Feed Your Fish Head

Steve lived in a house with fifty other hippies on Haste Street, just west of the Cal Berkeley campus.  It was a hippie house all right, with more bare shingles than paint, and overstuffed couches with sickly green upholstery (was it moss?) overflowing from the house to the weedy front yard.  Wind chimes and macramé hangings in the shape of owls were nailed to the porch, and scratchy rock music, mostly the Grateful Dead, floated out of the open windows all day and night, mixing with the night blooming jasmine, incense and other smoky smells.  A lot of the hippies went naked, as the climate in Berkeley was hospitable to such an undertaking.  There were three rules to live by in the house, Steve told me once — no school, no job, and you had to smoke dope.  Everybody was on the dole, but with fifty people to pay the rent on a rent-controlled house, there was still plenty left over for jug wine and organic rice and beans, which is all the hippies ever consumed.

They grew their own marijuana in the backyard.  Someone had brought Sinsimilla seeds from up north in Humboldt County.  One hippie, who had dropped out of the ag program at UC Davis after dropping too much acid, had rigged up a clever irrigation system with the bathroom fixtures from the house.  As personal hygiene was not a priority among the hippies, no one ever seemed to miss the pipes and nozzles that seemed ideally suited for this unique agrarian endeavor.  Steve was responsible for pruning the leaves of the plants, a task he performed with a delicate pair of fly-tying scissors.

The small plantation behind the hippie house was no secret on Haste Street, and like-minded neighbors would sometimes stop by and twist off a leaf or two to sample the local crop.  “I don’t have a problem with it on a philosophical level,” Steve said one day in his monotonal rap as he pruned the plants.  “Share the women, share the wine, you know?  But twisting the leaves off doesn’t do anything for the plants.  It’s bad Karma, you know?”  Steve was quite satisfied with the plan he came up with to save the plants.  “Just scotch tape a few Js right on the stalk here,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the tall plants, which were so strong and healthy that they more resembled small trees than plants.  “Then everybody’s happy.  They get theirs,” he said, producing a joint from somewhere in the tie-dyed fishing vest with the “Hell’s Angels ‘Frisco” patches, which he always wore.  “And the plants keep growing,” he added, lighting up and taking a monster toke.  “It’s like the ultimate recycling, man.  HEEHEEHEEHEEHEE!”  Steve’s laugh, high-pitched and urgent like the cry of a wounded rabbit, still haunts me.

It was the flies Steve tied, not the cannabis, that brought me to the hippie house on Haste Street…though I must admit that I would’ve found several of the female inhabitants desirable as companions had it not been for the low standards of hygiene that prevailed there.  I was a junior at Cal at the time, completing a joint major in political science and philosophy.  Considering the focus of my studies, I should’ve been caught up in the various movements unfolding around Berkeley in those days — the Free Speech movement, the anti-war movement, the Free Love movement — but somehow, they didn’t register.  As far as social awakenings were concerned, I went to bed with the Beatles playing on the Ed Sullivan Show and woke up to Watergate.

I attribute a good part of my drowsiness to the discovery of a distant cousin in Del Norte County, just below the Oregon border.  This cousin Aloyisius — who my parents described as ‘a distant cousin’  — had a rustic cabin not 30 yards from the Smith River, and a pool where the winter run steelhead stacked up before their last push upriver.  Aloyisius was a truculent old bastard, more bear than man.  Like the hippie house, his cabin lacked plumbing, and Aloyisius had his own substantial crop of cannabis growing in a stand of redwoods below the cabin, at the tail of the pool.  His horticultural efforts, it turned out, were more mercantile than those of the hippies back in Berkeley.  Some years later I would read of his incarceration in the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, indicted and convicted as the ringleader of Del Norte County’s most notorious dope trafficking ring.  I was proud of him, in an odd way, as I didn’t think he had the wherewithal.

My proximity to San Francisco — and a flyer describing ‘Asian Flowers for Companionship or Marriage’ that had somehow made the 300+ mile trek from Berkeley tucked under the passenger side wiper blade of my Beetle — had convinced Aloyisius that I had an inside track on the Asian mail order bride market.  The concept of a mail-order bride captured his lurid imagination.  Aloyisius, as mentioned earlier, had a bear-like personage, all hair and blubber, and a demeanor to match.  To make matters worse, he carried the most offensive funk about him, a distillation of his modest sanitary habits and the stench of the small animal corpses that were forever strewn about the cabin by his dog, and ungainly mastiff named Pigpen.  All these things made him decidedly unpopular with the ladies of Del Norte County.  No woman who knew or saw him would have anything to do with him.

