[by Russ Lumpkin]
FISH SWIM IN OUR MEMORIES AND HOPES JUST AS LIVELY AS THEY DO THEIR NATAL WATERS, and no fish enters my streams of consciousness more often than the spring steelhead that migrate the rivers of Southeast Alaska. These streams tend to run small and intimate, similar to the creeks and brooks that crisscross the countryside, but instead of casting to quaint sunfish, small bass, or planted trout, imagine drifting flies to three feet of wild, silver-bright brute strength that has survived a run across the Pacific and back.
In late May 2017, tired of body from a long flight and full of hope for another anadromous rainbow, I walked into Sitka Alaska Outfitters, which sits downtown in the historic former capital of Russian Alaska, and met proprietor Ken Rear, and we soon boarded his boat destined for a narrow creek that runs from its origin in Salmon Lake only a mile or so to its terminus in Silver Bay. On the way over, he spoke of the creek’s offerings, which hold a great deal in a short run—Dolly Varden, cutthroat, rainbows, and, though late in the season, a spring run of steelhead.
The cool of the morning air plus the speed of the boat stirred my blood, as did the surrounding snowcapped peaks, the scattered wisps of fog that moved ghostlike across the placid water, and a smell that defied specific memory but seemed a combination of everything in sight—brackish water, an adjoining and endless wilderness, and a burgeoning spring.
Onshore we followed a well-worn path and avoided devil’s club before entering an open area where the creek splits into braids that form a small delta and fill the creek’s wide mouth before entering the bay. We forded the finger that ran river right and moved alongshore upstream until Ken spotted a steelhead resting on the other side of a narrow log beneath a heavy riffle. A tangle of branches upstream of the fish made a near drift nigh impossible, but even as we plotted a presentation, the fish moved to our side of the log into incredibly clear water and presented a small window of accessibility. The clarity of the water, the treeless delta behind us, and the tangle of currents worked against us, and after a couple of good drifts failed to elicit a strike, we moved on.
Farther upstream we crossed the same braid and reentered the creek where it exited the dark rainforest. With a methodical approach, we began working upcurrent—I cast a 7-weight to known steelhead lies but otherwise used a 5-weight and regularly brought to hand a few Dollies and trout, including a hefty 15-inch cutt. The few presentations I’d made for steelhead had drifted freely, reminding me that I had arrived at the back end of the run.
Near lunch, we waded a straightaway and ducked under a giant Sitka spruce that spanned the creek, cleared the water by five feet, and on its back bore a miniature forest of ferns, mosses, and seedlings. Three of me, perhaps four, could have reached around that spruce, but we moved 30 yards beyond it, and Ken motioned to a patch of dark water on river left that had been good steelhead holding water in the past. And the spot looked fishy: a root jutted into the water and broke the current, which poured fast over the left edge but remained almost calm directly behind it, and I needed to drift a fly as tight to the right edge of that current as I could without catching the root. Ken tied on a Steak and Eggs pattern and pointed to a small stick up stream as my landing point. Each false cast seemed to shock the rod tip, but with a proper length of line on the water, I resorted to roll casting only, and my second effort landed the fly close to that stick, and when the fly cleared the root, I felt a firm tug and set the hook, and within seconds I could see a dark form twisting and writhing in the current. Ken shouted “Steelhead on!” and I recalled the joy of my very first steelhead and began clearing line off the water, but the fish gave a mighty shake, and the fly came loose.
Ken encouraged me to make another pass, and the fish took the fly but was off and gone before I formed a thought. Dejected, I followed Ken upstream, and we broke for lunch and planned to fish back downstream for trout and Dollies, but when we got to the spot where I’d hooked the steelie, Ken changed flies on each rod, and as he worked on the 5-weight, he instructed me to walk downstream and to cast the 7-weight to holding water just downstream of the giant spruce on river right.
Upstream of the great tree, I rolled repeated casts into the shadow of that spruce and let the big, fuzzy, pink streamer drift through the dip in the creek. Twenty, 25 times I made that cast, and each time, it drifted benignly through to slack water, but then, the line stopped without my feeling a take. Something had changed, so I set the hook and set the hook again, and I looked downstream just as a great fish, a buck steelhead, raised its head and exposed a scarred face and a big eye—he apparently sized me up. I looked to see if Ken had noticed and began letting the fish run when it wanted and reeling in when it rested.
