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Core Samples

Jay Meehan, Contributing writer

Looking back over his shoulder, after hoisting himself a couple of rungs up on the fence gate, rewarded the early morning angler with more vertigo than vision. When the blood left his brain it did so without leaving a forwarding address. Although he keeled-over backwards, somehow, he managed to land face-first – a feat that should have earned him bonus points for technical difficulty.

After a short spell, he rose to all fours and gazed into his recent past. His boot-prints ran Doppler-like backwards down the lane away from the slits of his squinting eyes until they became an ever-diminishing not-quite-straight line in the snow. He followed them across the tire-tracked narrows they called a road and up to the swaybacked farmhouse he called home.

Glancing through a missing slat atop the neighbor’s barn he noticed no change in Poncho’s silhouette. At least the resident great horned owl hadn’t witnessed his humiliating tumble or the raptor’s head would have rotated and his always-smug smirk would have been in evidence. Poncho, it would seem, was dead to the world. Dawn had broken and he was a graveyard-shift kind of guy.

The old fiberglass fly rod remained undisturbed where he had placed it against the gatepost. He’d been trying to fracture that Fenwick for years but, seemingly, no amount of abuse was sufficient. If it could only be rendered useless, he could replace it with one of those new-fangled composite jobs. But no! It would more than likely outlast him.

His second attempt at scaling the gate proved more successful. He and his boot tracks continued on through the aspens and up to the rock-chuck trail above the stream bank. The section he would now fish had been dredged sometime back-in-the-day, but natural habitat had re-asserted itself over time. This was a good thing for the German brown trout.

He wasn’t really all that adept at winter trout fishing as far as the hooking-up end of things, but nothing turned his crank like early morning forays along ice-tinged riparian meanders. In fact, it was as much about fox and raccoons and sparrow hawks doing-those-things-they-do under the waning night sky as it was about the big hook-jawed browns.

You had to put their breakfast right on their nose. Trout logic weighs the caloric upside of the offered dish against the caloric downside of expended energy. If they had to actually reach across the table, they would more than likely pass.

He loved the ritual. Deciding where the trout were hanging-out and which delicacy might tempt them had a way of making one feel part of the ecological whole. It’s about setting the table and, as with most entrees, presentation is everything.

This task was usually accomplished indoors near the potbelly stove where fingers were nimble and minds were only somewhat numbed. He knew where the fish were hangin’ before he left the house. On any given mid-February morning during those years, the trout were deep and not moving much.

So he already had the chosen fly, a small weighted streamer, knotted to the tippet section of his leader prior to completing the inverted aerial off the gate. He had that going for him.

There would be no fumbling with frozen fingers attempting a clinch-knot on this day. That was all back-story and subtext. This February morning’s plot would turn on the stalking of "Cisco," a rather large and territorial brown trout whose turf included a deep hole cut away into a gently curving bank a few hundred yards upstream.

A sidebar concerning how Poncho and Cisco got their names might well be in order. The summer previous, while nosin’ about the neighbor’s huge abandoned barn, our fishing friend was caught unawares by some thunderous "whacking" noises coming from above. Reacting to the din, he looked up and caught sight of a rather immense owl.

The bird, save for a slowly pivoting head, was totally immobile and, as such, not the origin of the racket on the roof. The loud whacking continued, however, relegating owl appreciation to another time. Bounding out the still open barn doors, our hero was greeted with a sight most inexplicable.

Upon the roof were two "storks." You know, storks — the birds that deliver babies by airfreight. Neither was much larger than your average carrier-based F-14. They were doing battle. In some kind of arcane ritual, they would both rear back and whack the other’s beak with their own. Whack! Whack! Whack!

Then, in a most comedic display, they began running along the barn-roof ridgeline while flapping their wings in a quite ungainly manner. Into thin air they leaped with wings still flapping. Downward they plummeted with wings still flapping. Until, just before smashing into the ground, they, somehow, ever so slowly, regained altitude.

Off they flew in battered and blissful flight — saddle pals and sidekicks on the wing — getting smaller and smaller and curiouser and curiouser. Enigmatic, to be sure — but in some weird way, completely comforting.

The angler spent much of the rest of that summer learning to speak "owl" and took to packing a camera on his fishing jaunts trying to capture the illusive nocturnal image. One morning just before daybreak he heard a series of "hoots." The round-bodied bass-notes brought him out of his casting reverie. Setting down his rod he flipped up the "flash" on his SLR and crept toward his prey.

In retrospect, it appeared that the next volley of "hoots," coupled with the loud splashing of what must have been a beaver gone mad, startled the wannabe nature photographer into a rapid-fire sequence of blasphemous grumblings and shots-in-the-dark.

By the time the camera got stowed and the "hooting" had ceased, the fly rod had turned up missing. When finally located in the middle of some downstream "pocket water," the barbless hook on the streamer had been bent straight. The "beaver" turned out to be a "lunker brown" whose appetite became aroused by the "dancing," yet unattended, fly.

Concluding that the owl and trout were in cahoots and that their streamside antics were orchestrated, the angler began calling them "Poncho" and "Cisco." And to cruise their "hood" on a beautifully frozen February morning was a blessing, a baptism, a sanctification. Oftentimes, he would get so "high," back-flips were in order.


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