Whip Finish


Ralph Long - Dec 7, 2015

Retrieving my line as dusk fell heavy on the water; I hooked the diminutive size #18 bead-head on the keeper and drew the rod snug. My eyes rose above the high water mark on the far bank, greeting me with a dark grey overcast sky and the darting of bats in the heavy summer air. As my mind slowly caught up to my eyes and the rest of the world I was struck by the realization. My mind had not registered a conscious thought of anything save for the feeding trout in the pool before me for nearly three hours. Not in a compulsive nature however, where the act of fishing consumes a person with a drive to beat the fish. My mind was in the place where water often takes me….the present. No issue carried forward, nor worries of what is to come. The present, which was standing waist deep in the beauty of a limestone stream, with late summer beginning to show the kiss of lipstick red on the leaves of the maples and rising trout.

Some would say I was where I most wanted to be, and for a moment cared not for the rest of my life. Yet the truth is far from that. There are memories, loves and responsibilities in my life far more important than any time spent on water, nor could it in any way diminish those things. The solace of water takes nothing away from things of importance. It only serves to buff the shine into those things that truly matter. It is the remedy to an ache I can't massage or warmth to sunlight seen but not felt. Even though the ache is not cured, nor did it bring the sun's rays the water makes both somehow better.

Nowhere else other than in water can a person attempt a task, experience barely a fraction of success, or none at all, yet leave that task smiling and content. Several weeks ago I fished the Tulpehocken in Central Pennsylvania. I was there at sunrise and caught two smallish browns on my first few casts, and then for the next 3 hours proceeded to cast over feeding trout with not so much as a refusal. On the way out to the truck I passed a gentleman on the way in who inquired how the morning had gone. "Not too bad" I responded. "Just two browns." Not a hint of bitterness or sense of failure, it was said with an honest smile. It had in fact been a great morning on the water.

I could wax nostalgically in timeless fashion with examples of what water has done for me, while laying prose in an attempt to adequately describe just why I am drawn to it. But as my Dad used to say, I would have better luck trying to nail Jello to the wall. Maybe it is genetic? Maybe I'm predisposed to the draw of water, much like a person can be predisposed to other dependencies? In all the time I walked streamside with my Dad, I never saw him complain about the fishing. He was always a glass-half-full kind of guy when it came to fishing regardless of what life was dealing him at the time, and you could always count on a smile coming from under the brim of his pale olive fishing cap.

These days my time on the water is changing. Not in desire, but in function. Parkinson's disease has taken hold of my left side, and what I once did without thinking, now takes conscious thought. From wading to tying on a midge while standing midstream, much is different. Meds are helping, and good days are more frequent than bad, yet frustration can and does creep in. When I need to retype a word such as "when" 6 times in a row or my arm refuses to extend over my head. It can get to a person, when the person has limited patience when dealing with personal failure, such as myself. You'll find me gritting my teeth and cursing my hand while trying to start a screw on a light switch cover or even operate the TV remote. Blaming the tools and complaining about how small they make the screws and buttons. Yet when standing in water, there is no frustration. I can't explain it, but the frustration is replaced with a smile and a deep breath when I cannot thread the eye of a hook, tie a knot or almost take a nosedive in ankle deep riffles.

My Dad suffered disabling injuries from a car accident early in life. He lived with chronic pain, crippling arthritis and a damaged heart valve. He continued to fish regularly however, even on the day prior to his passing. He fished with his best friend, wading for trout on one of their favorite runs. His friend told me he was his joking and happy self for more than two hours of standing in current. Yet, when leaving the stream he had to be helped out of the water and up the bank to the truck due to pain and weakness. I was frustrated thinking about it initially, having nearly begged him repeatedly to go to the docs and get checked out. I understand it now, though it did take me some time to catch on. He was drawn to water. It was where he felt the best. He was in the present.

This year water has taught me acceptance. I now realize that I need a wading staff. I went to a lanyard since it's getting harder to manipulate zippers and pouches, and all of my leader/tippet connections are loop-to-loop. Not out of efficiency, but necessity. I even began pre-rigging leaders and flies for the Trico hatch. That's a new one. While wading, the cramping in my feet disappears and the leg tremors stop. The answer is the solace of water. I can hear my Dad now when I'm beginning to whine about life's trials. He's saying "Boy, stop whining and get your ass to the water. And don't forget your wading staff!"

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