"I knew him as The Wizened Apostle of the River, or just "The Apostle" for short. He did his fly tossing in a beat-up cowboy hat and rubber hip boots and unleashed the above epithet while eyeballing these modern angling monstrosities. He spit into the fine dust at his feet in the scorching July sun at Allingham pool, without a doubt the biggest idiot magnet on the entire river even to this day. We watched the displaced weekend warriors huff and puff as they tried to shoehorn themselves into tight lycra undergarments and neoprene chest waders; to jam wool covered feet into giant boots and cleats -- all to walk in waters that seldom required wading deeper than your knees..."

on fly-fishing with smarties
memoir by john richen


When I was ten I stood on a flat rock shelf and stared into the deep green pools of the Metolius River. The water held an abundance of fish, visible to my curious ten year-old eyes. I could lie on my stomach on the rock shelves and stare at the fish darting in and out with the rhythmic pulse of the underwater currents. Gliding like silent submarines, they moved from bottom to top, and side to side, each motion calculated it seemed, even to a young mind, to most efficiently propel the fish into the proper position to maximize delivery of the underwater insects they fed on. Or so I figured. I didn't think that they were doing it for the fun of it, even at that age.

The sun would burn my back, and the coolness from the water would push towards my face as I perched over that basalt ledge and dropped pebbles into the swirling waters. The pebbles didn't disturb the confident underwater shapes.

In my catalogue of childhood memories I cannot remember ever feeling happier or more alive.

---

As I approach my 40th year, the magic of the Metolius and its strange life-long grip over my stretched existential fabric strikes me as one of the only true constants in a life that has careened wildly from the reckless philosophy of youthful immortality -- to the more sedentary, but no less unsettling, passage into requirements levied by fiscal responsibility, fatherhood, marriage and other such grown-up realities. It seems that no matter where I find myself, under what sort of conditions or personal duress, the ledges over this translucent pool on the greatest river I know will always anchor me to a place where peace is no more elusive than a small stone dropped dancing in a current....

I have a memory from times long past that my father saw in himself a fly fisherman, which is I suspect how my sisters and I found ourselves perched along the banks of the Metolius at such a tender young age. He fancied himself a fly fisherman, and perhaps he was in that he had the accoutrements -- rod, reel, vest, floppy hat, rubber wading boots, feathers and hooks. But his ambition was never fully realized in that he never had the time to apply himself to the task with the attention or fervor that it required. I have no doubts that he wanted badly to catch fish on flies, but my recollection is that he didn't catch many, though his pursuits were diligent and he reported that the scenery fulfilled him. A family with three youngsters under 10 had much to do with his predicament. A hard to fathom prioritizing of career over fly-casting was another issue. Pops couldn't be a real trout bum, and the thrice a year angler approach just didn't pan out for him.

My own fascination with all things with fins continued unabated, and in spite of my father's lack of success with a fly rod, it never stopped me from wanting to learn the art. Fly-casting was far too complicated for a youngster, it was explained. So I relied on the marginal services a small white Zebco spinning rod and a tackle box with some split shot, pre-tied hook and leader combinations, the crappiest pair of tin pliers ever made, and a jar of pink Pautzke salmon eggs I purloined from my grandfather's basement. The split shot was probably better for bait as they smelled like something yanked from the campground’s foul pit toilet; and the eggs had hardened and would have been better fired from the barrel of a pellet gun -- none of which mattered in the least as the whole kit and caboodle was beyond worthless in a fly-fishing only Mecca like the Metolius.

But, I could dangle my crunchy little Pautzke's in the creeks that fed the coursing giant and did so with great determination. I thought of pictures of my grandfathers, holding their giant, toothy trophies high. I was fishing, yes, and the actual "catching" part of the process, though lacking and much desired didn't dampen my spirits in any significant fashion. I hadn't felt the crushing weight of high expectations, what with pop's unending fly fishing futility to observe.

My real fishing education was to come 10 years later when I met and became fast friends with my first serious trout bum. The fact that he was an accomplished punk rock musician didn't seem unusual to me, but some find it an interesting sidebar. We had met when I was promoting concerts for a local college radio station, and as a fan of his band's work, we became friends after numerous late nights on the town. I had done much camping but little serious fishing in the angry, hormone-addled teen years. I was ready to reconnect with that magic place from my childhood memories.

