These five short stories were written for Ten & Two The Angler’s Journey. They have not yet been published. The idea here is to begin using short stories to connect the relationship between fishing and meals. It seems as though food and fly fishing are hinged at the hip.
“To the lord let praises be, it’s time for dinner now lets go eat.” Church. Lyle Lovett.
I honestly don’t remember when, as a process of growing older, the revelation first came to me. The thought that one particular moment of life simply can’t improve beyond right now. A specific right now. Most of us know that some right now’s are far better than other right now’s, and certainly far better than those right now’s better left quickly forgotten. The right now in current question is that moment when it all comes together, and all life blends into a sense of wellbeing, certainty, and calm between the raging storms and general chaos of lives. I know you’ve been there. We’ve thought, “You know, everything considered, if I died right now, things could have been a lot worse.” It doesn’t happen often enough, but for me, when the circumstances are right, it often revolves around food and fly fishing. Possibly a friend or more, some fine bourbon or scotch or rum, and maybe a quality cigar. The chef Mario Batali has said, “Wretched excess is barely enough”, and when it comes to food and fishing, there’s always room for excess. These notes and the meals attached come from years of fly fishing and eating. They are cast on the page as a dry fly on moving water. As they unfold, there’s a chance you’ll remember your own experiences, and you might even think back and ponder how it just couldn’t possibly have been any better. As you know, there’s always another seat at the table.
1: Fish Fry
Dad and Carl were self professed “fishing fools”, as opposed to “fish bums”, which my father Bob always thought sounded a bit irresponsible for an adult and parent of age in the Eisenhower era. I had just turned nine, and we all liked Ike. At nine, most kids change from being a child to being an eating machine acting like a child. Personally, I decided to become an 18-wheeler, and in Michigan, that meant I could have extra axels, so, short of sauerkraut, no food was safe in my presence. More to the point, one spring morning, Dad and Carl got up early and took some poppers, their state of the art Fenwick fiberglass fly rods and those Fluger reels with the ivory handles out on Lake Fenton, near Fenton, Michigan. The locals called the exact spot Hidden Cove, because you couldn’t see the entrance from all the underbrush and overgrown trees. Today, a house on the Cove might cost a few million, but 52 years earlier Bob and Carl took long wooden poles and pushed the rowboat through the brush and into the little bay. The electric greens of spring were spray painted on the oak and maple trees that helped mask the presence of the cove. The sweet sour scent of Spring hung thick on early morning shafts of light that stretched like a lazy Siameese on a carpet of Hidden Cove’s morning mist. Summer’s humidity and masses of mosquitoes were pacing nervously nearby, but delicately held at bay by a soft cool breeze from the north. There were soft shell turtles on logs in the sun, and a quiet, save the sounds of uneasy bullfrogs milling about in the marsh grass forests surrounding the lake. All this and several billion sex crazed smallmouth bass. No, that’s the truth. Billions of spawning small mouth, and every single one of them wanted to properly kick a popper’s ass.
That late afternoon, families, friends and neighbors gathered together at Carl and Gretchen’s house on Lake Fenton for a Sunday afternoon Mid West fish fry. Everyone squeezed into the kitchen, because as you know, the kitchen is the beating heart of home. The room was filled with laughter from inside jokes only family and close friends could possibly understand, along with bravado laced anecdotes from Dad and Carl that were born from the heat of The Great Hidden Cove Small Mouth War of 1955. Frying pans smoking hot. There was more Crisco than the human mind can grapple with. Then buttermilk. Then flour. Then salt and pepper. Then a touch more of butter. Then the secret dash plus of granulated sugar. Then last seasons home canned beans, boiled red potatoes and sliced Michigan peaches. The air in the room was fried with fish.
