Whoopi 2 hands


To William

We met in Gold Beach where the Rogue passes under Highway 101 at the coast. The sky was dark, the air thick with smoke from the burning forest but, thankfully, the road was still open. Searching for the magic combination of access and riffle we made our way up river. A few miles up the terrain became steep and rugged. Further limiting access, much of the river is in private hands. At the end of 'Lobster Creek Bridge' we found what we were looking for. A wide pullout allowed room for two vehicles and there was a path beneath the bridge leading toward the sparkling sign of water flowing closely over small rocks - a riffle. It was dark by the time we got back so rather than searching for a place to camp we decided our best bet was to stay where we were, at the side of the road. All night the fire trucks rumbled by our vehicular domiciles hauling crews and equipment up an down the narrow road. The seriousness of their purpose contrasted with the passion of our intention. Two distinct worlds existing together for a moment in this remote world of trees, river and smoke.

Noon the following day found us skunked and seeking local advice. On our way back to town we could see the river below the Patterson Bridge was crowded with fishing boats. Salmon had moved into the estuary and they would hold there until acclimatized to the river's fresh water. The bite was on and the tackle store was packed with excited fishermen. After pushing through the crowd to get the attention of a clerk our request for information about the Half Pounders and fly fishing was met with bemused curiosity. Why would anyone fish the small steelhead when there were the big salmon to be had? But, there was someone in the store of like mind. Yes, he knew of a spot - in fact - it was the "Best Spot" in the river for fly fishing for Half Pounders. He proceeded to give us directions that included approximate mileage, a campsite ("pass that"), an old boot in a tree ("the marker"), some paint on the road ("another marker"), a parting remark and final curse:

"Oh, and if you reach Road 13, you've gone too far," and finally, "Can't miss it." With optimism restored and enthusiasm replenished we set off to fish the "Best Spot".

I followed Bill in his rather long, long bed truck; a vehicle particularly unsuited for driving on, let alone, reversing course on a narrow country road busy with fire trucks. Having passed the campsite and having searched ardently for the "boot in the tree" we found ourselves undeniably at Road 13 - a bad sign. Hoping not to get whacked by a speeding fire truck or slip off the edge of the road into the abyss below, we turned around. Heading back down with eyes peeled we saw nothing. Twice, three times we did this and it was time to reconnoiter, regroup, initiate "Plan B".

"Plan B": We had stopped at the said "campground" below said "Road 13". We knew our objective lay somewhere between. Park and walk up river until we found something - "Plan B".

We suited up. Bill put on his new $500 dollar breathable waders his girlfriend had just given him. I had a rather heavy pair of neoprenes. We headed off. There was a fine path that lead away from the campground upriver. Perhaps we had found an alternate route to "The Best Spot". It was one of those lovely Indian Summer days in Southern Oregon that starts out cool and by noon can be one of the warmest days of the year. Our spirits were high. Through the trees, below a steep bank we could see the river glimmering enticingly. It was good to get off that treacherous road and into the quiet of the forest.

After about two minutes of walking the trail thinned and the terrain steepened. Then trail evaporated completely into a scattering of shreds of white toilet paper and fragrant brown turds. We had found the campsite latrine. Undeterred, no pun intended, we pushed on, no pun implied. Thorny blackberry bushes and poison oak made up the thick underbrush. The bank was becoming increasingly steep forcing us to hop from tree trunk to tree trunk and grasp at vegetation for support. The crisp morning had transitioned into a very hot afternoon. We were sweltering, sweating buckets in our waders and vests. I looked at Bill and and between the scrapes from the thorns and his florid complexion he looked like a candidate for small pox. I'm sure I looked no better. We made it to a tree trunk to consider our situation.

Perched against the tree, a hundred yards straight below us the river gleamed. We could see we had come too far to turn back, but looking forward the way was uncertain. The bank could turn into a cliff or something else could block our way. Luckily our worst fears were not realized. After crawling from tree trunk to tree trunk for another fifty feet the bank began to level out and we could see, through the trees, a broad gravel bar and a handful of fishermen.

The last ten feet, before the bar, was solid bramble. The only way to get through was under the underbrush. We arrived at our destination on our hands and knees. The presence of the other fishermen confirmed we had reached the "Best Spot". There was a wide riffle that flowed nearly perpendicularly into a rock wall. A long deep pool formed that ran for about one hundred yards before dropping off to series of rapids. There were a couple of guys fishing the lower end from a boat and there was an older man at the top of the pool. Behind him on the gravel bar was a small homemade bench cobbled from driftwood and stones.

Bill and I collected ourselves in front our new-found friends - removing sweat filled waders and picking off thorny branches that been embedded in clothing and hair. Eventually we were ready to fish. We put in below an older fellow at the end of the riffle. It wasn't long before we saw him hook a fish and then another and another and another and another. Our confidence soared knowing we had at last found a spot where the fish were holding and biting. However, proximity did not equate with success. After an hour of watching our fellow fishermen catch fish and not experiencing similar results, it was time to find out what they were hitting.