I took my new friend to the pool on the Metolius -- one time there was all it took and he was hooked as badly as I was. For the next few years we applied all of our fishing energy and knowledge (his considerable, mine next to none) to the fish-filled waters of the sacred pool. I was initially trying to learn on my father's trusty old pole, and it was at this juncture that my first great fly fishing revelation came. Pops, for all his honest energy in year's past had been wasting his time on these and the other trout waters he loved -- his pole was too heavy to accurately cast the small patterns necessary; too muscular for the delicate tippets and presentation required. There was a reason the thing cracked like a bullwhip and broke off tied-down caddis's in the unlikely event a fish actually rose to the fly: he was fishing for trout with a damn salmon pole!

Once that crisis had been identified and corrected by my friend loaning me an actual 5wt rod, things rapidly improved. At night we drank cheap Canadian whiskey and cold beer until the wee hours, all the while talking of fly patterns, how to read water and rudimentary insect identification. When it all got to be too much we'd haul our flashlights to the water's edge of the big green pools, and beam powerful columns into the quiet waters, locating skittish fish, and bats that dropped to the water to pick up night moths from the foam of the swirling eddies. Sometimes we'd drop corn in the water, just to see if the fish would eat it, but we could almost hear their silvery laughter -- "What the hell do you loaded bastards think we are, hatchery fish?"

It was a crash course in fly fishing technique, and I was a determined student. As the pool began to slowly yield its secrets to us we became confident fishermen, and our abilities seldom let us down. It's still that way. I can go to this place nearly any day, and with some observation, good light and a little luck catch and release a fine native redside trout.

---

My early 20's were, in addition, a time of great social convergence’s held in the campground on the banks of the river. We would gather spouses and friends together and set up a veritable tent city. With music and laughter and fire raging we sent smoke signals and war cries of carefree youthful abandon heavenward; much to the clear dismay of other unfortunate souls camped in same area. While our exuberance was heartfelt, it seems disingenuous in retrospect. I've no doubt at all that many a fisherman who had ventured to the river for solace from a world slowly gone mad viewed our loud, at times sophomoric antics with a cold disdain as black as a redband's retina. It is with mixed feelings I revisit these outings today -- the laughter was real, and the friendships I miss, but the impunity of a group so indifferent to other's need for solitude and reverence leaves a chilly twinge of remorse even to this day.

Still, I can't help but laugh as I recall the unintentional shadow-play a casual acquaintance and his most exquisite lady friend put on for the campfire revelers as they retired to their small tent and lit a lantern inside. The lantern's sharp light served as a projector as the retiring campers hastily disrobed and she began a regimen of vigorous ministrations of the oral variety to his obviously engaged appendage while the remaining mix of campfire-warmed companions hooted and hollered with lusty glee. As the two tent lovers proceeded to interlope in further athletic postures their shadowy gyrations rhythmically pulsed against the bouncing nylon screen. The mayhem at the campfire increased with lawn chairs having been pulled up and a cooler dragged over for the audience to more comfortably enjoy the featured entertainment.

"I didn’t think that sort of thing was actually possible."

"I think with special stretching exercises…maybe."

"Do ya think?"

The following morning as the two emerged dreamily from their small nylon brothel, one of the sexual acrobats asked, "What the hell was going on out here last night? You were making quite a scene out here."

To which there were snorts and chuckles and a sleepy camper holding her mug of strong black coffee and a half-eaten orange mused, "Well... it seems we weren't the only ones making a scene out here."

Or consider the overcast summer morning when a family of folks on noisy dirt bikes rolled into the campground and a found a suddenly self-righteous and I suspect mightily hung over buddy of ours hunkered down in a smoky campsite littered with dusty whiskey bottles, beer cans and dirty dishes. Watching the ridiculous motorized procession his face went rigid, then turned scarlet as he glared at them with all the cold hatred he could muster.

"GET THOSE BIKES OUT OF HERE!" he yelled, waving his arms menacingly. As they circled a second, smoke-burping time, the camper, who could stand no more, finally lost what was left of his short supply of stewardship towards other recreational uses of this particular Wildlife Refuge.

"GET THOSE BIKES OUT OF HERE, YOU FILTHY MOTHERFUCKERS" he roared at the top of his lungs while waving a now unsheathed 8" filet knife. "YOU HEAR ME? GET THOSE FUCKIN' BIKES OUT OF HERE NOW!" His shrieks thundered over the sickly drone of the motor bikes and echoed through the canyon below like summer thunder.

