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City Bass

You wouldn't call this a park exactly. Its only name is probably just a parcel number in the local city hall. By anyone's standards, it's worse than forgotten--it's boring. You wouldn't take your dog to pee here.

Poplar trees, like monstrous weeds, line one side, a railroad track atop a tall dirt berm protects the other, and a parking lot buttressed by a few dumpsters behind a small shopping center defines this forgotten land. And in the far corner, a small pond sits, adorned with the usual beer cans, plastic bags, condoms, and odd pieces of lumber fallen down from a child's fort or built up for a hobo or two. The pond's only purpose seems little more than to occupy a random piece of earth's curvature.

Some have evidently tried to grow the ancient parcel and pond with occasional native plantings, which are quickly assaulted by the more arrogant weeds. Perhaps the urban weeds decided that they are more deserving of the title of Natural, or at least Native, according to some internal homesteading logic known only to plants and rocks and things pastoral that don't care what we think or how we like to label things.

I started roaming around this piece of city land more than half a life ago when it was, if not better, at least bigger. Then, the shopping center was just a small store dreaming about mall-dom, and the railroad tracks were, well, railroad tracks. Unless you are Arlo Guthrie, or a hobo, not much can be said about railroad tracks.

I wasn't thinking about hobos or epic singers when I started fishing here. Mainly, I was thinking about the worm at the end of my pole, and small black bass, crappie and other spinies coming to the log I was perched on. Other than bass, birds and mosquitoes, the only other life I saw was an occasional old man planted on another log with a rod poking through the scrub, well hidden as if the woods would soon take home one of their own. One could argue that old fishing men are a lot like bass. Both seem to tolerate an equal degree of squalor and boredom in their environment. Both will live where others won't. Both say to the world, Go fish elsewhere for your precious trout and fancy gear and leave my world alone.

I must have listened, because I evolved into a sophisticated flyfisher, with expensive lines, hand-tied leaders, dozens of nifty ways to present them, and hundreds of unique fly patterns I invented, of which only a half dozen are actually worth a damn (which are probably the same half dozen a thousand other flyfishers invented). My expensive gear inclined me toward very fine waters indeed, in mystical lands far far away. I figured out early in my flyfishing life that any fly waters more than 1,000 minds distant was necessarily mystical.

Not that these great waters have always produce great experiences.  Nothing is more depressing as bending a dry line over a distant and mythical creek, using one's own flies with the cleverest quill or biot bodies and CDC or other pretentious materialonly to get skunked and trying desperately to enjoy the countryside, which is staring back at you as if to say, I hope you brought something else besides pretty flies after you poked your nose into my brochure, city boy.

Fine flies and fine water are supposed to be a surefire guarantee against, if not failure, at least boredom. When you see small frogs on lily pads disappear in a hail of water, and you put on your favorite frog pattern (which for me is usually a Dahlberg diver) or damsel pattern , you are supposed to catch that irascible spiny ray. Right? But when you don't stick those fish, the water is yet another piece of still water with no creatures apparent except the one staring back at you dumbly as you peer through the water pondering where in hell the fish are.

Not that I always catch bass in my small city pond. Far from it. I enjoy getting skunked here as much as anywhere else. I guess I have some faith that even in this water, so small that it worries more about evaporation than pollution, there is a big fish. Talk to any fishery biologist, and he'll tell you about the huge fish he finds while snorkeling or electro-shocking in nearby creeks that you thought held only frogs, minnows and beer cans. Which leads me to a theory on these bass waters:

Theory: A dirty piece of water in a filthy city always holds one huge bass that no one is catching.

Including me. Now, when I'm not catching fish here, I don't worry about failure so much. After all, I'm here mainly so I don't have to do something more responsible, like blow leaves off the roof or visit the in-laws. No fishmission accomplished. Which leads to another theory of bass fishing:

Theory: Catching no fish on the shitiest little pond on the planet is better than mowing the lawn, washing dishes, visiting relatives or about a thousand other things that mature us.

Now, not worrying about catching bass has some advantages, such as an enhanced ability to observe. Sort of like a blind person acquiring heightened skills of perception. Well, maybe not like that. But through the years, I've found solace filtering out the sounds of the city and finding new sounds to occupy myself, and all new theories and attitudes to supplement all the theories and attitudes nurtured by a lifetime of reading and thinking about fishing with a fly.

One sound that is pervasive here are bird songs. Indeed, the birds seem to yell here. The usual birds are well represented. The chickadees, robins, crows, yellow-winged blackbirds with their squeaky-hinge call, even an occasional eagle, let loose with all their sounds at once as if nothing could ease them. As I recall, the birds didn't always sing so loud, when the area was larger and there were fewer housing developments; but memories about such matters are often suspect and are easily muddled with the sentiments and societal influences that accompany growing up.

Or is my mind filtering out what it doesn't like, or is it simply not able to use words to see what is actually there, like I guess most minds do, if you listen to modern thought about how our minds and attitudes relate to or fail to relate to what's actually around us. I went to college to think like this.  Pay attention. It gets better.

When I leave this wasteland and fish the typical flyfishing waters as displayed in magazines and documentaries, I hear fewer birds. Consider a heavily forested land, maybe a wilderness. At times, these can be nearly devoid of all noise and become quite lonely, with maybe a single bird call punctuating the loneliness. One day I counted the number of distinct birds I heard in my urban parcel (and in a few other city parks and back yards) and compared the number to the average number in more natural settings, and the figure turned out to be three to one in favor of the city. 

