Every year, in celebration of the return of spring and fishing, I try to have at least one colossally stupid experience involving a canoe. Some people might call it a jinx, but I prefer to think of it as an involuntary tradition. All it takes to have a near-death experience in a small boat is to put aside common sense for a few moments. After that, everything takes care of itself.
There was the year I took a girlfriend straight into a Class III standing rapid, a white mare’s tail shaking in the blue air at the bottom of nearly half a mile of small rapids. We had negotiated these with a skill and dexterity we did not, strictly speaking, possess and were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
Meanwhile, high spring water levels had turned the normally negotiable standing rapid into a monster, a fact I realized about the time we entered it. One second we were above the water and canoeing; the next we were 4 feet under and wondering why it was so hard to breathe, paddles bonking us on our heads, tackle disappearing into the depths. I lost three rods, $200 worth of lures, and my knife. I came up sputtering in a Power Bait oil slick with a small gash in my forehead that bled colorfully. We were towed ashore by kayakers who made no effort to conceal their delight at our stupidity.
Another spring, river, and girlfriend. This time I decided to drag the anchor down a brisk stretch of water, so I could fish while the young lady read her paperback. A length of chain tied to the stern works well for this, and a couple of old window-sash weights are an acceptable alternative. What you do not want is a four-fluked folding grapnel anchor, even a smallish one. The first 90 seconds were vernal bliss. I even coaxed two acrobatic little smallmouths into the boat on a 3-inch white grub. Then the anchor caught.
Since I’d tied it to the middle thwart (for easy access), the boat immediately swung broadside into the current. “What’s happening?” the young lady asked, alarmed. The boat had begun to lean upstream, and the gunwale was now barely an inch from the rushing current. Once we started to take on water, the boat would go under in a flash. “You might want to lean downstream, uh, real hard,” I said, trying to keep the panic from my voice as I searched for a blade to cut us free. Then I remembered that my knife was at the bottom of the first river. I finally sawed us loose with the tiny blade on my fishing-line clippers. Years later, I can no longer recall that girl’s name. But I still miss that sweet little anchor.
My wife has too much sense to get in a canoe with me, but I still manage to keep the tradition alive. This year I was out with a buddy on an unusually warm April day when storm clouds moved in from the north, at which time the crankbait bite picked up considerably. “Heck, I don’t hear any thunder,” I said. “I don’t mind getting wet.” My friend responded that in an aluminum Grumman packed with graphite rods, I’d better hope we didn’t hear any thunder. He began paddling for shore immediately.
The sky turned black, and the first strike hit not a quarter mile away as we touched shore. The temperature dropped 20 degrees, the lightning turned to heavy artillery, and it began to hail. We abandoned the canoe and hunkered down in the woods, soaked, freezing, and listening to the occasional tree fall around us.
Eventually, the storm moved downriver, and we began to bail out the canoe. Then the storm decided to turn around, come back, and throw more lightning and hail at us. Half an hour later, shivering so hard that we could barely speak, my buddy turned to me. “You’re a damn ji-jinx,” he said. “You know th-that?” I thought it over. “M-m-maybe,” I said.