The famous seventeenth century English poet John Milton is most well known for his poetic epic “Paradise Lost.” Educated at Cambridge, Milton enjoyed an international reputation as a poet and polemicist. In his latter years, he lost his vision, likely due to glaucoma, and was forced to dictate his poems to a scribe. His sonnet “On His Blindness” explores his question of how could he possibly serve God in his blindness. The answer comes in the final line of the sonnet -“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
This poem is ironically similar to my own present circumstances. My wife has departed the comfortable environs of our home for a remote place in a distant part of the world with a mission team to provide care, both physical and spiritual, to peoples lacking in both. I, meanwhile, remain here, defending the homefront and ready to deal with such domestic issues as may arise.
As Milton’s words filtered slowly into my mind prior to her departure, it occurred to me that standing and waiting might be interpreted in more than one way. Not surprisingly, my mind began to visualize standing in a trout stream while waiting on a heavy rainbow to rise to a winter midge hatch. So, as she packed Bibles and bandaids, I packed rods and reels.
After depositing her at the airport, I pointed my Tahoe north, towards the mountains of North Carolina. Research on the internet had led me to the Davidson River, in Brevard, North Carolina. Conveniently, a well established fly shop is located a double haul from the Davidson in Brevard. It is known as Davidson River Outfitters. A phone call placed a week prior to arrival had assured me a spot on their private water, as well as the services of one of their top guides.
The drive was amazingly simple. Thanks to that marvellous gift from Eisenhower to the American people known as the interstate highway system, I was able to complete the journey in a mere four and a half hours, without exceeding the speed limit at any point.
As I approached higher elevations, the outside air temperature gauge in my SUV slowly, but steadily dropped. As I crossed the peaks of Tryon, North Carolina, mysterious white matter appeared along the road, and the gauge now registered a mere seventeen degrees. I was unaware that my gauge was even capable of registering so low a reading. A stop in Hendersonville for quick cup of coffee introduced me to a sport for which I have never been properly trained – ice skating. In a display of what could only be attributed to Divine Protection, I was able to re-enter the Tahoe with coffee and all limbs intact. Thirty minutes later, I pulled into the Brevard Hampton Inn.
The following morning, the Weather Channel reported the temperature to be a balmy twenty-two degrees. Thoughts of Walter Matthau went through my head as I hummed the old tune “Having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave.” Unaccustomed as I am to such frigid conditions, I pondered my apparel choice for the day. As I considered my naturally occurring, somewhat thick layer of lipid insulation, I thought of minimizing external clothing. Ultimately, I thought better of it, deciding that shedding excessive clothing a better alternative than being underprepared for the still biting cold. I donned an undershirt, a long sleeved hunting shirt, a sweater, a pair of insulated pants designed to be worn under waders, and wool socks. I considered leaving the socks behind, worried that their bulk might preclude stuffing my feet,the socks, and the neoprene feet that are part of my waders into my ancient wading boots. I wondered how I would be able to cast in such restrictive garments, but made my way, like the Bilbo Man from Michelin, to the Tahoe. I had not yet donned waders and boots, preferring to defer that task until I reached the shop.
Upon entering Davidson River Outfitters, I met Bill, my affable guide for my two days of trout pursuit. He directed me to a bench where I provided early morning entertainment to staff and customers as I struggled mightily to stuff a massive amalgam of body, clothes, and woolen socks into my waders and boots. After a fifteen minute wrestling match, I was triumphant! I borrowed a large towel and wiped the sweat away from my head and neck, lest I become a FreezePop upon reentering the atmosphere outside the store.
We loaded the gear into Bill’s vehicle and made our way to the private stretch of the river, just outside of town. It seems that there once stood on the banks of the Davidson at that spot a paper mill. It made the very thin paper used in Bibles. “How fitting, I thought”, as I watched Bill assemble the rods, feeding the fly line up the guides, careful to double it over so as to prevent it falling by gravity back through the guides to the cold ground. He tied on 7X tippet and rigged a double nymph configuration with an adjustable “strike indicator”, or bobber as we less sophisticated fishermen call such things. Next we made our way to the water through the leafless grey trees and bushes along the bank. The river was a shallow, clear, cold, Alaskan style freestone stream, running swift through the winter valley. The air was crisp and the water was just marginally above freezing. Ice formed on downed wood in the river. Despite the bottom topography’s gentle appearance, I unfolded my wading staff and gingerly entered the water, grasping Bill’s arm as a secondary precaution against slipping and filling my waders with the icy liquid that flowed quickly past us. Bill wanted to fish an area just downstream a bit, and he led the way over the rocks littering the river bottom. I slowly followed, feeling my way with felt soled shoes, and probing for stability between the stones with the tip of my staff. I must admit that I felt like a feeble old man as I timidly made my way to the spot Bill had selected to fish. I rarely trout fish these days, the last outing having occurred some years ago. I would have been able to match Bill stride for stride back then, but now, I was only able to participate in the day’s fishing by utilizing pain medication and anti-inflammatory drugs. I reflected on my ever increasing dependence on medications, and was shocked by what I discovered as I counted the ways I am forced to use them to remain functional. But more on that topic in another post.
My feet were now frighteningly cold. I was no longer able to feel my toes. I noted immediately on entering the water how very cold the water was, even through my socks, the neoprene of the waders, and my boots. “Bill,” I asked, “Are your feet cold?” “Very” was his reply. “Better man up,” I told myself. ” You have two full days of this to deal with.” I caught up with Bill, and he told me exactly where to cast and how to mend the line for a more natural presentation. For the uninitiated, mending is a technique used by fly fishermen to prevent the fly line from pulling, or dragging, the fly downstream as current moves the line faster than the water flow. This is done by lifting the rod tip in a quick semi-circular fashion so as to create an upstream based loop on the surface of the water in order to negate the effect of current flow. It is an art, and one that requires a certain degree of finesse. I struggled with it, as it had been a while since I had done any serious trout fishing. The complicated leader system was unforgiving to errors in casting and Bill spent a good part of his day untangling my fouled tippet sections. He took it in good stride, never losing his patience with me. “Hey, it’s what I do!” he explained, displaying incredible equanimity. Finally, my clumsy efforts were rewarded with a strike by a beautiful, heavily spotted rainbow trout.
