Many writers have expounded on the meaning of fly fishing, a question perhaps as vague as the meaning of life itself. John Geriach put fly fishing right up there with sex and death as the greatest mysteries of life. I won’t disagree with him.
Thomas McGuane has probably come the closest to answering the great why of fly fishing. (If you have not read McGuane’s The Longest Silence, please put down my writing and read his book before continuing.) When McGuane says something about fly fishing, I pay attention and try to glean some knowledge of the metaphysical.
I recently listened to a conversation between McGuane and host Tom Rosenbauer on the Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast. In answering a question about what he still looked forward to in fly fishing, McGuane recounted fishing on the Mill River while in graduate school. The Mill is a small, nondescript tailwater in Connecticut that’s home to little wild trout. Yet McGuane recalled the time he spent on the river, which he hasn’t fished in more than fifty years, as “some of the best fishing days of my whole life.” This coming from a guy who has fished all over the world for all the glamour species.
The story resonated with me. For one, I have also fished the Mill, and it’s much the same as McGuane remembers it. A nice trout stream, but nothing special. But I connected most profoundly with the timing of the story, as I currently am a graduate student. I drew a parallel between the Mill of McGuane’s youth and my refuge from academia: the pond.
The pond, like the Mill, is nothing special. Nestled in the foothills of South Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains, it is about an acre in size and lies behind an earthen dam. There are a few clumps of weeds, one aging dock, and two meager brush piles scattered over a muddy bottom. Really, it’s not that special.
An old house stands on the hill above the pond. It’s a ranging structure with additions jutting out from each other in a haphazard, charming way. The brick façade is framed by an overgrown garden, and a grand porch jettisons off the north side of the structure. It’s the kind of porch that makes you itch for a rocking chair, a good book, a glass of bourbon poured over ice, and a warm southern night. I like the house, and the porch especially.
I gained access to the pond through my girlfriend, Anna Rhett. The property is owned by her grandparents. Anna Rhett says they used it extensively in her youth, both as an escape from Charleston’s summer heat and as a home base for Clemson football games. Unfortunately, old age and health problems prevent them from using it much today. Other than a few interloping extended family members on football weekends, I essentially have the place to myself. The property is shrouded in a peaceful, almost eerie quiet. I am very appreciative of the solitude it provides.
Bass and sunfish are the primary residents of the pond, along with a few bullfrogs and one snapping turtle. Garrett, the man who takes care of the property, once told me that there are some big catfish in the pond, but I have yet to see one. They’re an unknown that adds a brush of mystique.
The bass are stunted, none more than a foot long. But the sunfish grow to a decent size, and both species are fun on a light fly rod. It takes about an hour and a half to fish my way around the pond, and I usually don’t have too many problems convincing the inhabitants to eat a small streamer or popper. It is simple, fun fishing. I love it.
One day, Anna Rhett called me with a request. For reasons I have yet to ascertain, her uncle wanted to stock the pond with rainbow trout. My job, if I were to oblige, would be simple: keep an eye on the trout and provide occasional updates to her family on their wellbeing. It was the easiest “Yes” of my life.
The trout were stocked last November, and Anna Rhett and I went to check on them soon after. We parked at the house, and as we walked toward the pond, I could see the occasional rise dotting the surface. I tied an inline spinner to Anna Rhett’s spinning rod, and before I could string up my fly rod, she had a rainbow cartwheeling across the surface- her first trout. She landed the fish, we took the obligatory photo, and she sent him back. She then landed her second, third, and fourth trout before I could tie on a fly. My initial report: The trout are here, and they are hungry.
For the next five months, I fished after class at the pond almost weekly. I found that the trout could be caught reliably blind fishing a streamer, but after a couple of outings, I added a wrinkle of technicality. Standing on the bank I’d wait for a fish to rise. If a fish came up within casting range to shore, I’d run over while simultaneously beginning my false casts, and present a dry fly in the direction I guessed the fish to be travelling. Most often the fly would rest on the surface unmolested. But occasionally the fly would disappear with a splash—the pond’s rainbows were never dainty sippers—and I’d be tight (assuming I didn’t blow the set).
Now I won’t go so far as to equate the pond’s rainbows with wild trout, or for that matter, even riverine stocked trout. But I had a hell of a time fishing for them.
I left the Clemson area for the summer in May and had some of the best fishing of my life over the subsequent months. I caught snook with an old friend among Florida mangroves, landed my biggest Catskill wild brown trout to date, sight fished for striped bass cruising sand flats off Cape Cod, and spent over a month working as a trout guide in and around Yellowstone National Park. I will cherish these memories for a long time to come. But throughout the summer, the pond and its trout were always in the back of my mind.
A few days after my return to Clemson in August, I finally made it back to the pond. It was tepid looking and hot to the touch. No rises dotted the surface, and I saw no silver flashes of cruising rainbows below. I was always wary about the trout’s summer survival, but Garrett had assured me that the pond was deeper than it looked and spring fed, so I had held out some hope. Most likely the snapping turtle is well fed, but maybe the trout are still holding on, suspended around a cold-water spring. I guess only time will tell.
I tied on a popper and began working the bank for bass and bluegills. The fish did their part, and I did mine. What the Mill taught McGuane, and what the pond taught me, is that great joy can be found in the routine. Even if the trout don’t show back up.