Wish Me Rivers, Again

God loves a man that smells of trout water and mountain meadows, cheap whiskey and branch water. Which way’s heaven? Follow the trail and keep close to the stream. – Arby Mulligan, Hymn No. 1 (the only hymn) of the Owl Creek Gap Church of Universal Harmony, in On The Spine of Time by Harry Middleton.

This year was among the worst I have lived as a fly fisherman.

I have struggled with my addiction now for seven years. There is no support group for me, except sand and stone and clear, wild water running in the jagged ravines between low, smooth-browed hills. Thankfully I need no other.

Now, in the frigid grip of winter, I look back on the waning year. Very, very little of my angling this year was done in the swamps and bayous surrounding us. Every fish I caught in 2011 came as punctuation to a sentence like Arby Mulligan’s, its nouns rooted in ancient earth and sandstone fractures, its verbs set into motion by sweeping winds through pines and wild azaleas, by plunging gradients that take water and turn it active rather than passive.

How I struggled those first few years! She is a fickle old girl, that crystalline entity in the hills that has so captivated me, torn me away from black water, cypress canopies and Spanish moss. But slowly, painfully, I learned some of her secrets. I dare not boast mastery; just when I think I know the twists and turns and habits of her, she changes them and leaves me standing knee-deep in her laughing flow, looking dumbfounded.

This year, though, with drought and heat and an early spring, few fish came to my hand where I could borrow the will of their incarnate wildness. A Mississippi River flood at home, a dome of heat over the creeks. I have not indulged my passion and sport – or my solace – since the first week of June.

While it might seem a superficial thing, a minor inconvenience, it weighs heavily on my spirit. There was a time, not long ago, when I could reinvigorate my soul between the stands of cypress growing from green-black water and draped with Spanish moss.

But as the diminishing of my native waters continue, those once-cherished cathedrals of the Creator’s most magnificent works only bring me despair. I can only sit at the deathbed of it for so long; Siti, the revered waters of my grandfathers, is going the way of memory, and I can only mourn it for so long before I begin to wither inside, grow thin and shallow myself.

So I flee to waters alive and healthy, vibrant and active. That old creek has shown me what is beyond some of the bends upstream and down: Magnificent runs of wild, fast water across ledges of sandstone, stair-stepping downward with a joyous symphony of sound.

Roderick Haig-Brown perhaps said it best: “I do know that if were not for the strong, quick life of rivers, for their sparkle and sunshine, for the cold grayness of them under rain and the feel of them about my legs as I set my feet hard down on rocks or sand or gravel, I should fish less often. A river is never quite silent; it can never, of its very nature, be quite still; it is never quite the same from one day to the next. It has its own life and its own beauty, and the creatures it nourishes are alive and beautiful also. Perhaps fishing is, for me, only an excuse to be near rivers. If so, I’m glad I thought of it.”

And so I have found myself where Haig-Brown was when he wrote that in 1964, the year I was born. Here, in the dead of winter, I miss the green of the grass, the leaves on my pecan trees, the warmth of the breeze, but I miss the flowing waters the most.

What do I want most out of 2012? Well, I could say more fortune. I could pine for greater friendships and stronger ties. But most of all, what I hope the New Year brings me is rivers, be they small enough to step across or large enough to be wary of.

I’ve only seen about six miles of the favorite of my streams. In the coming year, I’d like to explore all-new reaches of it, because even as I cast my line along a nice run of water along an undercut bank, I keep glancing up to the next bend. I wonder what’s beyond it, what solace and spirit might be there, and all I have to do is go a little farther. Of course around the next bend, no matter if I find something extraordinary or nothing at all, there is always another.

I guess rivers represent many things to me now, and my fly fishing is not the greatest of them, though I love it. Down here, on our diminishing, vanishing native waters, there seems to hang a funerary pall.

But rivers, streams and creeks are continuity. Ceaseless and coercing.

My beloved Harry Middleton wrote: “My addiction to moving water, to mountain streams, to trout rivers, has more to do with mystery and illumination then absolution and salvation. Angling gives me an excuse to wade into such water, into the world as it is, the inexorable push and pull of life’s continuum, the participatory universe, life experienced instead of implied.”

Wish me that, if you will, whether you concede my passion or not: Wish for me, in the year ahead and all those to follow, rivers. Wish me wildness and solace. Wish me errant footfalls that send me careening into cold, ecstatic water, chilling me to my bones, for how else will I know I am truly alive? Wish me the next bend, and wonders beyond it. And please, wish for these streams and creeks continued protection from the relentless, abhorrent march of man with all his poisons and so-called progress, for I would fight tooth and nail to protect them, even with my life.

If you do, I’ll sit on a gray stone ledge, with water rushing over my feet and pour a sip and make a toast to you in gratitude. A sip always tastes better out there, Robert Traver said, and I’ll enchant it with branch water so I can take some of the magic home with me to share.

2 comments to Wish Me Rivers, Again

  • pete cooper, jr.


  • blufloyd

    The lack of fishable ice has me stuck in a similar hole. I am blaming my new ills on lack of fishing (catching) this fall into the ice season. Trying to feel healthy enough to run down for a day or two on the bayou coast.

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