Ken had heard the commotion and waded down. “You hooked one?”
Ken whipped out his camera, and when the fish made an appearance near the surface, he reacted: “Wow. That is a good fish.”
So good, in fact, I began to think of all the great fish of my past that I had hooked and failed to land, and the reality hit me that nearly all the great fish that would have meant most had never left the water, never felt the touch of my hand, and all live together in a memory of anguished lament.
“Follow him,” Ken instructed. We moved downstream, ducked under the giant spruce, and moved toward a sandbar. “Let’s try to land him here.”
The fish remained within 30, 40 feet of me and on occasion pulled off line with violent ease, but inside, I considered this fish caught, and it would erase every angling disappointment in memory—including a couple of river stripers I followed downstream over slippery rocks abutting fast and deep currents only to never even see the fish at all. But this Alaskan steelhead, this fish of 1,000 casts, would trump every sigh and heave—and every half minute or so, I drew the fish closer.
Finally, when the fish thrashed about 10 feet out, Ken took a sweep of the net, and suddenly, the great steelhead imagined stakes that didn’t exist, and it swam straightway across the creek. Up to this point, it had not once turned downstream, and as I waited to see its next move, it hit fast current and moved quickly away. Before I made up any ground, I recalled the big eye that stared me down and realized, This fish has known all along that it’s gonna win.
And with that, the line wafted back to me, and for a couple of minutes, my senses died and my numb feet remained cemented to the creek bed.
We eventually moved past the awkward silence, moved back upstream beyond the great spruce, and I caught the fish I’d hooked twice earlier. A beautiful hen and an acrobat, she jumped clear of the water at least four times. We followed her downstream, back underneath the giant spruce, and landed her on that same sandbar of broken dreams. And though the hen and buck were of the same species, they weren’t of the same breed. The buck, still sporting chrome, might have been 34, 36 inches—an oaken yardstick hewn from 2 x 6. The hen measured 26 inches, a lean beauty that bore the colors of the stream, a true trophy, a beautiful fish, a genuine steelhead, but . . .
That great steelhead tugs my memory just as strongly as it did my line in Salmon Creek. Oh, I’ll recall with gladness the other steelhead I’ve caught, but the joy of those fish doesn’t equal the grief borne of the beast that got away. I will agonize over that buck steelhead for the rest of my life; its abode in my mind will extend its years, give it power and days beyond its own. It’s practically immortal already.
When a turkey’s smart enough and lives long enough to earn his own name, there’s only one thing you can do.
[by Jay Campbell]
HE’D BEEN SEEN ON AND OFF FOR 10 YEARS, which extended his lifespan well beyond the laws of nature. But just as belief must sometimes bend to fact, fact must sometimes bend to belief, and we all believed in Jukebox.
On our Florida lease, suggesting that Jukebox was just a turkey would have been a greater sin than questioning the Gators’prospects for a national title. I say “Would have been,” because no one had ever questioned his existence. At least not out loud.
Jukebox first revealed himself to Craig Courty in the Airplane Hammock, a dark distant circle of cypress swamp wrapped by a wall of blackberries and sawtooth palmetto taller than a man and 10 yards wide—haunted by gators, buzzards, and the wreck of a World War II trainer, an echo of war that hung in the still air like a shout. Folks saw things there, and most folks stayed away. But not Craig Courty. The Airplane Hammock may have been haunted, but it was also a haven for deer and turkey.
“You don’t hunt Jukebox,” they’d say. “He hunts you.”
The morning he met Jukebox, Craig slipped back to camp early and alone. He cooked the camp breakfast, muting his usual blare of disco music. His morning bracer stayed corked. Folks drifted in from the woods and quietly took their seats, drawn by his hot bacon biscuits but silenced by his dark mood.
Finally he said, “I saw Him, boys.”
He pushed his eggs across the plate and stared at his fork.
“I was backed up to a cypress, covered so good I couldn’t see my own feet. I gave one little cackle . . .
He must have slipped up behind me in the fog.”
