ESSAY: Hidey Hole

The child’s impulse for building tree houses, attic hideaways, play tents, hidden shacks, and underground forts is essentially healthy. The world will always look better from concealment. A huge elm is an excellent place to observe the comings and goings of cats, squirrels, your father and mother, a brother, neighbor, a friend or an enemy, and if a peanut or even apple core happens to land on an unsuspecting head… well, let’s face it. They probably deserved it.

I’m wandering away from my original aim and am not sure if any of this applies to trout fishing, but the enterprising fly fisherman can make all manner of connections, being odd to begin with, considering the paucity of results with the effort applied. In writing, truth is found in what is omitted. So when I say I don’t keep fish much you might suspect I don’t catch them much, either.

But again I am straying so let’s get to the creek. The truth will be found there. Or not.

I had stepped from a steep bank into the water intending to cast around a sharp bend. Can this be done? Yes, a flaw in your delivery, in this case an overhead stroke with a mid-cast correction, will “hook” the line. The trick is to do it on purpose.

It’s hard to make a mistake when you actually want to make a mistake, and after three or four attempts I stepped further into the creek to get a straight cast. Out from under a boulder (which I’d neglected to fish, silly me) lumbered a very big trout. He swam a few feet, saw me and shot upriver, rounding the corner and scattering dozens of smaller fish, who flitted in and out of their own hiding places like nervous sparrows. Mr. Big was in town.

With this many agitated fish I decided to take a break and inspected the trout’s hideout. He’d been hiding there all along, under that boulder, right in the middle of the creek, and a nice little hidey hole it was. The current had dug the sand out from around the rock, creating a five foot deep blue-black pocket. Mr. Big could observe the action above, and if a minnow or freshwater shrimp decided to flee to the safety of that deeper water well, there’s lunch on a plate.

How big was my fish? Everything seen in the water is deceptive, but the fish threw a shadow the size of a football on the pebbled stream bottom. That’s pretty big.

This is small stream country and fish bigger than a pound are rare. I know there are reports of eight-pound brown trout caught at night on crayfish or electrified during surveys by DNR crews, and in Mauer’s Pub there’s an eleven-pounder on the wall, but this is pull-tab and tap beer country and peanut and popcorn country and to me that fish looks like a walleye painted up to look like a trout. The companion trophy is a rabbit with horns. Not exactly a confidence-builder.

Still… knowing where a big trout lived made it all suddenly possible. I’d flushed him out. The next morning I headed back with my six weight fly rod and big stone fly imitation. That ought to do it.

Would that big trout return to his little hidey-hole? Of course he would, it was human nature, or fish nature, I should say. Brown trout don’t survive by taking chances, and that hole under the rock was too good to leave behind. For most of us a careful approach is recommended. Stay in one spot. Be happy.

After all, I once had a hidey hole myself.

It was Long Beach and I was young. I’d left for a few months to settle some business back in Minneapolis and when I returned I didn’t call work right away. Instead I moved in with a college friend on Ocean Boulevard. He was a naval officer who didn’t have much to do while in port, besides writing reports and monitoring the ship and whatever else the navy does when it’s not doing anything. In the evening we sat on the second-floor balcony and watched the sunset over the waves and talked about nothing. He was hiding out too, in a way.

I had a job in Santa Ana with a couple of partners selling ventilation equipment and knew I would be expected back soon. Sitting in Long Beach it dawned on me that I didn’t have to go back to work at all. I could wander along hot sidewalks and read the newspaper at an outdoor table and spend afternoons in the little bar at Belmont Pier drinking cheap tap beer.

I didn’t want to be a ventilation equipment salesman. I didn’t want to get up every day and pound away at a telephone. I didn’t want to make more and more money so life would get more and more complicated. I knew what lay ahead. I’d be old and tired and worried and sallow-faced and unhappy at thirty.

So I sat and did nothing. At some point they would quit trying to find me and turn my desk over to someone else. It would be over.

Walking along the creek my older self saw my younger self walking along the Ocean Boulevard sidewalk. I saw once more the palms along the parkway and heard my sandals slap the wet pavement where they hosed down the sidewalk every day and how my sandals made progressively fading footprints. I think the name of the bar was Benedict Arnold’s but that just can’t be right. The only other regular was Bob. The bartender was also named Bob. That made it simpler.

Life became a blank canvass. I could be anything, I could be a writer. Or a fireman or a cowboy or a gondola boatman. Or nothing at all. How long could I do nothing? Who cared?

Back at the creek the older me tied on a big stone fly imitation. The Giant Stonefly nymph is an awful-looking long and black aquatic bug that lives under rocks in the creek bed. You won’t see them floating around because they are a favorite of trout, and don’t get far when flushed out. I made a few warm-up casts and right away picked up a small trout. That big brown trout and me had two things in common. We both had a good hideout, and we were both about to get caught.

That’s right. What do you think had to go and happen in that Long Beach bar one hot afternoon when I was young? Bruce Cochran, one of my partners walks in. He picks up the pay phone and sees me standing there playing pinball.

“Buddy!” he yells. “What are you doing? How long have you been in town? We all missed you, Sue and Ace and Benny and Jim and Carl. And listen to this: Your customers are ordering more than ever, we can hardly keep up. The checks are pouring in, Ha Ha!”

Ha Ha indeed. The next morning I sat at my desk holding a squeeze ball in one hand and a telephone in the other.

Remembering all this I watched my first cast settle just behind the rock. The current swept it into the purple-black hole. Nothing. I tried it again. Then again and again.

Something was wrong. I fished that rock for half an hour and never got a bite. Maybe that big brown recognized a two dollar imitation of the real thing. Maybe he wasn’t under that rock at all, realizing the careful trout keeps multiple hideouts. Maybe he’s just smarter than me, or smarter than the younger me that got caught one Southern California afternoon so many years ago, but let’s not get philosophical.

Richard Donnelly

Richard Donnelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Classic flyover land. Which makes us feel just a little… superior. Mr. Donnelly’s first book is ‘The Melancholy MBA,’ published by Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Georgia.