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HOME RANGE: Notes on Literature, Nature, Working Dogs, History, Martial Arts, Other Obsessions and Sundry Annoyances by Henry Chappell

Cade and the Cottonmouth

Fish often in the South and you'll meet one of these. Despite their abundance and reputation for aggressiveness, water moccasins rarely bite humans.

My grandson Cade, who's staying with J. and me this summer, surfs in water frequented by great white sharks, but the first time we fished a small North Texas lake, he worried about cottonmouth water moccasins. Of course he forgot about snakes as soon as he started catching fish. Before long, he was finning his float tube into the snakiest looking backwater he could find, working his fly over lily pads and around brush and stumps.

I told him that when he meets a cottonmouth, he should just back up while keeping an eye on it. Likely, it will hold its ground or try to chase him out of the area. Don't be stupid. It doesn't want to bite you; it wants you to leave.

Sure enough, just before sundown last night we were fishing the upper end of a small lake, when Cade said, "Grandpap, there's a cottonmouth." A nice, big one actually, about thirty feet away, but swimming toward him. I suspect the splat of the popping bug brought the snake out to investigate. I told Cade to back up. He did. The snake stopped. Cade kept backing up.

Thus ended the lesson. Nobody hurt. We fished until dark. The snake encounter didn't even come up on the drive home. Another southern fly fisherman has learned to take cottonmouth water moccasins in stride.
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A Piece of River

Ran across this little essay the other day - my first piece in Field & Stream. Sheesh, 17 years ago! Brings back some good memories. There used to be a market for little essays like this one.
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Age, Decline, and the Gift of the Reprieve

Fellow on the right looks to be begging for a front kick to his junk. His opponent is in the perfect position to deliver it. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For a couple months now, my grandson Cade and I have trained in Krav Maga, an Israeli fighting style. I chose this style over traditional martial arts because it has been developed and refined to be useful to ordinary people over a wide range of ages. I’ll turn 57 in a few days. Although I still live an active life, and have kept in decent shape, I've missed the window for learning Bruce Lee moves.

I have always been unapologetically physical. The rougher a sport, the more I like it. Football was my thing. I would have loved boxing and wrestling had they been available at my high school. I don’t have an equalitarian bone in my body. I consider physical strength, grace, courage, properly ordered aggression, and beauty virtues, and rank them only slightly below intelligence, prudence, honesty, and kindness. Although I’m obnoxiously competitive, the reality that these qualities are unevenly distributed, and that billions of people have possessed, do posses and will posses them to a much greater degree than I do bothers me none at all.

(For the record, I do not consider hunting and fishing sports. They are passions, restorative and closely tied to my creative life, such as it is. I hope my writing is more graceful than my casting and shotgunning.)

But why this, and why now? I’ve never been one to worry about self defense. I got through my share of boyhood fisticuffs in good shape. Since my early twenties, I have never felt threatened or vulnerable. I go about my affairs, usually alone, assuming nobody will bother me. Furthermore, I pay for and sweat through Krav Maga instruction hoping and assuming I’ll never need the skills.

I’ve been thinking about martial arts since my thirties when I worked with a guy who had a black belt in a Japanese fighting style that emphasizes low kicks and straight punches instead of the flashy high spinning kicks. The training he described sounded fun, especially the sparring: two buddies punching and kicking each other in a mock fight. What’s not to like? But I had a demanding job, two daughters at home, bird dogs to train, and a wife with a few reasonable expectations.

So, for thirty years, “workout” meant a few pushups and crunches followed by a four or five mile walk. (Two back surgeries ended my running.) I knew that my reflexes and balance were degrading, but remained satisfied that I could still walk all day, portage a canoe, split firewood and occasionally backpack up and down mountain trails. Last fall, while standing in my office looking at a shelfful of books of nature writing, I decided that I should look into martial arts again before I got too old, assuming I wasn't already. Naturally, I did nothing of the sort while feeling bad about it.

This spring, when I learned that Cade would be spending the summer with J. and me, I conducted an exhaustive search for the ideal Krav Maga facility (noticed an accredited school next to my favorite Italian restaurant) and signed us up.