He paused, eyes wide behind Coke-bottle glasses, and whispered. “I never heard him coming, but I felt his footsteps.”
Forks froze in midshovel.
“I cut my eyes around and almost swallowed my call. I had to look up to see him.”
Craig is six foot three, and seems taller sitting down. Forks settled onto plates.
“At first I thought it was a cow. His beard was as long as a calf ’s tail, thick as a broom.”
Mouths hung open.
“His wattles popped off his neck like Fourth of July balloons.” Craig’s voice rose, his hands spread wide. “And when the sun lit him, he glowed like Old Glory.”
Craig Courty is patriotic to a fault, and comparing a bird’s neck to the American flag just wasn’t done. Folks eyed each other nervously.
Craig’s shoulders slumped. “Boys, he looked through me like he could see my soul. I never even raised my gun.” He sighed and shook his head. “Been hunting here since I was nine, and I’ve never seen— never even heard of anything like him. That bird was as big and bright as a . . . a danged Jukebox!”
And there it was. Everyone knew Craig wouldn’t hesitate to sidestep a fact if it might inconvenience a story. But whether this turkey was real or not didn’t matter, because Craig Courty believed he was real, and that counted for a great deal on our ranch.
“Jukebox,” the members said. And so it began.
That night, folks yawned and stretched and made excuses to retire early, generally suggesting they might wander off in the morning to hunt the oak bottoms to the north or the food plots to the west. But before dawn, the road to the Hammock was gridlocked with swamp buggies and Jeeps. As the sun rose, 15 painted faces peeked from 15 blinds, each searching for Jukebox.
On cue, his gobbles exploded in strings that grew louder and closer until he stormed the hammock at first light. He craned his massive neck from side to side, eyeballing every hunter in his hide. He hurled challenges. He blocked the sun and shook the earth. He was blinding blue and crimson in one moment, ghostly gray and invisible in the next.
Jukebox was such a showcase of overwhelming extravagance that everyone knew Craig Courty’s gift for exaggeration had failed him for the first time in his life.
Not one of those hunters ever raised a gun.
JUKEBOX SHOWED AGAIN THAT YEAR, the members said, and for years thereafter. And those few who crossed him were marked forever. “You don’t hunt Jukebox,” they’d say. “He hunts you.”
They’d linger over breakfast, speculating about the other toms he’d vanquished, the hens he’d seeded. They’d describe him using language men reserve for centerfolds and monster trucks. They’d claim he knew a man’s thoughts before he could act. That he froze men senseless with a stare. In 10 years, no one ever fired a shot.
Trapped on an island in the raging waters of Appalachia.
[by James Wu]
THE WATER WAS ANKLE DEEP AND CLEAR UNDER A STONE BRIDGE WITH THREE ARCHES, the streambed tannic brown. It was mostly bass habitat, with trout tucked in around subsurface springs. Sun-shot haze glowed in the Appalachian canyon, lighting up the cliffs. Pine needles and leafed forest, unsettled in the breeze, filled the dark mountain slope. The warming air smelled wet and slightly metallic.
That summer I had driven out with a friend, and we caught trout and bass on the bright days. We camped in tents off river roads and hiked in to fish branches of the Potomac’s highland watershed. Trout took Elk-Hair Caddis, black Woolly Buggers with grizzly hackle, and small bead-head nymphs. The streams were so shallow that fish spooked nervously at the mere click of a reel.
The roads were steep and narrow with harrowing oxbow turns embedded in the valley’s folds, wrinkled ravines dropping bright, dusty gravel straight down, and tall spruce trees shooting up with hardwoods and cedars. The streams flowed varicose, and we stopped anywhere that we could get close enough to look down the bank and see bass ganged up in little pools, waiting to attack balled-up baitfish. In the clear light, you had to know the terrain well to sneak up on them.
“The brown silent water kept coming, and I controlled my breath to stay calm.”
The last night it rained for about eight hours, and that morning the camp was a soggy mess. We stashed wet gear in our cars, Rob’s Buick two-door sedan. He was young and freakishly tall, over six feet six inches, thin like a fly fisherman, with a shaggy beard. We’d met at an evening fly tying class at a local high school. He’d recently gotten his biology degree, had good parents, and had road-tripped the United States and Canada with his girlfriend, who was about four-eleven. They were getting married the next year.
