Outside magazine, March 1996
In decades to come, when the Vail Ironman Fly-Fishing Championship of the World has acquired the respect it deserves, when networks are battling over rights to exclusive coverage, when shoe companies and nutrition behemoths are baiting participants with cold cash and long-term endorsement contracts, it is likely--very likely--that Glenn Lokay, the event's founder, will look back on the list of inaugural contestants and pause long enough to curse my name.
If the man can remember my name. Nothing against Lokay, but the degenerate lifestyle of western fly-fishing guides is well documented. Brain cells are the first casualties of their loathsome excesses. Put these men and women in chest waders and their passion for respectable, productive lives dissolves as quickly as their regard for personal hygiene. Place them in a bar or in the gutter of any far-flung mountain town--ditto. All they talk about, all they care about, is moving water and wild trout. Paint sniffers are more engaging dinner companions.
Which is why I was so surprised when, last fall, Lokay telephoned to invite me to his Ironman of Fly-Fishing. "The first annual," he called it--a wistful name that not only implied that there would be a second but also credited Lokay with foresight and organizational skills not often associated with people who have built their lives around animals that spawn.
"I've invited all the top Colorado guides west of the Divide," Lokay told me. "But we'd also like to get some saltwater fly fishermen involved. A real world championship, see? Naturally, your name is at the top of my list."
As a western guide, Lokay is atypical only in that he owns his own tackle shop, Gore Creek Fly Fisherman, in Vail, and he is often emboldened by this patina of respectability. Even so, it was uncharacteristic of him to resort to such noxious flattery.
"Let me guess," I countered. "It's October and Vail has more empty rooms than the Bates Motel. Now you've contrived some absurd competition to rally your business."
"I'm going to ignore that," Lokay responded. "This is a legitimate event. Too many people view fly-fishing as a snob sport. I don't blame them. The Ironman is a reply from those of us who still do it for fun. We've only had a week to plan it. I don't know how many will show up, but it's going to be great. Next year people will be begging to compete."
I listened as Lokay described the events: Distance casting. Fly-casting one hole of golf. Blindfolded knot-tying. Accuracy casting. A one-fly fish-off. An upriver distance run, through Vail, dressed only in underwear.
"You had to be drunk when you thought this thing up," I said.
"Well, sure...legally." Then Lokay added, "This'll be a real test of your abilities. A chance to show the river guides just how good you saltwater casters really are."
More flattery, and utterly transparent. Lokay, aware that I know nothing about trout fishing, apparently saw this as an opportunity to debase saltwater fly fishermen everywhere for the benefit of those fops and mystic brie-eaters who dominate the sport's western regions.
I decided to play along. "You really think I have a shot at winning?" I asked.
"Not even if God drops everything else just to help," Lokay answered. "The costume competition is your best hope. But remember, this is Vail, and we have standards. Buy underwear."
Driving west from Denver for the first time in many years, I noticed far fewer pickup trucks racked with Winchesters and Remingtons but a great increase in the number of Range Rovers, Land Cruisers, and Beemers rack-rigged for kayaks, mountain bikes, and fly rods. I read the clever bumper stickers as they flew past me on I-70: VISUALIZE WORLD PEACE and KEEP YOUR FLY DRY. A state once controlled by stockmen, Colorado has become an alternative-lifestyle magnet for modem cowboys, many of them immigrant Californians who are stock-smart but have never branded a stray in their lives. Not that they, the Radofornians, dominate the state's spirit. Colorado is too big, too varied for that. As I drove toward the Gore Mountains, I was confident that transcendent New Agers down in Boulder were hara-deep in aroma therapy, that the Denver Think Tank Center was crackling with fresh ways to become the financial titan of the New West, while in borderline roustabout towns such as Glenwood Springs and Rangely, certain Old West types were cleaning their varmint rifles, filled with the hope and anticipation that some yupster's poodle would trespass within hollow-point range...
Yes, I was mustering a competitive cynicism. Still smarting from Lokay's words ("if God drops everything else"), I was an angry flatlander priming myself for the Ironman Fly-Fishing Championship of the World. I carried this foul disposition right into Vail, a Swiss deco community where the image of jet-set wealth is underscored by local cops who drive Audi patrol cars. Ironically, it was Vail, surprising Vail, that softened my mood. It was October in the Rockies, and winter was working its way down the mountains. Altitude could be gauged by faint demarcations of autumn powder that illuminated ski trails among the gray aspens.
It wasn't just the scenery. I expected the people to be territorial snots, but they weren't. They were open and full of fun. I took a room at a hotel with the difficult name of Gasthof Gramshammer (after a couple of Coors, it comes out as Gashouse Grandslammer) and then walked along fast-flowing Gore Creek to Glenn Lokay's tackle shop. It was the day before the Ironman, and Lokay, with his Yosemite Sam mustache and malamute eyes, was holding a meeting for contestants. I'd assumed the place would be jammed with A River Runs Through It types. Instead, only about a dozen men and women, mostly Colorado guides, milled through the shop, passing a pint of whiskey around and occasionally spitting Copenhagen loogies out the door.
