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“Big Pants”

by Jerry Kustich
illustrations by Al Hassall (www.trillium-studios.com)
"For many months after the onset of autumnal splendor, the lower Niagara, as it is commonly called once the great flow descends the falls, gets an enticing run of steelhead."

Kerry Kustich's "Big Pants"LET ME TELL YOU about the Niagara River. For one thing, technically it is not a river. It is, by definition, a thoroughfare — a connective waterway linking Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. But to most people, including me, it’s a river. Above Niagara Falls the serene stretch serving as the actual border between USA and Ontario, Canada, appears to be more akin to a placid lake than a river. In this section the substantive current is disguised within a broad stroke of serenity. But after the massive flow drops over the world’s most famous gigantic waterfall and then meets up with the discharge from two hydropower facilities near Lewiston, New York, the river takes on a more sinister demeanor. There, the water swirls like the cauldrons of Hades. In fact, the vortices, undercurrents, and swells of this tremendous body of roaring liquid bring to mind an image of Satan’s toilet — as imposing to the eye as it is downright frightening. It should be of no surprise, then, that this place is located in the close proximity of the historical landmark called Devil’s Hole. To a fly angler, this gargantuan torrent presents a huge, if not scary, temptation.

For many months after the onset of autumnal splendor, the lower Niagara, as it is commonly called once the great flow descends the falls, gets an enticing run of steelhead. These are the migratory rainbow trout that have grown very big while cruising the water of Lake Ontario. For the average angler, though, there is a problem. Finding a place to fish on the lower Niagara is extremely difficult — and even dangerous — especially for those looking to hook one of these beauties on a fly rod. There are a couple places along the American and Canadian shore that are reasonably accessible, but others aren’t recommended for the mere mortal. “Big Pants” run is one of them, and the idea to name this location as such came after several years of consideration.

A day on the Niagara usually starts with a stop at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. But ever since the American Medical Association made the ultimate declaration that obesity had become a national epidemic, I can’t say that gulping a sugared “old fashioned” was done anymore without guilt. The proclamation was good news for diet programs, but bad news for doughnut shops. Though many of us are affected by this health alert, I constantly find myself asking what’s the point of a good fishing trip if you can’t stop at a Krispy Kreme or two along the way.

Apparently, though, statistics don’t lie, and as I was downing the last bite of a peanut stick one day before heading to the river, I got to thinking about the implication of this edict for today’s young folks. Ever since video games and the Internet have replaced sandlot ballgames and a walk to a local river with a fishing rod, they say children today just aren’t active as they used to be. This may be true for some kids, but all I know is that the older teen I observed a few weeks earlier in Denver cruising down the edge of twelve cement stairs on his skateboard seemed to be in great shape, and the stunt was definitely breath-taking.

In my day, as the old cliche goes, kids weren’t quite so bold. Occasionally, a few of us would ride our bikes down a smooth country road with “no hands” gripping the bar. In wintertime these same foolhardy souls would build a pile of snow at the base of a dinky hill and dare to soar over it on a two-runner sled with the speed of a slow motion replay. But the most brazen my cronies and I would ever get in our lives of reckless abandon was to sneak up behind Peggy McMahon, tug her pigtails, and then run for nearest cover. The fact that she was the daughter of a plumber with hands like vise grips added substantially to the risk. Still, that danger didn’t quite compare to the feats of today’s kids, which include activities like riding a mountain bike down a sheer rocky incline or catching air while snowboarding a snowy slope at sixty miles per hour.

