For Want of a River

Life is an unruly mess and ideals are hard to hold on to, but fishing is an isolated enough slice of it that there’s the hope we can do this one small thing perfectly. – John Gierach

My waist pack was heavy. Heavier than usual, because I packed more water than earlier in the year. It was 8:30 a.m., and already in the high 80s. I’d need the hydration.

I picked up my rod off the tailgate of the truck, gave it a quick, testing wiggle. It felt light and responsive, and eager. So was I.

Some three-and-a-half hours and 180 miles behind 8:30 a.m. Saturday, thoughts of oil-saturated marshes, dead and dying wildlife and the rest of the conundrums of my well-traveled paths were left behind. Today, today it is just good friends, the water, and the wildness.

Grandmother’s medicine. Salve for the battered soul.

The stream was low, but flowing well. It was also murky along some of its meander. I walked across the short, vertical rock face of the streambed, watching my footing, and stepped off into the flow. Instantly, the cool caress of animate water made my shoulders relax; I could feel my jaw unclench, my teeth stop grinding.

There were three of us. Cumbersome on a small creek, unless there’s good camaraderie, good understanding of fishing etiquette, which there was. So we hopscotched: Spread out along the creek, the person farthest back, upon suitably fishing a “reach” of water, moves to the lead, leaving a good spread of stream between. The second person will hopscotch to that unfished run, and then the third goes again to the lead. In this way, no one’s in the way, and everyone gets a fair chance at the spots.

Kevin caught the first spot within minutes of arriving. Just six months into his fly fishing obsession, he’s mastered stream fishing as if he was born with his feet in a creek. We worked our way up to a big, deep pool that’s impossible to wade around even in low water, then hopped up on the bank and a little farther upstream, the fish spooky and nervous.

Even the murky, milky water was ointment and vapors to me. It was hot, to be sure, but standing there on the worn sandstone, casting to an undercut in the bank where a long, deep black-green shadow indicated a length of deeper water where a fish might lurk, hiding in darkness, I was complete again. My rod has a harmonic to it when the line is cast, a small vibration in my palm, a resonance that helps the little switches in my brain work correctly again. This self-serving, time-wasting and no ‘count obsession with creeks and streams and rivers will be my undoing, I’m sure, but man…what a way to go.

(Photo by Kevin Minor)

The water does not improve in clarity upstream, so we decide to head downstream in hopes the abundance of sand, as opposed to rock, may have filtered the murk a little better. Besides, I am still too close to the parking lot, and the people, and the cars and the smell of charcoal lighter. We stop for an early lunch, realizing we’ll probably hike in a ways and come back late.

We could wade from there but instead we walk far along the trail until we reach a bend in the stream, then walk farther still, until I can smell no lighter fluid, hear no raucous laughter. The creek is flowing, but finding pocket water is difficult, and we hike in farther than ever downstream. The white sand beaches along every bend are blaringly hot, radiating heat under my chin and behind my earlobes, and we walk close to the water or in the water as we can.

There are mid-growth tadpoles everywhere. The stream has cleared a good bit. The tadpoles scurry away as we take each step. They look like little evolutionary throwbacks, like lima beans with tiny tails. I scooped one up and its legs had not emerged yet, just a pinky-nail sized head and body, fused, evolving, being born.

On the edge of the sand, tiny clamshells bake in the sun. They are smaller than dimes, a dirty mustard color, open but the halves still joined. Some are cup-up and have hoarded sand for safekeeping; others are lying cup-down, and the sun makes them shine like little gold coins. I pick up a few of the most miniscule and put them in my fly box to take home to Suzie.

The spotted bass are scarce, but we manage two little ‘uns a piece. The pumpkinseed perch dominate the day, aggressive and bold, true wildness in their own right, they dart at a cast popper and attack it with the zeal and courage of a lion. Many are so small they can only tug at the little rubber legs of the popper, making it bob comically in the stream. Some manage to take the hook, and come to hand in an eruptive, frantic and chaotic splash, dancing as they come.

We are farther down than we have ever gone before, and the hike back is long; but I take one little pumpkinseed and admire him in my hand for just a moment before returning him to his world. He has not the public relations campaign of a spotted bass, but he is the true survivor among the piscatorial denizens of the stream. A speckled aqua, dark green and brown over blazing hot orange, his orange-rimmed eyed staring back at me, he raises his fins defiantly.

The females lay hundreds of thousands of eggs to assure the survival of a scant few; they are easy prey and vital to the food chain be it stream or lake or pond. The pumpkinseed, and his cousins the bluegill, sun perch, goggle-eye and others, will feed on midges, insects so small you and I can’t see them, and conversely they’ll strike at a mouse crossing the water that they couldn’t possibly swallow, but doggedly nip at it until it makes its way across to land. The drive for life is powerful and beautiful.

I laugh, but not in jest of him. I admire his courage, long for his wildness, and when I put him back into the stream, he darts away to the nearest deep pocket to soothe his bruised ego. Soon he’ll be feeding again.

Kevin and I both missed a couple of bruisers about half an hour apart, and Scott another a little later. Bass of spotted or largemouth variety, unsure which, that struck at our poppers with an eruption like a waterspout, a brief moment of startled, wide-eyed looks on our faces, and an exclamation of mixed anger, disappointment and resentment when the connection is broken, the hookset failed.

(Photo by Kevin Minor)

It’s hot. I have little water left in my pack. I look down the stream: Ahead are sparkling sandbars, ghostly fallen timbers, bluffs and shallow bends, shallow enough that I can see relatively far. It looks like a Winslow Homer painting. Kevin and Scott are behind me somewhere, and I can’t see or hear them. I long to keep going, aching to follow the shallow trickle of water working its way tirelessly downstream. I want to follow it, see where it takes me, see what might take my fly along the way. The next bend of the stream always beckons me, I want to know it! I want to see around it, and the next one, and the next, and someday, I hope, I’ll go so far I’ll have slipped away to some place truly innocent and wild.

But I can’t.

Just can’t.

With a massive exhalation of hot breath and a gargantuan mustering of will against longing, I turn and trudge back upstream, where my friends are sitting on the shady side of a sand bar. I sit with them for awhile, and we talk about this and that and the other thing. Then we make the trek back, fishing a few likely holes as we go, but we’re to the parking lot soon enough. Too soon.

We’ve caught a handful of fish each, a couple spotted bass a piece, and a bouquet of pumpkinseeds. I even got a little goggle-eye, first one on the creek. It’s far earlier than we’d normally leave, but the heat is beating us down. We’re on the road by 3 p.m.

Back home, all the misery was still there. The oil. The bureaucratic assaults. The incompetence and the indifference. For a moment, however brief, I was outside it all, and it couldn’t touch me. The moment is gone. The clock turns and each tick is stark, unrelenting and painful.

It’ll be fall before we go back, if good rainfall and cooler temps allow. Already I am counting the uncountable days. When I can again touch wildness, if not wilderness. Meantime, I’ll be able to think of little else but flowing water, moving water, water unbridled and unencumbered.

I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river. – Norman Maclean

2 comments to For Want of a River

  • blufloyd

    Well right now our rivers are high and muddy. I only hope it makes its way down to bayou country. It has my fishing messed up but it ain’t oil.

  • bohunterbiff

    I love the Bayou you are writing of. Again your prose stikes deep within me. It is raining, has been raining, and will be good for the Bayou. Looking forward to the possibility of running into you or other fly fishermen while out there.

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