I floated the Au Sable’s big water in late June with my friend David McMillan, where we hoped to find big trout eating big flies in big darkness. Our guide was in his early thirties, and—like most on the river that night—he frantically exchanged text messages with the other guides. Provided, of course, they were in his trusted battalion of reconnaissance scouts and spies.

Bzzt Bzzzt . . . Bzzt Bzzzt . . . Bzzt Bzzzt

“Adam says there are three boats posted below us on Angel Bend.”

Bzzt Bzzzt . . . Bzzt Bzzzt . . . Bzzt Bzzzt

“Oh shit. Gunner says there are two boats a couple bends above us oaring like hell. They’ll probably catch us soon. We better post up here. This is good water.”

“Guys, we aren’t fighting the crowd. We are the crowd.”

It was good water, and when night fell, the bugs and fish were good too. And once the armada settled, we were alone on that stretch. Still, electrons soared from phone to phone, conveying messages of anguish and aggravation over the crowded river.  I detest crowds as much or more than anyone, and I understood and appreciated that our guide wanted to enhance our experience. Nevertheless, I thought of hijacking the guide’s phone and broadcasting a message on his behalf:

“Guys, we aren’t fighting the crowd. We are the crowd.”

Three months later, I was about to float the Au Sable’s smaller and more holy water with my new friend Bob DeMott. Bob and I were guest speakers at a Celebrate Michigan Rivers event later that night, but we had time for a float during the day. Just as our guide slid his boat from its trailer and into the river, Bob answered his phone.

“Hi Nick, how are you doing? . . . I’m well. In fact, I’m standing on the bank of the Au Sable River.”

Bob and I met for the first time over dinner the night before. We hit it off well, which you might expect for a couple of university professors who think playing ice hockey and fishing for trout are fine ways for academics to recharge their intellectual batteries. I was familiar with his writings—his books Angling Days and Astream should be on every fly fisher’s shelf. And because Bob is part of the old-school royalty of fly fishing, I thought it would be something if this Nick on his phone was Nick Lyons. 

“I’ll see Jerry Dennis later tonight . . . Yes, of course, I’ll tell Jerry you said hi.”

Bob finished his call and confirmed that he’d been speaking with Nick Lyons. Nick’s writing—along with that of the countless writers he has encouraged and supported—has been a profound influence for generations of anglers and authors. Nick, Bob said, doesn’t fish much now, but Bob’s reports fill part of that void. Reports by voice, though, not by text. Bob put the phone into his pocket, and for the next five hours, the compact tablet was a camera.

I wore my usual waxed-cotton packer hat. Bob wore a hunter-green wool beret, and our guide Jimmy wore a ragged ball cap, but not the millennial guide’s fashionable mesh-back trucker hat. While Jimmy—who is neither millennial nor fashionable—skillfully poled his wooden riverboat through the Holy Waters, Bob and I cast small dry flies with bamboo rods, Bob much more skillfully than I. At some point, one of the several folks who overtook us in kayaks yelled out as he passed:

“Boy, a picture of this would look like you gentlemen were in the 19th century fishing for grayling.”

None of us took offense; instead, I’m pretty sure Bob and Jimmy were—like me—pleased. Both for being called gentlemen, and for the fanciful notion that we might be fishing for grayling in another time.

At some point, I asked Jimmy the question guides often get. “I’m sure most of your clients are good folks, but some must be tough, right?” I think we ask that question hoping the guides will affirm that we are the good clients, but most guides appropriately brush the question aside with something like, “Oh, most people are fine. The river has a way of neutralizing the assholes.” Jimmy gave a unique response.

“Well, the guys who get most of their information from the internet and are constantly yapping about the big fish they caught in Montana can be a little annoying, but most people are okay. Except for the lawyers. You guys aren’t lawyers are you?”

“No,” I said. “What’s up with the lawyers?”

“Well, if you tell a lawyer to cast to the left side of the boat they’ll always cast to the right side because they think you’re lying.”

“That’s a joke, right?” I asked Jimmy.

“What do you mean?” he said.

Later, I asked Jimmy about cooperation among guides. “With all the guides on the river these days, do you share information about where, when, and what?”

“Well, a lot of the guides talk and text on their cell phones, but I don’t do that. I’m not in those circles. I do okay, though. You know, you gotta stop worrying about all that stuff and just fish. A few months ago on the big water, a couple guys spent so much time stressing about where all the other boats were I don’t think they ever settled down. I just find some good water and let my clients fish. It’s really pretty simple. Plus, I don’t own a cell phone.”

“No cell phone?” I asked.

“Yeah, everyone seems surprised. I just don’t need one of those things and all the complications it brings,” Jimmy said.

“A few days ago we had a guide meeting with the boss. He told us he had to return a client’s money because he complained that the guide was on his phone the entire trip. The client was pissed about the constant buzzing from text messages. He was probably exchanging information about fishing, but the client didn’t see it that way.”

The other guides were silent and fidgety—Jimmy told us—and each worried that they were the one who had pissed off their client. Then Jimmy broke the silence.

“It sure as hell wasn’t me,” he promised the group.

Sometimes it’s cool to be old school.

Categories: Fish Tales

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