Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - From the book On The Wa­ter, A Fish­ing Mem­oir, by Guy de la Valdene. Copy­right © 2015 by Guy de la Valdene. Used by per­mis­sion of Row­man & Lit­tle­field. row­

D’artag­nan would be proud of th­ese mus­ke­teers — artists and writ­ers who fished, hunted, drank and cooked from one end of the coun­try to the other, with Key West as a beacon. By GUY DE LA VALDÈNE

Over cof­fee one day dur­ing the spring of 1969, Woody Sex­ton in­tro­duced me to his friend Tom Mcguane. At the time, Tom; his wife, Becky; and their young son, Thomas, were liv­ing on Sum­mer­land Key. Tom, a tall, hand­some writer in his late 20s, was fish­ing the Log­ger­head Basin from in­side a 16-foot Roberts skiff pow­ered by a 33-hp Ev­in­rude en­gine and steered by a tiller. That win­ter he wrote his first piece for Sports Il­lus­trated mag­a­zine, “The Long­est Si­lence,” maybe the best ar­ti­cle ever writ­ten on flats fish­ing. Af­ter read­ing it that sum­mer, I sent him a con­grat­u­la­tory let­ter, and he re­sponded by invit­ing me to join him that fall on his ranch out­side Liv­ingston, Mon­tana, for a week of trout fish­ing. To this day I am sur­prised I made the trip, be­cause it has never been my habit to ac­cept sport­ing in­vi­ta­tions from peo­ple I don’t know well. In this case, and in ret­ro­spect, I am grate­ful that I did. We have been close friends ever since. When the en­thu­si­asm of an an­gler to­ward the won­der, or­der and har­mony of na­ture takes prece­dence over the num­bers and size of his catch — and if it is the an­gler’s choice to mostly fish alone — the ex­pe­ri­ence de­vel­ops into a form of med­i­ta­tion. It was clear from the Sports Il­lus­trated ar­ti­cle that Tom was in full har­mony with the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment he was de­scrib­ing. Whether it was sun­light tran­si­tion­ing over sand­bars, the dili­gence of

shore­birds feed­ing or the col­lec­tive ter­ror of a school of mul­let, he treated the ev­ery­day in­stances of na­ture with the same thought­ful­ness with which he treated the pur­suit of fish. To this day Tom hunts and fishes for the plea­sure of be­ing in the field or on the wa­ter, usu­ally by him­self with his thoughts and ob­ser­va­tions, which he con­sid­ers evenly with the ac­tion at hand. In the case of “The Long­est Si­lence,” it was catch­ing a per­mit on fly.

On my first trip west, Tom took me to all the lovely, tran­quil spring creeks around Liv­ingston and Boze­man, and of course to the Yel­low­stone River, where late one af­ter­noon he caught two 5-pound brown trout on con­sec­u­tive casts. It was a big deal. They were “wall” fish and treated as such.

Com­ing from salt wa­ter, I con­sid­ered a 5-pound any­thing to be a fish you ate or re­leased. As well, I didn’t think the trout put up much of a fight, but there was no deny­ing that they were beau­ti­ful — slick and brown, blood spot­ted and yel­low bel­lied. The sight of them clean out of the wa­ter took me back to my child­hood in France and to the con­flu­ence of two rivers.

None of my close friends dwell in cities, and we all have deep re­la­tion­ships with an­i­mals, mostly with our dogs, some of us with birds, others with fish, Tom with his horses. Mostly artists of one sort or an­other, they all re­side in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties or by the sea, where na­ture per­sists as the pre­vail­ing in­flu­ence on their lives. Their art, whether it be po­etry or prose, paint­ing or music, is a re­flec­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment they choose to live in.

Tom in­vited me back to Mon­tana nu­mer­ous times, and the more of­ten I trav­eled west, the more I took plea­sure in the sub­tlety and minu­tiae of dry-fly fish­ing. Wad­ing in rivers as op­posed to the ocean in­tro­duced me to the un­fa­mil­iar weight of mov­ing wa­ter and im­posed an un­der­stand­ing of depth and flow and the be­hav­ior of a dry fly sail­ing across a quick, shal­low run or float­ing high on a film of calm wa­ter. I watched flies knife through the shade of un­der­cut banks, perch on the sur­face of deep pools and teeter past the wake of sub­merged logs — pic­tures that are for­eign to a salt­wa­ter an­gler.

