Halifax at two in the morning. By the end of the next day I'd have been two more flights and a boat ride away, and the drama might have ended differently. And then there's the fishing itself. Even if it's a familiar fish in a recognizable setting, there are regional quirks. The bass are exactly where you expect them to be and they'll eat the same commercially tied deerhair bugs, but here they're noticeably partial to the yellow-belly frog instead of the otherwise identical white-belly ones you brought from home. Who'd have thought? If you're after a new species, you're pretty much in the dark and you only have a short time to get the light turned on. A lot of being able to catch a particular kind of fish in a particular way boils down to instinct bred of familiarity, and even if you have the instinct, you're still in unfamiliar territory. You're an adult with your head on straight and you know the drill, but some of this stuff isn't easy and you've seen people emotionally broken by a bad skunk. And there are bound to be potential hazards that are outside your normal, day-to-day experience. They could be as obvious as grizzly bears, or as obscure as a regional strain of cow parsnip with sap that burns your hands when they get wet. Or maybe it's bush flying. Small planes have worse safety records than the big ones and it's not comforting to learn that the majority of all aviation accidents are caused by simply running out of gas. A bush pilot in Alaska once said, "The only time you can have too much fuel on an airplane is when it's on fire." Some trips are punctuated by little shocks of realization that are profoundly exotic. A friend was once fishing in Mexico, wading ankle deep where he was safe from sharks, when he saw a track in the mud and asked his guide what it was. The guide said, "Jaguar, seanor." Things like that heighten your consciousness to the point where you're more acutely aware of your surroundings than usual. That's why your memories of a fishing trip are invariably more vivid than your memories of the same number of days at work. Of course most of us are perfectly safe on even the most adventurous fishing trips and statistically, most accidents happen at home or while driving within 25 miles of your front door. It's not that your house and neighborhood are so dangerous, but that they're so familiar you've stopped paying attention to the extent that you won't notice a tennis ball on the stairs or a new stop sign on the corner. Whatever else happens on a fishing trip, you pay attention. I prefer driving to flying on fishing trips for reasons that will be obvious if you've been on a commercial airliner in the past few years. Jim Harrison once said that commercial flying wouldn't be much worse if they towed you behind the plane in a gunny sack full of fish guts. Driving also gives you a feeling of self-reliance and allows time and distance to pass at a more human pace. If you're going a long way, it takes a long time--as it should--and you get to see the landscape, vegetation, wildlife and maybe even the climate gradually change. That's a romantic idea and I don't apologize for it, but there's also the practical effect that you're not jet-lagged and time-warped for your first few days of fishing. If you have a moderately roomy four-wheel-drive vehicle--I drive a medium-size pickup--you can go where you have to and take what you need, within reason on both counts. I long ago learned that having four-wheel drive doesn't mean you can't get stuck, it just means you can get stuck in more desperate situations. As for cargo room, remember that you'll have to paw through everything you bring once you get there, so it's best to stay lean and efficient. For that matter, if there are too many comforts that you can't do without, even for a week, maybe you should just stay home. Naturally, definitions of necessity and luxury are entirely personal. I know people who'd never think of going anywhere without a cell phone, even though they often don't work in the rural West. I don't own one myself and when someone asks, "How can I reach you?" I thoroughly enjoy saying, "You can't; I'll be fishing." The new satellite phones supposedly work anywhere, which can be handy in a dire emergency, but it also means there's now no place left on earth above ground where you can hide. Of course I do swallow my pride and fly now and then for the same reason everyone else does: to save time. I'd actually love to drive someplace like the Northwest Territories for big grayling, but I balk at the prospect of weeks on the road for a week of fishing and just book a flight. My one rule for trips is: Always spend more time fishing than you do traveling. I guess I've never completely understood the fisherman's compulsive urge to travel, even though I've been giving in to it for better than half a lifetime. I grew up with men who seemed to fish happily close to home: say, within one or two counties. They knew the water, the fish and the seasons inside out, and although they weren't what you could call fashion-plate sportsmen, they'd fish circles around the people you could call that. This was in the Midwest, in the heartland of the Protestant ethic, where it was considered vaguely sinful to be anything but satisfied and grateful for what was right in front of you. Down at the barber shop you might point at the cover story on a dog-eared copy of Field&Stream and say, "Boy, I'd like to fish there sometime," but it's