The family, sensing the frightening implications of a potentially dangerous encounter with a knife-wielding lunatic in a trash-filled campsite, wheeled out of the campsite as if pursued by the hounds of hell. The disgruntled camper muttered murderously under his breath for another hour. We eventually talked the knife out of his grasp, but the motorbikes clearly disturbed his sense of propriety whilst enjoying the great outdoors.

Funny that the pigsty that he lorded over bothered him not in the least….

---

Like all things noble and divine, the river holds no grudges, and youthful transgressions notwithstanding, I still take freely from the Metolius in ways much deeper and more profound. Now it seems its memories I take as much as fish – though often the memories are much weightier.

I suppose it was two decades ago that I began to watch the old men work the river as I fished waters unfamiliar to me. When I ventured from the comfortable deep green holes down river, I’d search them out only to observe their ways. Real fishermen they were, with faces leather-lined by the ridges of a thousand smiles, and contours smoothed by the winks they saved for young anglers who wanted to crack the river's secrets so badly, but hadn't paid the dues levied to decipher them. I know the real Metolius because of these fishermen and what they taught me, in their own unassuming ways.

Though they were to a man at their core benevolent so far as I was able to determine, they collectively blanched at the sight of hot shots who came from the city in their expensive trucks and Euro sedans. Fleshy men who jumped from their vehicles into their fancy Simms waders and $200 Orvis fishing Fedora's; who leapt into the water flailing their expensive plastic fly rods without a remote thought of the fish they just launched like missiles from their silos beneath the undercuts in the stream’s bank. They snarled, then wept at the endless invasion by the elitist core of snobs that sprouted like weeds and dotted the meadows of the upper river as fly fishing became a growth industry, and plastic rods started climbing towards the unheard of amount of $500.

"Goddamn California Smarties."

I knew him as The Wizened Apostle of the River, or just "The Apostle" for short. He did his fly tossing in a beat-up cowboy hat and rubber hip boots and unleashed the above epithet while eyeballing these modern angling monstrosities. He spit into the fine dust at his feet in the scorching July sun at Allingham pool, without a doubt the biggest idiot magnet on the entire river even to this day. We watched the displaced weekend warriors huff and puff as they tried to shoehorn themselves into tight lycra undergarments and neoprene chest waders; to jam wool covered feet into giant boots and cleats -- all to walk in waters that seldom required wading deeper than your knees.

"Those fools spend more goddamned time getting dressed than my wife."

I looked at him, and saw the wink. The wink that spoke a thousand words. A silent gesture that warned me that in spite of their flashy tackle and expenisve hats these pathetic characters had nothing in the broad sense. Catching hatchery fish under a bridge where people tossed the fat, finned morons bread and popcorn all day was about as challenging as paying some guy five bucks to wash your car so you could impress your girlfriend. An ego-driven cheat.

Predictable provincial stereotypes aside for a moment, if truth be told "California Smarties" were seldom from California, and from a purely angling standpoint, not the sharpest hooks in the box. But The Apostle's barbed words stamped a sentiment into this fisherman’s psyche that may have escaped others who simply laughed when hearing his particular brand of regional wisdom on this hot afternoon. You can't purchase experience, and if you don't hold in your heart respect for a river's secrets you don't deserve to wrestle even a whitefish from it's waters. California Smarties were a caricature of anglers who felt a sense of entitlement to the fish of the river, but didn't have the common sense to respect those who could have helped them the most. I know they insulted these guardians of the Metolius with their scowling pomposity. I could see it in the lines of their faces and the quick flashes in their eyes.

Luckily the all the old men of the river had fully functional Smarty sensors. They could expertly filter them out from the folks who were really searching for the answer to the puzzle of fishing the river proper. One fishing rule I never broke was to ask anyone but my friends what pattern they were using after having hooked a fish. Years ago I watched with great humor as The Apostle gave a Smarty who barged into his water looking for a cheap fix to his fishing woes the full business, and dialed me up in the process:

"What'd'ya got on there? Looks to be working pretty well. Is it a salmonfly imitation of some sort?" He's got some kind of nasal issue. He sounds like a giant elf.

"Naw..." The Apostle pushes his cowboy hat back on his head and continues slowly... "if you really wanna know I'm using it's this specialty-tied Lavender Girdle-Bug, size 2... with eyes." He shows the Smarty some god-awful purple-hued warm-water pimp pattern with feathers sticking out everywhere, rubber legs, and those dumb little plastic cartoon eyes that move.

