The most common arguments that fly-fishermen use to promote their sport are that fly-casting is esthetically superior to any other form of angling and, therefore, more enjoyable, and that when a fish is hooked in the lip—as opposed to having taken a bait hook into its stomach—it may easily be released to fight again another day. These are valid points, but, in my opinion, there is another good reason for switching from a spinning or bait rod to a fly rod, and that is the relative cheapness of fly-fishing. Though the sport is thought by many to be the preserve of wealthy gentlemen who take periodic jaunts to Norway or Iceland for Atlantic salmon and to New Zealand for huge trout, the truth is that the vast majority of us fly-fishermen angle in waters within driving distance of our homes and that casting flies saves us money. A dozen years ago I could afford to fish only once a week because on every trip I would leave as much as $10 worth of spoons and spinners snagged on rocks on the bottom of the river. Now, having learned to tie my own flies, I can fish every day if I choose to.
I keep my fly-tying expenses to a minimum by scavenging most of the materials I use. The sources are endless. Around the house I obtain strands from old burlap sacks, scraps from my wife's knitting, colored thread from her sewing box, hair clipped from our dog, cats or horse, and tinsel from Christmas and birthday packages. During hikes and runs through the woods, I've procured a wide variety of feathers and animal fur. The bird hunting I used to do has left me with a lifetime supply of pheasant, grouse, quail and duck skins, and deer-hunting friends have given me plenty of bucktail. With a little time, and the skill that comes with practice and patience, I've been able to pursue a satisfying second hobby that allows me to fish cheaply and conveniently. Because of all this I've considered myself a practical-minded conservationist, but a couple of years ago I learned that the conservation ethic can be stretched too far.
Driving home from a fishing trip on a cool day in early spring, I saw a dead skunk along the side of a two-lane country road. Though apparently a road kill, it looked to be in perfect shape, its winter coat thick and lustrous. The long, coarse hair from a skunk's tail is said to be better than bucktail for tying streamer flies, so I slowed the car, braked to a stop and backed up for a closer look—and smell.
I had thought about salvaging skunk tails before, but every road kill I had ever passed was either messy or odorful, or both. When I rolled down the car window this time, I didn't smell a thing. The skunk lay on its side, facing away from me, looking more asleep than dead. But I took no chances. I used a trick that I remembered reading about in Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. I climbed out of the car and found some pebbles on the shoulder of the road and, from a safe distance, tossed them at the skunk. When three or four had bounced off the animal and it hadn't moved, I was certain it was dead. (True, Hemingway's pebbles had been tossed at a lion that had just been shot, but otherwise the situations were similar.)
March 23, 1981
As I stepped up close to the skunk, pocketknife in hand, there was indeed an odor—not overpowering, but decidedly unpleasant. So I worked as quickly as I could, gripping the end of the tail in my left hand and using the knife in my right to saw through the tail's base. But it was a dull knife, and the work went slowly. The odor steadily increased. By the time I was about halfway through, I had to hold my breath as I hacked away, then sprint 15 or 20 yards down the road to take a gulp of fresh air and return to work again.
After about five minutes of this my perseverance was wearing thin, but so was the base of the tail, and, almost out of breath again, I decided that a quick, hard yank would probably sever the tail from the skunk's body. Holding its rear legs down with the toe of my left boot, I grasped the tip of its tail and pulled upward—hard.
But the tail didn't come off. Instead a spray of greenish-yellow liquid shot at me from the skunk. Rather, I think that it was greenish-yellow, that it came straight up at me and that there was a lot of it, but I'll never know for sure, because the odor that came with the spray was the most powerful natural force I've ever encountered. I've been tackled hard by huge linemen, punched in the jaw, and wiped out by enormous waves in Hawaii, but these experiences were truly pleasurable compared to the stench from that skunk.
I staggered back, temporarily blinded, gasping for breath. I ended up behind my car, hands on my knees, shaking my head to clear it. In 30 seconds I could see again, but my eyes were watering so badly that the car itself was nothing but a brown blur. I had the presence of mind to take my jacket off and toss it away. That helped some. When a couple of minutes had passed, my eyes had cleared and my breathing was back to normal, though inhaling certainly was no longer an involuntary act. I realized that I had dropped my knife, but I didn't care. In fact, I didn't even look toward the skunk as I abandoned my plan, climbed into the car and drove away.