I have to say, however, the most impressive aspect of these born-again Evel Knievels is not the daring of their everyday stunts. It’s not the metal hanging from various holes drilled in their bodies, the colorful riot of hair, or even the tattoos painted on sundry parts of their anatomy. For me, it is the size of their pants. They are very big. You know the type: hanging so low on the hip and ballooning so huge below the knees, one has to wonder why a gust of wind doesn’t lift these guys into the sky like a kite. But such are the uniforms of the audacious extreme crowd of the XXX generation — the badge of distinction that sets them apart from those of us who have chosen to live more wimpy existences. The pants command respect. Thus it is with great respect that I marvel at the accomplishments of these youngsters who seem to defy laws of nature and shun the call of doughnuts while pushing the boundaries of what any reasonable person would think is possible. It is also with great tribute that my brother and I have named this section of the Niagara “Big Pants” to honor the “no fear” element of today’s youth who snub conventional limitations for the sake of a thrill.

The hazards associated with getting to places like Big Pants are manifold, and they are compounded at certain times of the year when there is rain, or snow, or ice. There are washed out paths, high precipices that drop straight to the river, slippery slopes, mudslides, and rolling rocks. Climbing down to the water often requires the use of a rope tied to a small tree. Along the shoreline, angular rocks covered with a slippery green slime make each and every step a challenge. Great volumes of water push to the bank, and when the visibility is clear enough, the drop into the depths of nothingness is quite apparent about two feet out.
Falling into the ravaging maelstrom would be certain death. In the winter, since the water averages only thirty-two degrees, death would just be more instant. But if one is lucky enough to latch onto a steelhead sitting tight to the rocky drop off, not yielding to the siren-like allure of chasing the fish into the nether regions further down river is essential to maintaining good health. Big Pants is extreme fishing at its best.

Since living in Montana prevents me from fishing the Niagara regularly, I do take advantage of the opportunity whenever I get the chance. Last March, for instance, bamboo business took me back to Western New York during a particularly good time for steelhead. It had been a mild winter, and my brother reported that the fish were quite active and unusually frisky for this time of year. Since this is the kind of tip that a serious angler doesn’t take lightly, I couldn’t wait to get to the lower Niagara.

The north wind chiseled through my high tech garb as I got out of the pick-up that March morning. Filled with the carbs only doughnuts can provide and stoked with several cups of caffeine, I observed the roaring river from a high perch. The chill factor off water still in the mid thirty-degree range compounded the initial sting. Given the harsh conditions, it would have made very good sense to consider one of the closer accesses along the river. Trying to out-last the elements for even an hour or two would be difficult. But the decision to fish Big Pants was made while pulling up my waders in full consideration of the body heat that the mere act of getting there would generate. During the process of tying up the laces on my wading shoes, an elderly woman approached the tailgate of my pick-up. Chubby in a cherubic sort of way, she was taking a stroll with her rather silly looking four-legged companion.

Without getting into any of the wearisome details, it seems that I have a propensity for attracting an odd array of individuals willing to bare the essence of their very souls at the mere acknowledgement of hello. I’d like to say it had something to do with obtaining paranormal powers after sticking my finger in a light socket at one point in the past, but there really is no plausible rationale for this magnetism. The diminutive being of rotund features tethered to her squish-faced, pop-eyed dog was definitely no exception. Within seconds of a brief hello she was talking about the Bible, the devil, and something to the effect that everything in the world these days is “going to hell in a hand basket.” Trying to be polite, I agreed with what she was saying, although her thick Slavic accent made it difficult to know exactly what I was agreeing to. But that didn’t stop her proselytizing about God’s plans for those of us who dared to stray off life’s straight and narrow path. She was a kindly lady who could have been anyone’s grandmother, and I continued to nod along at her barrage of comments. Using sex-education as a demonstration of her allegations that our schools are today’s version of the devil’s workshop, she ranted about the ultimate conspiracy: “Vy, dey evint teach da boyz how to put condems on der vieners!” At that point I excused myself, though I was hoping that it didn’t seem I was siding with Beelzebub. Although the call of the river overwhelmed any desire to respond to her preaching, it never occurred, either, that this chance encounter could possibly have been an omen of things to come.

