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.

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