There comes a time in every man’s life when he is either going to go fishing or do something worse.– Havilah Babcock
I stepped from a white, rippled and dimpled sand bar into tannic-stained water and at that instant, everything was just as it should be. Perhaps I looked a bit amusing: Leather sandals, short pants, navy blue tee and a canvas shoulder bag matching almost exactly the color of my wide-brimmed hat. There would be folks walking through the stream, lying down in the flow there at the rapids later in the day.
But a bamboo fly rod of some eight-and-a-half feet in length and some half-century of accumulated years and wisdom on it hung in my right hand. If anyone was looking, they might have thought I stopped dead in my tracks after that first step into the stream because the water was so cold: It wasn’t actually, it was cool and pleasant.
My fishing partner – best friend and brother since junior high school – didn’t think anything odd about that first pause, I’m sure. A Louisiana boy who spent a number of years working and living in Virginia, he has also grown to know and love fast-moving, chortling, laughing water tumbling down from upper reaches, making its way steadfastly to valleys, rivers and eventually the sea. He also carried a fly rod, a sweet little graphite seven-and-a-half footer.
Slowly, deliberately, I moved, mid-calf, through the unexpectedly brownish water there at the the creek. Sandstone ledges dropped water quickly, a beautiful and rare section of fast, gurgling water here in Louisiana. We waded upstream, and the way the crisp water resisted my footsteps, the way it wrapped and swirled around my calves dislodged the memory of the parking lot; it scrubbed away the three hours it had taken me to drive there and diluted all the nonsense I had left behind. I stepped up to the tumbling terraces of water, and we made our way to a deeper pool of slower water upstream.
We were disappointed and confused to find the pool brown and stained. There had apparently been more rain upstream at the stream’s headwaters than I realized. In fact, later in the day, a couple of campers would tell us that on Wednesday the creek was roaring over its now-emergent white sand bars that marked most of her bends and meanders.
It was clear before long that the rush of wild water three days earlier had fouled up the fishing. My heart sank. Third time I had made the trek to that beautiful stream, third time virtually skunked.
We fished poppers and hoppers (flies resembling several incarnations of terrestrial and amphibious creatures) for a long time, casting to blow-downs in the streambed, to the under cuts and even into the open spaces of slow, deep pools. I looked upstream at one point and a timber rattlesnake was crossing the creek, floating high and undulating over the surface. He paid me no mind so the creed "live and let live" prevailed, but I admit he made me a little nervous.
Far ahead, there were tall white bluffs of sand in an eastward turn of the stream. I had seen those bluffs from a distance each time I visited, but never gone to them. This time, I decided, would be different. We had to climb out of the stream and walk a ways because the pool upstream of the rapids was unwadeable, and by the time we got to more skinny water the bluff was too tall to trek down. At last I found a trail and stood there at the end of the river, beautiful white sand behind and beneath me, and a sandstone wall nearby, cracked into blocks, handiwork of that greatest of masons: time, and the relentless movement of water. The depth of the gullies the creek flows through always amazes me – it is ancient and thoughtful, this gorgeous little stream, even brown and stained as it was that day rather than its typical clear.
I glanced back at my friend back down the sand bar, and he was working on his cast, bringing the rod entirely too far back on his backcast and too far down on his forward stroke. It’s the mistake I made and most of us make who come from baitcasting and spinning rods: trying to manhandle the fly rod, force it into doing what we want. Fly rods do not respond to threats or coercion. Fly rods only respond to gentleness and high seduction.
"Keep your back cast up," I reminded him. "Don’t drop the tip so much on the forward cast."
He adjusted with that reminder and the fly line, instead of falling limply in a muddled path, shot straight as an arrow to his target. He would get it. It took me some time to figure out the difference between force and finesse, but I got it. He’s one of the finest fishermen I know.
Turning back, I cast to a tangle of tree limbs overhanging the water. I own more than a dozen fly rods, some bamboo, some fiberglass and graphite. My favorites by far are the cane rods. I love all fly rods, really, but bamboo works closer to my soul than my brain, I guess that’s the only way to put it. After all, as Ed Dentry once pointed out, nobody makes violins out of graphite.
Failing to raise a fish, we moved back to the trail and to the rapids, then worked farther down to the first major bend of the creek to the south. Here we started to fish again and I hooked into and landed two small fish, indicating that perhaps our luck was changing, but like the proverbial and literal final Mohicans, not another fish came to hand between the two of us all day. We fished on downstream anyway, and sometimes the sand would shift and rush away beneath my feet, causing me to tread backwards desperately to keep from getting dunked. Several times I got soaked to my waist, and then at about two o’clock the rain came, but we fished a little longer, and the stream was even more beautiful pattered by rain drops. Despite it, we lit cigars and chatted for a time over a silver flask of highland. It does always taste better out there.
Finally we took the trail back to the recreation area and – soaked as we were anyway – made sandwiches and ate them with chips at a table in the rain. A couple of folks pulled up and opened umbrellas, walked by eyeing us oddly as they went to look down at the stream from the ridge, and my pal said from under the dripping brim of his hat, "Great day for a picnic, ain’t it?" I guffawed and nearly choked with laughter.
It was mid-afternoon. The rain was unrelenting. We stashed our gear in our respective vehicles, and though both of us had brought dry clothes, there was no dry place to change so we said our goodbyes and both swore that – fish or not – it was worth the time and the expense, to get away from the phones and clocks and noise, out where the cell phones don’t get signals, and stand in cool, running water for a few hours casting to stubborn, lock-jawed fish. Then we were on the road, him heading east, me south, traveling through rain all day.
And I thought that, on that day, I might have done something worse, but I chose to go fishing instead. Three hours there, three hours back. Eighty bucks worth of gasoline I sure struggled to scrimp and save up pennies for. Soaked to the bone and cold all the way home. All for two little fish.
Wrong, absolutely, completely wrong.
Somewhere, far downstream where the stream leaves the national forest, somewhere where it finally comes to an exhausted but jubilant termination, my burdens spanning months are washing away, too. They were pulled from the pores of my skin when I first stepped into the stream that morning, stood there like a silly man in a deep reverie and let the stream wash it all away downstream.
Then we went home to collect more. The troubles of life. The woes, the social barriers, the interactions and fears and worries. Because that is the life we must lead these days, fraught with thorns and beasts. They’ll lodge themselves in my pores again, get under my fingernails and shimmy through my veins, around the bivalves of my heart and make errant connections in the switches of my brain. They’ll threaten to make me jump clear out of my skin again. They’ll threaten to make me do something worse.
Instead, I’ll scrimp and save and accumulate pennies, then pick up the phone to make the call, and we’ll converge again; I’ll step off white sand into cool, fast water, and pause for a moment, shed all the worries, washed away downstream. Cast bamboo to fish that may or may not rise, but my spirit surely will.