This one needs a little introduction…. The premise of this new book is a retracing of the rivers that have impacted me as an angler for the last 32 years. I’ve created an ongoing metaphor of these rivers as mistresses, sirens and muses. They each presented challenges and rewards unique to themselves. The rivers in the book are referred to as “the others”, as they were what drew me out and away from the life of the young family man, film-industry producer and otherwise relative normalcy. I was properly seduced by rivers and their denizens. This excerpt is from the chapter “My Brawling Trollop” about the Pit River in Northern California. Earlier in this chapter there had been a rather tragic 8th Grade encounter with a girl WAY out of my league, an even more tragic meeting with an innocent deer, an exalting connection with a huge trout in a lake, troubling homecomings with other past “loves”, and ultimately the decision to screw it all and head to the Pitt. That’s where the story picks up…
EXCERPT FROM “MY BRAWLING TROLLOP” BY GRIFF MARSHALL
It was dark before I turned off Highway 89 and headed towards Lake Britton and the dam under which the Pit River assumes the guise she’ll wear, for better or worse, all the way to Lake Shasta. This first area behind the dam is known as Pit Three. It is where I first came to know her. In the daylight, from the dam you look a mile straight down a river canyon. The entire stretch is full of large, exposed boulders and choked in tight on both sides with alder, oak and ash. The thick tuft grasses protrude from every viable crevice in the rock. It is, even from above and at some distance, a nasty, threatening place. On this night though, I drove over the dam in the dark night without stopping to peer into the dark throat of the dark-hearted canyon, and then down the road to the first campsite I knew. Rock Creek is a lovely little babbler that tumbles out of a steep hillside and into the Pit. The site is little more than a pull out, but it serves me just fine. A quick fire was made and cooked over. A few beers were downed, and then sleep overcame me. Precious little time was spent thinking about the deer that night. My fishing session had somehow put her to rest in my psyche. Little by little I had forgiven myself, which came through the tortured visions from my drive and the time spent staring and pine reflections atop Manzanita Lake.
In the morning, as I made coffee and cleaned a few things around camp, I picked up an empty beer bottle. Just before depositing it in my trash I noticed something on the rim. It was a little mayfly. A Blue-Winged Olive perched there, perhaps enjoying a little leftover Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I looked close at every aspect of the perfect fly. I’ve always loved that bug. I know some hatches have flies three or four times the size and come off in larger numbers. But the Blue-Winged Olive represents something to me. It is the transitioning of the season, the turning of a page; something has been done, and there is still much more to do. So as I inspected the fly I smiled as sunlight crept down the canyon walls to my camp.
I set the vise up on my flimsy roll-top camping table and began pulling material for some little humpback Pheasant Tails. I had a ton of workable little dries, but my smaller nymph selection was unacceptable. The PT is a fun one to tie. I have a slight variation in mine, but the fly still only takes a couple minutes to complete once all the materials are composed. Knowing there would be flies lost in the river, I ended up with a dozen and half freshly spun bugs before breaking down the vise. A buddy pulled in and stopped on his way down to Pit Four with clients and told me the fishing had been slow. From the looks of the guys he was working with, I didn’t put much in his report. The people who do well on that river have a certain look to them, a ‘Let’s get after this!’ attitude. Those guys didn’t have it, and certainly not in their rental Chrysler Sebring convertible, looking for all the world as if attending a Gay Dentist’s Convention. Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. Or a dentist. Or driving a Sebring convertible. Or attending a Gay Dentist’s Convention in a Sebring convertible. It’s just a little conspicuous in the depths of the Pit River canyon.
So anyway, armed with freshly tied bugs I ventured towards the river, bamboo in one hand, staff in the other. By this point in our affair, I never entered her waters without the staff. From the moment I began fishing till I packed to leave, whether for a few hours or four days, the staff was unsheathed and at the ready. Little by little over the years the river and I had found a balance, a truce. Ours was that particularly volatile relationship. Almost adversarial. Undoubtedly, there was more I disliked in her than I liked. But the parts I did appreciate far outweighed the rest. In other words, her attributes allowed me to overlook her wretchedness. We’ve all encountered this one. You know, looks great from behind but tough to gaze upon from any other angle. Outstanding figure with awful teeth. Killer in the sack but can’t complete a sentence. Brilliantly hilarious but you’d be afraid to introduce to close friends. I could go on…
You get the idea; it was a love/hate deal with equally potent forces imbedded in each. With the Pit, the handing of the baton from adoration to abhorrence and back again might occur hourly. But on this day in question a strange feeling came over me once in waders and aside her waters. For the first time I felt her welcome me, open armed and almost gently. Did she know what I’d been through? Did she know that just for this one day I needed a bosom to rest my troubled head upon? From my revisiting old flames only to find them denigrated by time, man and nature, to the hideous, stomach wrenching pain at having hit the deer, this had been a spiritually deflating trip. Now, as the sun shone on the Pit’s vaguely turquoise, dancing currents, I felt home. My new home. Where I was supposed to be.
