Archive for November, 2012

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  • November 26th, 2012

The Birch Lake Monster

By Joel M. Vance      

It was, like most of the brilliant ideas I’ve had, ill-conceived and fraught with peril.  But at the time it seemed like the only thing to do and so of course I did it, little realizing that it would put Birch Lake on the map, lead to a media circus and an aborted documentary for the History Channel. 

And it also led to Birch Lake becoming an armed camp, living in fear.  Hey, for a high school kid that’s pretty good!  It was the time the monster came to Birch Lake.  Only monster we ever had, if you don’t count Scuz Olson, my nemesis at Birch Lake High School.

            Scuz was in no danger of having a book written about him or a documentary made unless it was titled “Profile of the Perfect Jerk.”  Scuz precipitated the monster episode because he took up high-tech deer hunting and because I wanted to get even with him for a lifetime of insult.

            He had beaten me up almost daily when we were little kids and after I got big enough to defend myself physically, he became a verbal bully.  You know the kind—a motormouth with unruly dirty blond hair, buck teeth and all the charm of a feedlot bull.

            Scuz had never forgiven me for once decorating a slice of apple pie with maggots which he thought were cheese curls.  He couldn’t prove that I’d done it, but we both knew I had.  But on the other hand he admired me in a backhanded way for perpetrating a dirty trick that he wished he’d thought of.  For some twisted reason it made him adopt me as his sounding board, especially in all things outdoors. 

            Thus it was that he hailed me in the school cafeteria one afternoon. “Hey, dip wick, commere!”  Being of a democratic nature and because I knew Scuz would continue to insult me at top volume if I ignored him, I sighed and waited for insult.  “Know what this is, smartass?” he bellowed, although I was about two feet from him. 

            I recognized the device as a trail camera.  Fasten it to a tree and it is activated by motion and takes digital photos, even at night using infrared technology.  “It’s a wildlife camera,” I said.  “Stand in front of it and look like a rabbit and it’ll take your picture.”  A couple of his toadies snickered because they knew that most of the school called Scuz “Rabbit” behind his back due to his buck teeth.  Scuz glowered at them and they ducked their heads and picked at zits.

            “It’s a by God genuine Sneaklens Four–spent two hunnert bucks on it…for one buck,” he said.  “One big ass buck.  I’m gonna scout out the biggest damn buck deer in north Wisconsin and win me some money in the Big Bucks Contest down to the sports shop and get my picture in the Birch Lake Beacon.  What’re you gonna do—shoot Bambi?”  Deer season in Birch Lake was as close as we came to a religious holiday and it was rare to find a teenage boy in school on opening day.          

The first niggling bud of my Grand Idea wriggled into my subconscious at that moment and by the time I got home from school it was in full flower.  What if Scuz were to check his camera and find, not a photo of a monster buck…but a real monster, one upright with fangs and glowing eyes that would scare the pee-wadding out of a Marine drill sergeant?  It never occurred to me that anyone other than Scuz would be credulous enough to believe such a cheesy trick.  I remembered too late that writer Norman Cousins once said, “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.”

Had I possessed real wisdom I would have fled from my Grand Idea as if it were radioactive.  Instead I tailed Scuz to his deer stand.  He headed into the forest on a log trail near the Thirty Three Creek crossing with a sort of Groucho Marx lope, not noticing me in my trusty pickup a quarter mile behind.  I slipped into the woods behind him and heard him swearing after he fell into a bog hole a couple hundred yards ahead. Daniel Boone he was not—more like Pat Boone channeling Little Richard.

            If this was the way he hunted he had as much chance of bagging a deer as I did of landing a jet fighter in a cow pasture.  Scuz had installed a salt block and a bait block under his tree stand and had the camera strapped to the trunk of the tree.  He checked it for big buck photos and muttered a few choice cusswords when he didn’t find anything.  It was no surprise, given that he had tromped all over the clearing, leaving enough man scent to stampede the county’s entire white-tailed deer herd.    

            I carefully backed away from the clearing and was back in the truck, headed for town, before he exited the woods.  Now I was just one monster costume away from my Grand Idea. 

