Friday, August 27, 2010

The Reservoir

(I dug out this story from deep within my hard drive the other day. I had written it back when I lived in rural Ohio and was regularly bass fishing with one of my best friends from high school. I have paired the story with some recent photos from Russell Miller…from a very similar fishing trip a decade later.)

The reservoir is near perfect. It’s close to home, well hidden and few people know exactly where it is. It’s not tiny, but easily small enough to fish entirely in an afternoon by two driven individuals with fly rods and float tubes.
There are lots of fish. Most of them aren’t big, but there’s plenty of healthy one-to-three-pound largemouth bass. The bass there have this spunky, naive cockiness that makes you laugh and want to refer to them as friends, not combatants. It’s something about the way they strike a large fly and then jump over and over again—like a roped mustang that knows he’ll never be ridden. Something about the unbeaten, feisty look they give you when you’re holding them firmly by the bottom lip. Then the indignant splash in the face with the caudal fin when they’re released. And the water is always clear, so their black lateral markings are always dark, distinct and beautiful.
But, like most things perfect, pure or beautiful and within reach of man, the reservoir is slated for a few rounds of raping and defacing. I’m sure there will always be fish there, so it won’t be utter ruin, but their wonderful innocence will fade when the bulldozers come.
The township has owned the reservoir and the land around it for long enough to round up and say forever. But it has now been sold. The rumors, from those with both knowledge of the reservoir and of township politics, are that three local men went in on the venture together. Some are saying the three plan to divvy it up into a half-dozen smaller lots and make a killing in real estate.
With that in mind, Jason and I rationalized that trespassing would be, by comparison, almost innocent. And, after further thought, we figured sneaking back past the No Trespassing signs was our duty. We couldn’t justify not doing it – to ourselves, anyway. We had to do our part to preserve the reservoir, even if it was just saving the once fantastic fishing in our memory.
* * *
I had set the alarm clock to go off before light, but, although there is plenty of motivation to get up at the crack of dawn, it is Saturday morning, so it just doesn’t happen. The sun is already up by the time I load my rod, fishing vest and float tube into the truck and leave the apartment.
Two young whitetail deer bound across the road in front of me and stop in someone’s front lawn to look back at me. I slow down and the deer and I stare at each other as I glide by. Their red spring coats make them stand out vividly against the lush new greens around them. I notice one of them has velvet knobs on its head, the beginnings of his first set of antlers. They flip their tails as I pass and I watch in the rear view mirror and see them stripping leaves from a young ornamental tree. The homeowners are still in bed. The curtains are drawn.
Seeing the deer renews my enthusiasm to fish the reservoir. They make me feel fleet and a bit brazen…like a righteous outlaw. Like a whitetail on a front lawn. I drive on, only faster because I know Jason has probably been ready to go for better than an hour. I regret sleeping in.

