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Crosscut Creek: A Year of Fly Fishing on an Ozark Trout Stream

by Willoughby Johnson

 

July

 

THIS MORNING IT WAS NINETY by the time the sun rose over the bluffs. By lunch it was over a hundred and about eighty-percent humidity. While the dominant color of the landscape is still green, no rain for nearly four weeks is starting to tell. The impressive stands of ragweed by our front gate have died and gone pale as have the hay fields hereabouts, the pink earth is cracked and rock hard, and in the north field Robert’s corn has begun to go yellow at the roots. Lines of amber trace the leaf edges of the tree seedlings.

Wynn spends the afternoon shuttling from the creek—swimming and hunting crawdads—to the gravel bar where she collects fascinating rocks and bit of river glass—pieces that have been in the creek for years or even decades and have been smoothed over time, their surfaces made milky by friction against river gravel. Zara and P.O.M. set up camp chairs in the shade where the gravel bar meets the forest, and in their floppy hats they while away the afternoon reading. Zara takes an occasional break to cool off in the creek. P.O.M., toughest of us all, sips her warming water, lost in her book.

I fish. My beloved five-weight bamboo has been sent off to Colorado for repair so this weekend I’m cavorting with a flashy, lithe little three-weight graphite rod. The worst of it is, today I find myself having impure thoughts of running away with it and forsaking my old, faithful companion. If you don’t fly fish it’s hard to describe the difference, but perhaps the best way to say it is that a bamboo rod sometimes has to be coaxed into doing what you want. Those of us who favor bamboo rods like to call this “art.” With a good graphite rod like the one I’m using this weekend, there’s no coaxing necessary. You want the fly there, that’s where it puts it. Boom. You want to lift the line off the water there’s none of the preliminary Chinese acrobat swirling of the line to break surface tension and build momentum before bringing it into the air. Nope, you just pull up on the rod and the line docilely follows. To be sure it’s lovely to coax, to win the day by persuasion, to fish artfully. But there’s also a lot to be said for blind obedience.

In any case the fishing isn’t good. With the heat the big fish are all down in the deep, dark water under rocks and logs. I try numerous flies—the orange Humpy seems to work best—and get some bites and catch a few small fish. At one point Wynn’s nearby collecting rocks and I see a beaver swimming slowly downstream along the far bank. It must have sensed that I’d seen it, because as I call Wynn over it speeds up and she just catches sight of its tail as it glides to the far side of a mid-creek gravel bar. When we portray beavers from our perspective—on land—they seem lumpy and ungainly. How different they appear in their preferred element, sleek and streamlined and fast.

Across from the gravel bar the big flood scooped a hole where several big fish hang out these days. After Wynn returns to her rock collecting I tie on a nymph—the horror!—and cast to the downstream end of the hole so that the eddy current will take the nymph back upstream and present it to the fish laying there. I either get a couple of bites or momentarily snag a log, I’m not sure which. But the final time I get snagged on a log it’s a pretty certain thing. I pull the line until the tippet breaks and go to see what the girls are up to.

I find Wynn on the far side of the creek with her goggles on peering into the knee-deep water. “Hunting crawdads?” I call across to her.

“Nope,” she says simply without looking up.

Wynn’s been going full tilt in full sun for about three hours. Batteries low.

“Want to take a break? Go into town?”

She nods, eyes still in the creek. Zara’s always up for a trip to town so we all agree that, though we are hardy, hardy folk, it might be time for an air-conditioning break, maybe get an ice-cream soda at the Drug Store, pick up some things we need for dinner, perhaps stop in for some fireworks before coming back to the gravel bar to cook.

It’s the first “No Smoking” sign I’ve ever seen in Crosscut, stapled to a wooden post outside the Pyro Pirate fireworks stand north of town.

