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“Before the End of Streams”

Fly Fishing in Old Age

Skip Morris on the Soc Dul | Carol Ann Morris photo

Shakespeare died at age 52. From that point on he wrote not one new play, at least none has been discovered. St. Joan of Arc had a very short run as a military commander. She dropped the profession after a bad end in the early 1400s. Bosch gave up doing what he loved—painting brilliant paintings, some depicting his grotesque (and sort of comical) visions of hell—immediately after his death at age 56, or possibly just before. Abraham Lincoln bowed out of the political scene, and this corporeal world, in 1865. Widely acknowledged as the mother of fly fishing, Dame Juliana Berners—and this one’s personal for me—turned in her fly rod at the time of her death. (Date unknown, though I’ve read it was likely the early 1400s. Apparently a popular expiration period for historical women.)

The point is, they all died (some of them in rather colorful ways, actually) and from then on simply stopped doing anything. (Unless you count their continuing to receive name recognition, which seems awfully passive to qualify as doing.)

Eventually, we all die. I get that. I’ll die just like everyone else—it would be silly of me to expect a pass, especially considering that none of the aforementioned ultra-achievers got one. I mean, who the hell am I—some fly-fishing writer? No, divine intervention for me: not likely.

In general I can deal with dying. What really chaps me though, specifically, is that it’ll put a permanent nix on my fishing. Be honest: doesn’t that seem terribly unfair?

No? Well, I’ve got news: it’ll nix yours too. Now what do you think?

So, pesky death: inevitable. What to do about it, what to do….

I and my wife of going on 30 years, Carol, who also loves fishing and also recognizes that it’ll all be gone the day the Grim Reaper gets an itchy scythe and glances her way, gave the matter consideration. Considerable consideration that lead to a conclusion. Considering the limits of our options, I think we did well. Our conclusion: we’d better get the hell out there and fish more.

That’s good start, but death’s not the only consideration. The other will become in its own time, and almost certainly, impossible to ignore: the decline of our bodies as we age. After all, while death is indeed the ultimate fishing-stopper, the list of potential pre-death fishing-stoppers, or at least fishing-hinderers, is long for us oldsters—too long and too unpleasant to present here. And who would want to read such a list? Nobody, of course. But something on that list is eventually bound to kick in. (We hope of course that nothing does, that instead, once we’re ancient, we both go together gently in our sleep after fishing unhindered right to the end. Sounds great! But what are the odds of this ideal scenario? Poor, perhaps?)

Probably the first water to slip beyond our reach will be streams. By “stream” I mean not my dictionary’s definition (“a small river”) but just what any true, upstanding fly fisher means: creeks to rivers and everything between. If it flows and holds fish that’ll take a fly, then to a fly fisher—damn it!—it’s a stream.

Fishing streams is whacking through brush, climbing down steep banks and climbing back up them, wading riffles, negotiating dry or submerged boulder fields, all-around vigorous rough-going. For any of this, all the human machinery had better be in at least fair working order.

Yes, streams will go first. For me and Carol, who rarely fish from drift-boats, that leaves lakes. (It also leaves us beach fishing locally for salmon and sea-run cutthroat trout. But that’s a fascinating, peculiar, and highly regional form of fishing we’d all best not tangle ourselves in here.)

We both love lakes. We love lake fishing for trout, for smallmouths, for largemouths, and for any and all of the panfishes throughout their great range of colors and markings and characters. And we certainly won’t abandon lakes just because stream fishing ends. But until then we probably will concentrate more on streams than before.

Which begs the question, Which streams?

Utah’s Green River comes to my mind. I want to hit it during its heavy flights of cicadas. (Never fished cicadas, but want to. I can deal for a week or two with the inevitable multitude of other anglers wanting to as well.) There’s California’s deep, clear, gentle Fall River, where prams with electric outboards are the practical standard. The Driftless Area of the Midwest, where spring creeks wind through grassy meadows everywhere (or at least they do in my vision of the place). I want to go late May into June, when the Eastern version of my familiar Pale Morning Dun mayfly, the Sulfur, is hatching and brown trout are enthusiastically coming up to meet it. (The drawback of visiting the Driftless around that time won’t be the Green River’s human invasion, I expect, but a passel—if not an abundance—of ticks. Again, though, I can deal.)

Virginia’s Shenandoah River for smallmouths, that’d be nice.

Far-off streams? I never fret over them, with so many wonderful ones here in North America still waiting for me to explore. Yet I can’t help thinking, occasionally, of New Zealand’s ultra-skittish—and big—browns and rainbows that come to dry flies in water flowing clear as mountain air.

Or the meandering Test and the few other insect-rich, fabled, and practically manicured English spring creeks—“chalk streams,” the British call them—where what we now call fly fishing had its true birth.

But likely the most exotic stream fishing I’ll do, with Carol, in my remaining years of adequate heartiness, will be for grayling in the Northwest Territories, maybe big brook trout in far eastern Canada. As I said, for me, North America still brims with fascinating options.

And I loathe long plane flights.

Alaska for silver salmon, dolly varden char, and huge, mighty rainbow trout. I’ve done that. So yes, amazing, absolutely, but that’s covered.

Of course, all this is only half my call. Carol has her own ideas.

Not many, though, regarding streams. I’ve noticed that. So when I asked her what streams she’s dreamt of fishing, streams anyplace on Earth, I wasn’t surprised when she said something like, “Oh, I don’t know. You seem to pick good ones. Maybe some in Patagonia or New Zealand.”

So, sure, I’ll keep picking our destination streams. Unless she finds herself suddenly yearning for some particular one or another.

Rather than yearning for specific waters, though, Carol usually covets specific fishes. Often, fishes we don’t have around here. She wants to catch a Northern pike. A musky. A peacock bass.

We may get to them all, but they’re boat-fishing fishes and we can deal with them once stream fishing is beyond us, or at least beyond me. With my half-dozen years on her and the male-over-female-decrepitude factor in play, I will almost surely be the first to kiss stream fishing goodbye.

Lest you mistake what I’ve said so far for whining (either because I’ve failed as a writer or because you’re a fanatically upbeat type who labels every observation short of a gleeful cheer as vulgar negativity), it’s not. (Well, okay, I did get a little whiny—briefly, mind you—about death. That seems reasonable though, doesn’t it, considering the permanence of its effect?) I’ll go to the nursing home, and then my grave, with a big fat smile the mortician can’t tame—I’ve fished and fished, all over, in some wonderful places with some fine people. Even better, most of it’s been with Carol.

So despite my concerns about the ending of streams in my future, and, for that matter, the ending of my future, I’m truly grateful overall. And I’m going to keep wading and fishing, alongside Carol, for as long as my body allows.