By the mid­dle of Septem­ber, the sum­mer sun had baked the val­leys, leav­ing them uni­form and golden. Weeds framed bright green fields of sec­ond-growth al­falfa that early and late in the day filled up with mule deer and an­te­lope. Gray par­tridge chased grasshop­pers across the rocky slopes of hills un­der the watch of ea­gles and hawks go­ing about their busi­ness be­low the in­ex­orable spread of win­ter at higher el­e­va­tions. In Oc­to­ber the brown trout swam up from the Yel­low­stone River to lay their eggs in the clean wa­ter of Armstrong Spring Creek.

The creeks out­side of Liv­ingston and Boze­man of­fered clas­sic dry-fly fish­ing, and in the mid-1970s they pre­sented min­i­mal in­tru­sion from other an­glers. Hatches rose from their beds to the sur­face ev­ery fall af­ter­noon, and with­out any con­cern or aware­ness of time pass­ing, I would fully con­cen­trate on the task

of lay­ing a tiny dry fly qui­etly on the wa­ter in the right place. Hours came and went like songs, with the con­clu­sion of the melody sig­naled by a chill that slowed and then ter­mi­nated the emer­gence of duns.

In­tri­cate, ver­mic­u­lated pat­terns, pale blue ha­los, red belly fins and bright or­ange stom­achs drew me to the brook trout liv­ing in the spring-fed ponds above Par­adise Val­ley. The brook­ies were mem­bers of the char fam­ily and had been in­tro­duced to Mon­tana in the late 19th cen­tury. I loved to eat them, cleaned and shaken in a pa­per bag with brown sugar and dry Cole­man’s mus­tard, a recipe from Al Mcclane’s clas­sic cook­book. Fried in but­ter, the pink-fleshed fish left a mess at the bottom of the pan and de­light on the tongue.

In­side an in­ner tube on Sil­ver Creek, in Idaho, I floated through high-desert pas­tures, past black cat­tle and un­der blue skies while watch­ing flies that I had cast 40 feet ahead of me. Huge im­i­ta­tions of grasshop­pers and bee­tles, the flies drifted at ex­actly the same speed at which I floated for hun­dreds of yards un­til a fish struck or monotony drove me to make a new cast. I can still see the flank of a large brown trout roll out of the wa­ter at my fly drift­ing next to the bank. Ten, 12 pounds? I don’t know, I never felt her.

My orig­i­nal bias to­ward the size and en­durance of trout came from learn­ing to fly-fish in the sea, where the hori­zons are lim­it­less and the strug­gle to stay alive, her­culean. Rivers are more con­tained, more fem­i­nine; the en­e­mies of the fish that pa­trol them less abun­dant. By the end of my first trip to Mon­tana, I dis­missed the diminu­tive size and lesser fight­ing abil­i­ties of trout and sim­ply took plea­sure in the fact that I was fish­ing in haunt­ingly un­fa­mil­iar set­tings for fish that were par­tic­u­lar and of­ten dif­fi­cult to en­tice.

Tom moved his fam­ily to Key West in 1970, and his friends fol­lowed. One of my most vivid mem­o­ries of that year is of pol­ing Tom and his col­lege friend, poet Jim Har­ri­son, across the flats be­tween Mule and Archer Keys one morn­ing in May dur­ing my first spring in Key West. I don’t think ei­ther hooked a fish that day, but I re­mem­ber lis­ten­ing to th­ese two men talk about nov­els with an ease and fa­cil­ity that I hope I might have de­ployed dis­cussing the mer­its of a best Lon­don shot­gun. I was not fa­mil­iar with a sin­gle ti­tle they dis­cussed, even though grow­ing up I had al­ways been a reader. (There was no tele­vi­sion in France in the 1950s.) The fact of the mat­ter is, I had not grad­u­ated be­yond the books of Ian Flem­ing, Rex Stout and John D. Mcdon­ald.

It has oc­curred to me since then that my lit­er­ary education did not be­gin dur­ing the 11 years I spent in board­ing schools, or dur­ing my sin­gle year of col­lege, but on that day in­side a Fiber Craft skiff pol­ing for fish on the flats west of Key West.

