Castwell and Tantalus go a-Angling

In a short story by G.E.M. Skues, Theodore Castwell is an angler who, after death, finds himself fishing the hole of his dreams, for eternity. In Greek mythology, Tantalus is such a jerk that he finds himself surrounded by things he desires, just out of reach, for eternity. Here at The View From Fish in a Barrel Pond, Quill Gordon finds himself relating to both predicaments although he eventually has the good sense to extract himself.

Inspired by an old copy of The Compleat Angler and a jug of cider, what follows imagines Castwell and Tantalus as Piscator and Venator, in the style of Izaak Walton, Charles Cotton and oh, I don’t know, Ed Zern, I guess. Illustrations by J. Eyre, in a Collins’ Pocket Classic Edition of the Compleat Angler published in Great Britain in the 1930s(?).


*the first hour*

TANTALUS. Wait, sir! Wait! I can’t keep up with you.

CASTWELL. I hold back for your benefit but you’ve still not caught up. What’s keeping you?

TANT. Trout are swirling, right there, not fifteen feet from shore! A few minutes is all I ask, to ascertain what they feed on. After that, it won’t take long to bring a few to hand.

CAST. Spent mayflies, no doubt, perhaps a few cripples that never made it off the water last night. Or little brown beetles that crashed, trying to fly before they were fully warmed by the morning sun. Take your pick. The breeze brings them here, nearly every day at this time. But this is not a time to be fishing. There’s work to be done!

TANT. Half an hour at most! I see them right there! Twelve casts, and I will be all about business. Honest.

CAST. Your first business this fine day is a leaking commode but don’t worry yourself one bit; with each other for company, time for us will drag by only twice as slowly. Fishing may come later, after the commode. Bring a hammer, just in case.



*the third hour*

TANT. Well played with the hammer, sir; that commode didn’t stand a chance. To think we nearly didn’t have this opportunity to fish from this small boat! In order to have just the right fly, I’ve brought along an entire bag of fly boxes to cover all situations.

CAST. As for the commode, you did your part, too, being so quick with the mop, but there is not time to tie on even a fraction of your collection!

TANT. You’ve caught a fish, sir. What delicate bit of art have you chosen from your tin that formerly held mints?

CAST. It is a size-14 cream-colored dubbing wad with crumpled deer hair legs.

TANT. But it looks like nothing!

CAST. It also looks like anything and anything will catch more fish than your fly, which is nowhere near the water.

TANT. But now we have drifted or they have moved and my fly falls short. In order to cast further I shall stand!

CAST. Then widen your stance and find your center before you pitch us both overboard! And observe, Nimrod, that the fish on your side have now seen you in the sun and are even further away. I choose to stay low and cast into the shade of the shoreline.

TANT. But you cast so close to the shore that your fly will surely land in a shrub! Hey! You’ve caught another fish with your cream-colored dubbing wad with crumpled deer hair legs!

CAST. No, I changed my fly while you churned the water with that ball of tinsel you lob so recklessly.

TANT. Did you change to an Elk Hair Caddis? Queen of the Waters? Hare’s Ear? Are the wings up or down? Did you select a Wulff style fly? Is it wet? Is it dry? Is it red or is it green? Yellow? I probably have one of whatever it is in my bag.

CAST. Same fly, but brown. I have a black one, too.

TANT. And another fish! How many is that?

CAST. This makes three and the rest are a given, as long as the breeze blows this way, so that’s that. There’s work to do before lunch and more to do after. Take us ashore.

TANT. But I do not yet know, precisely, what the fish are feeding on!

CAST. Something small, with crumpled legs. See? I’ve caught another one! Take us in now or you won’t get to clean septic filters later.


*the fifth hour*

TANT. There is no breeze and the lake is like glass!

CAST. A breeze would be a blessing, right about now. Or a thousand fragrant posies, of which this stench is the opposite. Be quick with that bucket and brush! The sooner you put that filter back in place the sooner we close the hatch on this foul portal.

TANT. I see a rise! And another!

