Hot Day on the Snake

By Ron McFarland

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My pal Rodney has been a tournament bass angler for years, and he has the plaques on the walls of his den to prove it, along with a large mounted smallmouth bass, which he insists is considerably smaller than the one he actually landed. My Uncle Dick, down in Merritt Island, Florida, has a large mounted saltwater trout that he landed back in the 1960s, and my guess is that it, too, is much smaller than the actual fish, spotted seatrout, a.k.a. spotted weakfish (Cynoscion nebulosus), that made its way to his net more than half a century ago. For the record, I have no (repeat no) mounted fish on my walls and precious few recorded for posterity in photographs. Most of my fish are, as it were, “mounted in my memories,” where they are safe from censorship and dependent only upon my own rigid sense of angler’s veracity and morality. I do in fact have a nice ceramic largemouth hanging on the dining room wall, a work of art or it would not occupy its place of honor on my wife’s wall. She’s very selective about such matters—art, I mean, not fish.

It seems to me that Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), also known sometimes as “Cato the Moralist,” “Cato the Wise,” or “Cato the Censor,” must surely have been a fisherman, but I have so far discovered no evidence to support that supposition. The writer we might justly regard as the Father of Modern Angling, Sir Izaak Walton (1593-1683), was most assuredly a gentleman of high moral stature and great veracity even though, as Professor Norman Maclean scoffed in the early pages of A River Runs through It, Walton fished with bait and was an Episcopalian to boot.

I believe I may justly claim to be as far removed from the status of “tournament bass angler” as any fisherman alive, but I do love to fish, and Rodney occasionally over the years has invited me to join him on the lakes and rivers of the inland Northwest, notably the Snake River and the lateral lakes off the Coeur d’Alene. Sir Izaak insists angling qualifies as an “art,” and his detractor Maclean appears to concur, but they never witnessed any of my performances with either hand-line, cane pole, spinning rod, or fly rod. Rodney has witnessed several memorable performances over the years, including the loss of his myriad hooks and sinkers and pricey lures, which he urges me to use in preference to my typically inadequate tackle. But there must be something quite charming about my company, as he continues to renew his invitations from time to time.

He did let slip the other day, though, that one of his best “fishing buddies” passed away last year and another has moved out of town.

It strikes me, too, that these invitations may well have something to do with Rodney’s need for fresh material. Once, after I landed a very respectable northern pike that straightened out one of the hooks on my Rooster Tail, he told me of a partner fishing with him in a bass tournament who made the memorable mistake of trying to lip a northern pike pretty much as he would a bass. Yesterday he told me of how one of his pals tossed himself out of the boat along with the anchor, thus proving the efficacy of the auto inflatable life jacket.

Rodney is a retired zoology professor, so as a retirement-resistant English professor (sort of like an article of flame-retardant clothing), I feel flattered to be invited into the world of science. Those of us who majored in the arts, humanities, or social sciences may flaunt our humanistic and creative superiority on occasion, but the fact is most of us admire and envy the scientific set. Mind you, this does not apply to engineers any more than “arts” or “humanities” or “social sciences” would apply to lawyers. Now is as good a time as any to confess that I’m a failed biology major. I almost majored in biology with an eye to microbiology, but then chemistry reared its ugly head. Perhaps in another life I would have been a fishery biologist; perhaps someday some university will grant me an honorary doctorate in ichthyology.

Our fishing events this summer began with a quick trip to Spring Valley Reservoir, which is nicely stocked with rainbow trout, a species Rodney regards with a certain contempt and which he commonly employs as bait for channel cats. He eats them not. Some years back I wrote a few lines on Norman Maclean, and I met the gentleman on one occasion, and I can imagine him spinning about in his grave were he to read such heresy, or to know of me keeping even occasional company with such a heretic. Perhaps “apostasy” is the apter term: Rodney the Apostate. There’s a 4th century Roman emperor-philosopher known as Julian the Apostate, but he seems even less likely to have been an angler than Cato the Moralist.

