“Sounds pretty good,” said my crack guitar teacher, Douglas L. He was zooming me from two feet away, his angular face with soul patch framed in my laptop. I basked in his praise. If I were a dog my tail would have been wagging. It had taken me two months to subdue sixteen bars of “Casey Jones” by Mississippi John Hurt, a famed acoustic blues man born in 1892. Like many in my cohort, four years of college had passed with an acoustic guitar nearby. A folk song was “three chords and the truth.” Those three chords were C, F and G. You could add G7 for variety, maybe Am if you wanted pathos. Prior to college, when I was a pre-teen, my parents thought I should learn a musical instrument. They conducted an extensive search to determine the instrument best suited to my talents and hit on (insert long drawn out crescendo here), you guessed it … the accordion. This was pre-Lawrence Welk, so my future was not assured. My parents theorized that though I might not make it on the Elk Lodge circuit, I could always be the hit of any party, bringing along my 120-base red Hohner. (Oh look, here comes Marshall with his fabulous accordion! I hope he plays ‘‘Lady of Spain.’’) My accordion career crumpled when my high school music teacher found strapping on the accordion to be a struggle, what with his wooden leg and all. I wound up playing third trumpet in the school band, blatting out four-beat measures in “Pomp and Circumstance.” I simply killed quarter notes.
Fast forward to retirement. I brought out the old guitar that My Life’s Editor had bought me some years prior and eyed it speculatively. Could I advance beyond C, F, G and occasionally G7? The purchase of an upscale Taylor acoustic committed me, and I started lessons with the ever-patient Douglas. I was not in Kansas anymore. I had entered the world of finger picking, the pentatonic scale and the seven modes. I left “This Land is Your Land” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” in the rear view mirror. By my sixth year I advanced to the point that I was the seventh performer in Douglas’ “Spring Jam” for his students, wedged in between an eight-year old performing the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar riff and a twelve-year old, wowing an audience of adoring parents. There were free hot dogs.
Today I enjoy sitting down of an evening and working on my repertoire at home. I am not ready to set up shop on tony Beach Drive in downtown St. Pete, my guitar case open for folks to flutter in fivers. There is the little issue of my producing the same number of beats in each measure I play. My singing is exploratory in nature. I warily approach a musical note from below, grab it for a moment, then slide down the other side. My fingers get an attitude on occasion and sulk. I do take pride in those 16 bars of “Casey Jones.” On the day they came together I was elated. There is magic in challenging yourself and developing a skill when you trundle beyond gainful employment, whether it be using chopsticks or riding sidesaddle. The more difficult, the better. This brings me to Dame Juliana Bernes, a nun, who wrote a Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle in the 15th century. She is to blame for a legion of frustrated fly fishermen right up to this century who have shivered in frigid trout streams as a leak in their waders trickles down their leg and a creature with a brain the size of a pencil eraser sneers at their fly.
It is difficult to explain to people why a person would fly fish. It is not socially acceptable to collar someone and expound on why you fly fish. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention this is considered torturing civilians. Furthermore, fly fishing is not generally a very productive way to catch fish. Maimonides is thought to have said “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.” He was not talking about fly fishing.
Like playing the blues on a guitar, fly fishing is both a skill and an art form. Learning to fly cast contradicts everything your Uncle Bud taught you when he put a spinning rod and reel in your hands at his pond, hooked up a worm and had you chuck it in the water with one simple motion. In fly fishing, the weight of the fly line is what carries the lure – feathers and a hook – out over the water. The fly connects to the fly line with ten feet of clear monofilament. The magic lies in the flexing of the eight-foot rod and the pull of the heavy fly line, streaming out some thirty feet behind as it loads on the back cast with the cocking of your forearm and then releases as your forearm snaps down, like hammering a nail. The objective is to deliver a fly to the water’s surface as gently as a lover’s kiss, the fly line carrying the fly out with minimal fuss. Piece of cake.
There are two places where fly fishing particularly comes into its own. One is where the fish’s diet consists of small, crunchy insects, and the other is where the water is very shallow and the splash of a large lure would cause every fish within a quarter mile to vamoose. In both cases a carefully presented fly fits the bill. It is a benediction on the lives of fly fishermen that these locales are trout streams and Bahamian bonefish flats. Fly fishermen can exercise their skill in gobsmackingly beautiful surroundings.
Fly fishing is one sport where you get better as you get older. Like learning to play guitar, it requires practice. One afternoon I was out casting on the lawn bordering Pioneer Park in downtown St. Pete, careful to avoid stepping in dog poop. A patron of our local saloon, Courigan’s, spotted me and hustled over, crossing the street, careful not to spill his beer. He came up alongside and said “Hey, fly fishing huh? Pretty cool!”
I said, “Yeah, it is cool.” I thought, you should hear me play the guitar.