The East Branch, skirting the base of the bench, thick with willows, cattails, and marsh, bore little resemblance to the West Branch or the main stem of Spring Creek. It was a moody, mysterious place. The water was thinner here, and there were fewer bends. In only a run or two, and usually only within inches of the far bank, could you expect to raise a fish on a fly that did not actually imitate a living insect. The fishing was more exacting and the entire attitude of the river here was different, and had a different effect on me.
Herb had not taken me to it for the first ten days, and of course there had been no reason to do so, for we had more than enough fishing elsewhere, especially when the Green Drakes were on. And there was less water here, barely enough for two people to fish comfortably. There was the huge pond-like pool in which we had both taken those large fish, the slick thin head where water from the river flattened and spread; three pools; and then a second huge pond-like pool. Above the second pond, the river grew even more mysterious and wild—and was extremely difficult to fish. I kept saving these East Branch headwaters for a more leisurely day. I kept thinking that some day I’d spend six or seven hours up there, track it to its source, wander a bit and perhaps fish a bit, and see what I could find. Meanwhile, whenever I went up the East Branch, I thought about those headwaters, even as the lower East Branch itself made me strangely contemplative.
One day I caught a marvelous hatch of PMDs where the river went into the first pond, then caddis and PMDs in the First Bend Pool, and more rising fish in the middle run. By 11:00 I’d taken nearly a dozen good trout, all big browns and one twenty-inch rainbow, and had had more than my fill. I’d fished very hard the day before and this burst of action—and success—had bled me of much of my usual ambition. So I decided to sit down on that pleasant inside rim of the Second Bend Pool and merely watch the water.
That great cluster of fish were in the deep hole—thirty or forty of them, in all age classes, and a couple of fish were rising steadily. But I put my rod down in the high grasses and got out a little black notebook I always carry in a vest pocket. Usually I’m too busy to write in it; usually when I’m on the water I want only to fish. But I had been fishing hard, every day for more than three weeks, and I had caught a lot of fish, and I rather wanted to write about those fish I’d found rising in the slick at the head of the pond. I’d had to cast across and slightly downstream to get them and that hour had been exceptionally pleasant. It was best to fish not as I usually did, when I could, but when the fishing would be best-and slowly I had been learning, because of the enormous number of opportunities at Spring Creek, when that best was. The morning had been a revelation; I had not known that the bigger fish, from the pond, would move up during a good PMO hatch, though it was logical that a good head of flies would bring them there. I noted that the first of them had risen at about 10:45, and promised myself I’d come back the next day to see if it was a daily event. I had seen fish move steadily upstream during a hatch, ever closer to the source of a hatch, several times; and I had also seen them, in the big flat, slip back downstream during a heavy hatch, taking flies lower and lower in the pool, using less and less energy and drifting back with the current. I never went to Spring Creek without seeing something new; it was so fecund, so full of chances, that I don’t think even Herb had seen all of it, nor would
A snout came up in the current of the Second Bend Pool but I decided not to pursue it.
I was scribbling rather quickly now.
Learning something new about angling always excites my brain—what would take a specific fish, why it was feeding, how to solve an individual angling problem. I’d done something right and I wanted to understand what. The general laws of angling never held for all situations but they always overlapped. You learned the parts of speech, one at a time, and then you hied to put them all together: not parts anymore, but speech.
There was a “speech” to the writing about fishing, too, and I’d thought hard about its many different languages. Literary friends told me that the great trick was not to use the technical language of fly fishing—the thorax spinners, the 7X leader tippets, the Hexagenias and Tricos and PMOs. These, they said, were the jargon of the sport and made it quite unavailable to the intelligent general reader, he who did not fish but read with care and discernment. I’m sure this is so. But the technical language is not the voice of the idiot savant except when it is used by an idiot savant. And I wasn’t after a language of literature.
