By Louis Cahill
After a year of recovery I tentatively made my first step into a trout stream.
I can not tell you how good it feels to be back on my feet, and for those feet to be cold and wet. I have fished a few times since getting back on my feet from multiple eye surgeries, but only from a boat. Fishing from a boat was a good way to start. I could work on getting my casting back and start figuring out how to drop my fly where I want it, without depth perception. At first I had to put a piece of black tape on the lens of my glasses over my bad eye. Without the tape my cast was wild. It could go anywhere, like watching someone else cast. Eventually my brain started to learn to use the left eye and ignore the right, which had always been dominant. Now I can cast without the tape and my accuracy gets better every day.
“Fortunately, I like a challenge.” I’ve said that a hundred times, half in jest, as I struggle to do things that used to be second nature. Things like pouring a beer, you know, actually into the glass rather than all over the floor. Fly fishing, it turns out, has just a few more moving parts. I’ve met those challenges pretty well so far but it isn’t the casting or mending or the tedious tying on of flies that has been the most challenging, or at least the most daunting. Wading it seems is my new nemesis.
It’s really hard to explain my new vision.
It isn’t just that one eye doesn’t work. I think that would be fairly straight forward. I have vision in my right eye, it’s just the kind of vision you might expect in a german impressionist horror film or a cubist painting. Yes, it’s fuzzy and unfocused, but it’s also wildly distorted and doesn’t line up with my left eye so everything is double. It gets weirder though. I also see a lot of stuff that isn’t there. I can actually see some of the scarring of my retina, like bright etched lines across dark spaces. There are also hundreds of tiny bubbles in the oil that fills my eye. I see those, and the scarring, even when my eye is closed. Weirder still is the trick my bad macula plays on me. Anything I look directly at disappears. I look away and it comes back, look at it and its gone again.
Try to imagine seeing all of that overlaid, but not lined up with, your normal vision and no depth perception, and think about stepping into a trout stream without busting your ass. That makes me more that a little nervous, especially about fishing alone. I can easily see myself taking a header on a sharp rock, or just wandering off and never finding the truck again. Fortunately, I have friends who are willing to put up with me and it’s a horse I’m determined to get back on, so last week I took that first step back into the water.
It was fitting that I make that first wee trip with my buddy Gary Lacey. Not only a dear friend, it was Gary who taught me to make bamboo rods so many years ago, which was ultimately responsible for rekindling my love of fly fishing and led me to where I am today. Over the last two years Gary had health issues of his own and was unable to walk or use his hands for some time. Fortunately, he is on the mend but I wasn’t sure what shape I’d find him in, though I was sure we’d make quite a pair on the river.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Gary seemingly his old self. Precocious, full of piss and vinegar, and busy in the shop making bamboo rods, classic S-handle reels and even repairing an antique violin and a 19th century shotgun. He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t leave your dog with for fear he’d take it apart to see how it works. I’ve never seen anything he couldn’t figure out and, if you gave him the time, he’d probably make a better dog. We spent so much time looking at cool old stuff in Gary’s shop, it was after lunch before we headed to the river.
Gary’s tackle bad was a plastic shopping bag from Academy Sports. He struggled into a pair of shiny new waders and the funkiest boots I’ve ever seen.
“You like my Star Trek boots?” he asked?
“When I thought I was never going to be able to fish again, I gave all my gear to my grandson. Everything! Even my flies and my vise too. Gods got a sense of humor though and thats when I started to get better. I started looking through my stuff and I didn’t have anything. I must of given that little dude $5000 worth of gear!”
Out of a battered old aluminum tube he produced a beautiful old F.E. Thomas seven foot four weight bamboo rod.
“I see you didn’t give him everything,” I said.
“Well no, not everything. That’s the best four weight ever made, bar none.”
Quite a statement coming from Gary, not only because he knows his rods but because he makes one of the best four weights I’ve ever fished and don’t think he doesn’t know it. Just try suggesting otherwise and you’ll see the Texan come out in him. I brought out a four weight bamboo rod based on a Payne 98 taper, the very first one I had made with Gary. He recognized it instantly, though he hadn’t seen it in over twenty years. I can’t count the number of fish I’ve caught on that rod but I put it away years ago for fear of breaking it. I have no shortage of fly rods and even have two Gary made but I knew this was the one I wanted to fish today.
We had chosen a well known public stream that gets plenty of attention for it’s easy access and proximity to Gary’s house. The road was lined with pickup trucks and kids with stringers of fish. It always makes Gary happy to see a kid with a stringer of fish. He’s probably a better person than I am. It would make me a lot happier to see a kid who understood the importance of catch-and-release but streams like this serve a purpose. The stockers take the pressure off the wild trout streams and I guess if it gets kids into fishing that’s not the worst thing. Still, I find it hard to look at a stringer of dead trout. I remember how many there used to be and how hard they are to find now.
In the first run I wasted no time catching a warpaint shiner on a dry fly.
I took some ribbing for that, as I expected. Gary likes to do his own thing, so he struck off downstream and I fished up. The stream was pretty easy to wade. I danced a few times but my feet remembered how to find the solid spots without the help of my eyes. I thank my lucky stars I’m not learning this from scratch. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing. I fished about a hundred yards of stream without finding a fish, which was fine. I was eyeing a nice deeper pool fifty feet upstream when I heard a diesel motor and clattering of a truck coming up from behind. The big green truck pulled over and a guy with a net tossed a load of fresh rainbows in the deep pool. I laughed and said to myself out loud, “I guess that’s how we’re doing it.”
The poor little guys huddled up in the tail out like a bunch of new kids on the first day of school. I figured if there was a time in my life to embrace humility, its now. I dropped a fly in front of the pod of knuckle heads and started sore lipping them. I had forgotten how soft the tip of that bamboo rod is and the first couple didn’t stick. After that they got properly educated. I caught all but a couple of them before it started to rain in ernest and I figured I should check on Gary. Maybe a few of those fish lived to see a second day on account of their prompt education. Maybe not.
I found Gary in a run below a bridge, fishing to a very similar pod of confused ten inch rainbows and we had a laugh about our fly fishing prowess and what a great bunch of guys the Georgia DNR are. They must have heard we weren’t catching any fish and brought us some. There was just enough time to walk back to the truck, have a beer and me make it home before dark, another new provision my eyes have put on my fishing. Not an epic story or a hard core day of fishing but just what I needed.
It felt really good to wear my wading boots and stand in cold water. It felt really good to fish a homemade rod with an old friend, and I have to tell you, epic or not, it feels really damned good to have a fishing story to tell.Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!