“To this day I am not certain where he came from, and for the briefest moment he startled me.”
IT DOESN’T MUCH MATTER where I have been or where I am going; I still can’t quite decide which is the better part of a fly fishing day, the Going In or the Coming Out. It has, however, become an inescapable truth that the older I get, the more sublime the Coming Out seems to grow, for it is increasingly less important what I garnered while I was fishing when compared to what it felt like, what I thought and what I experienced while I was actually There.
Coming Out is the best and most fruitful time to contemplate and digest such things, the best time to process what I have come here to understand in the first place. For if I can’t grasp it now while on the outward trail with the essence of the experience still fresh and full, chances are it will be gone by the time I arrive back at the place from where I began.
It has been a long-standing aim for me to try, whenever possible, to begin my fishing by heading upstream—if for no other reason than to permit the walk out to be a downhill affair, unencumbered by ever-increasing altitude and diminishing oxygen. And on those rare occasions when I must first descend the trail to begin fishing, the uplifting that I had earlier anticipated at day’s end is always just a little more difficult to find.
My boots are usually well toasted when I am coming out. I especially enjoy walking out on a trail that parallels a new stream I have never before fished, a trail I knew was there when I started but did not see as I worked my way upstream below it during the early hours. And if as I am coming out, the trail is draped in dusk, so much the better.
My fly rod is never heavy at such an hour, and my feet are light and do their work all on their own, leaving my soul to savor the cool, moist air and the whisper of the stream below and the myriad impressions of a moment I wish would last just a mile or two more. And when I have made my way back out to the trailhead, drenched in darkness and trembling time, I turn for a moment and gaze back up the damask trail and wonder what it is and who it is I have left behind.
I WAS STILL ON MY WAY IN, fishing upstream below a fogged-in morning trail on which I had never set foot. To this day I’m not certain where he came from, and for the briefest moment he startled me. But I must confess, it wasn’t entirely his fault, for I was already preoccupied—in part from the less-than-productive morning’s fishing, but mostly from the eight-month project I had just completed with its many elements still milling about in a cluttered brain. To be perfectly honest, I likely had no business fishing in the first place with that mindset. But now that I think about it, this is probably exactly why I needed to be here. It had been a full month, a full year, a full life for that matter. Yet there was still so much that must be done. And I still don’t know where he came from.
To this day I have trouble putting it all together, for he was simply there with me before I realized it. No doubt he’d been here before; I could tell by the way he eased into the water and by the old, yet perfectly maintained fly rod he carried lightly along with his wading staff, both of which spoke of continued use and expertise. I could see it especially in his gait, which seemed to be ageless. He looked like a man full of years who had somehow stopped aging somewhere in his early mid-thirties.
Please, don’t ask; that’s just the way he looked, and he was vaguely and comfortably familiar when he spoke, though I was absolutely certain I had never laid eyes on him before. But still, I had to wonder.
“Do we know each other? Have we met before?” I knew I didn’t know him. But something made me ask. “Are you a guide?”
“Well, sort of.” His voice was smooth and sure, even if his answer was not. “But this morning I’m just fishing.”
I liked this guy. I liked his voice, I liked his attitude, and I liked the ease with which he was simply . . . there. I told you, don’t ask. It’s just the way it was. And since the trail now made a great sweeping bend up and away from the creek for a mile or so before crossing it again below the old Emmaus Road, it seemed I would have some interesting company, at least for a while. And so with the fog now beginning to lift, we talked as we walked. Not about anything in particular at first, until he said, “You seem a little stretched. Hard week?”
“Hard month. Hard year for that matter. There’s just so much to be done, you know. But I did manage to come fishing this morning; you’ll have to give me credit for that. But I haven’t had much luck, and I’ve tried just about every pattern in my fly boxes. But no score. And this reel . . . ”
As I said, it had not been a great morning. Even with all the flies in my fly boxes, I still hadn’t been able to find anything on which the trout and I could agree. And now to make matters worse, my expensive new bench-made fly reel was misbehaving.
“Here, try mine,” he said.
“Oh, no thanks, I like using my own equipment—you know, ‘pride of ownership’ and all that.”
I tried to feign a rather weak, apoplectic chuckle, but I really don’t think he bought it for a moment. “Besides, as much as I paid for this outfit, I’d at least like to catch something with it before I head back out.”
“Now there’s a dangerous pair.”
His analysis was not at all accusatory. But it was still a commentary on something, and I had to ask, “What? What pair?”
“Pride and Ownership,” he answered. “You have to admit, it does beg the question of who owns who. It’s not the gear, it’s the living. Here, go ahead, try mine; it’s okay.” And before I realized it or even thought to take offense, I had taken his rod and he had taken mine, and later after we had fished and had our dinner and gone our separate ways, I noticed that my reel was working just fine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“You been up here before?” I asked as we walked.
“Pretty good place?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. He said it with conviction.
Our conversation had already settled into the casual cadence of good friends. I felt comfortable with this stranger without really knowing why or, frankly, even caring. I remember that part now, because I am usually not all that forthcoming with someone I’ve just met. But for the time being, I somehow felt there was something here to gain—not in any selfish way, but an opportunity to learn or even to grow.
I found myself fishing for answers, for questions, for direction, for some place to go with this steadily evolving conversation. I even thought about asking his name, and now I wish I had, just to be certain. But at the time it didn’t seem all that important. It really didn’t.
And so I asked, “How did you find this place?”
“Oh, I came down here to meet a couple of fellows once,” he said, “and I’ve been coming back for years.”
