everyday beat

read | write | play outside | fish | web design | music

Every Cast the Opportunity for Perfection

"With every cast the possibility of perfection arises. That brief moment when randomness ceases to exist and time and the universe stop to enjoy the beauty of your struggle. That pristine balance of love and loss, of hope and terror radiating from a single point at the end of a clear strand of line, up through your trembling hands and body and into your very heart, leaving it overflowing with God's best intentions." -Lyman Yee, The Headlock Manifesto, Fly Rod & Reel, July/October 2004

It's the sunset 7:00 world of a humid August night and I'm exploring the weedy banks of a new river. As I hike downstream I see no indication of trout. The water looks muddy and slow.

I'm stumbling and sweating my way along the river. The grass along the bank reaches past my shoulders and is thicker than any I've encountered on any other stream. It pulls at my feet and conceals uneven ground and fallen trees and limbs. My tactic is to walk thirty or forty feet along the river fifteen feet back from the water, then creep to the bank and look for fish or sign thereof, then head back into the brush and make some more progress downstream. The river meanders sharply, I can easily cover a lot of river distance by cutting from one side of a peninsula jutting into an oxbow loop to the other side.

I'm ready to head back to my car when I approach the river once more from the inside of 90 degree corner. There is a big hickory on the other side and its limbs reach over the water. The surface of the water is glassy and blue-gray from the thin black silt layer over the gravel on the bottom. The bank drops straight down two or three feet into the water. On my side of the river the water is six inches deep. A jet of fast water shoots from my side just upstream, out across in front of me and against the other side where the water looks deep and the bank undercut. Where the bottom slopes from the shallows on my side to the deep darkness on the other side the bottom is clean and sandy.

I peek over the grass at the edge of the water and see a long shadow two inches under the surface of the gray and glassy water, the body powerfully and slowly holding the fish's position against the current. I suck in my breath. I watch for a moment and then realize the fish has risen. It barely touches the surface and faint rings spread across the small piece of water directly above the dark shape. I suck in even more breath.

And hold my breath. And step back from the bank, back into the chaotic weeds. And then creep downstream. Drop my vest in the weeds, fish my water out of the back pocket and take a small calming drink from it. Replace the water bottle. Apply bug juice. The mosquitoes are thick and finally getting to me. I put on a fresh 5X leader, fine and clean. No tippet, no time for that. Thread my rod and try to remember how to breathe. I'm surprised to find that my hands are steady. Rigging up goes smoothly for once.

Here it is. A fish. Not just fishy-looking water. Not a deep hole to drag a scud or some nymph through, waiting for the garish yellow indicator to jerk underwater. No. A riser. Angling purity. I tie on a big black cricket in the absence of any hint of what might be hatching, what the trout might be feeding on. This seems like cricket water. The tall grass on the banks, the overhanging trees. The chorus that is the soundtrack to fishing this time of year.

The piece of river reminds me of a basement. Cool and humid, here the light filtered through layers of leafy canopy and thin clouds. Like a basement except that through the trees I can see horizon distant in many directions.

I hear trucks occasionally on the highway a half-mile across pastures. I hear children's laughter coming from nearby. And yet, from the moment of spotting the trout, silence. The inner silence of trout fishing. The cacophony of voices normally rattling around in my head, shouting to be heard, are absolutely muted. The singular voice that remains is almost always talking about fishing. Even when it is not, it is still that same even-paced voice.

When I step into the water for the first time that evening I am surprised that it is moving so quickly and is so cold. Because the bottom is so smooth the water moves without a ripple, before I step into it I thought it was just plodding along. There is a shallow gravel bar in the middle of the river that is perfect to stand on and I creep toward it. I look upstream and audit the situation. The water along the right-hand bank is deep, a grayish blue with the grass atop the vertical bank overhanging the water. I am a few degrees off being directly behind the fish, but luckily I can cast into the jet of fast water coming across the pool and it will take my cricket right over the fish, I don't have to risk splashing my line right down on top of it. Because there is a big wide corner hole just downstream, my back cast is unexpectedly clear on this tangled river.

I feed out line and then begin casting, false casting right over the fish, knowing Gabe would not approve. My casting is far from perfect, but I manage a decent single haul and get the right amount of line out pretty quickly. I can't even think about getting any closer than I already am in this calm water.

Through all my preparations, the fish has continued to rise. After two or three casts I drop the cricket right where I want, into the jet of a current coming across the hole and it shoots out over where the fish is. I watch it for an endless moment.



I'm watching the neon yellow dot on the cricket's head one instant, then it disappears. That fact doesn't quite register until the quiet slurp reaches my ears and the two things add up and I know. When I lift up on my rod there is unmoving resistance. Holy shit, bro I say aloud. If it hadn't taken me that instant to comprehend the strike I probably would have pulled the hook right out of his mouth but as it happens he must have been taking a first bite, maybe wondering what the cold metal was, when I tug and pull the hook through his lip.

So begins our little war. He fighting for his life, me trying to avoid the fatal mistakes I know are waiting at every turn. He runs against my line and I hold him and hold him and can't turn him back toward me and he tries always tries to fight his way back upstream into his deep hole and I have to finally give him some line, just a few feet. It is a long fighting minute before I get my first glimpse as he comes to the surface and I have my first good reason to worry about the integrity of my knot holding fly to leader.

The knot holds and I somehow hold and I pull so my biceps ache and he makes his runs but ever nears me where I stand. When I finally have him in the water at my feet and I'm kneeling by him and wetting my hand and holding the rod high in the air he has nothing left in him. All he had went into the fight and as much as I had known I had no choice but to tire him out there was no compromise for him and we're both exhausted but he especially so. I work quickly to dislodge the cricket from where it is all the way through the corner of his mouth. He has a gigantic head and a big lower jaw that juts out violently and culminates in a big lip that sticks up and his body is deep red and orange and his spots black like the bottomless black of a pupil in an eye and sparkling too. I don't fish with a net but now I wish I did. Usually it is easy to hold the fish in my left hand while I take the hook out. There is no holding this fish in one hand but I just got a tool called the Ketchum Release which I hook over the leader and slide down into his mouth and though it's supposed to fit right over the fly it won't fit over the cricket but still pushes directly back on the hook and dislodges easier than it would have with a forceps. When he's off he stays by my feet while I stand and of course I'm worried that he's really hurting but after a second he perks up and jets back upstream to safety to nurse his wound.

I try fishing a bit more that evening but I'm done. Now my hands are shaking. I'm forever ruined. No more will I be as happy with 10 inch trout. No more will blind fishing with a nymph do the trick. No more will casting to where a fish just rose even suffice. Now that I've sight-casted to a big brown that hasn't gotten that big by being stupid and fought him with no guarantee of success but succeeded anyway and reveled in the autumn beauty of such a fish and sent him back into his watery world and departed back to mine I find that mine has changed and imagine the fish's has too like being in a bad car accident where death is less than a second and six feet away from your fate but you walk away to sleep another night.

I didn't have a camera on me that night and I would never take a fish like that from the river so this series of words I've strung together is the only lasting record of that first and lasting fish. Certain images are burned in my mind though already the fish is stretching to monstrous proportions and the span of time between seeing him just under the surface to watching him swim away afterwards is contracting down to one compact moment.

Perhaps that all this is the effect of grace. Norman Maclean famously said that his father believed that "all good things -- trout as well as eternal salvation -- come by grace and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy." The grace he referred to is the godliness of achieving perfection which is necessarily ephemeral in this world but still achievable in certain spheres and thus the only option as far as ambition and goals are concerned.


contact me