The Young Man and the Stream
Not long after my second lesson in fly-fishing, I graduated from the suburban pond I mentioned in my previous submission. I began fishing some of the wilder, more pristine streams of the Ozark hills. With constant practice, my casting became proficient, and my ability to secure quarry improved as well. On weekday evenings, I stood out in a grassy field near my home and practiced the accuracy and distance of my cast, and on the weekends I packed my rucksack and ventured into steep Ozark valleys where I waded into clear and cold streams and caught dozens of small-mouth bass, hundreds of bluegill, and the very occasional and welcome trout. At night, I camped along the banks of streams, sleeping in the back of my Subaru wagon. In the mornings, I packed a small lunch of two boiled eggs and a crusty scone and waded out into the cold running water, constantly casting and walking slowly waist-deep against the current. On warm days I wore only sandals and shorts with my small rucksack on my bare shoulders. On cooler days I wore hip-waders, which kept me warm enough to fish well into the winter months. I spent hours learning the deep green holes where the larger fish waited in still water, or the eddies where they rested in an upstream current waiting for food to drift by. I also found that fish hunted under the large branches of old trees hoping for a bug to fall to the surface of the water. Sometimes that bug was the fly on the end of my line. With the hours of solitary wading and exploration, I gained a special familiarity with the streams and they began to feel like my own. It is strange then, that it was during these weekend meditations that I decided that I should move east to the Appalachian Mountains.
The reasons for my move were many, but access to world class trout streams that seemed to run every valley of western North Carolina was significant. In fact, I selected the location of my home — south of the city of Asheville — specifically for its proximity to those streams. Out my front door, within a very short walk, was the French Broad River, and out my back door, within a short drive, were smaller trout streams so numerous that most had no names. Only in a lifetime could I hope to fish and explore each of those streams.
When I arrived, I unpacked my things into a small apartment and looked forward to the official opening of trout season.
Opening morning I awoke before dawn and drove into the valley of one of Western North Carolina’s fairest streams. It also was likely the most popular. By the time the sky began to show dim light on the valley road that skirted the riffling water, I could see dozens of cars and their roof-top fly-rod-tubes double parked and squeezed into improbable and outright dangerous spots. I was sure that a car had one of its four wheels dangling over the steep bank of the stream so that it was just out of the driving lane. The four wheel drive of my Subaru ensured that my own parking spot was no less asinine. I popped the hatch to the rear of my car and gathered my things. A small aluminum fly-box with little delicate glass doors that compartmentalized each precious fly, a wooden fishnet with lanyard, big footed waterproof waders, my fly-rod, and finally my newest and most precious artifact: a creel made of woven wicker. I shut the hatch and walked through the morning fog and shivered from the damp cool air and the understanding that I was now big time. Was this how Yo-Yo Ma felt when, for the first time, he dragged his cello on stage at Julliard? Never mind that, I knew that I was now prepared. Much of my confidence was placed in the outfit that I had carefully chosen for that morning — gray woolen Woolrich pants with thick suspenders, heavy plaid shirt, vest with innumerable pockets, bucket hat tilted rakishly to the side, and wicker creel slung over my shoulder. Perhaps my appearance was a bit kitschy. Perhaps I was overcompensating. Perhaps I was a little over the top even for Mayberry R.F.D. But a gentleman should dress for the occasion.
I carefully stepped down the slippery, muddy bank into the fast flowing water. The roar of the rapids was more than what I was used to on the gentler streams back in the Midwest. The whole scene seemed wild and more dangerous, except for the half-dozen or so people who were also preparing to cast in my immediate vicinity. Actually, one of those people was not preparing to cast, and wasn’t there to fish at all. He was dressed in blue jeans with no waders, a red baseball cap, and a camera that hung around his neck. Standing in the middle of the rushing water, while I was enjoying the ceremony of tying my fly to my tippet, I saw this man waiving to me in my peripheral vision. I finished my knot and looked up and saw that we was looking and motioning to me directly. I was only fifty or so feet away from him, but the roar of the water made it impossible to communicate, and so I carefully pushed my legs through the current back to the bank where the man in the red hat greeted my enthusiastically.
“Why look at you!” he said to me, as if I might know him and recognize him. “You look like you are prepared for the day.”
“I am ready to fish, alright.” I replied.
He explained that he was from the newspaper, and they were planning to do a small story on the opening day of trout season. “You look just the part,” he said with the sort of chuckle that was difficult to identify; with me, or at me? — I wondered. “Do you mind if I snap your photo?”
No matter, I thought, I was to be in the newspaper. “Of course not.”
“Just go ahead and fish as you normally would. I’ll take your photo from here.”
I pushed my way back out through the rapids, into the middle of the stream. I pulled some line loose from the reel and prepared to cast and I noticed that my hands were slightly trembling. I found myself acutely aware of every movement that I made. No longer was my practiced motion of casting second nature or muscle memory. No longer was I on my own, free to fish as I may in the secluded stretches of my own Midwestern streams. This man, with his red cap, and his camera pointed at me broke the meditative state that was so essential to my casting. I raised my arm to cast, and flicked the tip of the rod forward, and then backward, and then I felt a terrible resistance and looked back to see that my fly was tangled in the branch of a tree. My heart sank, and I tugged at it and prayed that it would free itself and I tugged harder and I cursed, and then tried whipping waves through the line so that it might untangle itself in some improbable way. The fly was clearly in that branch for good. I grumbled and and cursed and tugged harder until, inevitably, the line broke with a snap. I took the aluminum fly-box from my pocket and opened a glass door to pull out a fly with hands that were now shaking beyond control. I began tying the fly to my tippet and dropped it into the water. It disappeared in an instant. I pulled out one more fly from my box and tied it on with a secure knot, this time, and I reeled up my line and began my second cast. I also noticed that the newspaperman had slipped away quietly out of sight.
Later that afternoon, while sitting on the bank of the stream, eating my hard-boiled eggs and crusty scone, I watched the other fishermen and women pack up their things and slide their fly-rods into the tubes atop their cars and pull out from their improbable parking spots and leave. Good riddance, I thought as each one drove away. Later that afternoon the air was warm — maybe too warm to fish, but I had the stream to myself and I explored the deep green holes, the eddies, and the overhanging branches.
For further reading on heartbreak and its relationship to fishing, I recommend The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.