Standing in a river

Saturday afternoon I talked to my dad. It was his 53rd birthday and I did not know it but as luck would have it I happened to call him. We talk about every three weeks on average. It was luck that I got him on his birthday. It may sound bad, that I forgot it was his birthday, but we forget each other’s birthday all the time. We know that we love each other and that is more important to us than a yearly ceremony. I chided him for his old age and he got a chance to talk to Eliza on the phone. Soon, however, our conversation turned to an area that we both can relate to and where the mundane aspects mix seamlessly with deeper issues; an area where we can talk philosophically together and yet not use fancy words or theories that we hold which disagree with that of the other… but where our deeper sense of life run parallel….


He told me how he started to keep a journal with notes of where he goes fishing at, time of day, date, weather conditions, (temp, wind, barometric pressure, etc…), baits used, everything. Then he has a running record and can make better decisions about where to go. I told him that such a thing might be worth publishing someday. He scoffed at the idea but I kept the notion in my mind. He is an avid fisherman to say the least and I was thinking to myself of how treasured that journal of his would be to me, moreso than his guns or his crappie poles because it was a record of the places he walked on the earth and the things he did that he loved doing.

Later that night I had dropped Eliza off at home and it was now about 3:30 am. She told me that she was going to stay up a bit with her roommate and then they were going to pack the next morning and that they’d call me in the afternoon when they were ready for me to help them move. She urged me to “go do something”, knowing how important to “get away” is for me. I love this woman madly. I came home and noted the faintest pressence of daylight in the sky. The birds had long since began to announce the coming of Helios’ chariot across the heavens and I thought of what I might do. There is a mountain SE of Eugene, some 50 miles I think, that I’ve vowed myself to climb before summer’s end. I thought of some bass ponds that I’ve found out about and perhaps trying my luck on them (now that the weather has warmed back up to a comfortable temp for bass). I’ve thought of hiking and other activities, but one finally won out… fly fishing.

I bass fish for my ego. It is a simple sort of fishing, not as simple as, say, catfishing, but no where near as difficult as fly fishing. Bass fishing is for simple people. Fly fishing is for philosophers and poets. Don’t get me wrong… enjoy bass fishing… but my growing love is for fly fishing. I bass fish only for the comfort of knowing that I am doing everything right, whereas with fly fishing I am still learning the basics.

Wearing only a tank-top and shorts I grab a UO hat and head out to the truck and drive up the McKenzie river. I stopped at a store and bought a drink, only to find a donut shop a block further down the street. I can forsee many stops at this place en route to fishing early in the morning. I drove for 15 minutes and took the Deerhorn Road up the McKenzie’s southern bank. I noted several houses for sale and wished that I had the money and credit to buy a house. The only way of buying one seemed to rest on my publishing a best selling book. Thinking of the quality of writing that I’ve done lately that notion seemed far and away a fantasy.

After a short, leisurely drive with the windows down and the radio off, letting the sounds of the morning and the scent of the river enter my truck, I finally arrived at the point I had in mind. This was the same point that I had visited with Eliza a couple weeks prior, where she sunbathed topless and I did nothing more than try to learn how to cast a fly line again. Oh yes, cannot forget the a moment on a log on the bank of an island.

I took out my wallet and keys and hid them in the back of the Trooper. I carry a spare key hidden under the frame of the truck. I wasn’t going to take the chance of my wallet and/or keys joining the rocks of the river. My tackle box and fly pole in hand I headed down the familiar trail to the river’s edge. A couple of weeks ago the water level was a foot higher at this point. This morning I could go across a little off-shoot of the river with just my ankles getting wet. In the east the sun had finally cleared the Cascade Mountains and the bright yellow ball shone fiercely on the water. White patches of light reflected off of the river and up into the canopy of trees lining the river bank. The sound of babbling water surrounded me as I waded out to deeper water and gave myself some line.

Whissssshhhhh…. whish…. whissssshhhhh. Back and forth went my line as I tried to get into a rhythym of casting. Casting a bass lure is easy for me, second nature, as I can put a lure anywhere I want at any distance. I used to practice casting a lure into a coffee can in the backyard as a kid. But casting a fly line is different. One doesn’t cast the lure as it is so light that if you held it in your hand you’d not be able to feel it. One casts the entire line, but one must also resist the temptation of cracking the line like a whip as this will shorten your cast and probably snap the fly off of the tip of your leader line.

I’ve read half of A River Runs Through It and I remember points made in the book about casting. Move the rod tip from 11 to 2 (and closer to 1:30), keep a steady rhythym, etc… I struggled to keep the line moving in easy rhythym. Ahead of me was a section of current with a riffle. Something was beneath the surface which broke the smooth flow of current. Something which could give shelter to a trout hiding behind it, waitinf for a morsel to float downstream. I cast my fly upstream of the riffle and let it float down the riffle a few times. Nothing. Downstream I noted some interesting looking spots and I waded out of the river to the island to try and sneak up on the spot. Yes… sneak up. Trout can detect sounds, vibrations, and smells with an uncanny ability. It is stressed over and over again that one must sneak up on trout. Yet try as I might the many rocks proved incredibly hard to walk on with any grace at all, making silence near impossible.