P.O.M., ever literal, corrects me. And while yes it’s true there are “No Smoking” signs at the gas pumps at Fast Freddie’s, I’ve seen them flouted on any number of occasions: if the guy actually pumping isn’t puffing away, the girl friend on the passenger side surely is. Plus, P.O.M. says, she noticed a sign taped to the front door of the health clinic as we walked past earlier in the day announcing that as of August it will be smoke-free. Alas, progress. Except for the fact it makes me sneeze I’m rather charmed by Crosscut’s no-holds-barred attitude to smoking. I remember the stupefaction on Zara’s face the first time we walked into the cigarette smell and haze of the Crosscut Café (the Three Sisters’ Main Street rival.) Having spent most of my early life in a smokers’ world it struck me as delightfully retro. Zara thought it was disgusting, and we’ve never been back

Pyro Pirate’s is housed in a clean and tidy little striped party tent, the various explosives laid out neatly. The girls working there wear matching Pyro Pirate tee-shirts. They’re refreshingly friendly and amazingly helpful. This is not the norm for fireworks stands. Usually these fireworks stands pop up like grimy mushrooms a couple of days before the fourth and are then dried up and gone by sundown on the fifth. Usually the folks are nice enough but, well, a bit rough and perhaps not as up to date on their dental hygiene as they might be.

We buy:

• Assorted rockets
• “Whistling Moon Travellers”
• “Mega Thor Missile”
• “Strike Force Missile”
• Five “Magnum Repeater” Roman candles
• Two “Cuckoo/Killer Bee” fountains
• A box of three “Star Spangled Cannon” mortars
• Three “Paratroop Smoke Screen” mortar/parachutes
• “Creole Crackle,” a hexagonal block of five hundred black cats
• A box of colorful “Pyro Heros” snappers
• Assorted tanks, chickens, sparklers, spinners, and smoke bombs

All told it comes to just under fifty bucks. Truly there’s nothing in the world, dollar for dollar, as fun as fireworks. Assuming you don’t blow your car up or injure a family member. (As if.)

Back at the gravel bar we set to work collecting driftwood for the fire. This is no small task since the flood seems to have carried most of the easy pickings downstream. We have to go back into the woods, and while I try to steer the girls clear of the poison ivy in a couple of days Wynn’s back will be covered. They collect small pieces, and I’m able to break some larger pieces off of trees that washed down into the farm during the flood. So it’s not too long before we’ve got a blazing fire going. Even now, with the sun falling behind the trees, it’s oppressively hot, so while the fire would be charming if it were fifty degrees, tonight about all it makes you want to do is go get in the creek. Which is exactly what we do.

Finally the fire burns down to coals, but each time the girls sit down in their chairs they get up and move away from it. Before long they’re seated “around” the fire thirty feet away. I’m not so lucky. I know it sounds charming and all—cooking outdoors on a gravel bar with your family—but these are cultural dreams forged on the banks of Adirondack streams, in Rocky Mountain meadows, beside lakes in Maine and Minnesota where people complain when it’s over eighty. If we’re lucky it will get down into the eighties tonight—much less down to actual, by god, eighty.

It’s a miserable chore, standing over the fire, singeing the hair on my hands and arms, taking constructive criticism from my children about the proper way to cook a hotdog on a campfire and feeling aggrieved at all those northern myth makers—take that Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, N.C. Wyeth, up yours Thoreau, Longfellow, and Wister—who have put me here trying to recreate their myths for my children on a miserably hot July night in Missouri. I somehow manage to get dinner served without biting off either child’s head. It’s still too light, really, for fireworks, so I decide to take the rod upstream to the Chute.

I’ve never actually fished the Chute before. I tend to be lazy, fishing the places I know and have caught fish before, and this may be one of the gifts of the flood. By taking away all of my familiar places, by remaking the creek, it has opened my eyes to new parts of the creek and gotten me out of my rut. On the day I broke my rod last month I’d planned on carefully fishing the lower part of the creek, where I’d fished before but never with any conviction. And this evening I’m heading for the Chute, that tunneled section of stream about five or six hundred feet long that forms the north, stream, side of the island.

I walked it a couple of days back. On the downstream end the creek runs smooth but at a good clip and the creek floor varies enormously in depth and texture—here there’s a deep hole over gravel, there its shallow and runs over slick, living rock—before falling into the Long Hole. I saw many more trout than I’d expected to, ranging from fingerlings to one fish of eighteen inches or more. Further upstream there’s almost no gravel, it’s all moss-covered living rock, and I fell a couple of times. The creek’s faster here and more shallow and I only saw a few fish, though there were two big ones back in an eddy hole under the island shore.

