For reasons all my own, not the least of which is the current outside temperature, I’m posting this revised version of a story I posted last January.
Remembrance of Things to Come
“Only in recollection does an experience become fully significant, as we arrange it in a meaningful pattern.” – from Lydia Davis’ introduction to Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust.
It is a June evening on a river in western Wisconsin. The sky is pale blue and the trees are rich green. I am at the bottom of the canyon with two of my oldest friends. Neal is at the stern of my canoe because he isn’t fishing and I am in the bow. Charlie duffs on a cooler in the middle. Neal’s car waits at a highway bridge eight miles downstream.
We shoot through the first long riffle and then pull up to the bank. Neal sits on the bank and then lays back and stares at the calm sky while Charlie and I wade into the tailout to nymph. After we each get a couple 12 inch wild brown trout, we get back into the canoe. It’s a long stretch of calm water. We drink Leinie’s Original while we drift, Neal ruddering just enough to keep us straight.
I am stricken by feeling as if I have arrived back at the time some years ago, before it all changed. The time before we refused to accept that it had changed. The time before we then accepted it.
When we’ve finished our beers, Charlie and I tie on dry flies and start casting to the bank. Charlie hooks into a decent fish and I reel in and help Neal paddle to hold our position. It takes Charlie two or three minutes to land the trout, which goes to maybe 14 inches. I snap a photo from the bow and he slips it back into the water.
Time goes by. We paddle little because the current is moving us along and we want to hit the middle of the stretch â€“ inaccessible by any road â€“ as the evening rise comes on. We accomplish just that. Right as the sun gets within a few degrees of the canyon rim we come to water that probably hasn’t been fished in a week. Caddis start coming off and the trout begin rising to them. It is a long slick stretch of water, sliding around several bends, all of it dimpled by rising fish. Fish that are here every night, eating and living, the three of us just tourists enviously passing through their home.
The caddis are small and I catch several fish on a size 18. I tied the fly myself during the winter. Clapton on the stereo, a homebrew IPA on the desk, frost on the window. Carefully placed it into the fly box and let my mind wander briefly to a warm trout stream before I clamped another hook in the vise and began the next.
When the sun dips completely behind the rim of the canyon, the action gets good. We experience what I call “making all the lights.” Just like when you have some really good reason you want to get somewhere as soon as possible â€“ fishing, let’s say â€“ and all the way, every light turns green, people move into the right lanes as they should, and you’re wherever you so wanted to be faster than you could have hoped for. The fishing is just like that for a while.
After catching several admirable fish, I stop casting and begin watching each fish rise, trying to spot a big one. Some time goes by before I spot a big head break the surface just 30 feet downstream, along the right-hand bank. Asking Neal to get us over to the left shore, I can’t manage more than a whisper. Charlie looks at me and then reels in. Neal eases us to shore and grabs overhanging weeds to hold us in place.
I try to somehow get out of the canoe without actually moving. When I am finally standing in the river, in a foot of water on a gravel bottom, it doesn’t seem that I have put down a single fish. The big one across the stream continues to rise, not often, but regularly.
I snap off my fly and tug hard on the tippet to test the knot connecting it to leader â€“ the nail knot has never been my strong suit â€“ and then tie on a fresh fly of the same pattern as had been working all evening on all those other fish. It’s another fly I had tied in the depth of last winter. In some way, I think I worked a bit of the wind, snow and biting temperatures into these flies, they warmed me back then and give me the chills now, standing in the river in the evening as a slight breeze comes up.
The air is thick with bugs. It is still plenty light, though it’s the indirect fading light of the sun on its way down. The fish have been waiting all day for this dinner buffet and if I wanted to, I could stand in this spot and catch 10 fish without thinking about it.
But there’s just the one that I want. His head still breaks the surface every time he rises. From across the river here I see that there is a rock submerged directly behind him, causing a nearly imperceptible eddy in front that he is holding in.
I take two slow steps forward, get my footing, and begin to cast.
I cast upstream a few times to get line out and my rhythm down and then, after a big breath that rushes out of my lungs, I try for my target. The cast falls well short of the target, but that’s fortunate because the line also flops to the surface with an audible splash. Two fish that had been rising there disappear and do not show up again this evening. A faint heat comes to my face.
Again, I cast upstream, getting much more line out this time, and then turn and cast across the stream. This time, the fly lands gently, just four or five feet upstream of where the bruiser is hanging out. It passes over where I’ve watched the fish rise and suddenly it disappears into his gaping mouth. I pull up too hard on my rod and pull the fly right out of his jaws. The fly goes zinging past my head and into the bushes behind me.
I curse loudly and immediately regret it. I turn around to look at the guys and they both look at me like they’re as disappointed as I am. The fish does not rise any more, as much as I stare at the spot of water and will him to. After a few minutes, I climb back in the bow and we push away from the bank.
As the last light leaves the river, fog develops. Tall willows and hickories are shrouded in a vapor of pink and orange. A few more of the beautiful wild trout are brought to hand, but we start to spend less time fishing and more time staring into the dark woods on the incline of the bluff, or downstream to catch sight of deer drinking tentatively from the river, and we talk in low voices about the time several years ago when we were this happy all the time.