Con­se­quently, just as it took me a decade to learn how to cast a fly cor­rectly, it took me at least that long to un­der­stand and value Tom’s nov­els and Jim’s po­etry.

Tom and I fished to­gether in the spring of 1971, mostly for per­mit, when per­mit were con­sid­ered al­most im­pos­si­ble to catch on fly and long be­fore any­one had dreamed up the mod­ern crab-fly im­i­ta­tions. That year and the next, Tom and I cast at hun­dreds of per­mit — small and large com­mit­tees of fish work­ing the brit­tle edge of the sand­bars, big pairs and sin­gles on the face of the flats and hun­dreds of black sickle-shaped tails pro­trud­ing out of the wa­ter, be­long­ing to per­mit feed­ing. We ran and fished over miles of shal­low wa­ter be­tween the Bay Keys and the Mar­que­sas. Although we were both good cast­ers and poled a skiff as well as any guide, the per­mit — which look like a cross be­tween a pompano and a jack crevalle — did not re­act to our flies. The fish were as dis­crim­i­nat­ing as trout dur­ing a hatch, and we never pre­sented the right match. We fished off and on to­gether for two years, and while we jumped tar­pon and caught mut­ton­fish, we never hooked a per­mit.

I re­mem­ber fish­ing the tides be­tween Man and Woman Keys and the rack of clouds that took shape ev­ery af­ter­noon from the dis­tant Mar­que­sas to Key West. Small black­tip sharks has­tened from one point of in­ter­est to the other with a pur­pose best suited to their sin­gle­minded brains. Lemon sharks trans­ferred a more re­laxed rhythm to the sur­face. Men­haden shiv­ered across acres of deeper wa­ter, and with the ad­vent of sun­set, the clouds melted and the sun fell slowly over a river of wa­ter un­fold­ing out of the chan­nels onto the sand. The wind would die, and with the emer­gence of the moon, the flats would swell into lakes of cathe­dral pro­por­tion.

The next morn­ing, in­ef­fa­ble and com­plex in their sym­bio­sis with the ris­ing tide, the flats would come to life. When the stingrays be­gan to for­age, Tom and I would pole to­ward them, search­ing for cor­morants hunt­ing in the cloudy dis­tur­bances cre­ated by the rhythm of the rays’ wings. Shafts of light deep­ened and sat­u­rated the color of the sand.

Pop­ping their heads out of the wa­ter ev­ery few sec­onds with a crab or a shrimp held in their bills, the birds were of­ten joined by mut­ton snap­pers, 10- to 20-pound fish whose red tails waved out of the wa­ter when feed­ing. The snap­pers took flies well, and once on the line they blis­tered the flat, rais­ing rooster tails in their wake. Trou­bled by the ac­tiv­ity and also seek­ing safety in deeper wa­ter, the stingrays hur­ried af­ter them, leav­ing great wing prints on the sur­face.

For well over a decade, Tom, Jim Har­ri­son, the painter Rus­sell Chatham and I spent our springs fish­ing to­gether be­low Key West. We poled over the alarm­ingly white flats be­tween Man and Woman Keys, watch­ing for the re­flec­tion of tar­pon to rise from the sand. We cast bone­fish flies at tar­pon in wa­ter so shal­low their fins left fur­rows on the sur­face. We fished qui­etly over laid-up fish in the Peal Basin, where the tar­pon as­sumed a slight dis­col­oration be­fore melt­ing into the sea grass. We jumped tar­pon in the north­west chan­nels and off the naval base. We fished named flats such as Log­ger­head, south of Big Pine Key, and the Ec­centrics, west of Big Torch Key. We fought fish in Mooney Har­bor in­side of the Mar­que­sas, we hooked tar­pon un­der the Seven Mile Bridge dur­ing the palolo worm hatch, and we made long casts un­der the night lights of the Pier House Ho­tel in Key West.

Tar­pon, tar­pon, there were tar­pon ev­ery­where. We ar­rived in Key West at the end of an era and left at the be­gin­ning of a new one. In the early ’70s the town was sultry, mag­nif­i­cent and sus­pi­cious, the home of cock­fights and un­claimed ladies, tough bars on Du­val Street, knif­ings on the shrimp docks and hip­pies par­ty­ing in Mal­lory Square. Hibis­cus and bougainvil­lea fell from the bal­conies, and the poin­ciana trees glowed like set­ting suns. In the morn­ing we rose to shots of black Cuban cof­fee.

