How long the old man had been standing there I don’t know. What tipped me off to his presence was the sudden, faint smell of cigar smoke. How he had managed to stand there undetected is a mystery. When I turned to greet him a simple nod was all I got. It was clear that he had been watching me for some time, as the fresh morning snow around his feet was now packed down in an almost perfect circle. I turned back and resumed casting. From the corner of my eye I could see him reach down and pick up the rod that had been leaning against a tree beside him. A few quick steps and he was beside me. Line in hand, he lifted the rod high and to the right, firing a long cast. For a moment that seemed endless, I was mesmerized. Mesmerized not from the beauty of the cast, but its awkwardness. Surely the old man would stumble into the icy water. For a moment, brief as it was, I thought it a certainty, but as the float hit the water he steadied himself. With his line meandering downstream he took a couple of steps closer, holding a half smoked cigar in his teeth and grinning a yellow grin. His beard more salt than pepper; his waders riddled with makeshift duct tape patches, giving the appearance that they were much older than they actually were. I watched as he fired another cast. And another. It was on this third drift that the float disappeared. The long sweeping hook set, the short exciting fight that ensued. This was not his first time. He played the fish like a veteran, keeping the fight short, ensuring that the fish did not over exert itself. Like it or not, this ragged old man knew what he was doing. It wasn’t just one fish, it was fish after fish and it continued for some time; longer than I would care to admit.
A couple of short steps back and the old man sat down in the damp grass. Any sign of the early morning snow had all but disappeared with the warming sun. Evidently he was satisfied with his accomplishments and he made a motion inviting me to fish the hole. Go ahead, the gesture said, let’s see what you got. I already knew what I had: nothing. That was clear to me after a fishless morning. Proving this to him was not on the top of my must do list that day. I was more than happy to just pack it in, admitting defeat to no one but myself. But he knew. I presume it was obvious. Head down, shoulders slumped; it wasn’t the most ambitious look. My confidence, often mistaken for ego, was gone.
The role had now been reversed. I was on the receiving end of the fishing equivalent to an ass kicking. Spending a morning watching a rundown old man put fish after fish on the bank. How was this possible? This was my river. I knew it inside and out. A difficult river to fish as it almost always ran dirty, yet I never got skunked. Never.
I was never one to back down from a challenge (and that’s precisely how I perceived his gesture) so I fought the urge to leave and fired a cast as he sat and watched. Nothing. Another. Nothing. It was a trend I wasn’t very fond of.
He was the one to initiate conversation. Small talk at first, where we’re from; how long we’ve been doing this; etc. It wasn’t long until I took a seat beside him, tired and fishless. The thing about fishermen: no matter how different we are as people, we all have one thing in common. The two of us shared stories and laughed together as if we were long-time friends, not once exchanging names
Sometime later, as I stood to leave, the old man pulled out a tarnished aluminum fly box. From it he took the very thing that had caught all his fish and insisted that I take it. In my hand I held the ugliest mix of fur and feather I had ever seen, all tied on a 1/8 ounce jig head. It resembled everything and nothing at once and there was no doubt that as ugly as it was it worked, I saw that first hand.
I was reluctant at first but his insistence saw the jig into my vest. It found its way deep to the bottom of a pocket and there it stayed. It had caught plenty of fish right before my eyes but I had no intention of ever tying it under my float. I simply took the jig as a polite gesture.
I had completely forgotten about the jig until months later, the following spring. It had been a tough spring, sure I had my days, but this wasn’t one of them. I sat miles from the truck fishless and defeated. It was well into the afternoon and I had to decide whether I was going to fish my way back or cut my losses and call it a day. All my resources had been exhausted and I wasn’t sure that it was worth continuing.
It wasn’t even that I remembered the jig in the bottom of the vest pocket, no, my hand brushed against it as I fumbled for something else. I held it in my palm and chuckled, it really was a hideous creation. It caught fish though, of that I was sure. Besides, what did I have to lose? Nothing else had worked. So on the line it went. One, two, three, four drifts and nothing. The next pool had the same results, and the run after that. My day continued in similar fashion but I had committed to fish my way back and I was determined to see it through.
It was getting dark when I hit my first fish, a little shaker, in the run adjacent to the parking lot, a stone’s throw from the truck. The following three drifts resulted in three more fish, each one bigger than the last. Before long it was too dark to keep track of my float. My day had been salvaged thanks to the Ugly Bug.
It was the last time that jig ever saw water. To be honest it wasn’t the best quality and a few fish had left the hair and feathers tattered and the hook dull. Jig fishing is a staple of my steelheading now thanks to that jig. It now does nothing more than take up space in my fly box, yet I just can’t seem to let it go.