I want you to think of this story as fiction. Fiction, or the incoherent ramblings of a coot-crazy fly fisherman. Maybe even the deliberate fabrications of a man without much use for the truth.
That’s wrong, of course. I’m going to write it down just the way it happened. But it will be better for everyone if we treat this particular account as a tall tale.
You know Preacher. My fishing partner, the hero of stories new and old, the guy who always lands the nicest trout or the biggest steelhead. But I’ve never told you his secrets; I’ve never explained how he does it. And why not? Well, it’s pretty simple. You’d never believe me. Hell, I can hardly believe it myself, and I’ve seen it more than I care to admit.
Like the year we were in British Columbia, fishing a gorgeous tributary to the Skeena. It was one of those spots where the jagged, glacier-capped mountains cut the sky in two and the forest primeval stretched off in a never ending surge of spruce and cedar. The very end of the world, if you drove up from the States. Or maybe the beginning of everything that truly matters. In any case, it was beautiful country and the river, though small, was known for its steelhead.
Now Preacher is a minister by trade, though you’ve probably never heard of his church, and while he’d tell you that he’s nothing special, just a regular guy and all, he has ... connections. You see, he talks to everything; the trees, the animals, the fish, the rocks, the air, the water, even the spirits of the Earth. And they talk back. Oh, not so that you or I could listen in, but Preacher seems to hear them well enough.
So there we were, hiking along a beautiful river and trying to decide how to change our luck from bad to better when I decided to pose a question.
“Do you ever get messages,” I asked, “about what fly to fish next?”
Now that may sound a little bizarre, but if you’d ever watched Preacher in action I doubt you’d think so.
“Sometimes.” he said, and then he paused for just a second. “Sometimes it’s pretty clear.”
He took one step and then bent down and picked up the first sign of humanity we’d seen since we left the truck that morning; a funky pink steelhead fly lying a few feet from the water’s edge. He looked at it for a second, holding it up against the sky, and said, “Like right now.”
A couple hours later, after running into a local fellow who seemingly had no purpose in life but to find us and direct us to his favorite spot on the river — yeah, it’s strange how that kind of thing only happens when I’m fishing with Preacher — I found myself sitting against an ancient cedar, relaxing while my partner worked a pool so beautiful you could almost hear the choir on high singing its heavenly praises.
I suspect I could have sat there all afternoon, basking in the day’s warmth and soaking in the peace of that sylvan cathedral, but I’d only been there for ten minutes or so when my reverie was interrupted by a shout. I turned, looking back through the grove of cedars toward the river, and there in the distance, picture-framed by a hole in the sweeping branches and illuminated by a golden shaft of sunlight, I saw the fish of a lifetime — of many, many lifetimes — explode into the air.
That steelhead wasn’t only incredibly huge. It was perfect. As was the moment.
Later, after I’d tailed the fish and snapped a couple of photos for posterity’s sake — it was twenty five pounds if it was an ounce — I looked at that goofy pink fly sticking out of its mouth and just shook my head.
That particular episode was only a day or so removed from another unusual question and answer session. Preacher was locked in on a particular run, casting over and over in the same exact place. Hell, he must have spent an hour or two without taking three steps. I’d fished both upstream and down before I finally walked back to see what was going on. He made a few more casts and then waded back to the bank.
“You hit that pretty hard. Any particular reason why?” For the life of me, I couldn’t see why he hadn’t moved around. The water in both directions was gorgeous.
“There are three steelhead right there.” he said, pointing at his spot. “All hens, with their heads down in the gravel. But I can’t get my fly down to them and they’re not looking up.”
I glanced out at the run, eight feet deep and cloaked in shadows, and asked the obvious question.
“If you can’t see the fish,” — which he obviously couldn’t — “then how do you know they’re holding there?”
Preacher stared at me for a second and the expression on his face told me he was trying to decide how to answer my question. When he finally spoke, his voice was a little softer than usual but his tone was absolutely serious.
