Skunked

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Hickman casting in the gale. Photo Louis Cahill

Hickman casting in the gale. Photo Louis Cahill

I pour myself a stiff rye whisky and settle in on the couch to watch the rain. I’ve had this coming to me for quite some time.

There are no steelhead rivers in Georgia, or anywhere near Georgia. For me to chase these fish I love usually means spending a minimum of five hours in a middle seat, both ways, and parting with a substantial chunk of the annual fishing budget. I do it every time I get the chance.

I cut my teeth on the tributaries of the Great Lakes, fishing huge garish glow bugs, but once I learned to cast a Spey rod and felt the pull of a wild Pacific steelhead the lake run fish didn’t scratch the itch any longer. There’s nothing wrong with those great fish, I had just moved on. Years later I find myself with a pile of two-handers and a suitcase full of frequent-flier miles. However geographically undesirable, I can’t give up steelhead.

Let’s face it, swinging flies for steelhead is stupid. That’s to say that there are a hundred better ways to catch them. If catching fish is what you care about, fish bait. Ok. Please don’t fish bait but get yourself a box of beads or a handful of egg flies or marabou jigs and tear them up. The guys you see swinging flies are in it for something else. Even though I’m one of them, I’m not sure exactly what.

I can, and have, gotten very romantic about it but I’ll spare you for now. There’s just something about the whole process, the feel of the swing, the elaborate and hopefully beautiful cast, the elegant flies and complex lines and, of course, the grab of the fish that feeds some need I don’t fully understand. I want to catch fish. Desperately sometimes but not so desperately that I pick up the nymph rod. Not because I’m too good for it but because it’s not what I want.

SkunkThe cost of this mania, as anyone who has ever done it knows, is the ever present risk of getting skunked. It’s always right there with you. It’s on the plane next to you. It’s in the boat. It’s low-holing you in every run. It snuggles up next to you in the bed, its awkward boner pressed against your backside. It’s in you dreams. Dreams where suave Disneyesque skunks bring you heart-shaped boxes of goose eggs. From the minute you pick up the long rod with two feet of cork, the skunk is riding shotgun.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth.

Up to now I have never been blanked. I have no explanation, certainly not skill. Call it karma or luck or good fortune, steelhead have always been remarkably generous with me. Even under bad conditions they have rewarded my modest flies, blown casts and poor swings with vicious grabs and blistering runs with a regularity which makes me just a little uncomfortable. Every steelheader knows they are going to be blanked and I have been waiting my turn for some time. It’s kind of been making me crazy. Every time I throw down a wad of cash on a plane ticket and start tying flies that axe lifts up over my head.

***

For three days now the skunk and I have been sitting on a buddy’s couch in coastal Oregon, drinking whisky, petting the dogs and watching it pour rain. We watch the tree limbs dance outside the window. We lay back and watch the drops splatter on the sky light. We stand in the door watching puddles fill and run together and the skunk takes my hand and whispers, “I love you.”

Misery loves company and I have plenty. There are five guys, plus my buddy’s new wife, crammed into the eight-hundred square foot house. Everyone is high or drunk and each of us has strong opinions on topics ranging from catch-and-release and fishing pressure to who’s going to wash the dishes and clean the muddy boot tracks. Everybody’s getting cranky. Survival depends on a sense of humor, a tolerance for liquor and the good sense to clean up after yourself.

By day four, most of the crew has drifted away to work or whatever they are obligated to do on Mondays. That’s when the rain starts to ease up. My buddy and I drive a labyrinth of muddy logging roads searching for some piece of water we can convince ourselves is green. It’s a cocktail of rationalization and boredom, shaken and poured over a handful of desperation, served cold and soaking wet.

We find a small river, swollen and dark but decidedly green, or greenish at least. We string up the shortest rods we have and drop in the raft. We row downstream to the first good run and we’ve already forgotten that we’re hungover. We slide into the rhythm of cast, step, swing and everything else fades away. Everything, that is, except the skunk.

A couple of hours in, we are wading a run that’s chest deep when the sky starts to boil and the wind picks up.

10082_BlackRain starts to pepper my glasses and sting my face. It comes on suddenly. The wind whips ribbons on the water. Thirty miles per hour, forty, gusts of fifty. It blows the raft out of the water and onto the bank. We can barely hold onto the rods. The skunk smiles and takes my hand.

The next morning I drive the 101 up the coast to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. I have one more day of fishing with some friends from Bainbridge Island. We put on at dawn and row down to the first run. I take the lower end and swing some water that I know is too heavy. Finally I reel up and walk around the next bend where I find a nice bucket. I start swinging and lengthening my line and before I have the head fully out of the tip-top I get a solid grab but no hookup.