Inveterate bass-fisher that he is, Rodney’s interest on that occasion was not trout, but bluegill, which he considers an eminently edible freshwater variety, so he intended to donate his rainbows to my freezer in return for any plump bluegills that might happen onto my hook. One occasionally ties into a sizable largemouth bass that someone has slipped into the reservoir (I saw a YouTube video recently featuring a 5½-punder taken there four or five years ago), so Rodney also had some hopes along that line. Ordinarily when we fish together we head off on Rodney’s powerful bass boat complete with 75 horsepower motor, trolling motor, depth-finder, and so on. I tend to be more of a bank-fisher type, so I feel quite at home at Spring Valley, where motors are prohibited.

It was a warm but rather windy day in mid-June. We worked our way around the front end of the lake, which runs to about a hundred acres, and the first thing we happened upon, right where Rodney and his grandson had done well on bluegill a week or so earlier, was a dead doe, the head of her never-to-be-born fawn projecting from the birth canal. That took care of that site. We moved on, but hadn’t much luck. Using a sort of rust-colored Rooster Tail, I brought a sizable rainbow near the shore, but it somehow threw the hook, and about two casts later I left the spinner in the murky depths. Rodney brought in a small bluegill, too small for the frying pan, and released it. The day was off to a tepid start.

As we headed toward one of the docks that jut out over the water, we encountered a young fish and game officer who looked to be about 18, but obviously was not. It had been ages since either of us had seen an officer there. He was friendly, checked our licenses, sympathized with our non-success. I asked him about the deer, and he said that would be his job, one of the downsides of it. The coming weekend was a free fishing day, and Spring Valley is a noted family lake, so he planned to get up early the next morning to haul it out. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

“There’s a teachable moment for you,” I told Rodney.

“Yeah,” he said. “Imagine a father and his daughter, maybe five or six years old, coming on this.”

It was an arresting image, and one I suspect will stay in my head for a good while. Being a literary guy and a long-time admirer of beloved Oregon poet William Stafford (1914-1993), I could not help thinking of one of his most frequently anthologized and talked about poems, “Traveling through the Dark,” which begins, “Traveling through the dark I found a deer / dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.” The poem has been around now for more than 50 years. It was the title poem of the collection that won him the National Book Award in 1963. The first-person speaker in the poem stumbles out of his car to discover a recently killed doe, “large in the belly,” her side “still warm” to his touch, the fawn still alive. The 18-line poem is hard to forget, once you come upon it, even if you’re not much of a poetry-lover. You can follow the I-pronoun and the verbs right through it: I found a deer, I stumbled back of the car, I dragged her off, I hesitated, I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust, I could hear the wilderness listen, I thought hard for us all (his only “swerving,” Stafford writes), and then I pushed her over the edge into the river.

Well, Rodney is a reader, especially since his retirement from the world of reproductive physiology and from his lab and classroom, but he’s no great admirer of poetry, so I just mentioned Stafford’s poem in passing. Maybe I’ll attach a copy of it in my next email in hopes it might “resonate,” as we literature profs like to say. Maybe not. Rodney mostly reads World War II history, and he has built a remarkable fleet of WWII ships, from patrol boats to aircraft carriers. All that seems a far cry from fair poesy.

We ambled along the side of the reservoir, took over an empty dock, and promptly began catching trout. Rodney was using night-crawlers and corn; I opted for bright red salmon eggs and corn. We soon had our limits, six apiece, and by that time Rodney had segued to bluegill, which inhabited the shallower waters between the dock and the bank. We each nailed a couple of nice-sized ones, and off we went. All of this comes as a sort of prologue to yesterday.

Which yesterday began at exactly 5:45 a.m., when I showed up at Rodney’s place ready for action and not at all well-rested. Fourteen years ago the Idaho State University Press published a collection of my stories and essays deceptively entitled Catching First Light. I suspect those who do not know me very well might deduce from the title that I’m one of those hunters and fishers who are just rarin’ to go at the crack of dawn. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Over the years I’ve made the occasional concession to “opening day” for this or that species, but as a rule, my view of the matter is that a rainbow can roll on one of my flies as readily at five in the afternoon as he can at five in the morning, so I’m perfectly happy to start my day at ten in the morning, or just after lunch for that matter. I grew up on the east coast of Florida, in a town that back in those days ballyhooed itself as “The Saltwater Trout Capital of Florida,” and I was no more inclined to crack dawn there in the Sunshine State, and then, as I am here in Idaho, and now.

