A Fish Called Dave

Non semper ea sunt, quae videntur; decipit
Frons prima multos.
Phaedrus
Book IV, Fable II

“Have you named it yet? I’d be honored if you’d name it Dave because I feel like I know it now, too.” Dave from Sweetgrass was alluding to a brown trout whose allure was swiftly eroding my already meager capacity for self control. What makes one fish stubbornly reject a fly that another will eagerly take? How does the quest for an answer transform an otherwise capable man into a neurotic ninny?

“I’m concerned that the Siren song of Dave may be too much for me. Tonight I’m putting beeswax in my ears, tying myself to the deck, and forbidding my family from untying me no matter how loudly I might beg.” My Siren was a brown trout that I now called Dave, and my Tyrrhenian Sea was a remote river somewhere in the Ontonagon watershed.

The Ontonagon watershed spreads over 1,300 square miles in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Wisconsin, a wilderness in which whitetail deer outnumber people 2 to 1. The Middle, South, East, West and Cisco branches do most of the work, but scores of smaller creeks with names like Caddis, Cedar, Clay Bottom, Imp, Jug, Jumbo, Kostlenick, Mile And One Half, New Home, Snuffbox, Sucker, and Whisky Hollow carry water for the drainage. And, of course, there is a Trout Brook and a Trout Creek. Many of these brooks, creeks, and rivers carve their tea-colored paths through the Ottawa National Forest, and most of the wild inhabitants that prowl this territory die natural deaths without ever seeing, hearing or smelling a human. It is here, in a spot where the slow flowing water of an undisclosed branch gently messages its alder-lined bank, that a fish called Dave patiently lingers, waiting to ambush the next helpless bug that perpetrates an ill-fated float through his dining zone.

It was early June, and I was breaking camp and heading homeward after a week on the Escanaba River. The trip had been a trifold success: good friends, good food and good fishing. I was well-worn and ragged, but still somehow restless and hesitant to let go. The direct route home—through Rock, McFarland, Gwinn, Ishpeming, Nestoria, and L’Anse—would weave its way through and around much of the Escanaba watershed and along many of the rivers I’d fished for the past week. The long route home—through Felch, Crystal Falls, Iron River, Bruce Crossing, and Twin Lakes—would add 50 miles to my journey, but, more important, wind its way through the heart of the Ontonagon drainage. My new bamboo rod—”Voelker’s Nijinsky“—had excelled on the Esky. Now I would test its mettle on the Upper Peninsula’s other big river.

Though much of the Ontonagon system flows through public land, access to the best locations is tricky. If you are ambitious and brave you can park fairly close to the river, but, when a seemingly small puddle becomes a bottomless pit of tire-grabbing goo, a five-mile walk for help will erode your ambition and blunt your bravery. Lessons like this need only be learned once, so I parked on high, safe ground and initiated a short but spirited hike to the water. I assembled the rod, attached the reel, strung the line, sat on a log and waited for a fish to announce its location.

The first rise radiated from under a weathered sweeper whose white branches and bark stood in remarkable contrast to the surrounding green foliage. I attached a Roberts Drake to my leader—a fly I’ve come to believe should be standard issue in all backwoods emergency survival kits—waded into the water and began to cast. Irksome current seams and eddies dragged and jerked my fly on every drift. On my one nearly drag-free cast, the trout rose just when the fly dragged. The surface erupted as the fish recognized my fraud and bolted for the bottom. I repeated this unproductive maneuver with two other fish, then returned to the log to mope and pout.

Another fish rose farther downstream. The rise was soft and subtle, so I grudgingly removed the Roberts Drake, downsized the tippet and attached a size 20 Griffith’s Gnat. Two casts and I was on. Voelker’s Nijinsky sprung to duty and proved its worth on another of the Upper Peninsula’s big rivers. Though I had missed the larger fish, the summer had just started and if gas stayed below $5 a gallon I could afford to return a few more times.

During the drive home my mind replayed those failed encounters with the bigger fish. I had caught a good fish. A very good fish. But the one I missed—the one that discerned my offering as a sham—was a great fish.

“Don’t you think that you obsess a little too much about trout fishing?” my wife asked the following day while I paced the house like a caged tiger.

“Not at all. I only obsess about it when I’m not fishing.” Coincident with my reply, the early summer humidity caused her hand to lose its grip on a skillet, which, in turn, caused the skillet to take flight and narrowly miss my head. We agreed it would be best if I left the house until the humidity dropped to a safer level, so I bolted for the Great White Whale—an eighteen and a half foot Ford Expedition stocked with fishing equipment and enough food and drink to stave off hunger and thirst for a week.

