WEDNESDAY, MAY 18The day had started innocently enough and a medium-fat rain precipitated as the car tent was erected. At the time I appreciated the weather and contribute the unusual number of people willing to help assemble the canopy to an urge to mooch a dry spot while at the same time receiving a gold star for helping.
Wet wood was gathered and split, and the fire was lit with the help of some purloined generator gasoline which resulted in only minor casualties including but not limited to a few shoelace fuzzies and one nalgene bottle worth of hose water.
The afternoon wandered off but the clouds loitered. The intermittent rain became mixed with enough sleet and hail to harass the burning pine in the washtub fireplace, sizzling and pinging on the coated steel.
|I know, I know... It went out.|
Lasagna with made-from-scratch noodles, caramelized fennel and homemade focaccia piled on our plates as rain-gear clad strays lurked nearby, hoping for a nod to the table for a scrap. Looking back it was the best dinner of the weekend. Thank you, Mr. Bryant.
The day darkened. The lager went down. The sky fell.
With the sun set on the first day I retired around 10pm. By midnight all was quiet.
Or so I thought.
THURSDAY, MAY 19 – DAY ONEI awoke as the day was breaking on Thursday with a strange feeling that the walls were closing in. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I stretched out my arms and did.
The light was cool and void of color, lacking the directionality that typically accompanies anything less than light cloud cover. The time was undeterminable, but I could hear no movement or voices outside the trailer leading me to believe that it was still early.
I rolled in my sleeping bag and bumped my hand over the canvas that lay overhead, knocking off a few droplets of cold condensation that dripped down my arm. The icy cold water startled me and I looked up to where the drops had fallen. Something was wrong. The ceiling was low. Very low. I brought my palm to the material with a thunk. It was heavy and dark, lacking the cool glow that was leaking in through the walls of the pull-out bed.
I pushed gently upward and felt the weight, hearing a low crunching sound as I lifted. It took a moment for my desert-raised brain to understand what had happened.
Now awake, I could hear it ticking lightly against the plastic windows of the camper and as much as my body protested leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag I had to take a look.
I slipped out of the bag and into a pair of long johns. The cold of the floor bit into my toes as I stepped to the door and peaked out into whiteness.
Damn. I started lacing my boots.
They slowly stirred, emerging from tents and campers, congregating in small groups around camp sharing stories of broken tarps and tent-poll inadequacies while the coffee percolated and my father’s “best I ever made” corn beef hash sizzled, patiently waiting for an egg to poach.
|"Hello, Mr. Hooper!"|
It was pure and clean and beautiful.
For a moment.
By late morning the snow began turning to slush and each new arrival ground the wet soil into the hill. White was replaced with brown as the virgin powder was raped by each tire track and footfall. Rubber and gore-tex became the new currency and the have-nots stared in longing. It was going to be a dirty day.
The weather continued. The snow morphed into county-fair-stuffed-animal-foam-like balls that bounced and flopped around the dirty ground before melting. The sun made a few brief guest appearance as a few pushed out in their inflatables to wet an early line.
While Thursday is the first day of the event, when the majority of the participants arrive, it’s really like the on deck circle for the weekend. The caterer, having dropped off their equipment trailers the previous afternoon, return to set up the chow tent and prepare for serving dinner.
All day trucks and trailers roll down the hill toward Cyclone lake, jockeying for the best positions around camp. Those who have found their place (some by choice, others becoming stuck and deciding not to fight it) lazily make their way to the check-in tent to legitimize their arrival and collect their raffle tickets.
The day’s lunch, cooked and donated by my father consisted of brisket, sautéed cabbage, beans in tortillas topped with pico de gallo, shredded cheese, jalapenos and salsa.
Shortly after lunch Kyle and Aaron arrived. The weather lightened into the afternoon, the sun burning through the thinner clouds as drinks were drunk, beers swilled, shots slammed, lines cleaned and leaders pulled straight.
|Kyle's 2WD abstract art.|
Fried chicken for dinner. Mud for desert.
It had begun.
FRIDAY, MAY 20 – WILEY’S BIG FISH FRIDAYThe rules are simple- catch a big god damn fish. A lunker. A pig. The awards are separated into bait/lure and fly categories.