Now, this is not science, mind you, and an ornithologist would probably say that not only have I been smelling too much city smog, if not smoking something worse, but the city birds I've been hearing are common song sparrows, finches, robins and like denizens whose quality of song is no match for natural bird tones. Whatever.

Granted, the real woods have a superior floral life, no matter how you measure it. Not that the birds care about this so much. Unlike us, they don't need an appropriate setting. Berries and bugs and twigs to build a nest are the only necessary trappings the birds need, and any weed patch worth the name has more than enough of that.

Granted, too, the creatures in the pond are by no measure superior to anything nature manages elsewhere. All manner of fish have been dumped here through the years, probably because no self-respecting biologist would bother seeding a pond having the consistency of ink and a quality of summer algae that would make an alligator gag. Kids' goldfish, an old man's bass bucketed from some other pond, maybe a caiman or other monster, and a million bluegillsall have found a home here through the years.  And lots of bass . . . well, some bass anyway. Mainly black bass, those odd small bass that are . . .  well, black with funny reddish colors. For a while I thought they were crappie and was all excited about doing some crappie fishing, until I got smarter about spiny rays.

It is hard to say when the bass arrived. In the early days of the railroad many ponds like these were created when the tracks were built up. Early engineers probably didn't think much about trickles of water while building up the railroad berm, and the water did what waters does bestpatiently collected into a pond until its waters spill over into a creek or sinks into the earth. Forward thinking biologists came by later to seed the pond with whatever was popular at the time. Or just as likely they decided they had more important water to seed (which they did), and left people like old men dumping in their bass, hoping that trout fishers would look elsewhere.

I don't fool around with flies on this pond. I'm not one of those sophisticated subsurface bass flyfishers. Just one standby for me: a Dahlberg Diver. They'll eat this fly or they'll have no fly for dinner. What bass, though, doesn't like this fly. The Dahlberg diver is the perfect fly for bass. It represents anything from a frog, a tadpole or floundering fish, to a small bird, a cute baby duck, a small turtle (I suppose), or maybe even a kid's tossed hotdog. Sort of the Adams of bass bugs. My favorite color is the natural color of the deer hide. Whether I fish for bass on this city pond or on the finest water half-a-country away, the sight of a bass with a chainsaw's temperament ripping my Dahlberg always makes my heart pause.

Now the Dahlberg Diver isn't the key here. It's just a convenient fly that seems to swim right, is reasonably easy to tie and casts well. Most other big flies would probably work as well, including one roughly fashioned from broom bristles and cat hair if one were going for an impressionistic mouse look. Which leads to my third theory of bass fishing:

Theory: No matter how stupid the fly, whether its constructed of deer hair, cat hair, sofa lint, or Christmas ornaments,  will catch a big bass if you let it hang on the water long enough and try to forget about it.

Nevertheless, the largest fish in this pond isn't likely to show itself, unless you are as patient as a log, or you're an old man whose old muscles and simple ways have proven to him not only how effective but also how incredibly easy it is to be as patient as log. You just sit. Sure, people have heard stories about this pond. What pond doesn't have a story knocking about in some people's heads, begging to be a legend.

But typically, fisher folks leave frustrated from these simple waters and head off to known prime water in a distant state where expectations match the view, and sometimes the fish. You can't blame them. The splash they heard starting out the fishing day on my pond wasn't the special fish they were looking for. Probably just a diving duck. The splash they heard during the day, wasn't the spiny Sasquatch either. Probably a turtle. The splash they heard after they tossed their gear into the back of their truck as the last piece of dusk vanished, after they cursed at the lake and vowed never to return, that was the fish they missed. Which leads to my last theory:

Theory: One ancient man in a leaky boat fishing at 1 am will catch the biggest bass within three states in the smallest little piss-hole of a pond in the middle of a filthy city.

The old man will not tell anyone nor will anyone care where he is so early in the morning. For me, I just try to catch a moment of peace on the pond, however ephemeral and unpredictable it may be. It takes special skills (or lack thereof) to find a quiet moment while sitting in an abandoned field in the middle of a filthy city that is trying to offend you.

At times, if my mind shuts down sufficiently, after the light of the day and the noises of the city deaden, I can hear what's left of the natural forces rise a bit. At those times I might sit quietly in my float tube staring at my favorite corner of the city pond, my mind suspending for a moment its conditioning as to what constitutes proper fishing water. Because we can't bear too much stark reality of such settings, we often fall prey to the capacity of our imaginations to summon up superior water. This time, though, I want to pause and watch a few callibaetis rise,  or lovely damsel nymphs like mermaids swim by, or a simple duck pop back up as we stare at each other with about the same amount of reason.

Between the two trees that block all signs of civilization, next to that half sunken log, near the shadow of a large rock, I toss my Diver, wait an excruciatingly long minute that is probably more like three seconds, twitch the line, and then jerk my muscles back as the deer hair disappears in a cloud of water. Ten minutes later I release the two-pounder back to his predatory ways, swimming among the debris, algae and city brine.

Then just as quickly the spell is broken and I see my city pond for what it isa abandoned park whose only purpose is to do nothing but slowly change in unknown directions. Perhaps nature is trying to recall its own, using a timetable only rocks and turtles and old men understand. If I'm lucky, or live long enough, perhaps I'll witness the return of the pond. In the meantime, I'll be content to listen to it a little harder each time I visit, and pick up a few pieces of trash on the way out.

Toney J. Sisk


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