Fear And Loathing On The Water

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

When things go badly, you’ve got to stay positive and turn your trip around.

The sky is clear. Mangrove leaves glow in early morning sun. Dirty brown water floods the mud flats of Delacroix, Louisiana. I take in the view from the poling platform while struggling to move the boat against a twenty MPH wind. The last few days have been challenging, to say the least. We’ve battled the thunderstorms and wind, poor light and water clarity, and today the water temperature has dropped ten degrees. We were chased out of Venice when the Mississippi rose nine feet and landed here, where at least we know a couple of spots. The whole trip has been a mess and I’ve spent most of it on the platform. On the morning of this, the third day, I have only landed one redfish and I’m looking to turn things around.

I pole the boat into a sweet looking spot where the lee of a small island meets the mouth of a creek. It looks too good to not hold fish. My buddies Scott and Daren have given up on their fly rods and gone over to the dark side, throwing spoons and jigs on gear rods. Daren fires a cast into the creek and Scott casts to the island. Both lines come tight and we have a legitimate double in the first thirty minutes of fishing. My shoulders relax and I think that today things just might turn around. I spin the push pole in my hands and sink the point into the soft bottom to hold the boat while my friends land their fish. That’s when I hear a loud snap and the pole is suddenly free in my hand.

There’s no managing a flats boat in strong wind with a broken push pole. We spend most of day three riding back to the dock, driving a half hour to the nearest hardware store and fixing the pole. By afternoon, when we return to the flats, things have changed and there isn’t a redfish to be found. I blind cast wildly to fishy looking water while a pounding rises in my ears. My frustration becomes palpable and my casting sloppy. We call the day around 3:30 when the boats wiring starts acting up. I ride back to the dock in a state of self loathing. Voices of negativity singing choruses in my head. Feeling sorry for myself like a little bitch.

Just a week earlier I was swinging flies for steelhead on the Deschutes river in Oregon. Conditions were tough there too. I’d taken my friend Andy Bowen for his first west coast steelhead trip, to learn how to cast a two hander and swing flies from Jeff Hickman, who taught me. Andy was on the board early with two nice fish. His first, a wild buck, handed him his ass early in the fight, almost spooling him. The look on Andy’s face was priceless. He kept his cool and, with constant coaching from Jeff, landed the fish.

It was a perfect first steelhead experience. I always choose my words carefully when I talk about steelhead. Especially with friends who’ve fished the Great Lakes area with jigs and egg patterns. I never say things like, “Those fish aren’t steelhead” or “Nymphing isn’t steelheading.” Those are fighting words, divisive by nature. But nothing makes me happier than to see the light come on for another angler. The shared experience, the silent look we pass between us that says, I will never go back.

We celebrate Andy’s induction that night with rye whisky under the stars. With stories and laughter and the warmth of friendship gathered round us in the cold night air. The next morning, things have changed and the fish are not so generous. That night there’s whisky and friends and stories but it is not lost on me that I am halfway through the trip and still without a fish.

If there is a type of fishing that is not about catching fish, steelheading is it. I’ve heard stories about guys getting blanked for years. Swinging tirelessly without a pull, season after season. I can’t imagine that and I don’t think I could do it. I couldn’t keep the faith, stay at it year after year and keep my confidence. For me there could only be one conclusion drawn. I suck and I should quit.

I’m no champion Spey caster or wizard at the vise. I don’t have lucky charms spewing out of my ass. I work hard on the water and I have had a fair amount of luck. I’m not superstitious but it makes my blood cold just to type these words.

I have never been blanked on a steelhead trip.

There, I’ve said it and my fear is that it the equivalent of stepping onto a boat in the keys and saying, “Gee, the wind isn’t bad today!” I’ll probably never catch another steelhead in my life.

What every steelheader knows is, the goose egg is always out there for them. It’s like buying a motorcycle. It’s not a question of if you will crash it, only when. I’ve had my bike crash. Several in fact and been damned lucky to have walked away. At least once I shouldn’t have and now I’m good. Don’t need to do that again, ever. I ride like an old man. But steelhead are a different story. That goose egg is still out there for me and I know it’s only a matter of time.

The afternoon of the third day on the Deschutes my line comes tight at the end of one of my favorite runs. It’s a hatchery male and quite possibly the smallest steelhead I’ve ever caught and I am happy beyond words to hold him gently in the water for a moment. Here in the Pacific Northwest, at least, I am still in the favor of the fish gods. Humbly blessed and penitent.

In spite of my fears and insecurities, I stayed positive and the trip to the Deschutes ended up being quite wonderful. I spent some great time hanging out with Jeff, who I consider not just a friend but a mentor as well. I saw Andy get his first steelhead in classic fashion. I drank rye whisky and stared up at the Milky Way. And yes, I caught steelhead.

