Saturday, December 4, 2010
The man was a fine fisherman. Whether casting stink bait at catfish; daredevil’s at muskies or delicately depositing a size 22 Quill Gordon in the feeding lane of a wary brown trout, Elbert Shostack had few equals. Today Elbert Shostack is a babbling idiot, and this is his story.
Elbert’s path to insanity began early in life. The only son of Elizabeth and Oscar was born into a world of big sisters. He had six of them, and in no time at all he hated all of The Six. Oh, how he wished for a little brother, but it wasn’t to be. Pray as he might, mom and dad were finished with procreation. After all, with six beautiful and talented daughters, why keep going?
Oscar was an actuary for the Allied Insurance Company, and his idea of a good time was sitting in his easy chair and humming along with Mitch Miller, as Mitch and his bouncing ball led the national sing-along throughout the sixties. Other than that, Oscar’s recreational needs were quite simple...entertaining The Six with Ogden Nash limericks and ridiculously stupid and unending knock-knock jokes as they worshiped at his feet...and spending his weekends building them doll houses. Elbert was lonely.
Sure, his mom doted on him, but as for his dad, Elbert made the conscious decision in 1962 to exchange him for Ted Trueblood. And the rest as they say is history. The chance discovery of a Field & Stream magazine accomplished through a brief friendship with Ricky Peters led to Elbert’s glory...and his downfall.
One of the neighborhood kids, Ricky had all the makings of a good friend until Elbert’s mom got a look at him. Ricky was known to go home only when starvation was imminent, meaning that either the catfish weren’t biting or the squirrel hunting was bad. Ricky’s skills as a 15 year old woodsman were legendary amongst his peers, and as he patiently explained to the younger Elbert, those skills were acquired through the study of Field & Stream and the writings of one Mr. Ted Trueblood. The problem was that Ricky’s only exposure to water came from wading the creek. Ricky didn’t bath, and the scabs and sores covering his appendages were enough to insure that he and Elbert’s friendship would be short-lived.
And so with the introductions made, Elbert’s discipleship to the guru of the great outdoors began. After convincing the old man that a monthly allowance in cash could easily be replaced by a subscription to the magazine, Elbert began his studies. The studies included everything from chasing Chukars through the sagebrush of Idaho to trout fishing the country’s hallowed waters, and as Elbert grew older and opportunities to put his book learning to use came more frequently, he found that in many if not all ways, he was indeed an honors student. Especially regarding trout fishing.
A solitary childhood led to his entry into adulthood, where he discovered to his family’s disappointment that he had no need of female companionship. Or anyone’s companionship for that matter. As others his age were planning families and establishing lucrative careers, Elbert stuck to his study of the classics. Earning advanced degrees in Stream Reading, Bug Identification, Line Mending and the Double Haul did not impress his family, and the constant cajoling phone calls from The Six did nothing but drive him further away.
And further away he went. There was no river too far, no hunt too extreme, no woodland challenge that he was not up to. The legend began in whispers around back country elk camps and traversed from the banks of the Mirimichi to the shores of Coeur d'Alene. Soon he was taking on the life of the gypsy...not so much from wanderlust, but more from the desire to escape the writers and fly fishing groupies that hounded his every move. The occasional article or TV spot recounting his exploits, though always questionably sourced, only served to fuel the legend and drive him further into the wilderness. Until one day on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, when his world turned upside down.
Elbert had packed in alone, arriving just after sunset. The outpost cabin used by fire patrols was well stocked and furnished...not that he’d be taking advantage of their provisions...he was there for the bed and nothing else. Well, he might use the cook stove and supply of wood for his customary fresh trout breakfast. Sleep came easy, but not before some reflection on his circumstances.
Elbert was in his early sixties by now. He had “been there and done that” like few before him. He thought of his long gone and distant mentor, Trueblood, and the adventures that he’d led him on. He thought of what many called missed opportunities...the lack of family and the nagging guilt that The Six had labored for years to burden him with...unsuccessfully. He smiled. Not just at the thought of solitude, but that he was experiencing the solitude in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, the magical wilderness that Trueblood had lobbied so hard to have established.
Note: What follows is based on the one rambling interview the wizened and gray haired recluse granted me from his room at the Idaho Hospital for the Piscatorially Insane, so its accuracy is suspect and cannot be independently verified. The only thing known for certain is that Elbert Shostack never recovered.
A trout, a crazed hen Cutthroat with supernatural powers - perhaps demonic powers - came to Elbert in a dream...or so he thought.
“I was casting one of them Wulff flies. A big heavy floater, when out of the depths comes the biggest damn trout I ever saw. With total abandon she charges the fly and danged if she didn’t jump clean out of the water and over the fly...puttin’ on a regular porpoise show. She clears the fly, circles around and stops dead in the water, and with a pair of bifocals stares at it...up close and personal.
“I reckon I was shocked, but nearly as much as I was when she reared up out of the water and points a pectoral fin straight at me and starts talkin’. Said she’d been waiting years for me and that now that I was here she was going to see to it that I never bothered a trout again.
“Well, I wasn’t going to take no crap from a fish, so I asked her to please get her self back in the water and we’ll get on with it. With that she slips back down under the deadfall and dares me to try her."
At this point in the story it must be said that Elbert was a prideful man. No, not an ego thing...otherwise he wouldn’t have hid himself for so many years...it was a pride sort of thing. Whether talking to trout or talking to himself, Elbert always had to win the argument. And to be challenged by a fish, well...
“So there I was, waist deep in the prettiest plunge pool you ever saw...talking to a trout. And not just any trout, but one to challenge the record books. A trout that had just dared me to catch her.”
Elbert had just seen that she wasn’t going to take the Wulff, so as he rummaged through his fly box looking for the biggest and ugliest thing he had, he was thinking tactics. He thought: big trout, big fly...it had always worked before. But obviously this was going to be different. To catch a fish that talks; a fish that even knew his name; a fish that had just shown him supernatural powers, was going to take all of the skills that he had acquired over the years. Elbert secured the largest and ugliest fly in his box, Howell’s Big Nasty, to his 3x tippet.
The cast was perfect. The drift carried it straight to the deadfall, and his nemesis, with no hesitation at all, took the fly and the battle was on. From one end of the pool to the other, she did all she could to defeat the fisherman. One powerful run led to two, then three. Wishing that he had a fighting butt on the 5 weight Sage, Elbert was weakening. As the fish hung in the current with his side to Elbert, there seemed to be little chance of moving her, but Elbert gave it his all. The Sage had to be near the breaking point, and the tippet, well even a 3x can only take so much.
Then the big fish started to move. Standing there at waters edge with his rod bent double, inch by inch Elbert was bringing her in. But as he reached for his net the fish went back to her supernatural ways. Suddenly the fish came up on her tail and started crabbing backwards across the pool. Just as Elbert was about to be pulled in he was hit squarely in the middle of his forehead by the fly. The long shanked hook, though obviously not firmly secured in the fish’s mouth just moments ago, was now firmly secured as a fashion statement in Elbert’s brow...right between his eyes.
The big fish laughed. She not only laughed...she insulted. She made fun of his skill, his technique and his name. She ridiculed his reputation as an angler and speculated that if he didn’t get off his ass and give it one more try he would forever be known as the guy that never learned a thing from Ted Trueblood.
Elbert was shakin’ mad. Sitting cross-eyed on the bank he watched the blood inch toward the tip of his nose and plotted his revenge. “No damned trout is gonna...”
Composing himself, Elbert rose to his feet with determination. He checked his line for abrasions and securely fastened a new fly to the line. With trembling hands he spent little time in selecting it. After all, the fish now seemed willing to take just about anything he presented.
And she did. With her normal gusto she slammed the offering and headed for the snag. But this time, rather than the head shaking frenzy of before, she just sulked. Then with a burst of energy she looked like she was trying to turn herself inside out. First spinning to the left then the right, and finally a series of frantic figure eights that turned the water to froth. The line went slack. How she did it without fingers Elbert couldn’t say, but when the water settled down and the fish rose slowly to the surface, there on her snout sat the fly...unattached to the tippet. The fish had untied the knot.
Then she slowly circled the pool with her head out of the water bouncing the fly like a miniature soccer ball on her nose. At the end of the lap she stopped in front of Elbert, flipped the fly high into the air and gobbled it down just before it hit the water.
From this point on the interview became a bit deranged. As he recounted the rest of the story his words made less and less sense. There were other battles with the fish...battles that apparently included the fish speaking at various times as each of The Six. There were battles with the fish imitating Mitch Miller and encouraging Elbert to sing along. There was even an attempt at seduction. The fish even managed to coach Elbert in Trueblood’s own voice, followed apparently by more ridicule. But Elbert never caught the fish.
According to a press report, Elbert Shostack was found a week later setting on the steps of the fire cabin. His face bloodied, his waders torn and his hands clutching what had been a fine fly rod, he mumbled something about a large fish and a story about Mitch Miller.
Somewhere deep in the Idaho mountains a large fish swims...or maybe not. A fish that bested the best of us...maybe. And somewhere in a lonely hospital room sits a defeated man. He stares blankly at a mirror and dreams of who knows what. He raises a wrinkled hand, a hand that had held many a fine fish, and brushes the long gray bangs from his forehead...revealing three of the prettiest flies you ever saw...and cries.