From the Portage Bar by Mark Usyk

I’d been floating down river for at least an hour now. In the beginning the river was dark, deep holes with no bottom in sight. Sometimes several feet down logs could be seen blurry, like an old out of focus and overexposed photo. They seemed to jut out from nowhere and hover in nothing, never a bottom to be seen. Even if it was right there you’d never know it. The river was narrow. No more than a creek really, except that creeks are generally thought of as shallow I’d have to say. The type of thing that leads one’s mind to begin to ponder the meanings of things that just don’t matter much yet seem to be so important to the secrets of life. River or creek? Its name says river, and so it must be one I guess. Farther downstream, across the state, its name makes perfect sense. But here it’s small and narrow. The trees close in from both sides, blocking out as much sunlight as they can gather for themselves.

I’ve been sitting on the portage bar, drifting along and making casts to the fishiest looking spots and coming up empty. Last year this stretch was full of smallmouths. They raced to the streamers at the ends of my casts like dogs all trying to beat each other to the table scraps tossed to the floor. I’m not saying there aren’t any smallmouths in it this year, I’m just having a hard time finding them. Every now and then I find myself making one too many casts when I should instead be dropping the fly rod and grabbing the paddle to correct the canoe. More times than I care to I find myself drifting completely sideways and then eventually backwards, or into the banks and trees overhanging them. I somehow never tangle the rod tip or leader in them, but there are a couple close calls that end with me thrusting my hands out blindly into bushy leaves and branches the way a person gropes around in the dark, trying to find something substantial enough to push back out against.

One small bass. Small may be generous. One tiny smallmouth is all I’ve managed to find so far. And then as I’m lost in thought while the canoe drifts perfectly down the middle for once, I see a quick flash half a second after my streamer slaps the water. A small pickerel with green and gold contrasting against each other the way light reflecting through the water contrasts against the sandy bottom. I somehow get it into the canoe as it thrashes and slashes. They usually brake the line with their needle like teeth. The good thing about all the water I’ve got in the bottom of the boat is that’s it’s easy to keep em wet when they flop out of my hands while I try to remove the streamer from their gnashing little mouths. I still haven’t ever landed a pike with the fly rod after all these years. These little cousins seem as close as I can get. I’m not complaining, because I’m still on the water and still catching fish mind you. I’m just admitting that they still allude me, and it’d be nice to change that sooner or later. The pickerel darts off back into the darkness.

Finally the trees open up and the sun covers everything in bright warm light. The river becomes shallow, and the rhythm of the current can be seen in the eel grass, bright green and dancing, swaying like a Hawaiian dancer’s grass skirt. The river suddenly becomes more fluid, if that’s possible. And ironically enough, it becomes more fluid with the movement of the undulating green plants that fill it almost completely, except for an open slot here and there where the minnow’s school up and mimic the movement of the grass. I wonder if they move with the grass because they think they’re blending in, or because they’re just so small that every movement around them induces panic and a reaction. I guide the canoe to the muddy bank and beach it to get out and stretch. The sun feels good. The portage bar is not a good seat. I can feel its imprint in my rear end. I snip off the streamer and tie on a small brown Woolly Bugger and push the canoe back into the river.

This will be the best fishing of the day. It will not be bass. The fall fish, mistaken for creek chubs by most, referred to as a trash fish by many, seems to thrive quite well in the grass. Wherever there’s an opening I make a cast. It’s like casting to largemouths in open pockets in the weeds of farm ponds, except that I’m standing in a canoe that’s slowly drifting and spinning around and sometimes I don’t spot the next target until it’s passing by. And it’s not largemouths, it’s big minnows. But if I drop the bugger right into those bare spots a decent fish almost always darts out to gobble it up. There’s something about the sun shining bright on the back of my neck, and the large silver scales against the brilliant green eel grass that makes me wish I was far away on some flat chasing bones or in mangroves chasing tarpon. I’ve never done it. My current state of mind tells me I most likely never will. But then I make another cast for no other reason than there’s a chance there could be another fish, and I tell myself maybe that’s all I need is a chance. Maybe that’s all anyone ever needs is a chance. Just like the fish eyeing up that bugger that just plopped down from out of nowhere, there’s always that chance that it decides to eat it. I suppose life is just one big game of chance, just like each cast. You’ve just got to take the chance sometimes. You catch a fish, or you don’t. But you can’t catch one if your line isn’t in the water, no matter how bad the canoe is drifting at the moment.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on the Lifestyle Gear and Gifts page.