My Mistress Whispers and Roars, the new book by Fly and Field Outfitters’ Griff Marshall, is available now. The book is an ongoing metaphor drawn between rivers and mistresses. From the “Early Crushes” to his “Greatest Love”, the book traces back over the most impactful waters spanning a thirty-two year romance with fly fishing. This is an excerpt from one of the stories. And fair warning, there is some adult language…lots of it actually.
Some time later I was on a solo trip to the Middle Fork without Satchel, the dog. She had a medical procedure that kept her from accompanying me. I arrived late one night, set up camp and slept sound as a pound well into the morning. After some granola and coffee I got suited up and began a slow, deliberate trek into the canyon. Each pool yielded a fish or two that morning, most falling for a Prince Nymph size 16. Nothing remarkable was happening, which suited me just fine as I attempted to relax into my surroundings, the remoteness of the place and my own fragility amongst the vast wilderness. I recall searching for the right balance of comfort and caution. A few hours into the day I was scaling against a rock face to get around a deep pool. I was only a few feet above the river but still leaning heavily into the rock, clutching it closely, sidestepping. Then I heard a growl. As is my wont in the wild, whenever an unknown or unseen oddity is felt, I yelled, “FUCK OFF!” You know, I just believe that trying to get the quick upper hand and not betray any sense of fear is the best opening salvo. My suspicion was bear or cat. I know of nothing else that growls down there. To my knowledge, there were no wolves or coyote. But something had most assuredly just growled. As my subtle introduction reverberated off rock walls, I listened for a reply. I hoped to hear something crashing into the bushes around the corner, running away. As I clung to the rock, in a pretty committed and vulnerable spot, I heard nothing for a moment. Then it growled again. Shit. In an even louder voice, one my ex-Marine, sailboat skipper dad would have approved of, I let fly, “GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!” Then I looked at my retreat options, conjuring just how fast I could move it the situation came to that. These options were very poor. In a place we humans are simply not meant to be, if there were a hungry, wild animal around that corner, it would have the upper hand, completely. Again I heard the growl, only this time it sounded closer and louder. Whatever it was, now it stood mere feet from me, unseen, pissed off and territorial. I slowly began backing up, trying to hold my breath; maybe if I just disappeared… Then I heard the human voice, “Hey, Buster! Get on back here! Whatchu growlin’ at, dog?” I quickly scampered back to the corner of the rock and then pulled myself around it. The dog, a mangy mutt pushing eighty pounds, began a whole-hearted, throaty bark. “Shut the fuck up,” I ordered as I stepped off the shelf and onto the beach below it. Just a damned dog, I thought to myself. What a pussy. The dog was running back to its master; now realizing I was no longer afraid of it. The guy was walking towards me. We met halfway down the beach. “Hey man,” he began, hand outstretched. “Sorry about that, buddy.”
“It’s all good,” I assured him as we shook hands. “Wasn’t sure what it was for a minute there when I was around that corner. I’m Griff.”
“Kyle. Aw shit, man,” he began as we both looked back up at the rock promontory. “Yea, I didn’t even know he ran off till I turned around an’ he was gone.” He turned downstream. “We’re down there dredgin’ fer gold.”
“No shit. Didn’t know anyone still did that down here.”
“Yup,” he said nodding rapidly, as if attempting to convince me his was a worthwhile endeavor. “Hell, man. Yer lucky you didn’t drop into any of the holes we been diggin’.” We stood in silence for a moment while I scanned my memory for any holes between camp and where we stood. I could think of none. Then he asked, “Catchin’ anything?”
“Yea. Been pretty good this morning,” I answered finally focusing on him. What I beheld was stunning. The guy couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old. He wore a ratty baseball cap and a week or two’s worth of beard. His rubber hip boots were held together with copious duct tape. His shirt was filthy and stretched thin. None of that was particularly shocking. No, what was most freakish and disturbing was the condition of his face. His lips were horribly blistered, as were his cheeks. Through his scruffy beard I could see more bulbous scabs. The guy was in a bad way. “Been down here long?” I asked, making a real play for stupid question of year award.
A look of panic overtook him as he scanned across and then down river, then back at me. “Fuck, man. Hell yea I been down here long.” He scanned his surroundings again. Then fixed his eyes on me nervously. “So where yer fish?”
“In the river.”
“What the fuck?!!” he spat, his indignation was barely overridden by his confusion. “Why’re they in the river, friend,” he finished, trying to calm himself.
“Cuz that’s where I put ‘em.”
“You let ‘em all go?”
“Then where the hell are they?!”
“In the river,” I answered, actually getting the impression that we could go on all day.
“So,” he began, “Why’d you tell me you caught some?”
“Cuz I did.”
“Okay, then you told me you let ‘em go.”
“No, I didn’t tell you that, Kyle.”
“Nope. I sure didn’t. What I told you, Kyle is that I put ‘em all back.”
“WHY?!!” he responded, not even trying to hold back his contempt.
“Because, Kyle, the fish are not mine to keep or let go and they’re sure as hell not mine to take,” I answered. Part of me wanted him to understand that. The rest of me knew he never would.
