“Whatever it takes”
I found Rusty just where I knew he’d be…sitting on a stump, staring into a fire at the Back Forty. The old log cabin that marked the place was in an advanced state of decay, moldering back into the tundra from which it was raised. No one had lived there for several years, since a reclusive pilot from Maine had cleaned it out, repaired the roof, and set the door right. That done, he re-chinked the weathered log walls, put a tin woodstove in one corner, and called it home.
The pilot was a quiet and introspective a man but still had a healthy need for company and the occasional party. To this end he’d built a large fire pit, strung some festive light bulbs, and brought in a small generator to power a blender for margaritas. Like most lodge help, he’d eventually moved on. The lights, the blender, and the parties remained.
The fire pit became a natural spot for the crew to blow off steam, share experiences, discuss problems, and air complaints. Most importantly, it became the place where Rusty shared his experience with the new guys; teaching and advising them. Like a big brother, he admonished them when necessary, and acknowledged their contributions when possible. Rusty called the place, “The Back Forty”, perhaps in reference to Corey Ford’s “Lower Forty”, where a different group of misfits and miscreants once gathered.
It had been a difficult week, which sometimes happens…even in Alaska. The run of silver salmon was late, the water was low, and the new guides were going through boats and motors like peanuts in a bar. In addition, the weather was unusually hot and the fishing sucked, both of which chafed Rusty’s ass.
So, when I found Rusty with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and two tin cups on the stump next to him I wasn’t surprised to hear him offer me a drink.
“He’p yourself,” he said as I sat down and poured myself a meaningful measure.
“Tough week,” I said, pushing a log deeper into the fire with the toe of my boot and sending a shower of sparks into the darkening sky. “You expecting company?” I asked, nodding at the case of beer floating in a washtub of cold lake water. “Or, is this all for me?”
“They’ll start showing up in a few minutes,” he answered. “They always do when times are tough, and the beer will help.”
As predicted, the guides began to filter down from the lodge, and not in their usually boisterous manner. It occurred to me that if the noise they made on their way down to the fire was a bellwether of the mood in camp… things were serious-bad.
The new kid from Minnesota and his friend were the first to show up. Both sat down without a word. Rusty reached into the tub and tossed them each a beer. “It’s on the Boss,” he said, “How was your day?”
“Horseshit,” the kid from Dillingham answered gloomily. He’d emptied his beer in record time, and reached for a second. “What the hell are you supposed to do all day when the fishing’s this slow? I only know one joke that I can tell in mixed company.”
“My fisherman didn’t have a decent strike all morning,” the kid from Minnesota chimed in, already loopy from half a beer. “And then, out of nowheres this monster rainbow crushes one of the flies. Cripes, the guy was so surprised that he pulled it away from the fish, and then he cast right back and scared it into the next river!”
“That’s a damned shame,” Rusty said. “A fish like that would’ve made the guy’s week.”
Two more guides moped into the light of the fire, sat down, and looked expectantly at the washtub of beer. “Sure,” Rusty said. “Help yourselves.”
“Thanks,” one said passing his friend a beer. “I had two fishermen today who couldn’t cast twenty feet from the boat. How the hell am I supposed to catch them fish… even if the fishing was good?”
“Well,” Rusty said, taking a sip off the top of his tip cup. “One of the tricks to guiding is being able to help your fishermen without letting them know it. I knew this guide, once, who specialized in catching fish for clients who couldn’t cast well.”
“How’d he do it?”
“He’d have them make their best casts to the same side of the boat, suggest to them that they throw a couple of big mends, to get as much line on the water as possible, and then row away from their flies. Once he got the lines where he wanted them, he’d adjust the speed of the boat to give them both a perfect drift.”
“Sounds like a lot of work to me,” one of guides said.
“I’m not talking about work,” Rusty growled. “I’m talking about catching fish for someone who can’t cast. This guide was so good at it that he actually preferred fishermen who couldn’t cast. He used to say that good casters spent their whole day, ‘casting and not catching’.”
“When things are really slow,” Rusty continued, “it’s important that you stay positive. Keep changing flies, sharpening hooks, adjusting leaders, whatever you can do to let your fishermen know that you haven’t given up on the day… or them. If nothing’s working on top, you switch over to nymphs. If, nothing’s happening down deep, you switch to emergers. If that doesn’t work, then you try streamers. If their not taking streamers, try a mouse!”
“You can’t fish a mouse on the ‘Pak’ or ‘Wok’!” one of them gasped.
“Oh… is that a fact, now? Rusty huffed. “I knew this guy who, when fishing was slow, would try the damnedest things you can imagine. Most times it didn’t work. But, by golly, he’d keep working until he found something that did.”
“What kind’a stuff did he try?”
“Big bucktails… I mean four inches long. If that didn’t work, he’d fish two in tandem, a big one behind a small one. It looked just like a small trout chasing a smolt. He used to tie an egg fly in front of a sculpin. When it swung through the current it looked just like a sculpin chasing an egg. It’d drive the big ‘bows crazy!”
“Like an egg-sucking leech?”
“He called the rig, ‘an egg-chasing sculpin’,” Rusty said. One day he decided to fish these tiny little copper-bodied nymphs. Back then the only flies we used on the ‘Pak’ were big Royal Wulffs, Maribou Muddlers, and Black Wooly Buggers.”
“What’dya think? You’re still fishing those flies today. The point is… if it’s slow, what do you have to lose? At least your fishermen know that you kept trying and didn’t give up.”
“I’ve got it… mind if I have another beer?”
“Naw… pass them around,” Rusty said, and I began to chuckle.
“What’s so funny? He asked.
“Remember the guide who’d grind his flesh flies into rotten salmon carcasses with the heel of his boot?”
“How could I forget,” Rusty said. “Those boots hung outside my door all summer.”