            Fashioning a monster suit is not as easy as I had expected.  No wonder there are so few monsters anymore. It’s just too hard to become one.  My Uncle Floyd had a bear skin rug in his duck hunting shack on Big Birch Lake.  I drove along the ridge above the lake, going slowly enough to admire the glow of the maples in the October sunlight.  The lake glittered below me and peace was in my soul.  I was never more inspired than when I was on a mission to right wrongs.  Batman had nothing on me.  Missionaries must feel this way when they approach savage jungle tribes, intent on conversion.  Missionaries often wind up in the stew pot, but I overlooked that part.

            Sure enough, the bear rug was sprawled on the dirty pine floor of the duck shack.  Dust motes swirled in shafts of sunlight piercing the smeared windows and the place smelled of old retrievers, cigars and bourbon.  The rug was capacious and the bear’s glass eyes glared up at me, as if it were pissed off to be disturbed at rest.  “ Tough,” I said.  “I need you.” 

            A bear skin alone would not create a monster.  It could be mistaken for a real moth eaten bear, like those that invaded the town dump to root for choice garbage.  I needed a monster head to fit over the bear head.

            And then I remembered the Birch Lake Bobcat, a really cheesy costume worn by some unlucky geek at basketball and football games.  The fur-covered head looked less like a Bobcat and more like something Walt Disney would have dreamed up if he’d been on Quaaludes and was partying with Stephen King, but it was capacious and certainly would never be mistaken for a bear.

            So, on a dark and not stormy night, I slipped into the high school and relieved it of the Bobcat head, which wouldn’t be needed until the next home football game.  I would have to do my dirty deed at night. Any daytime photo would be sharp enough to expose the phoniness of the costume.  I wanted a quick pass in front of the Sneaklens Four, just enough for one semi-blurred exposure. 

I told my folks I was going to the movie at the Birch Lake Rialto.  Trusting souls, they were deep into “Law and Order” on television, and barely waved as I left.  It was a star shot October night, sharp with the first faint breath of winter.  The moon was down and Orion, the Hunter, glittered above me, the only constellation I could remember, much to the dismay of my science teacher. 

            Scuz’s deer stand was a dim presence in the bleak night.  I carefully skirted the clearing to avoid triggering the motion-sensing camera.  First I used a garden rake to scrape bark off the tree about a dozen feet above ground, as if something had been sharpening its claws.  No bear could stretch that high.  I used my knuckles to create toe marks in the soft duff and fashioned a footprint to go with them.  Looked pretty good in the beam of my flashlight. 

            I gathered the bearskin around me and duct taped it to my arms, legs and chest.  It was a fairly loose fit. I put the Bobcat head over my head, trying not to breath in the grungy fug inside it, and groped for my special effects tools.  The Bobcat head smelled like our locker room, only more so.  Whoever had last inhabited it not only needed a shower, but also a hearty swig of Scope.  But the inside of the thing was big enough to accommodate the Elephant Man and that was exactly what I needed.

            Carefully I fitted a propane cylinder under the mask, in front of my face and directed the nozzle through the gaping mouth of the Bobcat.  I reached in with the other hand and turned the valve and heard the hiss of escaping gas.  I had but a moment to reflect on the potential for disaster, but discounted it,

            I shambled around the tree in front of the camera which obligingly clicked on, its infrared light glowing, and flicked the wheel of a Zippo lighter.  There was instantaneous gout of flame and I turned partly toward the tree, then tottered behind it once again, out of view of the camera.  The torch continued to spew flame and I could smell singed hair.  I hoped it was from the Bobcat head and not mine.  Frantically I groped for the valve and shut the damn torch off. 

            I jerked the head off and took a great gulp of fresh air.  It dawned on me that if I hadn’t been incredibly lucky the head could have caught fire and I’d be without hair, eyebrows and possibly the rest of my life.  I got weak in the knees and hunkered behind Scuz’s tree, adding up my life list of really stupid things, like a cat counting off its wasted lives against the legendary nine.

