If The River Was Whisky

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A Cold Day On The Oak. Photo by Louis Cahill

A Cold Day On The Oak. Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

“If the river was whisky and I was a diving duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” – Muddy Waters.

Whisky and fly fishing just seem to go together. I’m certainly guilty of carrying a flask of rye on the river from time to time. I toasted my first Pacific Steelhead with a nice sip of Red Breast, courtesy of my buddy Jeff Hickman. I confess, I’m having a bit of Ardbeg as I write this.

I joined some friends for a weekend in North Carolina this fall and found my buddy Mike had just shy of two hundred bottles of scotch whisky behind the bar. Most of them way better than I’m used to. I slept like a baby in my hammock, on the porch that night and woke to find that I had stuffed my keys and wallet into my boots. I only do that when I have the suspicion that I’m on my way to doing something stupid.

Most of the river drinking I’ve experienced isn’t that classy. I remember fondly one incredibly cold day on the Oak Orchard with Kent Klewein and Charlie Murphy when we passed a bottle of cheap bourbon against the cold. The three of us shared a long run, the guy at the head taking a drink and tossing the bottle into the river to float down to the next. As we stepped down the run, the last to drink would walk back to the head and start the parade again.

At this point I probably sound like a stumbling drunk, but I really don’t drink that much. Especially when I’m fishing. I’m either not a good enough drunk or a good enough angler to do both well at the same time. I have one buddy who carries his own cooler on the boat and drinks two dozen beers on a float. He fishes just as well on his last cast as the first, and he’s damned good. Not everyone is like that.

Things got interesting on the boat one afternoon when my buddy passed out cold on the oars. We almost T-boned a log before I could run back and stomp the anchor. I had to pry his hands off the sticks and pull him out of the seat. I fished from the rower’s seat the rest of the afternoon. I couldn’t wake him up to run shuttle so I had to leave him ass-up across the cooler and take an Uber to get the truck.

Another friend I fished with regularly changed completely after he had a drink. Nicest guy you’d ever meet sober but one drink of liquor and he wanted to fight. A couple of times I had to physically subdue him. It eventually meant we couldn’t fish together any more. It still makes me sad.

Sometimes for better and sometimes worse, it seems that fly fishing and whisky are stuck with each other. No judgments from me. Just know your limits and keep things safe on the water. If you have any funny stories about your own shenanigans, please share them in the comments.

Stay thirsty my friends!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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9 thoughts on “If The River Was Whisky

  1. Hey Louis
    You couldn’t be more right about whiskey and fly fishing. That’s why I recently started a blog called Whiskey River Chronicle. I am a full time distiller and a part time fly fishing guide on the Guadalupe River. If you ever find yourself in the Texas Hill country look me up and we can tighten some lines while we tie one on.

    May your rod always be bent and your whiskey straight.
    Davin Topel

  2. The best part of carrying a flask of whiskey on the river is to toast a fish! Nothing tastes better to me for breakfast than a sip of whiskey after landing a nice steelhead at first light! Although not usually superstitious, I feel it is very important to give the river the first-sip out of the flask as a show of respect and gratitude.

  3. I told my wife that when I die I want her to cremate me and spread my ashes in the Missouri River. Then every Memorial Day pour some Jim Beam bourbon or single malt scotch in the river for me.

    Then there was the time a buddy of mine and I anchored on my favorite dry fly flat. We had some time to kill before the hatch would come off so we pulled out my bottle of Jim Beam and stated drinking. When the time came to exit the boat and start fishing I discovered I had a little to much to drink. I am not a strong wader to start with and my wading was a bit less stable than usual. All ended well with some fish caught and no need for my wife to execute the above instructions. Once again I cheated death and a lesson was learned.

    I always have a supply of cigars and most times bourbon when ever I go fishing. Just wouldn’t be the same without them. If you are ever on the Missouri in Montana and come across a white haired old guy smoking a cigar feel free to say hi, it’s probably me.

