Best Days

All of them involve a return to the river.

[by Ben Haguewood]

MANY ANGLERS FACE A PERIOD IN THEIR LIVES when increasing career ambition equals decreasing time on the water, two pursuits that often remain irreconcilable. Some follow this path to its natural end, resigning themselves to wistful recollections of fly fishing as a brief era made possible only by a lack of professional and family responsibilities. Reminiscences become backslapping stories, amplified in volume and questionable detail with each telling.

Others pledge to take it up again, perhaps when there’s more free time from work, or when their eldest child is mature enough to learn how. When they finally return to the sport, they find they can no longer tie on their own tippets, and they adorn themselves with gear in an attempt to redeem through technology what is earned only with time. The uneasy possibility arises that their best days are behind them; the temptation grows for nostalgia, a reliable though cold companion when driving over bridges.

In late September of 2011, I stood knee-deep below the confluence of the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc in the Catskills, as confused as their fabled two-headed trout both by my inability to catch a fish and by how I had arrived there.

“I attracted many second looks, not because New Yorkers are unaccustomed to strange passengers on the subway, but because a backcountry pack and a fly rod tube are such perfectly foreign accessories on the morning commute.”

It was weeks after my 31st birthday and three years since last rigging a rod—two years spent in graduate school and one in a new job in New York City, a place I had never visited before the interview. I had driven from Texas to New York through the Appalachian South and rural Pennsylvania, hopeful about these new professional and outdoor possibilities. Even parts of New Jersey, which I had imagined as a Superfund site, seemed untamed. After my first year as a poorly milled cog, perennially trapped in the City, a work deadline passed and the office was oddly quiet. I arrived home in time to enjoy a rare dinner with my wife, and returned to my copy of the Flyfisher’s Guide to New York, a gift from my parents after I accepted the job that brought me there.

I had come to view the book with a mixture of suspicion and resentment—the source of hope deferred—but reading it left me immersed in a language unknown to the people in my office. I was emboldened by the prospect of exploring a new river, and renewing something that had been too long neglected.

This would also be my first fly fishing trip involving four modes of transportation, none of them my own. Descending the stairs in Brooklyn to the R train, I imagined how I’d critique someone dressed as I was during the rush-hour crush. It’s possible I could be confused with one of those European tourists who seems not to realize that travelers can’t backpack across America. But unlike their trim modern gear, my gear was anything but sleek. Most of it was obsolete, and pounds heavier than the newest versions.

I positioned my backpack toward the sliding doors, alternating sides to stay out of the way of busy people. I reluctantly admitted that I was more familiar with the subway’s subterranean geography, down to which side the car doors opened at each stop, than to the topographical maps I studied during summers in the Mountain West. I attracted many second looks, not because New Yorkers are unaccustomed to strange passengers on the subway, but because a backcountry pack and a fly rod tube are such perfectly foreign accessories on the morning commute.

As I reached Lower Manhattan’s financial district, where I would switch to the NJ Transit train to Jersey City, I was approached by a man dressed in similarly shabby and incongruous clothing. He, too, wore a backpack, though instead of a rod case, he carried a large furled banner.

“Are you going to the movement?” he asked.

Not really the movement type,” I replied with accidental honesty. “I’m headed to the Catskills.”

“You should come with us,” he said.

The notion of camping in Lower Manhattan, at what would turn out to be the Occupy Wall Street movement, lacked the attraction of the Catskills’ storied trout streams, though my day job was certainly worthy of protest.

In Jersey City, I caught a cab to the Hertz rental storefront, where I would be picking up the first car I’d driven in over a year. I anchored myself in the cab’s backseat against the abrupt turns and braying horns, and the driver talked on his cell phone the whole time, never doubting where he was going. Fly fishing new rivers had taught me to lean heavily on local knowledge. If I had absorbed any local custom from New Yorkers, it was relief instead of offense at avoiding social interaction with strangers.