I have never been able to seek out epiphanies. They dart across my mind like bats on summer’s last light, everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. My learning curve for fly fishing in New Zealand was spent swearing fish had echolocation and casting through air that would sooner yield me a flying mammal than a fish beneath the surface of the water. I thought I could fly fish, but it wasn’t until I made it out of Middle Earth that I actually became an angler.
Nobody took the time to tell me that trout fishing on another continent is actually more like hunting than fishing. As if my fishing skills were not rudimentary enough, my hunting skills were nonexistent. Had I for some reason been stranded in the Misty Mountains I would have had better luck scavenging off of Smeagol’s scraps than loosing an accurate arrow or hooking a fish.
When the Middle Earth high country trout season opened, I immediately set about spooking every trout within a three hours’ drive. I spooked fish with my height. I spooked fish with my shadow, my rod, my presentation, my shirt, and at one point I swear I spooked a fish with the shadow of my shadow. Learning the language of a new river is not something to be learned in one week, or one month. Or one year. I was beginning to feel unwelcome.
Fortunately for me, fly fishing is one of those weird cult-fraternity combinations that allowed me to walk into a fly-shop on the other side of the planet and talk about stimulators, nymphs and stripping all at once while still retaining a semblance of dignity.
The store was local, but it sold everything from hunting boots to tents to fishing gear, and not necessarily the fly kind. I was skeptical. Often, the best bits of local knowledge come from fly-only shops where the societally misunderstood fly tier is in the back wearing a flannel shirt in the middle of summer using his sweat as UV glue, trying to concoct the next best thing. I ambled up to the shop’s fly pyramid, colors and feathers stacked high and holy under a bright white light breaking through the clouds in some extended elven moment of glory. For the briefest of moments I could have sworn a shadow passed over my head and it broke my hypnotic stare at the flies.
I have a bit of an issue with store employees. It is completely unfounded, but it exists. I try to avoid them at all costs unless I have a question, which I usually do not because I have already researched what I am buying so I only go into the store for tips or sizing. The opposite was likely true too, that all the men, women, wizards, hobbits and elves of the land in which I was a temporary visitor kept any angling secrets away from foreigners. To break this local oath of silence would surely mean consequences from the all-seeing angling Eye that lorded over the land.
I had yet to make an impression on anyone well enough to risk the consequences.
On this occasion though, the old weathered face that stood across the fly section was as welcome as any I had seen in Middle Earth. It was one of those faces that knew something, some kind of Gandalf when he was still Grey, a bit under-cover. I was hoping whatever he knew was fishing and that by some chance, he was willing to take a risk by sharing his knowledge with me.
“What are you after?” he asked me in his kiwi accent.
“Trout,” I said, “Trout covered in gold and silver.” He looked out of the corners of his face like someone was after him, like the other employees would turn him in or the Rodwraiths would pop out from the ceiling and carry him away.
He raised a bushy gray eyebrow, “Keep your voice down, mate.”
The old gentleman walked around to the checkout counter and brought back an oversized, used topo map book and started flipping through pages, some of which were torn out and ragged along different creases. He pointed his finger to a spot on the map somewhere near a town called Rohan and tapped it with his weathered finger slowly, deliberately.
“Come back when you find what you’re after.”
I picked up my finger to tap the map to be sure, but he whacked it away with an old gnarled walking stick. He looked around one more time, confident no one had seen, and leaned on his staff.
“Don’t looked so damned touristy when you go, ok?”
I nodded, paid for my flies and headed out to my 4WD steed for the journey ahead. On my way to my car, the door out of the building was too cold for my hand and the initial attempt to push it open left me with the lingering burn of a frozen finger. I leaned to the side to use my shoulder to prop open one of the double doors and behind me I could see the lights in the store blackening out in silence, each sign of life petering while approaching the exit. All but one light was dimmed and all but my eyes were out of the door. It cast the long shadow of a figure against an old wooden staff and when the darkness enveloped his shadow I ran to my car.
I awoke in darkness and the glass on my windshield thawed slowly. I pulled out with no lights on for fear of being followed. If I was caught I didn’t know how long I could hold out. Sharing prime trout water is a crime seen by the Eye to be reason for an overnight stay in the dark tower. I heard the stories before I went to the shores of the Shire. The Angling Eye, the Defender of Local Knowledge, pokes holes in tourists’ waders and dresses his victims in cotton. He chains anglers into water that is too warm to freeze but solidifies enough to be slush, thick soupy shlop that allows no drifts, no swings, no presentations. Fish float by from upstream, bottoms-up and bleeding with no life left to chase a fly or leap from beneath the shivering substance that grabs hold of legs, wooly buggers and wading belts. The Eye remains bright above its prey, and the only hats in the entire kingdom of Mordor say ‘seine nets are my savior’. There is no escape; there is only the river of slush, forever infiltrating every waterproof/breathable membrane mankind can fathom. I patted my shirt and shorts to make sure the dreaded cotton tee had not found its way to my body.
I dropped the car in gear, busted on the brights and sped away using every one of my four cylinders, terrified to know if a Rodwraith was actually behind me. I made it to the foothills before I looked in the rearview mirror.
I was small, the sky was big and the mountains formed a giant fertile valley of fantasy that was more scrub and brush than trees and snow. My shirt flitted lightly and my hat warded off the sun. High-stepping through rough grasses I made my way to the stream the grizzled old wizard had shown me and kept my eye trained on eddies, bends, pools, and anywhere I could make out the shape of a fish. My inept eyes scanned and searched but I only found more walking.
