Giving thanks: Fly fishing, part 3

“I hear a voice, l hear the sound…”

Dateline: Inside the outside

Read More: Part 1 | Part 2

“Creeps and idiots cannot conceal themselves for long on a fishing trip.”
~John Gierach

Mac in the early morning fog.

There is a man fishing in the fog.

He is a veteran times two.

One tour Navy, one tour Army.

In Afghanistan he was attached to Special Ops as a surgeon, he saved lives of our men, fixed the badly injured in a converted goat barn in the most forward surgical unit.

He has personally cut out both my mangled hips and made me well and able to walk without excruciating pain.

But most of all, he is my fishing buddy.

And for those of you out there who fish you know exactly what that means and how special the relationship, “my fishing buddy,” is, damn near sacred words.

My buddy Mac.

Robert McAllister, M.D., as he is known to hundreds of patients of his Orthopedic Unit in St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn.

Simply, Mac to me.

As fishing buddies we tell things to each other about life, its ups, its downs, that very few other people on Earth will hear.

We have but one rule, never forget that down deep, we are both knuckleheads.

He never “doctors up” when we are out on a fishing trip. I never “patient up,” either. We have long since moved past the doctor/patient relationship thing, we are just friends, good friends.

There is a man fishing in the fog.

And no one on Earth is strong enough to get past me to try and stop him from doing that.

Mac is right where he belongs.


“…the sound of my shoes, shuffling on out of town…”

“As the angler looks back, he thinks less of individual captures and days than of scenes in which he fished.”
– Lord Grey of Fallodon

To me the story of fishing has never been about the bait in the water, but the hand that holds the rod and reel.

The fish is a paragraph, the angler is a novel.

I have met thousands of people over the course of my career, of my favorites more than half were holding fishing poles.

To be honest I’m not sure any of the anglers I have met along the way have made me love fishing, they have though helped me love people more, for sure they have helped me love the outdoors more.

A public thank you to all those who have done that for me.

A city boy never sees smiles in the fog.

The smiles of people sitting on concrete steps are not the same smiles of those who sit on rocks.

Water in a bottle is not at all related to water in a brook

I have washed my hands in bottled spring water, and water coming right out of a spring, water out of the bottle is the coal, water directly out of the spring is the diamond.

A city boy needs the stream more than the stream needs the city boy.

In some unbelievable twist of fate I’m now about to enter a decade of writing about fishing and being inside the outside.

In my entire life I had never seen an eagle not chained to a perch, I have now watched many fly above my head.

In my entire life I had never seen a salmon that wasn’t lying under a barcode, I have now been splashed by water coming of the fin of a salmon swimming away from my hands in the water.

I had never seen complete darkness until early morning launches, never seen the Milky Way until I stood on the banks of a cold Oklahoma lake.

A city boy is lit by neon; the palm of my hand was lit by a full moon.

I will remember to the day I die the first time I heard the hoot of an owl, saw a tumbleweed roll, watched a bass launch itself into the air.

And with all those moments of magic to a city boy, there was an angler standing next to me.

Trust me, it ain’t all about the fish out here.

“…I can’t seem to find my way…”

“Look at where Jesus went to pick people. He didn’t go to the colleges; he got guys off the fishing docks.”
~ Jeff Foxworthy

“The best way to tie flies is to buy chickens.”

Mac and I are in a fly fishing store on the banks of the West Branch of the Delaware River, behind the counter is a self proclaimed fly fishing dude, he is very skinny, he looks like a surfer dude with a long ponytail, and he is giving me a 10 minute schooling on how to tie flies.

I don’t remember asking for the lecture but it was coming.

“First thing you do is buy some chicken eggs, let them hatch, feed the chicks so they become chickens, once they get big and fat make soup out of them, then take their feathers, dye them, then use them to make flies.”

Yet again, in fly fishing the fly is never actually made out of a real fly, just saying in case you think it’s all about handling real bugs who hang around questionable substances.

Frankly if I had to stick a hook through a semi dead horsefly I would be writing about NASCAR by now.

From what I’ve seen so far, it’s mainly about feathers and tiny glass eyes.

