This Albany, Georgia yarn spinner and fly caster details how to turn an underwater disaster into an even more precarious fly-fishing situation!
On The Fly Freshwater
By O.Vic Miller
Chip Hall is the only married guy I know who has his fly vise attached to the kitchen counter, his peacock herl and grizzly hackles strewn over the breakfast bar. Eat supper over there and you’re liable to find African goat hair in your gazpacho.
He can tie anything from crab lice to sand fleas. Sometimes he gets carried away and fabricates insects eaten by neither bird nor fish. Like the hung-up love bugs that splat your windshield. He’s a fanatic, stopping his jeep for every roadkill to harvest hair or feathers. His wife Betsy puts up with him marginally and is always willing to get him out of the house, so Chip is allowed to go fishing night or day. On rainy days he amuses himself by drinking bourbon and tying houseflies that fool Betsy into swinging at them with a swatter. He sits on his bar stool watching her, wearing a magnifier that distorts his eyes.
Anyway, this story has another setting, the Flint River rapids off the first hole fairway of the old Radium Springs Golf Course. Before John Yoeman went off to med school last summer, he and I took fishing and scuba excursions early afternoons while the sun was still high, shining in golden shafts beneath fast water rapids below Radium dam. There the rushing water makes a deep cut between Goat Island and the green limestone bank. These are channels dredged a few hundred years ago for river barges. Fossiliferous rocks are piled on either side.
You can scuba dive in calmer places, weight yourself down and “catfish” along the bottom. You can fan the sand with your hands to uncover arrowheads and camel teeth. There are whale bones in the Flint River, old bottles, sharks’ teeth and chert artifacts the color of caramel. One summer I found a straight-sided Coke bottle manufactured in Albany before 1912, according to John Temp Phillips, a collector. There’s lots of wonderful junk in the Flint River.
Late summer when the water table drops and artesian springs make up a higher ratio of river water, the Flint turns jade. If you dive the deep holes with a flashlight, you can come face to face with monstrous flathead catfish, and in the springs, where layers of cold water blanket the limestone bottom, big rockfish—stripers–some 50 pounds, circle like gray ghosts, their eyes the size of baseballs. Shoal bass haunt the rapids, wonderful fish that fight like rainbows on amphetamine, strong from life in the fast water
I buckled on a Scuba tank and two weight belts and catfished near the upstream mouth of the deep channel beneath the first hole, exploring the crevasses, crawling hand over fist over the limestone boulders along the bottom of the trough.
I was hanging on for dear life to the corner of a limestone boulder, flapping like a flag some twenty feet beneath the surface, trying not to get sucked into the pipeline trench cut for antebellum barges. I was careful not to turn my profile to the rushing water, which had the power to smear my lips and rip off my mask. Getting tired I wished I’d entered quieter water to look for treasure. Suddenly the corner of the boulder broke off and I washed loose, tumbling down the flume, my Scuba tank clanging against limestone and flint.
I couldn’t fight the current, and I was too weighted down with lead to swim, so I tucked and rolled, protecting my head with my forearms as I shot the flume, whizzing along the amber lunar landscape. I knew I’d wash the length of the first hole fairway. Then I’d crawl to quieter water and surface. I had plenty of air to just go with the flow, so I relaxed and concentrated on dodging rocks until I was swarmed by shoal bass, some really big ones, which kept up with me as I tumbled and boinked, banking off rocks. I decided to come back here some day to fish.
“It was the craziest thing I ever saw,” I told everybody who’d listen. “Those bass followed me the length of the first hole fairway, some 300 yards.”
“You damn fool,” Chip said, “you were knocking gator fleas loose from the bottom and the shoal bass were feeding on them. You were chumming them up.”
“Yeah, the larval stage of the Dobson fly– hellgrammites. Shoal bass love them.”
