This time was different. A few days before I'd returned from making a long cast to the other side of the country, and metaphorically speaking, I'd raised a big trout - only to have it throw the hook and sink away out of sight.
Driving west on highway 66, there was a feeling in my gut that I hadn't had in a long time. Pounding pavement at breakneck speed, there were pangs of desperation and longing coupled with the stinging reality of my situation, but also the comfort of knowing that before long I'd find myself in an environment as familiar to me as anywhere else in the world - the moving water of a trout stream. I was alone, and although I would almost always rather share the water with a friend, this trip needed to be exactly the way it was.
I try to be mindful of my motivation whenever I fish alone. If I'm weary, sick, fed up, overworked, angry, frustrated, need to think things over, or need to stop thinking things over, I've found that I should probably go fishing; when progress is important, it's best when I'm alone. On a solo fishing trip, there are no obligations other than to fish and do whatever comes into your mind - you can turn your phone off, leave your watch in camp and discard any sense of obligation you have to the rest of the world. In an increasingly connected world, personal progress is hard to find among a constant bombardment of emails, phone calls, texts, and other modern day catch-22's.
Fishing alone, especially in unfamiliar waters, it's possible to learn more about yourself than you could probably ever predict before you do it. Uninfluenced by crowds, other guides, and friends for better or worse, you're free to be yourself, to live as you like for the time being, and to fish the way that suits you. Although it might not be apparent at the time, a reflection a day of solo fishing can yield impressive insight into who we are as fisherman, but also as people. Like it or not, many of us live like we fish, and vice versa; and as famous fly-fishing author John Gierach says, "for some it's a blessing, and for others it's a curse."
I started fishing standard fare for this river, a small Sulphur dun, and a Griffith's gnat and was almost immediately rewarded with a fine trout. However, after working through a beautiful pool for the next hour with a handful of rising fish, and God-knows-how-many waiting patiently under the surface, yielded nothing, it was time for a change. I sat down on a midstream rock and poured through a half-dozen boxes, considering everything from size 24 midges, up to a size 2 streamer. I settled on a fly that I have more confidence in for trout than probably any other, and over the next few hours my confidence in this bug was justified, over, over, and over again (although I still can't figure out what this piece of rubber, dubbing, foam, and yarn represented to these wily and seasoned tailwater fish). Therein lies one of the other charms about fly fishing - how you can be dead wrong, but somehow right enough to get the job done better than you could have possibly imagined.
So I hit the river really the only way I know how, with a smile on my face, and contentment in my heart - ready and eager to accept whatever, good or bad, the river had to offer me on that particular day. In all the changes I've gone through in my life, and in particular this last chapter, fishing is one of the few things that has a feeling of permanence to it, which is a very comforting thought even at the most convoluted times.
I'd by lying if I said that I expected to catch a fish on every cast, but every time I throw a line I do it with hope. Every cast is a flirtation with uncertainty, and to be honest on most days it's more than likely that most casts won't end up interesting a trout. I guess in some ways that's the mystique and also the silliness of fly fishing - if it was all about kicking ass and taking names you'd be crazy to do it with a Sage and some feathers and dubbing - an Ugly Stik and a hunk of power bait or a spinner would seem to be a much more suitable and effective choice. So instead, I fly fish because it's the activity I want to do, done the way I want to do it. It's the way I've chosen to live an incredibly large and important part of my life. Now, on that day I was losing myself in just casting, wading over mid-stream boulders, doing my best to sting a few trout, but mostly keeping my fingers crossed for the serendipity I'd so narrowly missed during my last "fishing" trip.
I've had more great days, and also more tough days on a river than just about anyone I know, purely because of the fact that over the past 6 or 7 years of my life I've been incredibly lucky to spend an enormous amount of time on the water with a rod (or in many cases, a net) in my hand. During that time I've developed my own style of fly fishing - as all anglers are apt to do - which was described by an old fly fishing friend of mine in San Francisco as - "you just fish, you just love it, and you never stop." Sometimes this means that I fish on days when I shouldn't, when conditions aren't ideal, or the drive doesn't seem worth it, or I get on or off the water earlier or later than is best (or at times, healthy), it means that I do nonsensical things like traveling through the middle of the night in order to be on a piece of prime water come morning, and it means that even when I see a trout lie shrouded by branches, snags, and difficult currents, I'm going to make a couple damn casts in there anyway. It means that I don't know how to give up on a big fish, and once I know where it is, I'll settle in and buckle down. In many ways, this life is like a big trout, and I can only hope that I'm a cagey angler with all the time in the world.
As the day was winding down, I made a series of casts into a particularly promising backwater. It was deep, dark, and full of boulders - a perfect home for a big brown trout. On the third or fourth cast into this pocket, a shape moved off the bottom, and slowly ascended through the water column, opened its mouth, and engulfed my fly with unflappable confidence and laziness. I set the hook, and after a brief but eventful fight over boulders and across the swiftest part of the current, brought one of the most beautiful fish I've ever caught to the bank. After snapping a couple quick photos, I removed my special fly, and watched the fish glide away back to where he came from. It's funny the moments when a moment on the river really hits you, and this one certainly did. I sunk to my knees midstream, in disbelief of what had just happened. At that moment, I realized that the feeling in my gut had, over the course of the day, been replaced with one of satisfaction and comfort. Despite recent disappointments off the water, this fish was exactly what I had been looking for that entire day. I wanted a perfect ending, and on this day, I got it.
No matter what the outcome of my last cast, or my last fishing trip, or my last anything - the next event is all but decided - another cast, another trip, another anything. Perhaps the only certainty to fly fishing, or life, is that there really isn't any, and there isn't much else to do but embrace it and keep casting and fishing on, fingers crossed, hoping for some serendipity.