I was thinking about this story this weekend while I was showing this spot to a good friend. I think it made him a true believer, and it made me humble again. Enjoy some Resurrected Devil – Super Secret Cove * (By The Road).
Cheers you savages,
– Uncle Larry
I crept down the canyon like I was scouting for deer. A mute child blank faced in the once familiar, assessing memory for change or significance. Slowly walking and taking in every feature. The drought induced crunch of pine needles in February. The bald eagle sifting through the tree tops. The young Jeffrey pines blazoned orange from the -30 cold snap that took place here two months ago. Today it’s 64 degrees, and I’m sporting slip on Vans – the new winter footwear choice of somebody who has spent 3 decades in the Sierras. Sadly I’ve only had to wear boots a handful of times in the past two years due to inclement weather.
I’d recently worn my boots during a week long coastal steelhead trip on the north coast of California. It rained almost everyday and the eager runs who’d been waiting at sea for months shot up as soon as the water started to rise. It was a classic and literal case of those dirty and tooth gnashing six words that should be banned in any sort of conjunction used in a fishing connotation – “You should have been here yesterday..” I fucking hate cliches, especially when they’re true and apply to you.
The skunking started earlier, at a much more maddening place. I was hitting Pyramid Lake pretty hard for the month before the trip. I had a few good days in the first week, but then I went two weeks without a tug. If you’ve ever fished Pyramid for more than a few hours you’ll know that there is a sort of madness that sets in to a man. Well, I think there are two kinds of madness – There’s the blank and thoughtless caressing of dozens of cutthroats on a good day, some of them double digits in weight and capable of eating babies, but you’re numb to the fact that this isn’t everyday shit and you’re spoiled. The power trip takes hold..
Then there’s the 7 dawn till dusk days in a row, fishing the same flies as the guy next to you in the same manner and depth, and he and everyone else around you is roping them while you stare blankly at the forbidden east side of the lake, wondering how much it would hurt if you hurled yourself from one of the many staggering precipices that hold bighorn shit, paleolithic art, and the gaze of many a disheartened fisherman.
I’ve always marveled at the slump. It used to be discordant with my sex life for a few years in my 20s. If I was a successful tomcat I could almost be certain I wasn’t a successful fisherman. I noticed this and started keeping score in my mind. I would have used paper but that’s the kind of thing they put you in a padded room for and I’m already dangerously close to that forced form of safety. The results were fairly consistent – a fleeting partner of a few weeks would yield a decrease or cessation in catching fish. It wasn’t for lack of trying or distraction either. I usually fished more when I knew I had somebody waiting for me to come home. Steady girlfriends didn’t have the same effect, but the thought was still there in my mind if I came up blank on consecutive days.. “Should we have a little talk tonight?”
Such is the life and mind of a piscatorial psychopath. Though I trust I’ve evolved since then. I really don’t give a shit if I catch a fish, unless I don’t catch one for days straight when conditions are prime. I still think the entire idea of fly fishing in general is silly and unproductive in the grand scheme of things. But there is an inherent lapse of modern consciousness that besets those of us who fish, fly or conventional, that tugs at the ancestral portions of our lizard brains and cleanses the senses of everything but the present. And the only thing that can taint that state of mind is getting your crow prechewed for you for almost a month. I’d be one dead caveman if I tacked on my hunting season with this fish slump.
As I continued to creep through the usually snow covered woods I spot my quarry – a bowling pin shaped cove corraled by muddy banks and jutting out in a small curve to the main body of the lake like a witches finger. I pause before breaking out of the confines of the forest to see if anyone was there. This is not a secret spot, but it is in the sense that nobody talks about it away from the confines of the cove. The beaches were clear and there were no footprints going in and out on the normal path, nor on the muddy shore. The sun made a dull glare and a tiny ripple pursed the surface. As the breeze died I could see fish cruising and the white mouths flashing open to feed sub-surface. I crept down as close to the water as I felt comfortable that I wasn’t going to ruin the party and began rerigging my nymph rig to a dry-dropper.
Years ago when my friend Jay and I finally got the pennies together to buy some shitty pre-packaged starter kits and take up fly fishing we made a real go of it right off the bat. Our first time on the water was an underwear and t-shirt wading trip on the Truckee River… in January. We stood in the freezing water for hours flailing about like drunken wizards trying to summon some shitty spell to re-drop our testicles. A boat went by and they almost anchored the damn thing with their jaws. We pounded other local waters for months, just trying to figure it all out on our own. Too young, stubborn, and intimidated to ask for help on the water. We were square peg bait dunkers attempting baptism by fire into a world we deemed unfairly (and later somewhat proved) to be full of dickheads, and it showed.
