“The Dragon’s Tooth”

WITH AN expert’s eye, Charlie evaluated his client.  He knew that the better trout fishermen generally displayed a high skill level, even if they were inexperienced with heavier tackle needed for steelhead.  Years of trout fishing made an angler’s technique instinctive, like driving cars, and, with some help from a guide, readily transferable to larger quarry.  Alden was not one of the better trout fishermen.

“Keep your rod higher when you back-cast,” Charlie instructed.  “Stiffen your wrist, move your hand around so your thumb’s on top, try to raise your upper arm above your shoulder on the back cast and stop at two o’clock.  Then pause for an extra second before you power cast forward.”  Alden’s casting technique was worse than inadequate.  No way he can handle a long cast, Charlie groaned to himself.  “Do you know the double haul?”

“No.  I saw you do it and watched it on tape, but I’m afraid I didn’t practice it.  Guess I should have prepared better…more than just watching videos.”

“Yeah, that might have helped.” Charlie grimaced.  But I doubt it, he thought.

“So, what do you suggest?”

“We’ll stay here in Long Riffle for awhile.  See if we can improve your casting.  If not, we can fish most of the lies downriver from the boat.  All you do is hold the rod.  I position the boat and back-row to give you a slow drift over the lie.”  Damn, I’ll have to do all the work for this one today.  And my shoulders will throb all night.

Long Riffle kept them occupied through mid-morning.  Mountains protecting the Klamath gorge to the east finally relinquished their control of the horizon.  As if cast by a magical golden wand, rays of light seared into the river and unlocked its mysteries.  Shadows disappeared.  Murky depths became crystalline flashes of interlocking underwater structures.  A complete subsurface countryside extended as far as the Polaroid-assisted eye could see.  Hills of burnished stone emerged from nugget-strewn valleys.  Sandy roadways connected sprawling villages where cottages of gilded rock and rubble glistened with their morning coat of fresh sunshine.

Alden finished working the riffle in flattened glides of its tailing waters.  Here the river widened before it narrowed, gathered strength, bullied its way through a funneling, narrow flume, and then, in a burst of foam and fury, boiled into a long, deep pool below. There the river paused in its mad dash to the sea, rested, and renewed its energy for the repetition to follow.

Charlie’s mind strayed to his father’s mythical description of the river.  Angry water… then placid water…then angry water again.  A thousand times he’d seen the turbulence to calm dichotomy replicate itself, again and again, mile after mile as the Klamath carved its way through the northern California mountains.  He closed his eyes to help capture another thought.  Yes Doreen, it is indeed on its way to keep a date with the sea.  Then he mused further on his river’s complete sequence of life.  Wherever high mountains gather water from the storms of winter, wild rivers are born.  And a wild river’s repetitive contradictions… fury and peace… are forever its personality, forever its conflict, forever its allure.  This river was created doubly so because it was twice born… first birthed in the snowcapped Cascades, then rescued from threatened extinction in a volcanic desert plateau and rebirthed in the ancient rocks of our Klamath mountain ranges.  So the river we see here is a teenager.  It alternates from an awkward and rowdy boy to a graceful and serene young ballerina.  Alter learning from the land, both find maturity and mate in the wisdom of the sea.

He broke his reverie, opened his eyes, shaded them with a hand and gazed into the calm water just beyond his client.  It was uncanny how fish could hold undetected in the most visible lies, even to the most trained eye.  He knew this, but he searched the water anyway, hoping for some telltale flash of movement or color.  Sometimes he could see a big fish holding in shallow tailing water just above the long ridge that marked a sudden change in river velocity.  Steelhead often rested there, after the exertion of fighting through heavier currents below.  He squinted and scanned the ridge line again.  No flashes of motion or color.  Nothing there.  I’m not surprisedAlden disturbed the whole run with his sloppy casting.  He’s not a serious fisherman.  Less than three hours into the day, and I can tell. 

He knew serious fishermen were all alike.  They came for the lure of the hunt, the thrill of a strike, the exhilaration of the fight using light tackle, and the sense of satisfaction that came, not by killing a fish, but by seeing a wild fish lying spent in the shallows, gill plates heaving, waiting to be released.  All serious fishermen had a recognizable presence on the river.  He could tell by the way they positioned themselves – crouched forward,  and by the way their eyes fixed on the point where the line sank beneath the surface, a concentration so fierce it could be broken only by exhaustion or nightfall.  This boy doesn’t have it.  He’s an indifferent caster, despite all the energy he squanders in the effort.  Two hours in Long Riffle, and he still struggles to throw 40 or 50 feet of line…with no prospect for improvement.

