The river was where it had always been, would always be but for some cataclysmic natural disaster.
I noticed it because of the covered bridge. Grayed, weathered, it had been on this earth longer than I have.
This small, hidden river was one where we fished for Steelhead, a place I spent many an afternoon in waders waiting for a fish, miles away from the paparazzi of people in hip boots littering the larger, better known waters. I could smell its sweetness before I even saw it, the curves of the river laying flat and glittering, like broken glass upon the shore. Within its deep mystery lay many things I sought, not the least of which a fish as difficult to understand as it was to hold on to.
Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss
) are one of the most elusive species of fish alive. Anglers the world over make their way to lakes, rivers, secluded coves, inlets and bays in the hopes of hooking into that once-in-a-lifetime catch. Steelhead and Rainbow Trout are the same species, but Rainbows are freshwater only, and Steelhead are anadromous (go to sea) Unlike most salmon, Steelhead can survive spawning, to spawn over multiple years.
Like Chinook, Steelhead have two runs, a summer run and a winter run. Winter runs spawn closer to the ocean, and require less travel time.
The fish don't eat as they head up on the spawning run, attacking the lure probably more from irritation than hunger. Why they bite is one of those fundamental questions that neither biologist or jeopardy contestant can tell you. They're surrounded by lures and they either snag themselves or they snap at it like a pit bull. The hook is usually not deep in the mouth, but there in the premaxillary and maxillary bones or in the ethmoid region at the top of their snout, that large area that plows through the water at sea, gathering food from their movement.
Steelhead are not the easiest of fish to catch, especially the winter run Steelhead which are most often caught on a fly. Steelhead fishermen live in a world of universal skepticism, driven on by the mythology of a fish that does not stay in a region for very long, flirting with you and then leaving you for its heart's desire.
Most days we went home empty handed. I wouldn't be the only time I went out to put hoof, fish or fowl on the table and came home to leftovers. But my Dad believes that all good things come from God, it's just that the gifts of God, such as eternal salvation and the Steelhead also come with hard work, sweat, frozen extremities and the moon being aligned just so. Especially when fly fishing.
My dad bought me my own little fishing pole when I was barely big enough to hold on to it and then would watch with loving patience, upon the bank, to make sure I didn't fall in. I can still remember those evenings out fishing on the lake with my Dad, the sun setting, leaving wisps of lavender ribbons across the sky; as the clouds gathered up along the mountain ridges as if watching us.
Now I fish under an open sky, clouds moving up from the Plains, wispy strands through which I could see that which was the last phase of a full moon. The bobber moved slightly, a fish, or the wind? I was tempted to jerk the line, to see what I had, but I waited. This is what patience is all about, being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that's unfolding.
There is no one watching me but the trees, their leaves laid out flat and placid like hands, awaiting the host that would bring salvation. As I waited, the call of a loon brought me back into the moment and I thought about all the things I needed to do at home on a single day off. Iron some clothes, return phone calls, spend some time with Barkley and friends. And I stopped. "Can you hear that?" I whispered to he that sits patiently by my side, tail wagging, poised to strike in case I reeled in a side of bacon. "That" being the sound of a small fish jumping on a small span of water on a planet spinning through space.
The crickets began their chorus to usher in the night, and the note of the sparrow is borne on the wind from over the water. And from the water's edge, a salamander crawled out, that traveler of both the water and the land, equally at home in both. We're all born of water, as we emerge from the watery landscape of the womb, discovering our breath, leaving what is known, to become searchers of the land. What caused that first being to emerge from that water of creation. The hand of God, the pull of nature, or something more primal? There was a Disney movie of a redheaded mermaid, half human, half fish, who gave up the freedom of her watery home for the love of a man. What is that instinctive urging that drives us out and away from that which is comfortable to a shore so foreign? Is it a quest for adventure or do we simply pull our self from the water, seeking our heart's desire?
