October 24, 2010
by Agust Gudmundsson
A crusty old joke has it that “Old fishermen never die; they just smell that way.” Whatever truth there may be in this, what’s known for certain is that success in the outdoors often involves a sense of smell that is both potent and powerful. Hunters, for instance, know this well and use “scent blocker” clothing or various olfactory attractants like doe lure, buck lure and, of course, the ever-popular skunk scent to disguise their presence or to lure prey. We anglers think we know something about scents too, if you follow the various arguments raging over the ethical use of scented baits and lures. Of greater immediate fascination to me is the ways smells can trigger our human memories, including recollections of good times spent in the field. Some smells make sense (or is that “scents”?) and some don’t, but that is the nature of how our minds work. We tie certain smells to certain memories and the bond is hard to break. Who’ll forget the aromas of grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, or Mom’s fresh-baked apple pie? I suspect everyone has their own catalog of smells and memories.
Here are a couple of smells that never fail to trigger my Way-Back Machine.
People usually think of roses as a romantic flower and associate them with romantic love, but my wife never really liked them, so roses never held any meaning to me until I first visited the Madison River Valley in Montana’s Big Sky country. On my first trip to Three Dollar Bridge, I walked downstream towards the horseshoe bend. The house overlooking the river that spoils the view was not there, but the flat field just downstream was. I had been having a slow day, seeing plenty of rising fish but not having much success catching them. I was busily ruminating about my situation when, as often happens in Montana, the weather abruptly went from partly sunny to dark green and ugly in a matter of minutes. When the first hail pelted me, I ducked under the nearest bush. It turned out to be a Multiflora Rose, thorns and all. I cowered under the bush with hailstones pounding all around me, some hitting the flowers and causing them to literally explode. The smell of roses was overwhelming as lightning cracked all around me and I contemplated a life unfinished. After an uncomfortable interval of this, the hail stopped but the gray overcast remained, and that’s when I noticed blue winged olives appearing everywhere. The fish noticed them too, and with trout noses breaking the surface all around, for the next couple of hours I had unbelievable fishing under bleak gray skies in a meadow stinking of roses.
Life isn’t always a bed of roses, though. I’m very fond of the smell of cow manure, too. As a boy I got to work summers on my uncle’s ranch in Iceland where sheep, horses and cows were a part of everyday life. My uncle always claimed the rich smells of the barn were the “smell of money,” but to me these smells only meant more work shoveling. This lasted until the year I turned 14 when my Uncle Kalli from Sweden came visiting. He took me fishing on a local Spring Creek, Minnivallalækur. In the mid 1970’s, Minnivallalækur was still a local secret, a place he had learned to fish as a boy and where it was only natural that he’d teach me to fish. Today, it has become world-famous and anglers pay thousands of dollars a week to fish it. Go online and you can find YouTube videos of folks from all around the world catching the big, wild browns that grow there. But in those days, my uncle leased some of the adjacent pasture to run calves he raised for beef. Along with calves, there were always plenty of curious young bulls with ripe, accompanying piles of bull manure. Kalli taught me to identify which piles had the best chance of finding worms under them. I soon learned that the grey, dried-out ones with bright green grass all around them were too old. The brown, shiny ones with flies still boring into them were too “fresh”. But the perfect ones were grey with just a hint of grass brightening around the edge. Each of these was sure to produce a couple of worms, which came in handy on those days when the flies we were using failed to produce supper! Turning up bullshit was an essential lesson in learning to fish that stream, and the smell of cow manure still stirs in me memories of boyhood days fishing with my uncle in Iceland.
Now we turn from the acrid smell of cows to the sweet smell of mint. Many years ago I spent a long frustrating afternoon on Slough Creek in Wyoming. I was fishing in the slow meanders below the campground. I had parked at the last access area near an oxbow pond, where the river turns away from the road and heads to the Lamar. That day, I worked my way slowly upstream for an hour or so without seeing even a sign of a fish or a bug. The banks however, were lined with wild mint (Mentha arvensis arvensis) and as I made my way upstream, my every step crushed more. At one point, I sat down in the lush greenery to observe the river and got the smell into my shorts. After that, I did not even notice it, but neither were there any signs of fish. Finally, as I came within sight of the upstream parking lot, I saw my first rise-form: a single, small dimple mid-stream in a big, flat pool that had a rather fast moving S-shaped riffle feeding it. Wary, I crawled along the shore to get into position, figuring that this would be a single shot at the only rising fish in the valley. While working into a position to cast to the pool, several more rises occurred scattered around the pool. Thoughts of a huge pod of small cutthroat trout entered my head. As I settled in I saw that there were only two or three trout causing all the rises, but they were HUGE. They cruised around the pool rising occasionally to feed on the surface but I could not see any flies and began fishing to them with no clue what they were eating. For the next hour and a half, I must have gone through 40 different fly patterns, everything from yellow mayflies to grasshoppers and midges in a dozen different colors and shapes. By this time, I had scattered six or seven fly boxes from my chest pack in the mint, which was rapidly becoming a flattened crop circle above the bank. When nothing worked and it appeared I would be skunked, I gathered my boxes and walked away from the still happily-rising trout shaking my head. About 100 yards upstream I stopped beneath a bank-side tree to get a respite in the shade. I placed my hand on the tree trunk and scanned upstream and down, debating if I should just wade through the deep water or head up to the thinner, faster water upstream. It was then that I noticed the ants crawling over my hand and up my arm. Following them up the trunk with my eyes, I watched three or four ants fall out of the tree into the water and wash downstream, undisturbed. Still visible in the surface film, they floated a hundred yards downstream then around two slight meanders, where their fates were sealed. Naturally, my ant box was locked in the car, so I crashed across the stream to the opposite bank and ran a mile or so back to the car to retrieve it. Ant box in hand, I drove back to the upper parking lot, crashed across the creek again, and worked my way back to the flattened crop circle of mint. The first fish I saw took an ant on my first cast but the others stopped rising for several minutes. Eventually, a second trout resumed his cruising and sipping. I waited until he rose regularly, then cast to where I thought his path would bring him. He took the same fly, a size-18 black ant. Both exhilarating cuttbows measured out at just over 20 inches. For the next six months, the mint leaves in my chest pack and fly boxes reminded me of Slough Creek every time I opened them, and to this very day, all it takes is a roll of peppermint-flavored Lifesavers to put me on that water again.”