Nearly two hours later I was sitting on my log staring at the sweeper when the large fish began to rise. Voelker’s Nijinsky was a healthy scratch; in its place was my first bamboo rod, a 7’9” Sweetgrass Mantra. I attached a 3-foot tippet to compensate for the seams and eddies, tied on a Griffith’s Gnat and put a well-timed cast directly over the fish. The tiny fly didn’t drag and the trout ate. The fish bolted for the opposite bank, then turned left and drove into the current. The bulk of my line was still extending toward the opposite bank when the brute jumped for freedom 20 feet upstream. With so much line in the water I had no chance. Ping. My flyless line had six inches of tippet attached to the leader. At least it wasn’t my knot.

I had driven a long way for a shot at that fish. Now it was over. I sat on my log, tied on a new tippet and decided to wait another half hour. Ten minutes later a fish rose just below the sweeper. I attached a Gnat, carefully waded into position and caught the fish. An unknowing observer might have believed I knew what I was doing. Another good fish, but, alas, not the great fish I was after.

I feigned sanity and stayed away from the river for four days, but the pangs of obsession finally loosened my grasp on normalcy. That, and my wife’s sympathetic encouragement: “For the sake of all that is precious about our family, you should go back to the river and try to catch that fish.” Or something like that.

My third excursion to the river was much like the first. I hooked and landed one good fish, but the largest fish prudently refused my offerings. Three trips to the river and all I could claim were three unremarkable fish. Three good fish, to be sure, but the biggest fish—the one for which I had spent over $40 on fuel for each round trip—had eluded me.

I enjoy sending Dave photographs of fish I catch on the Sweetgrass rod, and Dave enjoys seeing them. I had already sent a snapshot from 4 nights earlier, and in the process of cleaning up the most recent photo, it struck me. The freckle patterns on the two fish were identical. They were the same fish.

“Got out again last night. I’m sure none of the Booboys (and girls) will be surprised by this, but catch and release and catch again does indeed work. Here is the star of my pervious photo, as he looks 4 nights after the first photo shoot. I’ve done this a few times before, and each time I make a pledge to not catch the fish again. You kinda get to know ’em, and it breaks my heart to think of anything happening to a fish I’ve caught once or twice. I’m sentimental that way.”

“Wow . . . you must have been using the same fly?”

“The same pattern, but a different fly. Those size 20 Griffith’s Gnats don’t stand up to too many fish. I have a confession to make about this fish in particular, and about my bamboo fly rods in general.

“I’ve been searching for the right way to tell you this, but I suppose the best way is to just say it: I bought another bamboo fly rod this year, and it is not a Sweetgrass Rod. I hope you can forgive me for succumbing to the enthralling lure of another rod. I was seduced.”

At this point I reexamined the photo of the fish I had caught with Voelker’s Nijinsky and continued my confession.

“And, beyond that serious indiscretion, I unintentiionally violated my catch twice rule with this fish. Last Friday I caught the fish with Voelker’s Nijinsky. It turns out that the fish I caught on Saturday with the Mantra was the same. A few other nice fish had been rising, so I returned last night. I caught the fish again in a slightly different part of the run thinking it was one of the other fish. Several other fish feed (much more sporadically) in this run, so I’ve been returning with the hope of finding one of them rising in a steady—and catchable—pattern.

“So here are my confessions: i) I violated my rule and caught this fish three times; and ii) I cheated on you with another rod. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Not much time to respond,” Dave began, “but first, know that I forgive you your cheating on me with another rod . . . I would consider ours an open marriage, Newt-Gingrich-style.

“Regarding catching the same fish 3 times, I think it is amazing and also a testimony to your gentle handling of the fish.”

Still obsessed by the hope of catching the great fish under the old white sweeper, I returned to the river two weeks later. My note to Dave tells the story.

“I went out tonight with the 4/5 Mantra. Caught a nice brown early in the evening, then went to a familiar section of the river. Four good fish were rising, and I targeted the one I thought was least likely to be the one I’ve caught 3 times this year. Well, this is getting out of control. As you can see, I caught the fish on a different fly (the most excellent Roberts Drake), but this is getting crazy. Some very nice fish live in this section, but I’ll be darned if I don’t keep catching the same fish. A fish rose in the spot where I’d caught this one before, and this fish was feeding 20 feet upstream, so I really believed I was onto a different fish this time. The trout swam away with gusto, though, so I guess I’m not hurting it too much. I honestly don’t want to catch this fish anymore, so I may have to stop fishing that section of river.”

Dave swims away.

“You crack me up.  I can just imagine your surprise each time you land the same freakin’ fish. Have you named it yet?  I’d be honored if you’d name it Dave because I feel like I know it now, too.”

Things are not always what they seem;
The first appearance deceives many.
Phaedrus
Book IV, Fable II

Herk HessJanuary 21, 2017 - 1:32 pm

Most of my better memories were forged in and around Alger County.

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