There are two rules of musky fishing, he says, cigarette drooping from his mouth, natural as a third lazy eye. One: never pay attention. And two: always be prepared. This seems like the sort of advice people make for themselves to feel clever, you think. Unfortunately, it often works out as the truth. Small verbal games, turns of phrases, witticisms such as A Watched Pot Never Boils. Especially at altitude, and you’re now at almost 8,000 ft. above the sea.
Never and always. Those are fighting words, your mother told you when you married. File under Do Not Use. But you wouldn’t mind one now. A fight. Bring it, you think. Bring it on.
Sing, he says. Sing! I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, that’s the tempo they like. Slow and steady like John Henry’s hammer, driving steel. Lay it down, loop the track. There you’ve got it, all the live-long day. You cast and sing and cough in the cold air without seeing your breath. The wind blows it away before you can, like a plastic bag along the highway home.
Slow and steady tricks the tiger. You have cats, he says, You should know how this goes. It’s all in how you wriggle that string. Pause a few seconds, he says, It’s ok. Play. You listen, count, sing in your head, unlock your knees.
Rez horses, free range like good eggs, walk over the shoreline limestone without making a sound. How can hooves be silent, you wonder. How can pinyon work its way up through rock? And what’s going on in everyone else’s head, anyways? Are they singing, too? Are they anxious?
So you’re distracted now. Rule one, check. You’re on your way, pat on the back.
You know they’re called the fish of 10,000 casts. And so you start counting, bracing the big butt-end against your forearm, bruising, shooting line until it stops where your foot is planted on top. Get your act together, you scold. Berating is part of the process. What is this, amateur hour? Double-hauling an 8-weight with a foot-long fly out far, you lose track of how many times you’ve cast. As if at 10,001 you’ll magically have a fish or something silly like that. You scold yourself again.
And start asking questions. Dozens of Whys strung together, run-on like a sentence of Faulkner’s, because you want to learn and you know this man, your friend, is the man to teach you. You’ve driven hundreds of miles to see him, you’ve traveled far, like taking a twister through flatland to see the wizard.
If you know you don’t know, he says, Well then you’re getting somewhere. Ok Confucius, you say, and think about it for a while. It makes your head hurt; you reach for the aspirin. And then for the line and strip-strip-strip again until it’s cutting a canyon through your fingers. You remember now how it stings like a paper cut. Tomorrow you’ll tape your hand with Army duct tape. That’s your luck, his brother will proudly say.
Now you sing again to slow down—just to pass the time away—a mantra, metronome, prayer. Those neurotic twitchy pike strips you perfected to look imperfect, to look injured and easy pickins, don’t work here. You know because they haven’t so far and because he eyes you when you revert, one eyebrow raised. Settle the hell down, the look says. You inhale second-hand nicotine. Perhaps that’s his secret, you wonder. It’s warm, like a miniature campfire on your tongue, and you kind of almost want one.
But success isn’t luck, you know that from watching him. It’s work. Time. Muscle memory—it’s rule two. Weather graphs and pressure fronts read on a cracked-screen phone. You cast again, a whistle’s blowing.
Just remember, he says, Don’t trout set.
Trout, you say. What trout?