I cross the creek at the new riffles below the Long Hole and walk behind the gravel bar along it. I continue past the toe end of the island and then back around the tip, sneaking behind a tree to fish the spot just above where the Chute drops into the Long Hole. The moment the fly hits the water, ka-whoom! A big fish slams it and then… nothing. Once my heart falls back into my chest I look at my broken line, dumbfounded. I take it into my hands and run my finger over it. The knot on the fly didn’t break, and the knot attaching the tippet to the leader is solid. The tippet just broke, clean as that, but there’s no reason it should have—unless…

Earlier in the day I got my tippet into a terrible tangle and finally just cut if off and tied on a new piece. The only think I can think of is that there was another wind knot, higher up, that I didn’t notice. A wind knot weakens the line and, in a case of sudden stress, the line will break. I’d like to think that if I’d noticed the knot I’d have replaced the entire tippet. I should have done it anyway, rather than tying tippet to tippet. But chances are I wouldn’t have, being at my core thoroughly lazy. So, much as I’d like to blame the equipment, this is just another case of pilot error on Crosscut Creek. The result is a big fish with an orange Humpy in its lip, trailing a piece of 5X tippet and an angler who feels like throwing up.

I walk back down to the elbow and meet the girls who were just heading upstream to find me. They can see the desolation on my face, in the slouch of my shoulders. “What’s wrong?” Zara asks.

I tell my tale and both girls are appropriately sympathetic. “Let’s light some fireworks,” I say, taking Wynn’s hand. Zara zimbers ahead to pick out the first one.

After we’ve shot several rockets and parachutes, a roman candle or two and done some sparklers and smoke bombs as well as tanks and chickens and assorted spinning, shrieking things that don’t work as well on a gravel bar as they would on concrete we decide to shoot off more rockets. I put the rocket stick in an empty Roman candle tube and let it rip. Just as it’s going off the tube slips slightly and the rocket veers to the right. As it describes a slight arc to its apex and then, after falling a few feet, explodes in a burst of yellow, falling fire this rocket seems for some reason especially beautiful, more beautiful even than its exact brother we shot off a while ago. For a moment I can’t quite put my finger on it, and then it’s quite clear: it exploded against a back ground of black clouds that are approaching from the north. Just as the last spark fades, lighting lights up the sky in the distance. Where we stand it’s still sunny, bright, scorching hot early evening. But it won’t be long before the piercing klieg light of the sun is covered by clouds and the rocks on the gravel bar steam with rain.

I’m not generally one to freak out at thunderstorms. When I was a kid my dad and I would sit on the front porch and watch it pour and feel the microscopic droplets of water bursting through the porch screen as the raindrops hit it. But having kids makes all of us a little more cautious, and if I weren’t cautious on my own well, that’s why we have P.O.M. Under her emphatic direction we immediately set to cleaning up our dinner, packing our chairs, and carrying everything back across the creek to the car. The girls are surprisingly co-operative, I can’t tell if it’s the sense of urgency in P.O.M.’s voice or if they feel the urgency on their own.

In ten minutes the temperature’s dropped at least ten degrees, and as the girls make their way across the creek with their last loads—Zara, importantly, carries the fireworks—the clouds cover the sun, and, though the sun still shines brightly on distant, green hill sides, where we are is dark and cool. Loaded with towels, a chair, and a couple of tote bags full of books, sunscreen, goggles, P.O.M. fords the creek. As I wait behind so we can carry the cooler across together, I notice a Roman candle on the ground that must have slipped out of the fireworks bag when Zara picked it up. I feel in my pocket: yep, lighter’s still there.
“Hey girls,” I call across stream, “how ’bout just one more?”

Zara’s standing beside the open back of the minivan. Wynn is a few feet to the left. P.O.M. is halfway across the creek. Everyone stops to look. I prop the Roman candle up by stacking rocks around its base, just as I did with all the others earlier. The first shot goes up and the Roman candle falls on its side, pointed at Zara. The next fireball barely makes it over Zara’s head and misses the open mini van by inches. The shot repositions the Roman candle so the next shot’s aimed at Wynn, who regards the fireball passing over her shoulder with cool disdain—and then bursts into tears. The candle shifts again and the next shot lands sizzling in the water beside P.O.M. who shrieks and drops half her load in the creek. The final shot goes over my shoulder and into the woods behind me, lighting them up as it explodes. I rush to the creek to try to get some of what P.O.M. has dropped and after a full body immersion in the heart-stoppingly cold water I emerge shivering and coughing with a five-dollar shirt of Wynn’s and a ruined cell phone.

