THOUGH WE ARE now in the “tell all” age, which gives no more respect
to any of the departed than you would give to a rock, something about
the task at hand bothers me. However, I like to think I am driven by the
relentless search for truth, which writers are forever using to excuse
the machinations of their ego.
Also, it is just too much fun to contemplate what might have been if the
web of evidence and suspicion had surfaced earlier.
In any case, as Bob Williams himself might have put it, “Tail with the
Bob Williams was one of those people who could do anything and do it
well, and that carried over to his trout fishing. He always seemed to
make the right decisions about where and when to fish and which fly to
use and how to deliver it.
To say that we were opposites is to put it kindly. I can’t make a
square cut with a saw to save my life, and if you want to know about new
ways to screw up trout fishing, I’m your man.
So, these facts considered, we were an unlikely duo. Perhaps Bob saw my
ineptness as a form of entertainment, or as a therapeutic way to vent
emotion. Whenever I goofed at whatever we were involved in, Bob’s
voice would rise a couple of octaves and he would utter the familiar,
“JEEEEEZUS KEEERIST, Stokes, what are you doing now!”
And when I was unable either to explain or to correct my actions, Bob
would brusquely take charge, grabbing at whatever tools were involved or
shouting impatient instructions in his voice of high pitched
It went that way on the trout streams, until I would fish around a bend
and out of his sight. I prefer solitary fishing, especially when it
eliminates profane tutorial judgments that echo up a creek bottom like
the yodeling of a sandhill crane. But I learned some things about trout
fishing from Bob. He was big on using what he called
“locators”—big hairy flies that he used both wet and dry to coax
out big browns.
“They probably won’t hit it, but they’ll come out to see what the
hell it is,” he said. “Then you get ’em later with something on
And Bob taught me that if the right kind of hatch is on, you can catch
trout in a downpour.
“The fish are already wet,” he said. “They don’t care that it is
There were, in fact, not many circumstances under which Bob could not
catch trout. We would separate on a stream after he had administered his
quota of sputtering advice, and later when we were through fishing and
got back together, he always had trout. There were days when I swear a
stream would be so dead you couldn’t have caught a shiner with a
seine, and yet Bob would show up with trout.
Then it would be my turn to sputter, and Bob would laugh and make some
remark like, “Small flies. Twenty-twos, fished with delicacy.”
Without Bob’s help, my Back-40 cabin never would have been built. Or
if I had managed to put it together, it probably would have collapsed
like a house of cards, or ended up looking like a stack of salvaged
Bob would show up at the Back-40 almost every weekend, arriving in a
bluster of disapproval over whatever I was doing and greeting my young
sons with great enthusiasm. They loved him, and especially so after one
weekend when he decided that instead of working on the cabin, he was
going to build them a tree house. It was one helluva tree house, high up
in the gnarled branches of an oak that hung out over the creek, and
complete with roof and a small stove to ward off the chill.
Almost every weekend for a year or so we would work at the cabin, and
Bob would sometimes stop and curse at the occasional fisherman who
wandered past. “Damn wormers,” he would grumble, and then go back to
his hammering. At some point every day, Bob would drop his hammer or saw
and say, “That’s it, Stokes. It’s time to go fishin’.”
Sometimes we fished the creek that ran past the front of the cabin, even
though it was almost impossible to keep my springer spaniel, Doc, from
suddenly showing up beside the pool you were trying to fish. Doc and Bob
were good friends, and Doc did not understand why that friendship seemed
to dissolve whenever he showed up to “help” Bob catch brook trout.
You could hear Bob’s complaints and curses, and finally he would come
back to the cabin, with a chagrined Doc at his heels.
“Your dog is just like you, Stokes, nothin’ but trouble,” Bob
Once the cabin was built, we expanded our fishing to take in such
streams as the Wolf River, and it was on one such trip that Bob’s
indignation over my questionable judgment reached new heights.
We were headed up to the Wolf one pleasant summer day when I turned off
twisting old Highway 52 and onto a logging road that twisted even more.
“Where the hell are you going?” Bob Williams said, his voice rising
“Short cut,” I said.
“Short cut!” he said, and his voice began that familiar creep up
across the octaves.
“I checked it out on a map and I think it will take us down to the
“You think! YOU THINK!”
“I was in here once with John, but it was after dark and . . . ”
“Stokes, you can’t find your way home from the grocery store.
You’re gonna get us lost and probably stuck in some mud hole.”
“If we’re going to hit the evening hatch, we’ve got to get on the
river as soon as possible.”
“But you don’t even know if this trail goes to the river.”
“I’m pretty sure.”
Bob shook his head in despair and slumped back against the car seat.
“Where’s the brandy?” he said.
I followed the winding trail until it forked off in two directions, and
when I took the fork to the right, Bob said I should have gone left.
At about this point, my old Chevrolet’s engine coughed once and then
suddenly stopped. As we coasted to a halt, I glanced down at the gas
gauge and saw that it registered empty. My god! I had meant to buy gas
back in Antigo, and then it had slipped my mind. How could I have been
so stupid? I sat and stared at the gas gauge in disbelief.
