Don't Mention It
Updated: Aug 5, 2022
"The first rule of this river is that you don't talk about this river. At least by name." That's how the text read.
This was starting to feel a little like "Fight Club," the often-maligned late-90s flick where Edward Norton is beaten into a new, self-reflexive consciousness or some such bullshit.
My buddy, Jon Osborn, was taking me to one of his top-secret fishing spots, a stretch he affectionately terms “The Murder Water.” I've never been entirely sure what that means but, coming from a cop, it doesn't seem like a compliment.
Regardless, buddy or not, the message was clear: this is a place very few had been invited to, and I’d best keep it tucked well under my hat or risk losing my invite. Permanently.
"You'll want camo. These fish are spooky, and we'll be right on top of them. Oh, and bring a handsaw. And a dry bag."
"What the hell am I getting myself into?", I wondered aloud.
We waded this water once last summer with some success, but to get into the bigger fish, he assured me, we needed to float it. In a canoe.
Murder Water in a canoe? Perfect. Just fucking perfect.
I may not have been completely forthright with Ozzy about my abilities in a canoe; the first and last outing dating more than 20 years back and nearly resulting in a swift divorce. "About as useful as snow shovel at a sidewalk cafe in Buenos Aires," most aptly describes me in a narrow two-seater.
But I wanted the fish, so "fake it ‘til you make it" was my mantra for the day. Buddy or not, I wasn't about to let a little thing like my complete and total inability to manage the required watercraft interfere with an opportunity at the giant trout this water supposedly held.
We pull up to the put in, and Dwayne (name changed to protect his identity) is waiting for us on the tailgate of the red Chevy. Dwayne is a retired local who knows these thorny bends like the back of his age-spotted hands and offered to help us stage the vehicles.
"How's it looking?", Ozzy quizzes.
"As tangled and tormented as ever," comes the blunt reply that does very little to boost my snow-shovel-in-the-sunshine confidence. "But she's fishing well."
A few small caddis are already fluttering clumsily above the water, like overloaded airplanes struggling to clear the runway. Not bad for a sunny early afternoon, I reckon. Dwayne catches my eye and chuckles, "You can save your energy, son. These fish aren't interested in little bugs and fancy casts, they're meat eaters. You'll do best throwing brown or olive – something with some legs – in a size two; or anything that looks like a big juicy crawfish."
Noted, Dwayne. Noted and approved.
The canoe and mountain of gear is quickly unloaded, and I'm left to sort it while Dwayne and Ozzy head down to spot the truck. Rods and reels, nets and packs, pipes, and paddles; coolers and thermoses and an entire milk crate that's stocked like the top shelf of a Roaring-Twenties speakeasy. It suddenly seems like significantly more shit than our meager vessel is meant to manage, but I organize the best I can, line the rods, and slither down to the river's edge to take a better look. It can't be that bad, I assure myself.
Ozzy's back, and we finally shove off. Gratefully I'm in the bow, sitting on a freshly rebuilt seat and working to find my balance while casting from a sitting position in the overloaded banana boat. Less than a minute in we spot a riser and decide to post up, despite the formidable float still in front of us. The feeder isn’t super consistent, but consistent enough, so we watch and wait as the river slides past as tranquil as a summer moonrise. The mellowness of the moment is quickly interrupted by an ear-piercing CRACK! and I find myself sitting in the bottom of the canoe, surrounded by the splinters of the aforementioned new seat.
This is definitely not the start I envisioned.
I apologize, attempt to pull myself up, and nearly capsize the canoe in the process. "Whoa," Jon cautions, "Easy."
I already need a cigarette.
We empty the milk-crate contents unto the floor, flip it over, reposition it under the fractured remnants of the shattered seat, and call it good.
There's a learning curve to this type of fishing. The shots must be fast and the body movements subtle, controlling our drift speed the best we can, while dodging trees and busting through deadfalls with a head-down, hang-on mentality.
The most dangerous of obstacles, Ozzy warns, are the ones we can't see. Slanted branches hidden just below the stained surface that threaten to throw the canoe catawampus. Those, he promises, will flip us, and goes on to share a story of one such instance waterfowl hunting with his buddy, Steener, that deftly deposited the contents of the boat into the deep and frigid fall water. All of the contents.
The worst of the obstructions, when the entire waterway is blocked, require portages through thick, prickly vegetation, small, tightly bunched saplings, muddy, boot-sucking bogs, and old, fallen conifers that crisscross the way. There's no chance of getting anything other than a canoe down this water. And it's a challenge, even for Ozzy, who's as comfortable in the battle-scarred Mad River Tahoe that he's owned since graduation as the average person is on a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood park.