A short time later Jay somehow managed to catch a few fish on a dry fly (I wasn’t with him, and this was pre-smartphone so I’m still suspect..) and that made me the odd man out. Shortly after this miracle we decided to give a local lake some water lashing. It was early spring and I was so disheartened from the entire experience of trying to force fly fishing through stubborn indignation that I left the sissy stick in the truck and packed my old trusty worm flinging Ugly Stick a quarter mile through the woods to the cove we were going to explore that day, while Jay packed both types of rods. When we broke from the trees into the banks of the tiny cove we saw an old timer fly fishing. He stuck a fish before we could get close enough to say hello to him. We watched in awe as he pulled in a 20″ rainbow and caught another on the next cast. I ran straight up to the truck and grabbed my still virgin 4wt and threw the old worm cannon in the bed. I sprinted down to find him explaining his rig to Jay, and he kindly started over when I arrived. He was a kind older man, probably in his late 60’s, and he took the time to show us exactly how to rig our rods, how to present the rig, and what flies to use – which we didn’t have anything close to. He handed us a half dozen Bird’s Nests in olive, size 16, said good luck, and hiked back out to his car. We were giddy and in a sort of disbelief that a stranger, a capable fly fisherman stranger, would be so kind to two underage dipshit kids half drunk and clueless busting up his private spot.. and then leave it for us. It was a cold cloudy day with periods of light large snowflakes falling like cotton but never really sticking to anything. We rigged our gear to his exact specifications, took position and learned how to roll cast an indicator on a lake. Shortly after my ball of yarn began to travel under the surface, and I lifted the rod to find a snag. Then the snag took off, ripping around the cove, sailing through the air, and generally causing me to shit my pants. That was my first fish on a fly rod, a 16 inch wild rainbow that caused me to leave the worm cannon in the truck more and more. We went back a few more times in the next few weeks with mixed results. One day I went down there and found three guys sitting on lawn chairs with a case of Bud and a can of worms. “How’s it going, mind if I fish the far side?” I asked.
“Go for it, we haven’t had a bite all got-damn day.” It was another snowy cold day, and the fish were all over my Bird’s Nest flies. But I kept breaking them off. One of the bait fisherman, whom I somehow now felt awkward around being so closely removed from the card carrying ranks of worm drowners, said “You gotta play em on a sissy stick, it’s delicate like a lady.” (Idiot’s Notation – In retrospect I should have taken the full brevity of his advice, but that would take another decade to sink in.)
So I stopped trying to crank them in like I did with the worm launcher and landed several fish to my delight. I had a beer with the bait guys and proselytized to them the virtues of my recent conversion. They said they were thinking about it too after watching my Bird’s Nests catch several fish to their zero. After that day I put the worm launcher in the tackle graveyard of my parents garage.
We named the place “Super Secret Cove (By the Road)”, which is accurate. It’s right there, but it’s not. And here I was years later preparing to hit it again after an extended absence and a long overdue slump. It took about 20 minutes for me to key in on the acceptable menu of the hungry trout. After that, and pardon the expression, I knocked the living shit out of them. I went through half a dozen size 22 DW40’s in an hour – from teeth marks and one break off. I chuckled like a Bond villain, I grinned like Kevin Spacey at the end of SE7EN. The piscatorial psychopath had reemerged, my face poking from my beard like Jack through the door in The Shining.
While I was rerigging an old man drifted from the forest and down the bank on the far side of the cove. His steps weren’t labored but they were deliberate. A steady footfall from an experienced creature. I waved and told him what was working. He gave a faint and almost dismissive wave and began casting.
I finished rigging and went about 15 minutes without a fish, as did the old man. The wind returned and the ripples goaded the bastards to feast yet again. I pulled in almost a dozen in 20 minutes. The old man reeled in and sat to peer into his fly boxes.
I half watched him along with my dry fly and tried to remember the old man who set me up here years ago, that devil at the crossroads who sent me down this path. His face and voice drew a blank, a distant vestige destined long ago for the ephemeral dump filled with bad ideas and fleeting strangers. He seemed like the right age when I did the math, and for all I know he could have been the same old timer from years ago. Hell if I would know for certain, but it’s a fun idea to entertain.
After catching my last fish before heading home for dinner, I walked around the cove to talk to him and give him my last WD40. He still hadn’t had a fish yet and I felt guilty for having success in front of him. I don’t like holding court with fleeting machismo fish prowess in front of anyone. Not only because it will turn around and bite you square in the ass someday, but mainly because everybody hates that asshole. Call it “The Canadian Gene” (Hi Peetso!). Regardless if this was the same old timer that did the same favor to me all those years ago or if he was somebody totally different, I was paying it back and forward at the same time.
As I approached him his gaze went beyond me while he looked up from his knot tying. His eyes were that soft blue-gray that doesn’t seem quite human. The eyes of the old grandpa vet in the cemetery in the opening of Saving Private Ryan.
“I’m taking off, here’s what I’ve been using if you want it.”
He finished his knot with a slow pull from his quaking hands. He had a large prince nymph above a size 16 olive Bird’s Nest. He looked up and smiled one corner of his mouth at me, and said he was going to leave soon as well. I opened my palm to hand him the fly anyways and it wasn’t there.
“I can’t see those damn things anyways. Thank you though.”
We shook hands and I started walking into the woods. I stopped a few times to make sure he was really there, slowly looking over my shoulder as the pines swallowed him step by step in my expansive gait.
I cracked a beer at the truck and put on some Robert Johnson.