“A good ecologist can put dovetail into dovetail until the whole thing stretches out of sight. We call it an ecosystem now; earlier Americans called it the Sacred Circle. Either way it can make your poor little head swim with a vision of a thing of great size and strength that still depends on the underpinning of its smallest members.” – John Gierach, Sex Death and Fly-Fishing
He calls me as I’m on my way to get a cup of coffee at 7:30. He overslept, can I give him a half-hour to quick tie up some flies and then we’ll hit the road? The day is his and I don’t mind. I get my coffee and then go over to Cub Foods. I buy French bread, hard salami, extra sharp cheddar, two oranges. Then I drive through Stillwater, lots of traffic on the main streets as the town goes to work.
A human body. A trout stream.
I drive down the South Hill, up the North Hill, think I’ll drive by Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard’s house, maybe sight me a celebrity. Or at least Sam’s big Chevy parked on the street out front. When I turn onto their street, I remember they sold their house and moved to New York a few months ago. It’s empty now, looking for a new occupant.
When I pull up to his house – situated on an old farm with vast developments lurking hungrily on two corners of the 20 acres – his gear is sitting by the front door. There’s a note written in pencil on it, “Went next door to feed dogs, back in 2 seconds.” I put his gear in my trunk and then go inside. His mom is in there and I say “Hi” and she asks what we’re doing, “Going fishing.” “Oh,” she says.
I take the dog out front and when she gives me her ball I throw it as far as I can across the yard and she roars after it and always overruns it, tries to stop, snow spraying, and she circles back and then jogs back to me across the yard. I lean on the hood of my car and drink my coffee.
Both the human and the stream are unlikely. A body with it’s minutae of organs and senses, ability and fragility, somehow we are to believe that we have grown into our environment, the best creature for this Earth. A river the combination of glaciers and springs, limestone and climate, sun and shade, summer and winter. The springs work against the sun and vice versa to keep the water warm enough in the winter and cold enough in the summer. It is a balance of uncountable forces.
As an SUV pulls into the gravel driveway, he comes walking down from his dad’s house next door wearing a bright green fleece. The SUV deposits a piano student who goes inside and he goes in to grab another box of flies.
We drive down the St. Croix to the I-94 bridge. As I drive he crimps the barbs on his flies, we are debating whether or not you have to crimp the barbs on all your flies or just whatever you have on the end of your line. We cross the river, more than a half-mile across here, frozen and white. He doesn’t need cigarettes so we just keep going east. Go 20 miles then exit and go south on a two-lane highway.
He tells me that the terms of his probation mean he probably won’t go back to Montana for three years. I don’t know what to say. He says it’s the president’s fault, something to do with the Patriot Act and that there’s a federal database and inch thick folders of paperwork to try to move out of state. I tell him the Senate voted to open ANWR to drilling yesterday.
We stop at the big convenience store that we inevitably stop at, the last stand of civilization before we descend into the world of the river. He stays in the car, crimping his barbs, I buy some Pink Squirrels that are hand-tied in Red Wing and sold in a little corner of the gas station. He has never seen the pattern before, but it is supposedly legendary in Wisconsin. When I show the flies to him and tell him what they’re called, he is both fascinated and amused. All day, he gets a kick out of “the squirrel.”
It’s still early and cold. We want to explore. We drive past our normal turns and continue downstream. We drop down narrow coulees into the canyon, park on the bridge, and creep to the edge where he spots fish with his polarized sunglasses. We look at the water upstream and next, then get back into the car, climb back out of the valley and go downstream to the next bridge. Repeat.
Having unmistakable real effects on the world. The river erodes and cuts through rock and soil and tree. It moves boulders, floods its banks, overflows roads. Over the greatness of time it can carve an entire landscape like it is down here. Deep slices in the cliff cut by creeks that only run a few months a year. The human building roads and planting gardens. We create new humans, we kill ourselves. We cut down trees, we dam the rivers and build houses and dig ditches.
We finally head back up to the access point that was the last place we fished at the end of last season. Then it had been golden September, tall weeds and a long evening. He had caught the biggest fish of the past five years at least. When we get there, it is about 10:00. We slowly suit up. I wear my parka with my vest over it, I have long underwear and jeans on under my waders, two pair of wool socks, fingerless wool gloves.
While I’m still threading up my rod, he begins working the shallow slick, which is dimpled with small rising fish, must be to midges, and as I thread up my rod he gets a four inch fish on a midge emerger pattern.
After fishing downstream for a while, I go back up to where he is and sit down on the bank behind him. I light a Backwoods cigar that I had been saving for after I caught my first fish – which, if you’re keeping track, I have not yet done – and I smoke it while he fishes. When I’ve smoked for a bit I go up from him 20 feet and we together work a deep trough of dark water against the far side. By roll casting downstream to get our rigs down there, and then shooting it upstream as we haul on the line we get lots of long drifts through the trough without snagging the weeds behind us. It’s only the next day that I realize the technique was one he tried teaching me on a frustrating afternoon last summer and that I was utterly confused by then but which comes with just a little concentration today.
A body and a river are always in motion. The water trudges through wide slicks, tumbles over rocks, stands up in steep drops, digs deep in pools. Trees grow and die and fall into the water. Weeds grown in it. Insects live in the weeds then swim up and hatch and fly up and mate and rest and then fall back into the water. The fish eat the insects, swim from deep safe holes to broad slow flats where they can feast. Rocks roll along the bottom, the water deposits gravel and then washes it away. The lungs of the body contract and expand, the stomach breaks down food, the intestine digests it. The throat swallows, the heart pumps blood which flows through veins. Glands produce, release, regulate hormones and endorphins. Muscles twitch and fire electrically.
I am using a bright yellow yarn indicator that floats on top of the water. I don’t often use the yarn indicators, largely because of that frustrating day when I blamed my problems on the yarn’s wind resistance as I tried to cast. Today it’s just right. I can see it well and it floats nice and high on the water without getting pulled under by the weight of the fly and the lead on the line underneath, and therefore I don’t repeatedly think I have strikes when I don’t.
But then, I do. The yarn pauses and then jerks underwater a little bit and I lift the rod and feel that old tug on the other end. The fish pulls straight down and I pull straight up and quicky get him out of the deepest water, hoping I haven’t spooked off every fish in the area. It’s a good, but quick, fight. The rod bent down, the throbbing of the line, the fish so quick and aggressive, it’s an amazing feeling.
When I get him close enough I pull my glove off my with my teeth and dip my hand in the icy water and then grab him. I hold the fish upside down as I remove the hook and with his equilibrium thrown off he doesn’t struggle and I am able to quickly remove the barbless hook and slip him back into the water.
I’m a happy angler. First fish of the year. A nice 10 inch brown trout with his cold hard muscled body, his luminous eyes and orange belly and black spots. And that feeling when the indicator moves and then the strike.
I give a tentative “whoop!” and take a moment. Having watched me land the fish, he’s happy and congratulates me and gets back to fishing, twice as eagerly. I suddenly realize the fly on my line is one of my own. That was not only my first fish of the year, but the first I’ve ever caught on a fly I tied.
I think that my cigar may have been preemptive, but it was not without reason.
Fragile. Manure applied to a frozen field runs off and kills thousands of trout in a couple days. A lawn mowed to the water’s edge makes a whole stretch of river sterile. A dam warms it beyond survival for trout, slows the water so the water is silty and the bottom sandy where no bugs will live. A car crash can still the body, cause all its systems to halt forever. Bad food or water can throw it into a tailspin. Time in the sun means cancer crawling over your skin. A fall, a head injury or broken bones.