The deprivation of female companionship, fueled by prodigious inhalations of his cash crop, further kindled Aloyisius’ notions of and desire for ‘an Oriental love slave’ (his words, not mine).  “Where’s my Tokyo Rose?” he’d bellow, hurtling his hulk up the gravel road that led down to his shack like a spawning salmon at the first telltale clatterings of my Bug.  “Where’s my Shanghai Lil, boy?  Where’s my Bangkok Bertha?  I don’t care where she comes from boy, as long as it’s turned that slanty way.  Argh!”  Huffing and puffing in the mist that always seemed to shroud his camp, Aloyisius was pitiful, a sad and unrequited Sasquatch.

With his grass and his stench and his road kill stew (in retrospect I think it was hamburger meat, but he insisted that he had never set foot in a store), Aloyisius was not great company.  But that didn’t matter.  I went up there for the Smith, for the long deep pool that stretched seductively from the tip of his rotting porch to the grove of redwoods where Aloyisius’ crop took root.  It was a prime hole that never got fished, because Aloyisius had posted the woods on either side of the river with signs reading “Come Down Here and Get Your Ass Shot Off”; he meant it.  No one ever came to the hole, so I fished it by myself.

The prime steelhead run — from November to March, depending on the rains — coincided nicely with the academic year.  During the season, I would spend the bulk of my time up on the Smith, coming down to Cal just enough to remind my professors that I was alive.  I would hole up in the dormitory for April and May to cram enough in my head to pass finals so I could return the following August.  This system worked well for me.  So well, in fact, that I was invited to stay on after my Bachelor’s to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature.  My thesis explores fishing allusions in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen as a veiled attack upon the Catholic Church, using Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler as a primary source.

Aloyisius, to his credit, had few conditions for my visits.  Just a fifth of Wild Turkey to sustain him through the raw nights, and my word that I would stay away from the dope.  To sweeten the deal, I would swing over to Chinatown in San Francisco now and then to pick up a few Asian girlie magazines for him before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and heading north on Route 101.  As for the dope, there was plenty of that around Berkeley, had I been interested.  The occupants of the hippie house saw to that.

The fact that I resisted the miasma of grass, pills and powders that engulfed Berkeley in those turbulent times is not testimony to some priggishness or inner fortitude on my part.  Quite the contrary, it was a warning sign of my own addiction, namely steelhead (Oncorhynchys mykiss).  How can I describe the surge of adrenalin that accompanies the take of a three foot long steelie, silvery fresh from the Pacific, the rush of its tailwalk upriver, each splash of its tail sending small rainbows swirling skyward?  How can I describe the magic Morse code ‘tap-tap-BOOM’ sent fish to man over thirty, sixty, eighty, 150 yards of plastic and monofilament line and eight feet of fiberglass rod, the telegram that reads ‘BIG FISH…STOP…HOLD ON FOR YOUR LIFE…STOP…WHOA!’  Why compare it to drugs or sex, or a rise in the stock market, this dancing electrified vessel of fish flesh?  There was nothing, nothing, I preferred to the thrill of hooking and playing a steelhead on the Smith below Aloyisius’ cabin.  I would be there now, had circumstances not rendered fishing implausible.

Though he claimed to have not waded a river since the Eisenhower era, Steve the hippie could tie flies more effective than any I had ever used.  I grew up in fly fishing country, in a small town on the famed Henry’s Fork in Idaho.  Most of the town’s residents had settled there for the fabulous trout fishing, having walked away from lucrative banking or legal careers on either coast.  There was little to do in town but fish or talk about fishing, and as a way of passing time, people would host little fly-tying events.  The host was responsible for supplying beer or whiskey and a blown-up photograph of the evening’s featured insect.  Guests would arrive toting portable vises and baggies full of feathers and fur.  The level of minutiae they achieved was amazing, right down to bent antennae and discolorations on the bug’s carapace.  At the end of the evening, the five best imitations were presented to Leatherjaw, an old rainbow trout that was toted from house to house in a ten gallon aquarium.  He was the final judge.