But I'm finally getting a little bolder on the new perch, finding a rhythm with each cast that doesn't portend the overt risk of a cold swim.
I launch a leggy brown streamer near a tangled log jam and the line tightens after a single strip. We're finally into our first fish, a plump and feisty low-teener with a serious Napoleon complex. Not the specimen we came for, but an exciting warm up.
I release the trout and a tremor of dread ripples through my body; angling protocol dictates it's my turn in the back.
It's not that I don't want to take my turn, or that I don't want Jon to get into a fish, it's that I'm just not sure I'm willing to die for the cause. That and the fact that my canoe-confidence ruse is now going to be thrust directly into the blinding spotlight of truth.
I get ready to grab the paddle, but Jon waves me off. Not yet. "I want you to get into one of the big boys." I'm grateful, as much for the chance to keep fishing as for the delayed embarrassment that is sure to accompany my soon-to-be-obvious deception.
We paddle on, moving a few fish and fighting through the jumbles and portages. We're heading into a sharp bend with another deep pool in front of a pile of trees and branches that looks like textbook trout territory, when Ozzy starts shouting: "Hang on and get low, we're about to hit that submerged branch hot and at a bad angle!"
My heart is pounding, this is it, we're going over. I drop to my knees and grab the gunwales as we slam into the hidden obstruction. The boat lunges hard to port, hangs up, and spins in the awkward current. Miraculously we are still upright. There's momentary chaos before we realize we are still dry and in the boat versus under it.
But we are truly and hopelessly stuck. And every movement is precarious. We try to rock off the snag, but it won't let go, and we nearly tip. We try shoving off with the paddles but that doesn't work either. And it's too deep to jump in; well over both of our heads. "You brought that handsaw, right?", Jon asks. Ah, the handsaw. It's tucked tightly into the dry bag. I fetch it, and he goes to work on the branch. "Hang on," he warns, "this dismount might get sketchy." The boat shifts as the wooden fist slowly releases its grip. Then SNAP! we are off. Rocking violently, we manage to stay upright and take the wood pile backwards and then sideways before pushing off to safety.
And that is when we decide to take a riverside break.
Pulling over to a small knob on the bank we mix cocktails, puff pipes, demolish smoked turkey from this season's tom, and slowly unwind ourselves from the near miss.
There are even more bugs now, caddis and a few Hendricksons. We helplessly watch fish rise in impossible-to-reach locations as the drinks are emptied and the virtues of the folding saw boldly extolled.
Warmed by the whiskey and calmed by the quick break, we press on. Jon paddling while I flip streamers into promising pockets, eye-catching cut banks, and the vast array of downed timber that provides perfect trout cover.
I hit the bank off the starboard side and see a flash. A big flash.
"Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh SHIT!"
I watch my streamer disappear and get a full broadside glimpse of gold the size of a Wonderbread loaf.
"FUUUUUCK! Fish, fish, fish!" I'm screaming as he peels line like a locomotive tied to paracord.
Jon scrambles for the net in the jumble of gear lining the floor and momentarily stops steering. We are careening into a giant sweeper on the right.
"Hang on," he shouts – as if I have a choice.
He drops the net and digs the paddle hard on the left, straightening us through the tangle of trees. I take a branch to the face and rake the rod through, but somehow remain hooked up to the angry engine that's gaining speed on the tracks. He's running again, but we've made it through the pinch and find ourselves in a slightly slower, wider stretch of water. Jon maneuvers us toward shore while I fight to gain control of the runaway railcars.
"Oh gosh," he exclaims as I start to bring him closer. "Oh gosh!”
“Get his head up.”
I finally do, and Ozzy makes the heavy scoop.
"Holy shit, dude! Fuck!" I can't control my nerves or the expletives pouring out of my mouth like heavy rain out of an overwhelmed downspout. I. AM. RATTLED. Bad.
I momentarily gather myself and heft the heavy, colored-up brown out of the net. He's nearly two feet of deep golden yellow with bright red spots, an angry looking kype jaw, and a sagging belly that looks like he hasn't missed a meal in a decade. "OH. MY. GOD." I yell.
Ozzy snaps a few pictures, and we send him back to the river.
"THAT is what we came for," he says, more matter-of-factly than seems appropriate in the aftermath. As if this was exactly what he expected.
It certainly wasn't what I expected. I rifle through the gear, locate my flask, and take a long warm pull. And then another. Ozzy raises his and we "cheers" the moment. I take one more swig and light a cigarette. It doesn't stop the shakes.