            I had no idea whether my brief performance in front of the camera had been digitized for posterity.  I was too busy trying to swallow my heart.  There was no way I was going to take a curtain call.  What’s the old saying?  “Once burned, twice shy.”  I stripped off the Bobcat head and the bear skin and gathered them up, along with the nearly lethal propane torch, wondering if I had set anything in motion besides my bowels. 

            It didn’t take long for a reaction.  The next day Scuz laid a strip of rubber a dozen feet long in front of the Birch Lake Record office and burst out of his decrepit DeSoto, waving the camera and bellowing incoherently.  He burst into the building, causing the sports editor and the society editor to dive under their desks, sure that terrorists were attacking Birch Lake.

            At first the news editor and everyone else assumed Scuz was trying to perpetrate some sort of hoax (gosh, who would think of a thing like that?) but quickly realized he was too stupid and uncreative to have created the somewhat blurred, but still awesome image recorded by his Sneaklens Four. 

            The reproduced photo took up the entire top half of the next issue of the Record under a blaring headline which screamed MONSTER CAPTURED ON FILM! across eight columns. There was a furry monster breathing fire at the camera—blurred but still obviously no bear ever seen at the city dump and nothing seen anywhere outside a 1950s sci-fi epic at the Rialto.

I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams (and the one I had after I finally fell asleep, having restored the slightly charred Bobcat head and the bear skin to their rightful homes was about as wild as dreams get).  “Jesus!” I breathed, the newspaper rattling in my trembling hands.  “What have I done?”  Immediately there were follow-up stories invoking Sasquatch, the Missouri Monster and the Yeti.  The Bluegill Bar regulars invoked the Wolf Man and Dr. Frankenstein’s chef d’oeuvre.  “I tol’ you them goddam adam bombs was gonna mutate us!” growled Willie Anderson, who had been predicting the Apocalypse since the end of World War Two.  No one recognized the outsized head as that of the familiar sideline mascot at many a football game. 

            Within two days Birch Lake became a feature on national news programs. CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News (Rush Limbaugh posited an Iranian plot and recommended nuclear reaction)—they all did stories, all using Scuz’s photo and suddenly he was a local hero.  Matt Lauer interviewed him briefly on The Today Show, but when Scuz opined “I don’t know what the hell that sumbitch is!” they cut him off and went to commercial. 

            It was the talk of the town, at first a breathless excitement.  And then the realization that a fire-breathing monster roamed the woods near Birch Lake gave birth to a totally different mindset.  What I’d figured would be a laughable curiosity (there was that failure to peer ahead again) became a source of panic.  Women gathered up their pets and kids and businesses (except for the Bluegill) shut down with the set of the sun.

            Anything that breathed fire, figured the Birch Lake community, could also roast a juicy kid for dinner.  A raccoon knocked over Ernie Johanssen’ garbage can in the middle of the night and Ernie blasted both the luckless animal and the can to eternity with a double load of Double-Aught buckshot.  “Well, goddam, it coulda been the monster!” he exclaimed to his buddies at the Bluegill Bar. 

            “Coulda been ol’ Charlie Pete staggerin’ home, too,” said one more lucid bystander.  Charlie Pete was the town drunk, but he swore off late night rambles after the raccoon incident when it occurred to him that either he could be shot, mistaken for the monster….or eaten by the monster itself.

            Instead of dying down, the story continued to grow.  Mayor Ellis Winston said, “There is no cause for alarm.  We don’t know for sure that this monster kills people….”  At which the town became hysterical: “monster” and “kills people” is all they heard and Birch Lake became an armed camp.  People started looking at each other as if suspecting the other was The Monster disguised like a tourist from Indiana.  No one ventured outdoors after sunset.   

            I thought about confessing to the priest at St. Agnes: “Forgive me, Father, for I have committed a monster” but there were some problems with that.  I’m Methodist and I was afraid the priest, a burly former linebacker from Notre Dame, would drag me out of the confessional and beat the crap out of me.  Confession was out of the question.  Courage carried me only to the point of really serious consequences, but not beyond. 

