“Year of the Raven”

"Year of the Raven" by Mark Gardiner

September 26—For This I Risked Being Fired?

As September winds down in west-central Alberta, our somewhat reliable Indian summer gives way to a much-less-reliable fall. Occasional wintry days bluster in, shouldering aside the final days of fishing and knocking the leaves, already yellow, to the ground.

The inevitability of the first hard freeze is evident in many ways. Coyotes walk boldly in the ditches; their heavy coats roll back and forth across their shoulders. And off on distant sloughs, drifting swans are as white as fresh snow. Decent fishing weather now seems more precious than ever, as well as more fragile; if the sun even slips behind a cloud, temperatures fall immediately, and even on the warmest days in September and October, the slightest breeze brings not relief, but chill.

Not surprisingly, with the prospect of a six-month winter ahead, and noticeably shortening hours of daylight, anglers become increasingly desperate to take advantage of any pleasant afternoon. Employers, not so attuned to these natural cycles, fall prey to ploys like the one I used early Tuesday afternoon.

With a carefully rehearsed look conveying, I thought, just the right balance of distress and stoicism, I entered the VP’s office and began describing, in detail, a debilitating episode of diarrhea. Given his squeamish nature, it was only a minute or two before he was urging me to go home. Dutifully, I volunteered that he could always call me at home if anything urgent came up. As my car was already packed with rod, waders, and picnic cooler, I was able to pick Alan up at his house for a prearranged 3:30 PM departure.

We drove up at a higher speed than usual, bypassing our usual take-out cappuccino in favor of a thermos I’d filled that morning before work. An hour after leaving, we were crossing the Red Deer River at Sundre. This is the first opportunity to get a sense of what awaits at the Raven; if the Red Deer is high, so are the streams that feed it. Through Sundre heading west, then a right turn, heading north on the edge of town; the beginning of a fast stretch of two lane blacktop on which I’ve yet to see a cop. Bearberry Creek, rumored to be good trout stream, was clear, as were the James, and the south fork of the Raven, which we crossed at 80, 85, and 90 miles an hour, respectively.

The parking lot at the middle bridge was empty. Alan sensed somehow—I don’t know, maybe I told him—that I was planning to return again, despite three consecutive fishless sessions, to the big bend down by the corner of the pasture. Knowing that, given my temperament, this was a high risk/high reward proposition likely to result in exaltation or frustration, he expressed his confidence in my abilities by deciding to cross the road and head off upstream.

“I’ll come down and find you at sunset” he said, then as I turned to climb the fence he called me back. I saw him poking in a film canister with his finger. “Try one of these, I just tied them last night. I noticed my garden was overrun with them.” He handed me something that looked like a red pea, formed of dyed deer hair, tied on about a number 14 hook. “What is it?” “A ladybug.”

The walk down the pasture to the second fence crossing was familiar, and indeed, I did notice a few ladybugs in the grass. That was about as far as my thoughts went, however, never having heard of trout keying to such insects.

There were a few late hoppers, too, and I’d restocked my ‘big dry’ box with a few more that I’d tied to blend in with the locals. I had determined that one of these would be my first choice, before sneaking into my now familiar hiding spot under the willows, and behind a clump of thistles that had gone to seed, the purple flower replaced by a wad of silky fibers the delicacy of which belie the aggressive plant’s true nature.

I cast the hopper out into the eddy where, as the river turned to the right, its inertia pulled the flow away from the inside bank. With less than two hours until sunset, I’d study the pattern of rises, and observe hatching insects while I fished. In the next hour or so, there were a few rises, but they were punctuated by long periods during which the surface was still. As sunset approached, there were one or two more swirls, and visible insect activity from the usual suspects; blue-winged olives and caddis, though never a clear pattern never emerged, so I made no fly selection with much conviction.

Twice, after sunset, I saw a huge wake cut across the pool. The big predators were out. I thought of changing to a streamer, but knew that the fish which had made that wake was hunting, and not staying in one place. By the time I got my fly on, it would have moved on to the next pool, and wouldn’t be passing through again until it returned to it’s lair after dark.

By the time Alan walked down to find me, my scorecard read:

Hopper – 1 strike

Lafontaine emerger – 0

Caddis (varied patterns) – 0

Backswimmer (mentioned in fly shop during lunch hour) – 0

Blue-winged Olive (thorax style) – 1 strike

Parachute BWO – 1 strike

Number of casts (approximate) – 120

“Did you try the ladybug?” He asked. “Not yet. Should I?” “Mine was broken off.” Whether trout ate ladybugs or not, seen from below, against the evening sky, the red ladybug would just be a dark beetle shape, and while I found it and tied it on, an obliging fish rose, about two feet off the opposite bank.

My target area was a tricky cast, straight and clear of obstacles but far, and on the opposite side of the main current. Drag on the fly would have been a problem, had I not, on the first cast, hooked it on the vegetation on the far bank. I turned to Alan. “Was that your last one?” He nodded. I lowered my rod and stripped in the line until it came tight, increasing pressure gently, but the tensile strength of grass is far higher than 7x monofilament, and the ladybug was lost before it ever hit the water. I reeled in, and carefully unlocked my knees after yet another futile effort.

As the days shorten, afternoon trips that in June would have lasted until 11 PM now entail more driving than fishing. Three and a half hours in the car, in order to spend a few hours on my knees, losing half-a-dozen flies, and wasting half an hour struggling with impossible wind knots, all for three halfhearted strikes.

When I got in, I saw the light blinking on my answering machine, and replayed a message from the moron V.P. at work to the effect of “Hello? Are you there? I though you were homesick. I need you to tell me where the draft copy is for the Consolidated Widget pitch. You must just be out at the drug store or something, call me as soon as you get in.” Three strikes and I could have been put out of work.

While that message was playing, Sarah called to do a little phone fishing, and while my report was less than thrilling, she pointed out that a strike an hour was an improvement over our early trips. I wanted to believe her, but this partial victory seemed mostly hollow. In five consecutive visits, entailing about 1,400 miles of driving, and at least 60 lost flies, I had caught precisely zero fish. As I fell asleep, I vowed that the next trip would not be just a few hours, grabbed where I could find them, but a full day, in which I’d have time to crack the river’s code while there was still light to tie on the final, right fly. I’d bypass the big pool, with it’s beaten path from the parking lot, and try new, promising territory. I told myself that on the next trip I’d make a last stand, either catching something or fishing myself out. And I knew where my Little Bighorn was, too: on Jackson’s ranch.

That night, I dreamt that I was back at the big pool. Earlier that evening, in near darkness, I painfully unlocked my knees and struggled to my feet. Moving away from the cover of the willow at the tail of the pool, I walked forward and cast once or twice, far up into the run at the pool’s head. In my dream I was standing in this exposed position, and there were several people, with their backs to me, standing on the far bank. They turned to look at me, and I realized that they were my employers, the VPs, the president, and the chairman of the board. When I saw who they were, I looked down at myself and realized I was naked.

There are some dreams which are best kept from your psychoanalyst. If you have one of these, and you want my advice, just tell him “Yes I did, Doctor; I dreamt I was flying. It was nice,” and leave it at that.


Excerpted from Year of the Raven (Bikerider.com, 2013) with permission.  Purchase Year of the Raven on Amazon.