As America approaches yet another Independence Day celebration, I’m reminded that sometimes a chance encounter while fly fishing will unveil an interesting portrait of human freedom.
A couple of weeks ago I was fishing yet another caddis hatch, the kind that makes the upper Genesee River noteworthy. I was heading upstream in a clear and comfortable evening, catching trout left and right on a Grannom dry, when looking toward the bend pool I could see a fly line in the air and could hear soft words being spoken as if to a son or a fishing buddy. It took a while before I could view the bearded fellow, a big man with glasses, who appeared to be about my age. The partner he’d been talking to while landing trout was a lively little terrier.
We approached each other and I saw that the small dog carried a bag of angling paraphernalia in its mouth. I said, “Oh, you’ve got your helper with you tonight,” and the fly fisher, whose name is John, replied, “My ghillie.”
We exchanged fishing reports, and I learned that John loves to fly cast on the headwaters of streams, as I do, way up in “the nose bleed section” where no one else is found– unless one chances upon another madman or iconoclast in love with native trout.
John fishes the wilder streams of New York and Pennsylvania, and he knows many of my favorites like Slate and Cedar Run. He fishes them remotely, “where you can die of dehydration and exhaustion if you go in with a bloated ego and aren’t prepared for canyon walking.”
One of John’s fishing heroes was Fran Betters but he knew him only late in life, when the Ausable shopkeeper had to sit while fly-fishing or when tying Adirondack patterns at his vise. “Nowadays I like to sit on my ass while fishing, like Fran had to do,” said John. I reminded him that it’s not easy sitting down while checking out the rivertops.
John and his canine partner were about to leave and head back toward the parking lot when he said, “Oh wait, I’ve got a story you’ll appreciate.” It goes something like this…
“One time I was fishing near the state fish hatchery on Oswayo Creek in Potter County. I saw a guy fishing there who acted as though he didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing. I approached him and saw a fly rod being tossed into the grass. As he tore off his vest and tried to chuck that, too, I saw four or five cans of Falstaff Beer falling out to the edge of the creek. I couldn’t believe a guy would drink that shit. Falstaff! Anyway, the guy looked totally embarrassed and we finally introduced ourselves. Are you ready for this? The fellow was none other than Joe Humphreys (legendary Pennsylvania fly-fisher and writer, angling partner of Jimmy Carter…). The only time I ever met him!”
I had a name for the bend pool in the Genesee where I’d met John. I was starting to consider renaming it the Rabbit Hole in honor of Alice and her entry into Wonderland. Meanwhile I thanked John for the story, hoping the iconic Humphreys wouldn’t mind my retelling if the anecdote was true. If the tale was authentic, it would spice up my own reflections gathered from years of fishing that remote but favorite stream.
Before he left, I asked John where he lives and what he does when not out fishing. He lives within an hour’s drive of the Genesee and he likes to read books and make music. “I don’t have a TV, radio or computer. I just read and make CDs. About 100 of them so far.”
A hundred albums? Do you write songs?
“No, not really. But sometimes, yeah, about my friends like this dog, right here. I’ve been featured on Dr. Demento, stuff like that.”
He wanted to know which vehicle was mine so that he could leave some CD samples on my car. When I left the Rabbit Hole and returned to the parking lot at dusk, I found four self-produced albums, and I played one while driving home.
Listening to the music I found I wasn’t done with the Rabbit Hole experience yet. Not by a long shot. I listened to “Songs and Legends of Allegany County,” and perused the song titles of “There’s Something Funny Going On in Steuben County,” “Fantastic Fish Stories,” and “A Cat of More Than 9 Tails.”
Wild. Bizarre. Satirical and hilarious. Original. In tune with local history and an independent spirit. I recalled my old Patrick Sky album, the infamous “Songs That Made America Famous.”
I can say this as someone who has long appreciated music as unworldly as that of Captain Beefheart’s or The Residents’. John Bartles and the Diode Trio should have a major label, but rest assured they’ll never get one. You can sample a few Demento-esque songs on You Tube, but be warned (as John B. says): It’s music unsuited for audiences of ANY age (heh heh).
If you don’t mind rough language or no-holds-barred lyrics that, thankfully, make a serious point or intentionally have no point except to guide you through the Halls of Academentia, I’d recommend listening to You Tube’s “Cut My Own Head Off,” “American Hypocrite,” and “Calling All Humans” by John Bartles. Otherwise let your imagination riot.
The few offerings on You Tube barely suggest a listening experience such as that found in my CD, “Songs and Legends of Allegany County,” but they do offer a start.
Hey, only in America, folks, and in any other country where my friends are reading this. When you have it, freedom is a wonderful thing.