            Coincidentally I watched an old black and white movie, “The Oxbow Incident,” on television where innocent guys got lynched and thought, If that’s what a mob does to an innocent guy, what would they do to me?

            Scuz Olson junked his DeSoto for a new Ford F150 pickup, using money paid for his (my) photo by the National Enquirer.  Retribution, it seems, has a way of circling back on itself.  My get-even scheme had become Scuz’s triumph.  The History Channel sent a crew into the woods in search of The Monster, and then the town had to mount a search team to find the search team which had become lost along Thirty Three Creek. 

            Hud’s Sporting Goods did a booming business selling deer rifles to those who had no intention of hunting deer, but wanted protection.  The Bluegill Bar also thrived with out-of-towners arriving from God-knows-where, hoping to see the lifeless Monster dragged through town like Mussolini’s corpse. 

            The incident did not bring out the best in people, but I guess that failing started with me.  If I’d precipitated it, it seemed to me, I was responsible for ending it.  The biggest problem was not ending it—confessing would do that—but ending it without acquiring a new winter coat of tar and feathers.

            Aside from a public mea culpa the best bet seemed to be to expose The Monster hoax anonymously and I came up with a risky idea.  My burgeoning career seemed to be headed in the direction of Arch Felon.  I set out to right all wrongs that very night, about 2 a.m. when I hoped all were asleep, especially those with loaded rifles.  Birch Lake was as silent as a country churchyard.  A Pabst Blue Ribbon sign glowed in the dirty window of the Bluegill Bar and there were a couple of lit streetlights, but basically Main Street was dark and deserted. 

            It was no trick to swipe the Bobcat head once again—it hadn’t been used the week before because it was an away game and the Bobcat wasn’t authorized for road trips.  So no one had yet noticed the slightly singed mascot.

            While I was at it I sneaked into the locker room and liberated Scuz’s football jersey from his locker.  He hadn’t bothered to put a lock on it because who would have the audacity to steal from Rabbit Olson?  One final item, a coat tree from the teacher’s lounge.  I tucked the wooden rack under my arm. 

            Toting up the offences I’d committed so far, I suspected I could be sent away for most of my youth, be suspended and lose my high school diploma and never be able to return to Birch Lake.  All powerful incentives to keep from getting caught. 

            Or I could go home, slip into bed, and hope that no one in town shot anyone else who fleetingly resembled a monster.  I took a deep, shuddery breath.  I put on Scuz’s jersey and thought Man, that sucker’s big!  With the head in one hand and the coat hanger in the other I slipped down an alley until I was behind the Bluegill Bar.  Then I cautiously sneaked alongside the building, checked to make sure the area still was deserted, and quickly trotted to the middle of Main Street where I set up the clothes hanger, draped Scuz’s jersey over it and placed the Bobcat head atop that.  One final touch—I pinned a crude sign to the front of the jersey (I’d lettered it left-handed in case there were any handwriting experts among the local constabulary).

            Next day’s headline in the Beacon said it all: “Hoax Exposed!”  And the accompanying photo showed my coat hanger monster clearly, with the sign reading, “Go Bobcats!  Beat Haugen!”  Birch Lakers put away their guns and kids once more played hide-and-seek and kick-the-can into the thick shadows of dusk.  Scuz reclaimed his jersey and loudly claimed innocence about the whole thing, but I was the only one who believed him.

            He consoled himself with his new truck and his small admiring circle of toadies.  I waited for Matt Lauer to say on the air, “Well, now we know what that sumbitch is” but he never did.

            And Haugen beat Birch Lake by three touchdowns.


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  • Blog
  • November 17th, 2012

So Where Will Wally Go?

By Joel M. Vance

Wally is a Minnesota dairy farmer.  That’s all he’s ever been; that’s all he ever wants to be.   A few years ago all his neighbors were farmers, like him.

Now Wally’s closest neighbor is a Minneapolis expatriate who bought a few acres 30 miles south of the Twin Cities and put up a half-million dollar home.  Others followed.  There are new homes everywhere Wally looks when he’s gathering his cows for milking, homes which cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to build.  His farmer neighbors have sold out and the newcomers don’t farm.

