Something About Fishing (the conclusion)
I had been out of the army for about a year now. I had an apartment, a job, and an overall relatively good life going, but still, something was missing. I couldn't put a finger on it, but something just wasn't quite right. Often, while trying to figure out what had me so unsettled, I would pour a drink of something, sit down at my fly tying desk and tie up a few patterns, hoping it was just boredom or idle hands. If I had the day off, I would grab my fly rig, look at a map on my phone, and set out to a nearby creek to see if today was the day I caught my white whale.
It was always the same, though. I would find a place to park, grab my gear, and make my way down to the water. My loadout had changed; now it consisted of my fly rod, my hat, a box of flies, and of course, my phone. If I didn't catch anything within a couple of hours, or my phone went off due to a message or a call, I would wrap it up and head back to civilization. I usually did catch something, but it was always something small that seemed to lack fulfillment.
One night I was out with some friends or friends of friends rather, and the topic of fishing came up. Many of the conversation participants were stating how they didn't understand how someone can spend all day fishing, hoping to get lucky. While others that were fishermen tried to defend the attacks with pictures of giants they had wrangled out of the water, using a fishing pole that cost several hundred dollars, from a boat that sat in their driveway 80% of the year. My father always told me the best time to make a case in a conversation like this is after everyone else had already spoken; doing this allowed you to have all the information needed to make a comment that is difficult to refute. Using my father's tactic, I waited, and when all the shots had been fired, I took a sip of my whiskey, a long pull off a cigar, and began my opinion on the matter.
"Gentlemen," I began, as I exhaled the smoke from my lungs, "not a single one of you have understood what fishing is or why those of us that engage in the craft do so." I looked at the faces around me, and my opening had worked; they were now all listening so intently, their drinks were still, and for those of you who understand body language, their feet were pointing directly at me. I continued, "Fishing is not spending all day on the water aimlessly casting into an abyss, hoping luck is on our side that day. No, it is looking at the things around you that tell where the fish might be. Watching for birds hitting a certain part of the water feeding off baitfish or looking for breaks in a current that may house a predator waiting for their prey. Or still, it might be something as obvious as fish hitting bugs resting on the surface. Regardless it is not just blind luck." I paused, took another sip to let the sting settle a bit, then began on the second part. "I think that you (addressing the fishermen now) have missed the real reason why we fish. It isn't the pursuit of the great whale lurking in the deep. No, it's allowing Mother Nature to heal our emotional wounds; and let us, for a moment, return to being a kid whose only worry is a dry hook or a hot Dr. Pepper." I took one last breath and ended with, "We might not all be anglers sitting on the water, but we are all fishermen with a secret place we go to recenter."
About halfway through those remarks, I realized I was no longer speaking to them; hell, I was no longer the one speaking. Something deep inside had risen to the surface and took over my voice box. That twenty-something year old had come out and had to say aloud what I was apparently too thick to hear internally. The night went on without much more said about the topic, but the person who needed to listen to those words did, and after that night, things began to change.
The very next day, I got up, grabbed my gear, and headed out. I stopped at a nearby IHOP, had some breakfast, and thought about where I wanted to go. I didn't pull up a map on my phone though, I just thought of the places I knew and decided to go to one I remembered had an excellent walkable bank and away from anyone else. When I got to the spot, I filled a backpack with a few Dr. Peppers, a bottle of water, a pack of cigarettes, and two beers. Then I threw on my hat, grabbed my rod, tossed my phone in the glovebox, and headed upstream. I won't tell you caught a beast because I didn't. I won't tell you I reset or found myself on that trip because I didn't. I can tell you that the thing I missed, I found and it was now only a matter of time.
Two or three months later, I was out driving around near a fork of the Trinity River, trying to find a good place to park, with the intent of walking its bank quietly, hoping to sneak up on some wildlife. The area was right behind a neighborhood, but on either side of the creek was about two or three hundred meters of woods and floodplain. After about half an hour of driving around, I began to get restless sitting in the confines of my truck. I saw a driveway with some cars parked in it and looked at my watch; it was now 10:00 AM, "Hopefully, they aren't late sleepers," I thought. I parked my vehicle on the street, walked up, and rang the doorbell. I could hear a couple of small dogs barking and an unknown man yelling at them to calm down. I had my fly fishing hat on, and when he opened the door, I introduced myself and asked, "Sir, I am Michael McGarrey; I have been driving around for about half an hour looking for a way down to the creek to do some fishing do you know of a spot I can park and get access?" He was an older gentleman, probably close to eighty, clean shaven, a fresh crew haircut, and thick eyeglasses. He introduced himself as Rick Dunn and began to tell me how there used to be all sorts of places to park before all the "damn Yankees" moved in. We chatted for about fifteen minutes, and finally, he said, "Leave your truck right there, and you can go through my backyard. Fish as long as you want, I am not going anywhere today, just stop on your way out and let me know how you did." "Thank you, sir; I'll do that," I replied.