-- (?)

He locks the Smarty in his steely gaze, "I'm fishing it on a 6x tippet, you need to use about a 14' leader as well. Fish are a little spooky here today."

-- (?)

"Ya gotta really set the hook on the sons a bitches though," He pulls his arm and rod back with an emphatic jerk. "They come up and sip 'em."

"Sip 'em? Really? 14', 6x leader? I’m sure I have one of those in my vest." The Smarty seems uncertain. "Well, umm, thanks. I'll have to try one of those Griddle Bugs out then."

The Smarty wanders off scratching his head and searching for a Lavender "Griddle Bug" and a 14' 6x leader in his mushroom shaped vest. "That'll get him going," he tells me as he carefully wades up to where I am tying up a nymph dropper, and winks his fisherman's wink. Looking at the mess of line I'm wrestling with he stops me. "Here," he hands me a stunning, home-tied size 6 Clark's Stonefly. "Put this on the edge of that chute there in front of you."

My cast is sloppy, but vaguely on target. "Make sure and pull that slack line in as it floats toward you," The Apostle instructs sharply "...quick now...rod tip up...careful, careful ...here it comes...THERE YA GO...HOT DAMN!"

The word’s swirl into a distant past where the native brown trout explodes through the surface film as the freshly admonished Smarty glares balefully at the two of us. A certain pride sneaks in remembering that fish, and the multitude of lessons the afternoon’s chapter taught me. Still, it's The Apostle’s wink that lights my memories like a beacon in a winter sea....

---

I duplicated this technique exactly as he showed it to me 20 years ago on a recent jaunt to the Metolius. As I once again released the fish caught from The Apostle's sage advice, I felt the wink, although I'm sure the fisherman has been dead for years now. Sadly I notice that the old men of the river are all gone -- replaced it seems by a younger, and more tormented breed of fly anglers. Fishermen who attempt to cast away their demons, frustrations and inadequacies by brutishly launching tufts of deer fur, metal and thread -- whipping their expensive plastic rods back and forth as if their very manhood depended on it.

Fly-fishing seems, with this new movement, a competition of numbers, pounds and size. It's also a ridiculous outdoor fashion show where label display, $500 English fishing reels, and particular style of headgear defines some obscene Secret Order of Important Fly anglers. It's become an endless tourney where the cell-phone toting fishermen's insatiable need for validation supplants the rivers sanguine melodies and verdant panoramas. A contest where the real adrenaline rush of a native fish rising to a tiny floating fly and the symmetrical perfection of a river is lost as quickly as a pair of $300 polarized sunglasses can drop into the drink.

This new breed, they don't smile enough. Maybe it's because they're casualties of an industry that will happily ready them for the river for $3000 bucks; then fly them to Chile to catch fish for another $3000. This fishing stuff is serious dollars these days. I fear these poor souls are so concerned about getting a return on their considerable investment in a "nuturing hobby" that they can't tap the restorative force charging the water's currents through their Gore-Tex and polypropylene clad legs. The river is there to help them wrestle their demons; at least it's always seemed to help with mine. But it does it on it's own terms. It doesn't do contract riders.

Still, I wonder if that's me scowling on the bank -- if that's the way I look when I fish these days?

The old men who methodically worked the waters of the Metolius of my youth have gone to a better stream now, but their winks and knowing grins twinkle from every cheerful eddy and riffle as I walk the paths that follow the river's course. I wonder if as they stood on these banks they could then, as I do now, see various reflections of themselves. From different places in their lives. I wonder if they could trace in these physical manifestations of their past the long and difficult paths life leads us down. How we mature in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, and how a fly rod, line and feather bug steer us through those difficult and dangerous waters all of our lives.

I wonder if I will ever know what those men felt as they watched and winked and taught the new students of the river so many years ago?

These days I watch folks fish the water almost as much as I fish it myself. Not because I am old or tired, but because I am curious if I am to continue to learn anything from the souls who line the rivers lush banks in this modern age. I am not sure what I am looking for, but I look just the same. My wife is quick to point out molting Smarties to me when we fish the river. It’s a fun game for her and she is quite adept at identifying them as they march purposefully about in the wild. I've simply grown tired of acknowledging their presence.

