Bass, Hornets & Good Endings

Bass, Hornets & Good Endings

Stinging memories trigger deeper remembrances.

  • By: Robin Carey
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Derek Deyoung

Standing there in the river, two hornet nests in front of me, wanting to fish that hole but not wanting to get stung, I thought about the neighbor's aggressive son-of-a-bitch Labrador with its tail curling over its back like a spitz. He'd come after me any number of times, and regularly went after local joggers and walkers. His owner thought that behavior funny at first, but, with liability in view, at last built a fence. I'd go over to the edge of the yard with some doggy bones. The dog would charge Read More »slavering up to the fence, and then practically have a meltdown deciding whether to go for the bone or my hand. It was pathetically funny to watch, really. I felt sorry for an animal so programmed to aggression, but still wanting to wag his tail. He actually hopped up and down in frustration, and I thought some nuts and bolts of his stressed brain might pop loose.

The same kind of brain-popping push-pull played in my own head as I confronted those hornet nests. They hung in a leaning birch that stretched out and across the river, virtually spanning it; some branches high, others drooping down close to the water's surface. The two nests, fat as watermelons, hung some eight or 10 feet above the surface of promising water, one at river center, the other slightly larger one toward the north bank. Leaves partially hid the nests, and shaded them; but they were there, and alive with hornets coming and going, their black bodies stark against the dull gray paper walls.

Some days back when I'd first seen the tree and its nests, I'd given that hole as wide a berth as the river corridor allowed, wading out along a far edge and on down below the tree to a lower stretch of water. Even there I was extra careful with my backcasts. But this time I paused upstream and surveyed the situation. Directly under the tree two currents came together and the water darkened. It looked deep and slow in that seam. Tempting. One part of me urged, "Just cast the fly!" The other part cautioned, "Whoa up and use your head for a change!" I had some history with hornets.

What first came to mind was my father, one of those barefoot Ozark Mountain boys who knew the paw paws, the persimmons and the sassafras. He'd stirred up some black hornets down by the spring one morning and by the time they were done stinging, he was laid out unconscious in the grass. I don't really know how it happened, what provoked the attack, the details vaporous or missing. But those black hornets put him down. He never forgot it.

These were not really hornets but the largest of the yellow jackets in North America, hence of the wasp family, with bodies roughly three-quarters of an inch long, and black, with mottlings of white, especially on the face. They render a particularly potent sting.

The big rounded nests they build, combining chewed wood with saliva to make the papery material, hold a queen, some developing males and the sterile worker females. The males do not possess stingers, but the sterile females can and do sting multiple times. In any one nest there will be 200, 300, even 400 of these worker females. Four hundred angry females, each stinging several times, make for quite the potential arsenal, enough to give pause to rapacious coons and bears, not to mention the occasional wandering fly fisher.

Following my father's advice, I avoided black-hornet nests for many years, once even backing from a narrow ledge above a river, at some risk of falling, rather than get too near a nest plastered to those rocks. But a couple of years ago, my luck ran out. Just thinking about the incident makes my head tingle and sends a toxic shiver running down the length of my backbone…

The nest was high in a tree between our cabin and a nearby house. I'd walked under it a hundred times without a problem. My attitude was to live and let live. Hornets prey on pest insects, after all, and have their place in the scheme of things.

One day I innocently carried a sheet of plywood down the path under that tree, and evidently something about the wide plywood sheet moving unnaturally across the landscape upset the hornets. Out came a few of them, really only a partial attack. They got me twice on the back of my head. I've been stung plenty of times by the smaller ground bees, also by honeybees and bumblebees. Once I was even stung on the inside of my throat by a ground bee concealed in a slice of smoked turkey. Nothing compares to those black-hornet stings on the back of my head, like cattle prods on the naked brain. My accommodating and benign worldview altered immediately. I took out the hornet nest with spray that very evening. These days I make it a habit to scan overhead branches in any woods I enter, and to keep scanning as I walk. If that behavior constitutes paranoia, so be it.

