Monday, May 22, 2017

Dead Armadillos and Rainbow Trout - Bennett Spring, May 2017

I have never seen a living armadillo. I know they are steadily gaining numbers in Missouri, but I have never seen one of these animals, at least alive. If I told you to guess how many dead armadillos I saw between St. Louis and Lebanon, Missouri and back, how many would you say? Five? Ten? Twenty?

I drove down to Bennett Spring, outside of Lebanon, last Friday after work for a quick overnight camping and fishing trip to celebrate my 29th birthday. Normally, Emily would tag along for these quick trips, but shockingly the idea of being seven months pregnant and sleeping in a tent didn't sound appealing to her. Women. Originally, I was just going to haul ass and try to get down there early Saturday morning, but Emily had the bright idea for me to camp the night before instead. A night alone in the woods with no company except a campfire and a cooler of beer is always a bright idea in my book, so she didn't really need to twist my arm to get me out of the house.

From interstate exit to exit, St. Louis is about 160 miles from Lebanon. It's a much simpler drive as far as navigating goes than say Montauk, but for some reason the drive to Bennett Spring always seems longer, even though it isn't. Both drives take about two and a half hours, and yet I always seem to prefer Montauk's commute. Interstate 44 to Lebanon can be fairly dull. Once you are west of Rolla, the route does become more hilly and scenic, with bridges crossing both the Big and Little Piney Rivers. In addition, roadside attractions become more eclectic and bizarre, like out of a Neil Gaiman novel.

I had planned on fishing, probably at Montauk, two weeks before this, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. Central Missouri, and most of the Midwest, was blasted with days and days of nonstop rain. This resulted in record flooding of the Meramec River, and most of the smaller rivers in Missouri were in flood stage as well, including the Current River at Montauk. I read reports that the entire campground was flooded and closed, and many fish were lost. Bennett Spring was spared the worst of the flooding, so I decided to try my luck there instead of Montauk.

The journey to Lebanon hit an early snag Friday afternoon. I worked from home that day and was able to quickly pack up the truck and hit the road once I was wrapped up with work. However, I only made it three miles from my house when I hit the rush hour St. Louis traffic trying to head west. The journey of a thousand miles takes a helluva lot longer when the first step is sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. It takes a certain level of energy to make the time pass when you're in a long drive on your way to a fishing trip, either listening to music or podcasts or mentally prepping your fishing strategy and what spots you'll hit. That energy is instantly sapped when you're stuck at the Shrewsbury exit because of construction.

The Danger Ranger - Fully Loaded
I did eventually make it out of the city and cruised on down the road, trying to limit the draft by staying close behind semis and tour buses. Atypical for my fishing trips, I was not driving Emily's Prius, but actually took out my Ford Ranger pickup truck on the open road. Historically, this vehicle has not been the most reliable, and in the past has broken down more than once, resulting in a replaced alternator, brake pads, transmission rebuild, realigned tire rods, and even an entire engine block replacement. Any subtle shudder or vibration can cause my anxiety on the road to spike, as it always seems like the truck is about to collapse around me, sending metal parts flying in all directions, and leave me sitting in the center lane of Interstate 44 with nothing but a steering wheel in my hands. To the Ranger's credit, I did make it to Bennett Spring without any serious issue.

I did make one stop on the journey, taking a quick detour in Cuba, Missouri to surprise Emily at her sister's house. She was hanging with her sister and her family that Friday and their house has the distinct advantage of being isolated in the middle of the woods, but also only being about five minutes from the interstate. The house is inhabited by three young children who are obsessed with Star Wars and abusing their Uncle Jake. The adults hung out on their deck and the kids ran amok. The stop there was brief. I was able to use their john, but I knew that they were getting ready to go chow down on some Mexican food, so I kissed my wife goodbye and got back to the drive. My sister-in-law and her family moved to Cuba over a year ago, and in that time their house has often been a pit stop for fishing trips, and not just by me. Aaron, my brother-in-law, mentioned that his brother-in-law (on the other side) stopped there also for that very purpose. I definitely owe them a frozen trout or two as repayment. Cuba is about 75 minutes from St. Louis, and somehow only halfway to Lebanon. If this post seems like it's taking a long time for me to get to the part where I'm fishing, maybe you understand what driving to Lebanon feels like. Even with music and bizarre interstate attractions to distract you, you'll find your mind beginning to wander and you start passing the time in weird ways, like counting dead armadillos.

