If you want to teach your wife or girlfriend how to shoot, simply put her into a pair of borrowed waders that force her to waddle around like a penguin. Then make her lurch around for six hours in a frigid steelhead stream in early March, sublimely confident the whole time that all of this is a wonderfully exhilarating experience that every woman should be absolutely thrilled to share with her man.
On the drive home that evening, you will have visions of a warm fire and cuddly mate. She, on the other hand, will have revenge in her eyes and murder in her heart. Lock the gun cabinet before you pour a drink, then swallow the key. Better yet, throw it far back into those raging flames that mirror your mate’s soul. There’s danger afoot, Watson!
And, guys—you can believe me because I was there. Been that stupid. Done that insane deed. Talk about being blissfully unaware of the female psyche! Brother. And Kate already knew how to shoot!
In retrospect, I think the only thing that saved me was that by the time we got home from that foamy torrent called the Little Manistee River, Kate was utterly exhausted. She did, however, vow to never again set foot in a steelhead river.
Twenty-nine fishing seasons have glided past our waders since that frosty day with good friends Dan Cogan and Dave Arnold. And, although she has kept that vow against steelhead as devoutly as a monk eschews speaking, Kate has logged hundreds of days astream and has caught thousands of trout.
All of which is astonishing, considering that although she was raised only a few blocks away from Lake Erie, her previous fishing experience was limited to dangling a worm off a pier while sitting next to Dad. The perch ended up on the dinner table; the sheephead were dug into the garden. Trips to Metropolitan Park meant netting minnows in the creek and never straying out of sight.
In fact, there wasn’t much straying at all from the safe haven in the suburbs. Theirs was a picture-book house of brick-and-boards, a house with friendly neighbors, and trees, and a big backyard. But even in those bucolic days of Ike and a skinny rich kid from Boston who would be President, Mom didn’t want her chicks wandering far from the nest. She worried about Kathy and The Twins even as a momma duck fusses about her brood, counting and herding and counting again.
To this day, Kate loves telling about her most memorable outdoor excursion. “Once when we (Kate and her sibs Steve and Vicki) were all pretty young, we convinced Mom that we should have a tent out in the back yard. Dad threw a blanket over a clothesline and pinned down the edges somehow. The three of us thought it was great fun, but Mom must have worried about wolves snatching up her babies. It was barely dusk when she started scraping a spoon across the porch screen to scare us. She wanted us back in the house. End of camping trip.”
I can only give thanks that Jennie never knew what her eldest child has endured at various times over these past 30 years. The list of outdoor atrocities committed against my wife begins with blackflies sucking away her very lifeblood and gets worse from there.
Perhaps it’s that stubborn Slovene streak in her that absolutely forbids whining or complaining. I remember a night years ago when we were being assaulted by mosquitoes in a swarm the size of a Kansas grasshopper plague. Finally, I couldn’t stand any more torture. “I’m getting out of here,” I yelled. “This is murder!”
From upstream, I heard a grateful sigh. “Thank God,” Kate said quietly. “Let’s go! I can’t stand it either, but I didn’t want to be the one to quit first!”
Kate’s first “boots” had three-inch heels and came from Jacobson’s. Her lipstick matched her nail polish, which matched her outfit. Now, she calls herself a “River Rat” and shops for function. Vintage wine has given way to a never-ending search for the ultimate in high-power bug dope. And Jim Beam whiskey. The only “line” she cares about is the one on her fly reel. And she cleans it far more religiously than I do mine.
She hides herself in the streamside vegetation as if she’s stalking an elk. And no winged or floating trout food is safe from capture in her little fishnet so that I’ll have more patterns to tie when we get home. Sometimes when I sneak up on her she’s cussing herself like a Drill Sergeant for making a sloppy cast.
About the only thing she won’t do is go out on the flats boat with me for snook or redfish, let alone tarpon. “Nope,” she says firmly. “Those big rods are too much for my bad shoulder. I’m not gonna screw it up and then miss trout season.” End of discussion.
Inevitably, people ask who catches the most fish. I truthfully answer that we take turns. Kate changes fly patterns like a runway model sheds her clothes, which sometimes gives her the edge. But I cast into trickier spots to fish that don’t often see a fly. So, it evens out. When they ask who catches the biggest fish, I also truthfully answer that Kate caught a Michigan brook trout that weighed in excess of five pounds.
She caught that deeply-colored monster in a “secret” little creek our old friend Al Rockwood took us to, a special place with casting spots cut out of the trees and weeds at each “beat,” much like an English chalkstream. The fish was lying in a deep pool formed by a wing diverter, and I had passed a dry fly over it just minutes before Kate let one of Al’s “Sweezle” streamers swing through.
I was proudly releasing my third 21-inch brown trout when I heard her whooping. Leaving my rod propped against a pine tree, I ran back upstream to find out what the commotion was all about.
Kate was kneeling on a little footbridge, her rod bent like an elbow macaroni. Al threw me the net and said he’d take pictures. All four of us performed our assigned tasks perfectly, and today that fish hangs next to the liquor cabinet. But only in an original painting by Kalamazoo artist David Ruimveld.
I still can feel Kate trembling as we held that big fish, and her urgency to release it back into the dark water lest it die from being exposed too long. When asked later why she didn’t keep such a trophy, she looked puzzled for a moment, then quietly replied, “because I didn’t want to be the one to kill it.”
We have yet another photo of Kate, proudly holding her very first trout. She’s wearing a vest that looks like an apron, and a big, floppy, blue hat. She’s also wearing a million-dollar smile. I don’t believe that five-inch brookie was smiling, but I’m positive it was greatly relieved to be ever-so-gently released back into the Au Sable River and the bosom of its family.
“I never knew they were so beautiful,” Kate said. She wiped perspiration from her brow in the heat of that unseasonably warm May afternoon so long ago and practically whispered the words every man longs to hear. “I understand, now, why you love it so much. You’ll never get an argument from me any time you want to come fishing!”
Capt. Tony Petrella formerly covered the National Football League and National Hockey League for the Palm Beach Post and the Atlanta Constitution. He now splits his time as a hunting and fishing guide in Michigan and Southwest Florida. His web address is www.tightloopsflyfishing.com.