Instead I look for the anglers who draw their energy from the river proper, who watch and observe and work on the the puzzle, even if it looks to take them the rest of their days. I watch for a real smile to line an angler's complexion as a fish is released, a visible semblance of gratitude. Something that leaves a mark on their soul, and later their face. I don't mind watching riffles sitting on a rock in the mountain sunlight -- watching fish feeding as fish do, efficiently; no longer seeing the time spent in observation as wasting precious moments casting.

Fishing became something far more than an engineered solution to the problem of catching a fish some time ago for me, although the transition was hardly perceptible or even intentional. It just happens I guess, but I don't mind.

---

A young boy whom I met a day earlier here watches the water intently as I half-heartedly throw a dry fly through the riffles of the upper river’s Allingham pool one last time before heading home. These last casts are mostly for closure as I resign myself to the fact it’s time to leave once again. A way to take it all in for one final cast or two…

Suddenly the meditation explodes as a bearded middle-aged man carrying what must be sixty pounds of fishing tackle in his khaki vest steps up behind me and eyeballs the tailout I'm amatuerishly tinkering about on.

"WELL?" He says loudly, looking in my face with the same single-minded intensity I’m used to seeing on the face of my black Labrador as she waits impatiently for a cookie.

"Well what?" I respond confusedly.

"How did YOU do? How MANY fish? Any BIG ones?"

I know better than this. This guy could give a shit about anything I have to say. But, I bite anyway.

"I just started here but I did pretty good upriver a ways. Nice water there, where the log comes in from the East Side. I los..."

"Well I caught five, and one of them was bigger than the one you saw me catch earlier," he interrupts, clearly not pleased with my unacceptable method of dealing with the simple machismo of a creel count.

In my mind I quickly run the gauntlet of possiblee reactions...

I could just go ahead and Punch the obnoxious oaf? Or perhaps inquire in all earnestness as to the actual size of his "manroot." Which could be fun, but I don't think this adroit specimen would get it. Might be armed as well. Engagement in a full-blown Liar's Derby is an eternal and essential fishing ploy sure, but it's not nearly as fulfilling unless half in the bag....

In the fleeting moment it takes for these thoughts to trickle through my mind, I realize that I have absolutely nothing to say to this man, who I've noticed bears a striking resemblance to a Girdle Bug. I just smile and step aside providing unrestrained access to his coveted prime lie and wish him well. He barges into the water I've vacated and begins launching a deep-water nymph setup into the green waters, coldly efficient, machine-like. Deadly. This guy is gonna catch a lot of fish in his day.

Perhaps he is enjoying himself, but you'd never guess it by looking at him.

As I walk towards my car, the young man with sun burnt arms and twinkling eyes that had been watching the pool from the bridge approaches me.

"Heading home?" he says cheerfully.

"Yep, time to call it a day I'm afraid," I respond morosely.

"You know, I've been thinking about what you told me. I don't think I'm gonna use 6x up here anymore. I keep breaking them off. It really sucks."

"What are you using anyway," I asked him. "Lavender Girdle Bugs?"

"Oh, just these bread flies I've been tying in the RV. They seem to work pretty good... what's a Lavender Girl Bug anyway?"

I stop dead in my tracks. I can distinctly remember tying bread flies, popcorn flies and peanut flies to try and lure the porky dopes below Allingham Bridge when I was exactly this kid's age. I can remember staring into the deep waters and watching the fish feed, mesmerized by their fluid movement and substantial girth. I laugh out loud. Learning the secrets of the Metolius is a real bitch. Yes it is. But bread flies aren’t the answer.

"Here, try this," I hand him a size 6 Clark's Stonefly. "Put it in that chute right there, above the bridge. It'll work, trust me. They've been hitting these things for the last two hours."

He looks at me, unsure.

"There's big fish up there too. There’s big fish throughout this whole river. Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there. I would never lie to a fellow fisherman about that." I give him a wink, load my soggy gear, finish my beer and pull out onto the asphalt and into the pine-scented afternoon sunshine.

---

I can't be sure how it played out. But I’m partial to stories with happy endings. In my heart the kid ties up the stonefly imitation, throws the bug shakily into the slot, and with an excited shout pulls a 20" lunker out of the drink...

…THERE YA GO...HOT DAMN!

The thought keeps me smiling the entire drive home.



©1999 John Richen
Smokebox is a non-commercial, volunteer driven e-zine