To the casual observer it was just a blur of eating. It was so good, I think back on it and imagine I made the whole thing up, but there I was nine years old and for me, it was simply impossible to stop eating. Between bites there was adult talk about the Tigers and what Al Kaline might do that year, and some serious worry about what Bobby Lane’s sore throwing arm might mean for the Lion’s prospects in the fall. Lots of talk about upcoming opening day fly fishing potential on the rivers up north. Discussions about whether Elvis Presley was the signal the world was coming to an end, and a couple Henny Youngman jokes told when the women went into the kitchen to fry up a couple billion more small mouth. Food casualties keep falling off the ledge. After all, a person can eat just so much and then it stops. But I didn’t speak for probably an hour because I simply didn’t have extra room in my mouth for words. I didn’t stop eating for another hour and the adults just finally left me at the table and went out to watch the sunset. That left me, and the bass and the beans and the peaches. No one could believe it. My parents claimed I actually became a smallmouth soon after that. Carl kidded I might die from small mouth disease brought on by eating fish till I almost puked. I remember thinking “considering the food, how bad could that possibly be?” I mean really, lets be realistic here. I could have eaten forever.
Upon surviving till the next day, I asked my dad to teach me how to fly fish, how to drink cold beer instead of lemon aide, and how to use Crisco and corn meal to make fried fish. From a historical perspective, I soon scored on two out three of those requests, and the third on my 21st birthday. Not bad. Not bad at all. I never looked back and to this day I still drive that 18- wheeler, with a tank full of small mouth bass and some Michigan peaches.
Buttermilk Fried Small Mouth Bass:
Crisco – as needed
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2.5 lbs boneless, skinless smallmouth bass filets
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1.5 tsp kosher salt
1.5 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp paprika
Put a bunch of Crisco in a hot cast iron skillet. In a large bowl, combine buttermilk and cayenne pepper. Soak bass filets in the buttermilk mixture for ten minutes. In another large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, pepper, and paprika. One at a time, lift bass fillets out of the buttermilk, letting excess buttermilk drip off. Dredge each fillet in seasoned flour with the secret extra sugar. Shake off excess flour and drop into the pan. Fry until golden brown and crisp on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with steamed green beans and those little red potatoes.
Filtered through the years the view is warm. The last Saturday in April 1958. Opening day of trout season. It’s early morning. Still a lacquered shade of black outside the bedroom widow. The surrounding evergreen woods are a quiet blue-black silhouette on the horizon, and a crisp late spring frost has silently wrapped itself around the budding new growth. The dinning room of the historic old home in northern Michigan is filled with the smell of cinnamon rolls in the oven and breakfast sizzling in huge cast iron skillets. It glows now a dusty amber with the warmth from table lamps as the light appears liquid now and seems to move effortlessly on clouds of quiet conversations, subdued morning laughter, and shafts of smoke from cigarettes, cigars, pipes, coffee and burnt bacon fat. Six grown men and a twelve-year-old kid sit down for breakfast.
At 60 years and getting younger by the minute, Lillian Marshall was the housemistress. The house had been in the family for years. My father had grown up nearby spending summers brook trout fishing Hunt Creek near Lewiston. Lillian and her husband were friends of the family. When her husband died, Lillian ran a fifties version of a bed and breakfast and opened her large clapboard home to fishermen and hunters who came north from the smoke and grit of Southern Michigan factories, breech born and screaming from the belly of the virgin father Henry Ford. No idea how, at twelve years of age, I got a seat at that table next to my dad, but so it was. The faces of the men appear to me now in silhouette. Blurred through the light from the lamps of 56 additional years. But I can see them even now, moving toward the table and I can hear the laughs and the conversations about fly rods, brook trout, and something called a Wooly Bugger. I remember the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself. I remember being afraid to look up, and I remember being dumbstruck intimidated by the presence of these guys who were larger than life. At the time, I had no idea why I felt so comfortably uncomfortable, and I certainly wasn’t aware I was watching an ageless ritual played over and over through generations and so on to forever. The early morning gathering of hungry fly fishermen, held fast in the warm seductive embrace of renewed hope, ritual, conversation and food.
