Soft Heckle

by Jeff Beyl

My father drew a picture and mailed it to me a couple weeks prior to one of our frequent fly-fishing trips to Montana. A couple days later I got an email:

“I understand you are going fly fishing in Montana with your dad. He tells me that he is going to wax your ass.”

Ha-ha. Funny, Dad. Of course, when we arrived, first day on the river, first cast, he caught a 19-inch brown. My first and second fish of the day were a ten-inch and an eight-inch whitefish. I was promptly dubbed the Whitefish Champion of Montana. 

Consider my ass waxed.

I’m not a real competitive guy. I never joined organized, team sports in school. I did play some beach volleyball with friends, but that was always more of a way to just have fun, and we all jumped in the ocean after the game to cool off. Besides, there were always girls on the beach, which made the whole thing even more fun—and, to impress the girls, a bit more competitive.

A little friendly competition can be a good thing. “Friendly” being the operative word.

On the river, the most common thing to compete over is who catches the first fish. That day on the Yellowstone, my dad had me beat. Then there’s the biggest fish of the day, and of course, who catches the most fish. He pretty much whipped me on all three counts. It’s also fun to see who can complete the trifecta: rainbow trout, brown trout, and cutthroat. 

Whitefish don’t count.

Teasing is a large part of the competition thing and is pretty commonplace on the river. It behooves all anglers to let it slide off their backs like water off a duck’s wings. You had also better know how to cast a few slings and arrows of your own. Hence the cartoon drawing and wax-my-ass email. And the Whitefish Champion of Montana title that, to this day, I still can’t seem to shake. My father told me that he’d get me a t-shirt and a hat with that printed on it and I could wear them proudly the next time we go fishing. 

Yeah, teasing each other is part of the experience. Just remember to keep the badgering and the banter to the subject at hand: fishing.

“Nice minnow, Jeff.”

“Hey, the fish are in the river, not the air.”

“No. Cast to your other left.”

It’s not a great idea to venture into other topics, which could be sensitive. Don’t talk about a guy’s wife, for example. Or his dog, or his occupation, or what kind of beer he likes to drink. Focus on lost trout, lost flies, or collapsing your line into a huge tangle on the back-cast.

“Nice going, Hemingway.”

“Shhh. Listen. I think I hear the trout laughing.”

We’ve all heard of the LDR, the long-distance-release. The LDR is when, oops, we let the line go a bit slack and the trout, a creature with a tiny, primordial brain, outsmarts us and throws the hook. We act like, hey, I tried to do that, but everyone else in the boat knows better. And so do the trout.

The teasing can be an ongoing tirade, a continual harangue, a laughing rant. The laughing part is the most important. One must be able to laugh at his own expense. Sometimes, even the guide joins in the merriment and plays the two anglers against each other. He might like to get in on the fun. “Hey, Ernie. Whaddya doin’ in front there, some kind of yoga pose? Jeff’s already landed three nice fish from the back of the boat.” And, of course, a good haranguer is always willing to accept his or her fair share of affable teasing in return. With a smile, naturally. 

Hector. Harass. Pester. Nag.

Laugh. Snicker. Chuckle. Hoot.

But sometimes there is someone who takes it way too seriously. You know the guy. He doesn’t just want to win the volleyball game; he wants to spike the ball down your throat. First fish isn’t important, nor the biggest, nor the most; this guy wants to fluff his feathers and strut like a bantam rooster. I don’t know about you, but I go fly-fishing to have fun. I don’t really care who caught the first fish or the biggest or the most. I just pretend to.

Because a little friendly competition, complete with good-natured teasing, mocking, and heckling, can add to the enjoyment of a day on the river. Something to laugh about. And in the end, the best competition is no competition at all. The river and the fish handle that themselves.

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