‘Here man, here’s a fly made from my chickens.”

From the look on the fly fishing dude’s face I may have been the only one ever in his shop to smell the chicken feather fly. Hey, it was the only way to know if it smelled like chicken soup or not.

Mac said nothing or looked weird or anything.

Fishing buddies are used to the thought process of the other guy in the boat.

For the record it smelled more like the feather pillow I have at home then the soup du Jour from a cabin somewhere on the Upper Delaware.

I still have the chicken feather fly, this is it, I look at it more as honest to goodness folk art, as long as I own it, it will never get wet, it will get framed though.

My chicken feather fly.

And I will never forget the fly fishing dude with a ponytail and an attitude, nor, to be honest, will I ever quite look a chicken soup the same again either. 

One man’s appetizer is another man’s chicken fly lure. Something lost on a city boy.

“…just existing from day to day…”

“One’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.”
–George Santayana

Through my telephoto lens I’m watching Mac fish, he is alone in the water if it is possible for someone who loves the water so much as to be alone in it.

I do believe, no actually know, water comforts him, other than family and helping the sick get well, he is doing what he loves and what he loves is standing waist deep in water with a fishing rod in his hand.

God granted Mac the miracle called, joy.

I on the other hand am not standing in what I was placed on earth to stand in since there isn’t a Dunkin Donuts joint within miles of this river.

After my last underwater fly fishing adventure Mac bought me two hiking poles to help me stay above the fish while I fly fish.

Fly fishing with hiking poles gives you a sense of conquering that unfortunately your spindly arthritic knees can’t back up. In the courage vs. sense department I…well you know.

I’m exactly halfway out in the Upper Delaware, I am carrying or have hanging off me two hiking poles, two cameras, some sort of net thing in the unlikely event that the dumbest bass in the river mistakes some little chicken feather fly as food even though it can’t possibly “match the hatch” since so far I have not seen any chickens hovering over the river.

With all that stuff hanging off me I’m trying to cast the St. Croix Mojo Bass Fly rod and Hardy reel with disco green $90 fly line somewhere, anywhere will work,  all the while actually leaning into the current which is going so fast I’m thinking of sitting in it like a chair.

Suddenly, on what was only my eighth back and forth motion with the line and chicken feather fly gaining an inch or two with every movement that comes close to making my shoulder dislocate, suddenly, beyond belief, I catch something, I have matched the hatch with some sort of bass that must have once in their life saw a chicken fly over their head.

I frantically start to reel in, which actually has nothing to do with the reel since I have been told to actually hold the green disco line in my hands and pull it in like anglers did in biblical times.

Half my rod and reel are underwater since I’m reeling hand over hand with my actual hands and the bugger on the other end of my line is putting up quite a fight for the chicken wing smelling fly.

Finally, with what seems like a mile or two of the supposedly indestructible disco green fly line swirling all around me in the water I give the line one big last pull…and, hmm.

Back on the bank I show Mac my catch and ask him this, “Dude, can you get the hook out of my right ass cheek please?”

I’m $1,037.63 into fly fishing with not any real flies just fake gnats and chicken soup smelling feathers.

The scoreboard now shows.

Fish caught: 0

Pine trees caught: 1

Butt cheeks caught: 2, 1 of each.

How cool is that.

I’m digging this fly stuff.

“…but I want to be where my soul can run free…”

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”
–Tim Cahill

The Flambeau River

Fast forward a few months and half a continent.

I’m in a “drift boat” on the North Fork of the Flambeau River in Wisconsin.

For my city buddies, and you out there who don’t fish yet, let me be clear here, all boats I’ve ever been in drift, I have drifted in boats all over America but this is the first boat I’ve ever drifted in that outright brags about its drift ability.

I was told, “If you look underneath the boat you’ll see the hull is flat…”

“Flat is good.”

“Yep, makes the drift, the ride smooth.”

I whisper to myself, “shoot,” since every single time I’ve been told that right before getting in a boat to go fishing I’ve had to go to the dentist after the boat ride to fix the fillings that were shook loose.

