Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow.
“If you have a day or several free and want to fly over to Beaver Island for carp/smallmouth/pike, please let me know. I had someone bow out at the last minute and I’m having some issues finding someone to take his spot.”
I told Roxanne about that query from my friend Cameron Mortenson and—expecting her to say something like “Don’t you think your summer is already full of fishing-relating things?”—she replied instead with “Well, you’ll be downstate anyway so why not do it?”
“. . . both the lady and the terrier seemed bored by the familiarity of the entire ordeal.”
Seventeen days later, a red-headed kid wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals said “Follow me Tim” as he escorted me from the Island Airways terminal to an Island Airways plane and told me to sit in a spot on one of the plane’s bench seats, shoulder-to-shoulder with a nice lady whose Boston Terrier sat on our laps. Nobody told me I needed to do it, but I fastened what seemed to be a seat belt while I looked back toward the terminal for the emergence of our pilot—you know, the woman or man with the starch-pressed pants and short-sleeved white shirt with the captain’s stripes on their shoulders—only to see the same red-headed kid hop onto the front seat, announce that the flight would take about fifteen minutes, then put on his headphones and start the engines. Given my tendency to worry about flights, I should have been scared out of my skin, but the kid looked like he knew what he was doing, and the people I call “kids” these days are often in their early to mid thirties. Plus, both the lady and the terrier seemed bored by the familiarity of the entire ordeal.
Fifteen minutes after that—just as the kid promised—I shook Cameron’s hand while he welcomed me to the island and introduced me to Steve Martinez. Steve would be one of our guides for the next four days, and the tan lines that connected his eyes to his ears signaled that he spends a lot of time on open water. More important, the friendly smile that connected his handshake to his heart revealed that he spends much of that time sharing his knowledge of the great lake and its fish with anyone who takes the time to listen.
When we arrived at The Fisherman’s House I met our other guide Kevin Morlock, along with the two other fishermen I’d be living with: Alex Landeen and Mike Sepelak. Cameron offered me a beer, and—shortly after I popped the cap off the bottle—Kevin asked Alex if he wanted to go with him to pick up the girls. “What the hell have you gotten me into?” I asked—or yelled at—Cameron, but he just smiled and said something like “Just wait, you’ll see.”
Kevin and Alex returned with some young women from Jamaica who were working on the island for the summer. Kevin—who cheerfully shares his immense knowledge of fishing and life with the same generosity as Steve—had hired the women along with the young man who was running the kitchen to prepare the evening dinner for us. “Spectacular” would be an understated description of the meal.
The next morning we met for breakfast at the local diner where the group decided that Cameron and I would fish with Steve. Because I had very little experience with carp, they thought it would be good for me to build up some confidence by catching a few bass and pike in the morning. They didn’t actually say that, but I could tell that that was the plan. Alex later admitted that he was worried that “this old guy who fishes for trout with a bamboo rod” would be a tangled mess of line and nerves while targeting carp with an 8-, 9- or 10-weight rod, and I suspect everyone else agreed. But a fly rod is a fly rod, right? The guides would attach the right fly and tell me when and where to cast. What could possibly go wrong?
Just like the plan called for, I caught several bass and two pike in the morning, so I was confident and ready when we went after carp in the afternoon. Steve found some fish and put me in position. Then he started a routine that both he and Kevin would repeat many times over the next four days:
“Cast to a particular fish. If it’s cruising, cast in front of and beyond the fish.”
“No, not there. These fish can only see about three feet in front of them. You have to bring the fly to them.”
“That’s too close. You just spooked that fish. Now pull it in and look for another fish to cast to.”
“Good cast. Now strip, strip, strip. There, now wait. Let it sink. Wait. Wait. Wait . . . Long strip. Wait. Long Strip. Wait. Short strip. No, that was a long strip. Now pull it in and look for another fish.”
“That’s okay, just keep having fun.”
Somehow during that first day, though, it happened:
“There, cast to the light colored fish that is looking to its right. Good. Now let it sink. Give it a long strip. Wait. Short strip. Wait. Short strip. Wait. He’s got it, now set the hook. Great job!”
Later that night, back at The Fisherman’s House, everyone congratulated me as though I’d won some sort of lottery. It’s just fishing, I thought, and I’m a fisherman, so what did they expect? I didn’t land another carp during the rest of the trip. I hooked another in much the same way that I hooked the first, but it got off sometime during the fight. I hooked two more using a method the guys called “dabbing,” which was something like fishing for pan fish with a cane pole, except for the part where Steve had me take off my sky-blue colored “fishing” shirt and fish in my undershirt because the fish were so easily spooked that they bolted on my slightest movements, and for the other part where the fish I managed to hook blew up the water and dragged my line through a mess of grass and wood until the hook lost its hold or the line broke.
“But blaming a lousy cast on the wind is like blaming a plane crash on gravity.”
While Kevin and Steve were patiently and encouragingly repeating advice like “Not there, you have to cast to the fish, bud, because it won’t come and get your fly like a bass,” or “Pull it in and cast to another, that fish won’t eat now,” I was thinking things like if the wind wasn’t blowing so hard, and if I was using a rod I was more comfortable with, and if I was casting a weightless fly, and if there wasn’t so much grass in the path between me and the carp, then I could make a perfect cast and catch those fish. But blaming a lousy cast on the wind is like blaming a plane crash on gravity. Sure, gravity is the thing that ultimately brings a plane to the ground, but skilled pilots and well-designed planes conquer gravity and make over 100 thousand successful flights a day. Skilled casters with well-designed rods do the same with the wind.
At some point during the trip I thought about asking the guides to drop me on a flat with some flies and drinking water so I could fish for bass all day while the other guys tried to catch a carp. But I didn’t, and I am glad for that. Because now that I am home, I find myself searching Google Maps for shallow flats on the nearby lakes. Maybe I’ll find a place with some carp, and maybe I’ll remember the things Kevin and Steve taught, and maybe I’ll make the cast, and maybe the fish will take the fly. Or maybe not, because throughout all of the coaching and encouragement Kevin and Steve gave to me, they said fishing for carp would be loads of fun, but they never said it was easy.