Behind the huge swinging wooden doors, in the background of kitchen mysteries, I could hear clatters, clangs and ragged jagged conversations as the alchemists mixed their faire. Lillian suddenly burst out of the kitchen and into the dinning room laughing and holding her arms out to her sides as if she were an apostle singing the gospel to a choir of Southern Baptist ministers. She sang, “Gentlemen, rejoice, and let there be breakfast.” Surrounding her and trailing off behind were her two daughters, all of whom carried at least three to four plates of food. The next 30 minutes were consumed in food and bits of conversation. The scrambled eggs, the bacon, the sausage, the cinnamon rolls, the biscuits, the gravy, the orange juice, the potatoes, more cinnamon rolls, the pancakes, the onions, the toast and the home made jam from the small orchard in the back yard. Forty-nine years later, the cup of hot chocolate is still warm in my hands, the smells of breakfast continue to resonate, and the food flows evenly to the horizon of my ability to remember it.
For me, the day would be full of small brook trout from Hunt Creek, lessons in fly fishing a small stream early in the year, and how to tie a blood knot when my hands were cold, but right this moment what I remember most is the light in that room, the table, Lillian’s laugh, all those guys talking crazy about wet fly fishing, the intense smells, and that amazing food. Like those same men lost to silhouette, it appears to me now as a single composite flavor. Not unlike the reviews for a quality scotch, I would describe it as a warm cinnamon, with faint undertones of chocolate, notes of aged bacon and spice, a hint of orange layered with rosemary, egg and sausage. A long finely toasted honey finish. A fine malt to accompany a life.
Lillian’s Scrambled Eggs:
8 large eggs
¼ cup milk
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
2 Tbsp butter
1 large tomato, chopped
1 Tbsp thinly sliced green onion tops
2 links sweet Italian sausage
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
Cut the casings on the Italian sausage and break up the meat. Sauté the sausage until done. Set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs, milk, salt, pepper, thyme, oregano together until well blended. Melt butter in skillet over medium-low heat until hot, and pour in milk mixture. Reduce heat as mixture begins to set on bottom and sides of skillet. Fold over with a spatula and cook until eggs are almost set. Then fold in tomato, green onion and sausage. Heat through and serve immediately.
I hardly ever go winter fishing by myself, but last Monday, I just felt like I needed to go. At this age, for some reason, I still have a little trouble trusting my instincts, but I have learned to do what I’m told and my evil twin was talking crazy in my ear, so what was I supposed to do? Winter steelheaders seek out weather most normal people take out home loans to avoid. In the northwest, it had rained for what seemed like months, and quite suddenly there was a break in the rain along with a hard temperature drop in the hills. You tell me. Regardless of the ever present and apparent general futility of winter steelhead fly-fishing, I ask you, how could I not?
Toward the end of Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, he said at his age his family worried about him wading by himself in deep water. I remembered that passage as I waded alone on the shallow side of a long run on Washington’s Sauk River. No wind. Just 30 feet up the hill, fresh snow on the trees sparkling through backlit early morning sun. Mergansers nervously muttering amongst themselves as they glanced at the Bald Eagle pondering them like an 800 lb gorilla eyeing feathered bananas dipped in chocolate. The ever-present river vigilant on its rock strewn path north to the Skagit. Despite the frost licked fingers, I quickly slipped into the mindless speyed bliss of drifting through the morning casting and mending 80 ft of line effortlessly past the potential pause and momentary rest of a winter steelhead. Buddhist monks and spey casters. Born of different parents from the same primordial mist. They both search for moments of clarity, and bits of universal understanding. At this point however, all real knowledge is ultimately nothing but subjectivity, when suddenly the line goes tight and nothing is what it appeared to be. At this very instant, the monk might say… all life is perfect and at peace. In that same instant, a solitary winter’s spey caster won’t have time to speak. In its place perhaps a stifled scream of utter disbelief in the presence of the sudden truth, but nothing that makes much sense, and most certainly peace is not at hand.