Wally finishes milking and goes into his paint-peeling century old farmhouse to think about the future.  He’d like to pass his farm along.  But one of his two sons was killed in an auto accident and the younger one is not interested in farming.  If he’s like so many of his former neighbors, he’ll sell his farm to city people for a couple million dollars and retire.

But where will Wally go?

Wally is real and his plight is equally real.  He is among thousands of landowners being forced off their farms because of urban sprawl, often farms that have endured for a century or more.

And, while urban sprawl is partly a desire to get away from the squalor of the inner city, it also is a reflection of a problem that shows little sign of going away—too many people.

While overpopulation creates obvious natural resource consumption and resulting loss of wildlife habitat, the loss of farmers is more insidious.  Without individual farmers (not impersonal corporations or suburbanites), those who care about and understand natural resource conservation, we’re demanding more from less.

Minnesota’s Green Acres program now exempts Wally from property taxes on acreage he keeps in native prairie or wetlands. It offers him tax credits to acreage retained as agricultural. This keeps taxes down and habitat up. By slowing population growth and making it possible to keep land open and productive, maybe Wally wouldn’t have to go anywhere.

But Wally is being squeezed by the suburban invasion and by the nearby small town’s growth toward him. Already there are plans for a sewage system extension within a mile of him.  Next comes annexation and then Minnesota’s Green Acres tax protection no longer applies because he’s now a townie.  His property taxes skyrocket beyond the ability of farmland to sustain and Wally is history.

People pressure is a reality, no matter where you are.  Country folk once readily welcomed visiting hunters, but now the reaction often is, “I just can’t let anyone hunt—there’s too many wanting to do it.” And that’s in spite of a decline in hunter numbers.  What seems a paradox is explainable: fewer hunters, but also fewer places to hunt.

Wally will let you hunt the few remaining pheasants on his place, but his neighbors, living on fragmented former farms, don’t welcome hunters in their back yard.  Corporate farms fear liability and who would you ask permission of anyway?  The CEO in New York City?

Until we accept there are hard limits on natural resource demands and that the country can’t forever support a constantly expanding population, we are headed down the proverbial slippery slope.

              The assaults of people on the natural world are unrelenting.  The USDA estimates that Americans developed a million acres of rural land in 2002. No wonder Wally has a lot of new neighbors. Farther away in South and Central America, the tropical rainforest is falling like double-wides in a tornado so we can have hamburgers and teak furniture.  According to news reports Brazilians cleared acreage equal to the size of Massachusetts in 2003, some 9,169 square miles-worth.  And that’s just one year in two or more decades of intensive land clearing.  Wally probably couldn’t point out Brazil on a world map…but many of the birds he once saw every summer don’t return to Minnesota anymore because of what’s happening in down there.

A few years back Wally and his wife made the longest trip of their lives.  They went to Branson, Missouri.  Once Branson was a sleepy town along Lake Taneycomo, a sinuous body of water that more resembled the White River that it once was, rather than a lake.  It had a population of 4,500 and they still bragged about almost winning the state Class B championship in basketball a few years before.

              But then fading pop and country entertainers, looking for new territory, tapped into the nostalgia of graying Americans and now there are at least 18 theaters. Branson glitters like Las Vegas.   Branson became Boomtown.  The permanent residents grew to just over 6,000…but the tourist invasion exploded to more than 150,000 annually.

In its quest for growth Branson, struggles with too much traffic, too much waste and too few facilities to handle the people and their detritus

I hunted quail on a Missouri farm adjacent to our 40 acres in the country.  Now it is a housing development.  The losers, of course, were the quail who once whistled in the fencerows that have become back yards.

Once I studied a Geological Survey map in northern Wisconsin and found a small lake that could only be reached by hiking a railroad track.  It was a blistering day and I was wearing waders.  The hike was perhaps a mile, but I kept alive the vision of pristine fishing as I stewed in my own juices.

A handcar came by and the trackmen jeered, “Hey, man, you lose a lake or somethin’!”   And then I came to the lake…and found that since the map had been printed a road had been created and a parking lot, jammed with cars. There were several boats on the lake.

