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Fish Hobo
I didn’t start out to be a fish hobo is just happened. It took years of life’s ups and downs to formulate the fly angler I am today. When people think of Hobo’s they instantly picture a rail bum who’s been riding the train for weeks, needs a shave and eats his dinner out of a can. Hollywood has ingrained into the public an image of a hobo as a dirty old man walking down the tracks with all his belongings hanging from the end of a stick which the hobo carries across his shoulders. We know from the past that Hobo’s hung out at places like Hobo Jungles. In my home town we had a place on the beach where the trains used to slow down called “The Hobo Junction”. As a boy I used to camp out there while fishing for surf perch and watch how the Hobo’s live their lives.
Even as a young boy my interest in the Hobo life was one of fascination and intrigue. My curiosity peaked when I met my first fish Hobo. I was camped up on Piru Creek with my dad and friend Wayne. Dad had taken us up the road along the creek and dropped Wayne and I off a few miles downstream so we could fish our way back to camp. Piru Creek was a small pocket water creek full of trout and the perfect little creek for a couple of novice fly anglers to hop scotch around each other and catch plenty of trout. Back in those days when I was on creek fishing for trout I had only a one track mind and that was on catching fish.
Piru Creek runs through a steep canyon with lots of big rocks and pools so you have to be in pretty good shape to get around. Wayne and I had been hopping around doing pretty good catching pan size trout when around a bend I came across a large plunge pool that was sure to hold some large trout in. The problem was I had to work my way down the creek to a beach and cross the water over a water logged tree that was laying across the creek just to get into a good casting position. I could see Wayne back down the creek fishing some pockets working his way to me so I was pretty intent in getting good position on the creek before he came up to me.
With my tennis shoes already soaked and the bottoms coated in sand I started to put my plan for crossing the creek into effect. As I climbed the log and started across everything was going perfect as usual. That is until I worked my way along to about the middle of the log. I didn’t know it at the time but the middle of this log was extremely slippery and within a millisecond I had slipped and was on my way down into the creek. When you’re fifteen years old you do things like that because you’re unbreakable. Today I would have never even thought about doing something like that but at that age the consequences are bearable.
The fall seemed to last forever but in reality was but a millisecond and the plunge into the cold creek revealed my own fallacies. To say I was lucky is an understatement, with all the boulders and rocks everywhere I managed to land safely into and then onto the bottom of the creek. I was fortunate for I was uninjured; the water was only three feet deep just deep enough to break my fall and shallow enough not to drown me. Once I figured out I was prone and underwater I simply stood up and waded to shore. As I was wading my way across to shore I heard a loud laugh and a hearty “Are you OK? Do you need any help?
His name was Stewart Hebzenski and he was from Minnesota. He told me he’d fished his way from Minnesota to California and was expecting to take a teaching job in a couple of weeks. It’s when he said he’d been Hoboing around the country fishing and eating beans out of a can that the whole hobo thing hit me for the first time.
Stewart was camped just up from the creek where he could not be seen from below. One look at his camp and you could tell he had been out of civilization for quite a while. Not too far from his fire was his old Army canvas pup tent and on a rope strung between two trees where various pieces of clothing hanging out to dry. Next to the cold fire ring were an old black frying pan and a beat up pot metal coffee pot that was black as night. What put the whole picture into perspective and set me quickly at ease was leaning up against an old Sycamore tree were two beautiful Fenwick fly rods.
By this time Wayne had showed up and we started talking about fly fishing. I probably learned more from listening to Stewart talk about fly fishing and his fly fishing experiences than I had ever previously. Of course I was a young fly angler at the time having just picked up the sport in the past year or two. Stewart told me what a caddis fly was and what to watch for. I had a basic idea of what a nymph was but after listening a little longer I knew I needed to learn more. Unfortunately I wasn’t going to be in Stewart’s class the coming semester and never saw him again. I didn’t have a clue what the future had for me as a fly angler but I knew the life of a fish Hobo was starting to intrigue me.
A lot of time and water has flowed under the bridge since that time and the whole notion of being a fish Hobo was lost like so many other thoughts and ideas as you wind your way through life’s pathway. It wasn’t until about five years ago when I was traveling around with my brother fishing some rivers in Eastern Idaho when the Hobo thing came back to life.
