Fishing Pilgrimages, Part 1 by Mark Usyk

Trips to the farm have become more like pilgrimages for me than simple fishing trips over the past few years. They’ve become that one trip each year that I tell myself I have to make between June and Sept at least once. And once June arrives my thoughts are haunted by the idea that this could indeed be the year that I don’t have the time, and that any year could also be the year it ends up getting sold to someone who’ll nail posted signs to trees and fence posts and turn me away the following year after I’ve driven an hour and a half with high hopes. Life becomes complicated. As much as you tell yourself you’re going to get it under control, it never seems to get any easier to find free time, let alone an entire free day. But JP said it best a couple days ago. You can’t make time… You have to take time.

It wasn’t really a spur of the moment trip as it has sometimes been in the past, but it wasn’t planned weeks in advance either. Sometime around Wednesday or Thursday I told Nikki that it was definite, we were indeed going to the farm for the weekend. For the next couple days it was all I could think about. Fly rods and poppers, bass and bluegills, a lake in a small depression surrounded by farm pastures and woods. Nikki had never been, but she’d heard just enough stories about it, and she’d gotten good enough with a fly rod over the past couple months to be excited to chase bass on what I referred to as my sacred water.

***At The Farm***

In the spring the cows were sold down the road. This is how it was put to me as we sat in the kitchen of the old farm house on a humid and sunny Saturday morning. I’d sat in this kitchen, at these same chairs, at this same table, watching humming birds through the same window hover around those same birdfeeders for the past, well, I never really know how many years it’s been. I’m forty-two now, and my Grandfather probably started bringing me here to fish the lake when I was six or seven, but it could have been closer to eight. I’m old enough now to say things like I’ve been visiting the farm for a long time now, or for a good many years, or since I was a little kid. There are a great many people I could even tell that “I’ve been fishing there longer than you’ve been alive.” You know, stuff that only someone as old as me or older can say, but we can say it with some kind of pride, because we’ve made it this far.

It was an odd feeling seeing the barn unused, the weeds growing up in front of the milk house door that I’d always walk through to report on the fishing at the end of the day before saying goodbye and driving back home. I wondered what becomes of barn cats that are used to drinking from milk pans during the milking hours when cows get sold down the road. Memories flooded my mind as I navigated the Jeep around the barn on what was last year a beat down dirt tractor path, but this year overgrown with weeds and saplings reaching in the windows as the winch bumper pushed over thistle bushes.

Looking through the windshield I saw myself, much younger, about twelve, standing on the back side of the barn yard, playing with the farm dog, a black and white border collie. I was throwing a butter nut into the corn field, and the dog would tear off at lightning speed after it. I was amazed and delighted every time that she could track down that butter nut and bring it back excited for me to throw it again.

Driving through several pastures on the way to the lake, the gates were always a challenge, each one different. All were three strands of barbed wire with two or three uprights, but they were all secured closed by a similar but different means. One gate had an old piece of electrical wire, most likely orange that had faded to almost white that you had to fight to drop over a fence post. Another had old bungee straps, the old black rubber ones with the “S” hooks that you had to wind around the right amount of times and hook back to themselves. The final one before the lake pasture was secured closed with bailing twine. Only it was a long piece that had broken and been knotted back together over and over again so that it was difficult and took some studying before you could find the actual end of it. I couldn’t remember the first time I’d walked ahead of my Grandfather’s truck to open the gates and close them behind us, but I remembered as I got older being proud to do it. Opening and closing the gates was a rite of passage to me. When I was a little kid, I’d watch from the truck’s cab as my Grandfather got out and wrestled with each one. Once I was big enough and strong enough to work the gates it was like I’d become an adult. In my young mind, being trusted enough to keep the cows where they belonged, and taking the place of my Grandfather at the gates, I was a man. It’s really something to look back on a grandfather getting older and letting you do the work because you are too, and to realize now what you didn’t realize then. It meant you were both getting older and that all things pass with time, including us.

This trip, this was the first time I could drive across the entire farm from the house to the lake, and not have to stop to open or close a single gate. You’d think it would make the drive in faster, but somehow it made it seem longer. Where I’d normally stop to open a gate and look back on a time before when maybe the bull had charged or the cows had all crowded around as if to inspect me, now I drove through open gates pushing through grass and saplings and thistle bushes taller than the hood of my lifted Jeep, thinking that this could be the last summer I ever get to. It had always been a possibility, but now it seemed a harsh reality.

We climbed the last hill up to the lake lot, passed through the final open gate, and as branches from overhanging trees clawed at the canoe on the roof I looked back to a time where the lake was visible from this point. Years and years ago. The lake was no longer visible until the Jeep would clear the other end of this tunnel of old growth trees above and the new growth trees on the fence line on our right. The trees on the right had begun to grow several years ago when the lake lot had gotten too far away from the barn and house to bother to use anymore. Gone long ago were the days of fishing while cows chewed their cud twenty-feet behind you in the shade of the willows.

Clearing the tunnel of foliage I stopped so Nikki could take in the view of the lake down below. I remembered a time when foreign soil in a hostel land was under my boots, and closing my eyes at night I would see this view and know that someday soon I’d be back to that very spot feeling the breeze as the willow trees down along the lake swayed in sunlight against the shimmering water beyond them.

I couldn’t shake these thoughts of the farm becoming nothing more than a memory to me, but when we finally arrived at the water’s edge, I shifted gears the best I could. I put the canoe in the water and rigged up two 7wts with poppers. Dragon flies hovered and dived bombed the surface everywhere, hundreds of them. Dragon flies, damsel flies, browns, blacks, blues, oranges, greens. And where they hovered to long, fish were death from below. Out on the lake twenty or thirty swallows performed acrobatic feats like skilled dog fighters as they swooped down and splashed and lifted and barrel rolled. I could only assume feasting the same as the fish. The lake was alive, the sky a cloudless and bright blue, the heat climbing. It was the perfect day to be here. The stars had aligned.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase on this site,