About half way back to Big Pants, I realized that the trek was much more treacherous than anticipated. Some of the shady spots on the trail were still frozen, while other locations that caught the sun had become ankle deep ooze. There was a small section of trail that had fallen thirty feet into the raging river below, and another that would have plummeted for sure under one step if a person chose to make that fatal mistake. The river itself was more swollen than usual with brownish run-off from a winter’s worth of Western New York snowmelt. The thunderous drone of exploding water convulsing in massive gyrations made my heart pound with the fear that I really shouldn’t be doing this — especially alone.

Upon arriving at my destination, I pulled out a rope, strung it to the base of a tree, and then held on to slide my way to the river’s edge. I had passed several better places to fish along the trail. So why, I thought, was it so important to get to Big Pants? The conclusion was simple: Just for the challenge of it. Not unlike a skateboarder or a bungy jumper, sometimes the appreciation of life is much sweeter when one is pushed to the limit. And since I don’t make it a common practice to live on the edge, even at my age I understand the value of the lesson learned as one ventures outside a zone of comfort. Standing next to the river, I shivered. It scared the hell out of me.

Coming to my senses, I examined the situation. In that immense volume of water, there were only a few fishable windows within the swirls to swing one’s fly close to shore. Landing a steelhead would be impossible unless the fish could be dragged to a small patch of slack above the drift. Accordingly, I attached an orange globug to twenty-pound test tippet with enough strength, if needed, to muscle the quarry upriver. For some reason, I don’t like to fish with two flies. But on this day a white bunny spey was added on an eight-inch dropper tied to the bend of the globug — just for extra measure. The logic behind this move seemed obvious. I figured it would appear that the bait imitation was chasing an egg, thus readily attracting the attention of any unsuspecting steelhead. Although the bunny spey had been tied onto a stout saltwater hook with a pinched barb, I felt the need to sharpen the point before sending it into the depths. Once ready, the eight-weight line was stripped off the reel and with one flip, the rig rolled into the roiling rampage. It took several tries before gaining the right feel. After three casts a steelhead boiled to the surface in one of the huge swells. The wind had shifted; so its chilling fury was blocked a bit, and the sky had become a slate-gray wash during the hike. All things considered, it was turning out to be a perfect steelhead kind of day.

When a fish grabbed my fly after only ten minutes of effort, I was stunned. The relentless roar of the river then took on an ominous sense of urgency. “Do not chase it!” I shouted to remind myself not to make a stupid decision if the fish decided to bolt down river. Fortunately, the steelhead showed no interest in retreating to the indescribable dynamo of unfathomable power below my position. It just sat like a bowling ball in the broken current near the drop off. At that point the only strategy was to deliberately haul the weighty creature up into the slower backwash. The tactic worked; and once there, the fight began. It was a toe to toe, drawn-out slugfest. At one point the fish came into full view, and it was a colorful, big-headed, heavy-backed male of at least twelve pounds. The egg pattern was firmly attached to the jaw with the bunny spey dangling behind. The battle was give and take for a while, but ultimately the cold water quelled the enthusiasm of the rather hefty buck. From where I was standing, there was only one location to land the fish upon the slick, angular rip-rap, and it was precarious. When the time came, the only option was to put one foot on the ledge in the river and firmly plant the knee of my other leg upon the shore between the rocks. It was critical to keep my center of balance directed toward land. So as the gorgeous male inched toward my hand, I grabbed the leader and reached for the globug.

At that exact instant the steelhead took off. The leader broke just above the globug. Immediately, something else went terribly wrong. In the same motion the trailing bunny spey buried itself in the middle finger of my left hand. It was only then that I remembered why I don’t like using a dropper. My center of balance was also jostled off center, but I quickly readjusted and held on for dear life. Since the leader connecting the fly in the fish’s mouth to the fly stuck in the digit on my left hand could not be reached without falling in, the only choice was to fight the twelvepounder again – this time with my finger. It was a tug-o-war. The devilish fish was pulling me toward the jaws of hell, and I was hanging on by a fingernail. The fly had scraped bone and lodged into the meaty portion of my appendage, but the cold water made my hand numb. I felt nothing. This part of the fight lasted for a few minutes until the mighty rainbow was slowly brought into the range where I was able to secure it and remove the egg pattern from its maw in one death-defying lunge. The fish eagerly swam away.