The land­scape of the flats that shifted un­der the in­spi­ra­tion of cur­rents and daily tides was pris­tine and, com­pared to today, empty. The In­ter­net, Jet Skis and cell­phones had not been in­vented. Cruise ships docked at other ports. Ad­ver­tis­ers had not dis­cov­ered the angling ap­parel that ig­nited the fly-fish­ing craze or the in­fra­struc­ture of ho­tels and guides that would be needed to ac­com­mo­date those new­found an­glers. The flats were still-life com­po­si­tions of light. Vis­ited only by a small com­mer­cial fish­ing in­dus­try, a hand­ful of il­le­gal net­ters, Cuban crab­bers and a few pot run­ners, the sea was healthy and the ma­rine life plen­ti­ful. Those of us who fished the Keys in those days were the most for­tu­nate of all an­glers. The com­pe­ti­tion was nonex­is­tent, the fish un­mo­lested, and the flats silent and im­mac­u­late.

When we left the Keys in the early 1980s, the down­town shops on Du­val Street were fill­ing up with bric-a-brac and T-shirts, and the first of a thou­sand more to come Car­ni­val boats had dis­gorged its load of pink-fleshed tourists with cheap mem­o­ries on their minds.

Jim Har­ri­son, Rus­sell Chatham and I were known in Key West as the “fat boys,” as in, “The fat boys are back in town,” loosely trans­lated as, “The party is on.” Not that Key West needed our en­cour­age­ment to throw a party. We merely added our weight, en­thu­si­asm and ap­petites to the mix. We weren’t par­tic­u­larly fat (cer­tainly not by today’s stan­dards), but we all cooked and ate well.

By 1974 Tom was of­ten ab­sent dur­ing the prime tar­pon months, busy writ­ing screen­plays and mak­ing movies for Hol­ly­wood. Through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Jim, Rus­sell and I rented a house in Key West for six weeks ev­ery year and parked my skiff at Gar­ri­son Bight. Ev­ery morn­ing, no mat­ter how dis­traught we felt from the pre­vi­ous night’s in­dul­gences, if the weather was tol­er­a­ble we fished, or at­tempted to fish. One morn­ing — I have been told this but don’t

re­mem­ber — my Mav­er­ick skiff was spot­ted, by a cou­ple of guides and their an­glers, drift­ing in­side Mule and Archer Keys with the fat boys — the poet, the painter and me — sound asleep on its floor. The bi­b­li­cal hang­over, for­giv­able, since it was a week­end.

Then there was the day we drank rum and Cokes on the flats be­gin­ning at 10 in the morn­ing. It so hap­pened that one of us jumped a fish while an­other was in­dulging in a Cuba Li­bre to chase the fog that had set­tled af­ter a long, sleep­less night. A sec­ond fish was spot­ted at the next mix­ing of drinks, and from then on our luck in­creased each time one of us poured rum. Tar­pon swam in range of the boat at ev­ery swal­low, and since it was more fun than study­ing the tide charts, we per­sisted. It was magic, and by the time the bot­tle was empty, we were see­ing fish ev­ery­where. The me­mory of our run back to Key West across North­west Chan­nel that af­ter­noon sur­faces with sur­pris­ing clar­ity 40 years af­ter the fact. Mer­ci­fully it re­cedes just as quickly back where it be­longs.

Nei­ther Jim nor Rus­sell was handy with the pole, so I did the push­ing. Pol­ing gave me a per­spec­tive into the world of guides and their clients — the choices that lead an­glers to tar­pon and the im­por­tance of point­ing out the fish and set­ting up the skiff for them to make the cast. The wa­ter tem­per­a­ture, the tide, the wa­ter level, the con­tour of the flats and the ad­join­ing chan­nels all tell a piece of the story of shal­low-wa­ter tar­pon, and I soon found the hunt­ing of th­ese big fish and the ex­cite­ment they pro­voked in the boat to be as en­ter­tain­ing as the fish­ing.

