The hardest question I get asked would have to be what it is I love so much about fly fishing. I don’t know how to answer that most times. I can come up with stuff, usually something generic but true, something like it’s the peace, the graceful casts, the places I go. All true of course, but all fairly generic in my eyes. It’s a much deeper experience, something hard to put into words.
Two years ago I was on a small Adirondack stream with someone I’d only met less than twenty-four hours earlier. A photographer from California, John Segesta was following me upstream as I fished a stretch of water shed I knew pretty well. So well in fact that I felt I was giving him the wrong impression that I actually knew what I was doing. I’d tell him something like “I’m going to go crouch in those ferns and get a brookie out of that pocket behind that cropping of rocks.” Then I’d do something like just about what I said, complete with the catching of the fish on the first or second cast, and move on to the next spot. It wasn’t that I was that good, not at all. I’d just fished the hell out of the place the year leading up to this and basically knew the names and addresses of most of the brook trout on the stream. Take me to the next stream down the road and I’d have been the normal bumbling idiot tripping and stumbling on slippery river bottom stones and scratching my head as to where the fish were that I usually am.
We were coming up on one of my favorite landmarks on the stream, a boulder about the size of small school bus that necked the stream down in half. On the front of the boulder, the upstream side, was an ancient log jam that I figured had been building up trees and debris from upstream for the better part of most anyone’s life that was alive today, and probably even longer. The biggest, most recognizable landmark on the stream.
In the middle of all the green flanking the water on both sides, the rays of sun light piercing through the canopy where they could, the reflections of the sun moving like electric waves on the dark cut out banks and tree trunks, in the presence of the small flush of white water moving around the giant boulder and fading back into the calm pool below it, from about seventy yards downstream, I noticed a merganser and three ducklings. She’d just noticed us and was beginning to move her ducklings upstream and around the boulder out of site. I told John we’d just hang back for a few minutes, let the ducks clear out and the fish in the pool settle back down.
After a couple minutes we began moving again, approaching the pool and the boulder, but not close enough to worry about spooking fish yet. Instead we spooked something else. The Merganser mother and her ducklings were still out of site on the other side of the boulder. I knew they were there, probably treading water along the slack edge, moving along some exposed tree roots along the bank. Suddenly above about where I figured they were a bald eagle left from a branch, its body language sending a message to me that it was annoyed that we’d showed up at just that moment. The image of the eagle gliding upstream under the tunnel of the canopy closed over the stream, through rays of sun, a couple effortless flaps of its wings to get it moving, is the one image from that weekend I recall with the most frequency from the weekend as a whole. Here I was thinking that mergansers can put a real hurting on fish in such a small place, while at the same moment there was an eagle watching the mergansers from the branches above who could easily wipe out the entire merganser family in a matter of a couple days. Depending on how hungry it was or if it was looking to feed its young in a nest somewhere close by, maybe even sooner.
Another time I was casting to the bottom of a damn in a much less beautiful place. I knew there were walleye under the white water at the base of the concrete structure. I knew because I’d always caught them there before, just never on a fly rod. I wasn’t really thinking about much of anything, which is kind of the whole point when I go fishing really. I was just casting and stripping a streamer, when I noticed small dark shapes coming up to the top of the white water, then disappearing back down into it. Couldn’t be leaves, there weren’t any anywhere else. I still remember the moment it hit me, that they were some kind of dark bait fish being pushed up into the violent stuff because something underneath it was trying to eat them. I tied on a heavy dark brown streamer and got into the walleye. But it’s not the walleye I remember as much as the scene that plays over and over in my head every now and then of those bait fish fighting for survival by hiding in the harshest water they could get into. I remember seeing them with much greater detail than whatever walleye I caught.
And then there was the time I’d just gotten in the Jeep and drove north. I didn’t tell anyone, just left. Selfish? Yes. Necessary? Well if you ask me, yes again. I camped on the side of the headwaters of a small stream that eventually becomes a great river, started a fire, and for some reason felt compelled to walk up the dirt road to a large pond, or maybe small lake. I suppose what you call it depends on what you’re used to calling such things, but on this one I’ve always been torn between the two, never being able to decide which it is. It’s plenty big enough to float around in a canoe on, but you’re going to see the whole thing pretty quick. But you’ve never seen it unless you saw it that night as the last few moments of the sun set occurred.
The sky was a deep purple fading into a black above it as I stood there and watched the surface come alive. I’ve caught a couple brookies out of it, but it’s mostly chubs. Knowing that it was most likely all chubs gorging on the hatch didn’t take away from the moment, not one bit. It started out like a light rain and increased as rains do, until what was a rise with a ring extending out across the flat and still surface here and there turned into hundreds of fish rises. Rings over lapping rings over lapping rings. The bugs in the air where thick, something large and light colored. I could’ve grabbed one and tried to identify it the way a fly fisherman would do. I could’ve most certainly. But to do that would’ve taken my eyes off the show. And about the time I thought about it, there wasn’t hardly any color left in the sky save for the hint of purple that was almost all gone, turned to black.
The moon light bright enough to still make out the rises on the water, the world quiet enough to hear the last of the few fish still feeding on the last of the few bugs still hatching, I stood there to the end and never made a cast. It wasn’t a moment for fly fishing even though it was THE moment for all fly fishing. It was a moment that I felt the need to do nothing but observe, which was an experience in itself.
The next evening I gave it a shot during a much smaller and less eventful hatch and managed a few tiny chubs on dries in the almost dark. But the moments of the evening before are another one of those scenes that play out in my head at random, brought on by the littlest things.
For instance. I can’t look at a perfectly mirror still puddle in a parking lot anymore, the puddle in the grocery store lot for example. The one that takes up about six car spaces after a good rain and when you find yourself standing in just the right place the street light standing above it shows itself in its reflection like the moon does on natural bodies of water on quiet clear nights. Puddles. At night, with the reflections of street lights, flat and still, they’re no longer puddles full of the rainbows of polluted oils and manmade chemicals in my mind. They take me to another place. That place with the chubs rising to an unknown hatch in complete quiet and stillness. To another moment.
Why do I love fly fishing so much? It’s hard to describe. But it’s because of the moments. Every single one of them. Moments that are not now, but then.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase here on JPRossflyrods.com.