I hope I’ve not too narrowly defined my friend Rodney as a bass angler. Far from it. In fact our first order of business, the first object of angling this day, was to be the channel cat. We drove about 30 miles west and south, winding our way down to Lower Granite Dam and Boyer Park, which features a campground and marina. It’s been a hotter and drier spring than usual, following a winter almost bereft of snow, leaving the streams throughout the Northwest struggling from lack of adequate snowpack. Here we were on the 24th of June viewing wheat fields on the verge of harvest, which is almost unheard of in these parts. Or maybe in any other parts: imagine harvesting wheat at the end of June. Not all of the fields were in that condition by any means, but it was a sobering sight. As if even to think of flame might set everything ablaze. We’re anticipating a fiery summer out here. By the time this is published, we’ll all know how that prognostication turned out. Wrong, we hope, all wrong.

The Snake, at some 1,078 miles, rises from western Wyoming and flows through southern Idaho, where it is drawn upon, heavily, to irrigate spuds and sugar beets, and then it moves northward along the Oregon border before jogging west to join the Columbia. Near the top of the grade that curves down to the Snake, 150 or so miles from that confluence, we saw, right by the edge of the road, a doe with her fawn, a “mulie” as hunters around here often call them, handsome in their tawny coats and not remotely concerned about ending up dead beside some road or at the edge of some reservoir or in someone’s poem.

Rodney backed the boat into the water and opened up the motor. It was still a little cool there on the water just before seven, and our sweatshirts felt good. We would move downriver about ten miles, stopping first at three or four of his favorite spots for channel cats. The plan was to harvest a few of these babies using cut rainbow trout for bait, and then turn our attention to smallmouth bass, which we’d catch on artificials and release. Tournament bass anglers are not much inclined to haul their catch back home to the dinner table, in this way resembling many fly fishers I’ve known over the years.

Pretty quickly Rodney latched onto one, and it looked like it was going to be a mighty good day until we saw it was a sizable northern pikeminnow, the relatively new moniker around here for what used to be called “squawfish,” not exactly “correct,” politically or otherwise, though old-timers do not necessarily cotton to the nouveau nomenclature. A fair number of folks spend much of the year catching these killers of salmon smolts and small rainbow in order to reap the bounty, per the following:

The 2015 season for the sport-reward fishery will start at all stations on May 1, 2015. The season will end September 30, 2015.

For every qualifying northern pikeminnow 9 inches or longer returned to a registration station, anglers will receive $5-$8. The more fish an angler catches, the more they’re worth: the first 25 in one season are worth $5 each; after 25, they’re worth $6 each; and after 200 they’re worth $8 each. Special tagged northern pikeminnow will be worth $500 again this year.

Rodney says he knows guys who make several thousand bucks a year catching these predatory pisces, a popular income supplement for some retirees. He promptly snapped the neck of this sizable example that looked to be a good 18 inches long.

But after that disappointing catch came nothing. Pretty soon we doffed our sweatshirts, and Rodney cruised downstream toward another catfish hotspot. Or ostensible hotspot, as it were. The only hot thing was us, as it turned out, and we soon began to swelter. Rodney had me tie on a fat night-crawler while he stuck with the cut trout, but neither of us had any action. He said he knew it had been a pikeminnow from the way it hit, which is hard and direct. The pikeminnow doesn’t pull your line out the way cats do, the way I’ve seen them do in saltwater and fresh, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the muddy streams of central Illinois, and on to the cold waters of Washington. Rodney did get a couple of hits from what he thought were probably catfish, but I got no action with the worms, which surprised us both. We did experience some nibbling by crawdads, which have a way of devouring the flesh of the trout while leaving the skin intact, but unattractive to either catfish or pikeminnows.