CAST. Let me tell you there are no fish in this vault. You are overcome by fumes and we will both succumb to the miasma if you are not careful and quick.

TANT. Oh, sir, not in the septic tank. I speak of the lake. From shore to shore its surface is dimpled by rising fish!

CAST. Look at your work and watch which way you scrub and swish that thing. Gobs of grease and shreds of wipes spray in every direction!

TANT. I’m trying to be careful, I should have worn gloves, but the fish are feasting on something like children on candy!

CAST. I shall impart to you, Nimrod, that the trout are feeding on ants. I will also tell you my eyes are burning and I wish you would hurry.

TANT. Sir! Ants can not swim. Do they walk to where the fish are?

CAST. If you would only finish this task I would tell you of ants on their nuptial flights.

I would tell you of new queens, fat and tasting of lemons, flying for the first and only time on wings meant to last less than a day, each with a tiny consort, who hangs on for dear life until the ride is over. You would learn that sometimes they land on loamy earth and the two start a colony together, but sometimes their wings give out over water where they wallow helplessly until they are eaten by trout. Oh, never mind. Now that I’ve told you, put the lid back over this hole!

TANT. Watch your step, sir!

I am pleased greatly to offer my collar for you to grab onto. I am more pleased to see only one of your legs went in, and only part way, but you are choking me. Follow me to the ground and you will be clear. That’s it.

First, I will replace the cover so no one important falls in. Then I will bring my bucket and brush. I shall have your pants scrubbed clean in a jiffy and we can fish for trout. They still rise!

CAST. Take this rule with you: the busier you are, or the busier you should be, the more fish will rise within your sight. And remember this also: When ants sprinkle from the sky the fishing will go one of two ways. You will either have a fly close enough to the real thing and feel like an expert until you tire of the sport, or nothing at all will do and you will abandon your rod so no one will see you surrounded by rises yet fishless.

Stay away from me with that brush and gather the dirty linens from yon camp while I burn these britches and bathe. I shall return forthwith, bearing fresh sheets for the important anglers due to arrive this very afternoon.

TANT. The anglers just now pulling in, three hours early? Should we sing them a song? I will sing if you will sing but if you don’t I won’t because I’m not that kind of fellow.

CAST. There will be no singing and it looks for us like no fishing, either, at least not while these ants fall. I advise you to busy yourself preparing the camp until I return. I dread the wrath of anglers who find all is not in readiness.

TANT. But we are not late. They are early.

CAST. To men such as them it is much the same thing.

Men Such as These


*the seventh hour*

TANT. The waste lines have been cleared from inlet to outlet, the beds are dressed with fresh sheets that smell of lavender, and the anglers have all settled in. Some are in boats, surrounded by rises yet fishless, while others are in their cups, contemplating their own fishlessness. We ourselves enjoy small cups of barley wine here on the porch and I see, as the shadows creep out from the western shore, mayflies rising like upwardly trending snowflakes above feeding trout. What now?

CAST. My friend, you have kept time with my thoughts. But with conditions such as these, the fishing can go one of two ways…

TANT. I am confident which way it would go, with your guidance and sagacity and what not.

CAST. Another cup to seal the deal, then you will procure a boat and again you’ll do the rowing. We’ll find fish, fret you not. Now, take your nourishment.

TANT. I would like to think I have just the right fly. I’ll bring my bag.


*the eighth hour*

TANT. You had me row all the way to the far end of the lake and now we must sit and wait? My hopes of catching a fish fade with the light.

CAST. Fishing for trout requires patience and fortitude, Nimrod. One must study to be quiet.

Look to the east, atop yonder hill. The moon rises there and the fish rise here.

TANT. Indeed they do! Dainty sippers in all directions and did you see that mayfly? The one the size of a small pterodactyl? I know for a fact I have a pattern for that in a box at the bottom of my bag. At last I am witness to a legendary hatch, at the right place at the right time and with the right fly!

CAST. You would do well to look again and perhaps reconsider.