doubtful you ever would. Partly because of that example and partly from dumb good luck, I now live in the northern Colorado foothills, and what's right in front of me are four species of trout in dozens of mountain and foothill streams covering several hundred miles. I'm satisfied and grateful for them and actually depend on their somewhat predictable circadian cycles for part of my sanity. But I travel anyway. I like to think it's biological: some holdout from the days when we had to follow the game or starve, so that by now we have a million year's worth of genetics telling us to pack up and go, even though we no longer understand why. It's the same thing that makes caribou migrate across vast distances and mountain lions stake out territories covering a hundred miles. Even the three horses across the county road from my place have it. They live in a lush, 80-acre foothills pasture that's all a horse could possibly want, but they spend much of their time staring over the barbed wire fence at the next pasture which, as far as I can see, is exactly the same. It was a long time ago and I don't actually remember, but I'm sure I started traveling in hopes of bigger fish because that's the usual pathology and there's nothing unique about me. Sometimes it panned out, but even when it didn't, there were new things to see and new people to meet. I came to like bush pilots because, even though most are at least as competent as their airline counterparts, their lids aren't screwed on so tight. Of course lately some of them have begun to mimic that clipped, airline officiousness, but the euphemisms sound hollow in the cabin of a four-seater. On a recent flight out of a salmon camp, the pilot said that an emergency beacon would automatically deploy in the event of an "off-airport landing." A plane crash, in other words. I much preferred a pilot/comedian named Bernie I flew with years ago who said, "If we go in, tighten yer belt, put yer head between yer legs, and kiss yer ass goodbye." An old, but effective joke. Bad timing and bad weather are the two most common problems, but in any given place there are dozens of factors beyond your control that can screw the pooch, so beyond packing the right clothing, appropriate tackle and some flies that might work, it's best not to have too many expectations about a fishing trip. I know that's a big order, since you go fishing primarily to catch fish, and open-mindedness is the most fragile state of mind known to the human race, but if you can manage it, you can appreciate almost anything that happens instead of just the one thing you were planning on. An old friend of mine always declares success on the premise that we said we were going fishing and we did. The point being, you can be happy or not, it's sort of up to you. The same advice goes for fish size, although, again, I've chased big fish off and on for decades and have caught up with them just often enough to keep me going. When I went to Labrador for the first time, it was because I wanted to see that enormous, lovely, empty chunk of northeastern Canada, but also because here at home a real good brook trout is 12 inches long, while up there a good one is 24 inches and weighs 6 or 7 pounds. Of course all fishermen are impressed by big fish, and when I get back from a trip, I always carry the snapshots around in my pickup for a month or so in case anyone asks if I've been fishing. I may know in my heart that success was due mostly to beginner's luck and good guiding, but I think it's permissible to let the photos speak for themselves. But then the whole big-fish business can just as easily wreck a trip as make it. What if you travel a thousand miles at great expense, only to catch foot-long trout, either because that's all there is or because you just can't catch any of the big ones? The usual refuge of militant consumerism doesn't work in fishing for the simple reason that it's usually no one's fault, although that doesn't keep some from complaining anyway. The point is, however much you spend on a fishing trip, you're not buying fish like you would at a fish market. It's more like buying into the poker game I used to attend before I realized that someone at my skill level shouldn't play cards with a guy named Poker Bob. And even if more than one big-fish trip pans out, there's always the danger of becoming spoiled. I've seen it happen, sometimes to people you wouldn't expect to have that particular character flaw. For instance, a well-known steelhead fisherman once said he'd finally lost interest in trout altogether because, "20 inches just isn't 20 pounds." I do some steelheading myself and I know what he means, but I've left instructions that if I ever turn up my nose at a 20-inch trout, I'm to be put down like a sick dog. Naturally I don't think I'm spoiled (no one ever thinks they're spoiled) and I can say that even when I catch plenty of good-size fish, my central visual memory from one trip will be of a brilliant scarlet tanager perched on a birch twig, and from the next the poignant sight of a crippled caribou well on its way to becoming wolf bait. It's probably just a little extra age and my Midwestern upbringing, but I now seem happy enough to take what I get--and you do always get something--but I suspect it wasn't always that way. How else would I know that it takes years to reach anything resembling a state of grace, and that once there, you can still be evicted at any time for bad behavior?