Part I of a series
UTICA, N.Y. 10:20 p.m. We're down to 29 out of 50 donut holes.
They're spread out on the motel fish/bear/pine tree comforter. Grouped by preference.
Ten jelly-filled. Nine chocolate (even though I specifically said NO chocolate). Five blueberry, five glazed.
My N.S.A./spy/fishing buddy, Denver, may have just peed his pants. Laughing. Floor rolling, belly jiggling, a check-your-trousers, hee-haw-fest.
We just uploaded a bunch of pictures from our day of trout fishing the Adirondacks and came across IMG 1270.
It's a picture I took of Denver, and he's doing his best Hulk Hogan extreme real-ass-man muscle flex. A 400-pound bench press guy muscles ripped granite jaw jutting out full, Kennedy-like. A power pose.
And he's holding a 6-ounce brown trout.
Look closely: The fish is there. His trout. His prized, single, lonely catch of the day. Ten hours, one pond, two lakes, two streams, one posted dam and nine lost Eagleclaw hooks later.
And he's sitting here next to me, in room 210, eyes watery, head bent over, rubbing his forehead. He says a word, breaks up laughing, says another word, laughs, and so on. I'll condense it for you: "But D.B., I look so proud. And buff."
At which point, I, being the good friend that I am, say in that time-honored fishing buddy tradition of supporting lies of the catch: "Den, buddy, they sell fish bigger than that in PetCo. You caught bait, dude."
That's when a half-eaten glazed donut hole, fueled by the guffaw, shoots out of his mouth and miraculously lands in his waders, which I know he didn't see, with those laugh tears in his eyes, and which I'm not going to tell him about until he slips them on and gives me that look that says, "Uh-oh something crawled in my waders." What are friends for?
To be honest, there was no way I was going to begin the story like this (unless by chance it makes it through the editor guys in Arkansas, who I'm hoping are thinking more about fishing on the 4th of July and less about editor-like details) but when you have a knucklehead fishing picture for the ages one I've already e-mailed to all my and Denver's friends, one sure to go down in Denver Fishing Buddy Lore for all time you have to use it.
Blow it up, stick it on the local bait shop wall. Maybe even write Denver's phone number on it.
Here's the story behind the photo. It was about quarter to 6, and we had been fishing remote streams in the Adirondacks all day.
It was not going well for Denver.
He was having his fishing-butt kicked.
We had been invited up to the Adirondacks to fish with a 61-year-old guy. He was catching fish. Denver was not.
This is how Denver's fishing day went. He would fish a pool nothing, not even a nibble. The other guy would come over, cast into the same hole, and bang a brown trout.
Finally, after pleading with me for just three more casts, Denver got that there fish he's holding. I'm taking his word that he actually caught it and that the wind didn't blow it out of the river for him to find on the bank.
That's why a big man is so happy holding a tiny fish.
He had just proven to the man who brought us here, that he, Denver, also could fish.
And that man he so dearly wanted to impress? Why, that would be "Adirondack" Jack.
To be fair to Denver, he never had a chance.
As soon as he left the super top secret N.S.A. compound at Ft. Meade, drove six hours north, turned left at exit 31 on the New York State Thruway, got out of the car and shook hands with ADK (short for Adirondacks, and easier for me to type) Jack, I knew he was toast. Which was why I invited him.
I had talked to ADK Jack, Denver had not. From deep within the bowels of the N.S.A. in some sort of cone-of-silence gadget, Denver would call me:
"There's a man who leads a life of danger/
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger"
"Secret Agent Man." Denver's ring tone on my cell phone.
"D.B., my brother. So what's this Adirondack Jack like? Can he fish?"
"Got me," I'd say. "Whenever I ask, he says he's just a wormer."
Actually, I know he's a great fisherman who has won dozens of tournaments and has been inducted into the New York State Outdoorsmen Hall of Fame for being an "Outstanding Stream Angler, Adirondack Trout Guide "
I tell Denver none of this.
"This is going to be great, D.B. I've been fishing all my life."
So has ADK Jack, for 55 of his 61 years. Denver is all of 37.
I say, "Uh huh."
"I can't wait."
Neither can I. What's life for if you can't set up your friends?
"Adirondack" Jack Leach is a lifelong resident of Utica, N.Y., a career security guard with Brinks, Pinkerton, and a couple others I forgot to write down. His passion, and I mean passion, is about 30 miles north from his two-story flat in an area of town where you hit your car beeper twice just to make sure it's really locked.
ADK Jack has no phone, no computer, and is basically a pain in the ass to get a hold of. (Sorry, Jack, but you are.) When I need to talk to him I have to call his buddy, Mike down the street, and tell him I need to talk to ADK. Then Mike goes up the street and pins a note on his door telling him "the guy from ESPN needs to talk to you," and whenever ADK gets out of the woods, and gets the note, he will either call me or send me a handwritten letter via the post office, or Pete's sake.
Explain that to your deadline-driven bosses.
