The gravel popped under my feet. The cold, dense air carried the smell of the river into me. I had left it all behind five years ago and now it only served to remind me of the fish I left behind. Above stood the towering, overhanging rock. It still rendered me awe-inspired as it had when I first saw it as a teenager. The setting sun milked out the true colors of the formation. Before me, God himself was painting on the hill. The scene was relaxing and I felt tempted to give in to slumber. Yet I couldn’t leave the living poem of the river.
I had found the Little Missouri River with the Boy Scouts long ago. I had been raised in swamps with hot, stagnant water. The massive, protruding rock formations and the cool, clear water captivated my soul. It was so different. It seemed so clean and pure. My tenure with the tame scouts was short. It abruptly came to an end when I finally got a car that carried me to the river every weekend.
Then the limiting factor was no longer distance, but decent companionship. A struggle that I still have though, I have become more adept at navigating those waters with age. Partly from better judging character, partly from befriending myself.
I had left the rolling hills of the Ouachita Mountains for the towering, rain-soaked firs of the Pacific Northwest half a decade before. As with any romance, I knew that once out the door I could not come back lest the river of my youth seduces me once more. “If I am going to move on, then I will have to simply stay gone”, I would tell myself.
I did just that.
I was successful in finding love again, though it was different. The mountains of the west are much more harsh and unforgiving than the gentle rivers of the southern hills. I had enjoyed that harshness. No one is coming for you in those ranges. The presence of derelict car wrecks, too impossible to recover, serves as an ever-present reminder of the serious nature of my endeavors.
I had caught the fish of my dreams on multiple occasions. My fly rod bent many times on large salmon hell-bent on making it past. My simple egg yarn disturbed their plans. Summertime yielded the smallest, but most brilliantly colored high alpine lake trout.
Yet it was not home. It offered challenge and adventure, but not the familiar comfort of my home waters. Deep inside my soul, I knew that the adventure was temporary. I needed to prove to myself that I too, had the stuff of the mountain men and the wandering rouges that had come before me. That was accomplished. My rod had bent far and often enough to know that I could handle the mountain. I had not cheated it.
It was time to go home. I needed to begin the long winding road to old age in the waters that spawned me. Like my salmon friends, home pulled my heart strings hard enough to surpass the desire to suffer new challenges and mysteries. So I began the long trek back to the piney woods of south Arkansas.
“Do they make fly lines that are weighted?”, David asked me inquisitively. Given the source, it was an odd question. I felt a deep curiosity about where his mind was. Beating the air above him into submission, his cast spoke of days anticipating the sudden jerk of a bobber rather than writing poetry across rippling water.
David was, and is, everything I want to be and everything I am afraid of becoming. He is incredibly successful in every area of life. In his mid 30s with a few small kids, the town we grew up in would not be as nice had not been for him. He practically ran city hall and was always looking at ways to improve the lives of the unaware peasants like myself. You would never know it though, he is a lion in sheep’s clothing. The very definition of meekness.
Yet his success had come at a cost. While he was busy saving the world he had missed his place on the river. Those waters trickled down the rocks from which he was supposed to cast and his soul could feel it. In an odd way, he wanted to be me and I sought to be him. Our trips to the river always seemed to be a temporary exchange of identity. For a time, he would step into my world and feel the river. I would fantasize about being as meek and effective.
Before I left I had taught him to fly fish. He arrived with the typical accouterments of someone that wanted to learn but didn’t know how to outfit himself for the task. A large straw hat overshadowed a fly fishing kit encased in big box retail store plastic. Enclosed was everything he needed aside from instruction. With his first fly rod assembled, his fly line shook loosely and yearned for the experience. An excellent student, he soon made casts that Norman McClean would have chuckled at in encouraging amusement.
Soon David was stripping in his first fish. The trip was decorated with his childlike excitement. He was now a fly fisherman. In a few hours, he would walk into the local burger joint and take his rightful place with the seasoned old men that had decorated its walls with oversized memories. Though only a small pumpkin seed, David gained the affirmation he needed to break free of my instruction and became his own fisherman.
Despite the success of that day, he currently punished the atmosphere above his head while making an artistic mess of his line. The knowledge of how to cast a fly to the eager fish before him had drifted into the recesses of memory. As he asked me his question, frustration and desperation permeated his gaze.
