CARRY ME AWAY
The fly rod in my hand shimmered blackly; graphite iridescence, green guide wraps, Portuguese cork grip. A gold reel seemed almost gaudy against such understated charm.
Around me, the creek was low, perhaps a quarter its flow last time I was here. But the water was cool and moved along at a good clip. My fly of choice, a small yellow popper with white legs, still rested in the chrome hook keeper near the rod's grip. I stood there on the edge of the creek and soaked in the sound of the water falling over a little ledge, the scents of the trees, the sun on the back of my neck, just cresting the tree tops.
Jim, my fishing compadre for the day, cast at the spot where the creek tumbled over the rock ledge into a deep, foaming pool. I ambled over to a delicious-looking undercut in the stream's bank, shaded also by green shrubbery.
Still the fly didn't come out of the keeper; I didn't strip line off the reel. Take a moment. Just a few minutes to let it all sink in. Soothe away the aches and pains. Cleanse the detritus of the city and the road.
Sighing, I let the fly free, stripped out a few yards of line and false-cast to get some speed in the cast. The little popper landed just about where I wanted it, just under the thick tangle of tree limbs. I snapped the line a few times, made the popper jump and make a little noise. Nothing. I picked up line, false-cast a couple more times, and put it back. A few more pops. Nope.
Move it over about three yards to another likely undercut and leaning bush. Pop, pop. Rest. Pop, pop. Rest—but then the water beneath it broils, swirls and swarms and I lift the tip of the rod, feel a solid, frenetic resistance at the other end.
"Hey!" I called to Jim. I didn't know if he looked over or not; he was behind me, and at that point, very little would have taken my eyes off the racing path of my line, fly now vanished underwater, making for cover inside the undercut.
I tugged back, and an irresistible force went ballistic, rushing in another direction, upstream. I got the slack line on my reel and started cranking, slowly, and the little spotted bass—smallish, perhaps eight inches—leaped from the water, danced on his tail for me for a few seconds and plunged back into the clear, cool flow.
I laughed out loud. Through the cork grip under my hand I could feel the fish pull at my line, almost detect the strong pulse of its riverine flanks as it swam. But it was a little fellow, and I soon had him to hand, unhooked and back in the water.
Defying conventional wisdom, I cast the fly back into the same spot, and I didn't even have the slack out of my line when the creek cyclone, agitated, and my line went taut again. A much better fish, though no trophy; they don't get very big in little creeks like these, but what they lack in size they make up for in sheer, unfettered wildness. Soon this one was released, swimming away from me, too.
Something else swam away with those two beautiful little fish: accumulated strains and stresses over the three or four months since I had last been there. Dragged down deep, into dark pools, green with lack of light unlike the rest of the clear-running, shallower parts of the stream. Hidden away. Sequestered.
And I think about the kind of fishing I used to do; it was no less spiritual. Not back then, anyway. I motored by boat to the place I would cast my line. I drifted or used my trolling motor to move from here to there. It was beautiful. Quiet, peaceful, soothing. It was my little slice of heaven. The fish were bigger; there were more of them, too. Lots more.
Why, then, am I hours and hours from home, standing in a stream, waving around a black graphite fly rod in pursuit of little bass usually less than a foot long?
We backtracked downstream, picking up sunset-orange, green and blue pumpkinseed perch along the way. Jim caught his first bass of the day but regretfully lost a real bruiser farther down the creek's meandering flow. On we went, pushing our feet through wet sand and creek water, finding pockets of deep green water to probe with our flies. I missed one that threw my popper clean out of the water in a fit of fury, not a bite. I put the fly right back in the same vicinity and it was like someone threw a cherry bomb into the creek. A beautiful green spotted bass, some two-and-a-half pounds, eventually came to my quivering hand.
After I set him free, I opened a flap on my waist pack and found a little cigar, bit off the cap and lit the tail. Billows of smoke curled around my head, swept off slowly by the slight breeze. The cool water coursed over my feet about mid-calf. Jim plucked fish one after the other out of a hole, smiling broadly. Since spring I had been driving the hundreds of miles along that gray, noxious concrete spine to these little creeks far from home, and have been rewarded with naught so far as fish go. We feared last year's drought had decimated them. Now we knew differently. We didn't understand it, but who can understand a river that is never still, never complacent, never passive?
No fish for months, but never did we leave there without solace. I looked down at the little Diamondback fly rod in my hand and thought how much I liked it. It has a smooth, unhurried casting stroke, swift and sure. A stir of sadness caught me then, too: The Company made all its rods by hand in Vermont until just a few years ago when they were bought out by a much larger tackle firm. Now most of their rods are built in China, and I held one of them once, and wiggled it in the aisle of the store. I felt no life in it.
Odd that it occurred to me there, on the creek, cigar smoke making swirling blue wisps of wisdom around my head, the stream rushing over my feet and ankles, or maybe not so odd. There are rods in my quiver made of graphite and bamboo. I love them all. Because what's in them isn't so much a mineral found in metamorphic rock and also used to make the "lead" in pencils…what's in them spotted bass and pumpkinseeds. Bluegill and of course, trout.
Though it's just a tool, it's also an excuse, really. I could hike, I could take photographs, I could look for fossils in the stone, I could ride horses along these marvelous little trails and through the dense, dark woods between them. That's what living too long in proximity of sensibility, responsibility, schedules, work ethics and trying to outrun all the other rats in the race has made me think: That somehow I need an excuse—some sort of hall pass—to escape into wildness, when in fact, I can easily leap into it for its own sake. No excuses, and if I fish, I fish because I want to.
I put the cigar firmly between my teeth. I played out a little line and lifted it from the crystal clear water, slung it behind me, rod tip stopped at about ten degrees off of ninety over my right shoulder. Waited a sparse second, flung it smoothly but firmly forward, and let the line carry the fly to the next green, deep pool.
A pumpkinseed rushed out from beneath a twisted deadfall and took it, the sudden tap-tap-tap of its strike turning into a prolonged tug and bend of the Diamondback's tip.
It was just an average panfish. No more than half as long as the cork grip in my hand. But I let it carry me away, for as long as it wanted to, for as long as I had time to stay and take in the wildness of it, the frantic energy of it passing from fish to line to rod and into my hand; giving me the things I lack in myself.
Carry me away.
Dedicated to Harry Middleton (1949-1993) who showed me that I am not alone in the struggle