HUMOR: Field Notes… Don’t Touch

Fly fishing isn’t really dangerous. Unless you count the middle-aged dark-eyed long-legged waitress in Ellsworth, Wisconsin (“Cheese Curd Capital of the World”) who serves Old Style beer in a tall pint glass and tells you she finally got rid of her no-good truck-driving pulltab-playing boyfriend and are you really a trout fisherman because I’d just love to learn how to cast one of those things and that’s okay Honey you can pay me later. I’ll bet.

In most cases you’re on safe footing, in the field that is. But there are the small dangers of bumps and bruises and barbed wire and the bigger ones like blundering into a maze of stacked beehives tucked away in the shade of the woods. Hotfoot it out of there quick, but not too quick. It’s my theory the honeybee is stimulated by running in much the same way the farmer’s dog is stimulated by a rabbit, and in any case the more you look and move like a calm elderly beekeeper the better.

Listen up folks. I’m giving you some good stuff here.

There are stinging nettles and poison ivy. The sap from the pretty yellow wild parsnip flower will burn you like battery acid. Looks are deceiving.

I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or quicksand or a cougar, but I’d like to. There’s a little bit of boy in all men, as any woman will tell you. Most creeks in bluff country are knee deep, but there are sudden deep holes that go well over your head, and stepping into these is akin to the humorous gag filmmakers used back in the thirties when a man steps from the sidewalk into a curbside puddle and vanishes.

For the most part this is forgiving country, especially as the season progresses and days warm. The air grows heavy. It’s too warm to fish, but you go anyway, and cast from the shade of giant cottonwoods. Wild roses and violets and jack-in the pulpits and northern orchids blossom from hillsides. On the Kinnikinnic River a sudden gaggle of laughing college girls float past, riding inner tubes. There is more than one kind of wild rose.

This is small farm and small pasture country and livestock are tucked between hill and river. For twenty years I walked these creeks in peace until one day, in an open pasture catching rainbow trout on dry flies, a bull showed up.

I’d seen bulls before, but they were always in paddocks next to the barn. This one stood in a corral, high on a hill behind an ancient wood fence. Still, I wasn’t too concerned, with the fence and the sunshine and willing trout. Until I saw his eyes.

I have never seen eyes like that. They bulged. They exuded hatred. They poured malice on all things, on me, the river, the pasture, the very earth I stood on. Then that bull turned and started running. He can’t possibly get out of there, can he? I remembered thinking.

Oh, yes he can.

He went through an open gate and steamed down the hill like a locomotive. Friends, beef cattle aren’t really supposed to run. This one ran like a horse. I looked far upriver at my two buddies, who were by now heading with ill-concealed haste up and out of the pasture (not their best moment). I stood my ground very big and very alone. There was simply nothing I could do but die like a man (actually I’ve read enough Hemingway and knew enough about bull-fighting that you create a diversion and yell Toro!, side-stepping the charge with great flair and élan. Sure thing, Senor Romero.)

The bull came galloping down the hill but at the last moment he put on the brakes. He had to. The river cut a deep gully into the creek bank, leaving a twenty foot drop. Now, maybe that bull was afraid of heights. Or maybe afraid of water (wasn’t Ferdinand the Bull afraid of something?) I didn’t know or care. What I did do was I started backing up, very slowly. The bull snorted. He stamped the ground, hating me with his eyes, but remained on his side of the creek. I backed further away. Slowly. Then I started running.

I went for the pasture fence and dove the way a ballplayer takes second base, fishing rod and all. I found my friends sitting in the truck. With the doors locked. I jumped in and headed for the farm house.

“What are you doing?” they asked.

“I’m having a little word with that farmer,” I said.

A woman stood in the yard hanging laundry. She was still laughing. “That wasn’t a bull at all,” she said. “That was a young cow. You must have been close to a calf. Those young cows get very protective whether it’s theirs or not, it’s in their hormones or something. She would’na done nothing. Sorry if she scared you.”

So that’s my bull story. And it’s a cow. But I still feel plenty brave.

The sheer beauty of this country and the people who live here is worth a visit. I had a friend from the East drive out and I took him fly fishing for the first time. He was quite taken by the plain-spoken women-folk, many the descendants of German and Norwegian settlers and bearing their strong Nordic faces with big noses and lips and heavy-lidded eyes, really not beautiful in any conventional sense but from another angle in their intelligence and modest demeanor the most beautiful women anywhere in the world. These are big girls, and I mean big all over. A common sight is a kind of Valkyrian dark blonde that tops six feet and weighs 180 pounds. I don’t care where you come from, that’s a lot of woman.

My friend returned to New York City duly impressed. And he quite intelligently kept his hands and most of his thoughts to himself.

Outside of tap beer and battered deep fried onion rings nothing in this gravel road small town hill country section of America is cheap and it sure ain’t free. Once you start something brother you better be ready to finish it, unless you have a cabin in Siberia. At the end of the day you go home. I’ve been married a long time and considering what I’ve been through (or to be more accurate what I put my wife through) I got no intention of starting over, XXL blonde or not.

I know a fly fisherman who burned his hand pulling wild parsnip while camping. It was so bad he thought he would have a scar. It finally cleared up but it took a long, long time. In the field or at rest, the sportsman eventually learns one rule if he hasn’t learned it already.

It’s best not to touch anything.

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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.