A tale of two lusts.
I never get laid in the summer. There is very little sex on the riverbanks these days. After all, it’s a hard place to find those types of women. Women who think that moldy waders, chapped hands, and coffee breath are sexy; in other words, women who not only know of Flip Pallot and Lefty Kreh, but consider them as irresistible and sexy as Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in a Speedo-sponsored oil-wrestling match.
“Hi,” she’ll say, perched on the riverbank above, the tall golden grass of the Madison barely covering her knees as the sun dips down below her shoulders and sets her blonde hair on fire. “I’m Brit, I believe I’ve seen you here before. Do you come here often?”
“Hi, I’m Casey” I’ll reply, “and yes, I do come here often. By the way, would you mind ducking down a little lower? Your shadow is spooking the fish. Thanks.”
And so it begins, where one lust lies down for another. In the springtime a young man’s fancy may turn to love, but mine turns towards a hatch... and one in particular: Pteronarcys californica—the salmonfly hatch.
My season begins with my two friends and I bellied up to an elbow-polished wooden bar, a round of Wild Turkey shots burning in our guts. Pat and Luke sit to my right laughing while a young woman sits down next to me on my left.
“Hi” I say, “I’m Casey, wanna do a shot with us?” I can smell her, a light blend of sensuous French toxins and womanly ardor, like a night out in a fancy club. I think she might be from New York. That or California, I can rarely make the distinction. She turns and looks at me, then at the two bastards to my right. We are a mix of bug spray, whisky, Copenhagen, body odor, and something else—something worse—and by the looks of it, something she cannot place. (It’s probably the smell of wader residue leaping off the fibers of Pat’s pants that assaults her nose.)
“My name’s Amy, what are you shootin’?”
“I’ll take an S.O.A.”
Pat coughs from behind me.
“Mooky, three shots of Turkey and a… a what?”
“Surfer on acid.”
“Yeah, and one of those too.”
“Comin’ right up, hun!” Mooky says, smiling like my mother. We do the shot, Luke and Pat grumbling quietly. They want to tell me something, but I sense they want to wait until the three of us are alone.
“You boys fishermen?” she asks. We nod. “Wow. I don’t like fishing, it’s boring. That and I hate worms. I couldn’t put them on the hook.”
“Nah, we don’t fish with live worms. We fly fish.”
“Oh, you mean with those funny-looking things on your hats?” She grabs the brim of my hat and pulls my head down toward her so she can get a better look at the flies. I make every effort to keep my eyes from sliding down the cleavage canyon thrust into my face. I give up and take a quick peek, but she lets go of my oily brim, sees my blushing face and blushes back. She wants me! I decide.
“Oh, they look like flies alright, just not like houseflies,” Pat says as he fumbles through his shirt pockets and pulls out a can of Copenhagen.
“Really? Then what kind of fly is that one supposed to look like?” she asks, pointing at a giant orange-and-black Sofa Pillow fly dangling from the back of Pat’s stained cap.
Pat, apparently delighted by the question, opens the Copenhagen tin and shakes a massive salmonfly out onto the bar. “This one!” he says with heavy laughter. Amy freezes, shrieks, and then falls off the bar stool as the bug leaps into the air and flutters towards the ceiling. Before I can help her up, she is out through the double doors and onto the street, leaving us with the tab.
I toss my tip from the day’s work onto the bar and order another round for the three of us. Luke, smiling at me around Pat—teeth glowing off-white and stained—and says in a low voice says, “Me and Pat fished the Maddy today.”
Pat notices my lack of enthusiasm and leans closer, his massive 220-pound frame complimenting the strong whisky breath carrying his words as he whispers, “The salmonfly are coming. Maybe tomorrow.” I smile at the two them.
The crumbling feeling from moments before is forgotten, replaced with a strange swelling, like a pineapple growing inside my chest, tickling with anticipation for sunrise and salmonflies. We take another shot, Pat’s words echoing inside me, ruffling the pineapple, which now stretches from my core all the way to my casting arm, numbing my fingers. The salmonfly are coming, the salmonfly are coming! And since the salmonflies are coming, I won’t get laid.
The next morning I am hung over and alone. Head ringing, I find myself crumpled and tossed into the back seat of Pat’s truck. Pat is still drunk and Bob Dylan flows from his speakers at such volume that I can feel the space inside the cab expand and make room for “The Mighty Quinn.” Pat accelerates with each song and the smell of the Copenhagen in his lip makes my stomach swirl.
“Awww shit boys! We’re gonna hammer!” Luke yells above the guitar solo. That bastard’s drunk too, I think to myself. Given the appearance of these two I wonder if I should have had less to drink last night. Or maybe more. Eyes half closed, I recall the unpleasant scene with the woman from out of town from the night before. This makes my brain throb harder, so for the remainder of the drive I shift my thoughts to a preview of the astonishing event awaiting us.
