Last summer my friend Bob and I were in Denver at a fly fishing outfitter admiring the gear and clothing. It was in that moment of idealistic longing that we decided to go trout fishing. Neither of us fish much. But the river called to us like the sirens singing to Delmar and Pete in O Brother, Where Art Thou:
Come on, brothers, let’s go down, Down in the river to pray
It was the siren call of the river that drew my friend and I into the water in search of a rising fish and a connection to a river that runs through each of us.
Scott met us in the McDonald’s parking lot and we shook hands. He was our guide for the next four hours of trout fishing in Silverhorne, Colorado. Snowmelt from the Rockies ripples over rubble wearing the gold and brown and gray stones into shapes that look like eternity. We were to fish in a Gold Medal stream, which means it has surpassed certain criteria for purity and the fishing is catch and release.
Fishing makes me aware of my duplicity. I love fishing, I hate fishing. I am compassionate, I am selfish. I give a man with a sign that reads, “Help, anything appreciated,” five bucks, but I ignore the homeless man standing on the street. Fishing is for suckers in one moment and it is transcendent in another, as Steven Wright describes, “Last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.”
Scott is from Seattle but has lived and guided fishing trips for over twenty years in Colorado. Scott drove Bob and me down to the edge of a dirt parking lot next to the Blue River, just below Dillon Dam. We donned our waders and boots and grabbed our fly rods and walked down the bank to the edge of the river. We encountered other fly fishermen during our time on the Blue, and the conversation was always fishing, what’s hitting, which fly, how are you setting indicators. Fly fishing seems to be more of an art than a science, more of a conversation than a lecture, more a dance than hike.
Bob, grew up, like me, on the plains of Oklahoma. Like me, he also married mysteriously well, his wife lovely and younger.
Our married children were born on the same day, and they are sometimes mistaken for twins.
We were dining together in the Lohi neighborhood of Denver and the waitress asked if Lauren and Beck were twins. No we replied, they were born within hours of one another, but they are not twins, they are alike but still very different.
Scott spends time with Bob and then with me, alternating, coaching, encouraging, sometimes talking to the fish, “Eat it!” he says as our tackle flickers just to the side of a shadow that looks to me like another rock, but to Scott’s practiced eye, is a fish. They are alike, they are different, the water pounds both fish and rock, and the shapes beneath the surface change without perception to the untrained eye.
On a trout river we are all alike but different. There are no strangers on a river, we are one with the sun and the stream and the fish. All things fade into sunlight and rippling water and the rhythm of a line and a current and as Norman Maclean says so poetically, in A River Runs Through It, “…all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”
The cast is more flick than muscle, and Scott has the muscle memory layered year over year compared to mine which is only a few minutes old. Yet he helps me, always saying, “Perfect,” when my tackle and indicator hits the flow of the stream near a yellow rock exactly where he has asked me to cast and as the indicator flows downstream I watch it bob and flow in the rhythm of the river waiting for a fish to strike and plunge it down and out of sight for a moment. Then I know the fly has either been caught between two rocks or a rainbow has hit it and is running. “Let it run,” Scott coaches us. “Your line is 3.5 pound test and if you resist, the fish will break the line, let it run, but keep the tip up and some tension, then when the pressure is slight reel in some line.”
My wife teaches yoga, and to her delight (no really, she loves it) I attend her sessions occasionally, and she has helped me with practices of calmness, quietness, and inner core strength, which is both spiritual and physical at the same time. And it’s helped my golf game, I more limber, able to play a game that requires violent twisting of the back and torso, with more suppleness and grace than before I started working out with her. Since we have this in common, we went together, the four of us, Bob, Sheila, Karen and me, to a tiny yoga studio in Frisco, Colorado. So the four of us are something, we are not sure what…friends-in-law? Anyway, we are traveling friends. We go places and we eat good food and enjoy God’s creation.
