a little time on my
hands, no girlfriend even on the horizon, and my friend Bill up on the Mattole
River fly fishing following a series of scandalous articles he wrote on
the sex industryscandalous because of the "firsthand" methods
he used to obtain information for these articlesI thought I might
get out my fly-fishing equipment and see if I could rig it up. You see,
when things get bad, Bill escapes to some favorite fishing spot he has and
chills out. Maybe, I thought, I should be doing the same.
But about my equipment: I had never used it. To be honest, I had never been able to tie the knots required for a proper leader. Off and on, since I had bought my equipment, I have tried. God, have I tried. But it's no easy trick. If you "have a life" and a job as well, you may not have the time. I have a job now but not much of a life. With a little time on my hands, I figured it was now or never. Moreover, I did not want to someday face the All Mighty, probably a fly fishermen himself, weighed down by this failure.
If you are not a fly fisherperson, let me explain the situation. A fly line consists of two main parts: the "fly line", which is a long heavy line that attaches to the reel, and a shorter "leader", usually a 7- to 9-foot section that runs out to the hook. The fly line is fairly simple. It provides weight and allows you to cast the line without using weights. The leader is the complex part. It consists of multiple short sections of thinner line that are tied to each other with a variety of knots. While a blueprint of the leader is useful for the beginner, the biggest problem is the knots. They do not tie themselves, and poorly tied they look ugly and no fish will get near such a line.
But let's backtrack for a moment. The whole idea behind fly fishing is to present something that looks like a fly to a fish and get the fish to bite it. This is not a new art. It has been going on for ages, and is even mentioned in Alian's Natural History written back around 200 A.D. Alian refers to it as the "Macedonian way of catching a fish". He is quite specific: "Between Bora and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astrus ..." He goes on to describe how the natives fasten red wool to a hook along with two feathers.
It is much the same these days, only the poles are longer and the lines more complex. The idea behind the leader is to fool the fish. By making the leader increasingly finer and finer out to the hook, it becomes less and less observable to the fish. The finer lines of the leader also allow you to lay the fly down gently on the water, looking like a real flysomething you could not do with a fat, heavy line.
While there are technical details here, the basic situation is very human. It is all about deception. While women, and sometimes men these days, try to hide wrinkles and gray hair, fly fishermen try to hide their knots. Common knots are the Blood Knot, the Nail Knot, the Cinch Knot, and the Perfection Knot. There are many others but these will do for connecting the sections of a fly line.
The Blood Knot, used for connection two line of similar width, is the first one that had given me hell.
Courtesy of the author, from The Little Red Fishing Knot Book by Harry Nilsson
While it may not look too intimidating "on paper," there are a couple of problems that crop up. First, the lines you are handling have been wound on a spindle and do not willingly lie out flat, preferring to coil back around your fingers and the line you are working on, obscuring and obstructing anything you may be trying to do. Second, how do you pull on four lines at the same time, as the instructions say you must, so that the loops of the knot come smoothly together rather that knot up into some unruly mass? And third, how do you deal with your frustration when, after you do manage to do it right, the whole thing pulls out? If this sounds like your last date, or even your entire life, what can I say? Symbolism is everywhere in fly fishing.
Having failed at this knot a couple of times, and feeling, frankly, a little suicidal, I decided to go in search of help. Leland Fly Fishing Outfitters is located in downtown San Francisco on Bush Street, near the heart of the financial district. They are also right next door to Le Central, a great little French restaurant and bar. If all else fails, you can always go have lunch and a drink.
Ian Warner is an experienced fly fishermen from Montana and Wyoming who has come to the coast for milder weatherhas he not noticed San Francisco's soul-sapping fog yet?and an interest in migratory fish, such as steelhead and salmon. Employed at Leland Fly Fishing Outfitters, he dispenses calmness and rationality regarding the art of fly fishing.
Ian readily admits that some of the knots are not easy to do. He ties a Blood Knot for me, wetting the line with saliva as he does so, and it all comes together like magic and holds fast. I did not know about wetting the line. The diagram in my book does not show spit on the line.
He shows me how to start a Needle Knot, which is similar to a Nail Knot, and can be used to join two lines. Both of these knots can be used for joining a fatter line to a thinner one (the heavy "fly line" to the thinner "leader").
I confess that one of the big problems I have had is the ends of the lines coiling back on the line I am working on, so that I cannot see what I am doing. Says Ian, while demonstrating the process, "With leader ... since it comes out ... out of the ... spooled up in the package ... what you can do is ... with monofilament you can actually take it and give it a stretch ... and it will stretch a little bit ... and then it comes out ... reasonably straight." While that sentence itself could use a bit of stretching and reconnectionit is a lovely verbal equivalent to the problem faced by knot-tiersthe idea is clear enough: stretch the line before trying to tie your knots. Then spit on it. You will feel a whole lot better.
The other way to make your life easier is to buy prefabricated tapered leaders, so that all you have to do is attach the fat end of the leader to the fat end to the fly line, attach a fly and start fishing. Ian shows me one. "Most people just use these," he says. He says there are only a "few traditionalists" who tie their own leaders these days. He himself uses the prefabricated leaders. No one told me about these things. I guess that makes me a traditionalist, though one more by ignorance than choice.
With a prefabricated leader you still have to tie a few knots, but the number is far fewer. The real trick is practice. Says Ian, "It's just tying the knots over and over again and keeping them so that they are simple." Or as simple as they can be; knots were not meant to be simple. They were developer by ornery old seamen with nothing but time on their hands and malice in their hearts.
