The Writing on the Wall by Mark Usyk

I haven’t fished much at all lately. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, it’s just been a time and priorities thing. I work during the day like your average working slob, and Jake was playing modified soccer. Modified soccer takes place every day except Sunday, and unlike baseball, is not next to the Oriskany Creek. This means the time spent waiting for a practice to end is spent sitting in the Jeep reading some type of fly fishing magazine rather than actually fishing. It could be worse. But the fishing could be better.

I’ve been spending one night a week lately at my cousin’s bar too. The 16 Stone Brew Pub is just right once a week for where I’m at in life. Other than cousins, there’s nobody there that’s known me over the past seventeen years. No one that’s known me anyhow as the guy married to my ex-wife. I’m just the guy sitting at the bar with the flies stuck in his baseball hat, sipping on an 8+% beer brewed in the same building and adjusting to his own new life. Of course if anyone could see in my head they’d be looking at some truly monumental fishing trips being planned, and strategies being played out in my head to allow them to happen. Will they? I can’t say. But just like the hope at the end of every cast, it’s the hope of fishing somewhere I never have that’s keeping me going at this point.

I left the bar on a Sunday afternoon, a Beetles song bouncing around in my head thanks to the cover band back inside. Everything was gray, the details washed out of the bar across the street, the trees in the town green, and the gravel parking lot where the Jeep waited for me just kind of melted into the fog covering everything. The air was thick with moisture, and where it had been the fog that was keeping everything wet earlier, now it was the rain that was falling. Pouring. The cold air hit me and I couldn’t help but wonder if the fishing would be good or bad in the current conditions. I figured the cold front had already moved in. That I was late. In the pouring rain I could just barely see my breath as it escaped my lips. As I walked to the Jeep a guy wearing a Navy Pea Coat passed by me on the side walk. Collar turned up, gray beard, hat pulled down low, ice cream cone in hand. Picture an old and weathered sailor, except remove the pipe from his mouth and substitute the cone. One of those sites that makes you double take while you try to look like you’re not looking.

In the Jeep, the windows cracked because I refuse to drive with them all the way up but admit that it’s too cold to have them down, Paul Simon is doing his best to tell me something.

When I think back

To all the crap I learned in high school

It’s a wonder

I can think at all

And though my lack of education

Hasn’t hurt me none

I can read the writing on the wall

I don’t really know what it is, but I have seen the writing on the wall, many times in my life. I have a habit of ignoring it. Maybe it’s time I start listening to it for a change. The wind pulsing through the cracked windows makes the big pike streamers stuck in the dash dance. They’re better than any bobble head I can think of.

I had a 1955 Chevy hot rod once, with a hula pig on the dash. You know, just like the old hula dancers they used to stick on the dash in the ‘50s, except mine was a pig in a grass skirt. It just fit the car better. The streamers fit the Jeep and in the bigger scheme of things just as well today as that pig did twenty years ago. The pig was just there, goading me into another hard launch at a stop light to see if I could make it kiss it’s toes, while the streamers are there now tempting me to stop at the barge canal as I drive over the bridge above it, the rain hammering the surface like a million drum sticks trying to beat out a rhythm that ends up just being white noise.

The sight of the canal fading off into fog, the atmosphere and the water becoming one in the distance as the rain blurred it all, brings me back to a day fishing the Black River in Watertown one afternoon. I was working on the road back then, and between the job site and our hotel flowed the Black River, a stop I’d made in the past to catch a few smallmouths and kill sometime instead of staring at the hotel room ceiling.

I was fishing a section that was all sheer cut out rock walls, like a small canyon setting, and the rain had started to fall as we’d pulled off the road. Dan, who was driving the truck, looked at me and asked if I still wanted to fish. We work in the stuff don’t we? I think I can handle fishing in it. I’d made my way a few hundred yards down the river leaving Dan well behind when I realized just how hard it really was raining. I was soaked to the bone, my jeans and t-shirt weighing a few pounds now. It reminded me of the time Holly and I had gotten caught in a torrential downpour on the Harley one night. Our clothes were so soaked that you could barely even get out of them they clung to us so tightly.

Here I was remembering a time that I had remembered a time. Now I felt old, maybe a little pathetic. The commercial on the radio said something about jock-itch, some medicated powder. It snapped me back. I hit the scan button.

I was casting down into a chute maybe ten feet below me. The rock I was perched on was slippery, the white water blasting between two boulders and into the deep narrow corridor below would have sucked me right under and tumbled me over and over until I had no breaths left. But I was too stupid to listen to the warnings in my head. I was catching smallmouth in the pouring rain in a really cool spot. There was no time to listen to reason. Even if it was my own. If I’ve ever been good at making anything in life, it’s bad decisions.

I kept casting. I kept catching. The rain kept coming down. And then the thunder rolled. There was really no warning, I never heard it off in the distance. Suddenly, it was just there, like a dump truck in a nitroglycerin plant. Right over my head. I could feel the rain drops shudder as they landed on my soaked body it was such a powerful rumble. But there was no lightening. So I kept casting. I looked up stream to see if I could see Dan but there was no sight of him. And I couldn’t see that far anyway. I figured if he’d fallen in, I’d see him tumble over the rocks below me and wondered if my fly line and a well-placed cast would be enough to swing him to the side. Then I caught another twelve inch bass. It was a bad day as far as the weatherman was concerned. Another fish. Life was good.

After the third deafening roll of thunder, my hair, drenched and pressed tightly to my arms and the back of my neck, stood straight up about half a second before the air around me sizzled and lit up a blinding blue. I don’t remember dropping to the ground, I don’t even remember flinching. But there I was, my body flat on the wet rock outcropping, feet above the blasting white river, wondering if moving at all was a good idea, and realizing I was still grasping a nine foot graphite lightening rod in my hand. I cried uncle. It was time to quit.

Back in the truck I found Dan in the driver’s seat with his right hand on his left elbow. He said he’d slipped on a wet rock and slammed it only a couple minutes after we’d started fishing, before the rain got bad. He had an impressive goose egg on his elbow, about the size of, well, a real goose egg. He’d been sitting in the truck wondering if I was drowned and being carried down river or more recently, a wet lump of charcoal on the river side somewhere.

Nah, I was just fish’n.

As close to death as I might have been that day, I sure felt alive. I think it’s time to go remember what alive feels like. It’s been too long. It’s time to do stupid things in wonderful places if ever there was a time.

Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies available here on Mark is currently working on his next book.