Fishing Above the Clouds

Note: This essay was born when I wrote the penultimate paragraph after some recent salt-water fly-fishing with my buddy Capt. Matt. On the way home an old science fiction film passed through my head, with its “event horizon” concept from physics, and the paragraph wrote itself. Some time later, on deadline to deliver my regular column to Aviation Group Ltd., which publishes the Cessna and Piper Flyer (sic), some older flying and fishing fun from Montana connected itself. So the paragraph became the column.

Fishing Above Clouds—Wherein the great mountain flying expedition is saved

We pilots fly airplanes for as many reasons as there are pilots and we use them for manifold purposes, as many I suppose as our imaginations can create.

We sit in single-seat highly modified behemoths behind horsepower ratings better suited to tug boats and fly in tight ovals around pylons venting thousand dollar bills out our exhaust stacks at Reno and other such races. On weekends we are up at dawn to fly short distances in order to partake of pancakes, eggs (or reconstituted powder masquerading as poultry product) and sausages washed down with coffee—the food and the flying to reach it only an excuse for the camaraderie of friends, old and new. We throw sacks of flour out of our craft, often at the edge of stall, simulating the military concept of pinpoint bombing. Our derring-do attacking toilet paper rolls falling from altitude in twirling paper cascades harks back to the era of biplane dogfights. The ribbons we use to mark the threshold for accuracy landing competitions simulates an aircraft carrier flight deck pitching and rolling in the high seas.

We fly our own children and grandchildren, as well their friends and Young Eagles for fun, and to introduce them to the technical and romantic blessing that we all share as aviators. As we age, admit it, some of us rarely leave the pattern with our beloved old airplanes. Instead I’ve seen us near sunset on calm evenings enjoying the same thrill as of our first solo’s three landing patterns, decades after that first exciting weightlessness changed our lives. Sometimes we even use our airplanes for the mundane and utilitarian purpose of traveling.

These are all good things, and as they should be.

But I was determined, once upon a time and a long time ago, that I was going to use my airplane in order to go fishing.

Back then when I was young I ran around with some questionable companions. The airplane story that comes to mind is about fishing, but it also involved learning the necessity of wrenches, rudimentary mechanical skills and a basic understanding of magneto ignition systems. The events here depicted occurred out west but not all of the neer-do-wells who helped lead me astray back then were westerners—there was one Montanan, a Nebraskan and a fellow from Wisconsin are also guilty.

They introduced me to many of the bad habits I still struggle with. Those peccadillos to this day include a deep passion for fishing, a fascination with double-barreled shotguns for bird-hunting, and the fact that I believe a post-flight inspection is as important as a pre-flight inspection. Oh, and as far as I am concerned long final approaches at sleepy rural airports are fine because it helps with lining up with the runway center-line, which is more difficult when it has been worn to invisibility by cattle who think the macadam is a good place to lie down and warm up on fall days in mountain country. Country flying is different from city such.

I need to get back to telling you about fishing via airplane before I wander off about the rattlesnakes. The sun, even at autumnal angles, warmed up the ancient, cracked and weed-infested blacktop where I hangared the plane in those days, a meteorological effect which the cattle seemed to have discovered with as much joy as bovines exhibit. Even after a low pass dispersed the sleepy cows, however, it never seemed to dissuade the venomous reptiles, which being cold-blooded, liked to bask on the runway as well, but that’s another tale.

I can’t tell you where this happened because there are fish involved and disclosing the location would therefore violate the most ancient laws men have made, but suffice it to say it was in northwest Montana within a day’s drive on bad roads from the southern gate to Glacier National Park. I had discovered thereabouts, via a horseback expedition in the service of elk hunting the winter before, the most beautiful little mountain lake that I surmised might portend good fishing. Everything was covered with snow like it is during hunting season. The lake was a black hole surrounded by white. Every so often what looked like a fin would break the surface. But there were elk to be found, and that’s hard enough without thinking about fish. So I vowed that come the thaw, I’d return to see if the fishing was as good as the lake was pretty.

