A Great Big Failure
John Gierach once wrote that you forget your troubles while on a trout stream because you “begin to see where your troubles fit into the grand scheme of things, and suddenly they’re not such a big deal anymore.”
I’ve fished with John and I’ve read most of his books. I agree with him a lot, but in this instance, I think he’s wrong.
To prove my point, I give you Exhibit A: a lonely weekend featuring rain, one of my best days of fishing in recent memory, and losing the biggest fish of my life.
I’ll start with the rain.
The winter weather in northern Wyoming is dependably frigid, but this winter featured a cold snap so severe that it was colder at my house near the Bighorn Mountains than it was at my best friend’s place in Fairbanks, Alaska. When a front finally pushed out the cold air, the temps soared from -30 to a balmy 40, right as the first hatches of the year usually sputter into existence here on my local tailwaters.
I kept one eye on the weather forecast and the other on my students while I waited for the best day to call in sick and take advantage of what should be good fishing. Early-season hatches are tough to predict, and even the best of them sometimes fail to bring the trout up, but I had a raging case of cabin fever and needed a break from the grind of teaching between Christmas and Spring Breaks.
As luck would have it, the forecast called for overcast skies and rain Friday through Sunday – as close to perfect weather as a fellow can ask for. And I didn’t even need to call in sick, a ruse I reckon my principal humors because he’s also a fly fisherman.
Friday night found me at the vise, tying up a few crippled blue-wings even though my box was already full of them. My wife had gone to bed, the dog was asleep, the house was quiet, and the fire was a pile of ruby embers. I should’ve been in bed, too, but I couldn’t sleep, and not because I was so excited to fish the next morning.
That Monday I’d received and accepted a new job offer. Tuesday morning I handed my principal a resignation letter. Wednesday afternoon I called a realtor. My dream of living and teaching in rural Wyoming was fast approaching its end before I felt it had even started.
If the house sold according to plan, I’d be moving in with my in-laws — again. Back to Utah, to the traffic-choked streets that suck the will to live right out of a fellow. Back to crowded trout streams, back to the tech-bro culture that’s seeped into almost every aspect of the place where I grew up. Back to some of the worst air quality in the world, and to a state that claims to be conservative but continues to find cruel and unusual ways to shake down the everyday citizen for a few hundred bucks more each year. I’d left Utah for a reason and I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of returning, even though the job was a dream offer.
I tied flies, listened to a new bluegrass band I’d stumbled upon, and tried to stop thinking. Eventually I gave up and managed a fitful few hours.
Saturday morning I woke up to rain, no wind, and a projected high of 43. It felt like I’d been consulted on the best possible weather for a day of dry fly fishing in February. I left the house, determined to leave my worries there, but they seemed trapped in the unmoving gray sky.
A few blue-wings bumbled through the raindrops when I got out of the car for the mandatory look at the river before “wadering up.” A hundred yards upstream a fish rose.
I’d made it fifty yards before the fish rose again. Its dorsal and tail fin broke the surface, betraying both its size and that it wasn’t eating any of the duns I saw on the water. I got within twenty yards before I slipped off the bank and carried the weight of the world with me into the river. I waited for the current to pry my worries loose and drift them downstream. That’s the river’s job, after all — to continue the unending cycle of old becoming new, a force of change so immovable it often feels to be life’s only constant.
That fish didn’t rise again. Maybe I’d waded too close, or maybe my first cast spooked it. Or maybe it just quit eating. But it felt like the problems I’d brought with me cast a pall tangible enough that the fish were ignoring the first good blue-wing hatch since November.
I almost called it a day. I’d drive the hour back home in silence, brooding on a missed opportunity, fuming that such perfect conditions yielded exactly nothing.
But fishing’s supposed to help cure your problems, so I pressed on. I drove further up the river, where it flows through a steep canyon. Cars were parked in all my usual spots (a harbinger of my impending move to Utah) so I pulled off to fish a section of river I’d never explored.
I picked my way across the rocky bank, looking for the slow, deep water where trout hold in February. I’d given up on the dry fly hatch and instead had on a crawdad nymph and an egg. One run looked appealing, so I made a few casts before getting my flies to settle in the right drift.
My indicator shot under, I set the hook, the reel whirred, and a few minutes later I had a nice rainbow trout in the net. At least up here, in the faster, rougher water, my bad attitude wasn’t enough to put off the fish. I grinned as I let the rainbow go, feeling the tiniest bit of relief.