We fished on upcurrent, catching several nice fish along the way. In spite of the cold, now at its maximum reading of forty degrees for the day, I was having a blast! My fly fishing career had begun by trout fishing at a dude ranch in Montana when my daughters were youngsters. Now, it was like encountering my first love after so many years, and falling in love all over again. It was wonderful and euphoric, but soon I was brought back to earth by the increasing pain in my knees and back. By now, my morning doses had worn off, and I reached into my vest pocket for an additional pill. The words of a John Prine song floated through my conciousness as I gazed across the river. “Old rivers just grow stronger every day, but old people just grow lonesome..” And they get arthritis, I added as I readied another cast.
As we worked upstream, we encountered a small dam built by the now defunct paper mill. It was a weir dam. “That’s not only a weir dam, it’s a weird dam,” I though as I watched the water fall over its three-foot height. It extended across the river, but unlike most dams that completely stop the flow of water in a stream or river, a weir dam is designed to allow water to flow over it, its falling motion creating deep pools on the downstream side. The mill used this deep pool as a water source for its operations. The pool also just happens to make very nice habitat for trout, and we finished our fishing day there. I was able to stand in the river and make long saltwater style double haul casts into the foamy waterline just in front of the dam. I was rewarded by a few nice rainbows in the sixteen to eighteen inch range. It was quite pleasant, but my achy knees and frozen feet forced me take a break on the bank. I handed the rod to Bill and implored him to show me how the pros do it. Bill is a competitive trout fisherman, appearing on television a number of times in such contests. Competitive trout fishing seems an oxymoronic term to me, but Bill’s experiences in that arena would bear fruit for me the following day. It was a pleasure to watch his silky smooth loops unfurl towards the dam. As I have heard Lefty say, “Those loops were tight enough to go through a screen door!” Obviously, he wasn’t speaking about my casting! I was even privileged to see Bill fight a nice bow. Letting your guide fish at least a little often proves a learning experience for the angler. This was certainly true in my case.
We next crossed the river and found our way back to the vehicle and the shop. When I sat down on that bench and removed my boots, I discovered that my socks were soaking wet!!! The neoprene had been leaking all day. My feet were fire-red and very itchy, early signs of frostbite. I went back to the hotel and soaked them in warm water. Soon after, all was well. The thought of having to wear smaller shoes for the remainder of my life frightened me, so I resolved to rent a set of new waders for my second day in the frigid waters of the Davidson.
My second day was as good as it gets in winter on a trout stream. Air temps were now in the mid fifties and no clouds were to be seen. Ensconced in my new waders and boots, I was dry and comfortable, though still feeling decidedly old and semi-invalid. I had to steady myself on Bill’s arm as I made the descent into the river down an embankment measuring all of three feet. Though I felt feeble and helpless, it beat the alternative. Getting soaked in this water would be a life threatening event, requiring an immediate hot bath and clothing change. Better to appear weak than risk losing my final fishing day, I reasoned, making myself feel a bit better.
I fished that day with a very costly bamboo fly rod which had been presented to me as a gift by an old friend from Boston many years ago. Tom and I have not seen each other in perhaps fifteen years, yet we remain in contact with frequent emails and phone calls. There is nothing so valuable in life as old friends, unless it is old rods given to you by old friends.
My first three casts were rewarded by strikes. Three nice rainbows came to the net and were quickly released by Bill. “You’re on fire!” Bill exclaimed as the third fish slowly swam back to its lair. ” I am merely the rod actuator, Bill” I explained. “You actually caught those fish.” “Left to my own devices, I would still be trying to untangle that first leader from yesterday.”
Bill moved us downstream a bit to a stretch of fresh water that sported a sandy white bottom,, great for walking as well as spotting fish. We saw a number of trout, several among them in the twenty plus inch range.”OK, I am going to let you in on a secret I learned from trout competition.”, Bill told me, speaking in hushed tones that let me know how serious this was. “I have a fly that was invented by a Polish fisherman named Vladi Trzebunia. He makes it from a colored condom. Don’t laugh. He won the World Championship with it.” “You’re kidding.’ I said. “Not at all. The fly is deadly on the trout in this river. It is one of my favorites. It is called the Vladi Worm.”
He tied one on my leader and I cast about ten feet upstream from one of those large trout. Bam! He nailed it and soon we had a nice nineteen incher in the net. “Wow!” I remarked. “This fly doesn’t screw around, does it?” Bill laughed and we went on to take a couple more fish with it before one of my errant casts left it dangling on a tree limb across the river, irretrievable from our position. “Screw it” Bill said. We’ll use something else.” By now the sun had warmed the air sufficiently for the insects to begin hatching. Various sizes of tan colored flies seemed to be everywhere. Interesting for mid-January. Bill tied on a size twelve Elk Hair Caddis and a size twenty-two black wing olive nymph as a dropper well below it. Meanwhile, I had spotted a nice trout lying behind a smallish rock. I threw the rig a bit upcurrent of the fish, When the dry fly floated, dragfree and natural over its head, the trout shot up to surface and inhaled it. A few jumps later, we released it from our net.
It was a perfect day on the water. I had success with both dry feet and dry flies. Life was good. While Milton had it right about standing and serving, he had it backwards about Paradise. This was Paradise Found!!!!