* * *
Melissa comes to the door in pajamas when I knock.
“Jason up?” I ask.
“Come on in,” she says, still partially asleep. “He never came to bed last night. He was up messing with his flies.”
I see Jason sprawled out on the couch in shorts
and no shirt and his mouth is open and his eyes are closed. A stool is pulled up with a fly vise attached to it. Bags of hooks and feathers are everywhere. Some deer hair dragonflies are embedded in an arm of the couch.
Melissa leans over and shakes him awake.
“Is Jay here yet?” Jason mumbles.
“Yes, he’s standing right here,” she says.
He stands up quickly, staggers, and then starts picking out assorted fishing gear from the mess he has made on the living room floor.
“How long ya been here?” he asks.
“Just walked in. Just woke up myself.” I rub my eyes and yawn. “We can do this later in the day if you want.”
“Hell no,” he says.
We discuss strategy once Jason has all his gear in my truck. Not fishing strategy, evasion strategy. The plan we cook goes something like this: drive out to Jason’s parents’ farm and drop him off so he can get his 4-wheeler. From there I’ll drive the mile or two out to the reservoir and stash our float tubes and flippers. There’s a house right at the entrance of the gravel lane going back to the reservoir. The lady who lives there is the self-appointed guardian. She’ll call the sheriff if anything seems fishy… Once I have the tubes dropped off, I’ll quick drive back out past the house and meet Jason back at the farm. We’ll wait there for a while, until we feel everything has settled down. The lady might see my truck come and go and think it doesn’t warrant a call for the law. If she calls anyway, there won’t be anything to find. The coast will be clear. That’s when we make our move. Jason and I will come in the back way, along edges of fields and down deer trails on the 4-wheeler – brandishing fly rods. If we need to make a getaway, we’ll hide the float tubes again and take off on the 4-wheeler. We’re untouchable. Sneaky like a coon on a chicken farm.
* * *
“No sign of anybody back there, huh?” Jason asks.
“Nope.” I fiddle with a piece of straw from the floor of the barn. “No people. No tracks. I bet it ain’t been fished all summer.”
The first part of the plan worked. I got the tubes and flippers stashed behind a brush pile with leaves and branches draped over top of them. Now there’s nothing to do but wait. So far, so good.
Jason looks out the open barn door and flicks a wadded up piece of straw in the general direction of his dads’ cows. “How was the water?” he asks.
“Good. Really clear.”
We stand and look out the barn door some more.
“My dad can’t plant anything straight,” Jason says.
I follow his gaze out past the cattle, out
to the wheat field. The crop is thick and vibrant. It ripples slightly with the light morning breeze, like nervous water on the surface of a calm pond.
“Looks like a drunk man planted it. It’s bad. Look at it!” He flicks another piece of straw out the barn door. “With wheat you can really tell, too. You can still see it’s crooked. You can see where the planter went. It looks like he just let go of the wheel…looked back and let the tractor go wherever. Oh, man. Big gaps. He missed three…four foot wide gaps.”
I nod my head and wonder how the fishing will be.
“Looks like dog shit,” Jason says.
“whatta ya think?” I glance at Jason. He’s still peering out at the wheat field. “Think it’s safe to go back yet?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s your call.”
* * *
We drive in slow, in first gear. The four-wheeler is still too loud, so we stop occasionally in the tall, wet grasses and listen for voices or engine noises. Once we’re close enough and can see
reflection from the water through the trees I dismount the four-wheeler and recon up ahead. I used to do this sort of thing back when I was in the service. It was the fun part of the Army…the part I was good at. A young sheriff’s deputy doesn’t stand a chance at getting the jump on me today.
I approach the reservoir from one of the wooded sides, so I can’t get a great view of the entire bank. But I’m concealed by a grove of poplar, sumac and maple, with a good view of the other side—the side where our gear is stashed and where the gravel lane connects us and the reservoir to the road, civilization and the law. There is nobody here. Everything is just as serene as it was an hour or so ago. There is very little evidence of people back here…even old sign. No trash, no tracks, no fire pits. But at the far corner, near the one good stand of cattails, is an old, dilapidated outbuilding. It’s a prefabricated steel hut and the door is left open. On its’ floor lies a dirty yellow life preserver covered with bits and pieces fallen from the rotted shelving and drop ceiling. At the edge of the water near this building is a concrete drain. From a distance it looks like the remains of an old dock. There is a single metal picket post sticking out of the water at an angle with a sunken fiberglass dinghy lashed to it. The water is so clear that if viewed from above, you might not realize the boat is on the bottom.