Just as I would not write down, I would not write up. What I was doing, I hoped, with as much skill and invisible artifice as I could muster-as little of the factitious, the posturing as possible—was to report on days afield, and the nature of my relationship to the sport, a relationship that included having, at various times, the keenest possible interest in the minutiae of fly fishing: not using the fancy or occult words, or the Latin, or the names of people and places to impress, but choosing, always, the fullest, most personal way to tell where I’d been. A Trico is a Trico is a Trico; it is not merely a small black fly, nor is it a rose.
I had tried, for more than twenty-five years, to find and to build a language that represented me—something with feeling but not sentimentality, a voice playful but not mannered, not down, not up, not safe, not different just to be different. Some clever populist once wrote to a fishing magazine complaining of the literary references in
essays I wrote—to Yeats, Keats, Kafka, and Chaucer—as if these had been laid on with a trowel with pretensions. He had deliberately misspelled every other word in his letter, feigning a superior ignorance, to defend something called the common man. But I read Yeats and Keats and Kafka in my twenties, on my own, and they changed my life. I wouldn’t think of hiding them. They are as much my friends as Len and Mike and Doug; they are as much a part of my speech as Tricos and 7X tippets. Do we read books to get bland pap or mere information or clever nonsense, or to touch another human being? I want those who read me to touch me, to know me—for better or worse—not some studied mask I might put on. And this is the stew of me: Yeats and PMDs, wit that leavens and builds proportion, not sophisticated but (I hope) not dumb, a warm mulch that heats the postmodernist chill. I’d like the stew to be rich enough to catch some of the stillness, complexity, joy, fierce intensity, frustration, practicality, hilarity, fascination, satisfaction that I find in fly fishing. I’d like it to be fun, because fly fishing is fun—not ever so serious and self-conscious that I take it to be either a religion or a way of life, or a source of salvation. I like it passionately but I try to remember what Cezanne once said after a happy day of fishing: he’d had lots of fun, but it “doesn’t lead far.”
I’d like fish talk to exist not by itself, as a separate estate, but in relationship to scores of other languages that live in me, from art language to street talk to the voices of a thousand writers who echo in my head: not them, nor the echo of them, but something absolutely
mine, as real a possession as a Sony Trinitron or a Winston rod or my grandfather’s oak dining table.
Perhaps, I thought, sitting on the inside rim of the Second Bend Pool I am not after trout at all; perhaps this is a ruse; perhaps, among my many ulterior motives, one is the discovery of a language. Or has writing about fishing, which cannot occur without first fishing, become quite as important to me as the ad itself? “Wouldn’t think of disassociating Fishing from Art,” said the happy John Marin—”one and the same thing with me.”
A trout shoves its snout up, my heart beats quicker, and I doubt all ulterior motives.
I would as well be here, beside this pool right now, as anywhere in the universe. I have thought about such a place without knowing it existed. At times I have wished life as simple as this riverbank—the world a logical strudure of bend, current, riffle, and pool the drama already unfolding on the glassy surface, and me, here on the bank, my ass wet, armed with some simple lovely balanced tools and some knowledge, prepared to become part of it for a few moments.
A fish rises with a slight spreading circle; then another comes up, its snout rising from its world up into mine, of air; the drama begins. In a while I may choose to enter it, or I may not, for I have learned enough skills to play; I can cast beyond my shoelaces.
This is a contained, mostly understandable world, and in my nearly sixty years I have understood less rather than more of that other, outside world. Like Kafka, I sometimes seem to hop about bewildered among my fellow men—and they often regard me with deep suspicion. That larger world, away from rivers—and my little place in it—stuns me with its complexity: The old friend who last month looked me in the eye and lied. The other who stole from me. Incrementing details and details. People with Rolodexes for brains. ”The beating down of the wise/And great Art beaten down” and down. That bewildering bear I have been—rife with contradictions. The demons in me that demand more of friends than they can ever give, and nothing; that want only solitude like this—and the rush and lights and edge of the cities; that like and crave and despise all ”getting and spending.”
