It’s another spring, time to continue our uncertain journeys upon this earth.
[by H. William Rice]
WHEN I SAW THE CHOKEBERRY BUSHES BLOOMING, I thought they were early.
“Global warming,” I told my wife.
But then I saw the buds on the paper birches at the edge of the woods, and I knew I had to face it. Spring had come. Time to shake off the cold and go fishing. Either I’d go now or I’d never go again.
It had been a year since the accident that left me a thumb, two-thirds of an index finger, and the intact palm of my hand. The doctor said it could have been worse, considering.
“It’s bad enough,” I said.
At the time, I had no distinct memory of the event. But it came back in bits and pieces: the image of my bloody hand missing three and a half fingers, everything in slow motion, pain and terror running through me like a bolt of lightning.
Fishing is life—it ain’t rocket science or any kind of science. You do it ’cause you’re s’posed to, the same way the trout eats the mayfly ’cause he’s s’posed to.
My wife recovered the fingers and wrapped them in a handkerchief. But the doctors couldn’t reattach them. Too mangled.
Back at home, convalescing, I remembered twisting awkwardly through the thick branches I was pruning, swapping hands, my left hand on the throttle and my right on the top handle, stretching to reach a limb. I must have hit it with the tip of the bar. The saw kicked back at me and into my right hand. One wrong move, one bad choice.
A wound like that changes your perspective, makes you understand how vulnerable you are. Not just that someday you’ll die, but that any part of you can be maimed, mangled, snipped off. You draw inward, stay inside, hoping to protect what’s left.
And even when you force yourself out the door, the world’s not the same. You have to measure its contours anew. You have to reckon with how remarkable the hand is. But you do it in reverse—by no longer having all of it. Try to explain to someone with 10 fingers the triumph you feel when, after weeks of physical therapy, you finally tie your shoelaces.
I FUMBLE FOR THE TRUCK KEYS IN THE DARKENED BEDROOM, trying not to wake my wife. I must complete the circle. A year ago I was doing what I’ve done every spring for the past 20 years: go fly fishing. Today I’m heading back to the water.
I stow my gear in the truck. It’s early, cold and dark, not much different from winter. But the birds know it’s spring. Already they’re calling back and forth. As I slept in that on-again, off-again fashion of one who must rise early for something important, I heard a thrush calling down in the lower pasture.
By the time I start winding into the mountains, sunlight stains the eastern sky. And when I park at the trailhead, the sun shoots through the trees, angling into the dark places in the woods. I shoulder my daypack, stuffed with waders and vest, zip my jacket against the cold, pull my hat low, grab my
rod case, and head out. I’m the same as I was a year ago. Except for the missing fingers. And something akin to fear. I came to fishing through a backdoor. Started tying flies in medical school. My father, an avid fisherman and hunter, suggested it. “That’ll help you develop the fine motor skills you’ll need to be a surgeon.”
And with my usual talent for going whole hog, I didn’t just tie a few flies. I tied more than I could have counted. And I learned all about the entomological side of fishing, so that I wasn’t just copying a picture. I was tying a caddis fl y at the larval and pupal stages. When I finally entered the water to fish, I knew something about the stream and the insects and the fish. How they all worked together.
Even now, I never just jump in and go. I examine the stream, turn over some rocks, and examine what’s under them. I study the water to see if the trout are rising, and if they are, I find out what they’re eating, not by trying one fl y after another or by looking at a hatch chart but by watching the surface to see what’s there. Sometimes I seine the current with a small aquarium net and examine its contents. I try to match what’s in the net with what’s in my fl y box. Sometimes I bring specimen jars to preserve the insects so I can copy them at home.
“What the holy hell are you doing with specimen bottles on a fishing trip?” my friend Roger says. “You’re too much of a scientist. This ain’t a lab, it’s the woods. You know too much. Think too much. Ruin the whole damned thing.”
Then he really gets going. “The man eats of the fish that ate of the worm that ate of the sludge on a rock at the bottom of the stream. Fishing is life—it ain’t rocket science or any kind of science. You do it ’cause you’re s’posed to, the same way the trout eats the mayfly ’cause he’s s’posed to. That’s all you need to know about it.”
By now, Roger can’t stop himself. He revives that old debate about presentation and fly choice: according to him, some large percentage of expert fishermen declare that presentation catches most of the fish, no matter which fly you choose. He goes on and on, enjoying the hell out it.
Well, that’s all right. He likes to talk. And I let him. But I still like to know what they’re hitting. And I have a history of doing pretty well. At least as well as he does. Sometimes.