Cade was thrilled. I tried to temper his expectations with predictions that the first few lessons would be slow, with a lot of watching and careful imitation. We showed up on a Monday night. The owner and chief instructor, Eric, who is a head shorter than me but surely able to deadlift a cement truck, spent 45 seconds showing us the “neutral stance” and the “fighting stance,” then shoved us into a drill in which we blocked outside punches thrown by young men who’d been training there for months. Every minute or so, he’d yell, “Down! Give me 10 pushups!” First time, no problem. Second time, “damn my arms are getting tired.” Third time, “I don’t think I can get up.” Now that we were “warm,” time to stretch.

Of course I knew how to punch. Everybody knows how to punch. Well, no. Quick demo, then “Pair up and grab a striking pad. Henry and Cade, you can’t be partners tonight.” I ended up with another Eric, a young man of about twenty, who has been at Krav Maga for several years. He held the striking bag and called for crosses, jabs and combos. For a long time. Until I couldn’t lift my arms. Then we newbies learned to divert straight punches. Eric threw jabs and crosses at my face. I diverted. My nose and teeth depended on it. I hadn’t been this tired since I hung my shoulder pads up. I had forgotten that I could be so tired.

We stumbled out to the parking lot soaked in sweat and laughing. This is my kind of place. No uniforms. No belts displayed. No endless rehearsal of precise sequences of moves handed down for centuries. You show up in workout clothes and start punching kicking and grappling under the close eye of the instructors.

I’ve never been flexible. I struggled with torn and pulled hamstrings throughout my years of high school and college football. After that first workout, I admitted to one of the instructors, Catherine, that I worried about being incapable of the required kicks. She waved dismissively and said, “Oh, we’ll fix that.”

They did.

I have no delusions of regaining youth or of becoming a badass. When I look ahead to what’s required of experts, I suspect that a year from now, or two years, I’ll have to admit that I’ve hit a wall. That I’m too old to move to the next level. But I’m not sure. The physical challenge feels like a blessing.

My balance, flexibility and footwork have improved. I can snap off a series of pretty decent front kicks. The roundhouse kick is ... well ... coming around. The kinds of explosive movements I hadn’t done since my twenties come easy now. Still …

Last night, we learned to defend against headlocks from the side. Properly performed, the technique works well. Cade and I had paired up. He’s six-feet tall and weighs about 175 pounds. Strong as a mule and rough. After we’d gone through the move at half-speed he came down with a sure enough headlock. Of course I “knew” that I was in no danger. But I didn’t feel that way. Rather, I felt a powerful young man tying to tear my head off. As I executed the pivot and fake groin strike, and struggled to get my left hand between my face and his, to jerk back on his septum and force his head up, he bore down, and I remembered the feel of desperate exertion and felt sharp pain in my lower back and neck. Yet, up came his head, and back and down he went, landing perfectly, hands and kicking leg up, laughing. I staggered back into my fighting stance.

As we drove home, and I wondered whether three or four Advil were in order, I thought about how a second or two of pain and near panic on a padded floor, under controlled conditions, can clear up illusions.

But I feel fine today.
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New Water

Concentration and anticipation. Cade ties on just the right popping bug.

Last week, my grandson Cade and I spent part of an afternoon and early evening trying out a 12-acre pond in Northeast Texas. This one is a winner. Cade fished from the float tube while I flogged away from the bank. He caught a dozen or so bass, several in the 2-3 pound range, and some nice bluegills. I found the bank fishing good too. Plenty of room for my back cast. Caught a couple decent bass and some huge bream. Plenty of cover, but open enough to fish streamers without too many hang ups. We'll be back.

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, we’re trying out some “bass bug” lines. After two outings, I have to say I’m impressed. I had no problem casting bulky number 4 deer hair bugs on a new 9' 6-wt Temple Fork rod.

Caught this pretty little bass just before sundown.

A two-fly evening. Little wooly bugger for bream; deer hair bug for bass.

Coming out tired and satisfied.

Northeast Texas bass water at sunset. We'll be back.

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