For years, af­ter a day on the wa­ter, I would tie knots and flies. Over time it would be hun­dreds of nail knots, clinch knots, blood knots, Al­bright knots and the Bi­mini twists for which I used my big toes to open the loops of monofil­a­ment and set the knots spin­ning. My two friends, the artists, pre­tended not to un­der­stand how to tie tar­pon lead­ers. As in­sur­ance against hav­ing to learn how it was done, they de­clared that they sim­ply “couldn’t take crit­i­cism.” It was the per­fect foil against any and all in­con­ve­niences.

I no longer wanted to waste bar time wrap­ping monofil­a­ment, so I made our shock tip­pets us­ing 2-weight leader wire twisted at both ends through a small swivel and the eye of the fly. The lead­ers took 20 sec­onds to make. Since we were in­ter­ested in jump­ing fish, not in records, the leader wire ver­sion worked fine. In fact, it prob­a­bly worked bet­ter than monofil­a­ment, given that the wire dragged the fly down to the fish faster. Back in the days when the cal­en­dar and ge­og­ra­phy worked, Tom, Jim, Rus­sell and I met and took ad­van­tage of the fact that we loved books and art and dogs and birds and fish and food and good-look­ing women. We fished and hunted and drank and cooked from one end of the coun­try to the other for a quar­ter of a cen­tury, with Key West as a beacon of our sport­ing year. Now when we see each other, we re­mem­ber what non­sense we used to get into and how even though we thought we did, we never got away with any of it.

What I re­mem­ber best about those decades was the laugh­ter.

Ev­ery time our group was to­gether, we laughed and laughed, of­ten to the point of hurt­ing. Head-split­ting, belly-heaving silliness at all times of day and night, in the boat, at the bar, dur­ing din­ners, in Key West, in Mon­tana, in the Up­per Penin­sula of Michi­gan, in France. Ev­ery­where and any­where, we laughed and laughed and laughed, and I miss it.

The other day I was at the open mar­ket in Tal­la­has­see, and one of the ven­dors I know an­swered my query about a plant he was sell­ing.

“It is the ca­lyx of the hibis­cus flower. You make herbal tea with it.” Then he looked at me and added, “You ob­vi­ously weren’t a hippy, back in the day, were you?”

Be­fore I could shut my stupid mouth, I replied, “No, but I sure woke up next to a bunch of them!”

He looked sur­prised and then smiled, re­mem­ber­ing.

One af­ter­noon Jim, Rus­sell and I were fish­ing the flats north of Boca Grande. We had jumped four tar­pon that day, three be­tween Mule and Archer Keys and one off the Seven Sis­ters, with more rolling to­ward us. We were staked out on a point of sand over­look­ing the chan­nel that sep­a­rated Boca Grande from the Mar­que­sas.

A hun­dred yards to the north, in­side the dark, nar­row chan­nel that split the flat in two, a school of tar­pon was daisy chain­ing: a merry-go-round of hun­dred-pound fish fol­low­ing each other in a mock breed­ing rit­ual. Big, con­fi­dent, ocean­go­ing fish.

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances we would have been walk­ing into the Chart Room, a non­de­script bar we fre­quented ev­ery even­ing, but on this day the weather was beau­ti­ful, and we knew the tides were right for fish to swim past Plat­form Point. Soon the bronze head of a tar­pon rose out of the slick-calm wa­ter and

sighed. Like no other fish, when the oxy­gen con­tent of the wa­ter is low, tar­pon rise to the sur­face and breathe into mod­i­fied swim blad­ders, pro­duc­ing a ghostly sound that flats fish­er­men hear in their sleep.

A school of five tar­pon, back­lit in the wan­ing light, ap­peared for an in­stant off­shore from us and then changed di­rec­tions and, for rea­sons of their own, split into fin­gers of un­ease. Rus­sell stood on the bow, a big, gen­tle, one-eyed man wear­ing a mus­tache and a great Euro­pean nose that pre­ferred one side of his face to the other. He was, like Woody, a prod­uct of the steel­head rivers of Cal­i­for­nia. His high cast­ing mo­tion was not as well-suited to the windy sweep of the flats as it was at heaving lead core fly lines into the bod­ies of rivers.

But be­cause he had spent decades with a rod in his hand, Russ in­stinc­tively knew where to put the fly and how to swim it.

