Down on the Farm by Mark Usyk

I was chomping at the bit to get to the farm. I’d been afraid it wasn’t going to happen this year at all, and now that two Jeeps packed with families, food, canoes and kayaks and fishing gear were headed south, my mind raced with impatient thoughts. For many years it was a June trip. Even though we could fish for them catch and release most of the year, the opening of bass season, just like the opening of trout in April, was a landmark on the calendar the way the small mountain was on the countryside looking over the farm lake. Trout in April means the real beginning of the year, and bass in June means the official start of summer. If you’re not a diehard fisherman, you keep track of the year with a different calendar all together. We have our own.

The opening of the season had always meant a trip to the farm most likely followed up by another in only a couple more weeks, if for no other reason than the excitement of being there would have us making plans to get there again before we even left. But as life carried on over the years June became more difficult for some reason and it became a maybe June or July trip. Eventually it was more common to finally break away and make it there in August, which seemed to be a good month for fast mornings of lots of fish, slow relaxing afternoons, and then once again fast paced evenings as the bass and bluegills smashed and clobbered frogs and dragonflies without mercy as the sun lowered towards the horizon.

But this year was an extra hard year for whatever reason. It was September now, and if we didn’t get out to the farm before the kids went back to school, most likely it wasn’t going to happen at all. My impatience kept telling me to drive faster, hurry up and get there before it was too late in the day, but in the back of my mind I worried that we were already too late by about a month.

This small lake was tucked into green farmland between rolling hills and flanked by a small mountain, pushed low enough into the earth that it gets much less sunlight than the surrounding landscape. I was afraid that the water was already cooler than other bodies of water, that the fish might not be patrolling the shallows anymore. The lake had some spectacular lily pad structure and some serious weed cover around the edges, but if the fish had already moved deeper, we might only catch small fish, or worse, nothing at all.

I’ll swear to anyone that it’s not about the fish to me when I go out, that it’s about the places. And the farm lake above any other place on the planet is more about the place than the fish to me, but there are great fish in it too. JP and his wife Bobbi were in the second Jeep and I really wanted them to get the full experience out of the trip. For all I know, any trip out to the farm these days could be the last. I expect to pull up to a For Sale sign one of these days, or worse, to the news that it’s already been sold. If this was their one and only trip to the farm, I wanted it to live up to the hype I gave it every time it became the subject of conversation. I realize that no one will ever love your favorite fishing spot as much as you, but like all fisherman, I try to impress its importance to me upon others. Because like all other fishermen, I just can’t help it.

My father was meeting us out there and was about an hour ahead of us. I asked Holly to call him about something, basically to see if he was there yet and what it looked like, and when he answered and Holly asked him why he sounded out of breath, I rolled my eyes. Great. What’s he doing that he shouldn’t be doing there by himself? My father, while in good physical shape, well, he worries me sometimes. Because he doesn’t know when to quit. Or more accurately he does, but he pushes it sometimes. Years ago he was working outside and felt a little weird. He obviously thought it was something he’d never felt before because he sat down and dialed 911. But then while he was talking to the dispatcher he decided that he over reacted, that he was feeling better, said never mind, and hung up. You don’t hang up on a 911 dispatcher as he found out because she called him right back, told him so, and soon an ambulance pulled up. A couple days later he was still in the hospital and they were putting in seven stents.

With the phone to her ear Holly looked at me and asked me if we had a chainsaw with us. Naturally I’d had one ready and left it behind on the garage floor in a last minute decision. Never needed one before. When I asked why we needed one, he said there was a tree down and he was trying to chop and saw through it. I yelled to the phone in her hand for him to leave it be. He wasn’t far from the lake, so I told him to go fish and we’d get it with the winch when we got there in less than an hour. Good grief my thoughts didn’t need to go any further than thinking about him fishing on the shore. Leave the damn tree alone.

Once at the farm I gave Holly the driver’s seat so I could open the gates and we made our way across two lower hay fields that overlooked the barn and house that had recently been cut. But past the second gate of old weathered gray fence posts and three strands of barbed wire, where the muddy ruts cut through a tree line, we came to the neglected and lately over the past few years, unused pastures. Here having some ground clearance could save an undercarriage damage. Rocks and small boulders hid in the waist tall grass and the winch bumper pushed through thistle bushes that were taller than me, their stalks easily as big around and as strong as a good broom handle. They made scraping and dragging noises down the underneath of the Jeep as we made our way. We climbed the final hill up to the final gate where my father’s Subaru sat in the sun. I hoped he’d taken my orders to leave the tree alone seriously.

