Flyfishing at Cam Lo Bridge

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Going Back to Vietnam, by Capt. Bill Pike, Photography by Jim Raycroft (continued)

Our merry band on the Mekong.

Flyfishing at Cam Lo Bridge

The drive from Hue north to Dong Ha, in Quang Tri Province, was a long one, mostly due to the wild and crazy scooter traffic. And although, as I’ve already mentioned, none of the sampan rides we took in Quang Tri produced a PBR or even the rumor of one, the jaunt that took us up the Song Cam Lo to Cam Lo Bridge proved way more memorable than all the rest.

“Hey Bill,” said Raycroft, as we prepared to go. “There are no seats in this boat!”

I eyeballed our sampan du jour, a vessel approximately 30 feet long, 4 feet wide, and rough-hewn by any standard. Her bow was squished up on a slimey, muddy beach. At the stern, a little Chinese diesel went ca-chooga-chooka, ca-chooga-chooka under a cloud of greasy black smoke and a young Vietnamese guy and his significant other (wrapped, in accordance with Vietnamese custom, so totally in sun-proof clothing that only her eyes were visible) huddled lovingly over a tiller. And yes, Raycroft was right. There were no seats, although I noted a few narrow thwarts a passenger could perch upon, vulture-fashion, and a comfy board or two in the bottom of the vessel.

I sniffed defensively. Raycroft was splitting hairs on creature comforts, it seemed to me. And what’s more, he was now putting the evil eye on the brand-new bag of Vietnamese hot dogs Phuoc, undoubtedly with Stilwagen’s blessing, was hauling aboard, along with more French bread and Laughing Cow. Would Raycroft soon be challenging our luncheon menu too? Wisely, I let the whole can of worms slide, as did Raycroft.

But, man, it was passing strange. The day’s journey took us up the very same river I’d traversed years before as a youngster in a PBR, yet nothing was recognizable. Instead of a brown channel, with lush, variegated, green jungle on both sides, there were fields with cows and water buffalo, cellphone towers, and roaring public works projects. And the traffic on the river was pretty intense too, consisting entirely of fishing and other commercial vessels. I managed to do a little thinking, however, despite all the mindboggling newness.

Vietnamese children

Some days before, at Stilwagen’s behest, we’d visited a large elementary school. And the kids there had been as plentiful as they were joyful. But what was so surprising and thought provoking was the way they’d literally swarmed over Raycroft and I when given the chance, yelling questions and comments about America, as if just about any American (and indeed America itself) was fabulous, wonderful, and totally amazing. Tears had come to my eyes in the midst of the experience. And to Raycroft’s eyes as well. Why, I wondered, as the waters of the Song Cam Lo slid smoothly by, had we both reacted in precisely the same way?

The ravine just below Cam Lo Bridge was refreshingly cool when we got there. And because catching a few fish in the exact spot where, years earlier, I’d traveled onboard boats bristling with 50-caliber machine guns, seemed like a triumph of sorts, I uncapped the Sage 5-weight flyrod I’d brought all the way from home for just such an occasion, and jointed it up.

But get this. Even after our skipper had silenced the little Chinese diesel, which allowed our sampan to drift ever so invitingly over the cool, colorless water, I simply could not tie the improved clinch knot most everybody uses to join tippet and fly, although I’d tied the darn knot thousands of times before.

“Shoot,” I said finally. “I can’t tie a fly on.”

“Think about where you are right now,” Stilwagen advised, gesturing towards the thick green foliage ashore, with blue mountains beyond, “Your brain is subconsciously telling you to load a magazine with cartridges, and keep your head down. It’s saying fly fishing’s frivolous, even dangerous here—it won’t let you do it.”

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