We Weren't Born To Just Pay Bills And Die by Mark Usyk
Friday: I’m standing back and to the side as a couple brook trout rise a mere fifteen feet in front of Tommy. Rise isn’t quite accurate. They’re jumping. Straight up like they’re hoping to touch the trees above them covering the stream. Like a ten year old trying to touch a basketball hoop with his fingertips. Not even remotely close, but he tries. Tommy has made ten casts now, drifted a bug in the right places. They just jump next to it, beyond it, taunting. Straight up like a killer whale at Sea World. It’s actually comical, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen brook trout actually jump like this. I laugh and say they’re just telling him they’re there, and they’re not bone fish. Tommy works a cruise ship. Spends his days casting to bonefish and permit, his nights behind a drum set. He’s young. I’ve told him he’s got the world by the balls before, I hope he realizes I really mean it. But right now all he wants to do is catch his first brook trout on the fly. It’s not going to happen here. Not in this spot, not at this moment.
I should be at work. No, I’m supposed to be at work. Or, maybe, I’m expected to be at work. No, probably not that last one. I think on the cusp of a three day weekend the way I’ve been this year there are people who would be surprised if I actually was at work. I decided to take the day off and make it a four day weekend. Should be. Supposed to be. Expected to be. These are all things ingrained in me over the years. You need to be responsible. I try to be, always have. I’ve had a job since I was eleven. You need to work hard. I always did. My Grandfathers and my Father set the examples. I’ve always tried to follow them. You need to provide for yourself and your boys. I do. But I’m finding it less and less necessary these days to need more stuff. It makes things easier. Life more focused. Live in the moment, live in each cast. It’s easier to be happy when you don’t feel you need so much stuff.
I’m pleased to see Tommy smiling and happily focused on casting to small pocket water and shaded riffles when I glance upstream at him in between my own casts. It’s a slow day. He probably expected more action. I did. I’ve managed one brookie so far, and he’s finally caught something only a little bit ago. From a slow still water pool in between stretches of moving and dark tinted, forest flanked Adirondack stream he found a smallmouth bass with the 3wt I loaned him for the day. It’s not the native heritage strain brook trout I was hoping he’d have already caught, but at least it was a fish. I told him it was the biggest I’d seen come out of the stream so far personally. Most are the size of my hand or smaller. His was easily two hands. Like I said, it’s a slow day.
I’m thinking about what I was like when I was his age. Full of rage, anger, alcohol and attitude. But I had plans. Loose plans. Plans I never saw through. I met a girl, sold my primered ’55 Chevy with the tunnel ram intake and four speed manual transmission, and spent the next seventeen years living someone else’s life. When I tell him he’s got the world by the balls I mean it. But it’s not something someone can understand until later on down the road in life. This year, I’m trying to take my life back. Live for me and no one else. I’ve disappointed a few people with the decisions I’ve made, but they weren’t made for them, they were made for me. I’m taking back my own life. Doing what I feel is necessary to live. I’ve been told you only live once. I use it myself all the time. I say it. But the truth is I had a life, and now I have another. It wasn’t my decision, the life I have now, but I’m making it my own. I guess I get to live twice. Screw it, I will. This life will be my decision.
I make another cast as I hear Tommy downstream behind me yelling. I turn to see a bent and dancing fly rod and splashing at the end of the leader. I yell back “Get it in the net! Don’t lose it! That’s your brook trout! Get it in the net, it’ll slip out of your hands for sure!” He excitedly answers that it’ll go right through the holes in his net and I know he’s right, so I leave my fly rod on a boulder mid-stream and sprint to him, my wading boots splashing water as if each running step were a bomb going off in the water sending showers ahead of me. As I pull my net from my back he guides the trout to the surface one more time and I manage to scoop it up on the second attempt. He’s got it. How can such a small thing, a seven inch brook trout, be so important to a guy who’s used to casting 8 and 10wts to powerful ocean fish? I’ll tell you how. He’s living. And living is important. We have to live, or we die.
Saturday: I tried to find this place last night, but I’d only been here once before, six years ago. I could only vaguely remember the stretch of 365 the entrance to the little known rod and gun club might’ve been on, and in the dark with headlights illuminating passing forest on my left, it proved impossible. This morning I managed to finally find the two-track in, and found JP and his wife and kids and his brother and nieces at an old drab green Adirondack two story cabin overlooking the lake. Propane tanks outside fueling the gas lights inside, a camp kitchen straight out of 1930, and bare mattresses set atop old sprung bed frames. Other than old photos, the stone fireplace and a moose rack hanging on a wall in the common room, the cabin is bare, dim, old wood. Not musty. Just old. Perfectly old.
I spend most of the day with them on the large porch overlooking the small lake. We watch and comment on the rainbow trout continuously rising. I help rig a spinning rod up on the dock with a weighted streamer and some split shot for one of JP’s nieces. Because even though his brother has brought worms, of course we have no bare hooks, only flies and streamers. Later I row Bobbi Jo and three year old Parker out on the lake while JP takes a nap on the porch with their baby daughter. Bobbi Jo makes a few casts, and then as she called it, Parker gets tired and wants to go back. I remember those days. They seem so long ago. I guess because they were in another life. Not this life.