Backing a few feet to the side and behind Alden, Charlie shook his head in disgust and growled, “You’re still buggy-whipping it.  Too much wrist and too much elbow.  Not enough arm and shoulder.  Let your rod and line do the work.  Quit babying your rod.  Make your rod shoot the line.  It can take more stress than you think.”

The rapid fire instruction was too much for Alden.  “Slow down, dammit… I’m trying,” he growled back.

“You’re not picking enough line off the water on the mend.  You’re too jerky.  Sweep it.  Relax and sweep it.  Start lower, end higher.  Like this.”  Charlie stepped into Alden’s view and again demonstrated the motion with an exaggerated sweep of his arm.

In resentment, Alden ignored Charlie’s advice and flailed at the river, as a petulant schoolboy might react to an unwelcome lecture.  “There, is that better?” his voice a model of mockery.

“Not really.”  Charlie was grim and merciless.  “Your rod is still too low in the back cast, and you’re not pausing long enough.  Your line loop is too wide and needs to be tighter.  And you’re making way too many false casts.”

“Well, Goddamit.  Who gives a shit?  As long as I put it out there.  The fish aren’t going to critique me before they decide to strike.”  In anger Alden executed a final false cast and powered the rod forward.  Line and leader uncurled and fully extended in midair.  The fly executed a graceful turnover and settled on the water with a gentle splat, one of Alden’s better casts.

Unseen and unheard by Alden, Charlie nodded his head and chuckled in approval, but he couldn’t resist continuing the heckle.  “It’s all that extra effort, boy.  You’ll wear out before noon.”  Charlie could see a red flush rising in his client’s neck and cheeks.  The boy has a bad temperAnd no patience.

“Look pops, I’ll worry about the effort.  You take care of the boat.  And don’t, Goddamit, call me boy.”  Alden’s face was crimson.  “Just put me where the fish are and I’ll catch one.”

“I’m sorry,” Charlie apologized.  “Maybe I was being too rough.  Sometimes I get frustrated having to nursemaid beginners down this river.  So many come expecting it to be easy.  It isn’t easy.  And when they find out it isn’t easy, they expect me somehow to make it easy.  And I can’t.”

“Well, isn’t that your job?”  Alden was feeling better and more confident, now that he had his guide on the defensive.  “How the hell else does a beginner learn, if a guide doesn’t show him?”

“It’s not my job to teach.  It is my job to find the fish, if they’re in the river, position the boat and give you some idea of the right equipment and fly to use.  And…oh yes, I make sure you get fed enough at lunch and have cold beer in the cooler.  I even provide toilet paper.  But I can’t cast for you, and I can’t mend for you.  If you can’t do those properly, you might as well stay home, watch videos and read outdoor magazines.”

“So, how the hell do I learn to cast better if not here on the river?”  Alden was beginning to enjoy the verbal lancing

Charlie was beginning to enjoy it too.  “Your backyard.  It’s the best place to develop technique.”

“You forget I live in San Francisco.  There are no backyards.”

“Then try the casting ponds in the parks.  Hell, they’ve got fisherman from 5 to 105 casting in Golden Gate Park.  There’s always someone there to help a beginner.”

“I’m too busy for that foolishness.”

“But not too busy to come up here for three days, scare all our fish, and destroy my back rowing all day because you can’t cast.”

“You’re getting paid for it.  Now I know why you’re so available.  Do you verbally abuse all your clients?”

“No.  Just the young, snotty ones…the arrogant ones who can’t cast worth a damn.”  Doreen was right. It is the young ones who give me so much grief.  Why does respect skip a generation?  Why do I put up with this?  Why do I let this poor excuse of a fisherman get to me?  I’ve guided worse.  “You’re right.  I am getting paid…almost enough to live on…so I have to put up with you.  But what about you?  What are you doing here?  You’re obviously not a serious fisherman.  You don’t pay attention to what I tell you or what I try to show you.  You’re obviously not enjoying the river.”

“I’d enjoy it more if you’d put me on a fish.  And I’d enjoy it more if you’d shut up, quit telling me what to do and let me concentrate.”

“Alright, how about a truce?”  Feeling ashamed of himself, Charlie was genuinely contrite.  His frown turned into a disarming smile. “You do the best you can, and I’ll back-row you over the better lies.  You try to enjoy being on the river, and I’ll try to introduce you to fishing for Klamath steelhead without making a lesson and lecture out of it.  What I’m saying is I’ll try hard to get you into a fish, but if I don’t, I’ll still try to make the river a pleasant experience for you.  Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.”  Alden also smiled.  Better be carefulI can’t afford to have The Hawk turn adversarial.


Excerpted with permission from Charlie’s Pride, Fithian Press/Daniel & Daniel Publishers