Oh, also for the record for the non-outdoor types, I “drifted” some 9 miles down the Flambeau River and never once did I see the river on fire or any fire torches.

Every time I ever heard the word “Flambeau” there was a fireman standing next to me, not a fisherman. Just saying.

I’m here to get fly fishing lessons from Rich Belanger, a St. Croix Fishing Rod guru and the guy who knows where the keys to the boat are hid.

Rich Belanger

We launched as friends, when we beached the boat, at a place called “Deadman’s Landing” of all things, we were fishing buddies.

Fishing buddies.

I told him exactly this at launch, “I have only managed to catch one pine tree and both my asses so far with this fly fishing stuff.”

“Don’t worry, that won’t happen on this trip.”

Turns out my new fishing buddy was only half right.

“…I’m just a city boy looking for a home…”

“People don’t take trips… trips take people.”
~John Steinbeck

I learned a lot on this trip with Rich. I can’t honestly say it changed my life, but it did help it some.

I learned how to hold the disco green fly line in one hooked finger.

I learned how to let the fishing rod, “never call it a pole please,” do the job of getting the line out. Rich called it “let the rod load,” which is sort of the cowboy letting the snap of the whip do the job.

I learned to aim not where I want the fly thing to go but where I want it to end up.

Rich, as you can see here, learned how to get a fly out of a pine tree.

My second tree catch.

I also learned that “drift” boats need some help from a guy in the back rowing to “drift.” Sort of like a car needs a hill for neutral to work a darn.

I also learned this, and this is the important part of all this, going outside is good for your insides.

Some of you may laugh but I have heard about Beaver Dams all my life, gave it a 60/40 over/under that Disney had made the whole thing up, some animal with buck teeth chewing though a tree for God’s sake to build a dam, come on man, but then Rich said simply this, “See the beaver dam over there.”

And then he and the oars drifted over to a real beaver dam, drifted close enough where I could see the teeth marks, told me why the beavers did it, how it is constructed, told me it like it was nothing.

Rich had no idea it was like a freakin’ miracle to me.

A beaver dam
Beaver teeth marks

I’m 64 years old sitting in a drift boat looking at a beaver dam, trust me I would have never written that caption under my picture in my high school yearbook.

Then though came the real miracle, a miracle 50 some years in the making.

As we sat there drifting in the river, no motor, no talking, I heard it once again, something I thought I would never hear again in my life.

I heard, silence.

Listened to the quiet.

For just a moment, I felt Uncle Jim’s hand on my shoulder, felt Gram’s hand holding my tiny hand.

And smelled, fresh cut Canadian hay.

It was that moment that Rich went from a friend, to a fishing buddy for life.

“…tired of all these concrete streets…”

“The old cathedrals are good, but the great blue dome that hangs over everything is better.”
~ Thomas Carlyle

In my soul I may be a fly fisherman, not because of the fish or the flies, but because of the lack of speed involved, and the lack of noise.

Life, is in the drift.

As a city boy, as a journalist my life has been anything but slow. To me the outside was just something to get through quick on the way to somewhere else.

I have probably seen every acre of America by now, seen it mainly through an oval Plexiglass window at 30,000 feet.

Fishing gets America on you.

The color of untrammeled.

You can hold its fish.

You can smell its trees.

You can run your hands through its water.

Thirty-three percent of America, turns out, are trees.

One third of the United States is filled with the outside. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is described as: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

We’re talking over 100 million acres, 5 percent of the U.S. of A. is “untrammeled” by us, you and me.

Pretty much every moment of my life has been living where we have “trammeled” the place.

I don’t know if I will ever move to inside the outdoors, but I promise you I will be in it more.

I invite you to do the same.

A fishing rod is a magic wand that can take you inside the outside.

Fishing buddies have changed me and made my life better.

Fly fishing is without a doubt the most peaceful thing I have ever done in my life, pine trees and both butt cheeks aside.

I’m just a city boy.

Looking for a home.

Just a city boy.

Who needs to smell hay.

“…I want to feel the dirt up under my feet.”
City Boy
Keb’ Mo’


“I go fishing not to find myself but to lose myself “
~Joseph Monniger