Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Sunday, July 7, 2013


The longer I live--and I'm now in my 75th year--the more things seem to come around.  I am not talking meta-revolutions here (the kind of biblical "To every thing there is a season" or Eliade's myth of eternal return) so much as mini-revolutions.  Strike indicators provide one appropriately diminutive example.

When my father and I would go fishing together in New Canaan, CT, in the late 1940's, he'd leave his Leonard bamboo fly rod behind and instead take two bamboo poles about 10' long.  These were more than twice my height as a nine-year-old.  The rig was straightforward:  tied to the tip of the pole was a hard-finished line, rather like a salt-water hand line, if those are still made, some 10-15 feet long, that was wound around the tip of the pole.  A reel was therefore unnecessary.  A length of monofilament perhaps three or four feet long was knotted to the line, and a cork was then sliced partway through and attached to the leader.  I can't recall where Dad got the corks, but I suspect any wine or whiskey cork would have served.  Three or so feet below the cork bobber was the hook.  I believe these were snelled hooks with little barbs to help keep the worms on the hook.  It was my job to dig the worms for bait and put them together in a can with some moist dirt (my mother always had a supply of cans from cooking in those days before home freezers and frozen food had become popular).  The cork would be adjusted according to the estimated depth of the water where we fished:  the idea was the cork would float on the surface and thereby keep the worm just off the bottom.  When the bobber jiggled in the water, that meant a fish was biting the worm, so you'd strike and hook the fish.

Fully rigged, we'd walk off to a nearby pond.  It's odd how habits get established:  Dad always, always, carried his cane pole pointing forward; I, following behind, always carried mine pointing backwards.  Even at age 9, I thought my carrying method superior:  Dad had to thread his tip carefully through the brush and trees, while my method required no effort whatsoever.  And to this day, I carry my fly rod with the tip pointing behind me.

All of these recollections came back to me a few days ago, when my fishing partner Jim Caldwell and I anchored his pontoon raft on the Big Horn River in MT and got out to fish from the bank.  Our equipment was rather more advanced technologically than the cane poles my father and I took to a nearby pond--Jim prefers a Sage SP 5-wt with a Lamson reel, while I was using a Winston 6-wt with a Sage reel.  (And, just in case anyone reading this does not know the difference between a fishing rod and fishing pole, it's about $500-600.)

But a foot or so down my leader was a white Thingamabobber.  Below that was an AB size split shot (tin, not lead, I might add), and below that was a red annelid worm imitation, size 16, on a 4X tippet and below that a second fly even smaller, like a zebra midge or a sow bug, in size 18 or 20, tied to a 5X tippet.  The casting was entirely different, of course.  With a cane pole, you'd gently lob the worm out as far as you could.  You had to be gentle, or the worm would fly off the hook.  With the fly rod, you had much more freedom, not to mention relatively greater distance, but again, if the timing was too fast, you'd wind up with a ferocious tangle.  Yet the principle was exactly the same.  When the bobber moved, you struck.  There's a lot of moss in the Big Horn, and one soon learns to distinguish the slight hesitation of the fly hooking the moss from the take of a fish.  Among other differences, the take of the fish this trip was jolting to the point of being scary.  Whether browns or rainbows, they would just smash the fly while you tried to hang on.  That excitement was intense and gratifying.  It was the reason we had driven up from Laramie, WY, to Fort Smith, MT, to drift the Big Horn.  As I look back over the years, however, I'm not sure it was any more intense or gratifying than striking when that cork bobber moved so that the yellow perch or bluegill sailed out of the water in a symmetrical half circle to thump on the bank behind us. 

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