Walking and Chewing Gum
Doing two things at once is tough for some of us. Walking and chewing gum... or double hauling.
The double haul is the triple somersault off the high wire of fly fishing.
Fly fishing itself is easy - throwing a heavy line here and there (into trees, around your guide's neck, etc.), but double hauling is a refinement akin to turning a kindergartner's drawing of his cat into a Rembrandt.
The double haul increases the speed of the fly line and results in a longer cast. Double hauling is especially handy in windy weather when fly angling is at its most difficult.
As I understand it, which is about the way I understand algebra, you pull down on the line with one hand as you lift it from the water with the other, then release the tension as the line furls behind you (this is the first half of the double). Then you pull down again as the line straightens behind you, make your forward cast, and release or "shoot" the line.
Double hauling is a feat of hand-eye coordination as tough as going one-on-one with Michael Jordan. Both hands have to be in motion in opposing directions, in obedience to a law of physics as complex as Form 1040.
In the hands of a master, the double haul is Bernstein conducting a symphony. When I do it, it looks like a halfdrowned sailor desperately clambering up a rescue rope while sharks nip at his back end.
Some say it's as easy as falling off a log (I have no trouble with falling off logs), but these are people who not only can walk and chew gum, they can yodel and eat corn flakes at the same time.
They are blessed.
No fly angler can claim to be a finished fisherperson until he or she has double hauling in the bag. Without it, an angler is like someone claiming to be an astronaut after he got blown across the back yard when the propane barbecue blew up.
Once I had an office slightly below ground level. Visitors parked at the curb outside could peer down and see me, feet propped up, doing intensive research (reading outdoor magazines).
I began pulling the shades after the double haul incident. I was reading an article by famed fly fisherette Joan Salvato Wulff on the double haul. There were many illustrative diagrams, showing hand placement and arrows to indicate movement direction.
I positioned my hands around an imaginary fly rod and line and carefully followed Ms. Wulff's little A's and B's and arrows.
I began with a power snap, let the imaginary line unfurl behind me, then power snapped again and brought my line fist up to the reel as the line curled over my head and settled to the water as delicately as the afterdinner belch of Queen Elizabeth.
And then I noticed a van parked outside with four tiny faces squashed to the window and I visualized them saying, "Mommy, look what the funny man is doing!"
I figured mommy was about to put in a call to the nearest mental health authorities and abruptly left the office for an in-depth conference with the coffee machine.
Double hauling has infested my fishing life like a persistent cough. Once a guide on a famous trout river asked, "Can you double haul?"
At the time, I had never heard of the double haul. "Well, sure," I said. "If I can't get it all done the first time." He looked at me for a long time.
On that same trip, the guide cried in anguish, as if I had just stuck his earlobe with the hook (I waited until later to do that). "You're throwing wind knots!"
I looked narrowly at him, not sure if this was a compliment or not. "Is that good?" I asked hesitantly.
He looked at me for a long time.
I've finally achieved a bit of skill with double hauling, but no one is going to mistake me for fly fishing guru Lefty Kreh. Fly fishing is a game of finesse. I am to fly fishing what Hulk Hogan is to knitting.
Fly fishing and I have maintained a strange dog attitude for many years. Mostly I fish for bluegills, barroom brawlers who don't appreciate, nor necessarily even respond to finesse.
If you drop a fly so it doesn't even ripple the surface film, a bluegill is likely not to notice it for a week or so. Bluegills are like the old story about the fellow whapping a mule between the eyes with a two-by-four. "What did you do that for?" asked a friend. "Well, first you gotta get their attention," says the whopper.
Bluegills like to see food hit the water like a 16-ounce sirloin slapped on the table in front of a trucker: "Here you go, honey. Wrap your gums around that!"
A trout, on the other hand, is like someone carrying a sack inscribed "Lots of Money" walking through the warehouse district after dark. Trout suspect that anglers mean them harm.
I don't want my prey species to be that wary. I like a nice dumb fish that ambles along like Red Skelton's Clem Kadiddlehopper, muttering, "Doo de doo, hey, what's that big noise like something fell in the water? Looks like uh chicken tied on a hook, but maybe it could be a big juicy bug. I'll bet it's a big juicy bug. Reckon I'll swallow it and find out."
I tried fly tying for a while and proved as ham-fisted at that as I was at casting. Anyone can tie a bluegill fly, but trout prefer delicate imitations of mayflies.
Mayflies are grandly pathetic. They are doomed to ephemeral life because they have no mouth and cannot eat to sustain themselves. They are born to do one thing: breed and thus reproduce. They are ecological carbon paper.
Most live a day in the out-of-water stage, which may be an eternity in mayfly time. I'm sure they don't waste what little time they have wondering what a chicken sandwich tastes like.
But whatever a mayfly's problems, they're simple compared to those of the fly fisherperson who is trying to imitate the insect. A mayfly just needs to worry about love and death; the angler must worry about making chicken feathers look like an insect.
My brief fly tying career was a fever dream, like having been married to Madonna. All that exists from that terrible time is a photo of me at the fly vise. I wear a dazed expression and hunch over a hook that sprouts unwanted facial hair, like the Wolf Man in the full of the moon.
My daughter crouches in the background, with a look of frightened anxiety. Her hair is frazzled, her eyes apprehensive. She possibly is worried that I will attack her golden head for fly tying materials, for she has just seen me chop fur from our dog.
Put yourself in the mindset of a seven-year-old girl who sees her father leap on the family collie with a pair of shears and a cry of discovery. Next, clutching a fistful of dog hair, her father leers at a fishhook and begins to pin hair on it haphazardly until it looks like a possum centered by a semi truck.
I was glad to get out of fly tying, but I still maintain the fantasy of being a suave caster when I'm not busy fantasizing about playing second base for the St. Louis Cardinals or making enough money to survive.
I'd almost given up on finesse in fly fishing until I went to England a few years back. I was on a small stream in Wales, working my way upstream. There was one other angler and I passed him as I flailed fruitlessly at the sleepy water.
I tried a combination of every fly I had (four, I believe). I double-hauled and roll-cast and sidearmed and did everything else I'd learned over the years. Sometimes I even didn't snag a tree.
That night, in the lodge dining room, my fellow angler of the afternoon approached. He was a classic Scot, spare and frosty of eyebrow, face weathered from a thousand afternoons on the trout stream.
If you designed the quintessential trout angler of the fine split bamboo rod era, he would be your model.
He gave me a spare smile, the approbation of one old expert to another, and said, "Ye cast a gud line, laddie." I felt ten feet tall.
Except that when I had seen him, he was fishing with worms for eels.
There is a moral here somewhere...