“How’s the fishing? I haven’t done very well this morning.”
“Pretty good. I’ve always done okay.”
“What do you fish?”
“Well, it’s not so much what you fish as how you fish. You have all you need there in that vest.” He nodded sideways at my overburdened apparel and its pockets bulging with fly boxes, and I suddenly felt a little self-conscious as I noticed the sparseness of equipment hanging from the leather lanyard that garnished his collar. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how the heck he knew what I had in my fly vest. Everything I carried, I felt I might need. I had chosen it all quite deliberately and had even taken out a couple of things when I first tried the vest on and felt that it was a tad heavy. But he did seem to know his stuff, and when the creek finally came back around to meet us he said, “Let’s try it here.”
THE POOL WAS dark and deep and long, reflecting all around and above, but offering little clue as to its depth. It swept away from us just as quickly as it came toward us, and when he offered me his wading staff, I took it without question—though I had never really found much use for one before. The old staff was made of a dense but surprisingly light hardwood, and its grip was gnarled but quite smooth and polished from ages of use. It was comforting to lean into as I made my way out into the swift, deepening run. I would never have tried this had I been alone in such a remote place, but with him here to keep watch I felt it would be all right.
“Cast there, to your left,” he called from above. And so I did, the old bamboo rod unrolling the line out over the water in a perfect, slightly open loop and depositing the fly on its surface with barely a ripple.
The trout that rose to the fly cleared the water by a good two feet when I struck. It was the most handsome native brookie I had ever seen, nearly eleven inches long, a male in full spawning colors. I played the fish quickly so as to either lose him cleanly or bring him swiftly to hand without exhausting him. I felt a deep sense of gratitude when I slid my palm beneath his orange-trimmed side and slipped the barbless hook from his jaw as I held him lightly in the water before releasing him. On the next three casts I caught and released two more.
“They’re beautiful!” I called up to my new best friend.
“Yeah, we thought they’d do well when we first put them in here.”
“You stocked these fish?” I asked incredulously. “I thought they were all natives.”
“Well, it’s all part of the process,” he said. I didn’t understand it at the time. I just didn’t understand.
“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked as I continued to cast.
“Oh, my Dad and me. He’s the one who set the place up originally and then showed me what to do and how to do it.”
“So this is your land?” I suddenly felt a little awkward, like I was some place I should not be. “I thought this was all national forest. It’s so far in here. I didn’t mean to trespass.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you’re forgiven. We like fishermen. My best friends in the world have been fishermen.”
There, that was better—though he was just getting warmed up. “But you need to relax.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as I started another cast.
“Just what I said: relax. Let go of the world you’re living in. I would venture to suspect that your life often feeds upon itself, and that your pleasures and vanities have become an end in themselves—and very nearly your own. I mean, just look all around you. How important is your meeting tomorrow morning when you compare it with all you see around you right here and now?”
He did have a valid point, though I didn’t remember having mentioned anything to him about my Monday morning meeting. “Look, all this was here before you were ever born, and I’ll guarantee it’ll all be here after you are dust. So in the end, none of your worrying will change a thing. Why, I’d say you can’t even recall the biggest problem you were having this time last month.”
Right again, though he was beginning to hit a little closer to home than I would ordinarily tolerate. But he continued. “And that’s not all. I mean look as far as you can. Look up. Look around. Look inside yourself. How far can you see?”
“Well, from here I can see as far as the next pool,” I said, eager to move upstream and fish it.
“And then what?”
“Well, up to the crest of the ridge there, and then to those hemlocks along the horizon.” I surprised myself with my response.
“Okay, that’s as far as you can see in space; but how about in time?”
“Well, for now I only want to see past tomorrow morning’s meeting.”
“C’mon, surely you can do better than that.”
Now I was beginning to feel a little pressured, not at all certain whether I was still the fisherman or had somehow become the fish, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I resented it. Still, this guy was taking me places I had never thought to go, but that somehow might bear exploring.
“Okay, I’ll bite: I can see all the way to the end of my life, whenever that might be. How’s that?”
“Okay, what then,” he continued, without any indication of breaking his intellectual stride.
I was beginning to sense down deep that he knew precisely where we were going with this conversation. But for my part, I still didn’t have a much of a clue.
“What do you mean, ‘What then?’ ”
I must confess, I was now beginning to bristle a bit. After all, I had come up here to fish and find some much needed solitude, not to be confronted with a hard dose of logic and reality.
“What then?” His voice was still kind, yet clear and firm and unflinching, and his inescapable question took me into waters I had not yet plied.
WE FISHED OUR WAY upstream and talked for the rest of the day, I with his gear and he with mine. And though I can’t recall ever seeing him actually land a fish, at dusk when I finally left the creek and joined him up on the bank, he had a campfire ready and waiting with four well-seasoned trout laid across a little folding grate, and even a small loaf of hot bread.
There is something sublime about sitting by a fire and eating with a friend, your thoughts and words and gestures mingling and intertwining like the warm sparks swirling skyward into the night. And as we ate and talked and then sat quietly digesting one another’s thoughts, I found myself staring into the glowing coals, then following the firelight up through the darkened trees into the starry heavens, and when I looked back he was heading up the dimming trail with his old fly rod and wading staff.
And as I said, the next time I fished, I noticed how smoothly my fly reel was working.
Michael Altizer’s books, THE LAST BEST DAY, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE, and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES can be ordered online at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004. You may also purchase his books here by clicking on the RIVERS AND FEATHERS ‘BOOKS’ page.
The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER