A contrast in context, from Sin City to the mighty Savannah.
There is a full moon over the Tropicana Hotel. As our taxi wheels north onto Las Vegas Boulevard, the silver orb hangs over Sin City like a giant poker chip, guiding light of the hot-streaked and weak-willed.
On my way to the airport at 6 a.m., it occurs to me that by the time I get home this same moon will be rising over a favorite river 1,800 miles east, where every 29.5 days, the landlocked striped bass remember tidal cues embedded in their DNA and stir to life at the base of a low-head dam outside of town. Toss a white Half-and-Half into a particular spot where the overflow crashes into Class 2 whitewater, and more often than not a striper will crush it on the first cast. I’ve straightened 2/0 hooks on those fish and have been unable to turn others before they bulldog into a logjam. To reach this hole, it’s a 200-yard upstream slog across slippery shoals with a canoe in tow, and worth every gut-busting step.
But I’d been stuck at a trade show for the past week, pressing the flesh, making nice, feeling the concrete floor suck life’s blood through the soles of my shoes. Although it was an outdoors show, actual nature seemed the farthest thing imaginable from the super-perfumed air of the casinos, the Technicolor glow of the Las Vegas Strip, and its tragicomic parody of world monuments.
To an outdoorsman, Vegas is the most confounding city in the entire world.
To be honest, from a face-stuffing and people-watching perspective, I look forward to Vegas every year. But since I don’t gamble or drink, after about three days my nightly wandering through the neon desert inhabited by roving bands of the overly moussed and upwardly pushed seems kind of pointless. To an outdoorsman, Vegas is the most confounding city in the world. From its labyrinthine floor plan to the interconnected casinos and flashing lights, everything is designed to keep you indoors in the knowledge that, eventually, you will stumble into a craps table. And therein lies its wonderful irony: For a town based on luck in a game of odds, nothing is left to chance.
There is a full moon over the river. Before making my final paddle down the length of the dam and through the main tailout, I linger for a moment on the soft caning of my canoe seat, ash gunnel tucked under both knees, feet posted up on a rock to hold me in the current. Even in the heat of summer, fine spray blowing off the weir can move you to a light jacket. Having caught a few fish in Secret Spot Number One, I’ve left just enough time to work the dam wall on the ride out, and in the twilight I strap my boat bag and cooler to the yoke, bungee my backup spinning rod to the thwart, and grip a paddle.
At Spot Number Two, I nose the bow between two boulders, throw the drag chain into a crevice, and wade across a waist-deep braid to reach my casting rock. One ugly flop cast of a heavily weighted Clouser, and I am tight to a good striper. Line flies through my stripping hand as fish meets reel, the 8-weight all but straightening downstream. White water makes the 10-pound fish feel like 20, and soon I am wading after him, rod butt jammed against my rib cage, struggling to stay sideways to the current. But it’s too late, and as my feet lift off the rocks, I think: This was a bad idea.
My worst fear on this river is lodging a boot in one of the innumerable crags on the bottom and getting stuck until the current overwhelms me or, worse, the dam releases water. Bobbing downstream with a fish on heightens the risk, but just as this nightmare flashes through my mind, both feet find purchase, and I hug the nearest rock with a free hand while pulling on the rod with the other. Mostly topside again, water dripping from the back of my hair, I manage to work the fish into an eddy. It’s a fine river striper, deep-bellied and iridescent, silver skin flecked with tourmaline in the mist.
I keep meaning to kill one of these fish and take it home to my wife for dinner, but somehow I never can, always telling myself it’s not worth the trouble. With the bass revived, I give him a final shove into darkening current, scramble back to the canoe, and cinch up my life jacket. From a kneeling position, I keel my way toward the tailout, yielding to gravity through a dozen standing waves and a final bit of excitement before eddying out on river right of the flume. One hard draw stroke takes my bow out of the current, where I nose up to the rocks for a final few moments, considering myself lucky to watch the moon rise. ✦