Examining the damage to my left hand, I discovered that it wasn’t too bad. But upon trying to back the fly out of my finger, it appeared there was still a bit of a hump left behind after pinching the barb on the #2 saltwater hook. It would not retreat. So with one thrust I pushed the hook through the fleshy portion of the finger below the first knuckle. It didn’t hurt. Not really. Well, maybe just a little. Okay, so I nearly passed out. But I quickly came to my senses — as if my life depended upon it. The hook then needed to be snipped with wire cutters and removed, but my pliers were nowhere to be found. The fish were on the take and I had a giant fly sprouting from my finger like an ornament on a Christmas tree! Undaunted, I walked back to the same spot where the steelhead took, made one cast, and then visualized the possible consequences of my actions if another fish took off down river after some excess fly line wrapped around the protruding bait pattern planted in my finger. It could have been shock, but the very thought made me shiver one more time.

The hike back was as perilous as the effort it took to get to Big Pants in the first place. But fatigue had set in; consequently, the return seemed much longer.
Additionally, the fly grabbed every branch along the path as my digit began to swell. But there was something more going on inside my head. I looked out to the river that I have loved all my life and realized how the slow creep of age was starting to take its toll on my body. There was a touch of sadness, too, as I reflected upon the day’s incident. No longer the spry and limber angler that I still envision wading the rivers of my mind, I reluctantly considered the implications of what else could have happened on this “audacious” afternoon. That sobering thought guided me back to the parking lot.

Upon my arrival I immediately noticed a few folded papers pinned against the windshield of my pick-up. But first things first. It was straight to the toolbox for the needle-nose pliers. Once the stainless steel shank was clipped, the remaining metal neatly slipped back through the puncture. No different than a body piercing, I surmised.

Grappling with the thought of heading back to the river, I started to read the printed matter left under my wipers. It was a sermon that must have been placed there by the previously mentioned lady who apparently took it upon herself to be my guardian angel for the day. The Devil’s Deadline! was the title of the piece that included all the details of what the devil had in store for those of us who strayed too far from the fold. It even included numerous quotes from the Scriptures to back up the claims. “Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of sea! For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth he hath but a short time.” Revelations 12:12

With all due respect, I am not a great believer of reading excerpts from the Bible since, among other considerations, they are selectively relevant and blatantly self-serving to those rely upon them. I recently read a passage from Leviticus 19:27-28 stating something to the effect that trimming your hair or beard or having a tattoo deserves death. Phew! No tattoos for me, but I’d sure be in trouble with the Bible police concerning my beard. There is, in fact, nothing worse than those who back up pompous righteousness with a quote from the Bible. The Good Book even warns its readers against not falling into that trap, but somehow those quotes go unnoticed. In this case, however, my newfound friend was a well-intentioned soul, and I appreciated the fact that she had my best eternal interests in mind. After reading a few more warnings about the devil’s plan for each and everyone of us, I decided not to push my luck. That dance with Lucifer on the bank of the lower Niagara in the shadow of Devil’s Hole was as close as I’d like to get for a while. I then hopped into my truck and headed for the nearest doughnut shop. Along the way I wondered if they made big pants for a guy in his late fifties.

In my mind, I had earned a pair.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Jerry Kustich is author of At the River’s Edge: Lessons Learned in a Life of Fly Fishing (2001), A Wisp in the Wind: In Search of Bull Trout, Bamboo, and Beyond (2005), and coauthor of Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (1999) all published by West River Publishing. His articles and essays have appeared in Fly Fisherman, Big Sky Journal, Fly Rod & Reel, and many other publications. Excerpted from A Wisp in the Wind, West River Publishing (November 2005), 240 pages, hardcover. Article copyright © 2004-2006 Jerry Kustich.
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