thoughts on life and fly fishing

Strong, black coffee sits on my desk. The aroma mixing with the cold breeze entering through my open windows. Yesterday was sunny and warm, today overcast, drizzling rain, and chilly. Yet I keep my windows open in defiance of the weather, as though it were some ancient pagan act of coaxing the sun to return to the valley. I am back home for two hours before I must go into work, and I take this time to drink black coffee, listen to Coltrane’s sensual and throaty saxophone, and give cadence to my thoughts. Pandora runs about on the floor, switching from green puffball to a rattle mouse in her play.

I had gotten up and walked to a used-book store. The old man asked me if I was looking for anything in particular and I answered that I was in the mood for trout fishing. He pointed me to a shelf and I made my way toward it where I could inspect the titles printed on their spines. After perusing them I settled on Mclean’s A River Runs Through It, and Other Short Stories, paid for the book ($5) and walked to Allan Bros Coffee Shop. I smiled at the manager, who asked for my order and made my mocha, and briefly entertained notions of asking her out on a date. I laughed to myself that if I did ask her out it would probably be “for a cup of coffee” and also I had just gotten rid of my car and am without transportation (as I’ve been now for two years). I let the thoughts pass, collected my coffee with a warm thanks, and headed to a window seat where I read half of the book and drank my coffee. I noted several passages which I intend to copy into a postcard and send to my father. We do not agree on some deep core issues and when language enters the picture our disagreements increase in disparities. But when one throws language out the window and enters in with symbology, we find an amazing amount of common ground. For the two of us, floating silently in a small boat deep within a cypress swamp on a chilly morning needs no explanations, no reasons, no rational. We understand and that is enough.

It is this same sense of understanding that I look for when I go out into the woods hiking, or when I venture up creeks and rivers searching for a fishing spot. I am looking for fish, but I am equally looking for a place where I might walk up on myself. I am always searching for myself out in the woods. When I was young the family would take vacations up into the northern part of the state (and twice up into the Appalachians) and when we were in the most beautiful spots my dad would get this calm quality about him, when all the cares of working in a paper mill and making house payments and dealing with a wife and kids and co-workers would slide away beyond the broken horizon. His eyes would look “out there” and “in there” at the same time and I would silently watch him. When he had gazed for a while, his soul soaking up as much as it could hold, he would turn back to me and utter “my rock is out there somewhere”. His rock was just that… a rock that you could put in your pocket, but at the same time it wasn’t a rock, it was his connection to the world around him, that point where heart and mind met existence and place, and my dad always felt closer to it when out in nature, and closer still to it when in the mountains. When I am hiking, I am searching for my rock. The flies that I cast out over a mountain stream are for trout as much as they are for my rock.

After reading a while I decided to walk over to a newly opened fly fishing store nearby and check it out. Entering the door I was greeted by the owner and I replied that I was just looking around. Fly fishing is both intensely familiar to me and intensely alien to me. I feel at home while standing in the water, sole witness to the splendor around me, my line stretching out before me onto the current, hoping there is a fish in the soon reached hole. And yet the two aspects of fly fishing alien to me are 1) the techniques and skills used (I was raised a bass fisherman) and 2) the local knowledge and lore needed (what flies are what and when to use them and how trout and salmon think and act). I looked around the displays of flies, not knowing one from the other. I looked at the rods and shrunk back from the $190 price tag on them. I would find some less expensive rods someplace else. After looking around a bit I was asked if I was looking for anything in particular. I explained that I was raised in the swamps of southern Arkansas and knew nothing about fly fishing, how to do it, or what to look for, but that I had been a couple of times and that I was now hooked. Two older men came in and sat down and the four of us entertained several conversations all at once. From tricks to tying flies, to weather conditions, upcoming fishing trips, classes I could take nearby on casting and fly tying, flies that are working on such and such river now, and more. It was painfully obvious to me that I was like the 10 year-old boy at the deer camp for the first time, surrounded by seasoned hunters who knew all the tricks and tips of deer hunting, and that I was more likely to shoot a stump than ever really seeing a deer at all. I was purchasing a poster with water-colored pictures of flies on it (and their names) as well as a fly fishing magazine, and I had to bolster my male standing somehow. I had shown my ignorance in fly fishing, and was doing so with my purchase of the poster, and I needed to gain some standing as a male. I gave a brief recount of growing up in the swamps and fishing for striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black bass, and hybrid bass, the different lures I used and the places I used them, how bass think and so forth. I was attempting to show my expertise in this area, while at the same time acknowledging that I knew nothing about trout, where trout lived, how they thought, nor the tools used in fishing for them. I was hoping that I could borrow credibility from one area and bring it to another, that I might be taken more seriously as a “future fly fisherman” instead of a “damned fool who is only losing flies out on a river”. The owner showed me a fly, how it was tied and pointed out several things to me that were beyond my knowledge. His thumbnails were as thick and crusty as shoal and his breath reeked of coffee and chewing tobacco. But I listened intently to what he was saying and in response to the offering I hoped to say something to show that I was indeed a “future fly fisherman” and not the “damned fool” and I commented on the dark green of the wooly bugger as possibly being fit for mid to late summer. One of the older men said that it was a late fly and I responded that were I bass fishing that is what I would assume for the fly.

Collecting my purchase and thanking them I exited the store and headed for home. At home I hung the poster on the wall, next to my hanging hip waders. On the shelf nearby lies two spools of fly line, one orange and the other yellow, two reels, some flies, and some leader line. Outside my window a tree moves gently with the breeze and I can hear the sound of a mountain creek in my mind, the feel of mossy rock under my boots, the gentle motion of moving the line back and forth through the air, watfching the fly land on the water and watching for the hit. Thus far I’ve yet to catch a trout, but I continue to try, to hope, to read and ask questions and practice. But the joy is in trying (at least for now, until I catch one) just as in the joy of life is in living. Perhaps I’ll never truly find my rock, but the searching for it is for now enough.

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