There hasn’t been much fishing with daily life needing your full attention. So, you’re grateful when schedules finally work out, and you can fish on Saturday.
You awake at 2:30 am, excited and ready to go. You wish you could sleep in, you want to sleep in. But, when it is a fishing day, your body arises early, easily and with much anticipation. You get out of bed.
There’s not much to do so early in the morning. Sunrise is not until 7:30 am, and fishing in the dark is eerie. So, you sit around, read and drink some coffee. You read your work emails, you pay bills. You make some new flies just for that day.
Your body is tense, but in a good way.
At last, the hours go by. You quietly load up the car. You time the arrival so that there will be enough light to let you walk the dirt trail to the water without tripping.
You don’t remember much about the drive in the dark. You put on podcasts. But, you’re really planning where you’ll be that day and are wondering whether the fishing will be good.
You decide to start at a heavily-pressured section of a known river. That stretch is famous for its big fish that are hard to catch. You don’t go there much anymore. The fish are selective but can be duped. But, you just don’t enjoy the crowds.
You make the bet that other anglers will be sleeping in. The morning air is cold. You’re on the dregs of daylight savings time, and clocks soon will turn back an hour. So, you hope you’re the first person on the water and can leave before others show up.
You exit the highway and take winding roads through small New England towns. Some Trump signs are still around, and you drive by a house with a Confederate flag up. It’s been there for a year.
You pull onto an unmarked dirt road and slowly navigate around some rocks. You’re relieved to see no other cars there.
Moments later, you are slowing walking down a dirt trail. You hear the river, that steady cadence of running water. It is always the same at this point. Your chest tightens, and you have to remember to breathe. That tense excitement returns but is stronger now. The sound of moving water gets louder.
And, then, you arrive. It is still mostly dark, but you can make out the water and the boulders that you’ve almost memorized. Some trees have lost many leaves, and their bare branches and trunks reach up like multi-fingered hands. This is an area you know well. You learned to fish here, by yourself and doing most things wrong but gradually getting better.
You step into the water, and you feel its coldness against your waders. You move deeper towards the center of the river, careful not to trip. There are many boulders and rocks along the river bed.
And, then, you start.
You throw a back cast, load the fly rod, and bring your arm forward. You start to fish. When the fly rod moves and flexes and throws line, you feel its every pulse and movement. It feels a part of you, and you are an extension of it. It is a beautiful feeling.
Over time, without thinking, you now own five fly rods. Some are long, and some are short. Some are for bigger rivers, and some are for creeks. Each fly rod feels different. You know you can be blindfolded, cast one of the rods, and know which one it is. These are your silent friends, your companions on the water. Ever true.
You keep casting. There’s a sonorous and beautiful sound when a fly line is cast. It gracefully moves in the air, like a long and gentle serpent, undulating and always in motion. Over time, your face relaxes, there is no emotion in your eyes, and you are minding the line on the water, hoping to see it jerk or pause.
You are in the zone, in flow.
You’ve seen this expression on other anglers over the years. Blank expressions, extreme focus, and the occasional flick of the arm to re-cast. Gradually, you no longer think about work, your problems, or what is in the news today.
Hours can go by, and it feels like minutes. You are in the water, you become part of the fly rod, and you are immersed in that present moment, hoping for a fish.
Then, you are jolted awake. Your line pauses, and you quickly but gently raise the fly rod. Suddenly, your line bounces around. There’s a jolt of electricity at the end of it, as a good-sized trout darts here and there. You feel every pull and tug on the fly rod, this long graphite stick that is now a part of you and of which you are a part. Together, conjoined, you battle the fish.
Playing a savvy fish in moving water means that many, many things can go wrong. A trout can hide under a sunken log and break your line. It can leap and throw your hook. It can plow straight downriver, using the force of the current and its speed to break free. Or worse, you can fight it for too long and actually kill it.
All this requires a delicate balance. To dupe savvy fish, you use light line that is harder for them to see. Yet, you have to fight aggressively a fish to bring it in before it gets too tried.
If it tries to go down river, you have to chase it or tilt the fly rod to apply side pressure. If you see it gunning for a log that you know is there, you have to pinch the line and put the brakes on, hoping out loud that your line will hold.
Over time, you develop an instinct, and you’re actually OK with breaking off a fish. You don’t want to kill any trout. But, at times, even when you do everything right, the trout breaks free. The line falls limp, the fish disappears, and you’re standing there, alone again.
You usually let out a loud sigh, since you’ve been holding your breath almost the whole time when the fish was on. You check your line and knots, put on a new fly, and you begin anew.
At other times, it all works. The fish pauses to catch its breath, and you’re able to slide it into your net. You feel incredibly glad and accomplished when you see the fish, unhook it, all the while admiring its colors.
In this case, things do work out. It’s a nice fish, a pretty fish.
Soon, and once you see that the fish is in good shape, you pick it up out of the net and place it in the water. The fish kicks its tail and glides away. You feel incredibly happy and sad at the same time, to see such beauty and grace and to say goodbye to it. You wish it safety and a long life.
Sometimes, there is a particularly memorable fish. Maybe, it just broke your personal-best record. Maybe, it was a hell of a fight. Or, maybe, it was just incredibly stunning.
That’s when you sit down on a rock or at the bank and cannot believe what just happened, your eyes shimmering at the wonder of it all, marveling at your good fortune.
But, in a bit, you begin again. You reload the rod and cast.
Over the next hour or so, more fish find themselves in your net. Some anglers start to show up. They may be wondering what fly you are using, since you are catching. When you have a fish on, they look over at you. You start to feel self-conscious. These are flies that you’ve made yourself, many of which are original and which you cannot buy.
Once more anglers show up, you decide to reel up, jump in the car, and head downriver, away from the crowds, just as you planned.
As soon as you leave, another angler, who has been watching you, wades over. Once back on the dirt trail, you look back. He has taken over the spot where you were.
Later, you walk and walk. You fish again. You catch all sorts of trout: rainbows, brown trout and brook trout. Some of the fish were stocked, but most are wild wish. You can tell by their colors, the shape of the fins, and how well they fight.
You are fishing some new stretches of the river. It’s a challenging and fun thing to do. You spend a lot of time walking and hunting for fishy spots. You then ease into the river and cast again. Most spots are devoid of fish. But, a few harbor more than enough.
And, then eight hours go by. You catch quite a few fish. It’s a double-digit day. 15, maybe? More were hooked but got off.
You realize, then, that it has been just you and river. You’re the only one fishing the lower stretches.
You left your food and water in the car, and it’s only now that you remember that you’re hungry and thirsty. So, you reel up and call it a day.
You ready for The Return.
On the way back to the car, you slide back into your mind. Your eyes begin again to show emotion, your face muscles begin again to tighten.
You think again to each fish that you caught, where you got it and what fly did the job. You leave the river and walk to the car. You begin to hear traffic and to see houses and roads.
You’re returning to your daily life, and you’re glad that you are. But, deep down, you’re already wondering when the next outing will be. And, your body again starts to feel that familiar and tense excitement.
You remember something a fellow angler told you: “Fly fishing–it’s good for the soul.”