Into the braided water where Rock Creek enters. Feeling the bottom with my collapsible antennae, looking for that first seam to probe. The bamboo was equipped with a special custom leader Jan Kurahara taught me to construct. Without much detail, it had several small stretches of brightly colored Amnesia with the outer shell of floating fly line slipped over the blood knots basically acting as strike indicators as well as depth finders. As geeky as that all sounds, the design was super effective. Then the rig had an anchor knot a foot or so above the first fly. The knot was there to stabilize the three or four AB split shot applied in order to get my offering into the fish’s house. This was not dainty business. My hard-fisted mistress would not humor the feathery touch required for a spring creek. She had no interest in what might endear on the McCloud. She wanted a pounding. And a pounding is what she’d get.
I found my footing mid-current and loosed flies from rod in preparation of the first cast. There were two of them; a Cahill Bird’s Nest, beaded in a size sixteen and a fresh-from-the-oven humpback Pheasant Tail sized eighteen. Both were affixed 4X tippet. They were perhaps eleven inches apart; both for some reason filled me with a great sense of promise. I’d not been to the river in months, but as I stood there testing the knots, scanning up river and down, from its turbulent surface and up the thousand feet of pine and fir forest to the ridgeline and then straight above into the cloudless sky, I felt nothing but love, a swelling in my chest accompanied by a slight, intoxicated dizziness.
Then I made the first cast. The rig lobbed into the still morning air and alighted with a plop. The weight of the bamboo felt tremendous as I slowly lifted it into a high-stick position. I could feel the split shot depositing the flies to the bottom. The rig scraped over one boulder and then began dropping in behind it. What occurred in my psyche just then was the river equivalent to that moment when eyes meet across a smoky, crowded room. There’s an energy transmission, as vague as it is unquestionable; this will end with crumpled clothing strewn in unfamiliar locations, bed sheets all but ruined, furniture deformed, bodies entwined, entangled, not fully understanding where one ends and the other begins. All having begun with the meeting of eyes. That’s the energy I felt as the flies fell off the back of the first boulder. And then it happened. The tug was sharp, immediate. I barely needed to set the hook. The fish was already charging from its lie. The two feet of line hanging between reel and finger leapt through the guides and the reel buzzed angrily. The fish charged downstream and into the pocket below. There would be no obsequious following. I’d hold station and brawl. She had thrown me to the floor. Our first luscious kiss and tender embrace quickly forgotten. Now I was supine, she atop me, strong arms pushing down my shoulders, her mouth forming a perfect, wanton “O”, having her way entirely. Her eyes were closed, her back arched, her full weight upon me, exhibiting complete, delirious control. And I would struggle only to please her. I know it’s what she wants. I will writhe, pull to resist hers, push when she does the same. It’s a heaving, tangled mess. It is heavy breaths, lust commingling with fear, smiling longing into aggression. She had no desire for my submission. And so I stood firm, legs solidly wedged into an unseen bottom, the fine bamboo torqueing, glistening. Tippet knots being fully tested. Then the line streaked towards the surface and a rainbow exploded into the morning light, deforming, shedding water into a thousand tiny diamonds.
A minute later the fish lay calm in my hand. Its head draped one way, its tail the other. It would measure fifteen or sixteen inches and weigh at least two pounds. The thing was practically oval shaped, nearly blue if you held it under the sun and sky just so. As with most of the rainbow trout in the Pit this one was almost obscenely thick-bellied. Its head looked too small for its body. The Pheasant Tail fell easily from its upper lip. And the fish slid back to the murky current from whence it had come.
I won’t recount every fish caught that day. In truth there were too many to remember in detail. At one point two Pheasant Tails were affixed the rig, so effective the fly was that day. In my journal it was written, “at least twenty-five fish were landed between fourteen and eighteen inches”. By early afternoon I was to be found atop a granite boulder the size of a VW Bug enjoying a smoke break. There were fall colors trembling in a soft breeze. Not another soul had intruded all day. There was a part of me as satisfied and spent as I’ve ever been on a river. I laid back and sighed deeply. I had returned to where I belonged. She welcomed me as only she can. In that moment I felt used. I felt had, taken, yet triumphant, and still knowing completely that she wasn’t done with me. Not even close, my brawling trollop.