Once you exit the interstate, the main drag of Lebanon resembles most Missouri interstate towns. There is a fine selection of fast food joints and gas stations. There is a cinema, a public library, and small town lawyer offices. Unlike St. James however, Lebanon doesn't seem to dive all into the trout theme. There is certainly some fishing imagery present, including a fun Rainbow Trout mural, but it isn't as on the nose as other river towns. The last ten or so miles before the park are scattered with various small churches, RV storage lots, fly shops, and taxidermists.

I didn't reach my campsite until after 8:00, and it wasn't until after 9:00 when I had my fire going and my tent set up. I had a decent dinner of fire-grilled steak, pork & beans, and pasta salad that was leftover from Emily's baby shower. Cleaning up after dinner, I meandered over to the restrooms to wash out my pans, only to find a teenage girl washing her hands in the Men's Room. Upon awkwardly apologizing and double-checking the sign on the door, I politely informed the young lady she's probably in the wrong place. She insisted that it was actually the Ladies' Room, and even when I pointed out the urinals on the wall, she doubled down on her assertion and declared that Women's Rooms have those too sometimes. I gave her time to finish washing her hands and waited outside. While I pretended to read a flyer stapled to the wall about how discarded monofilament is a tangling hazard to birds, I saw the young girl leave. I went back to the Men's Room only to discover her mom washing her hands as well. I figured my arguments as to why this was actually the Men's Room would be just as lost on the mother, so I decided to wait outside a little bit longer.

Currently, and for the past few years, Missouri has restrictions in place on firewood from certain counties, meaning that I wasn't allowed to transport any of the firewood I have split behind my house outside of the St. Louis city limits. This is in response to an invasion of the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle, an insect that has caused devastation among ash trees all across the state. Particularly in St. Louis, the city has cut down hundreds of trees in an effort to curb the spread of the species. Ultimately this resulted in me having to buy a couple of stacks of firewood from a gas station outside of the State Park to burn that night. Unfortunately, the wood was wetter than it seemed. Getting it to light took a lot of paper and twigs, and smoked out my campsite for the better part of an hour. Rather than saving any of the wood to cook my breakfast, I decided just to burn it all that night. I had a larger bonfire than intended or necessary, but it added to the aura of the night.

Although the night was uneventful, I found great joy in sitting by the fire under the spring night sky and laying in my tent falling asleep breathing the fresh air. In the morning, I awoke before the sun rose, and watched as the campground around me began to awake. I cooked (too much) bacon and some greasy eggs over my propane burner, as I didn't have the time to try and start a fire with the wet firewood I had bought. To my horror, I realized that somehow I had forgotten my can of camp coffee, so I drank hot water instead. By the time I ate my breakfast, tore down camp, and packed everything into the truck, I only had a little time to gear up and find a spot on the river.

Ultimately I decided on an old reliable spot that proved to be the only worthwhile spot that entire day -- downstream from the stone bridge, wading along the service road near the hatchery raceways. Although the rains had passed several days before, the water was still fairly high. Even at normal water heights, the wading at Bennett can get fairly deep, and treacherously close to that moment when you feel cold water spilling over the tops of your waders. At this heightened stage, wading in some areas was simply not possible. The water color was murky, and visibility was limited to a just few inches below the surface. The water only seemed to be six to eight inches higher than normal, but the swollen stream was flowing much faster than I have seen in the past. The fly that was working that day was the olive John Deere Maribou Jig. I wouldn't say that the trout couldn't get enough of it, but I would say they could get a little bit of it, if that makes sense. Switching from olive to white to pink to red and back to olive, I ultimately found that the fish were leaning towards the green that day.

I hopped around to a few spots, but kept finding that that same stretch of stream with its deep channel and overhanging treetops was providing the most hits. For some reason, and hopefully this information won't go viral, there never seems to be a large crowd of people in that stretch of water. Granted, the climb down to the river from the service road can be difficult, and the thick overhang does eliminate the ability to back-cast, but for my money, there is no better spot at Bennett to dead drift and high-stick a nymph on an indicator and get such results.