Missouri pioneered the use of old galvanized washtubs, elevated on posts in ponds and lakes, as nest sites, to restore Giant Canada geese.  The big birds readily adapted and thrived.  In fact, Giant Canadas routinely overfly Wally’s farm as they track toward the nearby town’s sewage lagoon, their favored (and protected) roost site.

It took about 30 years, but finally there was a viable population of Giant Canadas. Now their flocks have gone from the brink of extinction to common pests, damaging gardens, lawns and golf courses with grazing and droppings.

The white-tailed deer, North America’s most important big game animal, has rebounded from over hunting and now reproduces exponentially.  One doe can have perhaps 15-20 fawns in a procreative lifetime.  If half of those are does, they in turn produce maybe 50-100 young and so on.  The population doesn’t just double—it leaps out of control.  Deer, like their avian counterparts, have become pest animals. They wreak havoc on native plant communities, cause road accidents, and millions in crop and landscaping damage.

Substitute the word “people” for “deer” and you won’t have to change anything else.  For the first million or so years of our existence, we hardly made a blip on the Earth’s ecosystems. Just like the deer and Canada goose, our numbers began to boom. It took all of human history until 1800 to reach our first billion. We tripled that 160 years later in 1960. The last billion we added (our sixth) took just 12 years.

A rabbit biologist once told me that rabbits and people share a common physiology.  “When rabbits overpopulate, they stress out, get ulcers and die,” he said.

Wildlife managers shake goose eggs to kill the embryos. The problem is far more complex with people. Shooting to control population isn’t an option and the human equivalent of egg-shaking is frowned on by some segments of society. Nature, of course may solve the problem in a variety of gruesome ways. Think of recurrent famine in Third World countries or AIDs pandemics.  Think of SARS and other virulent viruses.

Since 1960, human population growth shrank by half. For the most part this has come about because basic family planning services have been made available. But improvements in education, economic opportunities and in women’s social status also contributed.

Making dramatic change would take a major shift in society’s thinking. We need to go from wanting a growing population to a stable one, from exploitation of natural resources to conservation, from an ever-expanding economy to one that is sustainable. Boosterism incites cities to promote growth as an example of their vitality and civic progressiveness.  But growth for the sake of growth is counterproductive in the longrun.

We are a consumer society and our consumption of things and of land is far ahead of any country on earth.  Aldo Leopold said it best in the foreword to A Sand County Almanac: “Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free.  For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

He wrote that more than 50 years ago, but it rings as true today as it did in 1948.  Conservationists revere the Father of Conservation; it remains to be seen whether we can live up to his vision, whether our great grand children will have game to hunt and places to hunt it–and whether Wally will have a place to love.


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  • November 11th, 2012

The Fly In My Ointment


By Joel M. Vance

For all his hunkiness (asks any woman under the age of 95 who is not comatose), Brad Pitt cast a fly line like a refugee from a geriatric ward trying to lasso a range steer.  That’s why well-known angler Gary Borger was the stand-in who created the luscious loops featured in the movie “A River Runs Through It” as well as the iconic poster that sparked a spike in fly fishing interest nationwide.

                Guys who didn’t know a fly rod from a fly swatter vaguely thought that if they took up the sport they would become more Brad Pittish.   Women thought that if they took up the sport they would bump into Brad Pitt on the nearest trout stream and he would offer to help them place a No. 18 Adams on a rise as delicately as Queen Elizabeth’s after-dinner belch. 

I had no such illusions.  As a nearly lifelong fly fishing addict, I knew that the ability to throw a loop like Gary Borger (or even Brad Pitt) wouldn’t make me irresistible to the opposite sex and even less so to various fishes.

                My father acquired a fly rod in the 1960s, made of what then was state-of-the-art synthetic (fiberglass).  It had the approximate action of a length of reinforcing rod and the reel was “automatic” in that when you depressed a lever, the line snapped back at you like a striking cobra.  The line was level and needed to be greased like the axles on a Model T about every five minutes or it would sink faster than a pig iron ingot. 