“Why do you ask?”, I replied, investigating David’s deeper motives for such a specific inquiry.
“I just can’t seem to get any distance,” the defeated tone competed with the cascading shoals before us. He was attempting to fish the deep pool just off the gravel bar that supported us. Yet, the spot that caught his eye seemed a world away.
“Do you remember what I told you about the double haul?”, I asked. It had been five years since that day and the technique was a bit obscure to someone outside the religion of fly casting. His only answer was a confused look that demanded proselytization.
“When you go to lay it down, simply put the line in your back pocket,” I stated with relative jest, hoping to jar a memory. The blank stare he returned confirmed my inadequacy as an instructor. “Let me show you”.
I took the fly rod in hand. I hadn’t cast in some time. I had been gone with the Army on a deployment to eastern Europe for the past year. Though it would seem one would rejoice in an all-expenses-paid trip to the historic lands of our forefathers, I was overjoyed to fill my ears with the gentle melody of the Little Missouri. Fishing was incredibly difficult to do under the tyranny of the Army and European culture. Finally, I was back where I belonged. A rod had returned to my hand.
I picked up the fly line and filled the air that David had chastised for existing. It gracefully formed the rolling “S” shape that captivates fishermen and boys deprived of their birthright to become one.
I surprised myself at how easily I went back to it. Memories roared into my mind. I was once David. Years ago I had stood on this bank, wondering what was keeping me from becoming worthy of a watercolor proudly displayed in one of the local diners. It had been another fisherman’s patience that rescued me from the shame of inadequacy. I was happy to be on the other side of that Rubicon now.
I snapped a double haul and the fly shot forward like a missile. It laid down with mathematical straightness that would have been the envy of any fly fisherman that was given the honor of observing it. Soon the river took control and the fly began its repetitive odyssey down the rocks we were lucky to fish.
Graciously, the fly rod returned to David’s hand. His face oscillated between iron determination and the childlike wonderment that vacuums people into the world of fly fishing. “Now go and do likewise”, I instructed with a smile.
David resumed the air’s deserved punishment, but with less vigor. Gentle art began to flow through his arm and into the rod. Soon, the fury of his casting dampened to something with hints of grace. With each attempt, his line pushed farther and farther into his own inadequacies and closer to the strike zone that pulled at his heart.
I stood back and watched.
Something happens to the fisherman as they mature in the art of fishing. While there is the drug of the silence, the rhythm of the cast, and the pull of fish, soon it is all nothing compared to watching someone discover the melody of fishing for the first time. Teaching David how to fly fish was the first time I ever experienced taking a true novice and showing them how to catch fish. Now here I was, years removed, discovering that about myself once again. Unintentionally, the favor had been returned.
“Got one!”, David squealed as his line snapped taught. The small trout had inhaled the fly causing David to snap backward as a reaction rather than a methodical hookset. Yet, there would be time to iron out those wrinkles and the fish was fighting the barbless hook in any case.
David stripped furiously as he walked backward out of instinct. I simply soaked it all up. There is nothing like catching fish, but watching someone under your instruction catch fish is a rare treat. I and everything else had melted away in David’s mind. There was only the fish and the pull he felt coursing through his body.
The small rainbow trout flopped on the rocks in an unanticipated fight for its life. The slime on its side gathered dirt and gravel. David desperately tried to prevent its return to the river. In moments, the trout was free from the fly and imprisoned on a stringer bound for a cast-iron skillet.
My old trout rod bent over and over again that day. Yet deep inside my chest I caught something much more valuable and much harder to find. The inner hearth fires of home that I thought was extinguished for good were stoked once more. The rocks of Little Missouri popped under my feet again, just like they had when I was young.
For me, fishing has always been a deep, mysterious process of self-discovery. I never intended that it serve that role or even thought that it could. Yet, over the years I look back and see phases in my fishing as the froth of inner turmoil from the depths of my soul. I discovered fly fishing during the darkest times of my life. Having survived, I was left with a habit I have never fully shaken. Being able to pass on that miracle to another has been incredible.
Yet, here I was, on the banks of my first love being healed once again without even seeking aid. What was happening with David was excitement and the start of something new. Deep inside me, however, something very old was reawakening. The embers of the love I once had for this place were being fanned into flame. Soon the cool autumn air would be here bringing the smell of the campfire. The rippling waters would once again put me to sleep.
I was at home.