After we cleaned up camp, running on smoky black coffee and no breakfast, Rob had to get back to town. I decided to fish Shavers Fork before closing the book on our trip. Shavers Fork flows the other way, into the Monongahela and then all the way to Pittsburgh into the Ohio. I drove up the mountain, my little four-cylinder wagon whining, inertia slowing against the gradient and gravity. I passed through patches of darkness and light where sun shone through the leaves, then went down the other side of the ridge, riding the brakes.
The drive took a lot of time, and the area was sparsely populated, away from the interstate. The people were conservative, remote, and had sided with secession. Their livelihood was mostly logging in the national forest.
I took a dark and shady road down the canyon, winding around a few settlements and a tight turn nestled into the cliff, then down an almost vertical incline to the valley floor, where I crossed the stone bridge with three arches.
The sun had come out, and it was humid and breezy. The water was clear and low, and I could spot fallfish under the bridge in the gravel, tilting this way and that to eat nymphs in the drift. The water didn’t seem trouty, so I rigged a large stonefly– hellgrammite mixture on a 3X leader, left my car at the foot of the bridge, and wet-waded in to have a look. I walked upstream, watching the laces of my boots flop around. Tiring, impatient, I got out of the river and hiked up the bank through some quiet farmland, then to a big island and a separate islet with some trees on it. I got onto the island easily and crossed over a shallow riffle to the islet, where I could fish the main stream.
I stood at the head of the smaller island and looked at the water coming right at me, transparent and shiny. I didn’t see any fish, but made a few casts upstream toward the drop-off on either side. The rock wall of the valley rose straight up, with bristling conifers blocking afternoon light and obstructing the river, turning it back toward the stone bridge around the bend. I fished mindlessly and thought about the drive home. A few clouds swept through from last night’s storm. The air still felt electric. I was roll-casting the fly into the main current and letting it sweep down the side of the little island, but I don’t think there was a fish there. Maybe the fly was too big.
Then I noticed the water had turned cloudy brown and was up to my calves. Dumbly, I wondered at the change. There was no one around. A deserted camp on the far side stood under tall trees against the slant of a hill next to the canyon wall.
In less than three minutes, the water came up to my hips, thick chocolate milk swirling with wood debris from upstream trees still green with leaves. Sharply inhaling a panic, I retreated up the islet, feet secure in gravel and grass and some remnants of trees all swept back and hacked from prior floods. The brown silent water kept coming, and I
VOLUME FORTY-TWO, ISSUE 7
These Birds Are Made for Walking
The politics and practicality of greater sage-grouse hunting.
by Brad Fitzpatrick
Queen of the Desert
A photographic journal.
by Bryan Gregson
In the Steppes of Central Texas
Pursuing Persian red sheep on their (new) home ground.
by Terry Wieland
With multiple personalities and great dry fly fishing, the Henrys Fork helps maintain family ties.
by Will Rice
A photographic journal.
by Matt McCormick
The Mountain’s Own
Walking a knife’s edge, going where the bull tahr go.
by Tony Kamphorst
Catching king salmon fresh from the ocean.
by Pat Ford
Gray’s Best 2018
Shooting: Through a Glass, Brightly
Viewing lenses through a changing world.
by Terry Wieland
Angling: A Trout in Catfish Country
My lifelong romance with fishing towns.
by Miles Nolte
People, Places, & Equipment
- International Outfitters
- Alaskan Outfitters
- Contiguous United States Outfitters
Index to Advertisers
FRONT COVER: photography by Dušan Smetana
New Zealand’s north island shudders with cold, clear, fresh water. Anglers like myself who have read the magazines and scanned the websites are familiar with the more famous wet lines like the Tongariro and other Taupo tributaries. But the sheer quantity of trout rivers and creeks can feel overwhelming to a visiting angler.
