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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An Old Friend Named Moccasin: Parts I-III

Part I

Past dark, the full moon was helping, but flashlights were needed to follow the trail out. Walking ten or twelve steps behind was for the best. Childish? Perhaps. Good judgment to help process frustration? Possibly. Who’s to say; it was 40 years ago. Parts of memory fade and blur, parts retain clarity.

How many fish did Howard catch that evening? A lot. Exactly how many? Memory has faded on that. With a good fiberglass rod of the times how well could he cast? Smoothly, effortlessly, beautifully, the line settled on the water with few enough coils left on the reel to begin to see the backing; he made casting a fly rod seem exotic. He made fly fishing seem spiritual. It is.

How many fish did I bring to hand that evening? Memory is clear. None. How well did I cast with a seven foot fiberglass rod and a level, 5 weight line? The wind, the level line, and a simple lack of skill all conspired; memory is clear, I cast poorly. It was June of 1971; Howard had just introduced me to fly fishing the month before. That warm summer evening he introduced me to Moccasin Lake. I wanted to be friends with Moccasin; I wanted us to learn to like each other a lot. I wanted the time we shared together to be wonderful. How could I be friends with someone who was so mean to me?

I didn’t begrudge Howard his fish; I wanted him to catch a bunch. It’s just that I wanted to catch a bunch too. And I didn’t. I didn’t blame him for hooking fish after fish and I didn’t blame him for me not bringing even one to hand. When it was finally time to leave, we walked, in our hip boots, around the end of the lake and then the mile back to the car. Not wanting at that moment to be consoled for my lack of success on my first date with Moccasin I walked 10 or 12 steps behind him. It helped me to process my frustration. Back at the car I was willing to talk. Howard was patient and helpful.

Located in the Methow Valley, Moccasin Lake is on a working cattle ranch. In the 70’s and 80’s the owners of the ranch allowed the public to walk across their property to the lake. The Washington State Game Department agreed to stock the lake with Trout as long as the owners allowed access to the public. Rich with food, the lake provided the fish the calories they needed to grow big and fat.

Howard was friends with the ranch managers, Roy and Marge Simon. The next evening we had an early dinner with Roy and Marge. After dinner Howard and I walked up the hill; it was my second date with Moccasin. The size of the fish in the lake was no longer just stories to me, I had seen them the night before; my anticipation was high again. My casting had not magically improved during the night; that would only come with practice and better gear. Using the same 7 foot fiberglass rod and level 5 weight fly line I tied a Shrimp pattern on the mono tippet. Large, rising fish close to shore made my hands shake; those fish were in reach and they were so much larger than the fish I was used to catching.

After Howard had released a few fish doubt was creeping in for me. Shaking hands were replaced by a stiff neck and tightening shoulders. Seemingly for no good reason and totally without warning my rod bent and the white line was peeling off my Pflueger Medalist; I could hardly believe it. In a few minutes, mouth out of the water, fly in his lip, my first Moccasin Lake fish was laying on the surface next to me waiting to be unbuttoned. At that point that fish was the biggest Trout I had caught on a fly. It was like a first kiss. While it was enough to make my second date an excellent one I wanted more kisses. Man did I want more kisses. Lots more kisses!

How big was that fish? Memory blurs. Somewhere around 16 inches would be a good estimate. It was big enough to peel out line at a good clip, it was big enough to put a good bend in that 7 foot rod, it was big enough to relax my neck and shoulders and make my hands shake again.

How many fish did Howard catch that evening? Plenty. How many did I catch? I was teased with some strikes and did get a couple more to hand. How many exactly? I don’t know. It was enough that Howard and I walked out together. Moccasin had grabbed me; I was ready to return the following evening. Other lakes in Washington, British Columbia, and Wyoming would grab me in the years ahead. Lenice, Merry, Nunnally, and Chopaka Lakes were some of the early ones; because I have such long history with them they will always be special. Moccasin was the first; the first lake where my hands were shaking so much in anticipation I had to press my wrists against my chest to thread the tippet through the eye of the hook.

