On the East Walker River a few days back, fishing with a bunch of longtime and new TU friends, I waited as a downstream drift effortlessly moved my tippet toward me, big Caddis on top, zebra midge below. Moving water takes on its own life when you wait. Cast. Wait. Cast. Wait, attention so focused, an electric spark of attentiveness.
Three days of fishing had yielded only meager results: Day One, skunk; Day Two, two brownies so small they both went through the holes in my net; now the last day was upon us. Late morning on one of the Virginia Lakes yielded spectacular scenes of granite majesty, made us think about geologic time, not human digital.
A lone cutty with beautiful red cheeks held so close to that lake bank, I grabbed my cell to take a shot, then, wondering what I was doing, raced to get my rod, cast the fly back in the water. No dice. The whole morning was like that, cruising fish, with no takers. My fishing bud, Rick, got so frustrated he slapped his rod tip in the water at a cruising fish, who didn’t even acknowledge the impact, so he tried again on trout’s next pass with the same result. He’d caught four-pounders at this very spot. He was generous enough to share it with me.
Late afternoon brought me back to the West Walker, as low, hot sun baked me to sweat and glare made me double blink. Enchanted by the music of singing water, no waders, yet I couldn’t help but submerge my boots on slippery rocks, just to satisfy that trout fever.
Don’t slip; set each foot down like balancing on a bowling ball; watch the bank-side scrub brush try to grab that airborne fly for its own.
The guy in the town fly shop told us the “football trout,” rainbows who gorge themselves on plentiful bugs below the dam and into the Miracle Mile, were all gone. Too hot. He, himself, also thought about becoming a goner and moving out to North Dakota, tired of fire and endless drought.
In a watery burst, what draws so many of us to fishing happened to me: a flash of majesty and a solid hungry grab. A 12-inch or so football-shaped trout gleamed silver in that brutally reflective water, hooked and reluctantly riding the current toward me.
“Net!” I pleaded to another fishing bud, Bob, as I guided the trout in current to the bank. Bob was right there and then — just like that — the rainbow fatty was off my barbless hook and swimming freely away.
Over in a minute, what had consumed three days of my life, just like that.
No matter what, the skunk needs to go.
Fly fishing is certainly about catching trout, but maybe more about renewal, is it not? It’s about connecting with nature in a special way, a hunting way, a caring way that yanks us from our cocooned lives and into the present moment, maybe, into that geologic time where we can see more clearly that we are small, but our impact on nature is increasingly outsized, like that caldera spewing lava some 700,000 years ago, altogether changing the landscape that was.
As a mostly solo fly fisher, usually that burst of calm knowing called renewal comes from water, fish, weather, skill, lack of skill, patience, flashes of angry frustration and a rhythm removed from my urban life. My spiritual battery turns out to be blessedly rechargeable.
Yet on this trip, renewal came from group experience, new and old friends. Collectively, we laughed, got bored, got pissed, got frustrated, learned new things, forgot the old. We hiked in, we ate out, we wondered where in the hell the trout were, caught them on occasion, and tipped our hats to their elusive, wily nature. Everything, just right. We marveled together at the majesty of the Sierra, but I think secretly we marveled at how wonderful it is to be human in a time when honesty, generosity and compassion illuminate our best outcome, our path forward through the dark.
See you on the river, Jim Burns