                Despite the Neanderthal equipment, I fell in love with fly fishing and have been flogging the water as if encouraging galley slaves ever since.  I have braved the fabled waters of the West where if you mention “Yellowstone” to a fly fisherman he goes all gooey, as well as the burbling little brook trout streams of the North Country.  Once I cast a fly into Spruce Creek, a fabled Pennsylvania trout stream and something large and menacing grabbed my fly and frightened me so badly that I reacted by setting the hook as if I were try to stop a runaway horse, snapping the leader and my chance to land a trophy trout.

                The fellow who owned both the rod and the missing fly, said philosophically, “Too bad….well, it’s time for a before-dinner drink.”

                I even tied flies for a brief period of disassociation and there is a cherished family photo which shows me at the vise (is that not spelled “vice”?), a glint of mania in my eyes, while the family collie crouches in the background, his luxurious fur disarrayed, missing chunks where I had assaulted him with a pair of scissors and cries of discovery.  Our daughter, a honey blonde, is shown poised for flight, fearing that she might be next.

                A creative type, I never stooped to “patterns” or “recognized flies” but invented as I went along, including the invention of some words never before spoken other than by mule handlers and Marine drill instructors.  Small hooks would bend and break under my ham-fisted attempts to tie a No. 18 anything and I would quote long passages of vintage Anglo-Saxon.

                Consequently I stuck with hooks of a size usually used to loft hay bales into a barn.  The results were more like road-killed animals than trout flies.  If I were matching a hatch it was only if raccoons had started emerging from eggs.

                I never caught anything with my creations, other than towering trees, bankside bushes and, once, the long-suffering collie that proved that, hooked in the seat of his pants, he could outrun even the legendary Moby Dick.  I finally gave up fly tying and concentrated on my fly casting.

                One learns fly fishing in one of two ways, either by expert instruction or by trial and error.  I chose the second path, especially the error part, because no one I knew fished other than with a casting rod and reel or even more commonly, a cane pole, decorated with an earthworm.

                I learned double hauling by reading a book by Joan Salvato Wulff.  I was allegedly at work in my office which was a basement affair with windows that looked out on a parking lot.  I was practicing the hand movements illustrated by Ms. Wulff’s photos when I glanced out to see a couple of little kids in a parked car, their noses pressed to the car window and no doubt saying, “Mommy, what is the funny mans doing?”  Hastily I drew the blinds before she called the cops or, worse yet, my boss who thought I was engaged with actual business.

I’d been double hauling my way for 30 years when an expert instructor told me I was doing it wrong.  “Pull the line straight down,” he said.  “Not out to the side—creates friction.”  I had been seizing the line as if it were covered in a foul substance and I was trying to throw it off my hand.  Sure enough, when I pulled straight down, careful not to whack myself in tender areas, and released the coiled line it shot out, singing through the guides like the Von Trapp Family in full voice.

That demonstrated that no dog is too old to learn not to pee on the couch, but I had other tricks to unlearn.  The wind knot is the bete noir of the fly caster’s tiny world.  Early on I was fishing for trout with a guide.  I thought I was doing pretty well, although the occasional cast tended to hit the water as if I were flogging pit mules.  “You’re tying wind knots!” cried the guide in anguish as he watched me flail at the water.  I thought it was kind of neat that I could tie intricate knots in mid-air, but apparently that was frowned on by fly fishing purists. 

Once again the Wulff Family intervened. I was among several spectators when Ms. Wulff’s equally famous husband, Lee, explained how to avoid the dread wind knot.  “You draw figure-eights in the air,” he said.  He demonstrated….and looped the line around his neck.  Somehow that made me feel better, although it didn’t do much for Mr. Wulff.

Let’s face it, the fly line can be dangerous in the hands of even the experienced as my friend Spence Turner discovered when he was salmon fishing in Scotland.  His gillie, who also happened to own the country home where Spence was staying, made the mistake of standing behind Spence.  The first back cast neatly hooked him in an earlobe and before Spence could delicately place a fly ahead of the rise he’d just seen, the gillie screamed, “Dinna set the hook!  Dinna set the hook!”