By the time the car’s packed the sky is completely dark and the windshield’s covered with dots of rain. Standing at the back of the car with P.O.M. I sense some unease in her posture. “What is it?”

“Is that going to burn the forest down?” She’s looking across the creek at the gravel bar, where the wind from the approaching storm has fanned our driftwood fire back to life. Despite the recent lack of rain, the landscape isn’t exactly tinder dry. And we’re within minutes of getting hit with a massive thunderstorm. I say as much.

She smiles. “But you know things around here burn more easily.” I have to admit, this seems to be true; it’s something we’ve joked about. In the mile of state highway south of town three houses have burned dramatically to the ground in the last year and had to be expensively rebuilt with insurance settlements. Since there’s no way that could be fraud, we’ve joked that it must be that things burn easy in Crosscut.

And I also know P.O.M. No matter what happens and no matter how hard the rain falls, if we don’t put out that fire she’ll be up at three in the morning picturing our farm in flames. I’d like to say that as an understanding and gallant husband I ford the creek and put the fire out. Though it would certainly look better on the page, it would also be a lie. What I say instead is, “Hey if you want to put it out, we’ll wait.” So as the hard winds hit and begin to bend the trees and riffle the water, as the lightning gets closer and the evening darker, P.O.M. fords the creek once more with a plastic pitcher in hand and puts the fire out with creek water. The downpour hits just as she gets in the passenger side. She breathes a sigh of relief for the disaster averted. I breathe a sigh of relief for our trees, which are finally getting some blessed rain.

Fly fishing rarely offers second chances. So when I return to the Chute several days later, though I approach it the same way I did before, walking casually past the tip of the island and then sneaking back around the tip, and though I sidle up to the dead tree just as carefully as before, and though my first cast lands lightly onto the water that only a few days ago exploded the moment the fly hit it, today all of these same things produce, well, nothing. Which, now that I think of it, is just like last time, but with less action and heartbreak. Perhaps I should be grateful.

It’s another scorching, cloudless day but with the Chute’s high earthen banks and thick overhanging foliage the temperature drops dramatically as I enter its dark tunnel. The water here is completely smooth but there are fish feeding, dappling the surface. I do my best to lay the line softly and make a play to catch these fish but they spook at my line—they’re little guys, darting around my feet in a panic.

A few yards up the Chute, trees limbs dangle languidly in the water. Even with my sexy, short graphite rod there’s no way to cast in the traditional, major motion picture, over the shoulder way without getting completely tangled in these trees. The roll cast is called for.
To perform a roll cast you hold the rod straight in the air so that the line forms an even arc from the water’s surface to the rod tip. Picture the perfect growth curve an investment salesman might promise. By bringing your forearm down assertively until the rod tip is level with the water, the line will roll forward in a loop over the water and deposit the fly—plop!—gently at the end of its length. It’s the perfect cast for brushy streams because the line stays so low over the water.

So I try some roll casts, but though the line lands more gently on the water—and doesn’t get tangled in the trees above—it still scares the crap out of all the fish. I’m fishing quartering across the creek and the only solution really is to fish straight upstream. This way yes all the fish under the line will be scared and flee, but they seem to be fleeing downstream. So perhaps the fish upstream, at the very end of my line, where the fly alights softly on the water, won’t be frightened by the line or their fellow fish… and will take the fly.

Out of the corner of my eye I see movement, and on the steep face of the far bank a mink makes its stealthy way past me. I’ve never seen a mink before so I don’t know how a mink walks along a vertical earthen wall under normal circumstances, but it sure seems to me that it’s seen me and is trying to walk that fine line between not drawing attention to itself and getting out of Dodge. I continue fishing and a few minutes later hear the mink’s splash: it’s made its way to the Long Pool and reentered the water.

A deadfall log crosses a few feet over the creek about twenty feet ahead. Below a knot in the log, about half way across the creek, a fish sips a fly off the surface every few minutes. I roll cast at this fish several times. First I’m short, then I’m too far to the left. Each time I let the line float back to me in the current so that the fish won’t be spooked as I draw the line up for the next cast. Finally it all comes together: the line flows out across the water in a perfect misting loop, lays flat, and then flips the leader and fly on the exact spot where the fish has been feeding. The fish strikes, I pull the rod up to set the hook, and he’s gone.