TANT. No, I’m sure of it. You go ahead and cast while I find that fly. Oh, I see you already are. I see, too, that you’ve caught a fish. I’ll join you shortly and we can both relish such merry making sport.

CAST. I’ve caught another while you rummage.

TANT. So now my knot is tight and my fly is there, to the right of where that fish just sipped. Another fish missed my fly, this time to the left! I see my fly but the fish evidently do not. Nor do I see your fly, obscured as it is in the mouth of that trout you’re bringing in. Oh, another close rise to mine and now two more! Mayflies emerge on all sides of our boat but the fish seem blind to everything but your fly, about which I hesitate to ask. Another size-14 dubbing wad, no doubt.

CAST. Do not forget the crumpled deer hair legs, but in black, imitating adults of another, smaller species, landing exhausted and spent from the exertions of propagation. They are easy pickings as they lay prostrate on the surface while what you refer to as pterodactyls launch themselves into the air. They, too, will return, exhausted and spent, in the hours before sunrise and truly large fish will come out to gorge on them in the dark. Until then, a black dubbing wad with crumpled legs will do, but when things are like this the fishing can go one of two ways…

TANT. Before sunrise you say? ‘Tis a match, sir: I’ll not fail you, God willing, to be at this very spot tomorrow morning before first light. Surely I will catch a trout then!

CAST. You’ll not fail me if you’re not here, for I won’t be either.

Tomorrow is another day in a long succession of days. Something will need scrubbing while, not a hundred yards away, brown trout chase minnows. Something else will require percussive maintenance and, while you pick up the pieces, a pod of rainbows will swirl past, plucking at midges. And I know, as I bring in one more fish, there will be no shortage of sheets that no longer smell of lavender. Now row us away from here before my drifting fly snags another one right in the lip.

TANT. Where to, sir? Shall we go ashore and bide time until the pre-dawn pterodactyl spinner fall? A quaff and a song or two, perhaps?

CAST. A quaff, yes, and who knows what we may bay beneath the moon. But your task now is to stop rowing in circles and find the dock.

We’ve Lost the Cork


*the eleventh hour*

CAST. Aw, look at you, with your head on the table! Pick yourself up and go to bed.

TANT. What? I was visualizing the pre-dawn pterodactyl fall, sir. Besides, this bottle is not empty and we’ve lost the cork!

CAST. Then slosh some more in our cups, Nimrod, not on the table this time, and let me tell you that when it comes to pre-dawn pterodactyls the fishing can go one of two ways…

TANT. Sir, you’ve slumped to the floor again.

CAST. Well, hand me my drink; I can sing just as well from down here.

Mayflies in the mornin’

Mayflies in the evenin’

Mayflies at supper time!

Dubbin’ wads and crumpled legs!

Spinners done layed their eggs!

TANT. Sir, that song is just as bad as the one you sang last night and the one the night before that but I thank you heartily for it. Let me help you to your room and we’ll get a fresh start tomorrow. Things will be different then, I’m sure.

∼∼ END ∼∼



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Of Polar Bears, Elephants, and a Place to Put Your Stuff

Us outdoorsy types, especially we who fish, sure do like our stuff.

When Johnny Morris started Bass Pro Shops in his father’s Brown Derby Liquor Store I doubt he had any idea how much stuff we would buy, but by the time he was selling fully outfitted bass boats he was certainly getting the picture. As we bought more stuff, so did Mr. Morris, including that other outdoor catalog behemoth, Cabela’s, in a 2017 deal valued at a cool five billion dollars.


While Bass Pro may dominate an industry, it is much more than a business juggernaut. Johnny Morris has always supported research and education about conservation issues, partnering with groups like the Bass Research Foundation as far back as the 1970s and, more recently, the Audubon Society, which just awarded him one of Conservation’s highest awards, the Audubon Medal.

One can only imagine the stuff cluttering up the garage of a man like Johnny Morris. Actually, I doubt there’s much clutter in his garage at all but, while some people collect stamps or hand-tatted antimacassars, Morris comes home with race cars and taxidermy collections, and he is not the sort of person who is satisfied watching a tank full of guppies.