We fished the west bank of the Blue River heading north, holding on to the willows as we walked the stream bed edge. The worn round and oval stones in the stream bed were of varied sizes, from football size down to golf ball sizes, so the footing was uneven, and our walking required finding a firm foothold with the lead foot before following suit with the trailing foot. Bob and I both purchased wool socks the day before, but our feet were already cold by 9:00 am. And when we caught a rainbow, Scott netted the fish and told us, “Wet your hands.” And into the icy stream our hands plunged, then we grabbed the fish for a picture before it could wriggle away. After fishing the west bank for half the morning, we crossed the stream in a strong current, keeping a low secure base with our feet. Later, near the end of our time on the river, my back began to ache, and I realized how much core energy it took to stay upright in the rapids of an icy river. This was an entirely new kind of yoga pose, practice and repetition, eyes focused, body tensed against the swiftly flowing river.
There is something in the stream that we can’t define but seek anyway, hope, faith, sustenance, connection to those who have fished before us. And it isn’t just in the river that we seek that, but in the rapids of living. A few days earlier, we sat at an intersection in Denver, and a homeless man sat, gritty, ragged, begging…I was driving and saw in the corner of my eye the passenger window coming down.
Bob talks to everyone without judgement. When we dine, he always asks the waiter/waitress, “What’s your name?” And eye contact. I’ve seen Bob give money to what many of us would call bums, but he gives them much more than that, he gives the touch of another human being, eye contact, I have noticed you, and a question, “How are you?” And the money, whether for a cup of coffee or a down payment on a bottle of cheap wine, doesn’t seem to matter, because a river runs through all of us.
Bob’s rolling down the window and he has a bill crumpled up in his hand. He yells out at the man who is seated and who is now trying to get on his feet, “How ya doin’? Don’t get up…here, I’ll throw it too you.” And he tosses a $5 dollar bill at his feet.
Bob rolls up the window and I said, “What did you throw?” Bob replies, “A $100 bill.” I tell Bob, “You went to heaven and hell in one sentence.”
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a $100 bill and Bob is kidding, but that isn’t the point is it?
Norman Maclean also writes in, A River Runs Through It, “We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman…
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river runs over rocks from peaks to valleys. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
It’s the day after our fishing expedition and we are in Vail, Colorado, at a LuLu Lemon shop and the girls are shopping for workout wear. The staff is friendly and they ask us where we are from. While the girls are in the dressing room, Bob and I are talking to the sales girl who is from a little town near Littleton. Bob’s son, Beck, is playing Link Larkin in the musical, “Hairspray,” at the Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton. It’s a small world. We tell her about our fly fishing trip and she says, “I love to fly fish!” and she tells about her Dad taking her fly fishing just down the road. And I think of how fly fishing makes us search for our true north, how it makes us feel that old feeling of duplicity, I am a fool, and yet sometimes, I am wise.
“Her dad would pull over to the side of a bridge, and they would watch from above, before he slipped down the bank to catch them. She was charmed by the motions of trout. How they take their forms from the pressures of another world, the cold forge of water. Their drift, their mystery, the way they turn and let the current take them, take them, with passive grace. They turn again, tumbling like leaves, then straighten with mouths pointing upstream, to better sip a mayfly, to root up nymphs, to watch for the flash of a heron’s bill. The current always trues them, like compass needles. When she watches them, she feels wise.” Matthew Neill Null, Allegheny Front
We are all fishermen, some of us fish for money by the side of the interstate, some go to work each day fishing for legal tender, for others fishing is natural, an easy way to be yourself, but for some it is the measure of what is true in each of us.
Like those rainbow trout, life forms us with pressure and we take it with passive grace until it tumbles us like leaves until we straighten pointing upstream, until eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs, but we can’t see them yet because our eyes are the eyes of novices, unlike Scott, who has practiced all his life to distinguish the shape of a rock from a fish. One day, maybe I will be able to see fish like Scott and look beneath the tumbling shining waters, to see those fish and those words underneath the rocks and that they are beautiful.