                Fortunately it was a barbless hook and the two of them extracted the Jock Scott amid chuckles (both somewhat forced) and a dram of Drambuie made everything right.

Inevitably if you’re obsessed with fly fishing, you succumb to the lure of distant waters, the challenge of new and ever-larger fish.  I floated the Madison River where, it was alleged, trout big enough to swallow a canoe were just waiting for me and my Bitch Creek nymph (I love that name and often wonder where the named creek flows).  The only fish I caught was a whitefish, cousin in appearance at least to a redhorse sucker which Ozark mountaineers gig and deep fat fry on the riverbank.  They have high cholesterol counts and a whole lot of fun.

Inevitably, though, one ventures even farther afield and I did it.  Several years ago timber wolves attacked and killed a young man in Saskatchewan, first documented attack in 100 years.  The man’s name was Joel.  Thus I was not exactly reassured when I planned to fly to a fishing location in far northern Saskatchewan—especially since the destination was the very mining camp where the wolves snacked on the hiker.

                After all, the nearest thing to a timber wolf in my home is one of my Brittanies.  It also was not reassuring when I found that my fishing guide hunts wolves in the winter, although if I were going to have a guide, a wolf-hunting one was preferable.

                But the lure of incomparable pike fishing with a fly rod was enough to chase away the specter of the Big Bad Wolf.  I’d already survived an encounter with a hungry bear.  That happened on another trip when the guide and I stopped for shore lunch and I wandered up the hill in search of wild blueberries.

                I found the berries, but also a bear which followed me back to where our guide’s eyes widened over the bacon he was frying.  “Dere’s a bear!” he exclaimed and I, conscious of the fact that he lived there and if he was unhinged by the sight of a bear, I probably also should be.  We threw rocks at the bear which vanished for a while, but then reappeared…closer.  The bear got the bacon and we got the heck out of there. 

                So here I was preparing to battle timber wolves—if necessary, throw the baby overboard, except I didn’t have a baby and my guide was far bigger than I was and probably would resent being tossed to the wolves.  Where’s a baby when you need one?

                There basically were no other anglers in those northern waters.  Two possibilities accounted for it: (1.) That it’s difficult and expensive to get there or (2.) The bears and wolves ate them all.  Of the two possibilities I’d rather get out the checkbook and look for a very experienced bush pilot and a wolf-hunting guide.

                I heard Greg Disain, my Chippewayan guide, crooning something almost inaudible, I thought it might be a prayer to the gods of the water to deliver unto us a trophy northern pike.  I listened closer: “Feesh!  Feesh!  Here, fishy, fishy, fishy!” 

                Didn’t sound like a Chippewa incantation, but it worked because a long, dark shape followed my crawfish imitation.  I lifted the rod as the pike’s gill covers flared and it inhaled my fly.  “Hit ‘em hard!” Greg exclaimed.  The pike did all the hitting when it felt the bite of the hook.  In the lyric language of the old-time fishing writers, it “made the reel sing,” although the song sounded more like “I Ain’t Got Nobody” than “I’ve Got You, Babe.”

After a sprint of about 30 yards with me hittin’ em hard, then the 20-pound “pike” leader popped and I stumbled backward with the fly rod tip swishing back and forth like your mother wagging her finger at you when you were little and did something wrong.   I reeled in. 

                Wolves and bears and fish that have more sharp objects than Mack the Knife….it was time to seek out less lethal prey.  Only once have I been complimented on my fly casting and I had to travel several thousand miles to hear it.  I fished a stream in Wales, alleged to be stiff with sea trout and salmon.  Apparently the Welch lie to strangers just like Americans because I lashed the water for two hours without tempting so much as a tench or a roach, whatever they are.

                That night in the local pub a lean and weathered old fellow approached me and said in a Scottish burr thick enough to lean on, “I saw ye out on the stream this afternoon,” he said.  “Ye cast a gude line, laddie!”

                My blush of pleasure was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that the old man had been fishing for eels with a cane pole. 


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