ADK Jack loves the Adirondacks. For the past 30 years or so he has won dozens of environmental awards for, in his words, "picking up the place, getting all the crap (garbage) out of the streams, for the kids you know, you got to save the place for the kids, for the next generation to enjoy. If we can get them to put down the video games and actually go outside, that is."
When I got to his house, he let me sit in his chair (that's the kind of guy he is). Offered me cheese and salami snacks his wife made in case I was hungry from my drive from ESPN (his wife by the way does have a phone; ADK Jack just can never remember the number).
On the walls is pride, in the form of framed pictures of ADK in the woods, invariably with a caught fish in his hands. And the scrapbooks I only needed to look at five of the 30 he had to know this guy was the real deal. They're full of letters from Presidents (Reagan, Clinton, George W.), fishing tournament awards and stacks and stacks of pictures of him holding what seems to be every fish he has ever caught. Frankly, I'm surprised there are any fish left in the Adirondacks. "I throw 'em back," he says. "Sometimes I fillet them for my buddies, but most times I just catch and release."
I believe him, sort of. He did have a pretty fat pet cat walking around the apartment.
The fisherman and the NSA guy who won't tell me exactly what he does
Denver, a guy who sits at a secret place with an array of computers and huge TV screens in front of him watching the world for the most part, his bids on eBay for the other part, and who can tell you from those screens how to get around a traffic jam in New Delhi, was late, stuck in construction on I-90. Not even James Bond's Q has an answer for that.
Eventually, in a booth in Uno's, a man who doesn't own so much as a rotary phone meets a guy with a satellite phone. I have no other way to explain this meeting other than to lay out the conversation exactly as it went.
ADK: "So, Denver, where do you work?"
Denver: "The N.S.A."
ADK: "Oh, immigration that there National Immigration Service Department."
Me: "He's a spy, Jack."
Denver: "Oh, dear Lord no "
ADK: "You know, Denver, my brother-in-law there was some sort of border patrol guy, too."
Denver: "Not N.I.S. N S A!"
ADK: "I was sort of in the same field. I did Brinks work for 13 years "
Denver: "That's very nice, Jack."
Me, leaning over and whispering: "Denver, just freakin' order."
Even the waitress was stunned. We didn't know she was standing there waiting to take our order. She looked as though she forgot why she was there, mouth all hanging open, chewing gum and fillings exposed. My guess is she knew what the letters N.S.A. stand for. Normally they say, "Hi my name is ___, and I'll be your server tonight." Tonight our server was speechless.
Denver: "I'll take the individual pan pizza. (Then, leaning way into my space he says to me, and pretty much to the jaw-gapping server) But I never worked immigration "
Me: "Can you please just talk fish and quit worrying about the N.I.S. vs. N.S.A. stuff. It's all just aliens."
At which point, a wad of gum landed on my shoe.
Somehow, the food still arrived, and in between bites of his hamburger (cooked well-done), ADK Jack explained to us where we were about to go fishing.
"It's about 25 miles up in a pretty wilderness area, nothing between us and Canada except for about 100 miles of dense woods," he said. "Got maybe 60 ponds and lakes and hundreds of brooks in the 40-square-mile area around North and South Lake. It's some pretty desolate area there, you know. My buddy has a cell phone there and it never works up where we are going."
Denver: "N.V.I.S. Have you tried calling with N.V.I.S.?"
ADK: "Don't actually know. I think he has Verizon."
Denver: "N.V.I.S. Near Vertical Incident Skywave."
Whatever it is that I was eating, I stopped. I knew where this is going and I guarantee it's a place "a wormer" has never been.
Denver: "It's simply an HF radio signal pointed almost straight up that bounces off the ionosphere so the mountains and terrain really don't matter."
And behind me, the poor waitress is frozen again. "Huh!" is all ADK can say.
Me: "Den, you're killing us here. Not to mention the tip we are going to have to leave this lady "
ADK: "Well, don't really know about all that there, but I do have a whistle with me."
At which point Denver said, "Huh!"
A guy brought the coffee over.
"Them's bears and cougars up there where we are going," says ADK, as if he were actually saying there were bunnies and kitties where we were about to fish.
In my most masculine voice I tell this man of the woods: "Don't worry about any of that. We can take care of it. We're armed."
"Ah, D.B.," says a suddenly small voice coming from the corner of the booth. "You know I came straight here from Ft. Meade. And my .12 gauge, uh, is sort of still home leaning by the front door."
Turning to my left, I see Denver staring at what was left of the personal pan pizza.
"You mean you left our weapon at home," I say.
The gum-dropper chooses this moment to return: "Here's your check, sir!" Seems the N.S.A. is a lot less mystical now.
"Don't you never now mind, I've got a couple of whistles," says ADK as he slides to move out of the booth. "Through the years I've probably had 10 bear come up to me, within 20 yards away while I been fishing, but I holler this or that, blow my whistle, and they pretty much run the other way. Unless'n they have cubs with 'em."
"Then what?" we say.
"If the bears have cubs, then we're pretty much screwed."
Click to read on to Part II
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.