|As the season winds down here in south Louisiana, thinking back on the year, I humbly submit this piece from last spring in what I hope will be a testimony not only to our sport, but to the wildness that beckons many of us.|
The water that captivated me this weekend was not raging and engorging the landscape around it. It was low and thin, shadowy, emasculated from drought but still alive with motion.
It is partially spring-fed; it was cold, as was the air when we arrived, 53 degrees. It would not get above 65 all day, and a brisk north wind sent shivers up my spine from time to time.
Coppery-colored due to the tannins in the surrounding vegetation, the little creek still moved swiftly across the steeper gradients in the hills, more sluggish along the flat runs. There were long, now dingy-white sandbars on which grass had sprouted, testament to how long they had been exposed to the sun and air.
But all was magical and beautiful. The slump in my shoulders, the bend in my back both straightened. There is solace here. There is a chin-deep comfort along these high bluffs and whetstone-surfaced rocks.
Three men with fly rods, two the same age, both more than two decades the seniors of the third. Wouldn't figure there'd be much commonality between them, but for the fly rods. Though instruments of angling, their visible exclamation of the bond they share is misleading. The rods – long and lithe, tools of art and science and a little mysticism rather than brute force and coercion – are merely the conduit by which we three immerse ourselves in a bit of wildness and skittish water.
It was our fourth trip this year to those low-slung, red dirt hills far north of home. Wouldn't figure three men of reasonable intelligence and a fair amount of common sense would have even gone the third time, considering how they had left virtually empty-handed before. Certainly, the wild, frenzied tug of the little spotted bass lurking beneath the undercuts of the bluffs and near fallen trees is, when hooked, a transit from here to there across a span of not only water but imagination; yet they are only a facet of the respite found along such places.
So there we were, lowlanders all, trotting down the bluff to the cold, excitable water below. The creek might have seemed pallid, if you didn't know it and never waded to your knees in its true nature. An abandoned building falling slowly to earth might seem that way; a bit of concrete highway abandoned and choked with weeds could be discerned as ill, feeble. But thin and slight as the stream was that day, it was only in a phase of its existence, from roaring and fierce, to temperate and subdued, then just simple and reduced to essence. We, who are slowly husking creeks and learning their secrets know what A. A. Milne knew when he penned, "Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day."
Instinctively the moment we touch water we separate, spread apart not only to give the long, curling arcs of our fly lines room to not tangle with each other, but also to individually savor the richness. In slack water, it is harder to fish close, but even in good flows we still put some void between us, a space that can be filled with wildness.
There is no hurry. We head upstream. For me, it is a rite: I am facing the creek as it moves toward me, taking it unabridged and unbridled. I take it on its terms, not mine. That's not why I come here; I don't wish to bend it to my will, as mankind is so eager to do to the natural world, with repercussions such as the swollen Mississippi River east of us. I, at least, have learned the lessons of the past and take the creek as it will present itself to me, fast and furious, or slow and drowsy.
Streams are an essay in vitality. Stream or creek or brook or river, they are prose of brilliance and dumb silence, sparkles of light and shadows so dark and deep they might well cross through the universe. The world contracts around a creek, almost ceases to exist beyond the edges where water moves incessantly. Here I am a complete sentence instead of a fragment. Here I have width and breadth and height. Here, above all things, I am at peace with myself.
The fish are few. Mostly pumpkinseeds, Lepomis gibbosus, and we catch dozens of them as incidentals, for they are not our quarry. Orange bright as sunbeams, blues like oceans, green like trees, their colors are dappled and leopard-like. Scarcely more than three or four inches, they attack flies with a ferocity that makes me glad they don't get to be a pound or so: They'd ravage my poppers to shreds. They are bold and ostentatious, fearless.
The spotted bass are there, too, wildness incarnate, little size to them and few in number. But they are a welcome presence in an already perfect daydream.
After a couple miles upstream, we retreat and settle back in where we began and have lunch, then it's downstream and more pumpkinseeds and a few small bass. The creek is slower here, more thoughtful and gentle, sometimes even attentive. It's harder to find water deep enough to present our flies, so we spread even farther apart, sometimes out of sight of one another as the stream twists and turns through the hills. None of us mind. Here is the bent we three share, what Ted Leeson called "the habit of rivers." I won't propose to know what my comrades know and learn out of my sight on the stream, but I know what I uncover. There is a joyous unease at being alone on a creek in a deep, dark wood, and though I know this is not wilderness, it is a piece of the ancient world where civilization stumbled and stepped over. Oh, there are people around, and roads, to be sure. But get far enough away from the comfort zone of most human beings to the places where a slight quaver trembles in the chest, and that's when I know all there is to know. About the universe, about life, and about myself.
We end the day eventually, as we must. Responsible lives beckon. Shake hands and head for our respective homes. We have vastly different jobs, residences and surroundings, but we are equalized and united in our habit of creeks and wild, shifting places. Wouldn't figure three men with such a powerful link as this place would easily leave it. But it is time.
By the time we leave the great pines behind, the tires are humming noisily on concrete and exhaust fumes slyly intrude on the cab of the vehicle. Hurtling down the highway, I have left the better part of me behind. What remains is, by Monday morning, startled by chaos passing itself off deceitfully as life.