By Bob Cram
In me and Joe’s endless years of high school incarceration, physical education instructors came and went at random intervals. The one who left the most lasting impression was a tall beanpole of a man named Lucien Frizz.
Mr. Frizz was actually an English teacher, but at the time no job in his chosen field was available. So he took the vacant Phys. Ed. teacher’s position in Mooseleuk to sort of pass the time until something better came along.
Although exercise seemed a foreign activity for Mr. Frizz, he was unbelievably passionate about things he personally enjoyed. For the most part, this was a good thing for us. Instead of doing pushups, Mr. Frizz might have us hiking through the woods identifying birds. Rather than climb ropes and do laps, Mr. Frizz taught us to tie fishing flies. To the boys of Mooseleuk, Mr. Frizz seemed like a gift from heaven. It was when he tried to teach us how to fly fish that problems arose.
“I’ve a special treat for you boys this week,” he said as we toed the line in the tiny Mooseleuk gym. “We’ve studied the joys of nature together. We’ve learned the rudimentary basics of tying flies. This is all good experience for you and healthful exercise. Now it’s time you all learned how to fly-fish.”
Clovis Thick looked puzzled. “Nice of yer ta offer, Mr. Frizz. If it’s all the same ter you, I’d jist as soon fish fer trout.”
We all laughed, although it was clear that Clovis was serious and didn’t know what the laughter was about. Mr. Frizz just smiled, brushed his mop of tangled hair back with one hand, and patted Clovis on the shoulder.
“No, no, Master Thick. I mean, we are going to learn how to catch fish with a fly rod.”
Clovis now adopted a doubtful expression. “Always used my c’lapsible steel rod with got o’worms. Thass what my daddy always used.”
“Yes, but catching fish with a fly rod is so much more…well…refined,” Mr. Frizz gushed.
“That put more fish on the table?” Clovis asked suspiciously.
Mr. Frizz scowled. “Let’s put it this way, Clovis…with a fly rod you don’t have to dig worms and you don’t have to rebait your hook so often.”
“Oh!” a smile spread over Clovis’ face. “Thass different! Lead me to that there fly rod!”
It was a motley crew that assembled on the banks of Priest Logan, behind the school, for our first lesson in fly-fishing. Somewhere Mr. Frizz had begged, borrowed or bought enough fly rods for the nine of us. He lined us up along the shore and handed each boy a rod, complete with reel, line and backing. He only made one mistake that I could see. He put flied with hooks in them on all the leaders.
It started out fine. Mr. Frizz taught us that in fly-fishing you cast the line rather than the lure. He showed us how to hold the rod, how to keep from flexing the wrist, hold the arm close to the body, and how to concentrate on getting down the technique rather than reaching for distance. Most of us too to it right away. Then we started actually casting.
“No, no! Lift the rod tip! NO! Hold the line with your left hand. That’s the way! NO! Don’t go back so far! You’re going too far ahead… you’re slapping the water! WAIT! Everybody STOP!” By the time he got us all quieted down, Mr. Frizz was awash with sweat, his stringy hair was hanging in threads and Joe had hooked his fly into the back of my shirt.
We started out a little slower the next time. Mr. Frizz regained some of his composure and most of us began to catch on. Much to my surprise, the basic technique of fly-casting wasn’t all that complicated. We began to keep our back casts in the air, rather than slapping the ground, and we actually started laying line out on the water, our flies floating jauntily on the surface.
Suddenly, Joe’s fly disappeared in a swirl and his rod tip bent over. Line began whizzing through the guides.
“Use your finger to slow the line,” Mr. Frizz said excitedly. “Use the palm of your other hand to slow the reel!”
Joe did as he was told and the fish slowed, then stopped.
“Now start to crank in line!” Mr. Frizz said. “Take your time. Tip the rod to one side, then the other. That’ll make the fish swim more and tire quicker. Maybe it’s a trout!”
“It’s a pickerel,” Joe said as he worked the fish. “That’s pretty much all they is in Priest Logan.”
He was right. Finally the 18-inch pickerel slid up onto shore, flopping in the sand.
Mr. Frizz deftly picked up the squirming pickerel and removed the fly from its jaw. I noticed Clovis’ mouth drop open as Mr. Frizz tossed the pickerel back into the water.
“Boy, that was great!” Joe couldn’t stop grinning. “This here fly-fishin’ is more fun than
I thought. I’m gonna ketch another one!”
We all returned to casting, trying to remember what Mr. Frizz had taught us. All of us, that is, except Clovis. No matter how hard he tried, Clovis couldn’t seem to get the hang of casting with a fly rod. Maybe bait fishing was too ingrained in his genes. He kept trying to cast the fly, rather than the line. One minute the line would lie in coils at his feet. The next minute his fly would be caught in the trees behind us. Mr. Frizz was very patient, but even he was becoming exasperated.