The Alligator on the Way from Boats to Menswear

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From the Mixed Up Bookshelves (and Beer ‘Fridge) of Quill Gordon: Pamola

Moosehead Breweries Limited, in Saint John, New Brunswick, keeps a close eye on other brewers who might think of putting a moose on their label. They own multiple U.S. trademark registrations for the words “Moose” and “Moosehead” and for “moose-based” images. Their legal department carried on a long discussion about such images with the Hop’n Moose Brewing Company of Rutland, Vermont, in 2017, before voluntarily abandoning an infringement suit in 2018.

Baxter Brewing Company, of Lewiston, Maine, also features a moose of sorts on its cans but I imagine any conversation with the folks at Moosehead would have been short, due to the fact that Baxter Brewing’s moose has the body of a man, claws, and wings.

Wicked tasty, by the way.

A moose, with claws and wings?

That’s no ordinary moose. That is Pamola, a legendary spirit believed by the Algonquin people to inhabit Mt. Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. Pamola is the spirit of thunder and cold weather, and he is the protector of the mountain, always doing his level best to keep people from its summit. Even Henry David Thoreau wrote of Pamola’s determination, and I once found myself approaching Katahdin’s base, dog paddling through the flooded woods lining the rain-swollen Penobscot River, towing my backpack, which was lashed to my air mattress. The mountain was completely hidden by clouds, the rangers closed the trail, and I’ve still never been to the top of Katahdin.

Mark Leroy Dudley, known to all as Roy, was a guide on Katahdin from the 1890s until his death in 1942. Guiding during the summers and trapping in winter, Roy worked mainly north and east of Katahdin, roaming into the mountain’s Great Basin and camping at Chimney Pond. It was there he had his first of many encounters with Pamola and began sharing the tales with guests around his fire, including many prominent personalities of the times, distinguished scientists, and even Governor Percival Baxter, who bought the mountain and created Baxter Park for the people of Maine.

Roy Dudley

Roy Dudley wrote his stories in his head and told them out loud, something not many people do these days. Year after year he told his tales, not always the same way as the time before, and he entertained hundreds if not thousands of visitors with his wild yarns. In 1937 a man named Clayton Hall lugged an Edison dictation machine seven miles in to Chimney Pond, where he recorded Roy’s tales on wax cylinders, intending to turn them into a book. They would not be the same, transcribed and printed, but they would be preserved.

That book never came about but Clayton Hall’s old manuscript was found in an attic by his niece, Beth Harmon and, with help from her friend, Jane Thomas — who had heard Roy Dudley’s stories when she was a child — Chimney Pond Tales, Yarns Told by Leroy Dudley was published in 1991 (Pamola Press, ISBN 0-9631718-0-1).

Chimney Pond Tales

Characters like Roy Dudley are few and far between. He cared for anyone who found themselves on Katahdin, fixing tea and keeping them comfortable while giving advice that could save their lives should the benign spirit of the mountain give way to its moody and dangerous side. Pamola was that moody and dangerous spirt of Katahdin and Roy got to know him well in his years at Chimney Pond.

Pamola’s first attempts to evict Roy from his shelter at Chimney Pond were violent, with thunder and winds that scattered his belongings far and wide. The stones from Roy’s fire pit were stacked in his lean to so he had to excavate sleeping room, and Pamola even downed a pot of boiling tea in a single gulp while screaming at him to leave. Roy held his ground and the two of them eventually reached an uneasy truce that gradually grew into true friendship.

Roy smoked a pipe and enjoyed blowing smoke rings, which fascinated Pamola, who decided he’d like to give it a go himself and asked Roy if he could have a pipe, too. Unwilling to deny the twenty foot tall Pamola’s request, the next time he was in Millinocket, Roy searched for an empty beer barrel to use as a bowl. For some strange reason, every beer barrel in town was full so Roy procured an old tar keg and found a ten-foot length of three-inch pipe for the stem. Pamola was pleased.

