Updated: Jul 16, 2020
"OH SHIT!" The words erupt without permission after two quick strips and a metallic flash engulfs my streamer. The rod pulses wildly as line burns out from under calloused fingers. I'm pretty sure I'm into one of the monster smallies this water is known for, until I get another look and realize I'm attached by nothing more than a thin clear thread to a trophy brown.
My heart is instantly in my throat and I can't breathe. Everything else in the world stops. My mouth is dry. My ears are ringing.
I keep tension on the rod as the fish runs, heading for heavy water. Back and forth we go. Gaining and losing. A seesaw dance in which I swing from lead to follow at the whim of my partner. I'm finally able to work him towards the boat but we miss and he's running hard again for the dark current. I'm shaken. "You're ok. You're ok", Jon encourages. But I don't feel ok. At all. And I make damn sure everyone in the boat knows it. We tango our way through a couple more numbers and I manage to work him close again but, seeing the net, he dives, folding my eight weight in half like an overcooked spaghetti noodle. I'm seeing little black spots at this point. It's total chaos as the net gets frantically passed around the cluttered skiff like a hot potato. The band begins to slow and once more I bring him close - the netman earning his keep in a quick heavy scoop. I finally remember to breathe. I need to sit down for a second. Reaching for a cigarette I realize the pack is empty. Cursing myself, I find the closest flask and take a swig. Then another. And another. I'm still shaking. It's not until after the fish is safely released that I'm able to piece together the last five minutes, which seem to have taken place in the third person while I somehow left and then returned to my body. On wobbly legs I stand and make my way to the middle seat. I'm shot for any more fishing today.
This moment, this collision of circumstances, began a year and a half ago when I met Jon Osborn at the Fly Fishing Film Tour in Grand Rapids while manning the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers' booth. We talked for a while and I purchased his latest book: Flyfisher's Guide to Michigan in which he inscribed the simple words "Here's to fishing the PM - and parts unknown. Tight Lines." Little did I know.
Since that first meeting, Jon and I have developed a friendship, realizing a common passion not only for fly fishing but for fine words laid down on paper and fine bourbon laid down neat, just to name a few. But we had yet to wet a line together. On a warm, partly-clouded June day that changed and I'm finally able to chase parts unknown, at least to me, with the guy that literally wrote the book on Michigan's fly water. Better still, we are joined by another mutual friend, Jason Veeneman, who spends his days teaching high school history, his evenings building custom bamboo fly rods and the time in between with prose in hard cover and spirits in brown form. Even if we never move a fish the day is destined to be a good one.
At this point, I feel compelled (for sake of context) to confess to being someone who values solitude and I often fish alone. Since we're confessing, I'll further admit at times to being a creature of habit. For me there's always something comforting in fishing proven waters where the river bottom is as familiar as an old flannel and the fish holds are as known as a faithful lucky hat. But I'm also a restless soul, constantly pulled by the lure of the undiscovered. And, with some newfound time on my hands this season, I dedicated myself to chasing new water with a smattering of friends who I hadn't, for one excuse or another, spent much time with. It was a season for atonement. To move beyond the comfort of the old flannel. It was time to feel the pull of new water and the draw of conversations with someone other than myself.
Our day begins at 6 AM when Jon picks me up. We'll meet Jason north of town at the takeout, spot the car and make our way. Today Jon is leading us on his favorite stretch of river described in his book as "one of the most scenic stretches...in lower Michigan." This water is known to hold trophy-sized browns, hefty resident rainbows and plenty of outsized bronzebacks.
The ride goes quickly, the conversation ranging from fishing to family to music, to books to politics to bourbon and back to fishing while we sip our coffees and the morning dawns. We roll into the parking lot and find Jason waiting, drop the car and head to the put in. Right out of the gate the fishing is good. Jason is on the sticks and Jon and I are moving eager trout with nearly every cast and making good on some of them. We have the river to ourselves save for an eagle that we gently bump from perch to perch as we work down the winding waterway in the quietness of the Michigan morning.
Along the way we stop to switch spots, or take a break and talk or grab a bite.
Our conversation is as fluid as the river and as rewarding as the fishing. Sometimes like the deep outside bends, other times like shallow riffles running over rock.
We lose track of time. Our eight-hour float pushing to twelve. Lost in the wonder of new water and the camaraderie of friends that share a passion for wild places.
Only later do I fully realize that parts unknown may not even be a reference to a place, but rather to those hidden pieces of myself discovered on a new ribbon of water with friends. Found in the moments that cause me to see things differently, maybe for the first time, because I am finally paying attention. The moments in which my expectations are altered. My views expanded. My senses awakened.
Once again, I feel connected to all things living. The eagle and the trout. The trees and the grass. I gaze into the mysterious water and see myself reflected back. Differently.