June 14, 2007 at 8:52 a.m.
"Yeah, that'd be alright, I guess. Hear any good ones lately?" That response (or some close variation) is usually my pat answer to his question. And, of course, Ray knows some good ones - a lifetime of good ones that he weaves like a fine tapestry that always elicits involuntary spasms of laughter. (And no, his jokes are not dirty.) Ray is one of those guys with a special joke file cabinet in his brain. It holds literally dozens and dozens of jokes that he tells with impeccable timing.
A few days ago I met Ray and his friends, Lee and Dave, at our pre-arranged meeting spot in Hudson, Wis. One benefit to guiding others on the streams and rivers is that I'm able to make some genuine, lasting friendships with clients. During the course of the past few years, I've had the pleasure of guiding Ray, his son, Bryce, and Lee for trout two or three times at Seven Pines Lodge, so it was a natural progression of sorts to arrange for a trip to new and bigger water.
Ray is a good fly fisherman. I took the time on Monday to really look at his casting stroke and timing and I determined that he is indeed a pretty good fly caster. I saw that his fly line, leader and fly flew through the air on a fairly level plane, unfurled crisply at its appointed spot following the forward cast and dropped softly to the water. I suppose anybody that can tell an incredibly detailed joke while managing a fly rod, 30 feet of fly line and a sharp hook without missing a beat must be pretty good.
I also came to understand on Monday that the more I talk with Ray, the more I realize that he's a fairly complex fellow. Not complex in a difficult or confusing way. No, he's far from that. I mean complex in its truest meaning, as in multifaceted. Like a diamond or prism that sparkles when held to the light, Ray reflects and refracts a lot of different knowledge from many angles. Eclectic stuff - from politics, the environment, spirituality and art that he's gained over the course of seventy years. The other day, Ray spoke in great detail about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian that denounced the Fuhrer and spoke out against Nazi fascism and anti-Semitism. Like I say, pretty heady stuff coming from a guy that, if you slapped a pair of bib overalls on him, would look exactly like an Iowan cow pie salesman. Okay, to be completely fair to Ray, I'd also mention that if you threw a bow tie and tweed jacket on him, he'd look exactly like an Ivy League professor. He's one of those broad-spectrum guys that could look like just about anybody.
The first fish Ray caught was a fat 17-inch brown that was fooled by a bead head nymph swung underneath an overhanging tree. I joked to Ray that it was going to be downhill from there, and he shouldn't expect to hook a larger trout that evening.
The Sulphur mayflies were waning a bit by the time we fished the Rush River. The most abundant hatches of these early June flies occurred a week or so beforehand. Still, enough of them came off the water and the trout rose and we stuck enough of our phony flies in front of enough trout to make the trip worthwhile.
With the darkness falling around 9 o'clock, we headed back to our trucks where I set my foldout aluminum camp table with deli subs, potato salad, yogurt and good kettle chips. We were hungry and didn't dawdle in making quick work of the food. The guys were talking about getting up early the following morning and heading north to Ely for two weeks of fishing.
We settled up, parted company and made our way up out of the valley and back to Ellsworth and River Falls before crossing into Minnesota and more familiar territory.
It was about 11 p.m. while I was getting onto Highway 94 in Hudson when the jokes about the schnauzer and the Czech hit me again - twice as hard the second time around. Ray and the guys were driving right behind me in Lee's Ford Escape. I wonder if they saw me laughing hysterically.
Like Ray himself, his jokes are pretty complex, too. The other day, his jokes were as memorable as the fishing, and laughing while fishing is a very good thing. I hope Ray and I can fish together for a long time to come.
Dan Brown's weekly outdoor column is brought to you by Frankie's Bait and Marine, in Chisago City, and St. Croix Outdoors, in St. Croix Falls, Wis.