Roy did not have enough tobacco to fill Pamola’s bowl so he gathered balsam boughs and birch bark, along with some tarred paper with which he’d been repairing his roof. While Pamola puffed he built a small fire in the barrel and after a while Pamola was enjoying a good smoke and blowing rings that filled the basin. He declared it to be “delightful.”

With the smell of balsam, birch bark, and tar filling the evening air, Pamola puffed harder and harder until a “mean little piece of birch bark, no bigger’n your hand” caught ablaze and Pamola’s head was engulfed in flame! Off he shot, from the peak of the mountain to Chimney Pond, followed by a trail of fire a hundred feet long.

Pamola Has A Smoke, Illustration by Jane Thomas

The water in the pond boiled as Pamola plunged in, and was undrinkable for quite some time afterward. Worse, Pamola’s tremendous beard had been burned and he was so embarrassed that he retreated to his cave in shame. The flames, as it turns out, had been spotted from miles away and a crew of men came into camp the next morning looking for a fire to fight. Roy convinced them it must have just been a group of college boys building a bonfire and, after a cup of tea, the men left, none the wiser.

Of Roy’s tea, it was said you could pour a yard of it and stand it in the corner.

Tall tales and fantastic yarns like the ones told by Leroy Dudley were part of an oral tradition that goes back as far as language itself. Without a book like Chimney Pond Tales, these stories would have died out with their teller. While Pamola figures prominently, this collection includes other pieces about porcupines, prune whip, and more, including why fifteen frying pans hung on Roy’s wall.

Fifteen Frying Pans, Illustration by Jane Thomas

Chimney Pond Tales has a special spot in my collection of folklore and tales of the outdoors. The hunting, trapping, and fishing abilities of Maine guides are legendary, as are their story-telling skills, and Leroy Dudley was one of the best.

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Fishing Indoors with Cocktails

There are those among us who believe they are not properly admired when they catch a fish, nor are they showered with proper adulation. No crowd goes wild and no drums are beaten when they bring a fish to net.

Nimrods who release their catch might get a photo or two, nearly identical to the thousands of others floating by on social media, and can spend the rest of the weekend hounding their friends for “likes” and their friends can spend the rest of the weekend avoiding them.

Under some circumstances, fish may be kept and consumed. One of the most iconic images associated with fly fishing is that of fresh fish, fried over a streamside fire. Brookies for breakfast beneath pines dripping dew.

Sometimes, where it is allowed, larger fish are brought back to camp and laid out on a table for all to see before being prepared in such a way that they become unrecognizeable. Pieces of skin adhering to the hard crust of burned corn meal stuck to a cast iron pan are sometimes the only clues remaining as to why the pan was in the trash. Continue reading

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From the Mixed Up Bookshelves of Quill Gordon: The Flying Fisherman

“The Flying Fisherman”

Roscoe Vernon Gaddis was born in Mattoon, Illinois, in 1896. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Great Falls, Montana, which is where, among other things, he caught his first rainbow trout and met Buffalo Bill. In 1915, he missed his chance to play professional baseball when he skipped a try-out with the St. Louis Cardinals because he heard the bass were running on the White River in Arkansas. Having passed up a career opportunity like that to go fishing, it is fitting that fishing eventually became his career.

Everywhere he went, whether working as a gandy dancer on a railroad gang in Iowa, selling vacuum cleaners in Minnesota, or driving mules in Louisiana, he fished. When the United States declared war on Germany, in 1917, he enlisted in the Army, signing up for the Signal Corps because that’s where the airplanes were and he had wanted to fly ever since he’d seen his first plane several years before. Shipped to San Antonio for basic training, while waiting for his air cadet application to be approved, he fished for bass in the Little Medina River. Continue reading

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The Cremation of MMXVIII

We’ve used fire in the past, as a symbolic cleansing of the year gone by, and also as a welcome to the year ahead. A good fire also provides entertainment, along with the possibility of excitement.

