COM­ING OF AGE

TWO LONG­TIME FRIENDS RE­CON­NECT ON THE WA­TERS OF THEIR BOY­HOOD

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By CHRIS DOM­BROWSKI

Two old friends pull story af­ter story from a river of mem­o­ries as they once again fish the Michi­gan wa­ters of their boy­hood.

IIt seemed an ap­pro­pri­ate come­up­pance, to be wait­ing in the dark for my old friend Alex Lafkas. Twenty-five years ago, on our ear­li­est fishing trips to­gether, I blind­folded him be­fore driv­ing us to the hid­den bass ponds and se­cluded stretches of small­mouth streams in in­dus­trial south­ern Michi­gan. It was a child­ish prank that I wrote off in the name of se­crecy, and that he al­lowed be­cause he lacked even a learner’s per­mit. A quar­ter­century later, with a morn­ing to kill in Tra­verse City and a se­ri­ous brook trout jones to boot, was half ex­pect­ing Alex — who has evolved into one of the coun­try’s most in­no­va­tive and suc­cess­ful streamer an­glers, as well as the best big brown trout guide in Michi­gan — to lash a hand­ker­chief around my eyes be­fore we em­barked.

I sat in the rental in his drive­way with the win­dows down, rel­ish­ing the early Septem­ber hu­mid­ity and the crescendo of the tree frogs’ cho­rus un­til the porch light flicked on. The screen door cracked open, and a hand waved me inside the mod­est ranch, where the scent of fried sausage lured me to the kitchen. I met Sarah, Alex’s wife of sev­eral years, who greeted me with a hug and of­fered me a plate of the fix­ings at which I couldn’t stop star­ing.

“For­give my sali­vat­ing,” I said. “I had a late night. Do you cook break­fast like this every day?”

“Def­i­nitely since Alex’s ap­pen­dix rup­tured last week,” she said. “He can’t do a thing.”

“They fil­leted me like a wall­eye,” came a loud voice from the garage.

Alex had a clear Plano tackle box filled with musky crank baits, the bulk of them larger than a tro­phy brookie. He ex­tended a gin­gerly, one-armed em­brace. “Easy on the stitches, there.”

“I thought the ap­pen­dix thing was just an ex­cuse so you didn’t have to row to­day,” I said.

“Oh, I can’t lift my an­chor yet, but I’ll still out-row your ass,” he said, pick­ing up the pingpong ban­ter we be­gan in mid­dle school. “I’ve seen you row, CD — it could also be de­scribed as ‘steer­ing.’ But we do have op­tions if you don’t want to float.”

Af­ter nearly two decades of fishing 200-plus days a year in north­ern Michi­gan, Alex has amassed an un­sur­passed list of “op­tions” across the di­verse and de­mand­ing wa­ter­shed. He of­fered the steady backup plan of top-wa­ter small­mouth (“I’ve seen what I think were a cou­ple of line-class

“Were it not for rain­bow trout, I would have to fish for bass. Were it not for the sea­son’s change, I would never see time pass.” — Bill Mor­ris­sey

records this year”) and the half-chance of sight-fishing stag­ing coho in the surf (“long shot but a big-time rush if they’re in the bay”). With Alex’s purview, the list could go on. He has served as an ac­com­plished hand on Lake Michi­gan char­ter boats; be­come lethal with the jig and leech for wall­eye on the in­land lakes; and, heck, last Oc­to­ber he guided clients into fly-caught bass, steel­head and musky in the same day.

But I could tell he was lean­ing to­ward trout. “Have the kings started up the rivers yet?” I asked.

“Those dirty things?” he replied. “Re­mem­ber when we were kids and we used to cast Ra­palas for them in the Red Cedar? I thought you were af­ter brook trout, the fish of your youth.”

And with that, we were off.

As Alex drove south, I scrolled through pho­tos on his phone, stuff he doesn’t post on Face­book, swap­ping pop­u­lar­ity for some sem­blance of se­crecy, claim­ing the trend of daily grip-and-grin post­ing is “bad for busi­ness if your busi­ness is trout.” Some­how I had ac­cessed what I’ll call his “2-footer al­bum,” which is filled with images of salmo trutta of the largely noc­tur­nal va­ri­ety, with maws that would fit a fist and teeth made to shred 12-inch trout. I rea­soned that Alex han­dles more fly­caught, 2-foot brown trout per year than many fish­eries bi­ol­o­gists, let alone an­glers, han­dle in a life­time. Some of these crea­tures come from the Aus­able and Manis­tee river sys­tems in Michi­gan, where he guides about 150 days each year, but many of them hail from parts south: Arkansas’ White River, to be pre­cise.