Typical, I thought. Even so, I had to give the local guides credit. There was not a swollen ego among them. Since the actual fishing would be my weakest event, I was touched when several of them went way out of their way to help me choose a fly and leader for the one-fly fish-off. I also had to give Lokay credit. Despite the short notice, he'd wangled some big-ticket prizes--gorgeous Sage fly rods and a superb Abel reel among them. By the end of the meeting I felt penitent for my sweeping judgments of these amiable people. Maybe I was befuddled by the Jim Beam, maybe it was the damn snuff they fed me, but I began to wonder if it wasn't I who was the territorial snot.
The next day, though, the morning of the Ironman, I felt better--steely and full of competitive fire. More like my old self. After all, I hadn't come to this mountain paradise to have fun. It was Lokay who reminded me of the date: Friday the 13th. "Good luck," he smiled. "You're going to need it."
Over the years Vail has hosted a garden variety of national and international competitions, not to mention Gerald Ford and Princess Di, but never had the village accommodated an event so outlandish as the Ironman Fly-Fishing Championship of the World. That's what I was thinking as I stood in my underwear on the ninth fairway of the Vail Country Club, alternately ducking golf balls and cursing the bastards who whacked them at us.
"Ignore those linksters," Lokay instructed us. "I knew they'd behave like this. Like they own the place."
The sky was a bright, glacial blue. There were 11 of us carrying fly rods, ten men and one woman making practice casts, warming up for the first two events: distance casting and golf. I wore a partisan banner in the form of red Florida State Seminole boxer shorts over an old green wrestling singlet. Several of the other contestants wore long johns, a prissy concession to the October chill, I believed, and a symptom of weak character.
I was feeling confident. One reason was that I knew I was going to win the distance casting. I knew it not because I was the best caster there--frankly, I wasn't--but because a friend of mine, Professor Bruce Richards of Scientific Anglers, had FedExed me a high-tech fly line that I had consistently thrown 130 feet the afternoon before. (I'd mention the type of line, but some of you are unethical enough to use it against me next year.)
Another reason I felt confident was that I had persuaded a buddy of mine, Bobby Cox, to sign up for the competition. A former member of the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, Cox's journeyman career carried him to every third-rate hockey rink from Stockholm to Kiev, where he slashed capitalist and commie defensemen with equal impunity and earned a dark reputation and a darker nickname: Side Show Bob. Were the world orderly and rational, scientists would have darted Cox like a bear and kept him under observation for years before releasing him back into the wild. But the world is neither, and Cox, now in his midforties, has parlayed his contacts and his gift for languages into international holdings and a reputation as a financial wizard.
Cox knew nothing about fly-fishing, but he was going to be my key to winning the river run. As we stood on the ninth fairway, I told him, "I'll win the distance casting, I should place in the golf and the accuracy. The costume competition is anybody's guess. Say, how do I look?"
"Idiotic. Like a KGB agent who robbed a circus."
"Perfect. Then I've got a chance--as long as you play blocker for me during the river run. No one gets past you, understand? No one. Except for me, of course."
Cox wobbled the fly rod he was holding. "How the hell am I supposed to hurt anybody with this? It's not even sharp. You told me fly-fishing was fun."
"Hockey has given you a wonderfully quirky approach to life, Side Show," I said. "But your secret is safe with me. Just get the job done."
Trouble was, I didn't get the job done. Not in the distance casting, anyway. I placed a miserable fifth, casting only 90-some feet. But there was a legitimate reason for my sad performance. Some doofus was standing on my line when I made my cast: me, the doofus.
I placed third in the costume contest, however, and then rallied for the golf competition, which took place on a 100-yard par five with a nasty dogleg right. I managed to bogey the hole, as did Mike "Poodle Head" Moser and Mike Paderewski. These two Gore Creek guides would prove to be my strongest competition, although I kicked their respective butts during the 80-yard, closest-to-the-pin shoot-out to win the golf event.
It was at about that point in the competition that Vail guide Jimmy Garrett began to ply the leaders with strong drink. For that reason the next few events are a blur, although I remember that I was accused of cheating during the blindfolded knot-tying and that, as expected, I didn't do too well in the actual one-fly fish-off, catching only two tiny rainbows.
I also recall that as we moved from event to event, we began to acquire a crowd of onlookers and then media coverage, which in Lokay's mind boded well for next year's Ironman. This I was glad to see. Lokay had been dispirited by my morning successes. "The Ironman will be compromised if a chum-slinger like you places higher than ninth," he had told me, but the media attention seemed to buoy his mood. "Even your freakish luck can't dent this thing's momentum," he now chided me.
What I remember best, though, is the river run, officially known as the Boxer Speed Spawn. The standings had Poodle Head Moser in first place and me close on his heels in second. If I could manage a win in the river run, and if Poodle Head did poorly, I would be Ironman Fly-Fishing Champion of the World. The course was intimidating: up the Eagle River to a sand spit, then across through a chest-deep swale, and then back, all in near-freezing water.
As we lined the bank, awaiting the start, I nudged Cox, winked at him, and said, "Pretend we're on the blue line and you've got to stop every Russian in the world from beating you to the goal."
A strange and terrible light came into the man's eyes. "Russians?" he whispered. "You...you look like a Russian." Which is when the gun sounded and Side Show Bobby Cox paused only long enough to yank my underwear to my ankles before he splashed off to victory in a rage of elbows and head butts, beating every man and woman there, most of whom were half his age.
Later, he came to his senses while I was inspecting my second place prize, the Able reel. Cox apologized and then he said, "You're right, Fly-fishing is fun."