A window in the water revealed a rise and the unmistakable ripple of a fish. I paused to see if there was a hatch, some indicator of what fly I should use; a flash of gold beneath the surface but nothing escaping the tension of the water. I tried a few presentations along the seam and earned only a head nod here and tail flick there. I glanced over my shoulder, I was used to it now, before I chose a fly I had purchased from the outdoor store. It was a chunky terrestrial; an invasive bug for a non-native fish. Almost everything in Middle Earth was not supposed to be there, especially me, the touristy-looking foreigner.
I dropped in the foam hopper gently and the fish struck the fly as my old wizard friend knew he would. The hook set had my line streaming out and the fish on the reel sooner than expected but my fingers felt a breeze of cool air and a shadow above me made a distraction long enough for the fish to leap clear from the water and throw my hook. My hat fell over my eyes and as I flipped it back the shadow above me disappeared so quickly that I was staring into the sun. I shaded my eyes and crawled blindly back to my rod.
I moved more slowly now, glancing above and behind me every few minutes for signs of the Eye or his agents. My search for fish continued, albeit much slower. I moved from shrub to shrub, tried to hide my silhouette against the undergrowth. Despite my best efforts, I knew I was exposed; to the sun, to the weather and to the Rodwraiths.
With a torn shirt and muddied knees I poked my head above the edge of a cut bank and saw the olive green back of a rainbow trout. He held casually on the gravelly inside of a bend in the river, grabbing morsels from the quicker current floating by his left. I froze like some kind of hunting dog and sank down to my knees, on the visual scent of my target. The only cover I could find was a small prickly bush the height of a hobbit, so I army-crawled along the uneven ground to kneel behind it. I raised my head and my rod slowly for a few casts.
My view was better now and I could see its elongated head in a larger proportion to its body. It had probably fed on mice in years past and was struggling to supplant the protein rich mammals in its diet. Life was brutish beneath the Eye.
I switched flies and on my second cast, caught the edge of the bank opposite of where the fish was holding. Cursing, I took several intense minutes to crawl slowly through the grass to the edge of the river. I thought that without doubt, the fish would make me and swim off. Somehow I managed enough stealth to free the fly and make it back to my measly bush for another few casts. I had on two nymphs and no indicator, so when the fish jerked its head ever so lightly to the left, I knew he had gone for my presentation.
The pace of my clicking drag slowed and then came the cold and shadow. My left hand jerked the reel until it was frozen solid and the guides along my rod started to shrink with ice onto my line. I did not need to look over my shoulder to see the blasphemous creature behind me. It was a wretched Rodwraith, the direct report to the Angling Eye and the first responder for any foreign fishing intervention. I turned through the now slushy water and tried to continue reeling in the fish. It made one last leap from the water and landed hard on the viscous slush below. I held the rod in my left hand and turned to face my doom.
The black hooded Rodwraith before me quivered with the knowledge that I knew the location of a trout stream. There was no hiding the truth from the gaping maw of hatred made whole in front of me. It lashed out at my line with a sword sharper than any Abel nippers. If it had its way my line would be sliced in two and my rod dashed to pieces on the bank. I swirled amongst the slushy water and felt the cold creep of leaky waders. My reel no longer turned so I took to stripping in the remainder of my line. I sacrificed my hat and threw it as a Frisbee toward my assailant. It seemed to open its mouth and into the fires of its throat went my famed old fishing cap. The thing burped an output of smoke and coughed up the several hooks that had been wedged along the brim.
The fish was close now and I could see its kype and teeth fighting desperately to remove the hook lodged in the beak of its mouth. From my right side the protector of Middle Earth angling secrets rushed me and its momentum crashed into my unbalanced body. I fell beneath the river of angling angst, the grip on my line gone. I surfaced with slush in my waders and rod still in one hand. My time in Middle Earth had come to an end, my life sacrificed for the tug of a trout, the fight of a piscivorous fugitive in a country it didn’t belong. In a place I was not welcome. We would die together then, a foreigner and a foreign fish in a land of fantasy.
I held up my rod and arms, the slack line dangling below the rod tip, and accepted my fate. As my body went numb from the dunked waders and my mind wandered I saw the glow of my last journey. But there was no heavenly gate before me, it was an old man dressed in white waders wielding a two handed rod of greatness that when swung before him broke the darkness and cold of the Rodwraith’s wintery spell. Once again I could see the river and feel the life of a trout attached to my line. I began to strip my line and then I heard the clicking of my reel and I reached behind me to net the fish now fighting to escape.
The man in white fired a perfect loop of line at such an angle that it lassoed the wretched Rodwraith long enough for me to behold the beautiful rainbow of flesh in my net. My assailant screamed a death knell crescendo as I touched the trout, but as I let slip the fish from my fingers back to the pool from where I first found it, the scream died down to a light breeze against my face. As my eyes followed the fish away it swam in the direction of the two fantastical beings battling before me and I saw them with arms around one another in an embrace of familial love that beamed toward me. The man in white winked a bushy eyebrow, sheathed his two handed rod and patted the hooded figure on the back. I stood ready for the next attack as my would-be savior betrayer left me alone again beneath the Eye.
But the Rodwraith glanced to the Eye above, pulled back its hood, and the warmth returned to the river, the holes welded shut in my waders and the face of a local kiwi woman beamed over to me.
“This is a catch-and-release stream. Good on ya.”
Artwork by David Wilson.