We both like catfish. Back in my Illinois fishing days I took home many a small bullhead in preference to the more widely available carp, the northwest cousins of which carp were boiling the surface and leaping all around us. I told Rodney about a memorable dinner near the Shiloh battlefield at the famous Catfish Hotel, also known as Hagy’s—Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. My wife and I had happened upon a Confederate reenactment of the 1862 battle that generated about 23,000 casualties and cost the Confederacy one of its most experienced leaders in General Albert Sidney Johnston. That evening Georgia and I celebrated General Grant’s costly victory over a heap of fried catfish. The 21st century Rebels were eating all around us, no doubt enjoying the sesquicentennial far more than their forebears appreciated the precipitating catastrophe. For Rodney and me, however, there would be no catfish dinner this night.

We moved on, and at the next supposed hotspot we were serenaded by a coyote who perhaps was sounding his or her complaint over an unfortunate encounter with a skunk, or at least that’s the narrative we came up with. I say “we,” but actually Rodney is deeply hard of hearing despite his hearing aids, so he could not hear the song-dog at all, nor could he hear the music and cries of myriad birds or the deep bellow of bullfrogs that seemed to be stationed at practically every site we visited. When we’re driving and I say something, he’ll turn his face toward me in order to watch my lips as they attempt to form words more carefully than usual. That concerns me, of course. I want to say, “Keep your eyes on the road—we can talk later!” But of course I don’t say anything of the sort, though I do limit my efforts at conversation. Maybe his deafness, which was one reason he retired as soon as he did, compels us to cut our talk to more important matters. Or maybe not.

Important matters: Rodney says his great environmental concern has to do with acidification of the oceans and the killing off of plant life and plankton. It all pretty much comes down to C02. He doesn’t say it and he doesn’t have to. If that happens, we’re done for. But as Norman Maclean wrote, although not about our kind of angling, one “great thing” about it is that “after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about” fishing. Of course like many of life’s verities, that one remains only partially true, even for fly fishing. We did think mostly about fishing.

Rodney observed the surprising number of white pelicans fishing the river with apparently better results than we were having. He said they were hard on the salmon smolts, which after all have it hard enough with the many dams between them and the Pacific. In all, there are 14 dams on the Columbia and 20 on the Snake. It’s no easy life for salmon, even with the fish ladders and the barges, one of which churned by us about the time Rodney decided we should give up on catfish and turn our attention to bass.

The heat grew as we approached the first good site for smallmouth and changed from bait to artificial lures, Rodney’s preference being the so-called “60-degree tube jig head,” a sort of murky yellow in hue with black specks. My experience angling for smallmouth is fairly limited. Having grown up in Florida and taught for a couple of years in east Texas, I’ve mostly gone after largemouth—the St. Johns River basin, the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. My bass fishing has largely involved Devil’s Horse, Lucky 13, Hula Poppers, and plastic worms of various hues. I had some nice Rappalas with me (stress is on the first [a]), and I had a good deal of apparently misplaced confidence in them. I had floating, and diving, and countdown, and rattlin’, but with one notable exception, none of ‘em did me a danged bit of good. But then Rodney wasn’t doing much good either, until we hit the third smallmouth hotspot, and then he caught a nice but smallish bass. Had it been more of a biggish bass, I’d probably have shifted over to the tube jig right off.

It was when he landed one of the latter category that I became a believer, and pretty soon I hauled in a nice one in the 1½- to two-pound range. We were predictably pumped. Mind you, we’d been at it for about four hours by the time we finally scored, but we were into it. Around this time my casting arm, notably my shoulder, began to get a little sore, but I shrugged it off: “No pain, no gain,” et cetera. Oddly enough, the 17th century British poet Robert Herrick, he of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” fame, has a poem entitled “No Pains, No Gains,” but his little couplet has nothing to do with either working out or fishing:

If little labor, little are our gains:
Man’s fortunes are according to his pains.

Truly, I was by this time looking for something more in the way of gains from my mounting pains. I was also growing a bit drowsy.

