Outdoors: The weirdest day

Photo by Jay AnglinLee Troyer poses with his 17-inch smallmouth bass caught in the St. Joseph River.

In the Grateful Dead song "Black Peter," Jerry Garcia sang in his unmistakable tobacco addled voice about a poor man’s thoughts on his last day of life. Allegedly anyway, many songs written by Garcia and John Hunter remain a mystery as to their genuine meaning, or combination thereof.

That’s one of things that makes music so interesting to me. Sometimes songs are meant to be interpreted by the listener, and often applied to own circumstances. One of my favorite verses in the song seemed prophetically applicable to my situation last Monday when I rowed down the river with Lee and Sandy Troyer.

See here how everything lead up to this day. And it's just like any other day that's ever been.

Sun goin' up, and then the sun it goin' down. Shine through my window and my friends they come around.

You’re probably asking yourself what in the heck does this have to do with fishing. Well, much like this dark song, the river was haunting last Monday. Something just wasn’t right.

The myriad of birds that usually accompany me on fishing excursions were gone or in hiding. Sunday afternoon, dozens of turtles of several species could be seen basking on fallen timber exposed by low water levels. The very same turtles were nowhere to be seen Monday afternoon, their ragged riverine perches vacant of any life whatsoever.

Even the insects were strangely absent. To some this may seem like a good thing I suppose, but not to the angler. Nearly every fish species that calls the river home is ultimately dependent on bugs for their daily regimen this time of year — whether they eat insects or eat something else that eats insects, without mayflies, caddisflies, damselflies and dragon flies the stream would not support many fish.

Monday the fish were non-existence. In all honesty, I don’t remember another situation where a stream that was teaming with fish only 24 hours prior, was so dead. The water ran cool, clear and lifeless. Sandy and Lee struggled to catch a few small bass that fought like tiny wet dishrags. It’s a rarity to see such fish behavior during the summer months. As we say in the fishing business, they were “off."

When the fishing is poor I try to remind myself that I am nothing but a guest there. I may think I have a handle on things — think I can outsmart the situation. This is a very human way of rationalizing things. But, in reality, most of time we truly have no idea why. Theory may give us hope, but in the final analysis more often than not, we have no idea what in the heck is going on.

Of course, the fish may not “know” what’s going on either because, well, they’re fish. Knowing something is thinking things through. I’m fairly confident fish don’t spend a lot of time truly thinking about things. Fish don’t have feelings, they have instincts that allow them to survive. They are hard-wired.

Like every morning of a guide trip, I checked the weather on my phone even before the dogs jumped on the bed to say please take me outside. Right away I knew potential problems were brewing in Iowa. I texted Lee and mentioned the situation while the rest of the folks in country contemplated where they could buy eclipse glasses. We decided to wait as long as possible to go fishing or postpone as nobody wants to spend the day on the water dodging lightning.

I mentioned to Lee that I wondered what the eclipse would do to the fishing. His answer was just what I hoped, “I don’t know but I want to find out." Lee is a go-getter and so is Sandy. My kind of people.

When I hooked the boat trailer to the Suburban there was a problem. The latch wouldn’t close and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried everything which mostly means I beat it with a hammer, to no avail. The lighting was weird during the battle of Jay vs. Boat Trailer. I realized the eclipse had started. I looked around and noticed people staring at the sky with their special glasses. I ignored the pageantry, I had seen it when I was a kid. I told myself that once you’ve seen an eclipse, you’ve seen them all.

The boat trailer wasn’t working so I pulled the big zip ties and some rope out. Veteran fishing guides all have a bit of MacGyver DNA to work with. That trailer wasn’t going anywhere people. I drove through downtown La Porte in the odd light and noticed people wandering, looking up. Once again, I ignored the spectacle. I didn’t have the special glasses anyway and if I believed half the stuff I had heard, my retinas would burn within seconds anyway.

When I got to the intersection of State Road 2 and U.S. 20, I couldn’t take it any longer and looked at the eclipse. I had good sunglasses on and surely the auto glass provided some additional protection, right? I saw it, sort of. I was only a few yards from the exact spot where I had looked up and seen a blue and white 747 headed east with two fighter jets escorting it on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. I hate that deadly intersection, but it seems like I see some profound things there occasionally.

When I got to the river, Lee and Sandy were waiting. As noted, things were oddly quiet. It pretty much went that way until the weary sun slid lower on the horizon behind the plentiful hardwoods along the bank. Good things usually happen to fishermen when the light is diffused. Hope eternal, I kept rowing.

Then I saw some mallards stretch their wings like they’d been sleeping all day. Cedar waxwings and swallows flitted overhead — a sure sign insects were present. A light breeze rustled the leaves and an osprey cried as if to say, we’re alive. Hours had passed with nary a fish to speak of. Then it happened ... Lee hooked a nice smallmouth.

The fish ran downstream and jumped repeatedly. It was a miracle. The astronomical spell that had been placed on the resident of the riverine world had been broken. The battle ensued as Lee worked his fly rod and I struggled at the oars. Eventually we brought the fine fish to the net with a collective sigh of relief.

In the end, it was just like any other day, that’s ever been.

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