I don't even know how much time has passed. It all happened so fast, but somehow in slow motion. There's a very real possibility I blacked out at some point during the whole ordeal. What a fish! In terms of overall size and color, he goes down as my best brown to date.
It would be impossible for this night to get any better, at least for me, but Jon has been sequestered in the back of the boat the entire float. The situation dictates that it’s well past time to come clean(ish) about my canoeing acumen. We trade spots and I warn Ozzy that this river is a little above my paygrade and that I've never actually had an angler up front. “So,” I say, “my first goal is to not get us killed, and my second goal is to maybe get you a chance or two at fish – assuming that doesn't conflict with goal one.” He nods his approval.
We shove off and I'm as rough as tree bark. The water is quick and bendy and loaded with debris – the visible and the dreaded invisible. The term "Murder Water" is making a lot more sense now. It doesn't take an overly active imagination to conjure up some poor gas station attendant floating face down in one of the black backwater bayous we’ve passed.
But Ozzy is good with the instructions, and I start to get the hang of it, sort of, though speed control in the canoe is much different than in the drift boats and rafts I am accustomed to. So, we clip past some prime spots without so much as a cast. If my shots needed to be quick, his need to be lightning fast.
I work to unravel the back-paddle technique and finally slow us, a little, and by some miracle Jon's actually into a fish. I can't believe it! But I'm still moving too quick, and he loses him. Damn it! Two bends later and he's into another one, but the water is pushing into a narrow, tree-tangled chute about half as wide as our canoe. It's the only way and I have one shot at hitting it in the fast current. "Hang on," I yell, and we rip through. The rod gets tangled in the branches and the line wraps around an overhanging limb that pulls the fish up and out of the water, releases him mid-air, and sends him back to his home with one hell of a story to tell his buddies. Shit!
I'm oh-for-two as guide and feel horrible. About my slight deception regarding my skills, the fact I caught my best trout to date on his water, and that I can't even control the damn boat enough to let him land the fish he keeps hooking.
But he just laughs, "Don't worry about it, dude, our night has already been made with that fish you caught. This is all just a bonus." It's generous but does little to ease my anguish.
And then we round a bend with a little slack water. There's a deep, nearly black pool that extends across the entire river, and a trout-hotel-looking pile of debris just off the inside seam. I manage to slow us just enough for a shot. I'm holding my breath. This might be the chance. The moment is completely still and filled with anticipation.
A precise roll cast. The streamer lands with a satisfying plop right along the cover. Strip, strip, tight. The seven weight folds in two, pulsing with an electric current.
"Holy hell!", I scream, while furiously trying to back paddle.
"Good fish," Jon manages to squeak out, as the rod continues to throb uncontrollably.
She’s diving deep and heading for cover. Ozzy manages to keep her out, but she's still holding in the dark water out of sight. The see-saw battle continues, and I finally see a flash. It's a really good fish.
I backpaddle as hard as I can, and Oz finally makes a little headway with the reel. She's coming up. I manage to bring us back to what might literally be the only dock section in the entire river, hold on with one hand, and play net man with the other. Jon finally battles her close enough and I make good with the landing.
We both exhale, high five, and then whoop it up like we just won game seven of the World Series. We lift her out of the net for a few pictures – a beautiful light-gold female with heavy spots, and deep blue cheeks pushing past the 22-inch mark. I truly can't believe our luck. One fish like this makes a season, and we’ve managed to land two in a single night!
Flasks are once again uncapped, and toasts are made. To the river, to the fish, and to the friendship.
But the sun is starting to dip low behind the trees and based on the GPS we still have some serious distance to cover before the takeout. So, much to my relief, we switch spots again and while I still make a few casts, managing to land one more respectable fish, we are pushing through with nightfall hot on our heels.
As dusk sets in, the Murder Water looks more and more murderous. We fight through another series of downed trees, a couple backbreaking portages, and a tormenting cloud of mosquitos that has emerged ravenous from some opening in hell’s gates.
We finally make it to the big hill in complete darkness and manage to drag the canoe up the steep bank. The boat bottom is a soaking pile of flotsam – standing water, bags, bottles, gear, flies, and assorted tree parts. We carefully tip the water out and unload by headlamp. My face and neck are scratched and bug bitten, my body aches, my hands are bleeding, and I have branches down the back of my jacket, in my waders, and in the laces of my boots. I’m spent.
The truck loaded and canoe secured, we lean exhausted against the cab and take a pipe.
I fumble for the right words. "Hey, man, thanks for today. What an adventure and what a couple of fish. I really appreciate you showing me this place."
He takes a slow drag and nods, aromatic smoke reflecting in the white beam of the headlamp.
"Don't mention it," he grins.