We moved on, and I alternated madly between the murky tube jig head and a plethora of lures I’d brought along. I even became systematic about it: two or three casts with this or that lure, then two or three with the jig head, and then over again, and so on. We more-or-less paused for lunch, a quick sandwich, a lukewarm beer, reeling slowly as we nibbled and swigged. The beer seemed instantly to contribute to my impulse to slumber. Rodney stayed loyal to his tube jig, but neither of us produced another thing in the way of a strike. Somewhere along the line I managed to snap off one of Rodney’s tube jigs. We had by then reversed our course and were fishing our way the ten miles back to where we’d started. We caught an occasional breeze, but the sun held on fast, and the only genuine relief came when Rodney hit the motor and steered us to the next site.

About the third from the last hotspot brought us to a deer’s carcass on which was perched a tall and rather pleased coyote. He gave us a swift flick of his head and bounded off into the willows. I remember hoping he’d return, perhaps at night, to finish his feast. Or hers, as the case may have been. “What is it about us and dead deer?” I asked rhetorically. It’s not like he could hear me. If I have something important to say, which is rarely the case, I’ll repeat myself, making sure he can see my lips this time. It often requires two or three attempts, but that’s okay. Like fishing, deafness calls for patience, or at least it should. I should confess that patience does not rank highly in my list of frequently exercised moral virtues.

I think it was at this site or maybe the next that I snapped off the second of Rodney’s tube jigs, at which point I conceded my line probably needed to be replaced. I’m bad about that sort of thing, thrifty Scot that I tend to be at times (not often enough, my wife would argue). From then on, I stuck with my flashy but ineffectual array of lures and jigs, all of which seemed to me to be running in very tempting ways. How could the fish resist? I tried one little plastic jig with a neon chartreuse tail that wiggled provocatively on even a slow retrieve, and my retrieves did seem to be getting slower, but the bass would have none of her.

Certainly it was there, at our penultimate hotspot, that Rodney got hung up and proceeded to steer the boat around so that he could recapture his tube jig. We had both snagged our lines from time to time throughout the day, and with the exceptions mentioned above, we had successfully retrieved the lures. In my defense, I submit that I did not force it either time I lost the tube jig, so it was either a matter of weak line or a sharp rock. I did manage to boat a sizable waterlogged pole on one occasion—surely a good eight feet in length. Perhaps the strain of that effort weakened my line.

Anyway, as Rodney steered the boat toward his snagged line using the trolling motor, I felt just the second good strike of the day, and I yelled, “Got one!”

Instantly, Rodney responded, “You’ve got the motor.”

And indeed I had latched onto his trolling motor. I had failed to follow Rodney’s path toward his hung-up line, and I had also failed to reel in my line, and so I spent the next several sweaty minutes watching him untwist the sturdy monofilament, which did not give up easily. Not a bit of it. The line seemed mostly to unwind in eight- or ten-inch segments, and these he had to pry out with needle-nose pliers I feared he would drop into the water. But my friend is experienced in such matters, and he managed to unravel the motor and retrieve my prized but impotent countdown Rappala. We felt it essential to try just one more hole before heading for home after our six-hour fishing adventure, but by now you can surely tell this is not a success story. Discounting the pikeminnow, simple math will tell you we caught respectable fish (smallmouth bass, that is) at the rate of one every two hours, and that’s with two committed, veteran anglers hard at it.

Perhaps this comes off as a cautionary tale of sorts, albeit I am not confident just what edifying morals are to be derived, what virtues to be revealed from the day’s work, what vices to be avoided. I’m not the best piscatorial Aesop, after all, and although we did not talk much on the drive back home, we did talk about going fishing again next month, for walleye this time, maybe up at Lake Roosevelt. My sore shoulder got a lot sorer last night, but a capsule of Aleve and an icepack eased the pain, which turned out to be more palpable than whatever obvious gain we might have achieved. But I take this to be axiomatic for most recreational anglers: If you’re fishing only to catch fish, you’re probably fishing for the wrong reason.



Ron McFarland teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Idaho when he’s not out fishing somewhere. His most recent books are a biography of Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe (1815-1865), released in February 2016, and Appropriating Hemingway: Using Him as a Fictional Character (2015).

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