Sunday, November 13, 2011

Adventures in a Dream

Several years ago, in his own way, Mike told me that if I was to take vacation time to fish for Steelhead, then it would be infinitely more intelligent to do so in the Fall rather than during the Spring trout opener. The argument ran like this: autumn fish are fresher and more energetic than beat-up drop-backs and fewer people fish for them in November than in May.

It took me years to apply this wisdom to my ways, and if anyone who reads this has also read prior episodes on this blog, then you will know that the catalyst for my metamorphosis came two Springs ago during that wicked drought. Unable to stomach the slaughter that I witnessed on gin-clear May-time rivers, I finally made the fateful choice to spend more time fishing at the opposite end of the calendar, and I put this into practice this November.

So it was that after many weeks of nervous anticipation, my Fall fishing vacation had arrived. In fact, I had almost re-booked it due to lack of rain - a familiar refrain - but in hindsight I'm glad I didn't. I needed a rest from work, to replenish my patience with certain things and ease out the stress. It was like programming, as if a subroutine was added where let "stress" = "force of the fish pulling on the line" and let "pressure" = "force exerted by angler on rod, in response to stress." I knew that to delay the time would not do anyone any good, and that a healthy dose of pure steelhead chromium was exactly what I needed. Not only that, but it rained on the my first day out - on November 9th - and it didn't rain for more than two weeks afterwards.

Being constrained hourly, whether by responsibility to family or to work, one forgets what it's like to spend whole days in the pursuit of one's favourite quarry. There is no time-watching, no nervous retying of hooks and leads in an attempt to shave off minutes in order to have time for one more cast. The feeling at the pit of the stomach, the helplessness before the inevitability of the early termination of a foray - successful or otherwise - does not take hold. Wading through this glut of time, one unexpectedly finds one's self not only at times wholly engrossed in the acute surveillance of one's float, but in the sounds of the water and of birds nearby, of the freshness of the air, of the feeling of the wind against one's face; the rigid focus of the daily militaristic routine and attention to pragmatic detail falls away like a doffed uniform. The little family bubble, the sole acceptable refuge of diurnal life from the mundane and the formulaic, is suddenly joined to this wide river filled with fish and every atom that fills it and surround it.

Isaac giggles in the splash of water as it spills over a boulder; Samuel plays everywhere around me in the wind; Laura gazes at me from the river's flow. Over and through the eye's focus on the bright cap of the float, as it glides over the surface of dark, inscrutable pools, images of these beloved faces appear, great smiles of childhood, clear eyes of most pristine innocence. Vanish suddenly; when the float scythes beneath the flow, and the rod swings up, and the pulse and pull of the fish begin.

Thus, many hours are spent as if in a dream; a passage through a collection of vibrant, moving photographs, where everything - or almost everything - that one loves moves and beats around me. What do I care that my legs are leaden, or that my arms are tired? In the activity of the prehistoric struggle for survival - taking fish - I have found a respite from the modern one, and I have separated myself from the oppressive, mitigated serfdom of the wage earner - transplanted on shores of light, a witness to the extraordinary bounty available to everyone, if only they try.

The first day is spent mostly in admiration, not only of those things that have brought such sweet meditation, but of the gift of piscatorial mastery with which the gods have blessed my friend. Mike catches fish under everyone's noses. He catches them every which way, with lures, under a float... While, mostly, I fish to empty water, and I feel like a novice who stepped onto the ice with a veteran from the NHL. His talent is that obvious.

Eventually, he hands me some of his roe and indicates the seam over which it should be swung out into the big river. Feeling sorry for me, doubtless because I haven't caught anything yet, he has stepped away from the best spot to stand, on one of the best pools on the river, and relinquished it to me. The float spikes down. I set the hook. Nothing. Well, not really nothing. When I reel in my rig and inspect the bait, I see that the bag has been shredded. I look up river to see if I have Mike's attention. When he looks, I sign: three fingers. "Three missed fish so far," and that in less than five minutes.

I get almost a dozen hits in this run, hook and miss a titan, and land two beautiful steelhead - and that's it for me on day one. To the pragmatist, intent only on catching, it is an irrevocable disaster. But, though I am disappointed with my luck, I feel only, at the end of the day, something that has been just out of reach lately, always seemingly close by but not quite within my grasp: peace. It was a good day, spent with a good friend (and superlative fisherman), on a good river.

And anyway, some days are a pre-payment for good things to come, and we should never lament them - especially when the price was easy to pay.

On day two, my passion for success is re-ignited, and I wake from an uneasy sleep - not feeling the slightest bit tired. I am fishing brand new water with Bill and Dave today, and my "get up and go" gets me up and gets me going.

We meet at the designated bridge, among the country side maze, which I studied several times before going. Dave is our guide, and he decides that we should start elsewhere. Back through the knot of roads we go. I follow them, finally to come to a stop on the side of a road, surrounded by tall pine and birch. Early morning birdsong wafts in as soon as I open the car door. We get dressed quickly, and my guides set off almost at a dead run.