Asking for advice is difficult. After all, there is one's ego and pride to consider. But, since our entrance upon this scene had not been particularly dignified - on hands and knees covered with leaves and twigs, then naked as we dried off - we were aware our social ranking might be suspect anyway. Mustering an air casual indifference, I asked the older gentleman what pattern he was fishing with. In answer he pulled in his line and showed me a bare hook.

"I'm Jack", he said. "It’s a Silver Hilton - a little sparser than I usually fish. It’s been chewed up pretty bad. "Then, as if seeing it for the first time, he added, " I should change it."

We introduced ourselves and all looked with interest at the hook. Upon closer examination I could see there was indeed a strand or two of black thread wrapped around the shank. At best, it was a distant memory of fly.
"I decided to come on in today because sun might break through." Jack explained.

Looking up I realized he was referring to the smoke-filled sky. It had given the landscape an eerie other worldly look. Like the moon during a solar eclipse, the smoke from the forest fire had reduced the sun to an astral oddity. Its strangeness was reflected like small golden red marbles in the puddles scattered around. The gravel beach danced with what looked like tiny fires set in these little pools.

"I try to make it here a few times a week. I live just down the road." he explained.

"Do you fish here every year?" I inquired.

"Sure. But last year wasn't so good. This is the best it’s been in a while."

At that he flipped his non-fly back in the water and waded back to where he had been casting from. I looked at the bench and the man in the water and began to sense a historical presence. I could see Jack coming here season after season, rebuilding his bench after the high winter flows, prospecting this same spot for fish. Some days putting more time on the bench than in the river. Looking up I could see he had another fish on. His rod doubled over, it looked like a big one. The fish had pulled away from the riffle and ran downstream, Jack was fighting him from where he stood; a sign of a man who no longer cared if he landed his fish. Moments passed and it looked like the fish might tire but then, "bing", his rod flipped back to straight.

"Lost him." he called out. "Why don't you boys give this spot a try. I'm going to rest up a bit."

It feels good to be called a boy when in your fifties. Not many fishermen will move off a winning spot. Jack was throwing out the welcome mat and we were feeling right at home. I stumbled eagerly over the slick bowling ball sized boulders to where Jack had been standing.

"Cast straight out to that bush and let your fly swing into the deeper water." He called out over the sound of the river.

"Right, OK." I yelled back, then looked at the opposite bank - It was full of bushes.

"The green one,” Jack clarified.

The green one? Big help. They're all green. I kept casting then moved closer to where I had seen Jack standing. Casting to some slack water on the far side I could see a teeny splash where my fly landed in the smooth water. Immediately, I mended the line, moments later the faster water of the riffle pulled my line even with my fly and the whole rig drifted in a straight line into the head of the pool. The fly was, maybe, six inches below the surface when suddenly it went taunt. I pulled up, it stayed fixed and my rod double over then jerked over further. Fish on! Wow.

"You got 'em!" Jack called. I moved downstream to land my fish in the calmer water of the pool. As Bill moved into place and began casting, I saw the bush on the bank and sure enough, it was GREEN!

Within a few casts Bill had a fish on. Success. Instantly all was forgiven; hard was easy, black was white. What followed was somewhat unique in fishing practices. The three of us shared the "Spot" in a kind of cooperative dance. We took turns wading in, casting out ten or twenty times, maybe catching a fish and then moving off. In between turns we would exchange stories at the bench. At this time, it became evident that Jack was here on his own and that he had hiked in. Not wanting to repeat the gruesome journey we had made on our way in; I asked him how he had gotten here. In answer he pointed to another bush and said, "There's a trail that goes straight up to the road."

I went to look. Near where we had crawled in, was a small cave-like opening and a well-worn trail led up the bank. Satisfied we had a graceful exit, I returned to the bench where Jack was explaining to Bill the dynamics of this particular fishing hole. He was telling Bill why he had faith in this spot like no other. His message was paradoxical and compelling.

"You see", he said, drawing a broad arc with his hand as he pointed to the sky down river, "By noon the sun has cleared those trees and all the fish that are moving up shelter in the pool. Then, by one o'clock, there's a good bunch of 'em in there, and, with the sun on their backs, they've got nothing to do but bite.

Now, the sun had dipped below the trees on the far side of the bank, their shadows were stretching across the pool. As if to add weight to his theory, Jack was packing to leave.

After all we had been through, we weren't about to quit. We watched as Jack ambled across the gravel bar and disappear into brush. He had given us the keys and left. Ash darkened sky quickly made afternoon evening. The smoke-filled atmosphere was tense. We alternately fished and watched as the proximity of the fire made the animals of the forest act unusually bold. Despite what Jack had said there were still plenty of fish to be caught. Again, standing in contrast to our environment, we recreated playfully while all creation was ablaze. A deer bounded into the river and swam across just above us. Later, a bear slid down the bank and waded clumsily in water on the far side. Then,a snake curled black and white, black and white amongst the grey stones of the beach. There it was; Apocalypse Now, End of Days. Tall trees stood bravely and creatures were set in motion by an impending inferno. With the disaster of the great Biscuit Fire so close at hand, the whole scene was made, at once, magic and real by the sense of fragility and doom.