Familiar Waters by Mark Usyk

I carried my 6wt at my side with a casualness that said I was going fishing, but I didn’t really care. I just put one foot in front of the other, the same way I would anywhere else where I had no place to be and no reason to get anywhere. The ticks had been horrible. Everyone you talked to had either pulled them off themselves or their kids this year so far. And while I’d never had one on me in 41 years, both Jacob and Carter had found them on their clothes one night as they got ready for their showers. They’d yelled from the bathroom that there was a spider on the floor, but sure enough, they learned what a tick looks like, luckily without needing one removed. The ticks had been horrible this year, yet I walked on through knee deep grass in shorts and sandals, not much caring what attached itself to me in the least.

I walked a dark trail. Above me was closed in by trees drooping and reaching, green and cool blocking the sunlight. They wanted it all for themselves. At my feet was a narrow path of dirt, a single track of more or less game trail that the odd human beings would use to their advantage. It fought to stay clear, flanked by knee high grass threatening to fill it in. The path was interrupted here and there by the deep puddles that were left behind by the ruts of farm tractors in years past. As I approached them the frogs would jump from their resting places at the water’s edges and bury themselves in the muck on the bottom. I watched one leap a good three feet and then come to rest perfectly in a deer track pressed into the mud only a couple inches below the surface of the stagnant water. I saw the similarities in the frogs diving for cover, trying to become invisible in a world where everything seemed out to get them, and the idea that I was merely trying to disappear, at least for a short time, from a life that seemed hell bent on making me cry uncle.

Ahead of me a rabbit made a single jump from the middle of the trail into the undergrowth on the left. It looked like the dolphins I’d watched in the Gulf of Mexico years ago as they leapt from the waves. Its body appeared momentarily as it sailed out of the tall grass, arched as it made its decent back into the green and was gone. It never made a sound. Just gone.

I had a fly box full of streamers, a box of nymphs, and a box of dries, but I knew the streamer caught in the hook keeper above the cork handle would probably be the only thing I’d fish. I’d grabbed the small pack with all the fly boxes out of routine, nothing more. There wasn’t much concern for variety in the decision. I just didn’t seem to care about much of anything. I was going through motions. I walked knowing where I’d end up, but without a plan and little concern for anything involved. It was hot. At least I could stand in the water.

At the end of the wooded path I came to the old dam, and it looked about how it always looked. A long gray concrete ramp, still water above, water trickling over the length of it and ending in a small swirling of white water softly frothing at the bottom. In some places saturated moss clung thinly to the manmade structure. It waited there quietly as if to not draw any attention, but ready for one wrong step or one moment of distraction to send me sliding into the shallow water below. Logs, tree trunks, all sorts of drift wood rested high centered on the dam’s top, along with the ever present manmade garbage that you inevitably find wherever water flows. I couldn’t help but realize how the masses of hung up dead wood resembled my life. Just a bunch of old crap, teetering on the edge, waiting for the water to raise once more and send it all sliding and tumbling down. Downstream into the unknown.

I thought I’d cut through the woods and get just downstream of the dam and around the first bend. It was a favorite spot where the wide water below the dam narrowed to no more than twenty feet from an easy seventy feet, a spot where there were always smallmouth tucked against the far cutout bank in the twisted and tangled tree roots, just above the ball of driftwood that was always there. For all the water level changes through all the seasons, that pile of drift wood always seemed consistently there. It always seemed the same. It never got bigger, never got smaller, it was just always there. And so were a few bass. It was dependable if nothing else.

As I broke through the under growth to the sandy beach my eyes fell on sticks standing upright in the sand. Three huge spinning rods were supported in the crotches of the sticks, and three fisherman stood off to the side talking. Budweiser cans and cigarette butts, two blue plastic worm containers tossed to the side in a manner that told me they wouldn’t be leaving when the fishermen did, and I assumed out of disgust of past experiences that neither would the empty beer cans. A stringer absolutely full of fish, all bass and carp, was staked in the sand at the river’s edge. And while I don’t hold it against another angler who takes a fish home for dinner, I also couldn’t help but think that my dependable spot was ruined for the day by human beings who’d probably tell you how much they loved the spot while at the same time leaving their trash behind and keeping every fish they caught regardless of legal limits or ethics. I silently stepped back into the undergrowth after staring for a moment. They never saw me. I wished I’d never seen them.

Back on top the dam, my shins and calves scraped up and stinging from pushing through the heavy ground cover by the river, I stood and surveyed the water. I was looking for signs of fish, but really not caring if I saw anything or not. The weed beds were coming up pretty strong now. It’d be best to fish something weed less for bass or pike here, or maybe dries for pan fish or carp feeding on the top, but I just stood there. The water flowed through my sandals, around my feet, and down the dam behind me.

In front of me a carp cruised by, and then two more. I thought about casting out in front of them, giving them a dead bait fish imitation lying on the bottom to come across. There was no time for anything else. I knew how far in front of them I needed to cast, about where they’d be and when. I didn’t cast. I couldn’t explain it and didn’t even try to. I just didn’t cast. My arm felt heavy with a fly rod weighing only ounces. There was no motivation to make a cast. I figured the little gray and white streamer was a long shot at best anyhow. In reality, there was no hope at the end of this cast. So I simply stood there and watched them go by.

I’d been here before, stood in this very place. Watched this very same thing happen. Cruising carp. Nothing at the end of the cast. Maybe in the beginning there was hope, but after long enough, after enough casts, the hope would be gone, and I’d just be casting out of desperation at best. I’d run out of even desperation now, without even a single cast.

I stood there and thought about other places I’d fished and had better luck. And why I wasn’t standing at one of those places instead? I couldn’t come up with an answer, this was just one of those places I always ended up. After I moved down to the far end of the dam I did finally make a cast, and there was a small bass at the end of my line. But it didn’t do anything for me. Like I said, I’d been here before. I knew what to expect.

I thought about going someplace else, but it was too late. The walk back would take too long, the day would be over before I could get to another place. A plane flew overhead. A U-Haul truck passed over the bridge on the other side of the river. I thought about places I could go. Places I’d never been. Places I could escape to, or places I could disappear in like a rabbit in the brush or a frog in a hoof print in the bottom of a stagnant puddle. There was a large pond fairly close by I’d never fished but always wondered about. Even if I could be on the other side of the country tomorrow, would it even make a difference?

There’s rivers in Montana or even Colorado that I’ve never seen. There’s a Lake in Nevada where anglers wade out into the water with step ladders and use them as casting perches for monster trout. There’s steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve read about them hundreds of times. There’s peacock bass in southern Florida now. Patagonia could even be within walking distance if one put their mind to it I supposed. After all, you’ve got the rest of your life to get there. And here I stood on an old shitty damn. How many times had I been here, and how many times did I have to stand here before I realized I could be somewhere else? The carp cruised by again. Three big fish cruising along, indifferent to the angler, with seemingly nowhere to go and all day to get there.