These fishermen took their craft seriously.  When they fished the Henry’s, they tucked butterfly nets and portable tying kits into their vests.  If a bug showed itself in their midst, the unfortunate creature would be set upon by five or ten anglers, each lunging with their net.  The lucky fishermen who came up with the bug would knot up a replica sensitive to its subtlest nuances in seconds.  The craftsmen of Henry’s Fork took great pride in their handiwork, the exactitude of which could hoodwink many entomologists, not to mention a good number of trout.

Steve took a radically different approach to fly-tying.  Instead of replicating the insects that fish prey upon (matching the hatch, as the phrase goes), he relied on what he called ‘intuition’, which I took to mean getting as stoned as he could stand without passing out, sitting down at his vise, and seeing what happened.  His creations were really something, and they got wilder and wilder as the day progressed and he smoked more and more dope.

Some days when I was in town and didn’t feel like going to class, I would drop by the hippie house and watch him at work.  He’d set up in what had been the downstairs bathroom, the plumbing long removed for the household’s agrarian adventures.  He had a vise that was fashioned from a roach clip, a cork and a wine bottle.  He used another roach clip for detail work, a small bobbin of thread and an old syringe.  The first time I saw the syringe, my mouth dropped open.  Heroin gave me the creeps; a lot of people were killing themselves at the time with an ultra-pure variety dubbed Mexican Brown.  Steve saw my expression and laughed that laugh of his.  “No man,” he said.  “Never touch the hard stuff.  I use it to tie off my flies.  He stuck the point of the needle near the eyelet of the hook with his left hand, quickly twisted the thread with his right, and soon handed me another fly, custom prepared for the Smith.

Steve’s flies bore no resemblance to any creature that had ever swam, skittered, or flew across a stream.  Instead, they took on certain cubist aspects, the shapes of inkblots used by penal system psychiatrists to gage the likely recidivism of violent offenders.  In color, they departed sharply from the olives, grays and browns that ground most patterns in the natural strata.  He favored day-glo oranges and yellows, hot pinks and electric blues, often combined in a manner that can only be described as psychedelic.  (The oranges sometimes used to mimic salmon eggs were pale by his creations.)  “It’s the color that fish see, man,” he would say solemnly before cracking up in peals of wild laughter.  There were as close to tie-dyed as a fly could get.

Sometimes Steve would press a fly close up to his thick glasses, a flourish of magenta, neon orange and hot purple.  I was worried he would slip and gore himself with the sharpened hook, but he would just press and stare, sometimes for minutes at a time.  When he came out of his trance he would mumble “Put my mind in a sling” and place a banged up 45 of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan on one of the portable turntables he always kept nearby.  He’d sit in the corner, eyes closed, rocking quietly to the music.  There would be no more flies that day.

If  Steve ever did any fishing, he seldom talked about it, and then only in abstractions.  Once he said “A rainbow fish came walking up the silver stream, lost and lonely exploding three dimensions in a dream.”  Another time, “He stopped me, first fish of the three, and said ‘We’re swimming out to sea!’”  His fishing observations didn’t reflect my own experiences on the Smith or Henry’s Fork, but maybe he’d fished different streams.  Deeper waters, so to speak.

Shortly before my sabbatical from the Smith and Berkeley, I stopped by to visit him.  By that time, things weren’t going too well at the house.  The porch was beginning to cave in, and the police had come by and cut down all the cannabis.  Neighbors were complaining about the acrid smell that surrounded the house, the smell of fifty long-unwashed bodies.  Worst of all, the city of Berkeley was considering some serious revisions of the prevailing rent control laws.  If the ordinances passed and the controls were repealed, rent on the hippie house would double the first year alone.  That would mean a lot less money left over for jug wine and organic beans.

There was not much music playing that day when I arrived, and the few strains I heard were dirgeful.  The hippies were all out of sorts, just lying around, staring at the ceiling.  They hadn’t even bothered to take off their clothes.  When I found Steve in the basement, I was taken aback.  He was stone sober, and perhaps for that reason, abjectly depressed.  As I told him about my classes and my last outing on the Smith, he crouched on his haunches in a corner, hovering over a phonograph that played “Ballad of a Thin Man,” also by Mr. Dylan.  Seeing him like this melted something inside of me.  “I’m going up to the Smith this weekend,” I stammered.  “Do you want to come along?”  I had never invited Steve for fear of what might happen with Aloyisius and his plants.  For that matter, I’d never socialized with him beyond the confines of the hippie house.  He smiled a wistful smile and shook his head, fishing a small baggy out of his vest.  He passed the baggy to me over the phonograph.  Inside were the most fluorescent flies Steve had ever tied for me.  They simply lit up the gloomy basement, as if powered by their own tiny battery packs.