I’d been on a road trip for a while and had previously agreed to meet my brother Rod on my way home on the South Fork of the Boise River in Southwest Idaho. I camped that night along the river and was up and on the river pretty early that next morning. I met Rod later that morning and we fished the rest of the afternoon together. As I recall we caught some nice trout and we’re pretty bushed by early evening. Rod still had to set up camp for the night so we decided to call it a day and get back to my camp and relax. When we arrived back at camp I grabbed my waders and wading boots and headed off to the river to wash off the mud and give Rod some time to set up.
On my way back to camp I saw Rod had sat down and was giggling about something. When I asked him what he was laughing about he responded with “Your nothing but an old fish Hobo” I had to chuckle too. You see I had an old tent set up near the fire, a rope across two trees with some dirty cloths drying and a black coffee pot set next to a couple of empty chili cans from last night’s dinner. For me the memory of Stewart awakened again when up against an old Cottonwood tree laid two Merlin fly rods. That memory made me chuckle again and I looked up at Rod and said “Yea your right, I’m nothing but an old fish Hobo” Now days when I’m on a particularly long road trip somewhere in the Northwest I’ll call a friend or an acquaintance I’d met on some river near wear I’m heading and say “Yea I’m Hoboing around near your place how about we hook up for some fishing”. Most often the answer is “I’ll be there” and I get to fish with a buddy and renew an old friendships.
There have been quite a few other adjectives to describe fly fishermen, the most famous is Trout Bum modeled after John Gierach’s book Trout Bum. The problem I have with the term Trout Bum is it started out as a young author trying to make a living fly fishing and the lifestyle he developed to continue to live the life of a fly angler. Twenty five years later and it’s morphed its way into a lifestyle that best fits into whatever trend that generation X finds itself into at the moment. Anybody can be a Trout Bum all you need is a bumper sticker, Winston fly rod and drink imported beer. I was talking to a fly angler I’d met while fishing the Owyhee River late last year. We shared lunch together and had a good chat, he was from Boise and was an engineer working for Micron Technologies. I couldn’t help but notice his new Chevy 8.1 liter Silverado parked next to the river and the bumper sticker “Trout Bum” on the bumper. We chatted awhile about our current fishing situation and river conditions; it was a rather friendly conversation amongst two anglers getting a bite to eat. I said, “Your bumper sticker says you’re a Trout Bum”, he said that’s his life. Of course he did fish with a Winston fly rod. The point is just because you like to fly fish and you’re under the age of 40 does not make you a Trout Bum.
I think the real Trout Bums out there gets my drift. The term Fish Hobo is clearly defined and can’t be morphed into anything trendy or molded to fit one’s personality. A Hobo is a Hobo is a Hobo there just isn’t anything more you can add to it. What makes a Fish Hobo a Fish Hobo is this; instead of traveling the countryside looking for work or a better life, a Fish Hobo travels the countryside looking for trout and trout country. Times have changed; this is not the 1920’s or 1930’s depression era Hobo we’re talking about. This is eighty years later, whether you like it or not the comparisons are similar from a non-economic point of view.
As I’ve mentioned traveling is a main component to the makeup of a Fish Hobo. It’s what makes a Fish Hobo a Fish Hobo. Spending time on the road for me is a good part of the fishing experience. If you’ve ever hit the road on a fishing trip with no destination in sight you’ll know what I mean. I often find myself in a hurry to get to the river I’m planning to fish, on the highway flying by places along a stream that I should stop and check out. There is one particular stretch of stream for years I’ve just driven by and almost every time I do I say to myself “One of these day’s I’ve got to stop and check out the fishing there”. I especially love to travel to or through country I’ve never been to or haven’t been to for some time.
There are no clear cut rules on being a Fish Hobo and just as some of the old depression era Hobo’s traveled alone, many traveled with a friend or partner. I find Hoboing around by myself to be as much fun as Hoboing around with a friend or two. Some of my best ideas or thoughts arise from a lone road trip to a trout stream up in the mountains. Of course the disadvantage of road tripping alone is after a while you kind of get tired of talking to yourself but then again at least you win every argument and there is no discussion on when or where to stop.
When you’re out Hoboing around fish country alone you are more apt to meet up with and make new friends with other anglers. Some of the best fishing buddies I ever met were on a river I’m fishing or sometimes a friendly fly angler just materialized along a creek just in time to help me out of a fishing jam or two during the course of a solo fishing trip I’ve come to believe fly fishing, for many fly anglers, is in many ways similar to a fraternal order. It’s kind of like we’re all in this together so let’s try to help one another out.
