Tuesday, May 8, 2012

First Cast

A pickup truck rolls to a gentle halt in the gravel along the river's edge, sending a faint cloud of dust wafting ahead.  The driver, stiff from miles of mind-numbing driving, exits slowly and stretches.  As always, his first move -- it's instinctual now -- before getting his gear out of the back, before applying sunscreen and bug dope, is to go to the river.  It appears both the same as always to him, and different, as rivers do.

"You can never step into the same river twice," he thinks as he walks the bank.  Who said that?  Some old Greek dude, most likely.  The thought evaporates as he begins to dissect all a river presents to a fisherman's eye.  Currents and eddies, boulders and seams, riffles and runs.  His mind jumps to calculating possibilities, to searching out the likely haunts of his quarry.  Water levels, weather, seasonal changes, and the availability of prey all play major roles in where the fish will be, among many other things fishermen have yet to divine, and he quickly remembers that most often, you just have to shut up and fish.

He moves slowly but with purpose, polarized sunglasses and the bill of a cap snugged down tight allow him to gaze just a little more effectively into the secrets the flowing water holds.  He stoops as he walks, almost imperceptibly, to let his hands flow through the tall grass. Young nettles sting his down-turned palms, but not as fiercely as they will later in the year.  This is the first trip of the season, and he wants to savor it.  Even the nettles are welcome.

Back up at the truck, it's time to don the armor.  Like the proper music supporting the mood or the perfect wine complimenting a meal, the waders and fanny packs, vests and boots are not strictly essential to wading or catching fish, but the act of having them there, putting them on, cements the proper mindset.  It's a ritual of anticipation, the deep breath before the meal.

He slops on the viscous sunscreen, plainly hating this part, cursing Nordic heritage and the burn that will follow if he doesn't apply.  He remembers through a grim rictus the time as a kid he burned so badly there were blisters on his small shoulders, how they looked vaguely like the surface of a golf ball, and how they screamed at him when he tried to sleep.  It's distasteful to him, smearing on the sticky goo, but necessary to get him where he wants to be at the end of the night.  Like dancing at a wedding reception.

He pulls on the stained waders, unwieldy buckles and straps, neoprene welds and crinkly breathable fabric.  As wonderful as modern waders are, the boys over in the wader lab can't ever get rid of that signature smell; part vinyl, part gym bag, part river must.  Even stored hung and dry for an entire winter, the aroma remains, a testament to hours spent in the water and under the summer sun.  Others would be repulsed by the olfactory affront, but he has come to associate it with time on the water, and inhales it willingly.    

Dressed and ready, he removes the four-piece rod from its battered cylindrical case, and with care, assembles the it once again into a functional fishing tool, equally capable of producing long elegant casts and frustrating disastrous ones.  The drag sings as he pulls lengths of line from the reel.  He fumbles once while lining the rod, and it all runs back through the guides, falling in a pile on the gravel.  Rusty from the long cold winter, he shakes off the blunder and tries again.  This time his fingers manage the slick fly line through all the guides and out the tip.  A tippet is tied to leader using a complex knot that used to give him fits, but now comes with the ease known to well-practiced fingers.

The ever-present fishing companion, a Red-winged Blackbird distracts from the task at hand with his abrupt, trilling call.  Conk-la-ree!  Conk-la-ree!  But now, after all those long hours at the tying bench while late winter and young spring conspired to bury any thought of this moment coming, it has arrived.  A fly must be chosen, a sweat begins to run.

As is his way, there are spread before him, in his chest pack and on the tailgate, in spare gear bags and as flotsam in the sea of equipment, entirely too many fly boxes at his disposal.  He enjoys tying flies as much as fishing them, so they grow in population until the fly boxes stack like tiny fly apartments in a downtown high-rise.  The number and volume of choices are almost too much to comprehend, so he chooses a few boxes of likely candidates, and banishes the rest of the boxes to quarantine in the wader duffel.  Out of sight, out of mind.  He lingers, his eyes alternately looking down to the river, and back to the open boxes.

It's too early in the year to fish big ugly topwaters, the water too chilly, the fish too sluggish according to conventional wisdom, but he can't be helped.  Out of love for the flies more than their expected effectiveness today, he decides on a garish deer hair diver.  It's poor choice for the day, and he knows it, but grins as he thinks it will be fun to fish anyway.  The blurp... blurp... blurp... as he strips it across the surface of a likely pool and the trail of bubbles skating away to forever, it's all so addicting.  "Just for a little while," he tells himself.  And if an especially spry fish does decide to murder it, well, that will just be a story worthy of calling the boys about on the drive home.  The now-pointless tippet is clipped off, and the fly is tied on almost as an afterthought.

He moves down to the river now, a plan in his mind, and unceremoniously steps in, thankful that he slid down the steep muddy bank without crashing to the ground.  Nobody talks about falling on your ass in the erudite and trendy world of flashy internet fly fishing these days, but it happens.  Not this time, but it has and it will again.

The weight of the water snugs the fabric of waders around his legs.  It's a strange feeling, a hug from an old friend juxtaposed with the faintest hint of a threat.  His feet cautiously probe the bed of the river, wary of hidden obstacles and soft bottom as he wades to his intended casting point.  Just because it was good bottom here last year, doesn't mean you can or should go striding across with nary a care.  Rivers change, and they love to surprise you.

Water tumbles over and around a mid-stream rock up ahead, chattering and foaming just a little.  Calling to him.  He knows there will be a deep hole on the downstream side of the rock, the river bottom scooped away by centuries of hydraulic action.  It's a likely home for his target, lying in wait in the pillow of slow water for a meal to happen by.  He curses himself for not tying on a deep minnow imitation to get down to that fish, but doesn't really mean it, surrendering to the joy of simply being there.

He wants to laugh out loud now, realizing in a moment of distracted clarity that he's firmly in the grip of this thing, but he he doesn't dare make a sound.  Predator mode.  He tries to set his feet quietly in the unruly cobble beneath them, waggling like a golfer getting ready to swing.  He breaths and calculates without realizing it's happening.  The internal computer born of experience and practice takes over, judging how far and how fast, where to aim against the wind and current, if a mend will be needed in the air or on the water.

A quick glance behind him to check clearance on the backcast forces his eyes skyward, and he is momentarily struck by gratitude for all his many teachers and the life that has led him to this point, ugly and beautiful as it has been.  His hands fall to familiar patterns as line is stripped from the reel and the dance of the double haul fly cast begins.

The rod tip passes back and forth through the pattern of the arc in space, power and glide, stop and start, as the line slides through his off-hand and out over the river.  There is that spray of water that always happens as the line whips through the stripping guide, and the sound of the lubricated fly line running out past the rod.

Then it happens -- the first cast of the year.  With one final strip of the off-hand the rod is extended and stopped.  The fly line, leader, and fly unfurl before him, a cast laid out in the air, all hope and conviction in a singular line to his goal.

The fly lands.


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