It was still more than 100 miles to my house, and I soon knew I'd never make it unless I did something to drastically diminish the stench. As it had when I'd been cutting away at the tail, the odor grew steadily stronger, from simply objectionable to gaggingly repulsive. If you've ever been around skunks, you know what I mean. If you haven't, all I can tell you is that the smell is indescribable. It's as foul as anything you can imagine, and then some—and then a great deal, in fact.
I had all the car windows rolled down and even tried driving with my head out one of them, but that was tiring and dangerous and afforded no real relief anyway. I remembered that a couple of years before, my bird dog had been sprayed by a skunk. When we got him home we soaked him in tomato juice, the standard treatment for dogs under such circumstances. It certainly didn't eliminate the odor, but it seemed to help. If it worked on dogs, I reasoned, the same prescription should work on people. It seemed worth a shot. I stopped at the first grocery store I came to, a mom-and-pop establishment with a gas pump out front.
I parked at the pump, and when an elderly gentleman in overalls and a long white apron came out the front door, he sniffed curiously although he was still 20 feet from the car. Fifteen feet away he made a face and stopped.
"Skunk," I called out.
"Just one?" he said.
"Look, could you bring me out six large cans of tomato juice? I'll help myself to some gas while you get them."
"Only six?" he said.
"Six. And a can opener, too, please."
"They probably ain't going to help much."
"That's O.K. I want to try it."
He backed off a step. "Good idea, son."
It took a few minutes to complete the transaction. He left the juice and opener in a sack by the road, well away from the store, and I left his money there, including a tip. As I drove off I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw him approaching the money cautiously, like a soldier crossing a minefield.
A few miles farther along I came to a Forest Service campground, which at that time of the year was deserted. In the rest room I undressed, kicked my clothes into a pile in the corner, opened all six cans of tomato juice—twelve quarts—and bathed myself thoroughly, slowly emptying each can over my head, then rubbing the juice in carefully as it flowed down over my body. It was cool and rather thick. The sweetish smell certainly didn't eliminate the skunk odor, but at least it mixed with it to create something different and possibly a little less repulsive.
I wanted to give the juice a chance to do as much as it could, so I let it dry, hopping up and down on the tile floor to warm myself. In a few minutes, when the juice had become a very uncomfortably sticky coating, I went to a sink to wash myself. There wasn't any water. I tried all the sinks, but there was nary a drop. Apparently the water was shut off, except during the summer camping season. So I dressed as I was and returned to the car, hoping above all—praying, in fact—that I wouldn't run into anybody. I must have looked like something from a Japanese horror movie, and the odor, though somewhat altered, hadn't really diminished at all.
It was a long drive home. I hit the freeway half an hour after my juice bath. By then the sun was down and the night air was so cool I had to roll the windows up and use the heater. That made the smell impossible to take, so I stopped at a deserted rest area, took everything off but my undershorts. and dropped my jeans, shirt and a $50 pair of boots into a garbage can. The boots smelled worse than anything else, I think.
I was very careful to obey the speed limit after that, for Lord knows what summary action a state trooper might have taken if he had stopped a foul-smelling man coated from head to foot with tomato juice and wearing only undershorts.
Finally, about 20 minutes from my house, my right rear tire went flat and I coasted to the shoulder of the road. After a few seconds of hollow-stomached panic. I realized that I could wear my chest waders to change the tire.
A number of cars slowed as they went by. One large, brightly painted van nearly stopped beside me. It was full of teenagers. "Far out!" one of them yelled at me. "Weirdo!" screamed another. I heard them all laughing as the van sped away.
I changed the tire and made it home. My family was understanding, but it took a couple of days and more than a couple of baths before my life returned to normal. I could eat at the dinner table once again, and the dog stopped backing off at my approach.
If all this had happened to Aesop and he had wanted to write a fable about it. the moral would be clear enough: When tying streamer flies, bucktail will surely do.