Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dirtbag

I'm driving north in my little car in the chill and fog, eyeing the spreading crack in my windshield.  I've stuffed a ratty pair of wool gloves onto the defroster vents hoping to get them dry before I have to wear them again.  They smell of yesterdays fish, an aroma which fills my car.  I find comfort in this, it reminds me of my success.  I hope today is just as good.  I love this little car- it gets 32 mpg, and despite its age and hints of rust, it's a tight little machine.  I'm out to do a little dirtbag fishing- fast food breakfast, smelly wet gear and no real itinerary.

I've always thought of myself as a dirtbag fisherman.  I don't mean a hick or a low-life, but someone who loves the sport and always finds a way to get out there.  When I moved back north after having been gone for ten years, and after having been through an ugly separation and custody battle, I was pretty much broke and on the mend.  I managed to fish about  5 days a week that year, squeezing it in after work and on weekends.  Even while I still lived in the soulless hell of Detroit I managed some dirtbag fishing- catching pike off the jetty at Nine Mile road on Lake St. Clair, or catching perch on a Saturday morning at the Coast Guard Station with my daughter.  She was only 3 then, and very cute.  She helped me reel in some fish before curling up inside my oversized parka and napping in the warming April sun.  I was catching jumbos that day.  It is one of my favorite memories of her.

I took a dirtbag trip that summer, driving from Detroit to Baldwin to fish the Pere Marquette river.  I stopped at Dragonmead near Roseville and got a couple of growlers of beer and then headed it west, stopping at an Outback steakhouse near Lansing and getting into Baldwin at nearly 10 pm.  I looked around and finally found a launch, parked my truck and got into the passenger seat.  The beer in my growler was still cool and went down with a slickness.  I drifted off to sleep with my seat reclined as far as it would go.

I woke two hours later to the sound of thunder and the hot flash of lightning.  It had been so hot that I cracked a window, and now rain was pouring in on my face.  I rolled up the window, and the humidity was stifling.  The storms lasted for hours, but I finally got some uncomfortable sleep.

I woke in the gray light of dawn.  All was quiet, no one was at the launch, and I had the river to myself.  As I first waded into the river, a large dark, snaky figure swam up past me- it was a Skamania, a big summer run steelhead.  I would see quite a few this weekend, but I was spinner fishing for trout and didn't have a chance at them.

The rest of this trip- the driving through endless fields of asparagus (who knew Michigan was the asparagus capitol?), the girls at the bridge on the Little Manistee, my nap on the beach at Arcadia, and a second night spent in a road-side park are all dirtbag gold to me.  It was a rough trip, and still one of my favorites.

After I moved back up north I did a similar trip, this time in an old nasty Ford work van.  I removed all the tools and paint buckets, loaded it full of my camping gear and headed north.  I crossed the Mackinaw Bridge in this creaking behemoth, pointed it west down US 2 and made it as far as Black River State Forest campground.  As I turned off of 2 and made my way down the winding road I kept seeing this sparkle in the air like glitter.  "I really hope that's not..."  Yes it was- mosquitoes, and they nearly ate me alive.  I got my fire started, which put an end to the bugs- they were attracted to the heat and CO2 of the fire, and I could see them falling in faint curlicues as they were sucked into the flames and shot skyward.  I didn't get bit from that point on.

The next morning the bugs weren't as bad.  I fished the river for a short time, coming up with a couple of small brookies, before packing it up and heading north and west.  My goal was the Fox river, a goal I made in no short order.  When I got there, the mosquitoes were even fiercer.  I fished for a time, and even caught a couple of fish, but the clouds of bugs were downright menacing.  They were for some reason drawn to my neoprene waders, and I was killing them fifty at a swipe.  It was disgusting.  The bugs, and thunder in the distance made me get back in the van and head further west.  My goal was the Keewenaw.

