Throughout my late twenties I did agricultural development work for a private foundation in the poorest region in Southeast Asia. I spoke the language; I worked physically with locals in the field in addition to the technical aspects I performed in the office. And I assisted a British medical doctor in a refugee camp where we treated non-combatant Hmong tribespeople who had been bombed in the world’s largest bombing campaign still to date, averaging a sortie every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day for nine years. We treated amputations, broken bones, shrapnel, napalm burns, phosphorous burns, blindness, deafness, psychological trauma, and insanity. Again these were non-combatants – an arial operation designed to simply destabilize the entire region regardless of its impact on the lives of these simple, gentle people. (It still makes my blood boil.)
When I came back we found a duplex in which to live. The owner lived in the other half. It was on an acreage in the country. We were so exhausted from those years of work we needed that place. It was a real gift.
The owner was a print man at a newspaper and worked nights to get the paper out the next morning, operating huge printing presses. He was a WW II veteran, a Marine. He had fought in hand-to-hand combat on Iwo Jima. He was huge. He was the most gentle man. His wife had died from cancer five years earlier. He fell in love with our daughter who had been born overseas. She was two. I still see them walking hand-in-hand on the paths on his property as he explained nature to her. His name was Walt. He was anti-war…any war.
Our next door neighbours were Mike and Terry. He was a brick layer. Stout. Stocky. One hundred percent Italian heritage. He was a master gardener and introduced us to raised bed gardens. He was ten years older than me. He had been a Green Beret. He would die four years later from Hodgkins Lymphoma; he had exposure to Agent Orange. I took that really hard. He too was a gentle man and took our daughter on walks around his property whenever he saw her outside. He became violently anti-war after he returned home. But that was not until after he had retreated to live in isolation in the northern forest for a few years. He also left the Roman Catholic Church during this time, citing the politicization of priest’s endorsement of the Vietnam War to which he would simply sum up at the end of our long discussions, They’re just so damn stupid…they don’t know what they’re talking about…I just can’t go to church any more and listen to their political bullshit…
For a job during his hermit years Mike was employed by Bill Hafeman and learned the craft of building birch bark canoes. Bill himself had built a cabin on the Bigfork River in the early 1900’s. Seven miles each way into town on the river, Bill at first built himself wooden dugout canoes for the task. But then he learned from a local Native American how to build birch bark canoes in the traditional way. Bill built eight or ten birchbark canoes each summer for his income selling them and giving the last one to his apprentice in lieu of pay. Mike learned to select and strip bark from birch trees, dig cedar roots for stitching, select and split needed wood (no saws used), and prepare gum resin for tar. It proved to be a tonic to him. When I met Mike he still had his cherished birchbark canoe he had built over ten years earlier.
Anyway. That was how I first learned of the Bigfork River. And that led to numerous canoe trips. And that led to top water lures for pike. And that led to streamers. And that led me to fly fishing for pike today.
That was nearly forty years ago.
My dad’s cousin (who owned a tree nursery south of Grand Rapids) owned a quarter section of land in the middle of the George Washington National Forest, ten miles east of Marcell. It was easy to camp on his property (which he bought in the mid-40’s for $500) and use it as a base for canoeing the Bigfork. I did this many times.
I believe that it was on my second canoe trip there that I had invited a friend from university along. Not much of a fisherman he was immediately addicted. I had a hard time getting him to paddle since he wanted to fish so much. His success in catching pike was immediate and constant. We had traveled several miles when we came to a very sharp bend in the river with a high, vertical bluff along the outside of the bend. It was the early summer and broods of ducklings met us as we paddled. At this particular spot one brood became split with part of the brood swimming out into deeper water and the hen and several chicks swimming along the shore. We did not think anything of it until we passed them and then heard some tremendous splashing going on just behind us. I had heard of this before, but never witnessed it until this incident. Three ducklings that had been out on the main part of the river were frantically running across the surface as fast as they could go as the water repeatedly exploded behind first one and then another. These babies were small enough to hold in your hand. They were only a week out of the shell. But they knew they had to run for their lives! Time and again a giant pike’s back sliced out of the water. And time again it missed grabbing them. And then they were tucked up against the shore with their mother and siblings and all was quiet again. It was a fabulous drama the type of which I have come to see as commonplace for anyone who spends any quality time in true wild.
Before we knew it we were swept around the bend and the location was gone from sight. But I had marked it mentally. I told my partner to pull into the shore and that he should get ready to catch a pike of a lifetime. I pulled out a top water lure that I had never had any luck with. Made of wood it was a floater with a concave front surface so that it would make a lot of noise if it were jerked. These are known as poppers. And it had a streamer tail about 4″ long dangling from the back. This was dark as well. I turned the canoe around and paddled upstream around the inside of the bend. We passed the location of the pike’s attack on the ducklings and then I turned us around and back paddling I slowed our progress. I told my friend to cast across the river and, give three or four slight jerks as he retrieved, and then to stop and repeat the process. He did precisely this. And it did not take long, because it was only after his second set of pops that a very frustrated jack slammed his lure, coming almost full-bodied out of the river. It was spectacular! That fish was angry. It was not about to stand for missing a second chance at lunch. And then the fight was on. Landed it measured 30″. And although it was not long it had one of the largest girths I have ever seen on a pike. Its belly hung far down. We took it home and feasted on it that night and the next day. And I am quite certain that the ducks were most grateful!
Up until that incident I had fished for pike exclusively with spoons. But it was that experience that opened me to the fun and success of using top water lures with streamers. Most of these commercial types of lures are not very artful. I have a tackle box full of them, designed to appeal more to me than the fish I now believe. They work, but genuine streamers, presented by fly rod are infinitely more graceful, realistic, lifelike, and effective. They are a craft to make and an art to use.
And today I thought on Walt and Mike who came to influence me in two ways. The first is in regard to validating my experience and outlook on war and the second is in regard to the healing that fishing for pike on a fly rod can bring. I will never forget nor cease to be grateful for the company of men with whom I lived over those years. There is no doubt in my mind that God played a very big role in guiding me and my family to live with these two as I wrestled no less than Jacob in the Old Testament with what I had experienced. They were a gift in so many ways. And I still miss them terribly.