Small explosions of dust marked each step as I ambled toward my destination,some half mile distant down the dry, hard pan dirt road. My right knee felt as though a couple of mad carpenters were using forty grit sandpaper to furiously grind away at what remained of the cushioning in my right knee. The knee creaked audibly and each step immediately flashed a high intensity signal to the pain receptors in my brain. These aches at least reminded me that I was still alive, unlike several of my fishing buddies, and that I was blessed to be able to continue to peer into the maddeningly detached eyes of a trout. I was inspired by the thought that I had somehow been left here to catch a few for my friends, so I pressed onward. The pain also reminded me to go ahead and make an appointment with that son of a bitch orthopedic surgeon who had none too subtly told me that I would return, sooner or later, for a knee replacement. The trout were getting increasingly difficult to approach physically as I aged, but remained within easy reach in my library of sweet memories. I could only pray that the joy of reliving my good days on the stream would not eventually be stolen by the cruelty of Alzhiemer’s Disease, as had happened to my great grandfather.
The summer sun fell hard across my face, reminding me of the wife’s admonitions to wear a hat and extra high SPF sunscreen. She rightly reminded me of the three skin lesions Doc Underhill had removed from my face this winter past. They turned out to be something he called squamous cell cancer. “Too many days out in the sun chasing those trout around, I suppose.” he had theorized. “Be more careful, or I may have to whack off half your face next time!” he warned. “You won’t be much to look at after that.’ he added solemnly. “Not that anybody wants to look at the face I have now”, I remembered thinking as I mumbled some appreciation for his concern.
My right hand bore an ancient fly rod case crafted from a sturdy piece of oak and some canvas and string. It had been constructed when TR was in office, I had eventually discovered. The rod within had belonged to my great-grandfather. He had been the intellectual type, a college professor teaching English Lit at one of those ivy covered schools in the northeast. Fly fishing for trout seemed to be an appropriate pastime for men like him and he took to it like a big brown to a caddis fly. When he finally moved on to that eternal stream where the fish are all large and take flies just often enough, he bequeathed his precious rod to his son. John, however, showed no interest in it.Neither did his son, who left it in a dark corner of a basement until the natural progression of time led to it being placed in my eager hands.
My own vocation was, in a way, similar to that of my forebear. I had been consumed from youth by a desire to understand how the universe had been designed and the principles that bind it all together. For forty five years, I had spent the biggest part of my life in the research lab, seeking to unlock some of nature’s biggest riddles. My work had been interrupted only by visits to the nearby stream to try to solve the equally difficult riddle of getting trout to eat my creations of feather and fur. I found casting to be relaxing, almost meditative, often opening my mind to a sort of left brain activity that I hoped might connect the dots in my right brain to answer some question of theoretical physics I was wrestling with at the time. There seemed to be some correlation, as I had noted a certain similarity between Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and my trout fishing- I found that I could be sure of the location of a given trout , and what fly might be necessary to imitate the insects hatching at the moment , but I was unable to predict both simultaneously.
Sunlight refracted off the waist high wheat in the fields alongside the old road as I marveled at the uniformity of each stalks’ height. It looked as if some Middle Eastern rug maker had snipped all of them at the same length, creating an undulating, living carpet of lager colored grain. As I walked on, I noted the antique split rail fence separating the wheat from the livestock around the barn. It was obviously very old. Its surfaces were coated with lime green mosses and grayish lichens. An occasional mushroom sprouted from its wood, softened with age and countless rain storms. I guessed it must have been at least fifty years old, but nonetheless, the Guernsey cows that grazed within its borders remained properly restrained, unaware of the ease with which they could have simply walked through the mostly rotten wood.
A short distance away, the rails led to a battered old barn. Its walls had long since been bleached by the sun to a grayish white color not unlike that of my beard. Some of the boards were loose, one end forlornly dangling towards the ground. Its tin roof sported large patches of rust and a few areas were devoid of metal altogether. The door and window hinges appeared rusted shut and unusable. The entire building leaned precariously to port. I did a few quick calculations mentally and guessed the entire structure might collapse in another four and a half months.
