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Selected Essays of Robert Doggett:

Elvis Slept Here

Among The Hang Gliders

Mean Kids

The Headmaster

Writ In Water

Letters and Commentary:

Barron's Letter 7/26/2004

Fiction by Robert Doggett:



Among The Hang Gliders
This essay first appeared in slightly different form in The Yale Angler's Review:

Among the Hang Gliders

Even before there was a movie, there was the book. The movie is Robert Redford's adaptation of A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean, and many Montanans have referred to it with great contempt, especially since it has caused legions of tourists to descend on Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena every summer, not to mention the real estate developers, movie stars, and—best of all—exhorbitant property taxes that have come with the state's newfound popularity to make life more complicated for the average Montanan.

But this story goes back to the late seventies, when A River Runs Through It was still only a book. In fact, it wasn't even available in paperback. I read it and thought to myself, "This looks like a great way to fish." And it was. I took flyfishing lessons from a fellow named Doug McNair, and our final exam took place a few hours from my home in
Seattle near Morton, Washington, on a tiny stream called the Tilton River. For most of that day a dozen or so of usthrashed around and surrounded a small number of planted rainbow trout planted in its waters. For all we knew these fish had been genetically programmed to grow at astounding rates when force-fed liver pellets in fish hatcheries, and self-destruct by striking any lure or fly in their vicinity.The day ended with few fish caught, and I remember saying to myself, "There must be more to it than this." There was, and that is the subject of this story.

A year or so went by, but I still hadn't had any angling adventures worth noting. At that time in the local fishing community and circulating in the gossip at Seattle area fly shops was talk of the seep lakes of Eastern Washington. These were lakes in the hollows and coulees of the desert on the other side of the Cascade Range that hadn't existed a few years before. They had come into being only because the Grand Coulee Dam and Potholes Dam had raised the water table when the lakes behind them were filled. Several of the new lakes had been set aside by the Department of Game as "Quality Water" with a restricted limit, and the rest was history. The rich waters came to be filled with large trout which, even though they were planted and anything but native fish, fought hard and had been known to leave anglers gasping with excitement.

To fish in these lakes I first had to get directions, so I enlisted the aid of a parent of one of my students, Larry Wheeler, who had been going to them for years. It was necessary to walk into the lakes across an old railroad grade, and one of the amazing things about this man was that he drove a vintage car—a Nash or Studebaker or Dodge Dart—that had actually sustained damage to the front fender where it came down around the chassis from bouncing over those very same railroad tracks in the early days when it had been possible to drive to the lakes. Accompanying
us were two of my students who had been lured by my rhapsodizing about catching large trout on fly rods. Kris Moe and Chris McKey were close friends, and though they might at first have been confused because of their first names, it soon became apparent that they were quite different. Chris was low-key, sweet-natured person and very nearly a
perfect student, but he wasn't given over to emotion in quite the same way that Kris, who was bigger and played on the basketball team, was. Yes, Kris was more of a worrier, but compensated for the higher stress level by being possessed of a delightful ability to laugh at his own foibles and project a warm, yet ironic smile into the furthest corners of the room.

Off we went. It was a lovely, sunny May morning, and back in those days hang gliders would catch the thermals off the north-facing cliffs of the Saddle Range and drift down a couple of thousand feet to the desert below. It seemed propitious to look back over our shoulders as we hiked toward the lake and see these colorful shapes slipping downward, silhouetted against the nearly perpendicular rock walls behind. Larry took us along a trail to the shore of the lake, suggesting that we fan out and fish the shallows where we might stand in our waders. I followed him a little
further east to where the path sloped sharply upward, though, and he pointed out into the beautiful, clear water and said, "Shhh."

For there were cruisers that day along the lake shore, and Larry loved sight fishing for trout more than any other method. He crouched low to the ground and began to pull his line vigorously from the reel, single hauling it out into a loop as fast as he could. This was back before specialized nymph and pupa patterns made lake fishing as precise as
it is today, and, as for access to the lake, there were probably as many people wading as there were out in boats they'd carried in. Nowadays ninety-percent of the people who come to the seep lakes fish from float tubes, but then things were different. Wheeler fished a big Carey Special on a 4XL hook, and he was obviously planning on using this ultimate "general" pattern to make an impression on the fish. It did so, and almost immediately he was fast onto a big rainbow which went screaming out into the deep water in its bid for freedom. I must have said something like, "Whoa, cool," as he brought the fish in and released it, though I did have the good sense to leave him alone as he continued to stalk fish from the high ground. I'd been flycasting about a year, but even then I knew there was a great difference between learning to roll-cast from the Greenlake casting pier near home under Doug's watchful eye and
actually sending a loop of line far enough out into Lake Lenice to put it in the way of a cruising fish, all without spooking it. A limited amount of conventional overhead casting was even possible from the rock slopes where Lawrence had positioned himself, but precious little, and locust trees and sage brush seemed to obstruct the ambitious angler at every turn.