Everyone else has left now, and it’s Just JP and I for the rest of the evening and we don’t plan on leaving until tomorrow morning sometime. So we push out onto the lake with a row boat and spend a couple hours taking turns casting a 10’ 6” 4wt fly rod. We talk as much as we fish. About the rod. About the rainbow trout. About life. It’s odd to me. About the time my life fell apart my friends lives were just getting started. My boys were old enough to be somewhat independent, Dad not living in the same house has been an adjustment, but they can ride their bikes to my house. And while I know they hurt inside just like me, they’re tough. They put on a tough act. They aren’t little kids anymore. My life is becoming my own again, on the days I don’t have them.
My friends, they’re at those points where time is precious and there’s just not enough of it. They know time passes fast, but they won’t know how fast for years still. And here I am, calling in to work pretty commonly, driving all over the state at random with no regard to time or distance just to see if I can’t find a fish now and then. I feel like the irresponsible single guy on the sitcom that can’t relate to his friends with wives and kids. Only I can definitely relate. I just don’t have that life anymore. So I’m making what I have my own now, the best I can, as often as I can.
Sunday: After we fished a small stream on the club property for brookies, JP drove back home to spend the rest of the day with his family. My boys were with their mother somewhere, so I had no reason to go home, or anywhere without water and the chance of fish for that matter. So I drove over to Harvey Bridge. Everyone always talks about Harvey Bridge. And because everyone always talks about fishing there… I never have. I’ve got this thing about fishing popular places. I don’t do it. Not very often anyways. I don’t want to go where everyone else goes. I want to go somewhere else. Somewhere where people can’t tell me what it’s like. Somewhere that’s more unknown than known. I don’t care if it’s easy fishing or just easy to get to. If everyone goes there, I’ll go somewhere else. But the weather isn’t looking that great. So I go to Harvey Bridge because it’s close by. Convenient. It’s against most of what I stand for lately.
The CEO of the company I work for likes to bust my chops about how long my hair is these days. “What are we going back to the ‘60s? Are you a hippy? Are you going to start putting it in a ponytail and pulling it through the back of your hat?” It’s all in good fun, it doesn’t bother me at all. Maybe it’s because that type of thing has never bothered me. I’m a ball buster myself. But maybe it doesn’t bother me in the least these days because I just don’t want to be miserable anymore. I just want to have a good time. For seventeen years I cut my hair short for someone else. Not because I wanted it short. I did it for someone else. Now it’s long for me. Not because I care what it looks like, but because I just want to live my life on my terms now. You don’t live just to pay bills and die. Mowing the lawn isn’t going to award me with more fishing time. Cutting my hair isn’t going to do anything for me at all that I can see. I just want to have a good time in this second life, live it on my own terms.
It’s Sunday morning. Some people are at church. I don’t know what I believe anymore. But I believe I’m in my church. I’ve got a hopper pattern tied on. The river is hard to walk here. There’s no banks, only rocks. Large rocks the size of bowling balls, basketballs, soccer balls, and any other balls that would be hard to walk on while under two feet of water in a decent current. There’s a short stretch, a change in grade enough to speed up the river over shallow rocks and turn it into a low class rapid, and in the middle of that rapid is a large boulder with a pocket of calm water and foam behind it.
This past year two people passed away at work. One, everyone liked him, you couldn’t help but smile when you saw his own. One day he was talking about going fishing finally after a couple years not having been. He bought a bucket of minnows, and they sat in his refrigerator for the next week while he sat in a hospital dying. He never got to go fishing again, he’d waited too long. The other guy, no one had much good to say about him. He was all business one-hundred percent of the time and never had anything nice to say. So when he passed, no one really had anything nice to say either. I mean, are we all supposed to bust our butts at work and be miserable so that we can be remembered that way when we go? Not me. I don’t want anyone saying after I’m gone “Well, he worked a lot, he was miserable, but at least he worked a lot.” And I don’t want to be remembered for putting my life off too long and then dying before I got to live it either. Whenever I go, and whenever that may be, I want people to either remember that I lived the way I wanted to, fished every minute I could, or not remember anything at all.
As I peel fly line off the reel the wind changes and my hair covers my face, I brush it away as if it were a bug with a hand and a heavy blow out of the right side of my mouth. Maybe it’s time to get a haircut. As I make a cast upstream of the boulder I’m wondering what barber shop I should go to. The hopper washes down alongside the boulder and into the eddy where the fast moving water borders the calm pocket behind the big rock. I wonder if I shouldn’t just get the clippers and buzz it all off like… A splash interrupts my thinking, I raise the long rod and the line goes tight. I bring a beautiful rainbow to the net, golden with a slash of pink and peppered with spots. I know it’s stocked, but today that doesn’t seem to matter. Someone put that fish here, and someone put me here. And here we are, just the two of us. Doing the best we can with where we’ve been put. I let it rest, regain its strength, then it glides off, back into the current. I don’t remember what it was I was thinking about before the fish. Guess it wasn’t all that important. I make another cast.
Mark Usyk is the author of two books, Reflections of a Fly Rod and his latest, Carp Are Jerks. Maybe you’ll enjoy these stories about life where fishing happens. Purchase them on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies here on this website, JPRossflyrods.com.