Fishing Golden Trout with General Yeager: Difference Between a Rock and a Fish

August 14th, 2015

Other than in Africa, I had been camping maybe once. I think my parents have never been camping. Ever.

Shipley, where I attended from 2nd grade through 12th grade, had decided that an Outward Bound retreat the weekend before school started would be an ideal bonding experience. I was about to enter 8th grade. I had no friends because the ones I had until seventh grade became the “cool” kids; into drugs, heavy petting at the very least, and bullying – none of which was interesting to me. The non-“cool” ones were generally non-athletic and had different interests. I deflected the bullies with humor and avoidance.  Since I was a pretty good athlete I had some value so was left alone pretty much.

The retreat was interesting but two days in the Poconos was enough for me.  Our group had one of the male teachers who was hugely overweight. One exercise in trust, teamwork, leadership, etc. was: we had to get the group over a wall or those left behind would “die”. After several different attempts at different strategies, even the guide let the teacher walk around. If only life were so easy…Wall? Die if you don’t get over? Just walk around.

So when General Chuck Yeager, GCY, asked if I wanted to go on his annual fishing/hiking trip into the Sierras, I was thrilled. After forty years of traveling all over the world, this invitation opened up a a completely new world and experience.

One afternoon of the fourteen days sticks out in my mind. We had hiked for three days to get to our first spot where we would spend at least four days. We had arrived in the afternoon, had set up our tent, and started fishing for our supper: the famed golden trout.

We had been surviving on almonds, raisins, and beef jerky (I didn’t eat the beef jerky – I brought my trusty protein powder for emergencies) for lunch and dinner. For breakfast; oatmeal, tea and coffee. As a treat; hot chocolate and “atta boys”.

Atta boys were Werther’s butterscotch candy for those times when you had a strenuous hill to climb.

GCY was teaching me how to fish. I had only been fishing once – on a kid trip in France. No one on that trip knew how to fish. I think I caught an old boot.

While GCY was using a fly rod, he decided I should start on a spinning rod.

We fished side by side while he gave me pointers now and again.

I could throw pretty well medium distance so got the spinner out into the lake pretty far. GCY had warned me: “Don’t let it sink and get caught on a rock. We don’t have that many spinners.” And laughed.

Terrified we’d starve if I lost the spinner, I reeled it in quickly.

GCY: “Not so fast, the fish aren’t on the top.”

The next toss then, still terrified, I tried to slow down.

GCY: Not so fast!

I tried again.

I watched GCY catch a couple of Goldens. Watching him concentrate on putting his rod together, carefully choosing his fly, tying his fly on in his unique way, casting, stripping (which with a fly rod essentially means retrieving)….well that is poetry in motion.

Then as GCY watches the fish take notice of his fly in the clear, frigid waters of Fungston Lake, and plays with attracting the fish to consummate and bite the fly…

Fish on! The fish jumps a little trying to shake the hook. Zigs. Zags. GCY plays him, clearly enjoying it all, exuding great mrth. Woo hoo! GCY has me hold the fly rod – not going to trust me to take the fish off and not lose it. (Neither of us were going to let me be in that position J.

He bleeds it and then strings the first catch on a stick and secures the stick by burrowing one end in the sand under the water in the shallow edge. Keeps the fish cold and wet. Well. We have GCY’s dinner.

He looks at me and says: “Catch a fish!”

He turns to his rod, checks the fly and the line for glitches before he tosses it out again and his line floats to the surface of the lake. He lets his tip sink and when he thinks it has sunk far enough, he starts bringing it in in spurts, to make his fly appear as food, a bug. to the fish.

I continue tossing and retrieving….still too fast.

After watching me through several exercises in good tossing and not so good retrieving; GCY said: “You’ll have to learn how to fish if we’re going to go to Alaska in two months!

Alaska. I had always wanted to go there but could not figure out how to make the trip worthwhile. I had had all sorts of offers to visit but just not from the right person. Until GCY. Within a month of knowing him, out of the blue he said: Want to go fishing in Alaska?

I like doing just about anything with GCY but add going to a place I had always wanted to go and with someone who knew it well? I couldn’t say “Yes” fast enough! Now I felt the trip was threatened. I had to learn how to fish. And fast.

The umpteenth time the reel came skipping across the top, GCY said, You have to let it sink so it gets to the fish, gets their attention.

I tried again. Here came the spinner skipping merrily.

The umpteenth plus one time, GCY, with great patience, said, When it hits the water, count to three before you start reeling.

I let the spinner sink. GCY, music to my ears, said, “Atta girl. Now reel.”

No fish.

GCY: “That was good. Try again.“

I tried. Used the counting to three method.  I was thinking this is too much like work. What happened to napping with the rod next to you until you felt a tug? Actually, my attitude was this is too sedentary. I want to go exploring the hills. But this was also dinner.

After several more attempts, finally, halfway in, I felt a tug. I was elated!

“I GOT A FISH!” Now what do I do?

I tugged back.

GCY looked over, assessed the situation and said: “That’s not a fish, that’s a rock.”

Me: It’s a fish!

A few more tugs…. See!

GCY replied: That’s a rock!

Me: It’s a fish!

GCY, with his famous quizzical look of great bemusement, said: Can’t you tell the difference between a fish and a rock?

As I was contemplating how to describe the differences and maybe the question was the scientific differences, GCY broke in to this heavy thinking and said:

A fish wiggles!

Simple. And brilliant in its simplicity.

Me? I took a break.




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