The salmonfly hatch is an event of myth to most people, but for those who have experienced this belligerent explosion of mating bugs, it is a spiritual event that hooks your soul, melts your world, and rips through your life like a Wyoming windstorm.
As spring melts the Rocky Mountain snow, the rivers swell and turn dirty brown. Huge insects crawl from beneath the river stones and log debris—their home for the past two to three years—inching their way up the banks onto stumps, trees, boulders, and willow limbs to shed their nymphal skin. Each has six legs, an armored back, a three-pronged tail, and a dark exoskeleton to blend into the silted rocks. Its wrinkled abdomen squirms and slides in the palm of your hand, and its magnificent antennae look like something from a child’s nightmare.
As soon as the swollen rivers drop a bit and the chocolaty water recedes, my world shrinks to the size of a river in a pine-tree valley where thousands of salmonflies hover. They stretch out vein-stricken wings, flutter for a second to dry off, then cling to the branches waiting for the wind to pause so they can fly, find a mate, fetilize, then moult in the security of cover for the next few days before releasing bright yellow egg sacs back into the river. The hatch is a spectacular sight to witness as thousands of orange and black creatures orbit the river and canyon walls. When a breeze comes, they find anything they can grab hold of, like an angler’s face or neck, or they simply abandon hope and drop in the water, meeting a quick death between trout teeth and water drops.
We’ve arrived. Armed with our salmonfly replicas and vests loaded with out-of-date beer, we march to the riverbank. Pine-tree walls sail upwards on both sides of the canyon like missiles aimed at some lunar target. We look up the south bank, watching amber water curl around twisted roots and currents ducking under fallen trees, forming pockets behind the boulders. This river smells like no other: the water’s scent is musky, instead of crisp and cool, a pine-needle soup with willow branches, grasses, soil, and other aromas that become part of a river in its pure form. I fill my chest, hoping to clean out the failures of the night before. But as the air leaves my body, the river noise comes to a slow quiet as the westerly wind evaporates into calm.
What was once a static blue void above now congests with winged life. A thousand salmonflies bob up and down, bouncing along invisible paths. They appear in such quantity that we can no longer see the canyon’s silhouette or the sky above. They are everywhere, moving without direction and making it impossible to follow one with a shotgun eye before the line of sight disintegrates with the passing of ten more fluttering wings. Another westerly gust moves across the water in a ripple and floods the airborne world above, and in an instant, half of the adult stoneflies crash into the currents of the river.
We explode with excitement.
“HOLY SHIT BOYS! Did you see that?!”
“I call the run by the beaver wall!”
“Don’t poach my fuckin’ water, Luke!”
“Did you see the size of that fish?!”
“Watch your back cast!”
“Holy shit! You see the size of that one?!”
“There! She went again! Behind the boulder, you see her just crush that bug? That’s a piggy, boys, that’s a piggy!”
“Don’t poach my fuckin’ water Luke!”
I avoid the downstream squabble and choose the head of the run where several brown trout have emerged from the current running along the bank, feeding heavily on the half-drowned salmonflies. More bugs crash on all sides of me as the breeze picks up; hopeless wings flail around clumsy bodies too desperate for grace.
“Fucker popped off!” Luke smiles and yells to me as his fly lands behind him in a puddle of tackle. He strips line in and begins to cast again. Hollering, Pat looks over at Luke, and Luke nods back while he pulls out two beers from his fly fishing vest and pitches one into the current so that it drifts 50 feet or so into Pat’s waiting net. Pat’s face is red and as he opens the beer, he raises the can at me in cheers and smiles his biggest grin of the day.
“He’s drunk,” I murmur with little surprise, and finally get my fly up in the air behind me in a lanky, smooth arc as the weight of the line pulls the rod in my hand back, back, back until the rod leaps forward, pulling my arm and myself with it. The cast lands with an appropriate splat in the center of four large brown trout boiling the water’s surface. I count the seconds between the Sofa Pillow’s inaugural crash and the burst of water and fish as a way to measure the degree of nature’s gluttony. “One, two, thr…” I yell to Luke and strike with the rod; the trout jumps and rolls in the murky water of the canyon.
When Pat begins to horsewhip Luke and me with his empty leader, I suggest we break and head over to the bench overlooking this stretch of river. We’re feeling majestic, as though our feet were not slipping across river stones but gliding along pearl carpet inside a giant ballroom full of men in waders cheering us on. This is our own fly fishing circus: splashing water, leader-whipping each other, and pitching stones at the ankle-deep water beneath the knees of whichever fool is leading our charge out of this brown river.
