Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Trout and eternal salvation

A few years ago, my parents found a wonderful home-away-from-home nestled in central Arkansas. It’s just a little over one hundred miles from their house in Memphis, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. My father says the world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Heber Springs, Ark.* And, I believe him.

Sugarloaf Mountain, a 690-foot monument to erosion, looms over the front yard of their cabin, but it’s the backyard in which I love the most. It’s a most pleasant space, offering peace and privacy, but with a soundtrack supplied by the diverse orchestra of nature. It’s a piece of heaven delicately carved out of sandstone and dirt, of flora and fauna … where eventually all things merge into one. And, the Little Red River runs through it.*

I traveled west for Thanksgiving. Mom, Dad, Tim and Bumper the Wonder Dog were all waiting for me when I pulled into the driveway in Heber Springs after a surprisingly-easy, six-and-a-half-hour drive from middle Tennessee.

In my family, there is no clear line between eating turkey and fly-fishing.* In fact, the big Thanksgiving feast was sandwiched between trips down to the river, as we cast nymphs and streamers at the resident rainbow and brown trout.

Until recently, the Little Red River was home of the world-record brown trout. While the record has been broken, this gem of a tailwater still holds some amazing fish. In the fall, the river reveals some of its true trophies. It’s a time when the leaves drop from the trees, the weather vacillates between good and downright horrible and the brown trout begin their annual spawning routine.

Fishing during the spawn carries with it some ethical angling responsibility. Brown trout are at their most vulnerable, leaving their darker hideouts for the brazen shallows of the shoals. Their redds are easily identifiable in the clear stream, and they’re patrolled by some truly enormous fish. We were certainly haunted by these waters*, but we chose to leave these fish alone and to concentrate on deeper runs and less gullible trout.

Over the next couple of days, we spent hours on the water … and spent even more time talking with one another and catching up on the details of our lives.

My Mom is wonderful in so many ways, not the least of which is her ability to cook. She fed us well, culminating with the Thanksgiving dinner – which featured the traditional turkey and thousands and thousands of calories disguised as delicious side dishes. She loves her boys, and adores the fact that when they’re not sitting in front of the TV watching football, they’re fishing in the backyard, safely within earshot of her trademark whistle. Her keen eye is perpetually fixed on the river, sighting partially submerged trees and rocks, ever worrying about a quiet, but dangerous, rise on the river (But, her diligence has saved us on more than one occasion). Dad was his usual self, spending hours fishing, and even more at his fly-tying desk to try to duplicate the insects he observed streamside (to him, all good things – trout as well as really well-tied flies – come by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy*). He also tutored me on his home river, letting me in on several of its secrets and making sure to position me for success. It’s probably habit for him now. My brother Tim hurled rooster-tails in lieu of casting the long-rod, strummed his guitar, opined on various political issues and fed us a steady diet of quotes from South Park and Family Guy. And, Bumper? Well, he was Bumper, which was awesome, as usual.

On the final day of the visit, Dad and I worked together in the late afternoon to solve the fishing puzzle, identifying an approach to reverse what had been a pretty tough day to that point. The final cast of the Thanksgiving weekend resulted in the biggest fish of the trip – a fat, pre-spawn 23-inch brown trout.

Like all great visits, this one seemed way too short. As I pulled out of the driveway and waved goodbye to my family, I was truly thankful – not only for the fantastic holiday, but also for the many things of which I’ve been blessed. Seven hours later, in the half-light of middle Tennessee, all existence faded to a being with my soul and memories of the Little Red River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.*

* Apologies to Norman MacLean for borrowing and mangling many of his most famous lines.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Compleat Angler

Last year, while spending fall break with family friends down in the Tampa Bay area, my nine-year-old nephew, Easton, went fishing. Just like his father, Easton is a fishing fanatic. While his Dad has probably taught me more about angling than anyone else I know, Easton will most likely soon surpass my knowledge of the sport and begin mentoring me in the near future.

As evidence of that, on that warm October day, Easton grabbed his fishing rod – not Dad’s and not his older brother Parker’s, but his rod – and launched a cast into the gentle surf of the Gulf of Mexico. While his fishing companions went with shrimp for their bait of choice, Easton rigged up a feisty pinfish, hooking his bait through the lips to allow for maximum movement.

While the rest of the family and friends sat on the beach, enjoying the nice day and trading various stories of vacations gone by, Easton stared at his line, which bounced softly in the waves. He was in the zone. I’ve seen him do this. While most of his waking minutes are frantically spent in energetic bursts of activity, Easton can be impressively focused on fishing. He’s only nine, but fish already fear him.

Promptly, the pinfish began to panic. Easton noticed his line shake, then watched the tip of his rod deliberately nod to the ocean. He slowly gripped the cork ahead of his reel and carefully pulled the rod from the sand-spike. When he did, the line became taught and zipped through the rod’s guides, making a whistling noise that betrayed the presence of a large fish at the terminal end.

Easton held the line tight, as the circle hook set into the fish’s mouth and he listened to his reel scream as the drag labored to stop the initial run of his catch. Thirty-yards offshore, the water exploded, as an angry fish leaped and crashed into the surf.


Easton’s family, along with a throng of sunbathing onlookers, had taken notice and ran down the beach to watch the nine-year-old do battle with a trophy fish. He expertly played the line-sider, allowing it line when it ran, then reeling it back when given slack.

His Dad coached him, but it was simply an affirmation of lessons already taught and learned. Easton appropriately pressured the fish until it eventually wore down from the fight. He slowly guided the snook into the shallow wade-gut, where it was lifted by the waves and deposited into the foam on the beach. The celebration began as his Dad proudly lifted the flopping fish from the water and his Mom ran for the camera. The common snook measured 31 inches from nose to tail, and Easton carefully lifted the fish from the sand and posed for his trophy shot.

I’ve seen the resulting photo. The fish is huge and beautiful and the blond-headed, nine-year-old kid holding it has a little smirk on his face, as if he knew this would happen all along.

Last week, the nine-year-old got one year older. And for his birthday, I presented him with a painting of that magnificent catch.