Since 2010, Alex has guided from Jan­uary through March on the White, where he in­tro­duced the 8-weight-and-sink-tip streamer game to the tro­phy-rich tail­wa­ter. His suc­cess came much to the sur­prise of lo­cal fly an­glers ac­cus­tomed to huck­ing dou­ble nymph rigs be­low Bull Shoals Dam. When he first ar­rived at the White on a win­ter re­con­nais­sance mis­sion in 2007, Alex plugged away with the usual ar­tic­u­lated sus­pects, such as Circus Peanuts, and landed sev­eral large trout, but the most im­por­tant fish he took dur­ing that trip was a stocker rain­bow trout roughly half that size.

“When I saw what those big browns reg­u­larly for­aged on,” Alex said, “I knew we were in for some fun. I tied up a Mod­ern De­ceiver about twice the length of a Grace Slick ear­ring” — an hour­long fly to tie — “and we were off to the races. The clos­est thing to that bug those fish had ever seen was a min­now at the end of a spin­ning rod.”

Al­most im­me­di­ately, Alex and his fishing part­ner were tight to a new class of brown trout, fish they mea­sured in pounds, not inches. “Six, 7 pounds,” he said with no small dose of en­thu­si­asm and no hint that we were sev­eral years and sev­eral hun­dred miles re­moved from the set- ting of his ac­count. “We didn’t break dou­ble dig­its that first win­ter, but I knew we were close. Re­ally close.”

The fol­low­ing Jan­uary, when Alex did eclipse the 10-pound mark, the Moun­tain Home lo­cals started to no­tice the young out-of-towner row­ing a Macken­zie (not a jet­boat) down stretches of river no one else both­ered to run, in flows most pre­sumed too high or when wa­ter clar­ity was sus­pect. In tight-knit an­gling com­mu­ni­ties like Moun­tain Home’s, there’s no one quite like the “new guy” to instigate di­vi­sion (see au­thor Thomas Mcguane’s clas­sic Ninety-two in the Shade for a non­pareil fic­tional ac­count of said dy­namic), but rather than alien­ate the old guard on the White, Alex opened his play­book to any­one who asked for a peek, en­dear­ing him­self to the es­tab­lish­ment. It was a feat that nearly equaled those he was pulling off with the 8 weight.

In fact, within two years of his first White River ex­cur­sion, he was guid-

ing from Jan­uary through March in the sys­tem and teach­ing streamer clin­ics out of Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher. The shop’s owner, Steve Dally, has called Alex the “spir­i­tual leader of our un­holy al­liance” of streamer guides. “He sparked the White River streamer game in 2010,” Dally says. “His in­ces­sant cu­rios­ity and re­fusal to ac­cept con­ven­tional wis­dom as good enough has driven a lot of the White River in­no­va­tion. And he’s damn fun to spend a day in a boat with.”

Win­ter­ing in the Ozarks also of­fered Alex some re­move from op­pres­sively mis­er­able north­ern Michi­gan win­ters, which he’d nav­i­gated with vodka bot­tle in hand. “What else is there to do in Michi­gan in the win­ter?” he asked as we pulled to a stop at the end of two-track road, pre­sum­ably near where we would be­gin our float, though I couldn’t parse how we’d get the boat to wa­ter. “I mean, there’s ice fishing, but it was more like ice drink­ing.”

The per­spec­tive and mo­ti­va­tion that the White’s wa­ter­shed pro­vided helped Alex re­al­ize that he’d “been self-med­i­cat­ing since I was 16 years old. I had a cou­ple of close calls that win­ter,” he said. “When I finally sobered up, it was like be­ing re­born. Ev­ery­thing be­came new and dif­fer­ent. I ap­pre­ci­ated it more, you know? It re­minded me of when we started fishing to­gether way back as kids. I had that same drive again.”

It’s that sus­tained drive that helps him stay per­pet­u­ally ahead of the curve by, say, launch­ing boats in in­ven­tive spots to avoid ev­er­mount­ing fishing pres­sure. “Where some peo­ple see a foot trail,” he said, “I see a put-in.”

While Alex rigged the rods, I dragged his 14-foot Fly­craft down a tiny, un­marked trail through the woods, won­der­ing if the in­flat­able and frame and oars didn’t weigh less than the suit­case I’d rolled through the air­port a day prior.

Soon we were float­ing down the river where the Adams dry fly was in­vented, through a thin, low shroud of fog and tight canopies of cedars strung with wild grape. Alex roll-casted a streamer with ridicu­lous pre­ci­sion. I mar­veled at how ef­fort­lessly the small boat han­dled: “It’s like driv­ing a Fiat.” He turned a nice brown, al­ready fall-dark across its back. “Oh, you like the olive-and-white, do you?” Not much had changed since we started fishing to­gether a quar­ter cen­tury ago: I was talk­ing to my­self, and Alex was talk­ing to the fish.

By the time the fog burned off and cu­mu­lus clouds shaped like the sur­round­ing hard­wood canopy loomed to the west, the streamer bite ta­pered, but not be­fore Alex had brought a lovely trout to hand. It was an im­pres­sive spec­i­men for a reach of wa­ter no wider than our boat was long. “When we were kids,” I said, “that would have been the fish of the sum­mer.”