“It’s not hard to figure out where they are, or what they’re doing, when you know how to look through their eyes.”
That’s the problem with my fishing partner. Normal guys can’t do that sort of stuff.
Then there was the wading belt incident. Sermonizing for a poorer-than-usual congregation has left Preacher in a state of permanent broke, as in “No Cash.” His wading boots are frequently adorned with duct tape, and his Simms waders, which are on loan from an old friend, boast neither a wading belt nor a drawstring top. And the Kispiox, where we were fishing that day, was running high and dirty.
In other words, Preacher was skating on thin ice. If he slipped while he was in the water, his waders would fill up and he’d be in serious trouble.
With that in mind, I busted his chops for a solid ten minutes as we drove along the river. He needed a wading belt and I wasn’t about to let him slide.
He wasn’t arguing, either, just nodding his head in agreement and no doubt thinking that if he’d wanted his mother along on the trip, he would have invited her himself. But being a preacher, he had the grace and good sense to keep those kinds of thoughts to himself.
When we reached the remote north end of the gravel road that parallels the Kispiox, I found a spot to pull off and park. Preacher jumped out, no doubt hoping to scavenge a piece of twine or old yellow rope from the tall grass next to the roadside. He’s a resourceful sort and I’d wager he would have used just about anything to get me off his back at that point.
I took a couple swigs off my water jug to wet my mouth — hey, keeping the good Reverend on the straight and narrow can be thirsty business — and then headed for the back of the rig to grab my fishing gear. Preacher was still kicking around in the weeds next to the truck when I opened the tailgate and I was actually looking right at him when he bent over and pulled something out of the grass.
“Think this will work?” he asked with a grin.
It was a wading belt, probably the only one on the side of the road for fifty miles. A brand new Simms wading belt.
Son-of-a-bitch, the Good Lord loves that man. Even the Devil can’t give you luck like that.
And then there was the coyote incident. We were driving down a remote road maybe fifty miles south of Kamloops, BC, enjoying the colors of the aspen and birch as they turned from green to gold, when I spotted something running down the side of the road toward us. Preacher was sitting in the passenger’s seat at the time, nursing a cup of coffee along with an injured knee and a bad back. He wasn’t quite so dinged up that our long-planned fishing trip was in jeopardy, but he wasn’t in good shape, either, and we weren’t really sure how he was going to manage ten full days of wading and casting.
It turned out that the critter in question was a large coyote and I slowed down just in case it decided to dart out in front of the truck at the last second. Amazingly, the coyote decelerated its pace at the same time I did and then, when I’d brought the truck to a complete stop, it stepped out onto the asphalt and walked right over to my driver’s side window.
Now I’d had this happen once before with Preacher in my rig, so I rolled down the window and asked the coyote what he — it was obviously a big male — wanted. Our newfound friend just stood there, looking for all the world as if our current situation was an everyday event. Preacher started talking to him at that point but since I don’t speak coyote I can’t fill you in on what he said.
We’d only been there for a minute or two when we heard the far-off roar of a logging truck heading our way. I pulled over to the side of the road and Preacher, who wasn’t about to let Mr. Coyote get flattened by an eighteen wheeler, jumped out and shooed him of the highway. After the truck passed by, I looked out my window and there were Preacher and the coyote on the far side of the pavement, staring at each other from a distance of about fifty feet. The coyote was up on a little hillside above the road and Preacher was just off the shoulder, standing on the grass.
You probably won’t believe this, but damn if that coyote didn’t walk right back down to Preacher and stop about ten feet away. I watched in amazement as my fishing partner took off his red TroutHunter hat — the one with René Harrop’s osprey logo — and tossed it on the ground at his feet. The coyote hesitated for just a second and then dashed forward, grabbed the cap and headed back up on the hill.
“Hey!” Preacher yelled, “Get back here with my hat!”