As this was my first outing in this 2017 catch-and-keep season, I did keep a few trout to take home to the barbecue grill. Normally I have found that when I get a trout on my stringer, the life and energy seems to escape from the fish fairly quickly and after a few minutes, I'll look down and see it floating belly up at my feet. With the first keeper I had on the line that day, however, the fight didn't seem to leave him until I ultimately cleaned him. Once the loop was in his mouth and out his gills, he seemed to forget I was there, and went back to pacing upstream and even feeding. When I did go to bop him on the head with a rock, I discovered that he had a mouth full of tiny, fingerling fish. To be frank and honest, I found that oddly disturbing. I have no issue or hesitation pulling a fish's innards out with my bare hands, but for some reason, shaking these tiny still living fish from his mouth made me somewhat sick to my stomach. Bizarre.

A few hours later, I was wading downstream from the stone bridge, and noticed a brown snake, about two-feet long, swimming downstream away from me. I didn't pay it much notice, but I did notice it a second and third time as I switched spots. As I waded along the bank, I was careful to keep an eye out for the snake, as I didn't want to step on it and have it bite me. If I ever died while fishing, Emily would kill me. Sure enough, after a few steps, I noticed the snake just a few feet away from me, coiled up, staring at me, and hissing aggressively. I did the only thing a sane person would do and took a step back, but simultaneously took out my phone to take a picture. It was at that same moment as I was trying to unzip the pouch in my waders with my phone that I heard a splash from downstream approximately where my indicator was floating. It seemed that in my struggle to get my phone out, I had inadvertently landed a strike on a trout.

You can see the snake if you squint.
Fly-fishing is comprised of a few crucial moments, and I found myself at one of these moments then. I had to decide whether I was going to keep trying to get my phone out to photograph the snake, or if I was going to risk the snake's attack and reel in the fish. Ultimately, I decided to play the fish on the line, and I assume the snake slithered off and isn't hiding somewhere nearby now, biding its time before it strikes. I did net the fish and ultimately kept it. So thank you to the snake for the assist on that one. This happened to be nearly the exact same spot where my dad witness me catch another Rainbow Trout by accident years before. When I told my dad the snake story, he was convinced I, and every other fly-fisherman, only ever catch fish by accident. In a way, he's not wrong.

Not long after landing that fish, I packed up my gear and began the long drive back to St. Louis. I stopped in Rolla for gas and an energy drink and saw a van with Connecticut plates that simply said BIRDING. On the back of the van was painted in large letters:
We brake for birds.
We brake for good food.
We brake for new friends.

These people were clearly my heroes, and they even had a bull's skull wired to the grill of their van. It's no surprise that this week, despite a lifetime battle with ornithophobia, that I downloaded a birding app on my phone. They were truly inspiring.

When I got home, Emily had a birthday cake waiting for me, a bucket of iced beer, and John Gierach's new book, "A Fly Rod of Your Own." A few days later, on my actual birthday, she and I grilled up the trout with some steaks for a wonderful surf & turf birthday dinner. I wrapped the trout with the skin still on in tin foil, along with chopped onion, lemon, grape tomatoes, and garlic. I seasoned the fish with salt & pepper, and cooked each side approximately 12 minutes over indirect heat. Once the foil was opened, the spine came off along with the skin, and most of the ribs. I still have not mastered that technique, but the fish did taste delicious.

She's an amazing woman.

It was a wonderful birthday weekend, thanks in no small part to my lovely wife sending me out into the woods to fish. I understand that the waters around Missouri are slowly but steadily clearing up, and that the levels are dropping as well. I already have my next trip planned for less than two weeks from now. My buddy Pat Bishop has decided it is time that he learns how to fly-fish, and I am going to oblige him. On Friday, Pat proposed (successfully) to his then-girlfriend, now-fiance, Rachel. This Wednesday, Patrick turns 30 years old. And in less than a fortnight, he's going fly-fishing for the first time. It's a big month for him. #BishFish

Until then.

Oh, and by the way, it was thirty-three. Thirty-three dead armadillos.

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