HERMAN MELVILLE, a writer who knew well how things can go wrong on the water, said it best in his Mississippi River novel, The Confidence Man: “Life is a pic-nic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool.” Melville wasn’t talking about fishermen, but he may as well have been. What are we fly fishers anyway, dressed head to foot in elaborate designer costumes by Orvis, Simms, L.L. Bean, and Patagonia, but actors in a cosmic drama of trouthood? Man versus fish, man versus nature—these ancient antagonisms, juicy as they might seem to the frontier mentality, more often than not falsely ennoble us puny humans. Let’s not forget that nature goes on naturing, water goes on watering, flatly indifferent to our schemings and pumped-up aspirations. In the Big Picture, that’s a good thing.
Possessing all that expensive signature gear, all that specialized angling information, and all those righteous piscatorial skills makes our collective fly fishing ventures appear to be bulletproof, beyond assault, impregnable to triviality, low-mindedness, and comic pratfall. Arrayed to the teeth in our cutting-edge gear, what could possibly go wrong? But the grandiose view and mythic portrayal of fly fishing, purveyed endlessly in various print and electronic media, are disservices to human frailty, which is the truest stock-in-trade for most of us day in and day out. “Limits,” poet Charles Olson once said, “are what we are all inside of.” The fish probably know that, but fortunately say nothing to bruise our egos any more than they already are.
Take falling in. Beginner or expert, elitist or extremist, traditionalist or fanatic, we’ve all done it. Let’s face it: Falling in is one of fishing’s ugly little secrets, a failure that can hardly stand public scrutiny. “Of all the maddening things” one could count among a fisherman’s curses, “the worst is falling into the water,” Henry Plunket Greene confessed in his genteel 1924 classic, Where the Bright Waters Meet. Rare enough for a proper Irish gentleman to admit, but also not quite the whole story. Like the most recent two-faced politician or pastor who has strayed from the straight and narrow but doesn’t want his or her constituency to see who he or she really is, we mostly keep our dunkings in the dark and hope that by our cunning and silence they will go away. Deny, deny, deny seems to be our habitual response to these subaqueous slipups.
I’m not talking about the casual dousing, the wet sleeve or the dampened fly box or water-sprayed hat. Nor am I talking about drowning, because, what the hell, after that mishap you’d have nothing left to contemplate anyway. I mean the colossal dunking, the full, head-to-toe immersion involving extreme bodily contortions, imminent physical danger or injury, and possible lasting psychic damage (which might be the most enduring effect of all). These are the spills that ought to intrigue us most because such mishaps puncture the well-constructed image of ourselves as utterly competent, physically adept outdoor persons.
Print and online fly fishing magazines, books, DVDs, television shows, web sites, blogs, podcasts, tackle shops, and equipment and gear catalogs all conspire to keep that elevated image of ourselves sacrosanct and inviolable. There we are, true blue American sportsmen, on nearly every page or frame or byte—not just skillful, savvy, and knowledgeable, but also confident, even cocky, and flush with attitude, as though we deserve every ounce of our collective spit and polish. Leaf through any issue of The Drake, for example, and you’ll see that edgy, cock-of-the-walk attitude on full display: We’re here in the wateriest reaches of this whirling earth ball to rip lips, kick ass, and take names.
Enough entitlement already! Enough Paul McLean! Enough Tred Barta!
Call it a new dispensation: a way of aiding and abetting a new age of angling honesty and piscatorial transparency. For every iconic image of angling prowess gracing the covers of this or that month’s fly fishing publication—the smiling face and slightly bowed head, the outsized salmo cradled in suitably wet hands (and, according to current protocol, about to be released)—there is another, less distinct, photograph, a kind of visual simulacrum, an image behind the image, that exists in a parallel world. This shadowy photo is a phantom snapshot of an angler going down in water, flailing helplessly, unmoored from his brand-name world, drifting in the fish’s cloudy element, completely soaked, sucking for air, and looking or acting—sensibly or not—like a complete fool. To put it another way: For every bucolic angling painting by Ogden Pleissner or Arthur Shilstone there’s a hyper-real self-portrait by Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud to counter the Edenic illusion.
Late one August afternoon a few years ago, wading thirty or forty feet out from the west bank of a relatively new-to-me section of the upper Madison River (which, as fortune would have it, I had almost entirely to myself), I was bringing up one nice trout after another on one of Craig Mathews’s indispensable epeorus patterns. After a couple of days of humbling fishing, this was one of those perfect moments that happen too rarely; just the right conjunction of time, season, weather, water clarity, and temperature, hatch action, feeding fish, etc. You know the scene: The banquet is set, the platters are piled high with food, the rolls have come hot from the oven, and you’re the only diner in the room. At times like this—potential for gluttony aside—you believe in a benign, loving God. All the celestial bodies align, and vanity of vanities, you are thinking rather highly of your skill as an angler.
