A Fish in the Hand …
Continued from The Young Man and the Stream. You may wish to revisit my earlier posts to have the best possible context for this story.
My opportunities for fishing in the Appalachians were many. On days that I wasn’t working, I was out in the hills looking for new streams I had not yet fished. On days that I did work, I rushed home after my shift so as not to waste a moment of the afternoon sunlight. I did not have to venture far—at the end of the road on which I lived was one of the finest smallmouth bass streams in North Carolina. It was a stream that attracted anglers from all over the country. With such short proximity I quickly became a master of its waters. I knew all of the deeper holes, the eddies, and the overhanging branches that dropped insects to the surface of the water where fish lay in wait. Eventually however, it became, to me, rather commonplace. It was the stream I fished when I had no time to explore another.
I should pause for a moment and explain—upon reflection, the word explore is more apt than fishing, as that was really what I was doing. Truth told, I was not a very effective angler. For all the time I spent hiking along muddy banks, wading into streams, and casting my line, I caught very few fish. I cannot say why, actually. Maybe it was that I did not keep my line wet, or in other words, I was a compulsive caster, more interested in the Zen of a perfect cast rather than landing a fish. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time, fish or no.
On one such day, I rushed home after work, I reached the front door of my apartment and began pulling and pitching my work-clothes, grabbing my jeans and wool shirt, waders, fly-rod, and box of flies. The creel stayed put—even if I caught one, I had no interest in keeping it. Twenty or thirty seconds after entering the apartment, I exited.
Sometimes I walked the short distance to the river, but typically due to waning light and waxing eagerness to fish, I drove to the stream—as I did in this case. There was a small dirt parking lot for anglers and boaters where I sat on the tailgate of my car, pulled on my waders, and sorted my accoutrements.
From the lot, I walked a narrow path, pushing through the burly bushes along the banks of the water until the stream was before me. It is an uncommon stream in that it was very wide—maybe 120ft. across. The depth was relatively constant from bank-to-bank—rarely exceeding three or four feet. Wading this stream was tricky however. Rather than mud or gravel, it was full of large stones and boulders, making the bottom severely uneven and difficult to negotiate in the swift current.
The time was mid-afternoon, and the trees were casting long shadows across the water. The leaves were just beginning to show hints of fall colors and the breeze brought a new chill that hinted at the coming season.
The brushy banks and uncommon width of the stream meant that to fish it properly, one must wade out into the swift rapids. I stepped down the steep bank into the water holding firmly the bank, searching for secure footing, then letting go. I traversed to midstream carefully, leaning against the current and stepping deliberately, moving slowly. I thought carefully about each step, making sure not to allow a foot to become wedged or trapped between two stones, at the same time avoiding deep holes that may send me suddenly swimming. The current and waves roiled against my legs and gave the tops of my waders only about two inches freeboard. Occasionally a splash of cold water overtopped and gave me a chill.
Finding a good place to stand, I planted my feet and began my preparations. I tucked my fly-rod beneath my arm and pulled out my fly box. Traditional flies would not due for smallmouth, so I looked to my poppers and Sneaky Petes. I faced downstream as I tied on my popper, bracing against the strong current.
In this river, eddies abound because of the many boulders that project from the stream’s surface. Fish lurk within the steady-eddies, allowing them to rest and wait for food to flow by.
By this time in my life, my casting had become as natural as breathing. I lifted my rod-tip and found myself in that Zen-like place where conscious thinking was no longer necessary and meditation and muscle memory were all that I needed. I brought the rod back and forth and began to expel line and looked around for a place to land my popper. I spotted a nice eddy not very far away where a glassy-still pool of water was surrounded by ripples. My popper landed gently and directly in the center of that pool and the surface of the water bulged and splashed with the rise of a fish. My fly line went instantly taught. My hands trembled from the rarity of this excitement and I drew in the line until I could reach down and lift the fish from the water.
I gripped the fish by his lower lip and held it up in front of me. There was no one to admire it but me. A welcome change, I thought. I rested the fish gently into the water and adjusted my line to begin casting again. In just a few more casts the surface of the water bulged again and a fish splashed and tugged the line and I drew it in and lifted it by the lip. The luck of it! I was on to something—was it the barometer? The changing season? I could only guess. From where I stood, I continued to search for eddies, and cast my line, and catch fish until I exhausted most of the eddies that were within reach of my line. It was one of those rare days that I knew—during that moment—that I would never forget it. Golfers have their six-under par, pitchers have their shut-outs, bowlers have their three-hundred pins. I had this day.
I looked for more places to cast my line, so I turned upstream. I spotted a larger eddy some distance away. Larger eddies have larger fish, I reasoned. Casting upstream is generally more difficult, and this spot was toward the limit of my range. I did not want to risk losing my firm footing and began to try for it where I stood. I wanted the fish that lurked within that eddy. I craved it. I knew I could have it, today of all days. I need only reach it. I brought my arm back and forth in wide casting motions, expelling huge amounts of line, then hurling it out ahead of me. It fell short. I began to think, and to concentrate, and to reason—I could reach that eddy, I need only figure out how to cast a bit further. So I became conscious of the motion of my arm making broader and broader motions and I thought some more and began to rock my upper-body in an unnatural motion to add just a bit more power into my cast. My body teetered, my arms flailed, and I splashed backwards into the current and my head was beneath the water. The cold water shocked me but I could not gasp and my body thrashed involuntarily. I wanted only to get my face to the surface. In time I cannot determine, my head finally crested the water and I was again breathing while I drifted with the current. It wasn’t too far until I drifted near the bank and I grasped it and climbed up. There, on that bank, I sat for a short while, shivering, dripping with cold river water. I looked at the fly-rod that I managed to keep in my hand during all of that. Then I looked out over the water and the eddies and the fish that lurked within them and tried to remember what brought me out here in the first place.