I went to grab my pack, with my now standard packing list, and turned off my phone but put it in my pocket. I had learned to do this for the sake of pictures when I did catch something. I went through an entrance beside the house; traversed the backyard through an exit. This opened up to a slight hill leading down to the floodplain. I strolled along a large game trail, amongst the trees listening to the sounds of birds and squirrels. I finally arrived at the creek bank. It was only about shin to thigh deep in most places, with deeper pools scattered throughout. It had a few soft bends slowing the current down enough, so when the water passed over a set of rocks, the sound of the ripple was light. It was now close to noon, and the sun was high, but the trees were tall pecans, about ten feet from the water's edge, with large reaching limbs that shaded the area nicely. I walked upstream and found a lovely fallen tree that offered a perfect workbench for assembling my fly rod. The sun's rays danced through the woods and reflected off the wings of a few birds in hot pursuit of a meal. The scene was so pleasant, I opened a beer, sat on the log, and watched nature do its thing. I finished up, put the empty in my pack, and walked upstream a bit more. I finally came to a place on the bank where the Trinity River Authority engineers had put a rock embankment to prevent further erosion. It had everything a fish could want; rocks to hide behind, shade to keep the water cool, and a bend to slow down any bugs floating on the surface. I looked around and decided a nice ant pattern should do, so I pulled one from my hat, fixed it to my line, moved to the upstream side of the bend, and began fishing.
The first couple of casts were just to get the line out and figure out what kind of form I would need to use in this area. It wasn't exactly tight, but not wide open either. I finally felt like I had the right combination sorted out and focused more on the fly's presentation. For me, the scene couldn't be more perfect. I had a cast I was comfortable enough with, meaning I didn't need to be too cautious about it. I had tied a fly pattern precisely for a situation like this, and a spot that seemed like it should hold some fish. All that being said, I was still not tunnel-visioned on catching something; my head was on a swivel watching the world around me. In fact, on the other side of the bank was a pair of squirrels racing the trees, and unknown to them was a hawk on my side about twenty meters away waiting for one of them to get a little too far away from safety.
After a few minutes, I returned to paying attention to what I was doing and made a more purposeful cast, causing my ant to land softly on the surface, in the right spot of the current to have it pass near a rock in the water away from me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as if Mother Nature had just whispered in my ear that I had better pay attention. Then with a soft role, I saw a mouth barely break the water tension, causing an effect similar to water rushing down a drain; my line began to tighten. Half in shock, I almost forgot what to do; I pulled on the excess line and lifted my rod tip setting the hook in the creature's mouth. The line raced away! I had no choice but to let it run; my leader was only a three-pound test strength, and the animal was pulling harder than ten-pounds, or so it felt! It sped like a race car, downstream using the current as its friend! This was a smart bastard, which meant it was old, which in turn translated to big. I couldn't contain myself, I looked for my audience, and the hawk was watching closely. I yelled at the bird, "Are you seeing this shit!" The beast on my line turned drastically and headed back towards me. Then with great enthusiasm, broke through the surface! Instantly, I was that 11-year-old boy again, "HOLY SHIT!" I yelled. My focus tightened, and the words from my past came rushing back, "It only counts as a catch if you land it," and these days, a person must have pictures for proof. The fight went on, back and forth up the creek the whale raced, leaping from the water trying to throw my hook. I kept the tension ever so light, not wanting to snap my line but also not loose enough to allow him freedom. Sweat began running down my brow, my forearm was now beginning to throb, but the bass showed no signs of tiring.
After what seemed to be half an hour but was only ten minutes, the beast began to relent. A few minutes more, and I was pulling my net from my belt loop, preparing to secure the buffalo of a fish. Holding the rod and line together in my left hand, I raised the tip high while squatting down with the net in my right hand to scoop up my prize. I pulled my White Whale from the net, stood there, once again holding my trophy with my chest extending far in front of me. Smiling before the only audience I needed, the hawk, and Mother Nature. Of course, I took some pictures for proof when I told the story over drinks later.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and took a couple of pictures. They weren't great because my arms were shaking from a mixture of fatigue and adrenaline. I pulled the hook from its mouth and held the fish out to admire it. I knew that this was the moment I had been longing for since that hot summer day back in 1991. I gently placed the fish back in the water and let the current rush through its gills till it regained its strength and swam off. I remember taking my fly rod apart, seeing the hawk looking at me as though to call me a complete ass hole for not donating it to him, then flying off. I pulled my last beer of the two I had from my pack, lit up a cigarette, and headed back to my truck.
After stowing my gear, I went and rang Rick's door again. He opened it up and asked, "Did you catch anything?" I responded as I removed my hat from my head, wiping the sweat from my brow, "Boy, I sure did." He smiled and said, "Good, there is a little bar up the road, follow me there. You can buy me a drink and tell me all about it." So I did over a few hours and a few drinks; I told him about the fish I had caught and how I came to understand that there is just something about fishing.