As a rule, I don’t give up on rising fish. I either catch them–and I wish I could say I always catch them–or I spook them into disappearing, maybe through a messy cast or by a clumsy effort to get into a tenable casting position. There are a handful of other more rarefied scenarios, too–say, an unspotted smaller fish rocketing out of nowhere to steal the morsel from the beast’s maws–but those are exceptions. Most every other time I go down on my own terms. I go down swinging. I cast until there’s nothing left to cast to.
But this summer I gave up.
I was fishing to European grayling, Thyllamus thyllamus, more specifically San River grayling, well known throughout Europe for their hyper-selectivity. The San, for those unfamiliar with it, is a terrifically wide, uniformly shallow river, most commonly fished by moving laterally across the current as opposed to upstream and down. It’s Eastern Europe’s finest tailwater.
For this particular grayling I cycled through every reasonable fly in my box, then started to clip and trim failed flies into more appetizing shapes. I went down to 8x. I considered using a single strand of human hair as tippet. I presented just below the film to avert the problem of micro-drag. Already closer than I should have been, I crept closer.
Inching forward as I did I couldn’t seem to get close enough to put the fish down, which would free me from this sadistic rapture, but I also couldn’t get him to eat. At my closest I put myself at twelve feet away, twelve feet away in slow, shallow vodka-clear water, my body bent like a hockey stick out of which jutted and swished a four-weight. He just kept on eating, delicately, in grayling-esque fashion, the soft fold of his dorsal wobbling a little each time he porpoised.
Time entered into some sort of compacting machine, a metaphysical variant of those monstrous mega-tonnned devices that smash automobiles into briefcase-sized blocks of steel. Big ten-minute chunks of time I experienced as mere chiclets, and the more intently I worked the fish, the more time seemed to compress. I believe that if I stayed with that fish long enough the compacture would have become so great I would have created some fusion bomb of minutes and seconds, ruining the cosmos for everyone forever, which I certainly didn’t want to do. I was startled back to consciousness after close to two hours by the violent screaming of one of the French anglers downstream. The scream had the tenor of someone losing a limb in a farming accident, though in a slightly more major key. He’d caught a huge fish that might have been mine, were I not a captive of this time vortex occasioned by a maddening middle-of-the-road grayling.
All fish are time machines of different kinds, each species and pursuit wrecking a different kind of havoc or hanging a different kind of ornamentation on time. Brook trout, for instance, as a species produce a surplus of time. I can remember one day years ago in Wisconsin’s Driftless when, for the better part of the morning and the first portion of the afternoon, I had a fish on more often than I didn’t. I didn’t carry a watch in those days and never packed a phone to the river so I headed back to the car after some 50 brook trout figuring it was close to 5 pm and time to head back to Chicago (I lived in Chicago at the time). The dashboard clock said 1pm. I was so incredulous I had to confirm things with a farmer tractoring by. From that day forward I recognized brook trout as a redemptive species, chronologically speaking. If I find myself in any kind of arrears I make haste to a tunnel of tag alders.
Muskies are another animal. As time machines, they don’t change the quantity of the element so much as the quality. The act of blind casting huge flies to possibly present or possibly absent muskies has a tenderizing effect on time–the chronological equivalent of pounding meat with a tenderizer. How else to explain the fact that, once stuck fast to a fat copper Esox, the minutes dissolve before your eyes without effort, clearing the gullet so easily you didn’t even need to chew.
Tom McGuane wryly observed that fishing takes a lot of time, and that that was indeed the point. But what fishing does with all that time it takes is something less scrutinized and perhaps not very well understood. If there’s a stone left unturned in the metaphysics of fishing it might just be that—what a bobber-caught perch does to the time taken out of a six-year old’s life, what a huge brown moused up just before sunrise of a long cold summer night does to the Circadian intelligence of the guy holding the rod, what a Polish grayling did to my own ledger one otherwise quite ordinary August afternoon.