A nifty curve cast put the fly on a left-hand seam of water, and a brown trout about nineteen inches long grabbed it. I got tight to the fish right away as it ran upstream to my left, looped around, and charged back down on my right-hand side, where it dropped into a deep, fast trough. At the edge of the drop off, gaining line, rod pulsing in hand, I leaned over to net the fish, a handsome butter-colored male with a kype, the fly inserted perfectly in the corner of his jaw. I noticed all this in one of those moments of intense clarity as I hoisted his head up and slid him to the edge of my net. Nice fish! Good job! echoed smugly in the dim regions of my hunter-gatherer consciousness.
It was not a place of slick boulders or moss-covered, ankle-turning rocks, but a place of easy transport on a sand and gravel deposit. Nonetheless, I can’t remember slipping, stumbling, or tripping, but in the next instant I was in the drink, face down, running like a maniac under a long chute of fast water so my feet could catch up with the rest of my body and I could regain my balance and stand upright again. According to experts at Boy Scouts of America, the Red Cross, and National Outdoor Leadership School, it is best for a man in my woeful situation to flip over on his back, point feet downstream, and ride the dunking out, but things happened so fast that going by the book was impossible. It never occurred to me that I might drown (I didn’t) or that this was a near-death experience (it wasn’t), but the emptiness in the pit of my stomach seemed endless, as though I were free falling into an abyss. While I was in the Big Wet, I had the uncanny sense that I was away somewhere, not exactly on holiday or on a pleasure jaunt, but just away somewhere with enough carefreeness to realize that mail was piling up on the sideboard at home, though I had no qualms about not opening it nor any compelling desire to read it. I was not frightened myself, but was haunted most of all by the nagging premonition that while I was absent, beyond communication, someone dear to me would die and I would not know it until too late. I could not say who that person was or might have been, but the sense of absence, sadness, and even dread that attends a momentous loss filled every nook and cranny of my head. Shadows passed behind my eyes; time slowed to a tick.
In fifty years of fishing I’d fallen in plenty of times, but had always managed to pop right up and hang on to my rod without even getting overly wet. This time, when I regained my feet a few seconds later, the rod—a brand new 5-weight Sage ZXL with a Lamson Konic reel (an incentive gift from Trout Unlimited for having become a life member a few weeks earlier)—was gone, still attached to the rampaging trout, which immediately began putting on pounds and inches, at least in my imagination. My gut response was not just anger, but a kind of undirected fury that I had been tricked by a nameless, malicious, cozening god. If that’s the case, then the instrument of my undoing had better be nothing less than the Boss Fish of the Madison, Moby Brown himself. Better to be undone by a colossal adversary rather than a dink. I deserve at least that much, I told myself. Meantime, like the Incredible Hulk, my primordial brother, I wanted to tear something limb from limb just for the unreasonably adolescent satisfaction of exacting revenge on something, anything. So much for the mystique of the “quiet sport.”
A few minutes later, out of the drink and a bit steadier on my feet, and having gagged up enough river water to float a fish, I hobbled down the bank as fast as I could, looking for my runaway outfit, then waded across and came back up the other side. I was hoping to see the rod tip sticking out of the water, or the fly line, an eye-catching yellow, snagged around a tree branch or some other obstruction, but there wasn’t a sign of either the errant graphite or demonic fish, both of which had no doubt plowed downstream past Three Dollar Bridge by then.
At dusk, hatless and rodless and starting to chill in the cool evening air, I skulked like a beaten dog back to my truck; shed my soaked vest, waders, and clothes; put on a dry shirt; and began to sort out water-logged aluminum fly boxes, a couple of which had been dented by my fall, though I have no recollection of having fallen that hard. The ring I wore on my left hand (a seal-the-deal gift from Kate, my fly gal partner) was gone, though again I haven’t a clue why or how. No broken bones, no lacerations, but my left wrist was bunged up, and I felt shooting pain in my shoulder, but immediately I gave thanks that it wasn’t my casting arm that had been winged. I was plug lucky and knew that my injuries and dunking could have been much worse (a tightly cinched belt around my waist kept my waders from filling with water), and of course I realized that if I had cracked my skull on a rock, that would have ended my adventure for good. Having that stretch of river to myself suddenly looked like a mixed blessing: No one else around to share the fishing also meant no one else around to help in direst straits. But even at that sobering thought, the voice of my most frivolous, superficial devil advised me to look on the bright side—never mind that I wasn’t badly injured; more importantly, there were no witnesses to compound the shame, so the blow to my ego was mine and mine alone. For better or worse, I’d live to fish another day.
It would be pretty to say that my dunking had far-reaching repercussions. That symbolically I died, and, having seen God’s foot on the treadle of the loom, I had been reborn a new man. Henceforth, I’d be kind to all widows and children, give alms to the poor, and worship punctually on the Sabbath. Those old sports, Izaak Walton and Harry Plunket Greene, I know, would have found that spiritual leap a distinct possibility. But because I am not half the man either of them was, I’ve found it more difficult to make sense of what happened.