Getting to the area I decided to try and wade out a bit so that I might approach some obstructions further out in the river. It isn’t a good idea really to fish down stream as I was doing (moving from upstream to downstream, alerting fish of your presence) but when I faced upstream, East, I was blinded by the sun and it’s reflection on the water. So downstream it was at this point. While standing in the water I noted some interesting things. Sometimes the current was difficult to handle, almost sweeping me off of my feet. Sometimes it was nearly invisible to my perception. I noted that this changed by my stance and the direction I faced. The current is an important factor in fishing as it determines where the food flows and hence where the fish are going to be. One must pay attention to current.

Standing in the river, casting my line back and forth, aiming for riffles where a trout might be. It seemed to me that I was standing in the middle of an analogy. I could do nothing about the current, much like I can do nothing about the passage of time in my life. Some people might go to a river to look for shiny rocks, much like I did as a kid. Others might be content to simply float down the river in a boat. Yet in looking for a rock or floating in a boat, what changes with the person? One hand is looking for a thing while the other is letting the current pull you along. It seemed to me that this was like either looking for that magic thing in life to make you happy, or simply going through life unaware of what was going on, not living deliberately. I was not doing either of these things. I was looking for a fish, a fish which changes and moves and behaves according to its own dictates. But there was something more as well. If I didn’t catch the fish I was not bothered. I was enjoying the act of fishings and being aware of the character of the river. I’ll leave the analogy unfinished… letting whatever reader there may be to come to his/her own conclusion about the fish.

But being that I am content to cast my line in the water does not mean that I am not actively seeking a fish. If contentment was only in casting a line I need only go to the nearby park and practice my cast. If happiness lies in standing in a river then I need not travel so far (as I live a mile away from the Willamette River). No, the contentment comes in doing something with an elusive, desirable, but ultimately not necessary task. It is the meshing of desire, existence, behavior and environment. Since I had not caught anything I changed my course toward the other side of the island. Again, I found it very difficult to sneak up on the water due to the many small rocks whigh noisily announced my presences as I tried to tip-toe closer.

Whish, whissssshhhh went my line again and I worked my way toward some faster current. Then I saw him. down river, perhaps a quarter of a mile in some great current and near a wonderful bend in the river (affording some good eddys to cast into) was a fisherman. He was a dark silouhette and I could make out nothing about him as he stood in waist deep water. His movements seemed fluid and honed, like an old man who hasn’t gotten rickety yet but was old enough to have firmly learned habits of movement. The way his arms and body moved he seemed not the least bit bothered by the current, whereas I sometimes found the current a chore when it came up to mid-thigh. Whereas my line gathered around me and I tied knots in the air with my cast, he seemed only to direct the line into the direction it was wanting to jump anyway. Resisting the urge to go back up to my Trooper and retrieve my binoculars so that I might watch him, I turned toward upriver and the glaring morning sun and waded forth.

I soon came to a wide area of the river about mid thigh deep and with a glassy smooth surface. The current was sweeping far away to me, leaving the inside of the curve calm and tranquil. Underfoot was very soft dirt bottom. Here I paused and practiced my cast. The biggest problem with my fishing is my cast. I spend too much time on the preparation for a sloppy and inadequate cast. If I can improve my cast I can improve my fishing dramatically. So I began to practice. Back and forth went my rod tip. Sometimes the line hit itself in mid air, sometimes it behaved too much like a whip. But most of the time it was just a weak cast. But sometimes it was poetry. Sometimes I didn’t cast the line so much as just point the line forward and open my hands as if letting a bird fly free and smiling as the line floated out straight and true to the spot that I intended. The farthest I could get was around 25 or 30 feet. Not great, not horrible. But to cast the line back and forth and to get that feeling of rhythym… I understood what Norman Maclean says of his brother Paul… “he was beautiful” and in his fishing “was artistry”.

I have a sentiment from the book that I keep with me in my heart when I go fishing. It is a reminder of not only fishing but of life, as fishing is such a great metaphor for.

“Even though Paul must have three or four fish by now, I took my time walking down the trail, trying with each step to leave the world behind. Something within fishermen tries to make fishing into a world perfect and apart– I don’t know what it is or where, because sometimes it is in my arms and sometimes in my throat and sometimes nowhere in particular except somewhere deep. Many of us probably would be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”

I could not have said it any better than what Maclean.

A few more casts of the line, a few more times to feel the excitement of a good cast and the frustration of a sloppy cast, and then I turned toward home. Walking through the tall grass, taller than myself, karate kicking briars snaking out onto the narrow path, I made it to the Trooper with minor scratches. It isn’t really summer yet until I have scratches on my legs. With soggy feet and a happy heart I turned the ignition and pointed the wheels toward home. I’m not bringing any fish home this trip… but I’m bringing home peace and contentment and that is what I was really fishing for anyway.


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