I have this recurring dream where I’m walking through some place familiar, my neighborhood, places I’ve worked, a restaurant, and suddenly there’s a stream next to me. I see trout swimming around. Sometimes, I find my rod and start fishing. Other times I just study the water and make a mental note to come back to this spot with my rod and reel. When I have these dreams, I know it’s been too long since I’ve gone fishing.
If you’re reading this and thinking I have some kind of bizarre interior life, you’re probably right. But, really, this is about literal fishing. Now, literal fishing is likely a metaphor for some other existential search for meaning in life, and in that way, you are correct to psychoanalyze me.
I know not everyone likes fishing. My dad took my brother and I fishing a lot when we were kids, so there is definitely a family connection for me. I have so many memories of holding a spinning rod and watching the monofilament line disappear into the mysterious depths of a lake or stream . What was down there? And when the strike came in the form of a bump or a strong tug, and the rod sprang to life, it always triggered primal instincts inside. Life and death. A connection to nature. A meal caught. A gift from above and below. A fishing rod is a lifeless, inanimate object, but when it twitches and bends to the water with a fish fighting at the end of the line, it comes alive and can make you a child, full of wonder.
When Geri and I were still learning to fly fish, we went to Hot Creek, one of the 10 best fishing spots in America. The fish are infamously cautious, and you have to present the fly with a perfect drift in the current. We weren’t having any luck on that hot day, but Geri decided to tie on a goofy fly we had made at home. It was a big puff of neon orange yarn with orange rubber legs and a happy face painted on. There may have been alcohol involved in the creation. Everyone who has fished has had one of those days where nothing is biting, so you just try anything. Nothing was biting on this day. Hot Creek is a popular spot, and there were five or six other people fishing the same stretch we were on. Geri tied on the big orange spider and I looked downstream to see if anyone was noticing. I was a little embarrassed. Fly fishers can be snobby when it comes to their equipment, their clothing, and especially their flies. The purists only use dry flies, which float on the surface, and I noted that this orange spider would count as a dry fly.
Beneath the scorching sun, Geri made her backcast, and an orange streak floated up and back. She thrust the rod forward and the orange spider shot out towards the far bank about 20 feet away. As it gently descended, a silver streak shot straight up and caught it before it hit the water. Geri and I shouted, “whoooaaa!!!” at the same time. The fish hit the water with a splash and took off down stream with the orange spider stuck in its jaw. All the people fishing were now looking over at Geri with her rod bent to the water. She held the rod high shouting, “oh god, oh god, oh god…” as she played the big fish and brought it to my waiting net. It was a rainbow trout that measured about 20 inches. Probably 2 and half to 3 pounds. The fly was tied on a barbless hook and popped free easily. We revived the fish in the current (Hot Creek is a special regulations fishery with a zero-kill rule), and it swam back to its deep undercut bank. Before I could say anything, Geri sat down on a rock, out of breath. I told her to make another cast with the crazy spider, but she said she needed to rest. Her heart was pounding and her knees were shaking. I made a few more futile casts and then we just started laughing. What the hell had just happened? Did that fish just jump out of the water to grab that crazy spider? We both recounted what we thought we had seen.
A guy from down stream eventually wandered over to us to ask what fly Geri had caught her fish on. We started laughing again. In normal circumstances, it’s common courtesy to tell others what fly is working, especially at Hot Creek where there are a dozen different aquatic insects the fish could be keying on. But this was one of those flukes where something that had no right to work, well…worked. We told him the story and the guy laughed. He understood.
And despite many more attempts to bring out the orange spider on slow days, we never caught another fish with it again. But damn it’s a good story that we tell often with whomever we are fishing.
I tell this story for a few reasons. 1. We’ve been fly fishing for over 20 years, and I’ve been fishing since I was a toddler. And yet, every time the fish takes the fly or the bait, I’m an excited child again. Geri usually has to sit down after catching a fish. She’s a damn good fly fisher, and yet, the thrill of catching a fish is the same as when were first learning.
2. Spending a day fishing is spending a day focused on simplicity. No matter what is going on in your life, fishing, for me, is a contextualizing activity. While I’m studying the water or currents, choosing which fly to use, figuring out how to cast, I often think about my life. I hear music in my head. I get perspective. It’s hard to explain because I’m also completely focused on the task at hand. There’s a lot that can go wrong when fly fishing, and I’m alert to all possibilities. But, I’m also thinking…
3. So much of fishing is the shared adventure of a great day on the water. Recounting the day over a meal
and a beer is a sacred experience, and there is a special bond with anyone you spend a day fishing with.
So tonight, I’ll go to sleep and likely dream of mysterious waters that hold unseen fish that seem to beckon to me. Anyone want to go fishing?