JP and I set parking brakes on the steep hill and walked to the downed tree laying across the narrow tractor path, a birch tree easily twenty inches around. It had fallen from the woods on the left of the old tractor path and onto the barbed wire fence that ran parallel with the path on the right. Its crushed and shattered top lay mangled in the old unused pasture on the other side. Yelling for my father and getting no answer I walked around the mess of its top and JP asked me what I was looking for. I was making sure he wasn’t laying out there somewhere before we got to work moving the obstacle. Satisfied that he wasn’t unconscious under our noses and seeing that his fishing rod was missing we got to work moving the tree. A winch, an ax and a hand saw, and a half hour later the lake came into view in front and below us, the silhouette of my Father standing on the shore against the shimmering water a great relief.

It ended up being an absolutely gorgeous day, the water staying like glass over half the lake almost the entire time which I can hardly remember ever happening there, and Holly made JP and Bobbi leave Parker, their baby boy, with her while they went out in their canoe. I didn’t know when the last time was that they’d paddled in a canoe or cast lines together but if you have kids you know how quickly your life changes once a baby comes into your lives. You probably and hopefully also know how important it is to still find time for each other, no matter how short that time might be. JP paddled and Bobbi sent loops out over the water, the way it always is when JP is in a boat. To get him to let you paddle and make him fish takes an act of congress most days, but watching him steady the boat as his wife caught a couple fish made me happy, and I was hoping it was making them forget everything else in life and just remember what it was to be them for at least a short while.

Jake and Carter did go out in the canoe with me each once and fished some, but the fishing was very slow as I’d feared and they really wanted to be independent and paddle around in their own kayaks. I couldn’t help but smile when I’d look to them in between my casts, two brothers paddling along side by side or one trailing the other, a little brother feeling equal to his big brother, a big brother happy to spend time with his little brother. Two friends.

Holly also climbed into the canoe with me once for a good while and I paddled her around the lake directing her to deep drop offs on the edges of weed lines and lily pads. Like I said, the fishing was slow and nothing that we were catching was much more than ten or twelve inches, but to this point she’d only caught a creek chub on the fly the year before. I watched impressed as from a sitting position in a canoe her casting kept improving. I could tell by her sighs now and then that she thought she should be doing better, but for her limited attempts over the past two years she was doing great in my mind, especially to be casting a decent sized streamer on a 5wt. I was happy to paddle her around and leave my fly rod still in the bottom of the boat. When the rod arched and danced I went into excited guide mode and laughed and congratulated her as she hoisted a small bass out of the water. Yea, it was small, but it was on the fly rod and she’d done it all herself. Made all the casts, stripped line for who knows how long, never quit, and then set the hook on a living, breathing real life fish.

Slow fishing or not, it was a beautiful day. Blue skies and the mountain shown on the lake as if it were a mirror, but probably the one moment that stands out would be when I’d taken Jake out in the canoe to fish. At one point we found ourselves about fifty yards from my Father on the water. I knew what was going on, I’d seen it before. It’s been said that a Usyk man can sleep anywhere and I’d seen it myself. Hell, these days I’m beginning to fit the mold quite well. Anyway, Jake paused from fishing as he glanced in the direction of the blue kayak adrift to our left, the spinning rod propped in the rod holder, my Father’s head pointing down at his chest. In a whisper he asked me “Is Grandpa sleeping?” I chuckled and told him yep, he’ll wake up when the wind finally pushes him either into the cat tails on the other side or into the tree branches over here. Sure enough, twenty minutes later we watched tree branches reach out as if to tap him on the shoulder and gently wake him as any old friend would.

My fears of a slow day too late in the year were both realized in the small quantity and sizes of what we caught but forgotten in the same moments because I was surrounded by family and friends on what I refer to as my sacred waters. It’s a place I’ve known since grade school. A place I’ve always been very selective about who I took there. A place I fear losing which is inevitable I guess in the end. Every year I say that the next we need to make it there earlier, yet I always seem to make it later and later. But now I have a reason to get there earlier next year. June again, maybe even sooner. I’ve got to get down there to fix that fence the tree crushed and get its top out of that old pasture. If for no other reason than to keep my Father from doing it.