My thoughts raced ahead to the smashing results I was certain to see on the Smith.  There had been steady rains up north to bring the fish upstream.  I knew from experience that the more outlandish Steve’s patterns, the more aggressively the fish struck, as if mocking the laws of nature.  As I fumbled for the words to express my gratitude, he looked off and spoke, more chanted, in his high-pitched monotone.  “It’s easy to find food in the rivers or in the sea, but we all need to feed our heads, which isn’t always easy in the water.  I’m not talking about shrimp and plankton, but the expansive properties of something bigger than all of us.  An agent of change, a realization of the outer possibilities.  That’s what I’m selling.  It’s all I ask in return.”

I said goodbye, and Steve nodded.  His arm moved almost imperceptibly to the phonograph, placing the needle back at the beginning of the somber Dylan song before returning to his lap.  He was Buddha-like in that basement, in an emaciated, stone sober way.

I’ve thought a good deal about Steve’s statement.  Maybe it explained why the steelhead hit his patterns so hard.  Maybe his flies were crude fish hallucinogens.  Head food, as they say.

Some great philosopher, I can’t remember who, said that pity is the most selfish emotion, and that anyone who indulges himself in its sham compassion deserves the worst that befalls them.  I went to the Smith that weekend, and as I had predicted, Steve’s creations brought the steelhead churning like little silver speedboats.  It was my best fishing ever.  Before packing up on Monday to return to campus, I found myself at the tail of the pool, by the copse of redwoods that Aloyisius had guarded so closely.  Had I not been so greedy — had I been satisfied with the fifty plus fat, shiny steelies I had landed and released that weekend — I would have been in my Beetle and gone.  But the steelhead were addictive to me and Steve’s last batch of flies were casting a remarkable spell.  Finding myself so close to the copse and recalling Steve’s sorry cannabis-less state, I couldn’t resist digging up a few plants with my fisherman’s utility tool, a gesture at replenishing the lost Haste Street harvest.  There were hundreds of plants in that copse.  I didn’t think Aloyisius would ever notice.

Perhaps he didn’t.  But the D.E.A. agents waiting on the onramp of Highway 101 did.  Armed with folders of carefully annotated reconnaissance, they were convinced that I was Aloyisius’ San Francisco connection.  Considering my almost weekly trips to Del Norte county, my ‘untraditional’ student lifestyle, and my occasional forays into Chinatown for Aloyisius’ girlie magazines (the park at Kearny and Washington streets was a “Grand Central Station for San Francisco dope dealers”, as one investigator put it), their deductions were not completely unreasonable.  Thanks to the political ambitions of one state’s attorney and the general anti-drug sentiments that had blown into Northern California on the heels of Altamont, the verdict went against me.

Now I am quietly doing my time in a house of correction in the desert east of Bakersfield.  There is a surprisingly well-stocked library here, and I will likely have the opportunity to complete my dissertation before I am paroled.  My studies, after all, have little distraction.  I suppose I will fish the Smith again someday, though I doubt Aloyisius will have finished paying his debt to the state in time to entertain me.  The fishing, for that matter, may not be as good now.  With Aloyisius and his menacing signs gone, the pool has doubtlessly been discovered by some intrepid anglers.

There is a small, wiry fellow a few cells down from mine, a murderer.  They say he took down three armed men in a barroom brawl, broke their necks with his bare hands.  The man, Harry, is pleasant enough, gentle even, which goes to show that you can’t ever judge what atrocities a man might be capable of by his exterior.  Inside, Harry must be a terror.

Some afternoons we watch television together in the Rec Room.  The Watergate Trials are on now, and we take an odd pleasure in them.  Whenever two of the defendants, Haldeman and Erlichman, are called to the stand, Harry breaks out in mad peals of high-pitched laughter.  “Sounds like a vaudeville act,” he says, happy tears filling his limpid blue eyes.  It does sound like a vaudeville act, and that seems to be how Watergate is turning out.

When I hear that laugh, I can’t help but wonder if Steve the hippie ever made it out of the basement on Haste Street.  Whether he ever waded out again into those streams of the mind that only he could fish.

(A version of this short story appears in the beautiful new fly fishing publication, The Fly Fish Journal.)