You can leave as early as you want, and fish anywhere in the mountains as long as you get your fish back to the scale by 6pm.
I woke just in time for breakfast and wandered down for an ass-kicking gut-bumb omelet, bacon, biscuits and gravy and a waffle. Eddie and the catering crew are amazing and I have to say that I find their breakfasts to be the best thing they put on the table.
After stuffing our faces and a well timed assault on the porta-shitters the fat guys assembled to discuss the days plans.
Aaron decided to remain at Cyclone and try his luck finding a holdover, and Kyle and I decided to head over to Hawley lake just a few minutes away. I have been fishing this lake for nearly 15 years and I figured that if I was going to get lucky and find a pig it was going to be at Hawley, and it was going to be a brown.
We started at the south end of the lake by the boat docks. There is a deep hole in the south cove and the area is known for very good ice-off brown fishing as they chase crawdads into the shallows and even though we are a month late in the season I thought I may be able to bring something up out of the depths.
After a couple hours with only one big missed hit I decided that it was time to head back for some chicken fried steak and a rethink.
In the afternoon Kyle and I headed back to Hawley to hit the far north end. There is a deep channel that runs perpendicular to the dam that quickly rises to shallows that are fantastic for evening brown action. I parked near the dam and left Kyle casting on the shore as I drifted across the deep water towards the shallow point that splits the north shore, pointing like a finger towards the Island.
A few passes brought some nice bows to hand, but nothing like what I figured I would need to bring the trophy home. The depth is difficult to predict and the rocky/tree garden bottom stole a few flies before I made it to the point.
I drifted and casted. Snag. Took a sip of Makers. Drifted and casted. Snag. Took a sip of Makers.
The afternoon rolled on.
On my way around the point, just about even with the island I jerked the rod a few times to impart some swimming movement to my crawdad-colored leach and on the last jerk felt a solid object on the end of the line. Assuming that it was another snag I lifted the rod quickly in an attempt to dislodge the fly. The weight stayed, but fought back.
Before I could grab the line for a strip the water exploded out in front of me as the large fish breached and landed with a ka-sploosh.
The fish ran and I fought the pull as I kicked towards the shore, grabbing the radio from my pack and yelling, “Kyle! Come get me KNOW.”
I could see the shadow of the fish, and I knew it was a potential winner and I kicked to the point. The problem was I ended up kicking directly to the tip of the peninsula and beached the pontoon on a large rock about 15 feet from shore.
Thinking that I was at closer than I was I began to slip out of the seat but as I looked down I noticed that it was much deeper than I thought and If I stepped out of the pontoon there was a very good chance that I would never be able to get my ass back in the seat and would end up swimming my fish back to shore. With one hand on the rod and the other on the pontoon frame I was able to get one good kick before the boat slid off the rock and headed back out into the water. The pontoon creaked in complaint and rocked heavily as my weight shifted back into the chair.
Free of the rock, I spun my head briefly to see where I needed to go and happened to catch a glimpse of a silver blur through the trees as Kyle hammered down in the Tahoe preparing for fish extraction. I rounded the point and netted the trout just as my fins hit bottom..
Kyle appeared moments later with the Rubbermaid tub in hand. We filled the tub halfway with water and gently placed the fish into the receptacle then carried the ten gallons of water and fish up to the truck.
A quick pack job, securing the pontoon to the roof rack and we were on our way back to camp, water splashing from the less than perfect seal of the 33-gallon container at every bump.
The Neckers surrounded the weigh-in tent as the tub was lifted from the back and brought to the scale. I removed the top and quickly removed the fly from the brown’s mouth and placed the fish on the scale- 43.5oz. Winner? Probably but I would have to wait to know for sure.
The fish was placed back into the tub and successfully released into Cyclone lake.
Friday night, after prime rib dinner and a SAGE fly rod and reel combo card raffle, brought about the start of the poker tournament.
Almost forty Neckers, including our resident card shark Kyle, sat to test their luck at Texas hold ‘em. At 830 the first card was dealt.
Two and a half hours and some ESPN-worthy action later it was down to the final three: Kyle, our committee Chairman Paul, and two-year attending Wrinklenecker Tony Martin, who was so sloshed he couldn’t even deal the cards and had to get assistance from onlookers to deal and count chips.