“All we got to do,” I told Chip during my next trip to his kitchen, “is drag a logging chain behind the johnboat to chum up the shoalies.” The chain, I figured, would serve the double purpose of slowing us down in the fast water and breaking loose hellgrammites. They ought to hit a fly, I figured, tied like a hellgrammite.
“They ought to hit a fly tied like anything,” Chip said.
“Can you tie hellgrammites?” I asked. His eyes focused out about 200 yards beyond the refrigerator and he nodded once, fiddling through some black goose biots on the counter.
“He can tie anything,” Betsy affirmed.
As soon as the water level got right, we fastened a chain to the carrying handle of the johnboat and hooked up the trailer, making a single pitstop to shave some white belly hairs off a flattened possum. We put in at the Marine ditch and motored south, passing Radium Dam where I’d squandered the principal and interest of my childhood.
The only problem with the chain, besides the mind-shattering clatter, was we were chumming up the shoal bass behind us, creating a feeding frenzy beyond our casting range. “We need two boats,” I observed as happy bass frolicked in our wake, “one for the chumming and one to fish.” Our retarded movement down the roaring rapids made us feel like we were going backwards. We cast flies into braided water, where I’d once found a flint knife.
Suddenly the sky darkened and we were shrouded in thick shadow. Above us loomed a puffy cloud, shaped and colored like the bruised buttocks of a Sumo wrestler, cleft darkly through the center.
“That’s a pretty bad looking cloud,” said Chip.
“Smell that rain!”
“That’s ozone. Fish bite better in a barometric low just before a storm.”
“We’re liable to get wet.”
“Since when did you start worrying about getting wet?”
Veins of heat lightning illuminated the cloven cloud pink as a peach. Flatulent thunder followed. It was as though we were threatened by the fiery bowels of some sky deity.
Then we became enveloped in strange phenomena. When Chip cast his fly line, it remained horizontally suspended in the charged air over the water, the tippet actually rising above the leader, his Caddis fly hovering as though it had come to life.
Our eyes met in disbelief. Had Chip finally tied a Caddis fly accurately enough to bridge the Platonic chasm between real and ideal? Had he created the soul of Caddis, fabricated from dun hackles and fine gold wire? Had Chip’s creation animated itself? We both felt a tingle, which we misinterpreted as spiritual ecstasy derived from a witnessed miracle.
As we marveled with unhinged jaws, the airborne Caddis snapped like a firecracker in a curl of white smoke, and I realized that we were feeling the charged air of celestial electricity polarizing between the tip of Chip’s graphite Orvis, through my metal boat, to the last link of the chain that grounded us to the rocky bottom of the Flint River. Positive streamers waved, strokes and return strokes of Elmo’s fire.
Chip said the subsequent surge of current rolled my lips into a hideous rictus baring my teeth, which glowed luminescent green like the wet flies he’d tied. He also said he saw and heard the spark of galvanic electricity that synapsed the gap between fillings in my upper and lower molars, melting the amalgamate and leaving smoking cavities the diameter of my dentist’s drill.
“Yaaaaah!” I cried blowing smoke. My feet began to boogie on their own as my gluteus maxima twitched like frog legs in lemon juice.
The sudden charge, he testified, did wonderful things to my neck hackles, which bristled, fizzed, and kinked like steel wool touched off with a match. My thick eyebrows, he said, backlashed.
The only thing that kept us from frying like grasshoppers was our providential drift over a hole deeper than the length of the chain, which fell plumb without reaching the bottom, although two flathead catfish were shocked belly up to the surface.
“That was close,” Chip said. “Take me to shore; I don’t want to be late for church.”
“Maybe we can find a synagogue.”
I cranked my Johnson and hauled in the logging chain, which still tingled my hands. We sped upstream, careening through river rocks, hell bent on reaching the neutrally-charged landing as the slanting rain chased us up the channel. The river birch and cypress knees flickered like pickets and Chip’s jowls flapped in the wind. I mumbled Bible verses as the tip of my tongue explored warm molars.