I love exploring new places. Road trips, hiking excursions, climbing over just one more ridge to see what’s there; I can’t seem to get enough. When the exploration itch gets particularly acute, I’m prone to planning grander schemes involving long flights overseas and days of travel through foreign lands to experience the wilds on different continents—it’s all a fascinating journey for me. Some places warrant repeat visits; others go on the list of “been there, done that.” But rivers, well, they’re special. No need to travel far and wide or even
explore new reaches of the same river, though I do that too. Rivers are alive and ever-changing. A single, well-formed pool offers a different experience moment by moment simply with the changing angle of the sun, and a new day can make familiar spots on your home waters a whole new planet; alien, yet familiar, brimming with potential and mystery, yet holding a sure promise of great reward for a patient soul.
Rivers are alive and ever-changing.
I return to these home waters with both keen anticipation and spectacularly-clear memories. Anticipation of great new experiences to come—the sweet, humid odor of the river bottom, the soothing sounds of lively riffles and birds flitting among the shrubs, catching a glimpse of a doe and her fawns as they sneak back into the wall of green after an early afternoon drink, and of course, the promise of catching some of those brightly colored jewels dancing below the crystalline surface.
Amid the anticipation, or perhaps provoked by it, a flood of warm, cheerful memories roll up from the depths of my mind, and course through my vision like a silent movie playing in the background of my present reality, each triggered by some sight, sound or smell experienced in the moment.
“In all my travels, I don’t recall ever feeling more excited and relieved at netting a fish as I was that day. And it all happened right here, in this very pool, on my home waters.”
The sharp, sweet aroma of fresh mint rises almost instantly as it is stepped upon, and I’m immediately launched to an afternoon in this very spot at the age of 13 when my grandfather sat on the prominent sandstone ledge overlooking this deep pool, with its hidden springs and murky depths. He watched me make some fumbling attempts at catching the enormous brown trout that ruled this watery paradise.
I was just learning to flyfish then and my efforts were less than graceful. But I was deeply determined. I didn’t catch a trout—any trout—that afternoon, nor on the next several attempts. But my casting steadily improved over the summer, as did my understanding of the fish that lived in this wondrous stream, and I never gave up.
I was just learning to flyfish then and my efforts were less than graceful. But I was deeply determined.
The monotonous buzzing of cicadas next moves my mind to a hot, muggy afternoon in late August, when the river was low and the riffle barely gurgled over the ledge into the massive pool. Many trout had moved to this spot seeking the cold springs that seeped along the submerged ledges. The big brown still commanded the pool, holding the key feeding zone where the diminished riffle now gurgled into the deep abyss, and a giant sycamore tree with low-hanging limbs stretching over the waters offered overhead cover. This was fortuitous as I had observed a great quantity of beetles lodging on the tree and in the mass of movement, individuals would consistently lose footing and fall into the pool below, where the old trout waited lazily for his next snack to drop from the sky. My grandfather was again sitting patiently on the towering sandstone outcrop where he could observe my next attempt at fooling the leviathan. Our trips to the pool that summer became more and more regular as my obsession grew. A few false casts to measure my line this time avoided hanging up in the raspberry patch behind me, and when I launched the small beetle imitation I’d tied, the line turned over smoothly, the leader falling delicately in loose coils on the surface, and the fly landed with a tiny plop about a foot upstream of the monster’s nose. The next frames occurred in seconds, but to me it felt like tortuous hours as the huge fish twitched slightly, noticing the morsel, then slowly drifted upward and backward, tracking along with the fly and closely inspecting my offering as the rickety imitation barely stayed afloat. As the leader unwound in the current and the fly was certain to drag across the surface, I was almost sick with a combination of anticipation and the rising fear of yet another failure. But at the last possible moment that enormous snout broke the surface tension with a loud slurp, and my fly disappeared in a tiny whirlpool.
The following battle can only be described as epic. I recall chaos as the trout lunged, making a splash that sounded like a beaver smacking its tail on the surface of the quiet pool, me letting out a whoop of pure joy, the reel screaming in protest of giving up so much line so quickly, and the roar of a small avalanche of rock and debris cascading down the sandstone pillar as my grandfather skidded down the steep face from his perch to join me streamside with the net. I remember brimming with a strange mix of pride and tension, stress and confidence, determination and fear, and all of those emotions hitting me at once. In all my travels, I don’t recall ever feeling more excited and relieved at netting a fish as I was that day. And it all happened right here, in this very pool, on my home waters.
The short film of these treasured memories slowly dissipates and I suddenly refocus on the scene in front of me. Now, in the present, the evening sun bathes this pool in a warm, joyous glow. The air is cooling and crickets begin their chorus. The birds have quieted and some small bats make an appearance, diving and dipping erratically near the water’s surface as they snatch up the small, pale mayflies that are emerging. The jewels I seek have noticed the mayflies too, and are beginning to lazily rise along the far bank, where leviathan once swam. Perhaps a few more casts here as the day closes; no need to wander around the next bend, for I am content.
There is peace in rivers. And I am blessed to be here.
There is peace in rivers. And I am blessed to be here.