Counting Coup

(Originally published February, 2003)

Lightning, jagged and spectacular, crashes from cloud to cloud. Magnificent and dazzling against the broiling black thunder heads, they leap like celestial panthers from fold to billow.

Though I know I should retreat, seeking shelter in the truck which is parked a couple hundred yards away on the seldom-used road, there are fish rising, undaunted by the conflagration overhead. A patch of willow off-center of the pond is motionless: This storm, while raging in the skies above me, has brought no wind as yet.

Because I have seen no bolts strike the ground or any of the taller structures nearby, I persist, just a little while longer. Fish are rising; there are ringlets and circles on the surface of the pond everywhere I look. The air is charged, I can feel the hair on my arms standing on end from the electrostatic energy.

Only a damn fool would do this, I thought to myself, then immediately replied, Well, it’s not the first time you’ve been called a fool and probably not the last. Takes one to know one, pal.

To the south, distant and unheard, traffic is a column of multi-colored, speeding ants racing to work, rushing home to cook supper, change clothes for that late evening meeting, collapse from a long, exhausting day. I tuck the butt of the rod under my left elbow and drop the leader into my outstretched right hand to inspect the tip for abrasion. I would like to pity those rushing insects along the highway just barely in range of my vision, but I am not so lofty. Were they closer, they would probably gawk at the fool fishing on the pond as lightning flashes warnings overhead and thunder growls threats so fearsome the ground trembles.

Perhaps, as I pity them, they’ll pity me. I would like to believe that, rather than rushing down a cattle shoot coerced by deadlines, paychecks and obligations, they are instead off to meet a lover, join friends for a supper, spend an evening watching the storm from a screened-in porch. They’ll perhaps pity me in obverse, thinking me without family, without friend, without love, relegated to this lonely pond out of sheer boredom and neglect. As if those things are shackles which would prevent me from being here. I suppose we’ll never understand each other. I’ll never understand the need to struggle so mightily up that imaginary ladder, and they’ll never understand the family, friends and love that stand beside me on the banks of a little pond where the fish are rising in swarming glee.

Gotta live a little, I reminded myself. Gotta live a lot. Youth is not necessarily wasted on the young. Though the grass and weeds have grown tall over the summer months, if I keep the rod tip high as the line loops out behind me, snapping it forward just as I feel the barely perceptible tug when it reaches full measure, I can avoid the backcast snags. I lay 40 feet of line out, not perfectly, not even prettily, but adequately for a novice. At the end of the leader, a small chartreuse fly with rubber legs has just settled onto the surface near the edge of the willows.

Before I can even gather the line in my left hand to mend the slack, simultaneously the water churns and thunder smacks deafeningly, both startling me. I wince from the thunder and snatch back on the rod, the tip of which bends over nicely with the weight of a respectable fish on the fly.

Feels wrong, I think, and in a second of decision, I lower the rod just a tad then snap it back again, setting the hook a bit more firmly. The fish makes a startled run for the willows. I know that if he wraps my leader around a stem in there he’s gone for certain, so I tug back, and lightning leaps from cloud to cloud as if in response, illuminating the pocket of shade cast by the willows overhanging the pond, where the fish is seeking escape.

Across the acres, the cars and mini-vans and tractor-trailers speed on, oblivious, all heat and stench of exhaust and rubber tires. A father looks at his watch and wonders if he’ll make his client’s dreaded party in time; a single mom dials the radio stations, searching for a better song, hoping she’ll make it to the next pay day before any checks bounce; a toddler screams in the back seat, exhausted and tired from tagging along on a long day of grocery shopping, paying bills and looking for a job, startled by the thunder.

I coax the fish away from the willows, and he resists again by rushing out toward open water, and I let him run, drag applied only with my forefinger pressing line against the rod. He races in the same direction as the distant traffic, and I half expect him to shoot out onto the bank and continue, taking my line to the backing, then popping it off the arbor like a clap of thunder. Instead, rebellious, he leaps out of the water, shaking vigorously, attempting to dislodge the fly, but my second hookset holds fast. He dances on his tail for a moment, then falls back into the pond and races — a little more slowly, he is tiring — toward me.

I reel line in as quickly as I can, trying to avoid slack which will allow him freedom to perhaps head back toward the willows, or into a bed of submerged weeds, where he’ll wrap my leader around the unseen growth and pull free. When I have the slack line back onto the spool, it snaps back taunt and I guide him away from the weeds, but he has caught his second wind now, and is heading for open water again.

As my small, personal battle unfolds under the storm front which is still holding its rain, I know I am blessed. There’s not much else one can think about while fighting a decent fish on a fly rod in a small pond full of willows and weed beds, but somewhere in the back of my consciousness flashed confirmations. That, after all I’ve sought and all I’ve found, it was pulling down the ladder and throwing it into the ditch that made me happy. That, when all is said and done, the only regrets I have are the miles wasted on that concrete, crooked spine. And that, in the end, I can truthfully say I am happier today, this minute, with this job, this home and in this place with these people I know and sometimes love, than I have ever known myself to be.

At last, the bass is spinning tight circles near my feet, and I wait for him to settle down, then place my thumb gently, respectfully, under his lower jaw and lift him out of the water. Three pounds, I guess. Not bad for a light fly rod. I thank him for the battle. We were, after all, only counting coup, and I immersed him into the water again, let go his jaw. He didn’t rocket off like the lightning flashing overhead — rather, he meandered along the bottom, heading out toward deeper water, unrushed, unburdened, unencumbered. Free. Defeated this day, perhaps humbled, but whole to fight again another. This is the way of dignity. It is not necessary to kill him. It is only necessary to best him, as I have been similarly bested by other rising fish on other ponds many times before.

I stood and my back ached, my shoulder snapped a little, or perhaps it was a minor clap of thunder. I glanced at the highway, and could have sworn it was a few miles farther away than the last time I looked.

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