The Magazine

Muddy Waters

Brownliner.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

One upside of the recession is that I cut through the newspaper as never before. Since the news is too bad to actually read, I skip it, assuming I know what's there--the sky is blackening, plagues are being unleashed, the rivers are running red with blood--and I instead skim for pretty pictures of a sleeveless Michelle Obama and her rippling deltoids, which I then clip and paste into my Positive Body Images collage.

On occasion, however, important stories get by me, such as a frontpager in the Wall Street Journal last week. A colleague sent me the link, with the taunting query, "Are you a brownliner?" I had no idea what she was talking about. The question sounded personal, even scatological, a discussion best left between a man and his launderer.

The article, however, detailed a purportedly newish phenomenon, that of fly-fishing for trash fish such as carp and catfish in brown water; that is, impure non-trout streams. Reporter Justin Scheck headed to the South Platte River in Colorado to watch a hearty band of flyrodders take massive creatures in E. coli-infested water, downstream from a wastewater treatment plant.

I respect their ethos. Real fishermen don't let the perfect be the enemy of the readily available and will fish whatever water lies before them. For some years now, partly out of necessity (the nearest trout streams are over an hour away), I've scratched my everyday itch by fly-fishing offwater for all manner of non-salmonids, from white suckers to channel catfish, throwing unconventional flies in unconventional places in order to entice them. Possessing none of the elitism of the snobbish, purist trout queens, I am nearly unable to pass up promising, or even unpromising, water. If you have a birdbath in your flower bed, call me, I'll be right over.

I've fished cemetery ponds, office-park retention gulches, and subdivision lakes with decorative fountains. I fly-fish Central Park when I go to Manhattan. I've had yelling matches with golfers. They scream at me to move so as not to get a Titleist implanted in my skull. I scream that they have 17 other holes to play, whereas the largemouth I'm stalking lives in this particular water hazard.

It turns out then that I am a brownliner, but just didn't know the status had been named and packaged. For my catfish quests in particular, which have been written up in these pages and elsewhere, I've been called worse than a brownliner by my trout-queen friends. One refers to me as the executive director of the "SSBFTFA--the Scum-Sucking Bottom-Feeding Trash-Fish Association." Like any visionary, I consider their ridicule to be another log on the fire of innovation.

But the worm is turning with this official media sanction, and I'm not sure I like it. I sent the link to one of my elitist fly-fishing friends. He's nicknamed The Cool Refresher, as his fluid casts are not unlike a burst of Wint-o-green rejuvenation. C.R., as I call him for short, said, "We got owned." By which he meant me. A former tormentor, he was now religiously reading the brownliners' blogs. All of them seem to have blogs, and some even tweet about their fishing exploits on Twitter. With all the self-promotion commitments, it's a wonder they have time to fish.

As he kept forwarding one post after another, I told C.R. he could spare me the blow-by-blow on the birth of the Brownline Nation. It's at cross purposes with the reason I fish, which is to get away from people, particularly bloggers. Instead, I headed down to the discharge point of my own favorite wastewater treatment plant, where chlorinated water spills into the river, cleaner and suspiciously greener than the waters that receive it. "You could drink it," a plant worker once told me. "Thanks," I replied, "I'll stick with Diet Coke."

To me, it's not a sewage treatment plant, it's a sanity-preserver and an escape. Here, a conveyor-belt current brings fish a steady buffet of snacks, the riprap provides ideal hiding spots and ambush points, and the temperature holds between 50 and 75 degrees, providing heating in winter and air conditioning in summer, meaning I have a honey hole year-round. Here, I catch-and-release slimy whiskered friends, battle stripers putting a bend in my 4-weight, and have racked up 20-bass days in the snow.

Just as Hemingway bum-steered his readers with the title of his fishing short story "Big Two-Hearted River" (he was actually describing the nearby Fox), I will not give up its coordinates. It's on an undisclosed river in an undisclosed state. If I see you there, I'll politely nod, then tie on a heavy Clouser, and tag you with a careless backcast.

Some secrets are best left un-Twittered.

MATT LABASH