This particular lake is so beautiful it may be the pattern that God used when She thought about making lakes in other places. It is so perfect and peaceful that when I leave for good I’d like my ashes spread at its shore.

The next spring, with one of the aforementioned bad influences for company because they were his horses, we loaded up his horse trailer and drove to the trailhead. It took longer than it should have because several ball-hitch changes were involved. If you don’t know what a ball-hitch change is, well, I guess you’ve never pulled a trailer with your truck. Finally there, we unloaded, saddled-up, tied various pieces of fly-fishing gear to the horses with specialty knots otherwise known only to mountain men and fighter pilots and rode off on the 90 minute or-so trip to the lake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do airplanes. If you stop interrupting me I can get on with telling you. It was now long after lunch and as the lake came into sight, I realized that we’d barely have time to scout the fishing prospects let alone wet a line before we’d have to turn around in order to get back to the horse trailer before dark.

That’s when I noticed the long rust and yellow meadow gently sloping for a few hundred yards away from the lake. The meadow grasses and wildflowers looked almost as if they had been poured from the lake, or overflowed out of it. The more I looked at it, the more I thought that after some careful close-up inspection it would be possible to land my airplane on the meadow. Even with the half-hour drive to my hangar at the little worn blacktop cow and rattlesnake frequented runway outside town, the trip by plane to the meadow was only about 15 minutes, instead of the all-day horseback, ball-hitch-changing affair. I never much liked riding horses anyway. Careful or I’ll tell you all about that sometime.

I won’t get technical about the geology of the area because it might provide clues to its location. But the lake itself appeared to be an old caldera, a crater lake formed by volcanic activity. We dismounted to walk the meadow to ascertain its suitability as a landing strip and discovered that the eruption gazillions of years ago had spewed silica, which provided a dense, dark base under the meadow grass and flowers. The volcanism had created, in addition to the perfect lake, a perfect natural landing strip. And it was at an altitude that my airplane and then-more-rudimentary flying skills could handle without esoteric recourse to complicated density altitude calculations or even having to reveal its location to my friendly neighborhood flight instructor, who not being a fisher might reveal its coordinates to all and sundry.

Convinced that the meadow would serve as a runway and with afternoon fast leaning into evening, we assessed the waters. We joyfully discovered that it was seething with Artic grayling (Thymallus arcticus). Their colorful dorsal fins foretold the thrill of a bite and the thrumming of tight line, as they rose to take our flies.

As this was actually only a scouting, not a fishing expedition (there are rules), we released the few we hooked after determining their identity and suitability for the frying pan and rode off, planning to return again via plane for serious fishing.

I remember now from the vantage of years passing the ride out, and subsequent days of fly-tying (Royal Wulff, Elk Hair Caddis, and various ant and grasshopper patterns), aviation planning, weather watching and short-and soft-field landing practice. I can almost feel my 32-year-old fly rod, a graphite 7-weight long gathering dust in the closet, in my hand as those grayling taught me about fishing.

The day of the great mountain flying expedition dawned clear and cold. It was too early for snakes and even the cows didn’t get up as early as I did that day. I hooked my homemade tow bar welded-up contraption to my pickup-up truck and pulled the airplane out into the bright morning. Inasmuch as the aerial expedition, although in retrospect relatively tame, was my first-ever real “off-road” flying experience, I fully prepared by loading emergency camping gear, some food, my .30-30 rifle (hey, it was Montana) into the back seat alongside my fly-fishing gear and a cooler of ice ready to fill with lots of grayling. I had by then convinced my horse-trailer friend to ride up with his sweetheart and camp at the lake just to have someone around when I flew in for the first time. I promised him right of first refusal on any future aerial fishing expeditions in exchange.

