More than a decade after the fact, I still wish I had heeded the nagging voice in my head just outside of Red Wing, Minn.: Turn back now, bad trip ahead. Turn back now, bad fishing trip ahead.
But I didn’t, and I paid dearly.
I was living off the spoils of an epic June fly-fishing trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the previous year. Then, the conditions were flawless: blue sky, comfortable temperatures, light winds and no black flies, in a wilderness whose beauty cannot be captured by language. For three days my friend Wade and I caught smallmouth after smallmouth, an embarrassment of riches. For every fly cast, a yawning mouth inhaled. Or so it seemed. It truly was an unforgettable backcountry adventure.
“We have to this again next year,” said Wade, a satisfied grin creasing his face.
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” I shot back.
That said, bad fishing happens, too — but that doesn’t necessarily make the outings bad.
Like most serious anglers, I’ve taken more fishing trips than I can possibly remember. Some are day trips to southeast Minnesota for stream trout. Others, like longer walleye trips with friends, are planned well in advance. Still others, like fishing the tailwaters of Missouri River near Craig, Mont., are open-ended affairs. If, for example, a certain morning mayfly hatch is coming off like gangbusters, ending said trip for a mandatory return to work is surely why human-resource professionals created “sick leave.”
Such trips have one distinguishing characteristic: Like nature itself, they’re completely unpredictable. You can fish the same destination, at the same time each year, and have wildly different outcomes.
So, we anglers are an optimistic, expectant lot, in the face of unmerciful fishing gods. They’ve been known to cut the heart out of expectations and blind optimism with a rusty butter knife. Events unfold. Calamities occur.
I’ve had my share. I grew up in Shakopee, along the Minnesota River. For my mother, the muddy Minnesota might as well have been the Amazon. I wasn’t allowed to plod its uplands or ply its waters for fear I’d never return. I didn’t listen, of course: The river sang its siren song. One time my friends and I created that time-honored ruse of telling our parents we were staying at each others’ houses, when in fact we had other plans: an overnight trip to fish the Minnesota. It was a glorious evening, but when I awoke, my hands, arms, legs and, yes, nether region were covered in poison ivy.
“What happened to you?” demanded my mother later that day. “Tori, what did you do last night?”
“Well, um, you know, Mom, I …”
One trip to the Missouri River nearly landed me in the obituary section. I waded a long sandbar downstream to a pod of recklessly feeding rainbow trout, the endorphin drip of fly-fishing. Intense concentration is needed, which can render one oblivious to changing conditions. Happy and helplessly addicted, I couldn’t stop casting dry flies to those rising rainbows, even as the river slowly rose and the sand shifted beneath my feet.
When I finally blinked and attempted to wade back upstream (I would later learn water was released from a nearby dam), the rising wall of water sent me bobbing downstream like a human cork. I typically don’t panic, but my waders were taking on water and my arms were slapping the surface like two beaver tails in distress. Before the angels started to sing, a drift boat happened by and scooped me up.
“Trouble?” said my rescuer.
The trip at hand
Leaving Red Wing that morning, my yearlong state of bliss had fully descended into myopia. The morning weather report for the Boundary Waters called for three days of severe weather. A wise man would have called Wade and bagged the trip. If the weather wasn’t a sign, the two spindly-legged fawns that appeared like ghosts on the highway just outside the city should have been. I had two moves: Use my front bumper to make venison tartare, or swerve wildly and (hopefully) miss the deer. That I missed only emboldened me, as if I had made a kind of Faustian bargain with the fishing gods.
I drove five hours through sheets of rain and met Wade at our entry point. Sunshine suddenly appeared, and we quickly portaged to our prearranged camp. Optimism grew. The following morning, we were paddling to our favorite lake when the rain started, and never stopped. Thunderstorms moved in. Two-foot rollers nearly capsized our canoe. We were marooned on an island for several hours. Wet, cold and humbled, we pulled the pin on the second night. I don’t think we caught a fish.
Instead of staying in Ely, I decided to drive home. This was dumbest mistake of all. I flatlined in Virginia and found a motel. I backed my truck to my door, locked up my gear, took a shower and collapsed into a dead sleep. At 5 a.m., my phone rang.
“Is that your black Ford outside your door?” said the man.
In my boxers and half-asleep, I opened my door and found a crime scene. The back window of my topper was shattered glass. I instantly felt sick, because I knew this wasn’t vandalism. Gone were two fly rods, occupying reels, and dozens of flies and other gear. My heart sank.
A nearby motel occupant opened his door, surveyed the scene and uttered the perfect coda to my trip gone bad: “I wouldn’t want to be you.”
I can laugh about it now, but I still wish I had heeded that nagging voice.
Tori J. McCormick is freelance writer from Red Wing. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.