The Angler's Path by Mark Usyk
As I turn off the pavement the soft rumble of dirt pressed under rubber tells me “I am here.” A dead end sign greets me, its faded yellow paint blends in with the fall foliage surrounding it yet it’s flat and metallic form stands in contrast. It tells me at the end of this dirt road there is nothing. I know it lies. The end of Trout season is 9 days away, and although I swear I’m not simply just a Trout Bum, that I chase all fish, I’ve found myself in an excited state of Brookie anxiety over the past couple weeks. I have a Brown Trout creek running behind my house that’s open to catch and release year round, but it is not a Brookie stream in the Adirondacks, and I find myself thinking that, even though I’ve chased Brookies more this year than any other in the past, I haven’t chased them enough. Like the dying old man in a hospital bed who realizes in his last moments that he must make peace with his demons, I feel that I must find my peace here, now, before it is too late.
At the trail head I sit on the tailgate and kick off my boots, squirming my way into $60 waders that are seeing me through the end of their second season, one more than I thought they’d make it through. They’re looking rough. As I walk past the truck to begin my hike in I glance at the lock knobs to make sure I’ve locked the cab and catch myself in the reflection of the glass. A scruffy face and a dirty wrinkled up ball cap, I’m looking rough too. But I don’t feel it. The strong smell of the pines is in the air, leaves of yellow, red and orange fall from the trees above as a cool breeze rustles them loose. I look rough, I feel content.
A mile and a half, a twenty minute hike. Anticipating the waters I’ll find at the end of the path should make this walk in seem to take forever, but my anxiety has turned to patience somehow, a patient walk that would leave blue haired mall walkers in my dust. I may be walking, but my speed probably matches that of a light jog. I pass under the bright fall foliage. I leave the path to skirt around fallen trees, and I travel through dark tunnels of evergreens that close in narrow and low as if to try to keep me on the straight path to the Trout I come to hunt. At last I hear the sound of water crashing, and the end of the path comes into view. Where the path ends, the true path begins. Water rushes and smashes over rock, and it seems that our one and only rain over this entire summer two days ago has brought the stream up a good two feet. What’s been a low and trickling stream full of slow pools and clear tea colored flowing water now looks angry, a mix of mostly white water with pockets of dark red behind the largest boulders. I realize that I most likely have nothing heavy enough to get down to the fish holding in the deep pockets on the bottom fast enough. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I’ll travel upstream anyhow. I’ll follow the path of water back to the truck.
Along the way I’ve got plenty of time to think, something I normally don’t do much of while fishing. Normally it’s me and the fish, and my thoughts keep to themselves unless they’re thoughts of where should I cast, what fly should I use, and where the hell did that tree come from behind me that my leader’s now tangled in. But this trip is different. I think of how I came to having this fly rod in my hand. I think of the beginnings, a young boy, a Zebco, a worm and a bobber. I think of my Grandfather casting an Eagle Claw bait hook with a worm dug from his small Green Pepper garden in the city into a small water fall and pulling out a Trout. I remember my frustration as I attempted to do the same and come up with nothing time and time again, as my Grandfather laughs at my scowls and unhooks another. He knew I’d get it someday, that must have been the joke. The fact that I’m driving almost 80 miles to wander a stream trying to outsmart a 6 inch fish with a brain the size of the tip of my pinky finger is the punchline. I’m just now getting it, 30 something years later.
I only find three pools large enough to give my streamer enough time to get down deep, down to the fishes level. Over a couple hours wandering along the rapid flowing stream I manage to find three fishable pools, and I see three flashes and slashes of coppery orange bellies, and I miss all three of them. Getting back to the truck, as I’m sitting on the tailgate tugging at my worn out waders, I realize this is the first time I’ve been skunked on this stream. It doesn’t bother me, but I find it ironic that my thoughts had carried me back to my earliest memories of Trout fishing, and hauling in a worm on a hook and nothing more time after time. Skunked. I’d been struggling with my place in life for the better part of the past year, trying to figure out where I was and where I’m going. Just like the dead end sign and this path that waited at the end of the dirt road, and the first time I found it, you don’t know where your path leads until you get there. This particular trail is a path that leads you in a circle. You begin and end here, on the tailgate, tugging at waders. I thought about my Grandfather laughing as I frowned at my fishless hook. Sometimes the path that simply returns you to the beginning is the right one.