Tolstoy speaks of an uncle who once told him, when he was a boy, to go into a comer and not think about a white bear. I have come to this riverbank, this rarest of comers of the universe, and of course cannot help but think of all that other jazz, and perhaps always will. Pascal says that the trouble with the western world is that we don’t know how to be content in an empty room. I am not content here—or anywhere. Nor, as I think of it at the Second Bend Pool, do I want to be content, like a cow or a holy man. I want to put boulders in the way; I don’t want to flow without effort. I am restless—therefore I am. And here, now, it’s best to get most of it out-like a good sneeze, god-blessed or not.
A muskrat surfaces in the slack shank of the bend, sees me just as I tum and see him—”Since things in motion sooner catch the eye/Than what not stirs” —and, in a lithe gray roll, porpoises and disappears. I follow his wake across the river, into the marsh, up out of the water and into a hole on the opposite bank; he never looks back.
There are more circles and snouts now. I may have been here half an hour or an hour or two hours and the world here feels quite safe from my possible predation. On the glassy surface, a couple of feet from my eyes, I see some flattened spent spinners, two mottled caddis, and half a dozen lovely Pale Morning Duns. I pick out one of the duns with my eye, one golden speck twenty-five feet out; it reflects the midday sun as it carries on the current and disappears in a rather full and satisfied pecking of the water. The trout here take the duns like that when they get going good. It’s unnerving to see them do so. They are as vulnerable now as they’ll ever be.
I tie on a parachute PMD, daub it with flotant, strip line off my reel and make a first tentative cast. But my heart is not in it and the cast is too tentative. I have been thinking too much. The line lands heavily, well short of the nearest rise, and suddenly the pool is
perfectly still, as if it contained not a minnow. Well, I have been snubbed before, by trout and Vreeland, and am sure these fish will come back. Anyway, my brain hasn’t quite stopped nibbling on my concentration. And there is no place I’d rather be right now—not Paris, where the fishing is poor; not the beach, where you are asked to take off your clothes in public, put grease on your body, sit in the sand; not the great libraries or concert halls or even the museums I love. This valley feels like home to me right now—me, a city kid, descended from Russian city people, bent always, in a kind of hungry tropism, to space and clear water and open sky.
I would like to be here for weeks, even months, but I could not live all my life in trout country. I have other fish to fry and, difficult as that other world might be, I’d rather be in the thick of it, blasted by its terrors, than sit outside and snipe. If all the year were holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work—and I have rarely found work tedious. And in the city I can stand before a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Vehizquez, a Titian, a delicate Tiepolo, and be in some vital connection with the real thing: not some predigested version of it in a magazine, a reproduction in a book, part of a short course on television, but the real thing. Someone out this way, some years ago, called my Picasso a fraud and wondered how I could teach “Keats, Shelley, and all those weirdos.” In my office, things other than trout rise, and some of them “lead far.”
Why must I always compare them?
Why, when both are so important to me, must I hold one against the other?
Is it that they always bleed into each other and are never wholly separate?
Or that, looking always for one simple and direct view of this stew of a world, I am tugged in just a few too many directions?
The fish have started to feed again. There are two in the main current, slurping; one dimples in the slack water near the far bank; several are high enough in the water for their dorsals to poke through the slate surface.
I might have been trying for two hours to do something vaguely called “getting in touch with yourself and with nature,” but now, with the fish rising freely, I have something specific to do and all that is irrelevant. If I have “gotten in touch” with anything it’s the damp bank against which I’ve been leaning, the grasses soggy from spring seepage; mostly my elbow and ass, sopping wet, have been in touch.
I watch a teal with a string of five or six ducklings, like a tail, slip up out of the pool and around the bend. I see a couple of killdeer chicks, the size of golf balls, scurry into the underbrush.
The fish are going good now.
I check my fly, draw enough line from my reel, look at the simple happy scene before me, of five or six rising trout—and then calmly tattoo them.