As I continued upriver, I rounded a corner and came to the tail of a narrow pool. The main current rushed by on the right, creating a huge seam and a slight eddy in maybe eight feet of water. It’s great trout water regardless of the time of year, but perfect for February.
My flies were heavy, and I’d hung up on rocks a few times already that day. I wasn’t surprised that, on my third or fourth drift through the pool, my flies got stuck. Refusing to lose the flies, I reluctantly walked upstream to get a better angle to pry the flies loose. They wouldn’t budge.
Finally, I pointed the rod straight at the snag and pulled on my fly line. There was a faint twitch, then I saw the flank of a trout that looked every bit of thirty inches long.
Then my leader snapped.
I’ve caught lake trout that measured 42, 40, and 30 inches (not on a fly rod), and a 30-inch Great Lakes steelhead. My personal best on a fly rod is a 28-inch Lahontan from Pyramid Lake, and I’ve landed a handful of other fish in the 25-27 inch range. I say that not to brag, but to make the point that I’ve seen, up close and in the flesh, very large trout. Even through the distortion of the water, the trout that had just snapped my line looked the part of a once-in-a-lifetime fish.
When the trout broke my leader, whatever faint hope I’d had of digging out of my own gloom dissipated. As the trout swam away the weight of the world crashed back on my shoulders.
The drive home was long, quiet, and predictably morose.
I wasn’t sad that I went fishing, but sometimes it’s not the cure-all it’s cracked up to be.
I wouldn’t have admitted that 10 years ago. Probably not even 5 years ago, if I’m being honest. For all the healing and calming power that nature possesses, I wonder if we too often turn to fly fishing not as a cure for our problems, but as a means of avoidance. Ignore the problem long enough and it goes away, right?
Change has to be dealt with. And the changes coming in my life need more attention, more consideration, than the half-hearted glances I gave them while running to the river like a scared kid.
It rained Sunday morning while I drove to church. I couldn’t avoid my problems while I sat in the pew, which is one of the best things church has going for it. That probably also explains why more and more folks choose to abandon regular church attendance these days.
The words spoken over the pulpit probably would’ve helped if I had listened. I tuned out the speaker and kept examining my decision from every angle, even though I’d made it and there was no going back.
I’m quitting. I get a dream job! But I have to live in Utah again. And move in with my in-laws. But I’m getting a raise! But I love living here in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming. We have two stoplights in the whole county.
It was Friday night all over again, sans the productivity of tying flies.
The rain was petering out when I left church and headed for another river. Part of me wanted to return to the scene of Saturday’s crime, but I couldn’t bear the thought of another failure like that. Not when I already felt like a failure for abandoning the life my wife and I had sacrificed to build.
We’re not abandoning it, just taking things in a different direction. We’ll be able to save the money we get from selling the house and put it towards buying land, like we’ve always wanted. And we’ll be close to family to help out when we have kids later this year.
My wife’s words rang in my ears while I walked the banks of another river, eyes peeled for a rising trout. After five minutes of watching I saw a trout rise on the far bank.
I spent the next three hours fishing dry flies to eager, willing fish. I was having the day I’d expected to have on Saturday, but this time, with each fish caught, the frustration and angst I’d harbored over my situation seemed to lessen. The fish took part of me with them back into the river where it was swept away forever. Old anger became new happiness and life seemed less bleak.
As if mirroring the shift in my mood, the clouds finally parted. Usually that spells the end of a good mayfly hatch, especially early in the year. The fish didn’t seem to mind, though. They kept rising until the bugs stopped hatching and I was left with wet hands, bedraggled flies, and only the second true smile I’d worn in a week.
That drive home wasn’t quiet or morose. I called my wife — who was home sick — to regale her with stories she probably didn’t want to hear, but she listened anyway.
My wife noticed that I sounded better than I had that morning before leaving to fish, and much better than Saturday night.
I was better. Not because I’d gone fishing, and not even thanks to the wonderful hatch I’d just fished.
I can’t pinpoint when it happened — most likely during a lull between pods of rising fish — but I finally forced myself to look at my problems head-on. I accepted them for what they were — big problems, sure, but not insurmountable. They didn’t feel smaller, or more manageable, and I didn’t have some sort of zen moment wherein I accepted my miniscule place in a vast universe.
I’d done the grown-up thing. The thing I ran away from because it’s easier to run to the river and hope for solace and meaning and answers there, because it’s always easier to put the responsibility on someone or something else.
I was honest with myself.
You don’t need fly fishing for that.
Perhaps, though, it helps.