That night trying to explain the fall to Kate, who was understandably concerned back in Ohio, I was still a bit rocky, and I hemmed and hawed and downplayed the whole affair when she pressed me for details, then gradually confessed that I didn’t exactly know what to make of the event—it was all so random and quantum in the way it played out. I assured her that I didn’t think I fainted, though when we agreed that I might have blacked out, that brought another level of discernible concern into her voice. If I blacked out it would have been the first time that a “sinking episode” (as I heard one metaphor-slinging doctor call such events) had ever happened to me. “Who knows?” is the best I could come up with over the phone.
Even as a lapsed Catholic, I know confession is good for the soul. Truth is, as the evening wore on, although my anger subsided, I was still upset at how blindly furious the fall made me. This episode felt like regression of the first order, and I realized the Waltonian goal of being a “well governed Angler” eluded me. In a nanosecond, blindsided by an unexpected slip of the foot, I had morphed into a spoiled child, acting out of base egotism and vanity, holding my breath for spite until my face turned blue, because I was not consulted beforehand, was not given a choice in the matter. Embarrassed and unsettled by my irrational reaction, I’d become a stranger to myself. Perhaps Melville was right: We all just have to stand ready to play the fool when our time comes, and leave the ruminations and second guessings for much later, after the waitress at the Grizzly Bar and Grille has announced last call.
Never before, never since. That’s what was so unnerving about The Event: The cause of falling in—still undetermined and by now forever unrecoverable—was such an anomaly that I have had no neat compartment in which to place it. Even now I find myself stymied, not so much by the fact that I dumped, but by my inability to resolve the nagging allied questions raised by screwing up. Am I getting too old, too jaded, too stupid, or, worse yet, too unlucky to be on the river alone? It seems like a classic paradox: The closer I get to solving their implications, the further they recede from my grasp. Though my mishap paranoia grows each day, I am patently unwilling to concede that, in my late sixties, I might be getting too old to keep fishing. After all, I’m still playing ice hockey once a week from October to April, which is way more physically demanding than fishing. So even if I might be too old to be “much of a fisherman,” as Norman Maclean’s narrator says at the conclusion of A River Runs Through It, a fisherman—self-delusion or not—I still claim to be.
By which I mean, no longer flashy, extreme, or loose-limbed and jaunty as a fisherman, but more measured, balletic, and almost comfortable with the steady incremental dance of days. Like my friend Roger Ornduff, who has a decade on me and who plies the Madison religiously with nymphs day after day for two or three hours each outing, and is totally content in wind, rain, or sun with whatever that great river gives him. Or like that aged, white-haired gent I encountered one evening a few years ago on Pennsylvania’s Yellow Breeches. He appeared to be well into his eighties (maybe even older). Not at all athletic, he was trundling on anyway, “making haste slowly,” to use Eugene Connett’s memorable phrase about fishing deliberately. I watched him work up the river toward me, moving so methodically and painstakingly as he laid out each cast that he might have been a heron in another life. When he reached me, he laid his cane rod on the berm then got down on his hands and knees at stream’s edge and crawled up the bank to the Allenberry Inn’s lawn. Then, straightened up to the best of his ability, he ambled off toward the parking lot and was gone. I did not speak to him and don’t know if he caught any fish, though his deliberate method had much to recommend it. That’s pluck and luck at work, I thought. That’s looking the death trout square in the eye; that’s a way I’d like to be if I don’t croak first.
I’m not much of a believer in glad-hand panaceas, so I’m skeptical about claims of reaching “closure,” that ridiculous buzz word of pharmaceutical companies, pop psychologists, and self-help gurus. I doubt anyone ever closes the door completely on past events, and I believe, as William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” Instead, the best I can do is to follow the fantasy route and wish for a couple of things.
First, I wish that I had a photo of the moment of going ass-over-teakettle into the drink, an eight-by-ten glossy snapshot that caught the utter surprise and incomprehension on my face. That would be a photo I’d most want to have, a trophy of the moment when the world turned upside-down and I’m on the wrong side looking out. (“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” William Munny says to the dying Little Bill Daggett in The Unforgiven.) That photo would stand as a reality check, the thing about our human foibles, angling mishaps, and tenuous felt-soled hold on existence we should never forget and can neglect only at our own peril. But as falling in is one of angling’s most frequently suppressed secrets, that photo would never make it into any glossy, well-scrubbed fly fishing magazine, so I’d paste it on the cover of my annual fishing journal, or tack it up next to the fish porn and family photos on the cork board above my desk.
Second, because what goes around sometimes comes around, I wish like hell that some fortunate soul found that runaway fly rod and reel before it got trashed by the elements. I hope it would be a young person, new to our sport, who could benefit from an instant upgrade in equipment. When he or she picked it up, I’d give anything to know if a hefty, lively brown trout was still tethered to the rig, still hauling freight to Ennis. Surprise of surprises, I continue to fantasize—that would be the best story of all to hear, a story something like redemption, something like a second life rising from a river of doubt, though of course that story might or might not be my own.