It had been many weeks since I traveled to Pennsylvania to fish. After weeks of sullen winter clouds, late morning sunshine called me to take a drive and explore new stretches of a familiar stream. My normal pull-off parking spots along the aptly named Creek Road were already occupied by earlier rising anglers. A couple of miles and a few turns down the road, I found what appeared to be open water and empty parking spots.
My rod was rigged up and I pulled on my waders. As I started to lace up my first boot, a small gray sedan pulled up next to me. A young, bearded man in waders popped out of the driver’s seat and slid around to the passenger side with the speed of Bo Duke running from Boss Hog. Before I could tie the laces on my second boot, the eye-contact-avoiding usurper had his spinning rod in hand and was headed for the juicy run I had spotted upon parking. I did my best not to let my annoyance get the best of me. I was up for a walk anyway.
A few hundred feet downstream, two other anglers came into view. So much for open water. I kept walking along the trail out of their view and kept going for a good bit longer. Peeking into the river, looking upstream and downstream just off the trail, no one was in sight.
Recent rains left the stream flow high, even though rack lines in the vegetation indicated the water was receding. The emerald green water was clear and very cold and it looked fishy. Taking a deep breath and unhooking the point fly from the lowest guide on my rod. I stretched out the leader, warming the monofilament in my fingers.
Large boulders broke the flowing water into seams of faster and slower velocities. Fallen trees, pinned by heavy flows against the far bank, influenced the water depth and direction. Mentally, I mapped out a wading path to tactically move upstream through various prime lies. I felt solid in my approach. It was time to catch some fish.
I stepped into the stream. Misjudging the depth of the water off the bank, I stumbled and barely caught myself. A red shouldered hawk sat above me, peering down over its puffy, white-speckled, rusty brown coat of feathers. I chuckled to myself thinking the hawk looked like a bundled-up kid at a bus stop, pretending they are not cold. Turning its head quickly to investigate me as I clumsily entered the water, I met his stare and felt ashamed for my lack of stealth. Robotically, the hawk turned back upstream and glided away, leaving a bouncing branch in its absence.
I didn’t need an audience anyway. Following my strategy and course, I moved through the water utilizing any precision still within me. I made relatively accurate casts and worked to adjust my drifts. The first seam appeared sterile. Working toward the largest boulder, I cast left, downstream, right, and finally above the target. No signs of life. I moved upstream along a fallen tree. A dark green hue tinted the water on the streamside of the log, indicating deeper, slower water. I took my time and let my flies drift against the log. Nothing took the flies. Not even the flash of a fish.
Any flicker of unusual movement of my sighter resulted in an immediate and overdramatic hook set. Air and an occasional tree branch were all I caught. I switched flies, adding more weight. I got hung up and tangled after I put on an indicator, trying to fish at distance. My next rig up included a longer leader and different flies. Not a single fish was spooked when I stumbled again, like I was learning to roller skate.
“What am I doing wrong?” The question entered my mind with twinges of desperation. My last trip on the water ended with a skunk, so I wanted to catch a fish. “There are no fish here.” I told myself this comforting lie. I replaced my self-doubt with ridiculous self-deception. The lies we tell ourselves and others are often veiled as comfort, either softening truth or misdirecting pain.
The sun fell to an angle that created a stinging glare, reminding me of time spent without a bend in the rod. One last tangle sent me to the truck, ending another day on the river with a skunk. No other cars were in the parking lot and no other anglers were on the stream along the trail. Solitude. Sliding the pieces of the fly rod into the sections of the sleeve and then into the aluminum rod, I felt my confidence leaking out of me, like the remaining water from my wading boots.
Starting the car and looking out over the steering wheel at the emerald water, I thought of the puffed up red shouldered hawk. I smiled and searched for directions home on my phone. Each trip to the river gives something to see and something to learn, even if I can’t grasp it at the moment. I was happy to be headed home but I can’t wait for my next time back on the river. There will be one in there next time. Or the time after that.