The coyote apparently understood English, because he immediately dropped the ball cap. It tumbled all the way back down the slope, coming to rest right in front of Preacher.
Well, at that point I decided I’d better get out of the truck and check things out for myself. The coyote was still on the hillside above the Reverend, but he shifted his attention to me as soon as I walked across the road. In fact, he trotted right over to me.
He was beautiful. In fact, he was the largest, handsomest coyote I’d ever seen, and I was astounded that such a magnificent animal would act this way. I’d just about convinced myself that he wasn’t afraid of people when another logging truck put the lie to my assumption. As soon as the truck came into view, the coyote crouched and hid. When the rig was safely past and we were alone again, he stood back up, looked at me and grinned.
I can tell you exactly what I was thinking at that moment. It was “Son of a Bitch ....”
Our new friend watched me for another minute or so more and then, without so much as a backward glance, headed straight for the Reverend. Preacher dropped down on one knee as the coyote approached and talked to him in a voice so low I couldn’t make out the words.
Here’s the truth of it. I was standing 20 yards away from both Preacher and the coyote, who weren’t separated by more than six or eight feet, when all of the sudden the coyote started to dance. He feinted and lunged and darted, first back and forth, then side to side, then back and forth again, trying to get Preacher to join in, to play tag or catch-me-if-you-can or whatever crazy coyote game he had in mind.
Yet the good Reverend just knelt there, his eyes down, his right hand extended a bit, his palm up and fingers out, exactly the same way you’d call in a frolicking pup who wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to surrender his liberty.
On one side, the wild dog danced. A few feet away, the preacher was completely motionless. Yin and Yang, fire and ice — my metaphors really can’t do it justice.
Then it was over. One second the coyote was still dancing, the next he had Preacher’s pant leg in his mouth, and the next he was standing ten feet away, looking back over his shoulder. Preacher jumped up like he’d just touched a live wire. He actually seemed dazed.
In retrospect, I’m not really sure how we knew that the curtain had come down on our drama and it was time to move on. Still, after a moment or two of stunned silence, we both turned and walked back to the truck.
The coyote seemed pretty pleased with himself. He followed us back across the road and watched while we got into my rig. He was still standing there when we drove off.
Neither of us said anything for a long time. Hell, what do you say in a situation like that? Finally, Preacher rolled up his pant leg and checked his knee.
“He didn’t break the skin,” he said, “but he pulled out a few hairs where he grabbed my jeans.”
He paused for a minute or two and then went on. “Did you see him? He was perfect. There wasn’t a hair out of place, there wasn’t any mud on his feet. It’s been raining up here for two solid weeks. How is that even possible?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Then Preacher made a rather startling observation. “Something is going on with my knee. It’s starting to tingle. There’s definitely something happening.”
I should probably mention that he’d fallen on a jagged shard of glass a month earlier and while the nasty wound was starting to heal, he didn’t have anywhere near full mobility. You probably won’t believe this, but when Preacher got out of the truck in Kamloops an hour later, his limp was gone.
Unbelievable. That truly is the word.
I honestly don’t know the whys of it all, so please don’t ask. And I can’t say where fly fishing ends and the bigger picture begins. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t a scientific, logical reason for that coyote to kick off our steelhead trip to the Dean, or for a mature bald eagle to land in an oversized cottonwood on the banks of the Henry’s Fork and drop a perfect wing feather straight down to Preacher, or for the good Reverend to walk away unscathed from an incredibly angry grizzly bear.
Neither logic nor science have much to do with it; not that I can see.
There’s one more thing, though, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s a piece to the puzzle. As best as I can tell, Preacher always did his best work outdoors. He had a reverence for the natural world, a reverence that carried over to the trout and steelhead he caught, a reverence that was obvious every time he offered thanks at the river’s edge.
I can’t help but believe that when you see things so clearly and feel them so deeply, you begin to stretch the boundaries of what’s actually possible. Which begs the question, “If Preacher can do it, why can’t I?”
I’m still working on that one.