Those considerations screeched and scrabbled around in my thoughts as I stood in the river watching the hornets on their nests. I thought about the bass likely holding in that water under the branches. Maybe I could flip a rollcast lateral to the current, mend light, and get a streamer down to the good water without disturbing anything. Accuracy would help, and I would have to hope the hornets tolerated the movements of my arms and of the fly rod at that proximity. Worth a try, I decided, and rolled out my Zonker. A bass hit as soon as the line swung below me; not a huge bass, but a decent one that pulled hard in the strong current. I played it over to a south eddy and released it. The hornets, so far, did not seem to be minding the activities. I waded out and cast again, and then again. There was a method to be learned, I realized, and with each cast my fly hit closer to the tree, and my drifts improved. The reward was a fat 15-incher that fought hard and came in grudgingly.

In the days following, I fished under the hornet tree several times, always with some success. All of the bass I'd hooked held toward the south bank where the current narrowed and where a good drift was easiest to manage.

However, the north side was beginning to tempt me. I had cast that way now and again. The branches were lowest over there and a good drift was difficult to achieve. The fly swung too fast, and a couple of glancing hits hadn't connected. When I did hook a smallish bass on that side, it immediately leaped and took my line over a low branch of the tree. The canopy bounced, a couple of leaves drifted down to the river's surface. The hornets stirred. Fortunately, the line came free without snarling. I backed upstream, slowly, carefully, and the hornets gradually settled.

I'd worked out in advance how I'd react if a hornet attack came, figured I'd lift my fly vest up around my head and get to shore. That way, if they did to me what they'd done to my father, I'd at least collapse on dry land. One or two inside the vest wouldn't be pleasant company, and I was not eager to test out my defenses, so I quit for the day, leaving the hornets to cool their jets.

Days later I was back in the river, drawn by the prospects of that hornet-tree hole, standing in pushing water upstream of the two fat nests, remembering the strikes I'd missed on the north side. Maybe the thing to do was to fish from the north side. I crossed over. The north stream bottom dropped away; it was deep wading.

The branches of the birch leaned out immediately overhead like supplicating arms, and the north-side nest loomed uncomfortably close. Casting was a challenge-not much room to work the rod without whacking branches. One of my rollcast attempts arced up and caught in leaves. I stood there wondering what to do. When I pulled, branches bounced. A poisonous tingle of recollection ran up and down my neck, and over the back of my head. I stood still and watched the hornets buzz, and then tiptoed downstream until backing showed on my reel. My fly pulled free. No hornets attacked. It reminded me of another time with another Labrador.

This Lab, Nipper, I'd gotten as a pup out of Nebraska field-trial stock. She was a good prospect with a nice mix of zip and tractability. I'd put time into her training, run her in a few picnic trials and she was reliable on the line-eager, haunches up and quivering, but steady and waiting for the "Back!" I'd say in a low sudden voice, like pulling a trigger. It was early spring that I was recalling.

We were out in the back bowls of the Siskiyous, Nipper and me, where the telemark skiing was good, nobody around, the tracks clean and lonely in the snow. There was a fellow in town named Arnie, a friend of mine, who kept a big male wolf that had been entrusted to him by the wolf expert at the local university. Arnie kept the wolf mostly out of sight of the public, low profile. But, as it happened, Arnie was a skier; and he'd figured nobody would be out in the back bowls that day. He was letting the wolf run free ahead of him on a trailing leash.

Nipper was far down a slope ahead of me when I realized the problem, and she ignored the whistle I blasted, or didn't hear it. She loved to run at other dogs with a shoulder and give them a bounce. She didn't fight, but she liked to assert herself. I could see the big lobo loping across a far slope, and Nipper barreling out to lay a shoulder on him. I could hear Arnie shouting above my futile whistle bursts.

The collision happened suddenly and in a clouded thrashing of snow. I heard Nipper squeal, saw her lifted off the snow and shaken like a rat. Arnie got there first and pulled off his wolf. I raced down expecting that Nipper would be crushed, her neck ripped open, bleeding to death. Instead, she had not a scratch on her. Moreover, she was in love. It made for a good ending.

