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Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing

By Mark Nickerson

I knew it was going to be a special day as Dries and I walked to the river. Not because it was New Year's Day or the first day of the rest of my life, or any of that schmaltzy, Oprah Winfrey stuff. Not even because the river had that dulcet, green glint that whispered of the possibility of steelhead. No, it was because Dries didn't have a rod with him. And he knew it. I could tell by the little smile trembling at the corner of his Fu Manchu. So, assuming Dries wasn't surreally cocooned in the aftermath of a really, really good New Year's Eve bash, I figured I was going to be enlightened or amused. Either way the day was bound to be special.

Now anyone who knew Dries knew how much he revered his bamboo collection. While his moniker bespoke of his love for the dry fly, that obsession was inextricably wed to his passion for old cane. A trip to the water with Dries always held the added mystery of his Cane-For-The-Day selection. Would it be the hollowbuilt E.C. Powell big stick for steelies? The elegant little Leonard for tossing 22 Adams at the spooky trout on Carbon Flats? Or maybe 'my favorite' the Paul Young Para 15 cannon he sometimes packed to fire big caddis at equally big trout on the Lower Sac? Whatever, it was hard to picture Dries without also seeing one of those beautiful old rods arcing languidly through the morning mist. And here he was, marching to the river, replete in waders, vest and boots and nary a rod in sight. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

As we deployed at the river, I deferred to Dries, as I was in the habit of doing, and silently surrendered the better run. We both seemed to take this for granted. I was never sure quite why I did this, but it did afford me the opportunity to psychoanalyze myself while managing my drift. Today, though, it seemed especially galling to surrender the best run because it didn't appear that Dries was going to make especially good use of it. As it turns out, I was a little less than half right.

It didn't take long for me to rig my ten foot, seven weight and start working my spruce fly deep through some beautiful holding water, and for those few moments I almost forgot my eccentric partner. Like most fly fish junkies there was little - short of a dead body floating downstream - that was likely to interfere with that first, holy communion with a favorite stream. And if the steelhead were in, well - forget that corpse. So when I finally looked upstream and spied Dries I froze as stiff as a lake trout yanked from an ice hole in a blizzard and tossed aside for later cleaning.

He had assumed what I took to be a perfect lotus position in about a foot or so of water. Well, I guess it was an 'almost' perfect lotus because his hands were outstretched as though he were holding a good-sized fish for a 'grab & grin.' Any chanting or "oooohm-ing" that might have accompanied this posture was blessedly redirected on an upstream breeze and will forever remain a mystery. Increasingly, the word interesting appeared not to have been the perfect descriptor for this New Year's Day. Portentous, or Kafka-esque, were beginning to seem a more appropriate fit.

Dries had never struck me as an aesthetic. Sure, he was European and had some of those eccentricities we Yanks associate with Euros. He smoked like a coal plant chimney, lathered mayonnaise on fries and thought bicycle racing was cool, but I was a Left Coaster myself and had known more than my share of free spirits. As I tried to connect the dots on this one, there was a slight pause in my drift and my predatory instincts instantly took control of the wheel. The pause became a sharp jolt and I fed a loop of line to the armed torpedo headed away from me at detonation speed. When I set the hook against the downstream run a dark back exploded from its liquid lair and twisted round to reveal a dazzling, platinum belly. "Get a good look," the fish seemed to shout, " 'cuz this is all you're gonna get, cousin. How about the pink cheeks? Did you get a gander at those?" And with that, the line went slack and my steelhead mania instantly metamorphosed into its inevitable Janussian counterpart: steelhead depression.

It was then that I looked upstream and saw the fish wriggling in the lotused Dries' outstretched hands.

Dumbstruck! I'd gone from high to low, and back to high again in seconds. Thank God there was no sugar in my system yet! Couldn't have survived it. If I'd had my cell phone I'd surely have called the Vatican and asked for two priests: one for validating miracles and one for exorcisms. I'd let it be their call as to which one they sent. There was no mistaking it though - that fish, or its twin, was firmly but gently in the grasp of my fishing partner. I fumbled for my digital camera as I stumbled upstream. The beatific smile on Dries' face and the gleam in his eyes were as other-worldly as the situation itself.

"Damn," I muttered, "why doesn't somebody make one of these things with a zoom lens that real people can afford?!" It never occurred to me in that manic moment that any image I might capture would be of a very ordinary looking fly fisher in a slightly unordinary pose clutching his momentary trophy. But I had to have it. And I did. No sooner had I recorded my (his?) miracle than the steelie was gone and Dries' hands were as empty as the sad, outstretched fingers of a starving African child. Now that was a Kodak moment!

As my trembling hands switched the camera to view mode, Dries rose to his feet and reached for his bedroll (where had that come from?!). Yes, it was there! The fish was there!! Dries was slowly walking away from the river and into the receding morning mist. My brain had shattered into a thousand satellites, each spinning its own hypothesis. He'd had a rod stashed in the bushes. No, he was sitting near a spawning bed and the trout's protective nature allowed him to scoop it up. An accomplice? No, Dries had evolved to another level of fly fishing - from no indicators, to no weight, to no nymphs, to no hooks, to no rod - Wait, run that last one by me again. I turned to the form that was almost a shadow now and all I could think to blurt was: "Dries, now that you've got this no-rod thing going, can I have the Paul Young Para 15?" The reply that drifted back was devoid of its familiar European accent and sounded strangely Asian. "Cain. My name is Cain now (or was it Cane?)."

I took that as a yes.

I still have that photo of my old fishing partner. It's funny how soft and round he looks. And the inner peace - I'd never noticed that before. I'm sure he's happy wherever he is. And when he attains that next level, I bet he won't even need the grab and grin shots anymore. Me? I'm still trying to master that parabolic action of the Paul Young. ~ Mark Nickerson

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