“Are we out of gas, Stokes?” Bob said, craning his neck to look at
me, and settling his voice in an unusual low timbre.
When I did not respond, and the stillness of the woods came down over
us, along with swarms of mosquitoes that obviously considered the open
car windows to be the gates to a bloody heaven, Bob sat in
uncharacteristic silence for a few seconds. I knew this was very
temporary, however, and thought of him as a rooster gathering himself to
break the peace of a quiet morning with outrageous noise.
Bob did not disappoint me. He began a tirade that laid out my stupidity
along with the details of our dilemma—lost in the woods forty miles
from nowhere, with night coming on and nothing but mosquitoes for
“Start walkin’, Stokes,” Bob said. “I’m stayin’ here with
There are no houses for miles along 52, and I sat there contemplating a
walk that would take me halfway into the night.
“Get your ass in gear,” Bob said, twisting the cork out of the
I was about to get out of the car and head back up the trail, when
suddenly a battered pickup truck appeared over the rocky ridge in front
of us. As we stared open-mouthed, it skidded to a stop and a trio of
pulpwood cutters looked out at us.
“Stokes, you just came up smellin’ like a rose,” Bob said. “I
can’t believe it.”
The loggers had a gas tank in the box of their truck and when one of
them pointed at a siphon hose, Bob grabbed it and shoved it into my
face. “Suck, Stokes, goddamnit, suck.”
When we had transferred enough gas to get us out of the woods, Bob gave
the loggers the brandy and all the beer we had along and ordered me to
give them twenty dollars, which I did.
The loggers told us we would not get to the river on the road we had
taken, so we turned around and followed them out of the woods. We drove
in to Lily and I bought dinner and drinks—and a tank of gas—and Bob
finally calmed down enough to speak in a normal tone of voice.
“Did you ever think maybe you should have your head examined,” he
said, squinting at the back bar light through ice of a Manhattan.
“I’m serious. I think your brain is actually shrinking.”
We fished below Slough Gundy Rapids the next morning, and as usual Bob
caught three fish for my one. Later in the day we finally made it in to
the Oxbow and had a spectacular evening with big browns on a high-winged
fly that Bob had tied and that looked like a cross between an Adams and
a Pass Lake.
Rain moved in during the night, and on the way home we stopped to fish
the White River in the middle of the state. I went pretty much fishless,
but Bob showed up back at the car with a nice catch of eating-sized
“Tiny nymphs,” he said.
A year or so after he died, Bob’s wife, Judy, gave me his
trout-fishing vest at a retirement party my family threw for me up at
the Back-40. It was the kind of gift that rocks you back on your heels
and as I held the faded old vest with its familiar stains and
accouterments, I yearned for some way to turn the clock back to hear my
old friend castigate me once again.
It was some weeks later in the quiet of my den that I took Bob’s vest
down off a hook and started to go through the pockets as an exercise in
nostalgia and curiosity. There was his leader wallet, and I remembered
how he always had the right leader and would complain loudly when I
asked to borrow one.
The small blue bottle that he kept his dry-fly dope in was in an arm
pocket, and his stream thermometer was stuffed into an inside pocket.
His fly selection was modest but lethal looking, as were all of the
flies that he tied. There were those Adams-Pass Lake combinations and
some attractive hoppers, along with several Coachmans in size sixteen.
The Coachmans were the smallest flies in the boxes.
Where were those twenty-twos he had mentioned? Maybe his eyesight in
later years dictated nothing smaller than sixteens. There were also no
“tiny nymphs,” and I assumed that he had given those up for the same
And then way down in the corner of an inside pocket, under some extra
leaders and a can of fly line dressing there suddenly spilled out into
my hand a very small glass vial. I held it up to the light and could not
believe what I saw. Inside were a half dozen bare hooks in size six and
eight, exactly the sizes you would use for worm fishing. I dug into the
pocket again and there was another vial containing split-shot sinkers.
I sat for a long time staring at the vials. Could it have been? Could my
old friend have been deceiving me all of those years and, when
conditions called for it, had he resorted to worm fishing?
It would have been easy enough, tying on a hook and sinker and tearing
apart a stump or turning over a rock to find worms.
I tried to recall specific occasions, but all of our fishing trips
together seemed to blur into one long session of pleasure, despite the
harangues that I suffered. I obviously deserved most of Bob’s
scolding, and it did serve the purpose of teaching me a few things, like
the importance of checking the gas gauge before you head into the woods.
I tried to remember some of those times that were so fishless for me and
yet productive for Bob, but the best I could do was a detail or two
about the time we stopped at the White River just after the rain. Had he
“resorted” that time? Knowing that the trout were feasting on
earthworms that the rain had washed into the stream, had Bob done it to
me—tied on a worm hook and then given me that business later about
I’ll never know, of course. And I really don’t care. It’s just
that I would have liked the opportunity to confront him with the
evidence. I would have pitched my voice up into some tenor octave and I
would have said, “Williams, just what the hell is this all about?”
Excerpted from "Trout Friends and Other Riff-Raff" by Bill Stokes. Copyright © 2017 by Bill Stokes. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.