In an hour’s time, I had brought two steelhead to hand and release. One about 8lbs and the last had to be 15lbs. of molten chrome. For me, it had been years since that sort of thing had happened in such a short time and certainly never in the winter. Words didn’t do it justice, so I did what generations of winter steelhead fishermen have always done. In the frosted crystal sunshine, I sat down on the gravel bar and had an early lunch all by myself. Between bursts of spontaneous laughing with the occasional snort and giggle, I lunched on my current favorite mid day indulgences. Smoked salmon pate’ on a Ritz Cracker with a Kalamata olive on top. A small piece of aged Irish cheddar and a thin slice of Italian style sausage wedged in between – simplicity itself. Yea, I know, but you need to try it. The flavors fit that last fish – they just exploded in my mouth. It was hard to swallow while laughing, snorting, and giggling. The eagle and mergansers were joined together now, eyeing my lunch. Two more of those food borne indulgences in slowwww succession, a pause to breath, and then a luscious swallow of Cask Strength Macallan from a pocket flask. A huge sigh as I savored the flavor mix and reflected on years of fallow winter fly-fishing. From the ease of my gravel bar camping chair, I took in a view of the entire run from a distance. Back lit by the sun, it too mirrored that last fish. Blinding crystal against a backdrop of emerald sequined black. No spring bred calf has ever been ever more content than I in my frosted rock strewn dining room. A couple more not so polite snickers for the naysayers who claim the demise of the Sauk and her children. Another pause to inhale atomized Kalamata, Salmon and Sausage, and another drink of the Cask Strength Macallan. This particular scotch is known far and wide (as in exclusively by me) to have been aged for 10 years in sherry casks. It’s then finished off by being poured gently over the bare breasts of 21-year-old Scottish Speyside virgins (Hence the rarity of the malt). The scotch then gloriously drips into discreetly placed bottles and is immediately delivered to rabid spey casters all over the world. In the end, it’s either just exactly as I say, or possibly just what my lips imagine. Either will do just fine when it’s another meal for the ages at an age when fondly I can still remember a number of them. This one more than most.
Smoked Salmon Pate:
½ lb smoked salmon
½ cup cream cheese
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
¼ cup green onions, minced
1 Tbsp fresh dill chopped
¼ tsp pepper
In food processor, puree salmon, cream cheese, mayonnaise and lemon juice until smooth. Mix in onions, dill and pepper. Serve with a Ritz cracker, a thin slice of Italian sausage, a thin slice of Irish cheddar, and a Kalamata Olive on top. Remember to breath when you eat it.
4: Beartooth Dinner
In 1976 I had a name for it. I called it a Doom Loop. Perhaps a different time, perhaps a different place, but you’ve been there. Everything you touch turns to crap. The more you try to fix it, the worse it gets and in the end there is no end. It’s just so much more dog doo, quagmire, muck and more mire. These emotion storms eventually blow themselves out, but not without casualties, so as a casualty myself with nowhere to go at the moment but further down, I just left. Into the backcountry north of Cook City in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness.
It was 1965 when Erwin Bauer wrote a photo story for an outdoor magazine titled Back Country Brook Trout. He talked about the brook trout of the Beartooth, and as a college kid from the Midwest, I never forgot the story. Eleven years later, on the topo map, the hike appeared to be something like ten miles. Most of it above timberline, and all of it uphill. A local forest ranger was about to hike into the same area, so he agreed to take me with him to the lake, and then the ranger would continue on with his rounds. With Doom Loop dripping from my pores, and snapping at my heels, I scrambled along behind; backpack, tent, sleeping bag and fiberglass fly rod in hand. Ten miles walking near to and above the Montana timberline for a Michigan kid weaned on college fraternity vodka parties and auto plant exhaust might as well have been twenty thousand miles to hell and gone. The ranger left what was left of me by the side of Spirit Lake, an emerald droplet nestled in a rock strewn cirque on the edge of a view that looked ½ mile east to temple mounts of rock as tall as the sky itself and west down a valley and over the horizon line, all the way to the Great Wall of China. In the right light, if I squinted hard into the sun, perhaps I could see further still.