I turn to motion the All Clear to Jason, but see he is already off the four-wheeler and headed toward me with our fly rods. The four-wheeler is parked for a fast departure—facing the way we came. I give a thumbs up. And a grin. The reservoir is ours.
“Where’d you leave our shit?”
I nod in the direction of the other side.
* * *
Putting flippers on your feet while on dry land, then waddling over to an inflated doughnut of a float tube, climbing in, strapping yourself down and then trying to get into the water has got to be one of the most uncoordinated, clumsy things I’ve ever attempted. Barring a certain drunken late-night episode on a trampoline that I’m still struggling to erase from my memory. And I’m sure she is too.
I can’t help but feel silly, even though the only person who can see me is a good friend who is struggling into the same sort of contraption. But everything changes once we’re free floating and in water deep enough not to touch bottom and risk getting feet and flippers lost in the mud. Now I feel as graceful and commanding as a big goose on a duck pond. I can move in any direction with the slightest kick, I can spin all the way around without falling down. And my face is close enough to the surface of the water to give my mind the illusion of swimming.
Jason kicks out next to me and then we drift slowly apart—intent on getting rigged to fish. We’ll be tying on the same thing: a Krystowski Minnow. We tie them in various sizes and colors, but the one I fish the most is about two or three inches of black, chartreuse and white Icelandic sheep hair from the Erie Outfitters fly shop. I tie them on size 1 stinger hooks with small, painted lead eyes—tied so the hook bend rides up and makes it less prone to snagging weeds. I tie all the sheep hair in right behind the lead eyes and use the butt ends of the black hair (which I put on last) to wrap a few times around the eyes to give it sort of a bulky head. The sheep hair undulates through the water and makes it look alive. The white eyes with round black pupils make it look scared shitless…which makes bass a bit nuts.
I hook my first fish before I’m ready. I’m stripping line off the reel and kicking out away from the bank. The bass takes my fly, but there’s too much slack line out on the water for me to set the hook, so I promptly lose him. I look over to see if Jason has seen what has just happened. He has.
“I wasn’t ready yet.”
He nods. Then his fly line jerks and he raises his rod tip, setting the hook firmly. “Whoa!” he says.
I quick get my line under control and make a short cast back to the edge where we entered the water. Jason’s bass jumps twice, barely reentering the water before coming back up. I hear him laugh. I strip my own line back toward me as fast as I can, making the Krystowski Minnow dart through the clear reservoir like a panicked bluegill. And a bass strikes it hard enough to make a swirl on the surface of the water and yank line out of my hand. “Whoa! Shit!” I say and set the hook proper into this one.
The bass keep hitting at a feverish pitch. Hitting hard, too, and jumping. We have one on every third or fourth cast. Most times we’re fighting fish at the same time. We quick release them and position ourselves for another cast. I’m so cranked up I’m close to hyperventilating, but neither one of us dares slow down. We know this action can’t last. It’s crazy.
But it never lets up. After two hours we have each caught and released over three dozen largemouth bass, most over twelve inches and some around sixteen inches. We’re working our way around the edge of the reservoir, leapfrogging each other down the bank in our float tubes. The action doesn’t slow down, but we do. Our arms are tired from casting and then frantically stripping in line. I decide to slow down my retrieve, but then get even lazier and just leave my line out and troll. I’m giving my legs a workout, but resting my arms. My fly sinks deeper because I’m kicking along slower than I was retrieving, but there’s obviously plenty of bass down deep as well. I’m still getting hook ups.
I see Jason has taken a different approach. It looks like he has gone with something top water. That way he can cast and rest. I cruise past him to see what sort of fly he’s using. I get close enough to see for myself, without asking. It’s a grasshopper pattern with a clipped deer hair head. A good-sized bass swirls and takes the fly as I’m watching. Jason lifts his rod fast and snaps his four-pound tippet.
“Damn,” he says. “Got too excited!”
By this time we have both caught enough fish. Losing one, even if it is a good one, is hardly a disappointment.
Then we hear gravel crunching. Gravel under tires. We freeze. Jason lets a back cast fall to the water behind him and I stop kicking with my flippers. Deer in headlights.
A black SUV rounds the final bend in the gravel lane and comes to a halt at the edge of the reservoir. We can’t see inside, but the tinted drivers-side window glares at us. Jason and I stare back. We’re prepared for this…but we do nothing. Suddenly the vehicle is put in reverse and turned around and then it is gone in a cloud of gravel dust.
“That was her,” Jason says.
My arms are numb and my heart is racing.
“Yup,” I say. Then I finish my retrieve. And a bass hits. I hold my rod high and the fish leaps, spraying water back at me. I cackle loudly. Jason hoots. No sense in being sneaky now. We’ve been compromised. The law is in route, no doubt.
I let the bass go and look over at Jason. “So…whatta we do?”
“Well,” he says as he winds in his fly line. “I hate to leave.” He looks at me and arches his eyebrows to express the importance of what he is about to say. “But we sorta have to!”
* * *
We kick to shore and climb out of our float tubes with a strange sense of calm urgency. We know we don’t have much time, but we know we have enough. I drag all of our bulky gear back behind the brush pile were I had hidden it all before and cover it with dead leaves and branches. By now Jason has located the four-wheeler and gotten it started. I take only my fly rod and fishing vest with me.
I climb onto the back of the four-wheeler with Jason and we beat feet, move out, di di mau…vacate the area at a high rate of speed.
Somewhere near the middle of a large, overgrown field we cut the engine and hunker down. The grasses and weeds are tall enough to completely conceal the four-wheeler, and once we are down beside it we have all but vanished without an easily noticeable trace.
“Damn. Was that some hot fishin’ or what?” I say as more of a testament than a question.
“Yeah,” Jason says. “Too bad ya can’t write about it.”

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