MMX. Don’t worry, the excited-looking man in the foreground had no hair to begin with!

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A Book Suggestion: The Feather Thief

“I don’t think you want to write that story… Because we’re a tight-knit community, fly-tiers, and you do not want to piss us off.” — Roger Plourde, quoted in The Feather Thief

“…The Feather Thief proves that the most obscure, “candy-ass” activities can be made interesting for the general reader.” — The Times of London review of The Feather Thief

Kirk Wallace Johnson served with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Iraq, first in Baghdad and then in Fallujah, where he was the agency’s first coordinator for reconstruction. He has also worked extensively on behalf of Iraqi refugees and is the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. If anyone ever could benefit from fly fishing, it was him, and it was while fishing that he heard a story that made him want to know more. The Feather Thief is the result of his investigation, which took more than six years.

Risking the wrath of fly-tiers and their tiny scissors, Mr. Johnson has taken a deep dive into the “feather underground” which, in this true story, consists mostly of people who tie Victorian salmon flies using authentic materials called for in the original recipes. Unfortunately, many of the feathers in those recipes are rare and expensive, heavily regulated by international treaties and acts intended to protect the endangered birds who possessed those feathers in the first place. Continue reading

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Time flies whether you’re having fun or not but, for a frog, time’s fun when you’re having flies. And never forget that, while time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

The subject of time attracts hyperbole, as when things take “forever” or when someone is “always” doing something, which you and I both know is impossible (reflexive, unconscious activities like breathing excluded).

I spent more hours fishing this year than in any of the past several, which is interesting, having spent those years living less than 200 feet from a lovely lake stocked with trout. No matter how much I did or did not fish, I could never have spent as much time fishing as the legends suggest (all of it), especially considering how much time some tellers of tales spent on the same lake themselves (hardly any).

It has been said that the time one spends fishing is not deducted from the time one is allotted on this earthly plane so, if the legends are true, some of us must be nearly immortal. Time spent in the company of cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women* may be another matter entirely, so some of us will probably have to just call it a wash. Continue reading

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A Visit to Mossy Creek Fly Fishing

One of the most important things to remember when booking a guide for a fishing trip is to make your reservation early, especially for popular guides on popular water at popular times of year. Still, it never hurts to ask, and the folks at Mossy Creek Fly Fishing couldn’t have been nicer while explaining to me, in mid-April, why a guided float down the Shenandoah for smallmouth bass in early May was out of the question, though they still had spots open for May of 2019.

A self-guided float down a nearby stretch of the Shenandoah, however, was more within the realm of possibility so, when rain chased us off the lake on Saturday afternoon, five damp-ish, possibly smelly, smart alecs mounted an expedition to Mossy Creek’s shop in Harrisonburg, VA, for advice and flies to use on Monday’s river run. Continue reading

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Castwell’s Curse is Lifted

In the short story “Mr. Theodore Castwell”, by G.E.M. Skues, the aforementioned and deceased Mr. Castwell approaches the Pearly Gates and presents himself as a fly fisher. Escorted to a perfectly lovely cottage next to a perfectly lovely piece of water, he catches fish after fish from the same spot, over and over again. When he decides to move along to another spot, he is told he may not, and it slowly dawns on him that he won’t, after all, be spending eternity in the place he thought he’d be spending it.

Halcyon Days

After eleven years fishing the same small watershed and lake in Vermont, Quill Gordon could relate. Same water, same fish, same “fellow” anglers — not all of whom treated him well — year after year. It was a classic case of Castwell’s Curse, exacerbated by the fact that there is some stuff up with which he will not put, and so it came to pass that Quill Gordon broke down his rods, packed up his gear and, unlike Castwell, got the hell out of there, making his way to a cozy hibernaculum at the top of the hill in which to pass the winter while waiting for the sap runs of spring.

“F*ck trout, those dainty, speckled beauties, always delicately sipping in their cold, limpid pools,” he thought to himself. “And f*ck those who are obsessed with them, too.”

Quill Gordon was in a serious f*nk. Continue reading

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