As the sun dropped lower on the horizon, I climbed onto a rock ledge next to the lake. The water was clear enough I had to look twice to be sure it was liquid and not air. My fly box held a few Royal Wulffs, a few Adams, a few Ants, a few streamers. I chose the Wulff, because that’s what my father told me to pick the day he taught me to fly fish. Still depleted from the day’s forced march, I managed a 30-foot cast onto the mirrored surface of the lake, sat down on the rock and did not move from the sheer weight of being tired. Now void of thought, I stared at the Wulff and drifted free from myself and everything else that came before the Wulff. A mindless free drift. Ten minutes later I had not moved much, but then there was the slightest flash down in the shadows. The fish moved slowly at first – a massive brook trout – more like structure than like fish. This was bigger than the ones in Erwin Bauer’s photos. This was bigger than I could think. I watched, but didn’t and couldn’t move. Deep in the shadows it sulked and paced in its process of evaluating the small silhouette form above it on the surface, and then suddenly it turned upward and picked up speed as it headed to the surface. I watched, but didn’t and couldn’t move. From fifteen feet down it raced to the Wulff and exploded on the surface with a force that carried it out of the water and high enough I thought I could actually see The Great Wall of China in the space between the lake surface and the tail of the fish. My hand held tight to the rod and in that micro moment of inexperience, out of shock more than anything, my fingers actually held tight to the line as well. In the same instant, the line snapped and the rock walls echoed the sound of the fish hitting the water and going home at last - home at last. I watched, but didn’t couldn’t move. Some things appear to be better off simply observed, and so I did. I watched every second of it, and then a split second later, I stood straight up, cheered at the top of my lungs…and clapped my hands in response to the virtuoso performance of a Beartooth brook trout in orbit around the setting sun.
Back at the small tent site, the sun sent shafts of gold onto the rock walls across the lake and reflected the mountains off the mirrored surface. It was a mirror of the walls as well as the general mood in camp. I had little room in my pack for a lot of food, so I pulled out a can of pork and beans along with a small pot. I filled my water cup directly from the nearby stream. I built a fire and sat the pot onto a flat rock close to the coals. The fire turned the whole pot black as night, but it heated the beans and franks. The smell of the warming beans reminded me of my childhood and my mom making baked beans in the kitchen back in Michigan. I ate the whole can of beans, and drank three huge cups of water. When the last of the sun drifted off the top of the mountains, the temperature began to drop as a brook trout rose nearby. Three Oreo S’mores made for desert, as the coals of the fire wrapped me in their warmth. I wanted not nor more than that was needed. There have been different meals, bigger meals, more exotic meals, but no meal better than this one had while listening to trout rise, sitting near the fire on the bank of Spirit Lake, a short distance from the Great Wall Of China in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness.
Thirty years later, having weathered multiples of life altering Doom Loops, I found myself car camping and fly fishing for steelheading in February on Washington’s Hoh River with Gary Mark, Jim and Al. Late at night, while huddled around the fire, Mark offered up a Tom Waits tune on the boom box. The lyrics brought back the spirit of the meal in the Beartooths. A coarsely gravel voiced man speaks to his young son. “Son there’s a lot of things in this world that you’re gonna have absolutely no use for. And when you get blue and you’ve lost all your dreams, there’s nothing like a campfire and a can of beans.”
Pork and Beans:
Go to every grocery store you can find and sample every single can of Pork and Beans you can find. My personal favorite is Van De Kamp, but who am I to tell you what can of beans will taste best heated next to a fire? This may be one of God’s most perfect foods, so I’m gonna let you define perfection for yourself. Only a fool would suggest more than that.
Get the can of Pork and Beans
Get a fire
Heat can next to fire
Serve with S’mores made from Double Stuff Oreo’s and marshmallows
Just try and find something better on the face of this earth.