  4. Hmmm… There could be so many.. one of the fondest was of me and a buddy sipping whiskey to the point we got pretty toasted, We ended up standing on fallen oak maybe 5 feet above the lil mtn stream we were fishing roll casting to tiny brook trout with huge bushy stimulators because its all we could tie on with any certainty. Just laughing at the takes until the Whiskey was gone….

    The most embarrassing involved too much apple pie moonshine + way too many Bells Two Hearted… I set the hook but eventually broke off l a big brown, well over 30″ ( this was the guides estimate as it was late into the night with only the moon light to aid our sight. I was just casting to sound and the dark circles of a huge rises). This all occurred during one of the most prolific Hex Hatches I’ve ever seen up on the Ausable in Northern Michigan. We were in the stretch just above the pond. I was running 0x on 5wt that was double over because of the fishes weight. I think about that lost fish every day. Slow reactions and poor decision making allowed big fish get underneath the hull of a “sweet” wooden drift boat, ultimately pinching the leader.. I think about losing that fish at some point every single day since and it happened 3 years ago…..

    Funny thing about drinking a boat, it doesn’t really hit you until you try and walk on land, or lose a MONSTER…. Needless to say I made a complete ass out of myself screaming out profanity in the river and in the dark of the night… Not at the guide or anything like that, because the fault was mine and mine alone… Its just that the reality of what happened just continued to sink in deeper and deeper… Not good…
    but heck… Fished up at Fern Valley with a flask of good bourbon last week…. Stay thirsty and know your limits….

  5. A friend introduced me to the writings of Robert Traver.
    He has an essay called the Testament of a Fisherman.
    It includes a phrase, “because bourbon out of an old tin cup tastes better out there;”
    We always used old tin cups after we got off the river.
    We got to enjoy both venues that way.

    As mentioned in a previous comment, my friend wanted me to pour a tin cup over his grave once a year before I started the fishing year. I asked him if he minded if I drank it first?

  6. I’ve been reading your blog for years now and enjoy the discourse immensely, rarely disagreeing and hardly ever feeling charged sufficiently to criticize but this time is an exception. Whiskey and fly fishing indeed seem to go together and I too have carried a flask though most often popping the cork on the ride back to the dock, lodge or campsite. I too appreciate fine whisky and have tossed down too many on a fitting occasion. I’ve also gotten too loud and at least verbally aggressive a time or two as a result.

    I think you failed to pay attention to the risks alcohol can pose on any “incredibly cold day” and I appreciated your qualifying matters by explaining that you’re not a stumbling drunk but you honor your buddy who downs 24 beers on a float failing to recognize his risky alcohol dependence. He might be a good fisher and hopefully does not drive home or pilot the boat but he drinks way too much and needs to recognize that his drinking is not to be laughed off by his own report or justified by your reporting it. I too have a buddy who drinks that much and I do not fail to let him know that I think he shouldn’t.

    Neither your friend nor mine “fishes just as well on his last cast” with all that alcohol as he might were he to sober up. Was it this same buddy who “[P]assed out cold on the oars?” What else had he had to drink? T-boning a log is dangerous enough but picture your buddy in his impaired state in the water maybe with a leg pinned in some webbing or rope. Fisherman drown even when sober. Leaving a buddy ass up over the cooler or having to defend against assault are more than warning signs!

    These are NOT “funny stories.”

  7. Louis,

    I loved the story about the Oak. I’ve fished it in October for about the past 4 or 5 years, and almost always toast the browns and steelies with a nice bourbon and a fine cigar.

    Somehow, this seems to be a fine part of fly fishing – no matter what the stream, when or where you fish.

    Please keep up these fine reflections!


  8. Eparf. Sounds like your lines aren’t the only thing that’s kept “tight”. Thou shall not judge. Last thing I prefer to do is fish with someone who feels he needs to preach to me what’s right and wrong.

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