I walked back to where Kris and Chris had waded out. None of us had neoprene waders that day. I'm not sure they were even on the market back then, so, though the air was sunny and warm, the lake water was cold as it pressed against our knees. We fished for a while, and then I saw Chris raise the tip of his rod as it curved and pulsated once.
Just as quickly, it was straight again. Kris hadn't seen the strike, and a few moments later said, "I wonder whether there really are any fish in here or not."

"Just you wait," said Chris, who had by now tied on another fly and was throwing his line back across the water to the same spot.

I looked down into the depths to see a small, pale green swimming creature attach itself to my waders and begin to climb upward. "A damselfly," I thought. Taking out a size eight pheasant tail nymph that I'd been told was a fair imitation of a damselfly pupa, I then began to play a game with myself, thinking of how to best cover the water out to
the edge of the weeds toward the dropoff into deeper water. It made sense to cast once straight out into the middle of the lake at a ninety-degree angle, then off to each side, perhaps occasionally even casting into the very shallow water perpendicular to shore. My mind was completely absorbed in this Euclidian line of thought when something happened that was so mysterious and transforming that it could never be described by lines or angles of the fly line and rod itself. No, this force was not only sudden but seemed to represent a sort of crisis of one world meeting
another. I never even saw the fish, but I saw then why Chris had said "Just you wait," and I understood in small measure, too, how wonderful the waiting would be in future. The take and sudden breakoff of the big rainbow was really more like an explosion with no aftermath, a blast in which the only damage was the breaking off of a fly from the rather detumescent-looking fragment of tippet that remained.

All of us broke off fish that day. We couldn't say quite how big they were. Three pounds? Five pounds? We weren't using any tippet lighter than four-x, but it's also worth remembering that none of us had had any experience with trout this strong, big, and unpredictable—nor were our knots particularly well-tied. Just a few minutes after that first strike
another fish had spared my tippet by only slashing at my nymph. It left me to retrieve a pathetically mutilated fly whose folded-back pheasant tail fibers had been ripped through, a fly whose wing case was transformed into what looked like a partially opened parachute. Since then I’ve heard people say that the beaten up and chewed version of this or that fly works better than the original; from time to time I've even believed them, but if they could've seen this pheasant tail nymph, they wouldn't have wasted their time on such a story. It was mangled so badly that it looked
more like Jim Hendrix's hair after a performance than the original pattern.

Since the three of us broke off or otherwise lost so many fish that day, in my memory it becomes transformed from the utter failure it seemed at the time to a triumph in which I recall the quickening pulse every time a fish would make a sharp, panicked pull, then break free. But it was more than that. In my mind's eye I can see those same fish on a blistering hot August day crashing to the surface to take blue-bodied adult damselflies. Or in the early spring cruising the shallows gulping down chironomids, their mouths moving as they circle tightly in a small bay where the tiny black
swimmers are wriggling toward the surface. Or, perhaps best of all, lying still under a foot of ice when the temperature drops down to 0 degrees in early January and there is hardly any movement at all under the surface of
the lake except for the occasional doomed scud flitting from one strand of weed to another in the darkness down near the bottom.

Larry caught a few more fish sight casting that day, but we three neophytes never really did figure out what had hit us. It was an odd mixture of exhilaration and frustration we felt walking back toward the car, the pastel hang gliders still drifting imperceptibly downward on that spring afternoon, back when few people realized just how dangerous
hang gliding could be. I've thought about the day a lot since then. Kris has become a doctor. Chris joined the Navy and a few years ago was a submarine officer. Both still looking below the surface, it would seem. How appropriate, that in the company of the man who'd smashed up the underside of his car bouncing over the old railroad tracks to visit Lake Lenice, we three would find ourselves searching for invisible forces out of sight, forces that were, that day at least, too powerful for us to control.

When we three stepped into the the path of these big, feeding trout, it was as though we'd momentarily become wild and unpredictable like them, linked as we were by a slender, optimistic thread of monofilament. For just a second they had been tethered to us, and for that brief instant our hearts raced in the expectation that we might tame them. And whether the strike took the form of a sudden speeding up of line as it took off at an angle to the rod, or a rattling of the plastic flyline through the guides as the sudden, unbearable tension of a big swimmer in a state of alarm made itself felt, it was always something that gave us wonder, something that would never lose its mystery for us, coming as it did from a world we could only view darkly and from a distance.

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