Most fly anglers lean more to the friendly side and are more than willing to share any knowledge that may help you if you ask. I’ve also always believed that there are bad people everywhere but far fewer of them are fly fishermen so you shouldn’t let that persuade you from being social while on the water. Socializing while you’re fly fishing is a good thing for those friendly enough to do so, it helps you improve as an angler and it’s just a friendly thing to do. You just don’t go and interrupt someone who’s in the middle of casting or who is intently involved in the act of fly fishing. Proper stream ethics dictates that you quietly leave the angler alone, leave plenty of space for him to fish uninterrupted or simply move downstream or upstream from him and continue fishing. What I’m talking about is a shoreline conversation or just bumping into other anglers in the parking lot, campground or simply on the river bank.
Just like in the era of the Hobo where most likely all the other Hobo’s would congregate at the nearest Hobo Jungle or Junction; Fish Hobo’s generally congregate at the nearest campground or often in a clearing near the side of the road. You never know what you’re going to see from a fish hobo, but what I could tell you if you could see one, can run the gamut. One guy might be crashed out in an old 1960’s fifteen foot trailer that may have more rust on it than paint. Out in front of the trailer will be an old aluminum web chair he uses as a camp chair and smoke may be coming out of the flume on top of the trailer. Or a simple two man tent set up near an old fire ring that contains an old black coffee pot on dead coals.
Usually these places are void of people during the day and if you’ve arrived in the afternoon it may look like something out of the Twilight Zone it’s so quiet. If you look closely though you’ll see the camouflaged signs of fish camps everywhere. You’ll see waders on a line and boots in the sun drying, a fly rod or two leaning up in the bushes or a black coffee pot and an egg stained frying pan lying next to a smoldering fire. This is the place where I want to set up my camp because come early evening the camp will swell up with returning fishermen noisily going about camp duties or laughing at each other’s shenanigans during the days fishing. This is the time I like to make new friends.
Recently on the Madison River in Montana I was one of those Fish Hobos who had been on the river all day fishing and had just returned back to camp. I’d just got comfortable in camp and started to cook up some canned stew and fresh coffee when into the campground comes two new tent trailers with what looked like two young couples on a traveling vacation. As I ate my dinner I could hear the noise coming from their camp of metal clinging and steak pounding as they set up their camp. Later as I was walking to the water pump I had an opportunity to visit with the two gentlemen anglers from that camp who were out walking the dog.
Initial introductions and inquiries were made about how the fishing was and after a while they went off to get their dog. I told them if they wanted, they could come by later and I would give them better details on the fishing. Later that evening when it was dark and I was relaxing by the fire I could see two flashlights coming down the campground towards me, it was the two guys I talked to earlier. We spent the better part of the evening hours talking about fishing and laughing about each other’s fish stories. Finally one of the guys looked at his watch and excused themselves for the evening.
I had to be up early the next morning, I was to meet some friends on another river nearby around noon and I was looking at a good drive ahead of me. I fixed up a batch of eggs with a pot of hot coffee and while I was on my second cup of coffee a Black Lab came wondering over to the fire. After a few pets and some leftover eggs this pup and I became fast friends. As I was cleaning up I began to hear a female voice across the campground calling for the pup but that young Lab just couldn’t leave my camp when fresh eggs scraps were still being served. Eventually the woman came down the road and saw her dog and came over to fetch him. She apologized for the intrusion and asked “Are you the old Fish Hobo who kept my husband out late last night” where upon I laughed and implied guilty as charged. That was the second time I’d ever been called a Fish Hobo.
Where I live in Boise, Idaho I know a few old Fish Hobos who entertain my company from time to time but I can tell you I’ve met many more over the years on the road. Like I mentioned before I didn’t start out to be a Fish Hobo it just happened and I can say that’s how most Fish Hobos see it also. I often meet a fellow angler, sometimes on the river or sometimes in a campground and every once in a while I say in jest “You look like an old Fish Hobo” where I almost always get a laugh of recognition and rarely a quizzical “What”? Those anglers that get it know that I see in them a lifetime of fly fishing and a lifestyle that shows like a proud father passing out cigars after the birth of his first born. If I’ve truly morphed or evolved into an old Fish Hobo, well I think I can live with that and feel good about the fact that you can call me anything you want if it involves fly fishing.
Mike Sandifer