July 6th 2023
Thursday. Humid/Hazy. 91°
River settling, still high, but clear
4:30-7PM Battenkill, near Pooks
I was in one of my favorite spots to cast, under an Ash tree that reaches over the edge of the bank and hides ancient slabs of river rocks, the kind of place that might as well have a flashing-neon sign in the shape of a trout pointing to it. Fish were rising around me, so I knew they were there.
The water was up to my thighs. It felt so good against my skin. It was a hot one, with midday temps reaching the mid nineties. I had spent most of it outdoors in the heat, tending the gardens and repairing the lamb's fencing. I was sweating buckets, cursing the power outage that made it impossible to work on freelance indoors beside a fan.
I was very proud of the work in the garden, now free of (most of) the weeds and the lawn trimmed down around it. Everything felt more civilized. The lambs were grazing inside their fence, instead of escaping outside of it, and there was a bucolic happiness and sense of accomplishment in the air, as heavy and lovely as the humidity. So, when the farm was settled and the chores were done, and everyone from the youngest chick to my old pony was quietly enjoying their dinner, I headed to the Battenkill to fish.
Which is how I ended up in this favorite spot, under the giant Ash. The water temp was still cool enough for catch and release, thanks to the deluge of rain over the holiday weekend, but it probably wouldn’t be by noon tomorrow. So I took advantage of the summer evening. Tonight this river was mine.
I cast and cast, but nothing bites. I don’t care. I will cast for hours, catching a fish is just icing. Above me, not 10 feet over my hat brim, a young cedar waxwing watches me with mild interest. I love those birds. I associate waxwings, brown trout, and sycamores as the triple deities of this river. I watch him strut about the ash branch, and catch the striking yellow tip of his tail in the magic hour light. Watch him smirk at me, if a bird can smirk, in his raccoon masked face. A fish rises right next to me close enough to make me jump. I swear out loud, laugh, knowing that in this heat and on this night catching a glimpse of a rising wild trout might be all I catch. I wish I had brought some binoculars for bird watching.
Occasional canoes and small boats paddle by, some of them rigged with spinning reels. A dumpling of a man in a giant bucket hat and sunglasses floats past me in his kayak, dragging his spin-rod bobber behind him. He looks like a bear in a Pixar movie. I smile. These people are not serious anglers. Not that you have to be to fish out here. The river is as much his as the waxwings; but I was still insulted on behalf of the trout.
When the weather got too much I’d make my way to the bank and take off my hat and glasses, remove my 10-year-old Orvis sling pack with the rubber trout zipper pulls (my favorite touch) and my sun shirt. It’s a giant polyester button down I got off the sale rack at Tractor Supply 7 years ago for $4.99 and it’s still the best fishing shirt I own. Light and airy, dries in minutes, protects my already sunburned shoulders from the garden.
I set down my rod on the bank and dive into the water. I am in a sports bra and shorts and finally not ashamed of my body. It does amazing things and it's all I've got. It took me 40 years to love her, the poor thing.
God’s body, the water feels so good. After all that sweat and grime, it feels like a dirty baptism, and that’s the only kind of baptism I trust. I swim. I sit and soak. Sometimes I float on my back and let myself sink a little. The waxwing flies overhead. The Battenkill has a stone bed and the water is clear as glass, cool, and crisp as clean sheets if water can be a texture. It feels on my skin how brand new guitar strings sound when played, bright. I say a quiet prayer to Brigit that I get some more days like this in my life.
When I redress in my kit, I change my fly over from the yellow stimulator that worked last night to a bead-headed nymph. Maybe the heat has some big boys slower and lower?
I start casting the sinking fly when I hear the first claps of thunder. It’s loud, like a strike at the bowling alley. I can see clouds to the southwest but the sky above me is blue and the sun is making me feel drunk. Maybe drunk isn’t the right word, as I haven’t drank alcohol since New Years Eve 2020, but I remember, and it was that kind of buzz. I was grateful for my altered state, because days like this drain you like a battery, making your body demand shade and a nap, which is what any sensible woman would do after a day of physical labor in a heat wave…
BUT! That's the thing about fly fishing! There are stakes now in this river, the rod in your hand becomes a magic wand, delivering a second wind of excitement the moment you grip the cork. Every cast is a prayer, every fly landing on the surface is a drop of hope. Okay, that might be a little too precious. Hope is there, but fly fishing is a little messier. After all, us anglers are trying to stalk and abduct sentient beings. I suppose it’s less of a prayer and more like pulling down the lever on the slot machine, only a slot machine you got to scope out and get a slight advantage on, so your odds are just high enough that skill creates luck.