Kyle, went all in on a few strong hands and cut down Paul’s chip lead, eventually knocking him out but was apparently unable to read drunk face of Tony and at 11:20 was taken down, receiving a second place finish.
Those who were still interested in some action found their way back to my father’s car tent for the afterhours “Gentleman’s game.”
Drinks were drunk, beers swilled, shots slammed.
Bed called a few times, but just ended up leaving a voicemail.
SATURDAY, MAY 21 – TEAM EVENTI stumbled out of the trailer into the oppressive early morning sun and stomped my boots through the drying mud pit towards the chow tent. The bloody mary bar was positioned cheerfully out front, a shining beacon to the alcoholic nature of the camps inhabitants. Hugh “Why are my pants down” Rupprecht had taken over the bar-back duties and his smiling face was almost too much to handle so early in the morning.
I had told myself on the short trek down the hill that I would forego the debilitating omelet and focus on a more lean-and-mean morning meal but as soon as I stepped under the ramada and heard those eggs sizzling and the scent of crispy bacon tickled my olfactory my resolve melted. Damn Carl and his mad mirror grill skills.
|Carl is the man.|
Fifteen minutes later, after doing horrible and unnatural things to the porta-shitter I wandered around till I found the crew. This time we all decided that Hawley was the place to be and began packing the boats.
Forty five minutes later the fat guys were fishing, working the same runs that had produced the best the previous afternoon.
For seven hours we worked the lanes, the shallows and the depths culling the live wells in real time as we went.
Casting. Kicking. Crawdads, leaches, buggers, muddlers twitched in the depths, stirred up mud - enticing, attracting, infuriating.
Lunch of grilled rubens was skipped for Makers, Jager and warm Coors on the water. The rod was an extension of my arm and the line like a golden whisper swung, a machinegun metronome loaded with full metal jacket copper plated hope.
At one point near the end of the afternoon I actually thought I caught a few bars of Eye of the Tiger drifting on the warm breeze. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it was the Jager. It’s difficult to say.
Midafternoon brought more boats to the north shore, a few teams looking for some luck. I paddled over to fellow Necker Scott Hotchkiss and bartered a beer for some fly info.
I checked my watch; just about time to catch that money fish and go home. Enough checking, enough guessing at lengths and weights. I paddled out to the point and put on my favorite streamer: one pass, two passes, three passes, nothing.
On the home stretch, in the orange evening sun and around the point just into the eastern cove it hit. Good tug. Good shake. A short zing as the line pulled towards deeper water. Another brown, a better fish and the best of the day. The last chance fish slid into the net but I fumbled him. I missed the handoff and watched the sleek beauty slowly fin away. I slugged the last bit of whiskey from my flask and paddled toward the truck.
The final three fish were picked, packed, weighed and released. As I walked from the weigh-in tent I heard a whisper from over my shoulder, “wow, look at that… by an ounce and a half.”
It didn’t inspire confidence.
I ate jalapeno poppers and mini-chimis and tried not to think about it.
Pork Chop dinner preceded the live auctions and trophy presentation.
|Big Fish Trophy. Winning!|
|FGFF in Second place Fly Division|
|Second place Bait and Lure division|
|First place Bait and Lure Division|
|First Place Fly Division and overall winners... Good job dad. (Middle)|
We ended up coming up second in the Fly Fishing Team event, pushed out by my father's team. Dad taking back the trophy from me and keeping me from winning first place four years in a row... better that than Weinstein winning, for sure.
SUNDAY MAY 22 – HOMEWith the boats packed, the pop-ups popped down and final handshakes shook and well-wishes wished we departed. The now-dry road pushing up a farewell plume of light tan dust behind the truck.
When I hit the pavement I knew it was over.
The Great Southwestern Wrinkleneck Invitational--in its 22 year raising thousands of dollars for the Arizona Sportsman’s Fund to help send underprivileged kids to camp--came to an end.
Until next year, Gentlemen.
-Alex who is coming back for the flag next year, dad.
If you have read this entire account, I applaud your amount of free time. Don’t let your boss know, if you are unfortunate enough to have one. Me? I fired the bastard.