(Picture by http://www.favim.com)
Written by: Raven
“Well, I finally did it,” the voice said.
I looked up from my weeding. My neighbor Clark leaned against my garden fence, his forearm crushing its cloak of fragrant sweet pea vines.
“What did you do now?” I asked, brushing the dirt off my hands.
“Quit. Retired for good.”
“Really,” I deadpanned. Like we hadn’t talked about this before. Like this wasn’t the major topic of every conversation we’d had for the past three years.
“Yep. Told the boss yesterday.”
“Did you now,” I said, bending back to my dandelions to hide my smile.
For as long as I’d known him, Clark had been dreaming of the day he could wake up in the morning and think about nothing but trout. Rainbow trout, cutthroat, bull trout… it didn’t matter, as long as he could catch them. Clark and I have been neighbors forever and as far as I could tell all he had ever cared about was fishing.
“So what are you going to do with all your free time?” I asked, still hiding a smile. When he didn’t answer right away, I looked up. He was holding a thin wooden box, about a foot square, obviously hoping I would get up off my crabby old knees and come look at it, so I did. His gnarled fingers struggled with the small brass clip holding the lid. The wood groaned sorrowfully as he opened the box. I peered inside. Each cubbyhole held one tiny hand-tied fishing fly set on green velvet. Each fly was different, each exquisite.
I knew a bit about fly-fishing despite never having done it myself. We live next to a pristine river in the wilds of Montana. It was such a perfect place to cast a fly even Brad Pitt’s handsome face in the movie “A River Runs Through It” paled in comparison to the beauty of the river winding through our valley like molten copper in the twilight.
Clark talked endlessly about his art: tying flies, the proper way to cast a fly, what fly to use at what time of day at any given time of year. I usually listened with only half an ear. The only part of fishing I cared about was the eating part. But it dawned on me, as I bent over his gossamer flies, that he never talked about that part.
“They’re beautiful, Clark.”
“I have an extra rod and some old waders that will fit you…” he let the rest dangle like a lure, hoping this little guppy would take a gulp.
I looked across the valley at the river, its steady flow eternal, silent and wondrous. “Why not?” I replied, and sealed my fate.
But in Clark’s world you don’t just “go fishing.” First you must engage in days of purposeful preparation, practice and planning. You cannot just toss a fly into the water and hope for the best. No, you have to be fully versed in all aspects of the hunt, to include among other rituals, learning to tie your own flies. I learned to tie mayflies, damselflies, plain, ol’ fly flies and nymphs; wet flies, dry flies, streamers and imitators. Meticulous explanation and inspiration went into every lure. Clark left no fly untied.
As part of my initiation, (I’d probably received more hours of training than a Navy SEAL) Clark showed me how to gently ease a delicate fish mouth off a hook without damage. Indeed, he always fished with hooks from which he’d carefully snipped the barbs away. For reasons unknown to me, he held trout with the same degree of mythical regard Tibetans hold the Dali Lama. “Plus, a barbless hook adds one more degree of difficulty,” he explained, as though my very nascent presence endangered every fish within miles.
Finally the day came when I was deemed worthy. Weather-wise it was the finest of days. Warm, late afternoon sunlight bathed the endless Montana sky in heavenly autumn hues. Shimmering golden aspens lined the knoll above the river, their leaves whispering ancient secrets as we edged our way along the bank.
After all the hours of patient tutelage, I was anxious to cast my first fly into the quiet eddy where I was sure a fat trout waited. We chose places across from each other where the water flowed around an island of rocks midstream. I looked over and caught Clark smiling at me. I smiled back. We shared a bond only fishing buddies know.
After an hour or so, the soothing sound of water gurgling past my rubber boots tugged at my attention. Despite the glory of the hunt, I was getting bored and my shoulder and arm hurt from playing the pole and fly. Noting the insects in the air and on the surface of the water, I’d tried six different flies to no avail. Time of day? Too many clouds? Maybe the fish didn’t like the smell of my waders.
A trout doesn’t hit like a bass, it takes a more subtle approach. It rolls on the surface, there’s a tug, and then another, and pretty soon you realize there’s an actual fish on your line. The pencil-thin fly rod bends dangerously close to the snapping point. The small reel at the end of the pole takes forever to recapture the line, all the while the trout tries vainly to get free. Clark saw me grinding my reel and came sloshing over, waiting to see what the cat dragged in.
Soon a shiny, wet thing slithered toward us, its eyes panicked, gills moving rhythmically in and out. Clark had his net ready, but then hooked it back on his belt and reached his hand into the cold water and brought out the most beautiful rainbow trout I could ever imagine. Oh, I’d seen pictures, but they were nothing compared to the rosy iridescence of a trout still cold and flushed from battle. It stared at me with sad eyes, as though life cut short was a huge disappointment.
My next thought was of oil dancing on a hot iron skillet. But Clark had other ideas. He eased the hook from its mouth, gazed at the fish for a short moment, closed his eyes, and let it slide back into the cold, clear river.
“Wha….!” I cried, not even finishing the word before choking on my lost dinner.
“You can’t keep them,” Clark said with a hint of disapproval.
“Why ever not? I thought we were trying to catch fish.”
“We are, but not to keep them. You have to put them back,” he said, as though this was so obvious only a moron would question it.
“Then what in the world is the point?” I wanted to know, now angry at all the time I’d wasted so I could throw perfectly good fish back in the river.
“One point, my dear lady, is to keep an ancient, truly remarkable tradition alive. Another, to work all your life so you can appreciate what it means to be able to spend the day standing in this river and become one with it.”
Clark waited for more protests, but I kept silent.
“But the real point, dear lady, is so that when your final day on earth arrives, every fish you’ve caught and sent back alive will return to guide you down the river toward your place in heaven.”