I’m not that good of an angler yet. I cast on luck.
I notice a man swimming free, no friends or kayak or life jacket. This stretch of water was perfect for a long free swim and part of me envied him. He wasn’t attached to trout or hope at all. I watched him swim and saw that he passed what was a young family of otters. The older otter slinking in for swims and the occasional pup sliding after. I wished I’d brought binoculars for the second time that evening.
The sunlight comes and goes, but when it comes it arrives from behind the clouds, tired and vast. It’s the golden light I associate with summer, with everything beautiful and lovely and warm. I take a minute to savor this time of year. This is the sweetest moment. This is exactly where I want to be. Who I want to be. How I want to be. I came into the world on a July evening, right around dusk. I think we all love the time of year we arrived. It’s home.
Two young women kayak past. Before they are too far out I tell them about the otters. I hope they see them. They thank me. They didn’t ask, but I couldn’t imagine not wanting to see a baby otter on a summer afternoon. We all looked towards the river bank with eyes like kids writing wishes on notebook paper.
I changed my fly again. Nothing is working tonight. Every cast still feels like a wish with money on it. Every thunder clap makes my heart stutter. I feel my phone vibrate against it. (My phone is in my sports bra.)
I check my phone. I want to hear back from the woman I send pictures of trout to. It's new, but lovey. She’s left me a few texts and the hum of excitement from her attention mixes with the heat and hope and it all washes over me like lavender bath water. For the 50th time that week I thank the oldest gods women have ever prayed to that I’m gay.
She sends back a wish for luck on the river, and I realize, I have caught something.
While my phone is out I see a message from my neighbor Linda. She said to stop by after fishing because she’s taking sourdough out of the oven at 7 and I nearly start salivating right there in the middle of the river. Her bread is amazing, with a crisp, flaky-rich crust and the inside crumb full of air and character and lightness along with the denseness of a good sourdough. Thunder claps again, this time farther away, but I feel the wind move my hair and it sends shivers all over my body like a kiss on my neck.
How dare I ask for anything more?
I dare. I cast a little longer. The sunlight comes and goes from behind the storm clouds. The otters swim. There are no more kayakers and the last of the sad loud highschool boys has left the swimming spot near the bridge. Sometimes I think the most horrific and glorious thing to be in the world is a teenage boy. Some of them were fishing. Spin rods, the lot of them.
Not one fish takes my flies. So it goes.*
Finally, I pack it up. I head back to my car and as I break out from the riverside to the farmer’s field we park in, I see a rainbow. It’s arching among the rolling mountains and growing corn and it could be 1867 or tomorrow, a timeless moment of agricultural harmony beside a river old as time. I fished for three hours and didn't get a single strike, but I did end up catching a rainbow.
As I am loading up the car a girl parked down field from me shouts, “Hey! A rainbow!” and points. We are the only two cars in the lot, she just wanted me to see the otter. I thank her. I love how us women look out for each other’s joy.
When I stop at Linda's the bread has two minutes left in the oven and we chat until she hands it to me warm in a paper towel. When I get home I slice off an end and slather it with butter and honey and it melts into every air pocket. When I bite into it the sugar and fat squish between my teeth and I think so loud I can taste my prayer: THIS. IS. LIVING.
My friend Mark texts me. He wants to meet to fish in the morning I will take him to that same spot. I hope he catches a monster and I catch nothing so he feels amazing. He’s recovering from surgery and I’ve been sending him trout pictures as low-grade threats until he agreed to come out with me. I haven't fished this spot in the morning yet, and I hope it’s a mess of browns and brooks and the river is a little calmer so we can really cast the pockets against the walls.
I remind Mark to bring binoculars.
How good it feels to be alive today. The hope and light, the wildness and friends, the food and plans, the community and hope. I have so much more than any woman should be allowed to have in one lifetime. And that’s saying something, as I don’t have a washing machine or microwave and have less money in my bank account than any respectable high schooler with an after-school job. But I have my scrappy farm and I have this river on a Thursday night. I found it. I ended up here. I can’t stop smiling.
Sometimes you find your way back home.
*Taylor Swift reference, not Vonnegut.
I bet they’d get a kick out of each other, though.
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