“Well shit, pal. How abouts you catch one fer me? I’ll eat the fucker right here!” he said, stabbing the sand with his boot. “Make a fire. Just put a stick through it and cook that thing RIGHT HERE!” It was as if he was actually visualizing the entire scenario.
“I put them all back,” I said, this time more emphatically.
“Aw maaaannn,” he said, pained, pathetic. “So here’s the deal,” he began. I took this opportunity to lift a Camel Straight from my shirt pocket. Then I offered him one, which he greedily took. I lit them both, took a loving drag from mine and then sat in the sand. “So here’s the deal,” he began again. “I met this guy in town a while back, maybe two weeks, and he told me he had a mining claim down here. Told me if I joined him, we’d split whatever we found, right? So I was like, ‘hell yea, man!’ Next thing I know we’re driving all the way out here, setting up camp, draggin’ all his shit way down canyon, hiking in and out every day, and we ain’t found SQUAT!”
“Where you guys campin’?” I asked, scanning the river for trout.
“Up there, man!” Kyle was beginning to get animated. I just wanted to go fishing.
“Huh. Didn’t see your camp when I came in last night.”
“I know! It’s all tucked back up in some trees. This guy said he didn’t want nobody knowin’ we’re here.”
“Well shit, Kyle. Sounds like a bad deal, buddy.” I really had nothing else for him at that point. “I’m gonna head down and fish a bit more.” I stood back up.
“Will you keep some for me?”
“Aw come on, man. I’m fucking hungry! Can’t remember the last real food I ate. This guy keeps telling me we’re gonna head out and go to town for food and we never do. I’m starvin’, man.”
“Yea, Kyle. Like I said, sounds pretty fucked up. But I’m not killing a fish for you.” I felt the heartless nature in my words, but also the conviction that this was not my place to help or intervene. We began walking down the bank. Around the next corner I heard the dredge. A hundred yards farther, just beyond a short rapid, the other guy was sifting through silt river bottom. He had a homemade system on large foam pontoons, which supported a lawn mower engine. The contraption sucked the bottom onto a large square mesh tray. Several other trays lay on the bank. My first thought was how much effort it took to get it all that far down the canyon. My next was what kind of asshole tears up a river just to plunder her jewels? I was about to get me an answer to that one.
“Goddammit, Kyle!” he barked over the engine. “Where the fuck you been?” Kyle didn’t respond as he stared down upon river rock. “Get back to work! Sooner we find some gold, sooner you can wipe yer ass with toilet paper ‘stead o’ pine needles.”
This guy wore a large sun hat, a new pair of hippers and a long-sleeve shirt. He was in far better shape than Kyle. I nodded hello. He reached for the kill switch. “Catchin’ anything?” he inquired.
“Well good for you. That’s outstanding,” he was attempting sarcasm and it wasn’t of my taste. “Could we have a couple?”
“Nope.” Then I turned to Kyle. “I’m heading downstream. See you in a while. Go find some gold.”
As I wandered downstream I could hear the guy yelling at Kyle. Theirs was a relationship that had apparently soured.
I’ve omitted thus far that over the years down there I’d named all the most productive spots. Some of these monikers lacked inventiveness. “Runs 1”, “2” and “3” and “The Pockets” for instance. Then we had “Freshies”, “Horizontals”, “Fer Sures” and “Evening Run”, “Heroes” and “Low Pool”. And then, down where the canyon properly steepens to the point that we would go no further, there’s “Roaches” so named because, well, it’s the last, you know, spot. That’s where I ended up that day, both to get away from the noise as well as the silt being stirred up. This is one of favorite pieces of river anywhere. It has, over a couple hundred feet, every kind of quality water. At the top is a steep, boulder zone perfect for simple high-sticking. Next is a series of little plunge pools. Then the river begins to turn left and two short but ideal runs have fish holding on the right bank. The wading is challenging but not sketchy. That day, as the sun began baking the canyon, knowing that I’d fish “Roaches” and then hike out to camp for a while, I worked every delicious seam, each lovely eddy, the entire right side cut bank, dead drifting the little nymph rig. I’m not sure how many fish were fooled. But it was one of those sessions where the stars line up, a certain “zone” is achieved and things actually click. Perhaps an hour and a half after walking away from Kyle, he reappeared.
“Hey, man,” he said walking closer to me, a little too close for my comfort. Then, in a hushed tone. “You plannin’ on camping down here?”
“Yup,” I said, taking a step back.
“Fer how long?”
“Not sure. Maybe two, three nights.”
“Alright,” he said looking back over his shoulder and stepping in closer again. “So listen. How’s about when you go to leave, I get a ride out with you?”
“How’s about,” I began, again taking one step back, “you get a ride out with the fucking guy who drove you in here?” I was getting agitated for a couple reasons. One, this guy’s problems were not mine. And two, I hate being bothered when I’m in the zone. “I’m not giving you a ride anywhere, Kyle.”