“You’re up,” he said, swap­ping his “8 pole” streamer stick for a softer dry fly combo. “It’s brook trout time, and I’ve gotta test these stitches out even­tu­ally.”

As he tied on an ant pat­tern that he’d de­signed for Catch

Fly Fishing, he in­sisted that I “go get some river jewelry.

They should be sit­ting on those in­sides in about a foot of mov­ing wa­ter. Not at the turn, but not all the way down at the tail-out, ei­ther.”

I rose one on my first of­fer­ing, missed the hook set, then snagged my re­turn bid on a moss-cov­ered sweeper. A roll-cast sent slack into the line, and I freed the bug on the back­cast.

“A star is born,” Alex joked.

As I fed the fly in and out of shade lines, above cress and dead­falls, a fugue-like con­ver­sa­tion en­sued wherein caster and oars­man re­counted — down to the meals we had cooked, the flies we’d tied on the tail­gate of the pickup and the pre­cise mea­sure­ment of the big­gest cut­throat we’d caught — our first teenage back­pack­ing trip into Mon­tana’s Scape­goat Wilder­ness. We’d been on the North Fork of the Black­foot, a river on which I would wind up guid­ing.

“Do you re­mem­ber that Dry Dou­ble Skunk we fished?” I asked. “With the four sets of legs?”

“Cut­throat would come up from 10 feet down for it,” Alex re­called. “We were throw­ing that huge dry-fly junk be­fore any­one was. Do you re­mem­ber that goofy old 8-foot, 6-weight Scott rod you had?” On like this we went, ad in­fini­tum, culling fish from the vo­lu­mi­nous river of mem­ory. By and by I bent the rod and brought to hand an 8-inch brook trout, the white fins and ver­mic­u­lar mark­ings of which Alex gushed over. I asked how, af­ter tar­get­ing 2-foot brown trout all win­ter, he’d mus­tered such ex­cite­ment over a fish barely longer than the rod cork, gor­geous as it was. “For me it’s all about fig­ur­ing out the pat­terns,” he said, drop­ping the an­chor via hand pul­ley. “Species and size don’t mat­ter. I’ve stayed in the game this long be­cause there’s a new se­cret to un­cover every day. There’s ways to earn more money, you know?”

Did I. Mort­gage bro­ker, banker, in­surance sales­men, teacher, free­lancer, de­vel­op­ment direc­tor — be­tween the two of us, we’d tem­po­rar­ily held an­other half-dozen oc­cu­pa­tions over the years be­fore re­turn­ing to our hard­scrab­ble havens be­hind the oars. The an­swer to what had kept us in the game so long — nearly four decades of guid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­tween us — was elu­sive, harder to bring to hand than the 50-plus-pound musky Alex has had his sights on since help­ing a friend land a Michi­gan state record spec­i­men that weighed 54 pounds in 2012.

“You been close to any muskel­lunge this year?” I asked.

Alex lit a Camel and drew deeply.

Above the bank, a grasshop­per made its way across a win­ter­green bush, hop­ping from berry to red berry, wait­ing un­til the fruit ceased its sway­ing be­fore ven­tur­ing to the next. It was like a man cross­ing, boul­der by boul­der, a fast, shal­low river.

Af­ter a while Alex said, “I saw one this year that would have been my best.”

“Forty?”

“Oh no.”

“Forty-five?”

“Push­ing 50,” he said. “I marked him and couldn’t be­lieve it. Hucked a giant buck­tail be­hind the boat, and he ham­mered it, high in the col­umn. Ab­so­lute apex preda­tor. Jumped once, then ran straight un­der the boat and wrapped me in some equip­ment. I was fishing alone. Shouldn’t’ve been. Know bet­ter. I saw him at the sur­face once more be­fore he broke the line.”

I turned from the grasshop­per and, watch­ing the cur­rent curl un­der a sweeper, pic­tured Alex in the mid­dle of some large, un­named in­land lake chain, stand­ing on the wind­blown deck of his Crest­liner as it rose and fell on some mod­est chop, star­ing down into the jade-col­ored wa­ter into which the broad fish ghosted, shak­ing his head, shar­ing his dis­be­lief with the wa­ter, maybe the fish, then even­tu­ally kneel­ing down and rerig­ging.

“Very blue back. Deep-wa­ter crea­ture,” he said. “I haven’t had that kind of heart­break in 15 years.”

Bus­man’s hol­i­day for guides. Dom­browski casts while Lafkas po­si­tions the boat.

Alex Lafkas helped pi­o­neer fishing big stream­ers for over­sized browns on the White River in Arkansas.

As ado­les­cents, Chris Dom­browski (right) used to blind­fold Alex Lafkas be­fore tak­ing him to “se­cret” bass ponds and small­mouth streams.

Lafkas is an in­no­va­tive guide on the wa­ters of Michi­gan and Arkansas.

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