His favorite place to fish is Wyoming. "In California the McCloud and the Upper Sacramento are great" he says. Forgetting knots, lines, leaders ... Ian paints the broader picture of fly fishing: "It's all about the prettiness of the place."
You know Cafe Claude on the little alley off of Bush Street? Dark narrow brick alley with chairs and tables on the uneven pavement outside the cafe; bright and cheerful inside with a small bar on the left side of the entrance. It was pleasant looking at the new bottles in back of the bar. Kettle One, Grey Goose, Jack Daniel's, Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve ... I looked over the list of specialty drinks, then asked bartender Chris James what was good.
"Depends on what you like," he replied cautiously. So what is new? Now I had to figure out what I liked. He started describing the drinks.
The Claude Special sounded too sweet, and Chris told me bluntly that if I didn't like sweet drinks I wasn't going to like the Claude Special. We ran down the list.
"Sazerac? What is that?" I asked. Chris said it was a French drink from New Orleans. It was made with Pernod, bitters, Bourbon, a twist of lemon ... I said I'd have one. For some reason, I had been thinking about Bourbon lately. "Bourbon on the brain, soon it's gonna rain, my baby, my baby and me ..."
To be honest, my first impression was that I did not like this sassy New Orleans drink. It seemed to be fuming, to be putting on airs. Chris said it was like an Old Fashion. "Okay," I said, "mix me one; let's put 'em side by side."
Pretty soon both drinks were in front of me on the bar. I definitely preferred the Old Fashion that Chris made with the fat cherry soaked in Maker's Mark Bourbon. Still, there was something intriguing about the Sazerac, even if I refused to say I liked it. The Pernod gave it an unmistakable aroma. But there was more than that. Possible the bitters were involved as well. It got better as the ice melted, though I later learned that a traditional Sazerac is served "neat"that is, without the ice. I decided to see who else might be making this drink around town.
I stopped by Cafe Bastille on Belden Lane on the other side of Bush, and there the bartender said she had never heard of it. She was busy and turned away. I went next door to Pleuf. There, Michelle, a very serious young Frenchman, said he did not know the drink but looked it up in his bar guide and said he could do it. Did I want him to make one, he asked. I told him I would come back later, as Pleuf was still packed with the lunch crowd. It was a beautiful Spring day and the alley was still filled with people having lunch, though it was going on 2 o'clock.
Next door at B44, bartender Tim Staehling lit up when I mentioned the drink and said, yes, he has made it, but only a few times in San Francisco. The bar was crowded and I told him I would come back about 5.
The drink, it turns out, has an interesting history, some of which may even be true. Like the Martini, which is said to have originated in San Francisco at the Occidental Hotel as the work of renowned bartender Jerry Thomas, known also as "the professor" (the professor is also credited with the Blue Blazer and the Tom and Jerry), the story involves individual creativity and invention.
The Sazerac story begins when a man named Antoine Peychaud moved from the West Indies to the French Quarter in New Orleans. The year was 1793. Peychaud was an apothecary who produced a proprietary concoction of bitters known as Peychaud's Bitters. Bitter are essentially a medicine used to aid the digestive process. But Peychaud knew his bitters had more to offer than that. He mixed them with brandy, sugar and some water to make a drink for friends. Apparently they loved it.
One other thing. Peychaud served his concoction in the large end of "coquetier", an eggcup, and it has been surmised that a slurring of that word into "cocktail" accounts for the origin of the latter. In fact, the Sazerac may be the first cocktail ever made.
Word got out and before long the drink was being served in New Orleans "coffee houses," the euphemism for bars back then. In particular, the drink was served at the Sazerac Coffee House. There it got its name and a couple of modifications. Cognac was used instead of brandy and absinthe was added.
Like any drink, it has undergone other modifications over the years. For a time, rye whiskey was used instead of Cognac because of the difficulty of obtaining Cognac. Then Bourbon was used, though purists insist that only Cognac or rye belong in this drink. Absinthe, which is now banned in the United States, has been replaced by Pernod or Ricard or some other absinthe-flavored liquor, known as a "pastis." A twist of lemon has been added also.
Sazerac, as you might guess, is a sipping drink. It requires time and leisure for enjoyment, which may explain why it is more popular in the South than in "slam-it-down" California. If you have a porch and the weather is good, that is the right place to do your sipping. In California, get the kid next door to turn down his hi-fi, then sit back and enjoy until there is a fight out in the street.
Back at B44, Tim now places the finished product on the bar in front of me and I can smell it. One of the delightful things about this drink is the aroma. That is the pastis, the lemon and possibly the bitters. Getting the right amount of bitters and sugar is the hardest part, says Tim. The wrong amount of bitters can make the drink go bad.
Tim says he loves the drink but he "wouldn't order it in the City because I don't really expect people to make it." The Mojito is the drink he gets the most orders for. This is a refreshing Cuban drink made of fresh-crushed mint leaves and rum. Like the Sazerac, it too has aroma: that of mint.
The most challenging drink, says Tim, is the Margarita. The problem is getting the same amount of lime juice every time, and getting the proportions of Tequila and Quantro or Triple-sec right. A really bad one tastes like something you "get at the airport," he says.
Enrico's also knows about the Sazerac. On a Friday evening with the bar jammed with upwardly mobile accountants, lawyers, and marketeersall dressed like something out of a Macy's adbartender David Nepove whips up one in under two minutes. And the bitters are the official ones: Peychaud's from New Orleans. Now with a knob to turn down the volume at the bar you would have it made. You would be sipping your way slowly to heaven.