July 18th 2023
Tuesday. 86° Humid/Buggy
River High, Too High.
4:15-4:45 PM Ash Grove
The White Creek, along road to Caer Luna Farm
The sky is wild. The air is electric, and the hairs on my arms are standing straight up. In minutes there will be a break in the clouds, a torrent of rain, a thunderclap so jarring I will lose my footing on the wet stones I am perched on. But right now, in this moment time has stopped and I am a vessel for hope.
If I was out hiking I would have already retreated to lower ground. I would be safely setting up an emergency tarp in an area out of the wind and free of dead or weak trees. I would check my emergency weather radio, because I would have one in my pack because I'd be in a place without cell service. This is the adult Girl Scout I have evolved into. I'd sit out the storm, unpack my travel stove and billy can, making a cup of tea or snacking on trail food. I'd watch the rain, read from the same beat up copy of the Hobbit I carry like a security blanket. All this to say, I'd avoid risk and revel in that avoidance, fucking turn around three times and lie down in it. My favorite things about hiking, even day hikes, was always having everything I needed to make a nest comfortable from fear anywhere I went.
But here I am, a different woman entirely. I left my home turf before a storm. I did it in pursuit of small, wily, brook trout that I may or may not find. This is my new quarry. After weeks of casting to brown trout in the river, after catching and cooking and hooking everything from babies to big-jawed brutes I am now trying to catch these wild native fish right on my mountain.
I have been looking for three days now. I’ve hiked miles of stream paths. I got permission from neighbors to stalk the pools that wind through their property. But recent storms made the water too muddy, too busy to find the kind of places these gems haunt. I didn’t even see the flick of a tail or hint of a white-tipped fin. My only hunch was the fact that I have seen these fish in the steam for years on this mountain, mostly when I was out horseback riding on the trails or hunting with hawks. Which meant they were visible to me when I didn’t want them (tale as old as time, right?).
I didn’t care because this time last summer I couldn’t even walk around my backyard long before my ankle ached with pain. But now I can hike along streams for hours, and while I am not ready to carry a 40lb pack for a 10 mile overnight, I can do this. I am so grateful for the healing I made a little blessing sign, absentmindedly, with my free left hand. Never let a moment when you can show gratitude pass. And I laughed thinking of an old line from a Hank the Cowdog book I read as a kid. “Don’t take life for granite. That’s what tombstones are made of…”
That said, it still felt like an adventure leaving my front door, like something Bilbo felt (albeit on a far smaller scale) and here I am, awaiting my dragon. I hear distant thunder, but I know the storm will be here soon. The wind picks back up and loose hair that’s fallen out of a ponytail blows in front of my eyes. I pull it back frantically like I’m watching winning lottery numbers slowly line up with the ticket in my hand and not staring at a dark pool in a small stream.
I am just off the side of a rural road about fifteen minutes away from my farm. I knew my window to fish was small, and after days of looking, I have found this spot. A perfect little pool for brook trout.
I mean, if I was designing a cover for a trout edition of a real estate guide, this would be it. A deep, slow-water pool with plenty of stones and logs for hiding, next to a small ledge that left a constant flow of bugs and air. The water is clean, dark, and deep for a stream. I tied on a fairly large nymph with a gold head. It’s bigger than what I use on most brown trout in the river, but I know these little guys are opportunistic and go after a big meal if presented without scaring them, (or so I've been told in my research). I hoped I was positioned in a way that hid most of my body. I cast. I am growing from the girl sitting on rocks on the river bank. I am acting more like a heron. The wind picked up and I started to get nervous again. Not nervous enough to stop fishing though. That’s the thing about hope, it’s more reckless than comfort.
I wanted to get on the water earlier, but between the farm and work, these were the moments I could steal. I can’t even explain yet why fly fishing has taken hold of me like this. It’s something I have known how to do for over a decade, something I have dipped my toes into here and there for years, but this year is different. I am very interested in how a sleepover hobby alchemized into living theology. I think the brook trout know secrets older than stone so I let the nymph dance in the bubbles of the current near the rock ledge and I hope and wait. I am hell at hoping and waiting.
I’d driven past this stream a few times, usually on the way to a friend’s farm. And I’ve noticed the healthy flow rolling down the mountain from my car windows as I sped by. This spot seemed to be exactly what the videos and books I’ve been devouring describe as good water. Mostly because it’s a higher elevation than the river, and that particular stream drops into cold pools up and down the mountain, all of which, in theory, should host a few brookies. I don’t know the area well, or how to access the water, but figured I would drive in the general direction of White Creek (a small town named after the creek), and see if I could pull over and jump in on any public land. Or, if it’s not public and I don’t see any signs posted, dabble with tresspassing. I don’t know if a chubby middle-aged lesbian toying with catch-and-release fishing on the roadside is a criminal offense, but I’m feeling less anxious about getting in trouble than normal. Thunder claps. It’s closer. I wonder if I am in love with fly fishing, thunderstorms, or hope. In the moment I just whisper the correct answer;
Cast after cast and no luck. My long pole and reel are not made for these small spaces with delicate needs. But it’s the only rod I have and so I make it work. I use my hands to cast out the line and hold it in the current a little. I jig and pull, making that little gold bug dance. I try different presentations. Sometimes I see a too-fast flash and wonder if it's a leaf in the dying light or a fish? I want to know the truth so bad it could crack a rib.