At the end of the last day Jeff put me in a run where he never fishes clients. A treacherous wade in fast chest-deep water flowing into a class four rapid. A dangerous and beautiful place where the toughness of steelhead and the frailty of men is self evident. A place no guide would, or should ever put a client but Jeff understood that I needed to pitch my way out of the inning. I needed to battle the forces of nature. I needed to prove something.

Jeff waited in the boat, anchored where he could come after me if something went wrong. I cast, and stepped and several times the water lifted me and turned those steps into wild scrambles but I held on and fished through the run. The fish came in the last thirty yards of fishable water, just above the rapid. Jeff pulled the anchor and started over to help me land the fish but he saw me working my way into an eddy behind a boulder and working the fish hard in the heavy water, and he backed off and let me have the moment. I landed the fish there on my own and released it there behind the boulder. It slipped into the current and was gone.

I caught two fish in three days. Neither of them was anything like a trophy, at least by size and yet I went home feeling fulfilled. Full of love for fly fishing and steelhead and a life outdoors. I never punished myself for a second over the days I blanked. In fact, I almost wished I had, odd as that might sound. I guess some part of me thinks I’ll never be a true steelheader until I’ve struck out.

So what’s my problem with redfish? Why am I beating myself up for catching only one fish on a disaster riddled trip during bad weather? Is it my expectations? Is it my ego? Is it a bad attitude?

All of the above. Each of us hold a healthy dose of self doubt in our heart. Sometimes it pushes us to work harder. Sometimes it makes us melt down. Sometimes it makes us behave like an asshole. We all fail. Every last one of us. Because we are human and we are flawed. We struggle and sometimes we rise to the occasion and sometimes we crash and burn but none of us is immune to failure.

It’s not by our successes that we should be judged, nor by our failures should we judge ourselves. It is rather how we react that determines who we are. How humble we are in success and how studious we are in failure. And forgiving, of ourselves and of others. Success comes to the crooked and immoral as well as the just. It favors the foolish and lucky. It is fickle and undiscerning. It seldom chooses its friends wisely. Failure is diligent and never rests. It stalks its companions. It comes to us like a friend in our time of need. It doesn’t bring easy answers, but hard lessons. It teaches us and it gives us the opportunity to prove ourselves.

I’m glad I had a tough trip to Louisiana. I’m glad I spent the best part of the trip on the platform, putting my friends on fish. That’s what I needed. A lesson. Next time I go to Delacroix, I’ll have a better perspective. A better attitude. Less ego. I’ll go to Louisiana and fish like a steel header.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Fear And Loathing On The Water

  1. Louis, Jeff in Oregon here:

    Enjoyed reading about your experiences and thinking to myself that we’ve all had days that nothing seems to go right. Especially if there is anything like a boat involved. 🙂

    I swing flies with a two hander for steelhead, mainly on the Rouge River, the Sixes River, the Elk River, the Umpqua River, and the Coquille River in southwest Oregon. I’ve had a day here and there that I got the goose egg and it sure isn’t unusual with steelhead. I have a friend who I fish with occasionally who had 61 days out without even hooking up on a steelhead. When we were fishing together I would let him fish a run ahead of me and he would come up empty. I would come along behind him and maybe hook up with 3 or 4 steelhead in the same run. Go figure. It was really starting to work on him, but to his credit he hung in there and the worm finally turned. Swinging for steelhead can indeed be humbling at times. Bushmills helps get through the humbling times. 🙂

  2. Louis: No matter how many times I tell myself “it’s the journey” or how good it is to be on the water or how beautiful my surroundings are or how tough conditions are, I really want to succeed and to me that’s catching fish. Do I need to understand that the more I ratchet up the difficulty factor in limiting my equipment used or type of fish I am seeking, I will have days when my skills are not enough? A skunking can be due to the eagerness of the fish, but it could just be luck or the confluence of factors for that day. So, should I learn to be easier on myself? If I did ease up, would I keep striving to get even better? Would I give up on adjustments in flies and tactics? Nope, I will not give up that easily. I am going to continue to want it bad and keep trying to succeed. Just like you, my friend. That is not a bad thing.

  3. Your second last paragraph could be the most amazing thing you have written imo. I’ve read a lot of it and it is a very high bar. Stunningly impressive. Keep it up, thanks for blogging.

  4. What a brilliant article. I think that is the best you have written., every word tearing at the heart of us fly fishers because it fits us like a glove too. As I head off to New Zealand South Island in a couple of months, I will be keeping these words in mind. Last year I was skunked 6 days out of 12, and tHen the only good fish was on the last day in the last hour. I’m definitely not confident, but I’ll try be positive.

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