Eddies, riffles and runs. We read water as words, incomplete, floating by on a transparent page.
You’ve done those tests, haven’t you? Usually shared on Facebook, or by email if you’re over a Certain Age (and then you’ll also follow with a phone call to make sure “it went through”). Those tests, where letters are left out of words and your eyes are supposed to make them make sense anyways. This is why editing—why rereading—is so difficult. It’s also why I never get bored with fishing the same waters: I’m always missing things, due to either lack of skills, attention span, or inclination to daydream I’m somewhere else, even when I’m right where I want to be. It’s hard to see something in a new way, once it’s already old hat. You can’t introduce yourself twice unless you’re visiting an Alzheimer’s ward, in which case it doesn’t make any difference anyways—you’re your mother, or a long-passed pet, or a childhood friend you’ve never heard of.
Sometimes a period of rest does the trick before a re-read. Giving distance, like to an ex-romance you hope to be friends with again. Someday. Even though you know this seldom works… it’s just a nicety of moving on. And you’ll keep in touch with those college friends, too. Sure you will.
But sometimes it takes a new set of eyes, a fresh perspective. That dewy innocence of beginnings—it’s why we trivialize childhood awe (blissful ignorance) and romanticize “honeymoon phases” (willful suspension of truth).
And so with writing, we hand our words to a friend we know is tactless and won’t try to sugar coat what’s trash. They’ll kill our darlings for us. Or we ask a friend who’s clueless about the subject at hand, to see if we’ve explained ourselves fully. We seek out extra pairs of eyes to look things over, because while it may make sense in our head, aloud it can be nonsense, like kids making up knock-knock jokes and telling the punch line out of order and laughing maniacally at their own wit.
When on the water though, extra eyes make me jittery, jumpy, “like someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl,” wrote Hemingway. (And I’m sure he wrote plenty.) It makes me more careful, on best behavior. No dirty talk, no cursing, no talking to myself out loud. I mind my mouth and tailing loops, and I smile.
And yet one of the best pieces of fishing advice I’ve ever received is from Jay Zimmerman: always “fish up,” he says. Just like young socialites and marriage. Fish with anglers who are older, wiser, better at it than yourself. Richer doesn’t hurt either—they might even have a boat. Fishing up can also mean with anglers who are new to the sport or to a species or style. Enthusiasm is infectious; it’s a good disease. And when you find true, genuine zeal, you’re a lucky duck.
Summer lingered on Colorado’s Front Range. Winds didn’t stirred up like they usually do and the daytime highs remained in the 70s, well into October, when Jay and I were set to meet Dennis Collier out at some carp flats. It’s a favorite and it holds lots of good times, but we hadn’t fished it recently—we’d given it space—and the summer had flown by, racing to pass off the baton. I think it gets tired of all the tourists.
But Dennis had been hitting it hard all summer. He wanted to try the “carp thing,” he’d told Jay, who pointed him here. “He’s a good guy,” Jay reassured. For just like words, we hand waters to our friends, too. Special spots, secret pools, unmapped forks in streams. But unlike writing, this holds the unspoken agreement that they’ll Do No Harm.
Our trucks pulled up at the same time, and Dennis had his fly rod rigged before mine was out of its tube. “It was a cold morning in the mountains,” I said, making an excuse and taking another swig of coffee, acclimating to a few thousand feet of difference. But it was chilly here, too. There’d been a frost warning the night before.
The water was high but clear-ish, and we walked down the shoreline quietly, swapping out lead position. There were a few carp close, holding in shallow, reedy water that was the first to warm. “Gotta use your ‘blue-heron vision’” Dennis chuckled. Jay hooked up on his first cast and Dennis howled, “That’s what I wanted to see! The master!”
Dennis pulled out boxes of flies from his pack, tied from observation of this place and these fish. He pointed to the cattails where they often hide, and to the waterline that had lowered from a few weeks back. He was giddy about it all, and as Jay said later, it was fun—being shown around an old place by someone new, who loves it just as much as you. But in a different way, for different reasons… for we all have our own.
Like rereading books, waters differ given the company and present state of mind. You catch those spaces and letters, coves and inlets, enthusiasm and fun you’d been missing. Ernest Hemingway also wrote that you “see or learn something new” every time you reread. Which is perhaps why his sentences were so short. So too, you learn something every time you fish with another angler, even if nothing mindblowingly new. You’re reminded, perhaps, of what it felt like to be at a beginning, attentive to every small possibility, like watching a nest of eggs and waiting to hear the peep-peeping through the shells.