Planning a fishing trip under the impetus of desperation is fool-hardy, or worse.
I prefer the “Nice to get away” trips. No pressure, no expectations, no self-inflicted stress. Eat drink and be merry, and let the fishing happen at its own pace. This is the quintessential recipe for a memorable fishing trip. Start putting obligations on the table, jacking up hope, and banking on hypotheticals & you’ll quickly find yourself wishing the weekend away.
We were pretty fucking desperate, though.
A half dozen trips behind us had failed to go as planned in the bent-rod department. A week in the woods with your buddies is great and all, but if you’re going to spend the time, energy and money to travel for your fishing, you expect to do some catching too. We’d done relatively little of it and entirely too much drinking to cover our trail. After each failed expedition we’d returned to our respective dog house suites road-worn, endlessly hung-over and more jaded than ever.
On top of that this particular trip was a gamble, and a bad bet at that. A river that rarely fished, was crowded when it did and could hand you your ass in a pretty little box, even on a good day – maybe not the best play for breaking a bad run. Even so, while we knew it was bad mojo to tempt the Gods we couldn’t help feeling that we were due. Anglers are born eternal optimists. The luster that could come from hitting it right outshined the potential pitfalls. I’d seen this river at its best on more than one occasion, and I’d fallen hard for her. As in all relationships, I clung to the best moments and did my damndest to forget the worst.
If we’re honest with ourselves, there’s a palpable angst clouding the modern era of fly fishing. The temptation to legitimize oneself amongst a sea of internet heroes bowing to two-handed trout. The temptation to hyperbolize every aspect of the experience, from the tying to the equipment to the travel and beyond, as if further substantiating the worth of our cause. The temptation to out-post, out-share, out-tag, out-inside-joke one another to get the goats of our cube ridden compadres longing for water.
The temptation to cause bodily harm to offenders of the above.
As badly as I yearned for a day of catching, I wanted to resist those temptations on this trip. I wanted it to be about the here and now and to control what I could control and leave the rest to the Gods. The first controllable was establishing a suitable steelhead camp. In the brisk autumn dusk we did that, scratching up a fire from fallen hemlock branches and marinating in the hope of hot plasma and cheap whiskey. I slept briefly in the backseat of my truck and woke before dawn, overwhelmed with anticipation.
Any seasoned steelhead angler will tell you that the heart of the art is believing. Whether you’ve fished a river or a run or a bucket a hundred times, or you’re laying eyes on it for the first time, you must believe the fish are there. This is a skill as much as a mindset and it’s something one must practice. A good luck streak or a good report can boost your confidence, but when the fly hits the water if you don’t believe in your heart of hearts that a fish is going to find it, you might as well pack it up and head home.
As we drifted downstream, the rising shale walls dressed in full regalia looming in the distance, I found hope in the curling, bubbling current. Every turn held new promise. The air was heavy and cool, bearing the burden of moisture delivered by a seasonal change in the winds. The setting was surreal, dreamy. Excitement and anxiety battled inside of me. I needed something to anchor to, something familiar to make this feel real and present.
In the tailout of a deep bend pool I cast to a likely boulder and coiled, watching intently for the strike. The indicator submerged on cue, and a bolt of white light went darting for the lake. I immediately became nervous, convinced for no good reason that the hook would pull or the fish would wrap itself around an obstruction. I wanted to hold it, to see it up close, to be sure that it was real. At last inside the net, I couldn’t take eyes off of it. Brilliant mirrored sides and a ghostly grey back – a fresh fish, small, maybe only a few days in the river.
These were unfamiliar surroundings for him, too. I held him in the in the current, not wanting to let go. As soon as I did, he disappeared.
It’s funny how we remember fishing trips after the fact. For all that hype, save for that first encounter it’s not the fishing I recall best. I recall a strange feeling of confliction as the current began to carry us downstream.
The buzz of hope and possibility, chased by a foolish angst from knowing that by beginning this trip we were also beginning its end. It was no longer just an idea, a dangling carrot to chase during hectic times. As my time grows more fleeting I’m forced to remind myself that longing is suffering. I couldn’t help it though. I wanted to soak up every little moment; stretch it, hang on to it, stuff it in a wader pocket and take it with me.
I recall the colors exploding off the trees, radiating light down from the canyon walls and warming my soul. The color of the water, a deep translucent turquoise that held the false promise of a fish in every bucket. The stillness after that first fish, as if some silly burden had been lifted and I could breathe again. The symmetry of towering shale walls, sculpted by weather and time. The rhythmic trickling of a thousand cascades. The outstretched arms of overhanging hemlocks. Good company and good laughs. Lousy bar food and leaky waders.
Somewhere in the course of a weekend, between those burning walls aflame with autumn color, I recall letting go. And that’s something I’d like to hang on to.