This parade of angling hell, full of obscenities, sloppy mom jokes, rock-jarring steps, and butting laughter would make any angling purist turn away in complete disgust—and that is fine with us. Let them climb back into their gas-whoring Excursions and Escalades and go back to Atlanta or Salt Lake City or wherever they were trying to escape. Back to big jobs and long work weeks, where they can complain to their buddies in the angling club or to the editors of their favorite fishing magazine about the abominations they witnessed on their so-called pristine outdoorsy vacation. What they fail to see—as they pack their new eight-piece rod away and complain to their golden retriever about how no one ever mentioned angling barbarians on these rivers—is the very beauty unfolding before them.
The beauty of this hatch is not in some read-about silver-bullet fly or a backwards curve-steeple casting trick. The experience is in the hatch itself. It is rumored that it took Colorado’s greatest anglers 15 years to catch the salmonfly hatch in its entirety on this river—and we have just caught this momentous bug-screw smack dab in the sweet spot. This is the Dionysian festival of the angler, and it isn’t in the soul-for-salary world. You must be either a trustafarian or a poor angling addict whose soul has been auctioned to the trout god at the expense of personal gain, world domination, and the ability to propagate at an expected frequency. And we have done it three years in a row.
“This is the life, eh boys?” Luke says to us, feet dangling in the water. He says things like this every time we fish, and always with a laugh. Pat and I respond as we always do, “Fuckin’ A, Luke. Fuckin’ A.”
“There ain’t nothin’ better!” Luke says. “This is better than sex, boys, better than sex! Gawddamn we hammered ‘em! Rippin’ lip, lovin’ life!” Luke yells to the few bugs flying high overhead. “Good thing that girl blew you off last night, eh Casey? You’d be waking up there, she’d be thinking of a way to git rid’er yer bum ass, tellin’ ya there’s a fire or somethin’, and me an ol’ Pat here’d be out rippin’ lip while yer searchin’ fer yer drawers!”
I do nothing but laugh and sip beer.
“I dunno… sex can be pretty good, Luke,” Pat says between Budweiser slurps. Luke ignores him and just stares out across the river. Pat removes his glasses like an angry father whose son has just insulted him.
“Bullllll-butter, Luke!” Pat hollers, intent on making his point. “You mean to tell me if you saw some gorgeous woman over there on the bank, naked, wearing hip-boots and smiling at you, you’d…”
“Maybe if she were rippin’ fish!” Luke retorts with happy inflection. Pat and I pause and let the absurdity of the scene unfold into a burst of laughter. Perhaps we just can’t get our lusts in line, disallowing either obsession to operate like harmonious tuning forks within our hairy chests. What is it, I wonder, which draws us, both men and women, to this silly sport? I imagine that, like sex, it must be something more than simple entertainment. For some, the lure of the trout’s world is just as compelling as the urge for lovemaking. Maybe, deep down inside, the thrill of each is very similar. When you sell out your life for a few more days on the river, you might actually find that secret spot where one moment, one touch, becomes enough. It is something that cannot be bought like private water—only earned with meticulous devotion to the task at hand. On the river and under the right circumstances, we can be the Cassanovas and Cleopatras of the angling world, finding ourselves tangled up with beauties we hold on high. Giving into that lust is only quenched by the smell of the water and the sounds of the casts, being just as sexy in rotten waders, doing what is done best and getting what’s wanted without any embarrassing questions.
Sitting on the bank with friends as more salmonflies splash down, we watch the makings of a second round of feasting emerge—but we don’t move. Laughing as little submerged mines go off with increasing frequency, Luke follows with an “I’m gonna catch that bastard,” but he never moves.
“She’s waking back up boys,” Luke says. “You got it in ya?”
“Hold on man, let’s just watch a bit, finish these fine beers.” Pat fumbles the words through slow cheeks. Luke dares Pat to eat a salmonfly. I watch as a particularly large adult salmonfly is thrown into his open mouth three times and three times crawls out. He gags each time. The fourth try proves fateful for the bug: Pat’s throat muscles pound like machinery as he scrambles for another beer to wash down the bug’s four sets of wings. Luke holds the open beer away from him, letting him choke on the bug a moment longer before giving in to Pat’s urgent punches. Creeks of amber suds dribble down Pat’s cheeks as he swallows twelve ounces of Budweiser quickly. I wait for him to vomit, but instead he burps.
“We're not done yet,” he declares.
He’s right. We’re up and begin to position ourselves across from the fish of our choice when Luke exclaims again in a voice that rivals the roar of the rapids downriver, “Better than sex, boys! Better than sex, you sally-hoppers!” Then the wind slows to a trickle and the canyon sky above us disappears, blocked by thousands of beating wings. Helicopter wings with hundreds of four-inch, black-and-orange bodies sagging and dangling below with their horny little hearts flying high inside.