By Calvin McShane
We had no business being on the stream. The water was high — dangerously so. October blended into 31 days of rain; the sandy soil of the Eastern U.P. became a waterlogged sponge. When Jack called and asked about the prospect of his steelhead trip, I withheld much of the truth. I think I said something like, “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad; this rain has had to move some fish in.” Of course, it had moved some fish in, but would we be able to locate those fish in flooded, dirty and surging water? Maybe.
A week and a few more days of rain later, the thermostat in my car read 26 degrees around 5 a.m. Jack and I split a thermos of coffee and a package of gas station doughnuts as my Tacoma crawled through water holes and washed out roads until we arrived at the stream somewhere around sunrise. We parked, donned waders, took our final sips of coffee and peaked out over a tall bank to survey the river. Jack was skeptical — “Looks high,” he said. I shook it off, told him it’s always this high in late October (it never is) and all we can do is fish and see what happens.
We were standing in the remnants of a not-so-long-ago forest fire. The open landscape, out of place for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was beautiful and life-affirming. What looked bleak years ago is now vibrant with growth, crawling with sharp-tailed grouse and houses and, from the looks of it, some sizeable whitetails. The river, on the other hand, was well out of its banks, dark, intimidating and skewing otherwise picturesque scenery. Our first fishable run was a wide curve, where the deepest part is a trough in between where we stood and the opposite bank. I told Jack, “Now, your intuition says to cast as far as you can, but don’t. The sweet spot is right in the middle, the first ripple, where that fast water meets this slower stuff. If fish have moved in, they’ll be right there. I’m telling you.” As I said this, I made sure to sound as confident as possible. In reality, we were standing knee-deep in a patch of tag alders usually a foot above the waterline, and my fishing sensibilities were in total panic. He waded out a bit further, just to his naval, stripped out 20 yards of 10lb mono and pitched his spawn bag and lead into the first ripple. A few moments later, he felt that oh-so-particular pause, snapped back on his 8wt and had his reel singing.
“How the hell did you know that?” Jack asked.
“Magic.” But what I felt like saying was dumb luck.
I often think about what it means to be a great fisherman or woman. I don’t mean someone who is good at fishing. I mean someone who IS an angler. Fishing is part of their identity. The kind of person who can catch fish in a bathtub. The criteria is high; you should think on it for a bit before you bestow this title on someone haphazardly. When I think of great fishermen or women I know, I notice a few things.
First, they have a knack for finding free time — true connoisseurs of sneaking out of work an hour or two early. Second, they care just as much about the trees, water quality, terrain, etc. as they do about the fish. They get the big picture. And third, which I happen to find most important, they have home water. They aren’t the type of people who ride other’s coattails. Rarely are they the ones being taken out for a trip; that is to say, they do most of the taking.
Now, these great anglers are great replicators. They regularly replicate earlier successes in a variety of conditions. What appears to be magic, isn’t magic at all. I started to put this thought together as I watched Jack walk the tightrope with that acrobatic fall steelhead I mentioned before. It got me thinking that maybe I’m not as dumb as I had thought. I have fished up and down this river nauseatingly over the years, spending many days fishless in much better conditions. But in the past when I’ve struck gold, I’ve never forgotten the details. Cold night, fresh rain, four feet of water, egg yolk bead, five Hail Marys — you know, the important stuff. This river had become more than a good piece of water over yonder; it has become my home water.
Home water is the convergence of confidence and coincidence. It is the lake in our backyard. The river down the road. The creek, ditch and canal that taught us how to be an angler. My first home water was the mouth of the Detroit River, where I jigged for whatever would bite. I have since moved on to rivers along the south shore of Lake Superior. And even though there are hotter bites elsewhere, at some point the race for glory becomes unending, futile and sort of childish. Come fall, I know I could be driving around the state and getting myself into better fishing, but great anglers aren’t necessarily the people with the most miles on their tires; they are the people who make greatness out of the lackluster. On my home river, an angler passing through maybe hooks two or three steelhead on an afternoon in late October — I hook six or eight. I know that little riffle everyone walks by. Or how deep that “endlessly deep” hole actually is. I know where those mysterious two-tracks lead. I know where to cross when crossing seems possible only for otters and trout. Better yet, I have a lead on where steelhead will set up when the river is out of its banks. Those little know-hows add up, not only on my home river but for my fishing sensibility as a whole.
Great anglers are made with persistence and attention to detail. When other anglers are hopping around from river to river chasing dreams of grandeur, the great angler is pounding the same water in search of secrets others wade by. They get to know each stream, stretch and pool as intimately as the water and fish deserve. They serve justice to the objects of other’s greedy fantasies. This whole fishing thing means more to them than just a few photos with a couple monsters. Great anglers are usually great people.
The successes of my fishing life are due to the significant attachments I have with the waters I fish. The water means more than the fish. I hardly remember the fish Jack landed on that autumn morning, but I will never forget the smile on his face and the screaming of his reel. I will never forget how the river boiled in anger while we watched grumpy-looking turkey vultures circle a deer carcass on the opposite bank. I have never felt so at peace in such intimidation. That moment is forever etched into the history of the swift trough on the lower end of my home water. I live and die by this river. Hell or high water, come fall, I am banking on my home water and my own hard work. John Gierach says this whole trout fishing thing is about life and death. Maybe, for the fish, it means mortality, but for us, it means how we live and die. When I look back on life as a fisherman, I do not want to be the type of person who lived and died by how many fish I caught, how big they were and how many people knew about it. I want to cherish the memories and the knowledge of water and trout.
After Jack finally landed that 5-pound Lake Superior hen, he returned to the same seam and battled with another, even bigger, chrome bullet. We didn’t touch another fish the rest of the day. We never saw another soul either. We heard a few trucks drive along the bluff, only to turn around and head out. They probably figured the river was too high. And for them, they may be right. But for me, on my home water, I knew just enough to ensure some remedial success and a lasting memory. The most astute knowledge comes from knowing one thing intimately rather than knowing 100 things half-assed. We get one shot at this fishing life of ours — there’s no sense in blowing it for petty bar bragging. Spend it as the trout dictates, in life and death. Because when it’s all said and done, you can have home water or you can have no water.