My time here has helped me empathize with the many fly fishing tourists I meet in my home state each season. Montana also abounds with fertile rivers and creeks. They fall from nearly every mountain in a state that takes its name from the Spanish word for mountain. But in Montana I know where to go, and if I don’t know where to go, I know who to ask. Not so in New Zealand, and while Kiwis are, in my limited experience, friendly and forthcoming (more on that later), it’s difficult to even know where to begin. Most of us travel on limited time. Time here can feel exceptionally limited, because traveling this spectacular island nation without exploring it beyond the realms of fish would be shameful. While every fishing trip to a new destination should include at least one gamble–hopefully exploring a blue line on a map that may or may not hold fish–few of us are willing to risk all our valuable angling days that way.
Even the “small fish” rivers he suggested held fat rainbows of 16-20 inches in nearly every likely looking pool.
Below are a few resources that were instrumental in planning and facilitating my time on the North Island.
If you’re looking for a local agent to design a vacation to your liking, The Best of New Zealand specializes in doing just that bestofnzflyfishing.com. Their knowledge and contacts extend well beyond the north island, and they facilitate far more than just fly fishing travel, but that’s how I used their services. Because I wanted to experience the famous Turangi region at the south end of Lake Taupo, they booked me at the Tongariro River Lodge, where my wife and I enjoyed exceptional dining and accommodation to compliment the outstanding fishing. For more on the fishing we had with the lodge guide staff, check out my previous post: www.grayssportingjournal.com/dispatch.
As just about every article about fishing New Zealand will tell you, it’s worth your time and money to book at least a couple days with a guide, even if you’re planning to do the majority of your fishing without one (as we were). I’ve guided trout anglers for much of my adult life and caught them all over the U.S. and the world, yet my time with the Tongariro River Lodge’s head guide Tim McCarthy proved to be immensely helpful in learning some of the nuances of north island fisheries. Plus, he helped my wife catch her largest trout to date, bigger than any I’ve ever been able to guide her into. Additionally, splurging for a few nights of top-notch accommodation can be well worth the money, even on a budgeted vacation. Amy and I spent most of our travel nights sleeping at friends’ houses, in mid-priced airbnbs, or “freedom camping”, so our nights at the lodge refreshed and rejuvenated us with a bit of comfort, luxury, and solitude. Of course, if you’re able to spend the majority of your time in a lodge setting, do so, but I think everyone who fishes in New Zealand should spend at least one night in a tent beside a river. Preferably several.
After leaving the Tongariro River Lodge, Amy and I hung around Turangi for a few more days, enjoying the quaint town and spending more time on the storied river. One afternoon while I was working a run with nymphs and an indicator, killing time before the evening rise, a stranger walked up to me and struck up a conversation. I started out skeptical. While fly anglers in the States are usually cordial, we don’t walk up to complete strangers in the midst of a drift and begin discussions. My suspicion demonstrates my lack of understanding in regard to New Zealand’s cultural context. The stranger, Doug Sevens, didn’t want anything from me other than a conversation. Kiwis tend to be friendlier than yanks.
Doug’s a local resident, and expert on the fisheries of the north island. Within ten minutes of meeting me, Doug had given me advice on effective flies, informed me of a specific regulation on the Tongariro that prohibits the type of strike indicator I was using (yarn only on the Tongariro; now you know), invited me to his home, and offered to take me fishing. For the record, Doug had no idea that I make my living as an outdoor writer. Unfortunately, our differing schedules prevented us from getting out on the water together, but I did visit his house (where he gifted me a package of legal indicators). Doug runs a website called nzfishing.com dedicated to helping anglers find and access excellent water all over the county. He asked about Amy and my upcoming travel plans and suggested rivers where we could stop and fish along the way.
Being that I am still an American and a fishing guide, my personal code of ethics prevents me from telling you exactly which rivers we fished, but I can tell you that Doug’s website provides maps and details on each of them, along with dozens of others. Even the “small fish” rivers he suggested held fat rainbows of 16-20 inches in nearly every likely looking pool. Outside the famed radius of Taupo, we never saw another angler.
The highlight of my time on the north island came beside a wide pool on another unnamed river just a few hours’ drive from the Tongariro River Lodge. Tim, the guide we fished with, suggested that spot when I asked him about camping opportunities in the area with fishing possibilities. The short dusk window showed a handful of dimpling rises I. didn’t land them all, but I’ll not soon forget the rainbow that broke my leader with his initial headshake and proceeded to leap steadily and consistently down the pool, shattering the reflected sunset.