And I am plunged into another surprise. Here is a thick wood, cloven by interwoven deer paths, growing on the steep sides of a valley - at the bottom of which the river gleams emerald lover's eyes to anyone seeking her copious gifts. Such as we three. And I am confronted by time; not yet the running out of it, but that I have had more of it in this world than my two companions for the day. They seem to skip effortlessly through the thickets and over the fallen great trunks of bygone Lords among maples and pines, oak and birch; while I trudge and struggle. Then I am no longer racing with them but rather strolling through the quiet woods. Distinctly, I think of my father. He would love this place. No other fishermen, other than we three, are within sight or hearing; here we enjoy the mellifluous combining of the peace of the beautiful forest and the chaos of the pristine fish, come from so far that their power seems nothing short of miraculous.

My count on this day is much better than that of the previous day, but don't ask me what it was. I don't remember, and I honestly don't really care. There were no extremely long stretches of inactivity, and while we fished together, there were only short intervals during which none of the three rods were active in some way. None of the fish were very big, and of the ones I landed only a couple of them grazed the lower reach of about 4lbs - but they might as well have been twice or thrice as large, for the battle that they gave. And, together with the deep green of the forest that surrounds them, they imparted a love of that place in me that I will never try to escape, but that I will now and then take the opportunity to requite.

Day three is like the slow return to reality, the waking from the blessedness of dreams. Everywhere, fishermen lined the shores of the little rivers close to home. I could not strike far afield on this day. There was business to look after, surrounding Isaac, in the morning and I couldn't - wouldn't - miss it. So I stayed close to home.

And yet, though the concrete shores of the first place I stopped didn't produce for me; the muddy confines of the second spot were surprisingly prolific. Somehow, a fresh run of fish had come in and, free to harass them until the day's end, I gave into the glee of catching them. I happily endured the other fishermen who shared the place with me, as we all had in success. Eventually, my two best fish came to me, after everyone else had left - two brutes in and around the 10 and 12 lbs range. The second one felt as though he might have already had a fight that day, but the first gave me a display of power that I will not soon forget.

At day's end, I walked down to the lake, and rinsed the mud from my boots by wading out into the clear out-flow. I calmly and happily got changed, once back at the car, and turned for home.

Just in time for dinner, and for the newest parade of photographs, of smiles and laughter, awake and living, love flowing over me as from the gentle flame dancing on the hearth.


Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Chrome-pilgrim's Progress

With two small children at home, one of whom has special needs, and a busy job in the City - with a daily commute of about 3 hours - there are not as many opportunities to chase after Steelhead as there used to be, for this tired "old man."

Often, it seems that I am losing my touch.

I go out for an hour or two, three if I can steal that much, and I try my luck. Sometimes I am successful, often I am not.

I map out my time and my attempts, though, not to cover places and conditions that I know; but to cover new conditions in nearby places. So I expect a measure of failure. With my ever shrinking timetable, I angle closer to home and therefore need to apply myself to learning the wheres and hows of those streams, how to glean from low, clear waters the quarry that I seek.

But this slowly turns me into a local, and memories of bigger, faster, meaner waters fade. More often than not, these days, my feet step off into the smaller trickles or motionless waters of eastern Lake Ontario tributaries. Even the Credit River, which is not that big but has a decent gradient, is on the other side of Toronto and therefore might as well be on the other side of the world. I can't even squeeze in the time to drive that far, let a lone fish. No: these days, I live and die by the 15 minute drive.

Every now and then, though, I get a chance to slough the mouse-like attention to schedule, the timid and fleeting outings on frisky local waters, and head for the larger streams further north. Rain comes, an invitation from Mike, and I throw myself a bone: "ok, count me in!"

And then, I measure myself. I measure myself against Mike and against my peers and against myself. I watch, I adapt, I learn. I know that this full day of fishing will not soon be repeated, so I apply what I've learned - focus. Focus on the conditions, on the river; look for the seams, feel around for the pockets; that snag may have been a boulder, cast 2 feet up from it, now 3, now 4 - fish on! The bright, brand new chrome fish fly out of the water and sprint downstream. I follow, filled with glee. Some get off, but only a few; nowadays, the focus of the father steelheader demands brand new, and therefore sharp, hooks, new line, and the patience to select opportunities to re-tie and re-rig properly. Presentation and preparedness are key.

On this past day, there is all kinds of water in the rivers, but not so many fish. Maybe we missed the big wave, or maybe it hasn't come. We amble from river to river, from lower stretches to upper stretches and pick a few fish off here and there. I am not without action anywhere, but the astronomical numbers that we had hoped to get into do not materialize. Patient as prospectors, we sift through the swift waters for the silver creatures we covet, knowing that there are some there but that we are required to work for them.

I do not equal my friend on this day, but I do better than most. Much of this is thanks to Mike, who is like a lightning rod; if there is any way that a fish can be caught, he will manage it - and one need only follow his lead to have a chance at success. Switch the focus to your tackle as it rides the current, feel for the bottom, be patient. And take the time to breathe; the other lesson of experience which draws attention to this most primal act, of capturing the pristine beautiful rainbow trout, far away from temporal, monetary, or other existential concerns.

The old cliché: it's not just about catching fish.

Charging the batteries, so to speak.