The morning was cool, damp, and not yet fully awake as I stepped up to the river. A slight fog held just above the water. The grass bent soft and wet beneath my footsteps, and the gray-skinned, ancient cypress trees stood there watching, waiting for something to happen. I stood there, too, my fly rod in hand, watching, waiting for something to happen—and it did.
I don’t know why it is that some of my best days on the river have begun with waking alone in the darkness, truly alone, with that deep, empty feeling—that hollow aloneness that you cannot shake free of. It had been some time since my service in the Marines, but years later, the ghosts came to call, and I found myself afraid to sleep, knowing they come back. A doctor helped me to chase away the ghosts, but the feeling of emptiness remained. I guess sometimes surviving is your punishment. So, you stand in the river, facing upstream with the water rushing down upon you as if it could somehow fill the hollow emptiness—and somehow, it always does. So, it was one morning. I stood there, without even casting and with no trout rising, and as the water rushed past me, I knew it was washing my burdens behind me, swirling them downstream like the autumn leaves.
There is a great deal about living that trout can teach us. They teach us how to keep swimming even in a steady current. Trout know that if they stop swimming, they cease to be trout and begin to become debris, floating without purpose wherever the current may take them. Trout know that if they keep swimming, facing into the current, perhaps in the eddy of a rock, all that they need to truly live will eventually come to them. I learn a great deal from trout.
The river sparkled. Shafts of morning sunlight came through the tree limbs, fog returned home, and it was then that I saw the first rings appear upon the water; like inverted raindrops, the trout rose. A hitchhiker rests upon my hand, tiny mayflies looking for love. Aren’t we all? How perfect they are, each one born of the river and then bursting into the air. Living, loving, and dying, only to return to the river—going home, just like me.
For me, fly-fishing for trout is more about the fishing than the catching. If I was worried about catching trout, I would use bait or spinners or dynamite. But bait seems like cheating, and spinners seem like hardware, and dynamite makes a mess of the river and scares away the birds. So, I tie flies that cause me to be close to the river and thereby learn how the trout live and what they like to eat. Fly-fishing makes you live through the trout’s eyes. Like the trout, you live in the water and learn of the currents. You reach up into the air to grasp that which sustains you. Fly-fishing connects you to the trout’s world, and in doing so, your own.
Not all my best trout fishing days have been in the Texas hills, and that’s okay too. There was a time when I was visiting my mother when she lived along the edge of the Allegheny Mountains in south-central Pennsylvania. It was Thanksgiving morning and freezing cold and dark outside as I slipped out of the house while everyone slept. As I drove through the twisting snow-dusted roads and the sun began to rise, I couldn’t help but smile as I turned off the pavement along the shores of the famed Yellow Breeches River. On any other day, the river would be full of fly-fishermen politely jockeying for position. But it was Thanksgiving, and all the “sane” people were either at home asleep or sitting under a warm blanket watching the parade on television. I, on the other hand, found myself standing in a freezing cold river, snow falling, ice forming in the guides of my rod, and rainbow trout that seemed to like what was on the end of my line. It was a perfect day.
And this brings me back to Texas. The home I share with the trout is a land of subtle beauty. Our rivers sometimes live just above the stone—skinny water where dinosaurs once roamed. Other times, our rivers seem to be made of stone, shyly waiting for the rain. When the rains come, our rivers demand respect. They are the kind of rivers that put cows in the trees and roll Buicks like cordwood. That is the magic of a Texas Hill Country river. Like life, it is ever-changing, always creating a new self, always connected to the past. And each winter the trout rise like shadows mixed with memories. They wait, patient and understanding that what will be will be, and that all that is true is this moment—everything else is an illusion.
And so, I stand in the river casting back and forth, trying to lose that feeling of being alone. It is then that the rainbow rises and takes my offering. I raise my rod, and all at once, I am no longer alone. I am connected to his powerful runs, facing into the current. Silver line connects us, both fighting to live—two beating hearts. He comes to my net. I hold him gently, rocking him back and forth in the cold rushing water. “Gain your strength, dear warrior,” I say. Am I speaking to him or to myself? With a kick of his tail, he returns to the river—and I go with him.
Excerpted with permission from “Casting Forward: Fishing Tales from the Texas Hill Country” (Lyons Press, November 2020). All rights reserved.