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Liar, Liar: Aging Gracefully as a Fly Angler

With age, there comes a point at which you just don't care if others know that on any given day of fishing you caught nothing but little fish, or junk fish, or really little really junky fish. Or nothing at all.

Liar, Liar: Aging Gracefully as a Fly Angler

(Al Hassall art)

My father did not fish. I had no older brothers to introduce me to the sport. And yet, somehow, by the time I was eight years old, I was already a fanatic. While on a family vacation in the Finger Lakes that summer, I harangued my folks into buying me a fiberglass casting rod and an Ocean City level-wind reel. Both are now long gone to wherever old fishing tackle ends up. But there is a photo of me dated 1956 in which I’m holding that rig with one hand, and a rope stringer in the other. Dangling from it is what appears to be a mooneye, a small trash fish of the sort I spent the rest of my childhood pursuing. I’ve been fishing ever since.

Three days ago, I spent several hours at the mouth of the Anchor River near my home here in south central Alaska, hurling heavy Clouser Minnows into Cook Inlet against a ferocious onshore wind. Then I came home and ate four Advils. The next day I got up early and drove 120 miles to the confluence of the Kenai and Russian Rivers to meet my old fishing partner Will Rice. We marched for two miles uphill on a well-maintained trail, clambered down a near vertical, boulder-strewn obstacle course into the Russian River canyon, and fished our way downstream—a murderous jumble of slippery, pyramid-shaped rocks underfoot much of the way. Late in the afternoon, we dragged our sorry keisters back up to the parking lot.

Between the two of us, we have enough titanium screwed into our skeletons to build a mountain bike. When I opened the door of my truck, the soft cervical collar I wore on the drive from home rolled out onto the gravel. Will and I traded glances, each hoping the other had the range of motion to actually bend over and pick the thing up. Will, tougher than I by some measure, managed to hang onto the door handle and crouched just far enough to snatch the neck brace off the ground with two fingertips. There was a certain amount of groaning involved. Subsequently, there was also a certain amount of beer involved.

When I arrived home after a three-hour drive through Alaska’s endless road construction, I could barely swing my legs out of the truck cab. I considered sleeping out there in the driveway that night, but managed to make it to the house. This time, the post-fishing self-medication required not only the usual ibuprofen, but also a couple muscle relaxants and more vodka than I’d admit to my doctor. That night, feeling surprisingly well again, I made plans to meet another pal at the Anchor River the next morning.

Recently some wiseacre asked me, “Would you rather fish or fornicate?” Okay, that wasn’t the particular word used, but I answered as honestly as I could: “Well, at my age, I can still fish for hours without resting. In fact, I can still fish for hours, several times a day.”

All of which is to say that I’m not dead yet, but I am also not the boy in that photo anymore, not by a long shot. Not that I’m complaining. Well, I am complaining about the physical aches and pains and the fact that I used to be able to do exciting and pleasurable things all day long—like cast into the wind, or fish the Russian River—without medication.

But there are also some benefits to being one of the greybeards on a river now. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming the legendary wisdom that’s supposed to come with age—I’m still waiting for that to kick in—but, one of the blessings that actually does arrive is freedom from the slavery of deceit, or at least the option to choose a more factual telling of a day’s fishing efforts at every opportunity. There comes a point at which you just don’t care if others know that on any given day you caught nothing but little fish, or junk fish, or really little really junky fish. Or nothing at all.

It was not always this way. I’m the first to admit I may have reshaped the facts of a fishing trip or two into a form that presented my modest talents with rod and reel under generously favorable light. But I’ve seen a hell of a lot worse big fat liars over the years.

In 1982, when my wife Lin and I moved to Alaska, I took her fishing for the first time in her life. Somehow she had never sampled the joys of trying to outwit scaly, coldblooded creatures with marble-sized brains, had never even held a rod in her hand before the day we went fishing for cohos in a small river just south of Anchorage.

Lin’s first fish ever was a silver salmon that must have weighed twelve pounds. She also caught two others nearly as large. To put that in perspective, in the first ten years I fished, all the fish I caught, in total, would not have come close to the combined weight of the three salmon she landed her first day. Was she elated? Converted? “Hooked for life,” as the cliché goes? Not quite.

She fished exactly twice more after that: one lovely afternoon on a Kodiak Island stream catching small Dolly Varden on dry flies; and another catching grayling and lake trout in the foothills of the Alaska Range. And then she hung up the tackle and quit. Forever. The whole undertaking—selecting the perfect fly, making the best cast, fooling the fish—simply left her unmoved. Whatever it was that made me mad for the sport did not take root.

To this day she loves to go fishing with me, loves to be on the water, but has no desire to catch fish herself. None. Apparently, she does not in any way feel that her self worth is tied to her skill at catching fish. (Women are incomprehensible.) Which means, of course, she has no reason to lie about catching fish, and therefore cannot imagine why anyone else would blatantly massacre the truth in such matters.


Alaska steelhead art
(Al Hassall art)

Her first contact with what I’ve come to understand is normal angler bullshit (NAB), came as a shock to her. One autumn Friday afternoon in those early years we drove the 200 miles from Anchorage to the Anchor River, near the town of Homer, so I could fish for steelhead. Lin was in grad school, again, and she planned to study while I fished. It was steelhead season, so the weather was predictably gray, cold, and rainy. No problem for Lin; it would not be the first time she happily sat in a warm, dry truck reading while I stood in a river in a downpour getting soaked.

But there is rain and there is rain. We drove down the Kenai Peninsula through a constant deluge. Every river we crossed was already high and muddy and still rising. And the Anchor was the longest of them, with the most tributaries. When we crossed the bridge near the hotel, the river was raging with standing waves the color of lentil soup over the banks and running through the Bridge Hole parking lot. Uprooted cottonwood trees tumbled downstream. Cutbanks calved clods of earth into the flood. No one could fish it. No one would try. Not even me.

I spent the weekend mostly in the bar of the Anchor River Inn pretending to watch football, but mostly eyeing the rain slashing at the windows—hoping, as only a fisherman might, that somehow it was going to abate and the river would drop enough to fish. It was still raining as we headed north for Anchorage on Sunday.

On Monday, Lin stopped by the job I was working on in a new office building. I was hanging vinyl wallpaper in the hallways. One of the new tenants, an insurance representative, was moving into his office. I heard him hammering on the walls and I peeked in to find him hanging framed photos of himself gripping trout and salmon.

I struck up a conversation with him, and Lin stopped by just in time to hear him tell me he’d caught twenty steelhead over the weekend. In the Anchor River.

Lin’s chin dropped. She started sputtering. I rushed her out into the hallway before she could say it. “He’s lying! We were there. Nobody could fish in that mess, could they?”

I agreed that she was right on both counts: nobody could fish that mess, and yes, he was lying.

“But why would anybody do that?” she asked, astounded.

I tried to explain the concept of natural angler bullshit. But she would never understand that if you aren’t catching anything, you crave just one fish. If you’re catching some fish, you want to catch more, lots more. If you are catching lots of fish, you want to catch bigger fish. How could I explain to her that if you’ve had a great day of fishing, the only thing that makes it better is telling someone how good it was. And, more to the point, if the fishing has been abysmal, the same response is called for—telling someone how good it was.

Lin has spent 35 years with me, and still has not fully come to accept the concept of NAB. Probably never will. Not because she’s a woman, but because she doesn’t fish.

Richard Chiappone is the author of Opening Days: A Fly Fisherman Writes (Barclay Creek Press, 2010) and Water of an Undetermined Depth (Stackpole Books, 2003). This essay is from his new book Liar’s Code (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

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