The following summer saw me return with an 8 foot rod, a weighted fly line, and finally some casting skills. When did I catch my first fish over 18 inches there? What was the most I ever caught in an evening? What was the biggest fish I ever hooked at Moccasin? Memory has definitely blurred; I don’t know the exact answer to any of those questions. It would take a couple more years but I finally had some evenings where I didn’t care if I caught another fish. Moccasin Lake and I had gotten to be friends. She wasn’t always nice to me, I knew it wasn’t intentional or personal; she just made the fishing darn difficult some times. Sometimes, kiss after kiss, she was wonderful, just wonderful.

It was the early 70’s. Pontoon boats, U-boats, and kickboats, had yet to be invented. Even float tubes were primitive and uncommon at that point. I never even saw one until 1975. To fish the lake we waded a limited amount of shoreline and wore only hip boots.

Through the years I would become friends with Lenice, Merry, and Nunnally Lakes; better friends I suppose but only because I spent so much more time with them. My old friend Moccasin was the first one to send me Trout that charged into open water, the first one to send me Trout that broke tippet, the first one that tested my knots, my patience, and my persistence.

Steelheading was still seven years in my future. Carp fishing was 33 years away.

Part II

The owners of the ranch decided to close the lake to the public; 1992 was the last year. They planned to make it a private lake with limited access. It opened in 1994 and has been private ever since.

That last year, 1992, the lake was open to the public; I went there with two friends, Scott and Kurt. Let’s just say we were part of a larger group outing and that the other guys in the group were not fisherman. They were in town whooping it up at Three Finger Jack’s Saloon. Really whooping it up. Each to his own. Jeff, another member of the group, drove us up to the parking lot for Moccasin. We walked in carrying our float tubes on our heads. Jeff was going to come back and pick us up at “dark”. Well, the fishing was good so I guess “dark” didn’t exactly mean the same thing to everyone. It was about 11:00 when we got back to the parking area and Jeff was mad. He had been waiting for two hours. So he said anyway. He proceeded to curse us vigorously and persistently. He suggested that all three of us had been born out of wedlock. I mean come on, what are the chances that was true for all three of us? He told us that he hoped our afterlife would be most unpleasant and very hot. He suggested several times that we put the fly rods somewhere that ammm…, ammm,… somewhere that something comes out of every morning but nothing ever goes in. It was uncomfortable at first to have him basically yelling at us and telling us repeatedly that we were all “f’n useless!” Finally Scott, Kurt and I all started laughing. It took Jeff close to 20 minutes to stop yelling. We laughed until it was hard to breathe.

I left Moccasin that last trip in May of 1992 with incredible memories. How could I not? We shared some first kisses. I did not plan to go back. I don’t object to paying to fish certain place; I have fished pay venues and had a very good time. I was concerned that if I fished Moccasin as a private lake my wonderful memories would be changed. The blurred ones and the clear ones, the unpleasant ones and the pleasant ones; I didn’t want any of them changed; I liked them all just the way they were.

Part III

The last time I visited Moccasin Lake was 19 years ago—long enough to put a good layer of dust on even my clearest recollections. Dusting off my memories gives me the impression that they become clearer again. I think it is just an impression. Maybe it is the feelings that endure the most clearly rather than the exact details though some details and experiences are still so very clear. I remember feeling frustrated and defeated that first night at Moccasin Lake. Anticipation, excitement, and exhilaration all visited me that second day. The surprise and exhilaration that first fish brought still make me smile.

For no known reason, mostly just in passing, Moccasin Lake started to intrigue me again. After all this time--Why? I just don’t know. Is it seeing pictures on the Internet? I don’t know anyone who had been there recently. Certainly I can fish a lake and have a good time catching small fish or few fish. But the prospect of catching multi-pound Trout on Hoppers lured me. Concerned about sullying my memories, even if I caught a slew of fish, with cautious enthusiasm I agreed to see my old friend, Moccasin.

Parts IV, V, and VI to come.

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait to see how your old friend Moccasin has been after some years have past...I hope he treated you well...

    Really enjoyed this post, and the anticipatory end!