I have never figured out why a clear, cold running river captivates me to return again and again to the same stretch of water. If you fish for any length of time, there will be a defining moment when that special place appears, and you know it. I have my special place. It’s not a secret place but a person just has to find it. I call it my home water.
It’s a 30-minute stroll down through the woods on an unkept and somewhat overgrown path. As you step into the cathedral of an old, north facing mountain growth forest, the damp moist smell permeates. I try to imagine how it looked 100 years ago before forestation. Was this path here? Who used it?
Sometimes I’m asked, ‘how do you know how to go back to exactly the same spot?’
It’s easy. Little reminders resonate in my memory as I walk. I have only to remember the starting point and everything else seems to fall in place.
Even though the forest manifests itself differently with every passing season, the path remains constant. I found this path by accident four decades ago. I had pulled off the road to park, aiming to walk to another section of the river. That’s when I spied the little path leading off in a different direction.
The trail was somewhat overgrown and lay partially hidden, inviting my curiosity. It began with a quick ascent up the mountain, meandering along several switch backs. Then it gently flowed down into a valley. I thought that maybe this old, worn, stretch of dirt may indeed be ‘the road less traveled,’ and it prompted an investigation. One that I have since been so grateful for taking.
This morning, after a short hike, I begin to hear the river, its various melodic pitches as water splashes over rocks, and making music with its ever-creating current and flows. If you close your eyes and listen, it seems the shallower the streambed the higher the pitch, while plunge pools keep resonating bass.
As I approach the valley, there is a lower beech limb that has gotten tip heavy with growth and created an arbor over the path, like a sign blinking that says Enter Here. Once inside the arbor, the path turns slightly downhill into a small valley. It is here that the ferns grow undisturbed. In late spring and summer, the silvery gray ferns grow thick. Their light green leaves catch indirect sun that has broken through the canopy and ignite this valley with a blanket of iridescent light green. Interspersed with them are larger cinnamon ferns. I always stop and gaze in awe.
As I approach the river, runs, riffles, and bubbly foam lines speak their language, as if to say “hello.”
That old sycamore stump hasn’t rotted out yet. Towering only about 15 feet now, I can remember its silhouette against the mountain background. That mighty protector of the stream bank was pierced with lightning one summer evening and slowly died in winter. Its leaves to never shade that section again. The river constantly changes and so does everything connected.
Underneath its branches, there is a deep crevice in the river bottom that consistently held fish until the tree fell. Now, only a graveside stump remains to mark the path. Days of dropping inchworm patterns, and floating hoppers over the pool don’t yield the fish once caught there. But I still fish it anyway, for memories.
It was a tight cast to land the fly underneath the lowest limb above the water line. Proper positioning was the key prior to flipping the rollcast accurately. Many hours of fly tying remained hung on its secondary branches, only to rust and dissolve in the weather. The river’s moodiness more chronic now with the shade gone, but it continues to flow cold and clear.
Time and life sometimes create a separation of visits, but walking back into that familiar place, hearing the water cascading over rocks, I acknowledge that “it’s good to be back home.” I whisper this soliloquy every time.
Stream banks flourish and some parts erode over time; sandbars wash and rocks move during times of high water and excessive rainfall. Currents alter the course and navigate through the maze to move, deepen, and shallow out making wading a challenge. Weather and time convert the once linear foam lines into a puzzle of cross currents that zig zag downward. Sometimes temporary until the next storm, it becomes a new face, still moody but in the same place, my home water.
Sometimes I have gone years before returning. But I continue to think of the good times I’ve had there; the fish, the companionship, and the solitude. Am I haunted by the river or is there some magnetic, interpersonal attraction it has with me? Is it because I have become familiar with it over time and feel comfortable strapping on wading boots and walking through its currents? The slick, worn rocks reveal shades of tan, gray, burnt umber and reddish clay. Many are loose and makes balancing a chore when stalking the current. Several personal baptisms have occurred.
It may be the same stretch of river day after day, year after year, but within each day it develops a unique and temporary personality. The same fly, fished at the same time, in the same run and no takers.
“Where did the fish go?”
Perplexed and frustrated with a hint of anxiety, I merely fish on. Understanding that home waters giveth and taketh away and be honored to be there when it giveth! I always come back.
“Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.”
-Norman MacLean, “A River Runs Through It.”
This is not just one person’s river never to be shared. It’s there for everyone to feel its mood and be challenged to immerse themselves in their watery bit of heaven. There are miles of river to fish but the heart and river knowledge, coupled with a hint of confidence, keep this particular stretch special to me, known as my home water.