The pre-flight checklist was uneventful, as was the run-up and mag check at the end of the runway. I took off, and headed northwest by following the highway out of town looking for the dirt road that led to the trailhead. Finding it with no problem, I looked down and saw my friend’s truck and horse-trailer down there like toys, and figured he was on his way up the mountain. I turned east for about three minutes, saw the lake below me, descended and set up as if for a normal landing pattern as I reviewed my much practiced short-soft-field landing technique in my head. I turned a short final; the meadow in front of me aglow with red and yellow flowers, and with a thump and full braking was down and stopped before I knew it. Yoke pulled into my lap I throttled up, spun the plane around and taxied back as far as I could to prepare for my later departure and shut things down, and stepped out into the sudden silence.

I fished all day, ecstatic with my newfound sense of aviation enhancing my life. I filled the cooler with the limit allowed, and (don’t tell) gave a bunch of fish to my friend and his sweetheart who were setting up camp as I promised them I’d be back the next day or the day after that.

I walked across the meadow to check over where I would be taking off, did an extra-special pre-flight and walk-around, got in and started the engine. As I reviewed the takeoff in my head, I couldn’t help but smile, until I did the mag check and one side ran rough. Hmmm.

I locked down the brakes and ran the rpms all the way up, the world vibrating around me, and leaned the mixture as I had been taught to burn out what I figured was some carbon fouling the lower spark plugs. It had happened once or twice before, so no big deal, although once I had to have the mechanic pull and clean the plugs to fix it.

I tried it three times. No luck. No way I was going to takeoff out of that meadow at that altitude, toward that jagged hill on just one mag. So I shut the engine off. I got out and walked over to my friend and his sweetheart who had been watching the whole thing. The horses had been watching too, but they didn’t say anything.

“Fouled plug, I think,” I said. “I have wrenches and such in my truck,” my friend said. I looked at my watch. “You can ride down and get them in the morning. We’re having fish for dinner, want to join us?” he said.

The evening hatch proved productive. More fish were caught. Some were released. Some were cooked over the fire. Many were eaten. There was cornbread made in the frying pan. Some red wine appeared. The stars were very bright that night.

Next morning I went and got the tools. Came back. Pulled and cleaned the plugs. The run-up was fine thereafter and the takeoff and short flight home was beautiful if uneventful.

That was the trip on which I learned to always carry a tool kit in the plane. Spare spark plugs too. Simple things, just in case the FBO is closed, or there is no FBO.

Have done such ever since.

I still am addicted to fishing, but haven’t fished above the clouds in too long a time. Need to be thinking about that.

Better writers than I have explored describing what it feels like for a fish to take what you have offered it in a mountain lake; I turn to physics. In general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary associated with a black hole, sort of a point of no return balancing the gravitational pull where it becomes so strong as to make escape impossible. I imagine it as an area of transition possibilities. Maybe teetering is a word for it. The fish will catch itself or it won’t, it has little to do with you. There is an event horizon in its rise and bite. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a bulge or wave in the water in front of the fly before the eruption of fish passing from water into the air. At that moment I like to think fish are thinking about flying. We humans think the present is steady state, in some lineal fashion, with discrete and knowable partitions between the past and the future. But physicists, Zen masters and anyone who has ever caught fish in the mountains on a fly line will tell you that there is only the now, and that now is forever.

(A conservation aside: At the time of these expeditions in the early 1990s Montana’s lake-dwelling populations of Artic grayling were numerous and common, unlike the upper Missouri River Basin population that in 2010 was a candidate for listing as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.)

David Hipschman’s wife and children will tell you that the stories he tells, at least parts of them, are sometimes true. He is a pilot, a licensed sea captain and a lapsed newspaper editor. He taught journalism at the University of Florida, once served as the Director of Publications at EAA, and is the editor of the National Association of Flight Instructors’ publications. He lives in Fort Myers, Florida where he doesn’t fish as much as he should.

About David Hipschman

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