Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
He stood at the head of the run, atop a flat rock, fighting a good steelhead that behaved at first but then decided the thing pulling on its jaw was really getting annoying. The fish screamed downstream, and the big man on the rock dipped his rod to the river as if bowing to this majestic force of nature and let the drag scream away. Anglers on either side of the run dutifully retrieved their lines with Salmon River etiquette. But the big angler on the rock stayed put on his fishing perch and decided to stand and fight rather than follow the fish down-river.
I watched the spectacle, line in hand and I was annoyed, to be quite honest. ‘Move down and get below him’, I thought. Who would dare fight a steelhead from upstream, especially when just below the run the river turned really fast. But this angler stayed put atop the big rock and let his fly line arc across the entire run. His fighting position was almost defiant to the bank-side anglers below, as if to say, ‘I’ve got a good fish on and you need to watch me fight him’.
The steelhead did what it was born to do. The tug of war went on and my aggravation increased. ‘Why doesn’t this guy just move down below the fish’, I kept wondering…
Then I witnessed something truly revolutionary. The big guy on the rock started to steadily reel the fish up. Though his rod was bent deeply into the butt, rod-tip just above the water, he slowly cranked in, gaining line as if retrieving a fly bogged up with a wad of stream bed clutter. This went on for what seemed forever, and granted, there was a little tug of war in the midst, but he eventually got the fish to the point where the leader was just beyond the rod tip. I thought to myself, “OK, now I can fish again”.
The steelhead charged downstream as if the fight had just begun. Big guy followed it this time as there was an angler with a net at the end of the run. I started fishing after he moved below me but a while later he came walking back up the wall path. As he passed me he said with complete sincerity, “thank you for your patience”. He had lost the fish but regained my favor.
I asked what type of fly he was using, and it wasn’t long before I began to get hook-ups. Most of these were short-lived affairs – some the result of a poorly set hook, others a tribute to the brute power of these fish – a mix of king salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead. At one point, a snag turned out to be a very big king whose explosive leaps left me with a slack line and straightened 2X heavy hook. But eventually I got one to stick. After some good runs, a few jumps, and lots of head-shaking, I worked the fish up-river to some slack water just below the big guy’s rock post.
“Do you want me to try and land him for you?”, big guy asked, in an accent from a far-off state. “Sure”, I said, and a friend was gained.
I introduced myself afterward, to which he stuck out a huge, caloused hand and shook mine with the grip of a lineman. “I’m Tawm”, he said, smiling big and wide. He was an imposing figure, but had a laid-back warmth that immediately made you feel good just to be in his presence. “You’re obviously not from around here”, I said. He grinned, “nawww, from Maine but born and raised in Bawston”…
I asked him about his unique fish-fighting technique and he smiled. “Oh, a friend showed me that – he calls it walking the dawg”. “It doesn’t work all the time”, he continued, “but it somehow just calms them down in a lot of cases. I won’t chase ’em if I can avoid it.”
I had more hook-ups, as did he, including a dandy of a steelhead to which he complimented me in simple Tawm terms: “Nice”.
And I fought that steelhead just like Tom did, eventually ‘walking the dog’, right into a net.
We fished side-by-side the rest of the day, though I felt a bit overshadowed by this gentle giant of a man. Fair skinned with a fireman’s mustache and very much commanding the run, Tawm greeted almost every angler on the run as if they were at a high school reunion. Anglers far different than Tawm, with accents straight out of “Rocky” or “My Cousin Vinnie”, shook hands and hugged him like long lost brothers. He knew them by name, called out to them, verbally sparring, joking, and laughing.
At one point, even though the action was steady, Tawm rested his rod and drew out a big cigar. Sitting bank-side, he deftly smoked the stogie, occasionally looking skyward. “Sometimes it’s nice just to sit back and take it all in”, he mused. I looked at him and thought myself a bit of a fool for going at fly fishing so damned hard all the time. Indeed, I had started the morning at 6:30 am, not taken a break for any kind of food, or water and in my haste to ‘get a spot’, had left my own cigar in my car.
“You seem to know everyone here”, I said, as he puffed away. He was deep in thought, and maybe, it was the very thing I was asking about that was on his mind. “I’ve known some of these people for years”, he said. “The fishing here is so good, but that’s not the only reason I come.”
The sun soon dipped beneath the ridge behind us and left the sky. The run darkened with the coming of evening and anglers slowly left in piecemeal fashion, but not one of them without some word to Tawm, including some colorful expressions that reminded me of my Navy days. Then Tawm packed up, and walked by me on his way to his car. “I’m wore out, just plain wore out”, he said.
I soon left too, plodding up the steep stone stairs to the parking lot above, my upper back and arms sore from casting and tangling with lake-run fish. It would be a long drive home but a very good one – one of perspective that eventually makes for a better angler and deeper human being. And though I’m not so sure Tawm was the type of man that would read Thoreau, he certainly lived like he did, making memories of fly fishing big rivers, but most of all, the people in them.