The rest of the day is casting practice. Late in the afternoon we reach a run that looks promising. The best water we’ve fished all day. I work it relentlessly, meticulously, making long casts and careful swings. I wade deep, almost over my waders. The skunk has to sit on my shoulders. I swing the whole run without so much as a pluck. I’m chilled to the bone.

We row down to the next run and I stay in the boat, trying to warm up. Looking up river I can see another boat floating into the run I just swung. They are fishing indicators and most likely beads. They land a nice fish and stop for a photo. Good for them. Me and the skunk are done. It’s getting dark and I’m too cold to get back in the water.

pewOn the plane home I order two Jack Daniels. One for me and one for my new best friend, the skunk. I settle in for the five hour flight. I plug in my headphones and scroll through the movies. I eat my peanuts. I’ve drawn a big fat blank and what I’ve learned is, it’s not as bad as I thought. It was actually a great trip. I saw some good friends and stood in some beautiful rivers. I guess that’s satisfying but mostly I just feel relieved. I got it over with. Like losing my virginity.

When I get home I already have an email from my buddy in Oregon. “The river is coming back into shape and it’s looking good. You need to come back out.” I do want to catch fish, but not that badly. It feels good to be home and far away from those steelhead. The skunk turns to me and with a smile says, “Let’s go bonefishing!”

 

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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17 thoughts on “Skunked

  1. Good to see the skunk got out west. He was sitting on my shoulders a few weeks back on some of the prettiest DH stream in Dahlonega.

    “Fish always pick up with a light drizzle,” my buddy said.

    The skunk stifled a giggle as I nodded at that.

  2. What a great story. I live in Oregon and have my own friend the skunk. I should have known that he has relatives everywhere.

  3. Nice piece Louis, I laughed. Yesterday, while trying to find a redfish that would eat I hooked a needlefish, or maybe he just got tangled in the leader. First thing out of my mouth, ” At least we got the skunk out of the boat”. Happens everywhere.

  4. Mmmmm- that’s a light skunk in my book. A skunk, yes, but if you’d flown across the country, had fishable conditions the whole time, swung for long days with little break, and still fish less…. well, then you’d have the full-on, deep in your gut (soul?), skunk.

    Or fished your home water, several days running, or maybe weeks, and no fish despite decent conditions- a skunk deep in your formerly confident core.

    And you’d still know there’s no other way you really want to fish for steelhead, despite the bobber guy with the fish.

    Good read. Enjoyed it a bunch.

  5. You nailed it again. I would rather catch fish… That being said, if you can’t find the satisfactions in just being out there and the feel of a good cast, then you may want to reassess what you do with your free time. Take up golf or something. Give the rest of us more breathing room on the water. After reading this, I feel I need a new sticker mixed in with all the fishing stickers on the back window of the truck…There should be a skunk on every true fisherman’s back window. It’s more common then the fish sometimes.

  6. Great story. I decided long ago to befriend my skunk. It’s always, “Hey, nice to see you again! Where’ve ya been? Long time no talk to….” Better to gracefully greet the skunk than be sour about seeing him.

  7. Fun read. The skunk usually hangs out with me, I only pray he has moved on and found someone else to hang out with… somehow even if he ended up with you, I’m sure you will usher him along quickly.

  8. The skunk comes along every season, not often but enough to keep me on my toes.. I fish the Montana streams for cut throat, brown and other assorted fish. It is really amazing to get the first fish… whew..

  9. The next step is knocking the stink of the skunk off that rod! Sometimes that takes a while. But catching a fish on the rod usually does the trick.

  10. Great read! So that’s the name of that cute little animal following me all my recent trips. Appears we have them in Ukraine, too. Lots of them.

  11. Skunks keep reminding us that the fish or deer or grouse, etc should have the advantage. If we all caught or shot something everytime we went out it might just get a little boring.

    Great article!

  12. Louis, Sorry I missed you down on the coast. We were literally 100yds away from you that exact same weekend. Sometimes you just gotta sip down that whiskey and thank god you’re on the beautiful OR coast with some amazing people. (embrace the skunk) We earned some good karma points from that trip! Cheers!

  13. Louis,

    From someone who lives in North Carolina and travels to Idaho / Washington……I have seen, heard, felt , smelled and tried to wash off all of what you describe. I thought I was the only one.

    Welcome to the party pal !!!!!

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