Monday, September 01, 2008
The Legend Of Two Left Boots
My grandmother once told me that when you get old all you have left are memories….sad, but true.
Today, I was filled with the memories of past journeys to the river. And once again I found myself drifting off to days gone by.
I remembered one of the first times I saw red-sided coho salmon pushing upstream on Michigan’s Platte River. It was mid-autumn and she was at her finest.
Bright yellow and orange leaves, in full color, were silhouetted in the distance. The smell of decaying summer growth, and the brilliant foliage, told me that fall was in full swing.
I saw many fishermen, young and old, trudging the banks of the river in search of a hole filled with fresh-run salmon, brown trout and steelhead. Two young guys stopped to get a better look into the hole under a big downed cedar tree.
“Catch any?” I asked.
“Only one, but there is a guy downstream that is catching a hell of pile of salmon.”
“Oh yeah… what’s he using?”
“Looks like a bright red and orange fly.”
“Good deal,” I replied, “there are plenty of fish everywhere.”
“We did pretty well this morning on spawn.”
“Great!” I replied…”
“Well, good luck!” they said, vanishing into the cedars.
Off in the distance I heard the cry again: “Fish on!”
I headed down-river to see who was making all the noise. Moving down the trail through a tight patch of tangled alders I caught a glimpse of someone out in mid-stream, standing on a sandbar in front of a big sweeping hole.
“Fish on!”, he hollered again. I could only catch glimpses of a silvery fish leaping head-high out of the water. And I could hear the distinct buzz of a reel drag. I watched as he wrestled the brawling fish up on the sand and quickly released it.
I knew he couldn’t see me, so I decided to hold my position in the tangle and just be a spectator. I watched as he stripped line off the reel and pitched the fly back into the hole. Moments later, he set the hook and backed up onto the sand again.
“Fish on!” he bellowed for all to hear. This fish went into a crazed jumping spree, and at one time had leaped up through the low-hanging branches of a gnarly cedar.
I watched as the fish continued jumping until he had freed himself from the overhead snag. The old veteran then put the pressure on him and was really talking to him.
Moments later, it was flopping on the sand. Who was this guy who was beating up on the fish? Playing them hard and fast?
I had seen people with fish on stringers, one or two here and there, but this guy was really putting the hurt on those fish. I had never seen anything like it before.
I started edging out of the tangle when I stepped on a dead pine branch that broke with a loud crack. I stopped to look and see if the guy had heard the noise but he was gone.
How could a man vanish in thin air that fast? I continued to look around but couldn’t see him anywhere.
I wrestled my way out of the alders and rounded the bend on the trail. I was looking straight out at the sand bar where the angler had been standing, but no one was there.
I was puzzled. Where could he have gone? I slipped down the bank into the river, and waded out to the sand bar. Looking up and down the river I could see no one, and all was still.
It was as if the man had never existed or never had been there. The guy was like a ghost, here one second and gone the next. Then something in the sand caught my eye. It was an orange fly with bright red hackle. I reached down, picked it up, held it in the soft sunlight and examined it closely.
“Must have been his,” I thought. Those young guys said he was using an orange and red pattern. As I stood there, I began looking at the sand for more flies.
I noticed there were only two boot prints in the sand. Both were left boots. By this time I was completely baffled by the red and orange fly and the two left-boot prints.
As I look back now I had no idea then of the magnitude of that encounter with the man with two old left boots….
.…A jerk shook me awake as I looked around. I settled back in my chair, the warm summer breeze and the buzzing of cicadas let me know I still had enough time to go back again.
Immediately I slipped back down memory lane to a late November snowstorm. What a day, I remember it well, even though it was at least 35 years ago.
A big run of fall steelhead had left Lake Michigan, and was up through the mid-section of the Platte River. Cold and snowy, almost white-out conditions made it seem like I was in a different world. Thinking back on it, perhaps I was.
Freshly tied spawn bags drifted through the holes were just the ticket as bright silver steelhead were on the feed. Strong fish, silver with greenish-blue backs, all hard, solid autumn muscle.
I’d landed 10 fish from one deep hole above a big logjam, and released them all, and then decided to head down the river. I hit the bank and worked my way down around the big logjam area.
I was on the Platte River below the Haze Road bridge. The river ran for a long way, all shallow and gravelly, and I knew a hole where it flowed deep around a tight bend. I was sure it would be full of fresh steelhead.
I was giddy with the anticipation of another fight with another big fish. The snowstorm hadn’t let up and I told myself I would fish for another hour and pack it in. Nearing the horseshoe in the river, I eased up on a sandbar to bait up.
I noticed boot prints in the snow. I couldn’t believe someone had beat me to this spot! I looked but couldn’t see anything in that blizzard. Whoever had been there couldn’t be far away.
After moving up on the sandbar I stopped dead in my tracks and couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in a foot of fresh snow, were the prints of two left boots.
This had to be him. And then I heard a muffled yell from down stream. ”Fish on!” I jumped up on the bank, hit the trail and began running down along the river through the snow-covered cedars, alongside the tight alder patches.
Once I thought I saw a movement and stopped for a better look, but nothing. Another hundred yards and I slid down the bank into the river and crossed over to the other side expecting to find his tracks heading down the trail, but there was nothing. A foot of fresh snow and no tracks to be found.
Again, dumbfounded with the situation, I headed back to the car.
Two years later in an Honor bait shop, I was listening to two old gents telling stories about a legendary guide who out-fished everyone on the entire river. He caught fish when nobody else could catch them.
Then I heard them laughing hysterically, “he was the only guide who wore two left hip boots” they said. “He caught the hell out of those fish, but he sure left some funny looking tracks.”
They laughed again, and I understood who I’d seen on the river that snowy day. It had been the legend of two left boots.
“John! Wake up and come in now. Supper is ready,” came my wife’s voice, shaking me awake from my pleasant dream world.
I awoke in a daze, not knowing if I was dreaming or had really been there on the river. I wondered, was he still out there? How old would he be now? Would I ever see him again?
Legends never die, you know. They just keep creeping back into our minds at odd times, and pull us back to a time when everything was just right as we fought big fish in the river.
It took me back to a time when the immortal echoes of “Fish on!” could be heard from my Lazy Boy or a wicker chair at pool-side, and the memories brought back fond thoughts. Such memories are when I pay more attention to my daydreams of yesteryear.
And it’s a mental moment when a soft warm summer breeze can take you to a place with knee-deep snow, and have you reaching for the net, preparing to net another steelhead. This is when you know you’ve got this fondest of memories locked away until the next time you need to remember a time-worn old legend.
Hey, old legend…I knew you then and you came back today for a brief visit. I’m looking forward to the next time. – John
NOTE: This article was written by John McKenzie. He has published several other articles on these pages, and his pieces make anglers and hunters think. He still fishes the Platte River, and continues to look for the legend of two left boots.