Peninsula Fly Fishers

The Best Fishing Buddy

by John Margaroni

October 2006

I met my new fishing buddy, Ken, during a 3 month stay in Idaho. We were thrown together by some friends who knew we both enjoyed fishing for trout.  The story I want to tell you is why Ken was undoubtedly the ultimate fishing buddy.

Ken is not an early riser and that suits me just fine.  A nine o’clock start on a fishing journey is a civilized time especially when the streams are only an hour or less away and you are both on the plus side of sixty.  We would usually meet at my truck and after tossing most of his gear into the bed, Ken would jump onto the bench seat and wrestle with his landing net that was always attached to his left belt loop.  As you can imagine, the 2-foot long net would get trapped between the seat and his buttocks.  He would pull and tug until he dislodged it then would let out a big sigh of relief.  He would never discuss why he didn’t leave the net in the back of the truck.  He would just sit back mildly enraged by the incident.  But with Ken, an annoyance subsides as quickly as it flares and is easily forgotten.

The trip to the river is mostly uneventful with a lot of joint staring out through the windshield.  There is not much conversation other than a casual mention of ‘sorta’ where he will be taking me to fish.  Ken cannot be bothered with small talk.

Once on the stream, we split up.  Ken always offers me the upstream approach while he heads down the bank for his upstream approach back to the truck with his parting words being “See you in about a half hour unless the fishing is good.”  Once I followed Ken to see how he fished so fast.  He jumps into the stream and quickly works the backwaters, the nervous waters, the soft seams and sometimes the riffles. If he doesn’t hook up in about a dozen or so casts, he will claim the water ‘fishless’ and return to the truck to move on to another destination.  Fast fishing is Ken’s specialty.  His short attention span requires it.

My partner, unlike many of the fisher people on the stream today, will never be photographed for the cover of the Orvis catalog.  His equipment and attire are rather basic.  He’s clad in a plain baseball cap, standard non-polarized spectacles, a blue cotton shirt riddled with holes from errant attacks by size 10 Mustad hooks, worn Levis, and studded felt sole boots.  His fishing arsenal is an artic creel splattered with fish blood, an 8-foot fiberglass fly rod with a floating line and 6 feet of 10 lb test material to which he attaches his beloved red bellied humpy.  The rod and line are matched with a classic bright green automatic fly reel, buzzing and sputtering water as he retrieves line.  Now you might think, as I did, that Ken’s attire and tools are a bit old fashioned.  But, when he returned one day with a bulging creel topped off with a 17” cutthroat, I was impressed with his ability to catch fish with such ‘antique’ equipment.  Although I personally don’t kill my catch, Ken is of the old school who believes he is a game fisherman; and the game is to fill the frying pan.  He won’t change.  He has no time to learn a new way.

One afternoon Ken was not hooking up with his dry fly system, and I was pounding them on a size 4 rubberlegs nymph.  He would not acknowledge the fact that I was catching fish.  He saw me catch them, but I know he never saw me release them.  I finally approached him carrying a net full of rainbow and said “Would you like to take a fish home for dinner?”  He ignored me; but as soon as I lowered the net into the water and released the healthy trout, he said with disappointment in his voice “If I knew you were going to throw it back, I’d have brought it home to Vivian.”  My actions didn’t make any sense to him.  But Ken is promptly relieved of any anxiousness and competitiveness.  He is just plain happy to be on the stream.

On each fishing day, Ken’s wife, Vivian, packs him a bag containing a change of clothes, water and a sandwich.  He inevitably leaves the bag in the bed of the truck to get hot, mangled, squashed AND completely ignored.  He doesn’t know why she pampers him so and becomes agitated when she demands that he carry all this ‘unnecessary stuff’.  His biggest peeve about his wife’s pampering is that she will not let him drive any longer.  “She says I can’t drive anymore.  Well, I can drive just fine” claims Ken.  I personally know that he should not drive because every road construction flagperson that brings us to a stop must endure the rath of Ken.  “Why can’t we go around?  No one is coming.  GIT!  Go ahead.  Just go around these cars.  We don’t have to wait.”  Ken’s impatience often boils up but simmers down fast and is forgotten.

Ken will generally not eat or drink anything until about 1:30PM.  Dehydration or hunger does not seem to affect him much.  He prefers getting his nourishment from the small bars and burger joints he has become accustomed to visiting over the years.  All the employees know him by sight and are kind to him even when he bosses them around, complains about the prices on the menu, and constantly asks them where the best fishing holes are.  They don’t even get upset when he clatters in with his studded boots that are always trailing some sort of mud, moss or slime.  He’s welcomed as a regular, and they accept him for who he is.

If the fishing is hot, we will pass up the normal lunch stops.  Of course, we get a little peckish on our ride home about 4 o’clock so Ken will say “If you see a drug store, pull over.”  When I inquire why, the answer is ALWAYS the same “because I would like a chocolate milkshake.”  We would find a small dot in the road that would mix up vanilla ice cream and Hershey syrup into a delicious cold treat.  Again, after complaining about the small portion and the high cost, Ken will put a straw into the container and heartily suck until the noisy slurp at the bottom signals me that he is done.  Certain things pass Ken unnoticed, but the childish pleasure of a chocolate shake is not one of them.

One of the favorite parts of my friendship with Ken is rather selfish on my part.  He knows secret fishing places.  These locations are surprisingly embossed in his deep memory.  We’ll be barreling down a country road, and he will quietly say “Go left through this gate” or “Follow this potato field to the red windmill and then we’ll get out and walk awhile.”  He has taken me to wondrous spots that I will probably never be able to find again.  But that’s okay.  These magical places will occupy my dreams for years to come, and I am thankful that I was able to share them with my special fishing friend.

Ken suffers from a disorder.  He has Alzheimer’s disease (AD).  Some days are better than others.  Symptoms of forgetfulness, bad decision making and even mild aggression are evident, although he has never shown any aggression toward me.  I believe our bond as fishermen relaxes my friend.  I have a feeling that this may be Ken’s last year of fishing.  Because of the shortage of housing in our small town of Rexburg, Ken has been telling everyone that he will never be returning to Idaho.  Perhaps he knows the real reason.

We all have an idea of what makes a great fishing buddy.  Some do the camp cooking and chores while you fish until dark.  Others will tie flies for you when they know you have been losing more than your share.  Still others will go so far as to offer you the front of the drift boat while they row you into position to cast to a giant trout sipping bugs.  Ken won out this summer when he brought me back to the basics (the pure joy of fishing) and also taught me a valuable lesson of life.  We all realize that our journey on earth is temporary, and we sometimes worry obsessively about our bodies failing us and our minds wandering.  I am now convinced, however, that we never lose our most important gift -- that light inside us, that spirit that makes us who we are.  This gives me a wonderful sense of acceptance and peace.  That truth was reinforced every time Ken would say “Are you, John, the guy I go fishing with?”  I’d reply “Yes”, and he would get a giddy crooked-toothed grin and his face and say “Let’s go catch some trout.”
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