“No…eleven and one, Clovis… eleven and one, not nine and three!”
“No, Mr. Frizz,” Clovis said, glancing at his watch as the line fell about his shoulders. “It’s only ‘bout a quarter to ten!”
“Seems like forever,” the teacher muttered under his breath.
“Now, look…Clovis…hold the rod straight out in front of you. That’s the way.” As Mr Frizz patiently explained, Elmo Dorkman leaned over to watch.
“Now, lift up smartly with the rod tip and move the rod all the way back to just back of straight up and down. That’s the way! That’s the way!” Mr. Frizz because more and more excited as Clovis seemed to finally be doing it right.
“Now, as soon as you feel weight back there, move the rod firmly ahead to shoot the line!”
Clovis moved the rod firmly, one might even say rashly, ahead. The line shot forward. The leader followed. And the fly caught Elmo Dorkman firmly behind the right ear.
Off balance and tugged by Clovis’ powerful cast, Elmo plunged ahead, lifted from the ground, and dove in a shallow arc into the water. For a moment, only his legs flailed above the surface. The rest of us hurriedly came to his aid, pulling him coughing and sputtering back onto dry land.
For a short time things got rather tense. Finally, Mr. Frizz was able to get the fly free of Elmo’s scalp with the aid of a pair of pocket pliers and the smaller blade of Joe’s clasp knife. We even managed to get the bleeding stopped.
After we were sure that Elmo wasn’t going to bleed to death, Mr. Frizz led Clovis a short distance away along the shoreline for a private lesson. I don’t know how Mr. Frizz felt, but the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief. I did note that Mr. Frizz’s frizzy hair was mostly standing up straight.
Much to our surprise, Clovis finally made a pair of perfect casts. The line lay out beautifully and the fly touched water with scarcely a ripple. But Clovis, being Clovis, couldn’t let well enough alone. He told us afterward, now that he had the hand of it, he was going to see just how far he could pitch the darn thing.
His back cast was powerful. The rod bowed sharply as it loaded and Clovis drove forward with all the power in his meaty shoulders. The line shot forward almost faster than the eye could see and the fly lodged his Mr. Frizz’s tangle of hair, snatched it free, and sent it sailing out into the Logan.
Our collective mouths dropped open. Mr. Frizz clasped his naked skull with one hand and jerked the index finger of the other at the water.
“My toupee! My toupee!” he shrieked. “Get that back here this instant!”
Clovis fearfully twitched his head in the affirmative and began cranking as fast as he could on the old single-action reel. But it was too late.
Beneath the skidding hairpiece, the water bulged ominously. A pickerel nearly three feet long, obviously convinced that a sizeable muskrat was trying to escape, lunged through the water’s surface and clamped the toupee firmly in his teeth.
Everyone just stared. Everyone, that is, except Clovis. Fly-fishing might not have come easy to Clovis Thick, but once he got it, he got it well.
Palming the screaming reel, he slowly stopped the pickerel’s powerful run. With the rod bent dangerously, the played the fish carefully, giving the line when he had to, reeling when he could, always keeping pressure on the big fish and allowing no slack.
None of us believed he could do it. But slowly, grudgingly, the giant pickerel came closer and closer to shore. When it was a scant ten feet from the sand, Mr. Frizz leaped into the water, formed a scoop with both arms, and heaved the fish out onto the shore.
It was a quiet walk back to the school. Mr. Frizz stalked ahead of us, trying to regain some measure of dignity. The task was difficult given that the raked and torn toupee sat atop his skull like a crow that had struck a car windshield.
None of us poked fun, however. Mr. Frizz had taught us the joys of fly-fishing and most of us kept at the sport for the rest of our lives. Joe, especially, took to fly-fishing like a duck to water. To this day, he is the best fly caster I’ve ever seen.
Clovis also remained a fly-fisherman, although in a somewhat altered form. As we walked slowly back to the gym, Clovis with the big pickerel dangling from one hand, he tried to put into words the life lesson he had learned this day.
“Fish on the table!” he said, staring at his catch with unconcealed admiration. “Ya know, I allus thought this here fly-fishin’ business was sissy stuff. Now I know that ain’t the truth. Takes a real man ter do this castin’ business the right way and I mean ter keep at it.” He looked thoughtfully at the rod clutched in the other hand.
“’Course it’s jist like any other kind o’fishin’,” he said looking at us wisely. “Yer got ter be sure an’ use the right bait!”
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