It seems unbelievable that trout wouldn’t be there, in this perfect spot. I keep casting to nothing and finally, I decide to change to a dry fly, cursing the humidity, which I usually love but at the moment felt like a wet towel. Sweat dripped everywhere. Off my eyebrows, off the tip of my nose. But I am watching this cold water, I am in the zone. And as I reel in my line to prepare to re-tie, I see a flash or gold in the light chasing my fast bead and I realize, Holy Shit, I have just seen my first wild brook trout in three days.
I keep casting, keep hoping. I play with my fly rod some more and get my bug closer and closer to the edge of the stream. At any minute I could snag, lose my fly. It’s something that keeps happening this summer, (which I feel is a tax on beginner anglers). But I see the flash again and he bites! I miss the hook set, but I had my first bite from a wild brookie!!!! My heart starts to pound. My eyes narrow. I am both hunting and praying and it has nothing to do with hunger or harm, just a chance to hold something beautiful and wild for a few breaths. To solve the problem and become the solution.
And then it happens. The fish bites and hook sets! This is a gift from small wild gods and circumstance, because I am not skilled enough to make this happen by force. Still, the joy washes over me like the first drop in a roller coaster. I feel goosebumps explode all over my arms as thunder breaks out like a roar. The wind starts to move the trees above me and I hear branches snap in warning. I grab my net and scoop the 6-inch trout. It feels more magical and rewarding than any big brown I fought on the Battenkilll. This is when I realize I am not out here looking for fish, not really. I am looking for the moment I scoop a fish into a net, because it is an act of exhalation and accomplishment. And every single time that drug works a little stronger and the relief lasts a little longer. I wonder how many fish I need to trap to become a bodhisattva? To know peace? To have enough?
And once again, I am humbled and in awe that this experience was always waiting for me. That this magic, these animals, this way of being a part of nature was always here. I think of the years I lived in the Smokies, the Rockies, in states and areas where the fishing would blow my mind - both wild rivers and small Appalachian streams….I mourn those lost experiences the way I mourn the years I remained in the closet. For the time I spent avoiding love and joy because I was afraid. And here I am at 41, standing in thunderstorm with a fucking metal rod in my hand, and the anxiety usually that haunts me is gone. The fear that makes me question every choice and my basic worth, disappeared because I am a new fly fisher that has graduated to stalking, locating, and catching wild mountain trout.
Somewhere someone just won the lottery and wishes they could know this joy.
The trout is small but beautiful. I hold it in my hands for about thirty seconds. I remove the fly, gently as I can, and take in the pocket majesty before me. I don’t feel the bugs biting every inch of my soft body. I don’t stop to think about all the ways I wish I was a better person. The thunder is right above me now and when it explodes I don’t even flinch. This is how you live forever. This is a poem and a mandolin solo and a good first kiss. The trout gasps and compassion overtakes me and I return him to the net and back in the water. I still watch him for a few more seconds. I take in the colors like he’s a fresh 64-pack of crayons, the good kind with a sharpener in the back. That’s the childlike wonder I feel. The silver body catches some sunlight, alerting the spots on his sides and orange fins that are so bright it reminds me of something tropical, like a clown fish. But I am not in the tropics. I’m 15 minutes from my farm, on the side of a road, parked in a way that locals slow their trucks and wonder if I need help. I hope the bumper sticker explains myself. Subaru's ass literally says “Trout Flies and Pizza Pies” as my slogan and i mean it. If I can catch a fish and eat pizza in the same day, I’m thrilled to be a part of the human experience.
Within minutes of releasing the trout back to the pool I am back on the road, driving home in a downpour so intense, so violent, my windshield wipers can not keep up with it. I consider pulling over, more aware of my mortality without any trout around. But instead, I crank up my car's stereo. Bad blood comes on, off 1989. It’s not even a topical song, but in the storm and after the high of finding and reeling in that brook trout I am floating. And tomorrow, the 19th, I will be standing in a new river, in the Adirondacks. Because I’m going to leave the farm at 8AM and drive two hours north to fish the home waters of the woman I’ve been dating this summer. I'm so excited, I've packed a whole welcome basket from the farm. Hope she digs kail.
I wish for all of you, the feeling of driving home in a storm scream-singing on a brook-trout high while looking forward to a date. I wish you all the experience of being able to feel and be all four elements at once - holding that blessed trout from the steam, feeling the wind in your hair, seeing the lightning flash, feeling the stones beneath your feet. There’s magic out here, and it’s as real as fish and far easier to find and hold. And I’m not talking about spells or candles, darling. I am talking about living a life alongside nature that teaches you how to never die.
This is another excertp from the project I am working on, which my 41st summer told through fly-fishing diaries. If you appreciate what you read, let me know? Email and tell me if you'd read a book about fly fishing, in a memoir capacity? I especially want to hear from women that don't fish? Was the fly fishing an obstacle to read around? Did it feel natural? Thoughts welcome. Also, this was free but if you think it's worth something, I encourage you to contribute towards my writing with a tip. To be clear; no one has to pay anything. I will still write here and it's always available for free. But when people feel it's worth cash that I can turn into firewood and hay, that magic is very much needed and appreciated.
Venmo: jennawog (preferred)