Precious memories, how they linger.
[Article & Paintings by Galen Mercer]
TO FLY FISHERS, springtime is the rope tossed across melting ice, the open hand extended over the precipice. Soul-weary of winter, sapped by shades, anglers view the arrival of Opening Day as salvation, yearned for as children yearn for an absent parent.
IN THE EASTERN TRADITION, April 1 was Opening Day. With the advent of year round no-kill sections, and the lottery of an increasingly volatile climate, precise seasonal demarcation becomes difficult. Within the past two years I’ve seen barns collapse beneath April snows followed by a season that opened with 80-degree days and Hendrickson hatches a full month earlier than the oldest living anglers could recall. Constancy, it appears, has left the building.
While spring is famously fickle if not outright elusive, it does have its own comforting cadence. The disembodied strains of a sky-dancing woodcock, spiraling in the streamside dusk. An expanded range and density of birdsong. The piercing trills of spring peepers, enlivening first the river bottoms, then proceeding rapidly upstream to the springheads—a chorus that announces a season’s start as clearly as the gate bell at a horse race. One almost expects to hear, Annnnnd, we’re off!
Coltsfoot, jonquils, trout lilies, morels, fiddleheads, dogwood, apple blossoms: beyond their beauty, each tells the alert angler something essential. Returning swallows, mating efts, saffron clouds of pine pollen, the first kingfishers and blue herons: a stream calendar more precise than any yet printed.
Perhaps an angler’s truest and most elegant accounting of progress is the sequence of hatches. Black, dun, blue, iron: the prefixes contain a spirit of color reanimating itself—barren woods veiled in snow, a groggy sun nudging the shadows. Like grass pushing through concrete, spring hatches are resilient marvels, putting the lie to winter and filling our veins with possibility.
It’s vexing to consider how many April hatches we detect retroactively through breath-fogged car windows. With antifreeze blood and other adaptations, insects are far better suited to harsh conditions. Yet cruel weather will afflict many, providing low-hanging fruit for anglers fishing stillborn or emerger patterns. Of late I’ve channeled Johnny Appleseed, scooping chilled duns from the surface and ferrying them ashore.
Having bested the worst of spring, hatching bugs now enter the food chain: fish of every species, salamanders, snakes, toads, frogs, myriad water- and songbirds, weasels, even red squirrels relish them. Recently I watched several grackles across a pool I was sketching, periodically seizing and shaking something in the shallows. Crossing to their bank, I found the shore a scum line of emptied caddis shucks.
Living among and painting Catskill trout streams for two decades, I mark seasonal transitions by the rivers, a pleasant myopia practically compelled by the narrowness of those valleys. Ice forms, weakens, and finally roars off in the annual thaw, altering the colors of streambeds, refashioning the streambeds themselves. A violent runoff might burnish spring cobble and ledge-rock into gemstones, at least until algae mutes this radiance. A few years ago, a beloved fl at I’d fished and painted for decades was literally erased by a vast ice dam driven by a late winter flood. A team of bulldozers plowing downstream could have done no worse.
According to the paradigm, when a river course naturally redistributes itself, one reach’s loss becomes another’s gain. On pristine watersheds, perhaps this is true, but given the heedless way rivers are treated and the accelerating severity of today’s weather, the old formula appears as hollow as so many stream banks. A great beneficence of spring is its renewing effect upon our senses. Once the thick skull of winter is lifted, we possess, if briefly a child’s intuitive wonder. Like the intensity of a first kiss or the immediacy of a fight, we experience the pungent earth smells, the stern fragrance of wet stones, the disorienting abundance of a shift of mild air. The Oriental tracery of a sycamore’s button-balls, an overgrown farmstead’s daffodil woods, frenzies of blackflies harrying duns, the ribald comedy of horny songbirds, lampreys dervishing stones into spawning redds.
Spring is the only time of year when the rankness of decay summons not revulsion but possibility. I once worked a busy fish in a brimming May river for perhaps half an hour. Inching closer, searching for casting stability, I edged onto a pale rock that canted unexpectedly. It was the scapula and lower section of a deer’s leg—polished and moon white, hoof intact, it undulated in the current like some macabre weed.
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.