Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.
The modern marvel of flight transports us from New York to San Francisco in under six hours, but—as Louis C.K. observed in his brilliant comedic rant—a twenty minute delay on the airport apron is an occurrence we remember for its extraordinary cruelty. Humankind’s spectacular escape from the Malthusian trap has been undeniably amazing, but many of us remain unhappy. We look every gift horse in the mouth, and, alas, detect at least one long tooth.
Fly fishing—an activity I rate among the most pleasurable of pleasant chores—has not escaped the unappreciative complaints of the golden-haired children among us. Some of us fish for, but rarely catch, that perfect bowl of porridge. The hatches are too sparse or too dense; the weather too hot or too cold; the current too swift or too slow. We convince ourselves that another river, another bend, another fly, or another day must surely be better than this.
For some, though, every bowl of porridge is just right for the simple reason that it is, after all, a bowl of porridge. When the weather is cold, they are thankful it’s not hot. When it is hot, they are thankful it’s not windy. When it is windy, they are thankful to be fishing. My friends Dave McMillan and his boys David and Brian are exemplars of this philosophy. When they go fishing, everything’s amazing and these guys are happy.
Mark Twain said that it took him more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech, and Twain’s approach to planned spontaneity is common within today’s mainstream fly-fishing culture. The carefree, impromptu lifestyle of the modern trout bum is often documented with the aid of camera cranes, zero gravity stabilizers, collapsible reflector discs, and a seemingly endless arsenal of high-tech accessories that capture the slow-motion splendor of every cast, every catch, and every release. Magnificent scenery, introspective commentary, and haunting soundtracks conspire to raise tiny bumps on the arms and legs of all but the most callused and unromantic of souls.
The fishing lives of anglers like Dave and his boys, though, are rarely viewed in high definition with a soothing score of progressive folk guitar. Beyond the bamboo rods and well-stocked fly boxes, their equipment is unsophisticated and spartan. A few cans of beer, a crumpled box of cheap cigars, a tiny bottle of 100 percent DEET, and a couple flashlights with batteries that may or may not be charged. Like W.C. Fields, they also carry a flagon of whiskey to drink in case of snakebite, and—leaving nothing to chance—they bring a small snake.
In their world of unplanned amazement, though, some things are more amazing than others, and an invitation to visit John Voelker’s beloved Frenchman’s Pond was one of those things, even though—or especially because—an impending thunderstorm rumbled and flashed to the west.
“I always thought I had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than making it to Frenchman’s, so you better not stand too close,” Dave said while he and his boys stood on the old wooden platforms and cast tiny flies to Frenchman’s trout. One by one they each landed a trout, after which they kissed the ground and toasted their good fortune with swigs from an old tin flask. After a few photos, Voelker’s grandson Adam and his good friend James accompanied us to the Escanaba River where, promptly upon our arrival, the deluge caught us.
James and I weathered the outburst and managed to catch a couple trout, but Dave and his boys retreated for shelter with Adam where they talked about fishing in general and Adam’s grandfather in particular. Sometime during the conversation, Adam said that he was happy they had a chance to visit the pond, and that Dave and his boys were exactly the kind of people that his grandfather would have wanted to fish with.
“Are those guys always so content to be fishing?” James asked me as we approached the group.
“Only on days that end with a y.”