I never made it.  I had researched the Sturgeon river and believed it held fish.  I drove for over three hours before reaching Sturgeon river campground.  It was beautiful.  The river is set in a deep gorge and you drive down in under a high bridge that crosses it.  I fished as soon as I got there, and even got one decent fish to follow, but it had been raining, and now it was starting to rain in earnest again.  The river got noticeably dirtier and began to rise.  I went back to camp, set up my cot in the van and napped through the rain.  I don't know what I had for dinner, I only know that it rained all night, and that the next morning the river was threatening my camp and was the color of chocolate milk.  I moved on to Emily Lake, where I caught jumbo bluegills, a trout or two and a couple of bass.  This trip was a dirtbag classic- lot's of unknowns, sleeping in my vehicle, bad food, bad weather, rivers blown out, and fish where I least expected them.

My dirtbagging hasn't been as dramatic since.  Sure, there was the San Juan river with Tim- lot's of burned meals and beer, broken off fish, snow and sleet, and the occasional fish landed.  I've spent weeks on the rivers at night, in hopes of the sound of the rivers surface erupting under the assault of a big brown.  I love to drive around in my work clothes, paint on my hands, the smell of work sweat hanging heavily around me, on my way to a river after work, but it's not the same.

My fortunes have risen and fallen with the economy.  I had some good years and made a lot of money.  My business tanked with the economy and I've been scraping by the last four years.  I don't care.  I live in Northern Michigan, the rest is window dressing.  I went fishing today and hooked up on four steelhead, landing two. I'm back to dirtbagging, and I love it.  My expensive Simms boots are falling apart, my car is a piece of crap, all but one of my rods are broken and repaired as cheaply as possible.  I'm going to do at least one trip this year where I sleep in my crappy little car.  It will be fantastic, my best trip ever.  I may stay at one of the upper Fox river campgrounds, or Pretty Lake, or who knows, cross the border and fish the Algoma district.  I just want to go, I don't care about food, or comfort, or the niceties of life.  I just want to be out there.

Dirtbagging.

20 comments:

  1. I wish I was as spontaneous as you. Those trips sound great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey man- any day you're out there is a great day. Don't ever over plan it. Any day on the water is a great day, so don't ever pass up the opportunity. Just sayin'.

      Delete
  2. Dude!... Jason, one of the best collection of words I've read in a long time! Dirtbagging is fishing at the simplest level. I've been there myself. To me it's still the most rewarding fishing there is. "Damn!... I know I ain't to proud to get little dirty!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Geez, thanks Jeff. Let's do a dirtbag trip soon. Smallies, gills,brookies, kayaks- let's do something unplanned and fun. Let me know.

      Delete
  3. Great piece - probably my favorite of yours that I've read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Mich. I've been doing these interviews and some other stuff and resenting not doing some creative writing. It was good to just sit down and bang out some emotion. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  4. Outstanding. Dirtbag fishing is the best kind of fishing.

    It's funny, people think a guy who "lives in a van down by the river" is some kind of loser...but in reality that guy is the luckiest guy in town...free from society's silly trappings and encumbrances.

    There is a leisure class at both ends of the economic spectrum.

    Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I'm definitely not leisure class, but I'm definitely not the lawn mowing type either. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

      Delete
  5. This post brought back great memories of many "dirtbag" adventures. Thank you!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Keith- I'm glad you enjoyed it. We all have them.

      Delete
  6. Great writing...a sense of place and purpose, even without the itinerary. The scenes with your daughter were striking. Beautiful piece, FR.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Erin. It has been building inside me for some time and finally spilled out yesterday. I think I wrote it in one take.

      Delete
  7. Excellent post! One of the things I enjoy about fishing for Steelhead is that those trips have the sort of feel you describe. Long hours in the car. Some measure of discomfort. A shared bond among participants.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I went to a all inclusive resort for vacation once. It was very comfortable, but not very memorable. I'll never do it again. Thanks for reading.

      Delete
  8. FR, I read this three times. I will likely read it again. Very well done. (I deleted the previous comment because of a typo.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, that really makes me feel good. I get these notions in my head that build until one day I realize I've been writing a piece sub-consciously. This is one of those.

      Delete
  9. Awesome--You have definitely wrangled up another epic post! Thanks for the trip--I enjoyed it immensely!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Patrick. It was a lot of years in the making.

    ReplyDelete
  11. A little dirtbagging is good for the soul...no itinerary just makes it that much better (as does a porpoised colored Honda or the like)...

    a lot going on in this one, but one of your best!

    Cheers

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Sanders. I'll get out there and dirtbag around Colorado with you soon.

      Delete