I could almost see his intent waning. He began talking again, although now it was almost a whimper. “Aw, come on, man. I’m fucking starvin’ down here. Cain’t tell how bad my face is, but it hurts like hell. I been trying to get him to take me to town fer a week at least. Keeps tellin’ me we don’t leave till we find gold.”
“Well then, Kyle, I suggest you go find some gold.”
“Aw man, that’s just cold,” he said, standing up a little straighter. I didn’t disagree.
“You should get back to work, Kyle. That guy doesn’t seem too stoked right now.” Then I just held his eyes with mine. I’m done, said mine. So am I, said his. It was a sad, uncomfortable moment.
“Well then, could I at least have a fish or two for dinner?”
“Nope,” I answered, not releasing his eyes. We stood there another few second before he turned on the loose cobble river bank and began heading back up to the low rumble of the dredger.
I fished a while longer. My hope was that they would take a break and I’d go up and fish “Heroes”. But after another half hour or so, with the sun now high and hot, I gave in and began my trek back to the camp. My plan was to get a nap and then fish into the night. The walk back up was mellow, unrushed; surveying water and hoping against hope that I’d slide passed the guys without much conversation. The dog heard me first and came charging down, all exposed teeth and guttural bark. I didn’t say a word as I reached down for a baseball-sized rock, and then cocked it. The dog stopped, turned and went back towards the guys. When they saw me, they again switched off the motor. This time I walked right towards the dredger, got to them and stopped. I peered into the river at a hole nearly big enough for a small car and sighed. The guy asked, “Any luck,”
“Nope,” I replied.
“Bullshit,” Kyle spat out. “I watched you catch a couple down there just a little while ago.”
“You did, huh?” I asked, with some suspicion.
“Shit yea,” Kyle said, turning towards his boss. “He’s catchin’ fish alright. Just doesn’t want to give us none.”
“Is Kyle tellin’ me the truth?”
“Then why’d you say you weren’t catchin’ any?”
“Never said that,” I answered flatly. There followed a moment of disruptive silence.
“To hell you didn’t,” he barked, and then looked over at Kyle with a smirk, as if he’d caught me in a lie.
“You asked if I was havin’ any luck,” I began. Then after a short pause, “And what I was doin’ down there had nothin’ to do with luck, friend.”
“Well then,” the boss began, clearly not liking our conversation. “Lemme see you catch one right there.” He was pointing just upstream at the tailout of “Heroes”. Without a word I began stripping a little line off the reel as I walked the seventy-five feet. The second cast was rewarded with an aggressive grab. I played and landed a beautiful, foot-long bow. As I was extracting the little Prince from its jaw, I could hear Kyle panting a few feet behind me. After admiring the fish’s beauty, it slid from my hand and scampered back to the run. I stood and peered downriver at the guy and then turned to Kyle. The look on his face described agony. As I reeled in and stowed the rig, I simply said, “Kyle, you guys are doing enough damage down here to the canyon and its fish without me killing anything for you. Mining claim or not, I fucking love this place and what you guys are doing sucks.” He just stood there. “I hope you get out soon. But I’m not taking you with me.”
I only stopped to fish a couple times the rest of the hike out. And by the time I reached my camp at the far downstream end of the flat, I’d decided to get out of there. As much as the fishing had been really good and promised to be epic each evening, I was pretty sure I’d not relax much with those guys sharing the canyon with me. I’ve seen what desperation can lead a man to do. In my oldest brother’s dark world of drug addiction he saw fit to steal from anybody in his path. It got him imprisoned, shot and kicked out of his own family’s house. I know how bad decisions are rationalized by abject need. And I saw that need in the faces of those guys. So back at camp, I drank a beer, sat in the shade and had a good think. If they were stuck down there, stranded by something other than their own volition, I’d have helped any way I could. But the hard truth was that they put themselves down there and could get out anytime they wished. It was greed, the lust for wealth that took them there, that corrupted them to gouge holes in a wild river, that now poisoned their ability to work together as brothers. And in my thinking, that deserved no assistance from me.
It was with a heavy heart that I broke camp that afternoon. I did drive by their camp on my way out. It was a disgusting trash heap. I knew they wouldn’t clean all the empty soda and beer cans, tins of beef stew, cardboard and random other shit strewn around. I’d found campsites littered like that and spent an hour cleaning before setting up my own camp. I’d cursed people just like them for debauching Nature. And as I drove the sketchy little jeep trail that led to the sketchy fire road I was glad to have left them to deal with their situation. I’ll never know what became of those guys, but I’ll bet it was not awesome. I never saw them again on later trips, so I’m guessing they didn’t find anything. Or maybe -and this is where my near frantic imagination goes fast to work- they found a half-pound nugget, broke camp, went into town showing it to anybody they crossed paths with, hit the local saloon, got sloshed and were then led out to the woods by a local meth head with the promise of strong booze and loose women, and where they were summarily slaughtered. The nugget then became a possession of said meth head bound for Las Vegas. That is just the beginning of that story. Pick it up and run with it if you like.
The rest of this story and many others await.