For a week I rested the hornet hole, cleared buckthorn around the cabin, swept the roof clean of pine needles, sealed the leaking skylights, read a couple of books. It was good reading weather with lots of rain, lots of wind and long hours of rolling thunder. One night we got three inches of downpour that gullied along the access road. Of course the local rivers rose. A fresh hatch of mosquitoes, what some radio commentator called "floodwater mosquitoes," swarmed in the woods. Also some "Japanese red mosquitoes" that tended, said the commentator, to carry the West Nile virus.

I wasn't worried about the mosquitoes. I kept thinking about the hornets, the leaning tree and the massive coppery glint of lunker bass disappearing across the river. It kept raining, but the barometer turned and started slowly upward. I thought about risk and the odd rewards of impulse. I thought about Nipper and the wolf. The fishing-log entry for the day of my return to the hornet hole is headed, "Tuesday, August 24." The river ran high and muddy, but skies were clearing and I could tell from the general feel of things that the barometer was up. Swallows and waxwings darted over the river. I tested the fishing with a small streamer near to where I had parked the car. A couple of dinkers took enthusiastically. That boded well, and I set off downstream. The woods indeed swarmed with mosquitoes, so thick they got into my nose as I breathed. But I kept moving fast and gave them little time to alight.

Down at the north bank of the hornet hole I stopped moving, and mosquitoes settled on my face and neck. I was too excited to think much about them. I checked the hornets. Not many outside the nests that I could see. Cooler weather was working in my favor, I hoped. I tied fresh tippet on my leader, going heavier than usual, and then chose a size 2 cone-head streamer, black for high visibility in the turgid water, honed up the hook with my diamond-dust sharpener, tested the hook's point on the nail of my thumb. The north bank steeped abruptly to water.

I wiped mosquitoes off my neck and eased down on my butt into the river. A green heron jumped out from the downriver shore, and I took that for luck. Water rose up to my rib cage. I flipped out my streamer under the branches. The fly cleared leaves, hit the water, sank. I mended out line and watched it swing. Twice more I cast, each one longer. The bass hit on the third swing.

Even with the heavier tippet there wasn't much I could do with him. He ran me downstream and into my backing. He tugged and jerked. He ran out to midstream and back to shore, and then to midstream again, and downstream and back to shore. There he tied me around the protruding branch of a log. I moved along downstream as best I could, out from under the birch branches, my rod high, keeping the line tight, but I was sure he was gone. The weight now was that steady unmoving snag.

But at the log I saw him, a massive spheroid. He looked like the globe of the world down there, tilted slightly on its axis. He saw me, and moved off and down, taking line with him, line that miraculously unwound from the underwater branch. He was back on my reel. I worked him left and right at angles, moving his head. He had tired. Whenever he turned, I turned him back and brought him closer. I made a reach for his lower jaw, but he dodged and took off again downstream. I stopped him, and held him, and waded down, moving carefully, reached, caught his jaw and lifted him up.

He was magnificent-fat, heavy, glistening, his eyes circled with luminous purple rings. I marveled at him. The streamer, hardly holding at the last, literally fell out of his mouth. I lifted him as high as I could hold him, up into the light, behind him the two hornet nests hanging pendulous, of a similar shape and size to the bass, but dull gray in their color, while the bass glittered with those broad stripes of copper along its sides, and a yellowish white underbelly. Bass and hornet nests-similar shapes, similar sizes, different skins, different meanings. I put him back in the water still holding his lip. He undulated gently as I held him. When I released my hold, he turned.

After that particular Tuesday, I didn't press my luck. I fished other places and then drove home to Montana. There is only so much good fortune in the world. There are only so many good endings.

Robin Carey's most recent books, Upstream: Sons, Fathers,& Rivers, and North Bank: Claiming a Place on the Rogue, were published by Oregon State University Press. He lives in Missoula, Montana.