A loud creaking sound filled the air when the farmer, appearing nearly as old as his barn, opened the side door. “Sorry if I startled you. I need to put some oil on that hinge”, the old man remarked as I neared him. “No problem”, I replied. “I thought maybe it was my worn out knee”. “Gonna try them trout again today?” he inquired. “I get lucky with ‘em once it a while”, I responded as I continued my journey. Our vectors diverged, his to his beat up pickup and mine towards the stream where I hoped to land a nice brown today.
I had studied the hatch charts and checked the weather conditions the previous evening. A cloudless sky with a slight breeze from the southeast had been predicted by the Weather Channel. This time of year, I might expect the wind to deliver a few hoppers from the grasses lining the stream and so I tied on a medium sized foam hopper pattern. It was just the right shade of green and even had a bright white piece of foam tied its most upper section. I figured it would be a triple threat- conditions called for hoppers, the foam fly would float high, and the white patch would make it easy to see, even for my now failing eyesight.
A blowdown jutted into the stream from the opposite bank. I knew there was a deep pool just beyond the downed tree. It was the kind of place a brown trout dreams about, and the kind of place I was dying to float a hopper over. As I assembled the rod’s bamboo pieces, I marveled at how wonderfully constructed this wood really is. Its strength to weight ratio is remarkable, and it is used in the Orient for everything from chopsticks to scaffolding for high rise construction. The fly rod’s wood remained sound, but the antique agate guides clearly showed their age. Frayed tags extended from each wrap where I had done my best to super glue them back into place without destroying the rod in the process. The reel seat was worn and loose, and had required re-gluing last year, but overall, the rod was still quite functional. I yearned for a new boron rod, with its superfast action and completely indestructible guides, but that idea had been vetoed by the wife. My well conceived, logical arguments about a lifetime warrantee being such a good investment fell on unsympathetic ears. I secretly continued to lust for the high tech rod, and had even clandestinely brought a fly fishing catalog along this morning, so I could fill out the order form away from prying eyes.
Hopper in place, I lofted the century old bamboo into the nearly still morning air. Its action was not unlike watching a movie shot in super slow motion. I could almost take a sip from the brandy flask in my hip pocket while I waited for the back cast to unfurl. But, when the rod was brought forward, the line unrolled into a slow, smooth, tight loop that could bring a tear to the eye of any true fly fisherman. After a single back cast, I let slip the weight forward floating line bearing my offering to the Trout-God. Weightlessly falling, the fly seemed to defy Newton’s Law as it alighted ever so gently on the water, barely disturbing the surface tension.
The hopper moved as one with the current, no telltale drag to be seen. The attached fluorocarbon leader belied its true intent, winking at the fish beneath the water’s surface, while inviting them up for a delicious meal, free for the taking. A flash of brown, interrupted by black and red blurs, appeared and disappeared simultaneously. The hopper was gone. The old bamboo rod bent over, almost begging in its agony, for me to let this big fish run for now. I complied and the big brown raced down current, seeking to relieve itself of the hopper and its size 10 hook. Unlike most browns, this one proved its athletic prowess by leaping high into the morning sunlight, to my very great delight. I doubt that the rod had seldom been called on to handle such a challenge, but it performed flawlessly. I tried to calculate the bending moments being placed on the rod, and the tensile strength of bamboo and tippet, factoring in the rod’s age and the effect of its being wet, as well as the angle of the line to the water, but finally gave up and fought the fish by feel. Each surge was transmitted to my hand, and I used this tactile feedback to put what pressure I thought appropriate to bring the fish to hand. Slowly, I began to win, but was careful to let the brown have it his way when necessary. The bamboo groaned and maybe even creaked a little, not unlike my worn out old knee, but never gave in. The softness of its action allowed it to flex deep into its length, all the way down to the handle, providing at once a challenge and simultaneously the deep satisfaction of control without exerting total physical domination. I delicately guided the fish ever closer.
After about ten minutes, I held in my net a magnificently colored brown, weighing some eleven pounds. I carefully released back to its home what was easily the biggest fish of my life.
Shaken, I noticed the stump of a cut down tree. It made a convenient stool and I sat down to savor my experience. Reaching into my pack, I pulled out a Cohiba, sliced off the end, and lit up. After a deep draw, I retrieved my flask and enjoyed a sip of my favorite brandy. After a few minutes, I noticed the catalog order form for the new rod where it had been neatly placed in my day pack alongside the Cuban cigar. I quickly grabbed it, inspected it briefly, then crumpled it into a ball and stuffed it into my pack.