Jim stood be­hind him, smok­ing a cig­a­rette and vol­un­teer­ing ad­vice. Also sport­ing one good eye and a mus­tache, Jim car­ried a rock-hard soc­cer ball stom­ach and a sharp sense of hu­mor.

“What did that woman mean last night when she told us that all you wanted her to do was to yank on your gherkin?”

“Jeez, Jim,” Russ an­swered with­out look­ing back. “I’m try­ing to con­cen­trate here.”

When the tar­pon re­grouped, they re­sumed their trav­els to­ward the skiff. Rus­sell raised a high, open loop of fly line, and since there was no wind to in­ter­fere with the cast, the line un­folded and set­tled his fly qui­etly on the wa­ter in front of the ap­proach­ing swell shaped by the school. Rus­sell moved the fly once, a short pull in front of the lead tar­pon. The fish raised its head out of the wa­ter and heaved for­ward. The fly van­ished. An in­stant later the tar­pon climbed out of the wa­ter, con­torted and un­bri­dled, ex­ult­ing in its reach for free­dom. The low light il­lu­mi­nated the plat­inum­col­ored flank of the hun­dred-pound fish and mo­men­tar­ily stamped its re­flec­tion on the sur­face of the wa­ter.

The tar­pon ran from the skiff across the pale grass to­ward the chan­nel where the school had been daisy chain­ing ear­lier. Turn­ing south to­ward the Mar­que­sas, the tar­pon fol­lowed the canal out to the broad flat that spilled from its mouth, and once in the Boca Grande Chan­nel it jumped again: a minia­ture pen­dant against a set­ting sky. Rus­sell tight­ened the drag and broke the fish off.

It is the tar­pon’s move­ments in and out of wa­ter that in­ter­est me. If the tide is right and the tar­pon are run­ning, I don’t see the point in fight­ing them when I could be cast­ing at fresh fish. See­ing the tar­pon un­der­wa­ter, judg­ing where to cast the fly, man­ag­ing the strike and wit­ness­ing the first cou­ple of jumps is where fly-fish­ing for tar­pon be­gins and ends for me. A fight is a fight, and when I was younger I fought dozens of tar­pon. But now I leave the man­han­dling to others. For me the fi­nesse of the sport ends a hun­dred yards from the boat.

In my day tar­pon were killed for plea­sure by men who loved com­pe­ti­tion. Tar­pon tour­na­ments fed egos. Later, once the awards cer­e­monies and the rev­elry ended, the tar­pon lost their sta­tus as icons and were hauled to land dumps or dragged off­shore as fod­der for the sharks. Some an­glers revel in the tech­niques of com­bat, just as others take plea­sure in lift­ing weights. I like speed and fo­cus, beauty and mo­tion, and I be­lieve that re­spect is owed to ev­ery heart­beat on the planet.

It took 100 years of killing tar­pon for no rea­son be­fore things be­gan to change. In this coun­try those kill-tour­na­ment days are over; the law for­bids it. Once again tar­pon are icons, but of a dif­fer­ent sort, and their mys­te­ri­ous mi­gra­tions are be­ing stud­ied by in­stru­ments as mag­i­cal as those that re­vealed to my com­puter the re­sem­blance of my pond to a bird. Part of me wants to know where the tar­pon I see each spring go for the rest of the year, the route of their mi­gra­tion and where they breed, but just as I would want the past his­tory of a lover to re­main a mys­tery, a larger part of me wants this fish that I love to re­tain the se­crecy of its ex­is­tence and sim­ply show up once a year in places he and his an­ces­tors have called on for mil­len­nium. In this age of rev­e­la­tions, mys­tery is a valu­able com­mod­ity. Progress of­ten takes away what it took a long time to cre­ate.

The paint­ing Low Tide, Key West by Galen Mercer.

The crew in the early ’70s in­cluded (from top) the author, Gil Drake and Woody Sex­ton.

Key West was a beacon for the author and his friends, and tar­pon were ob­jects of de­sire.

Back when the “fat boys” owned Key West, tar­pon seemed to be ev­ery­where.

Ap­proach­ing Storm, Florida Keys by Galen Mercer.

“The tar­pon climbed out of the wa­ter, con­torted and un­bri­dled, ex­ult­ing in its reach for free­dom.”

The author in his skiff. Rus­sell Chatham paint­ing.

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