And I’m not devastated. Unlike the other day, when I was crushed at losing a fish that was in an area I’d stalked, but that I hadn’t specifically stalked, somehow with this fish I can’t help but be elated: even though I didn’t land the fish, it’s one of the prettiest bits of fishing I’ve ever managed to bring off. Just this morning I caught a very nice fish down on the elbow, but it was by accident. I was actually bringing my fly back from a downstream drift. So much of any fishing is essentially random. Put your fly on the water enough times over enough area and you’re bound to catch something eventually. So it’s quite a different thing to fish purposefully; to present an attractive fly in an attractive way to a specific fish and have him take it. I’m much more pleased to have done that and not landed a fish than to have landed a very nice fish essentially by accident.

I’ve travelled less than a hundred feet up the Chute, and I’ve thrown perhaps fifty casts or more and, my little peak moment notwithstanding, caught nothing. It’s difficult water to fish and, feeling lazy and wanting to land a fish, I make my way upstream beyond the gravel bottom to where the creek flows over living rock. Up a ways one slab of rock drops off in favor of one below and there’s a low water fall here. Fish congregate below, and my second cast brings a nice nine-inch trout to hand. It’s a mid-sized fish, a juvenile I guess you’d say, with just a faint trace of the amazing fingerling parr mark coloring along its side and a puffy adolescent shape, from the side there’s a slight oval bulge to it rather than the sleek streamlined shape it had when it was younger and that it will regain in the next year.

The gate at the highway lies resolutely where it’s been since April. I’ve asked Robert about it a few times, and he’s at best noncommittal. He says he’s still puzzling over what exactly he wants to do. I’m not quite sure what to think. It’s true that when Robert does something he does it well. When he built a gate on the north end of the farm he built it for the ages: two telephone pole sections ten feet in the ground with a brand new, heavy built red gate.

But for me, with my own ship-shape pastoral visions, the gate’s a grating annoyance. It looks, well, slovenly. It doesn’t help that my beloved friend Paul brays when he sees that the gate’s still down. “He’s taking you for a ride, dude!” Perhaps. But I can’t help my own credulous and empathetic nature. (Paul: “You’re not empathetic, dude, you’re pathetic.”) Could it be Robert’s feeling sentimental about the old gate lying here in the dying weeds? After all he welded it up himself in high school. Since then it’s lost all its paint, rusted part way through, and been run into at least once giving it a distinct concave shape. Is the idea of replacing this old gate somehow painful, symbolizing the passing of time and youth?

Even that’s a little much for me. And I guess I could follow Paul’s counsel, put my foot down, demand that Robert do something about the gate now. I suppose part of my reluctance gets at the heart of the mystery—and in some ways the absurdity—of owning land. Certainly in the strict legal sense we own the farm. But can you really own something if you can’t catalog it, if you don’t even know all of its component parts? As I’ve said it would take several lifetimes to catalog everything on even this small farm. And where does a guy who’s owned the land for three years stand in relation to a person like Robert, who literally grew up on it, whose father and grandfather grew up here too? Is the gate worth putting our relationship on the line?

Then there’s the problem of clocks. Am I imposing a citified sense of time on a place where time moves more slowly? After all it’s only been two months, and right now there’s no need for the gate—there aren’t cows in the bottom. So what’s the hurry except to satisfy my aesthetic desire for a ship-shape gate and my selfish desire to lock others out? Paul and I both could bray as long and loud as we want. Robert will fix the gate when the gate—in his mind—needs to be fixed, and not before. It’s the Ozark way, and, for the time being at least, I can roll with that.

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  • ozarkenglishman

    I am lucky to call Willoughby Johnson a good friend and I hold him up to people I talk with as an example of how a good riparian landowner should behave. He learned to fly fish from me many years ago and unlike most new fly fishers, instead of purchasing a new fly rod he purchased a trout stream! Since owning a section of very famous trout stream in Missouri, Willoughby has devoted his time and money to conserving and and improving this wonderful stream. A true conservationist.