But such thoughts are fleeting, the only things rippling through my brain now, the sight of the water raised by the evening's wind. As the day pulled out of the sky, taking the wind with it, I cast back out into the now still center of the water, the moment causing me to hold my breath. There it was. Utter and complete stillness. I wanted to hold my breath because even inhaling and exhaling was like a cacophony. The trees were absolutely quiet, the animals of day hunkering down for rest, and the night creatures not yet stirring, there was no breeze, no recognition of air even; it was the sound of nothing and everything. It felt like all life, my future and beyond was contained in this one space, a simple spot of time where everything stands still with the gossamer cast of a line.
Poets talk about "spots of time," that moment where, in an instant, you can see your whole life and a choice is made. You will understand it when your whole horizon is one fish and then the fish is gone. I thought of one Steelhead there on the river by that covered bridge. I will remember that fish when I am taking in my last breath.
The day had dawned austere and chill. Out of the West came a drifting wall of gray light, which, rather than dissolving into rain as is its chosen nature in this place, it disintegrated into minute particles of fog that congealed on the still pools in the river. In long underwear and hip waders, I moved with the lumbering grace of a trained bear. I moved cautiously, for to fall into this icy water, which would rush into my boots, seeking the last of my warmth, could mean death.
For it was cold, really cold, where the hair in my nostrils turns to Brillo with the first breath, but I don't want to breathe through my mouth because to do would be like breathing in a room full of searing smoke. I was fly fishing, best for the winter run off of the Grey's river. I had a good fly, with the delicate beauty of an angel and the penetrative power of a fire and brimstone preacher. I had fire in my soul and fingers that felt like frozen fish sticks in my gloves.
After what seemed like hours, standing in that chilly repentance of river, I finally felt that knowing tug within my soul. A Steelhead, intercepting the fly near the end of the drift, as the fly rose up and picked up speed. As the hook sunk deep, I could sense the immense weight on my line waiting to fight back, and my breath rushed involuntarily through my mouth, a huge inhale of wonder that seared my chest like pending heartache, where I held it in, afraid to breathe.
As he broke water in the jump, the sun slanted off of his 30 pound back, sparkling jewels of light that put any ring I had ever owned to shame. He hung there in the light with that unmistakable air of defiant and impending challenge that all things of worth have. You've heard of "buck fever"? This was "Steelhead stupor", for in that moment I was so enamored of him I couldn't take action, my eagerness frozen within me, hesitate to move, the thirst in me inarticulate, not knowing yet it is thirst.
My breath exploded in a cloud of steam, as in my wonder I let the line go slack, a bad mistake with a Steelhead that's making a long run upstream. The fish toppled downward, gaining an advantage with weight and movement, crashing back down into the water that sprayed up around him like a thin nimbus of glass.
Fool, oh you fool, why did you not stop him before it was too late.
I had lost him, the fish disappearing even as I stood listening for it, trying to capture a haunting tune in a dense void. A wafer of moon stood watch over the covered bridge surviving the cold morning and the disappearing splash of water. The water swirls as if the fish had never existed, making the day run backward. A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now down that river, bestowing with complete remoteness, the figure of a tall girl in an enormous pair of waders. She stands silently in the cold water, on her face a look at that is both fatalistic and that of a child's astonished disappointment, her hand held up in an inexorable gesture that is both disbelief and farewell.
Catch and release.
I thought back to fly fishing in Gunnison for the first time, watching the fly fisherman standing, rod in hand, in the rushing water making the most beautiful movements, a ballet of line and wind and hook, form and flow. The line forms a thin clean curve between hand and fluid need. A ritual of the chase, the cast like a tease to the unsuspecting trout, placid in their world, until he pulled them into his. As the trout took the bait, the man would smile, that quick, knowing smile, and pull with a quick flick of his fingers and hands, like light strokes on a keyboard, to plant the hook. Then after reeling the trout in, he gently pulled the hook from the mouth, no longer smiling, but with a look of quiet contemplation that spoke of everything and absolutely nothing. I watched as he cradled the fish in his hand and with a quick unemotional stroke of her belly, released her back to the water, his eyes empty of emotion, as if they too would forever hold their breath.
Catch and release. Life begins and ends in the waters, flowing over stone and bend, old fears, old desires, old anguish. If you stand out in it long enough, it all eventually flows past, downstream, into the cool eternal dark.
There is no Steelhead in the water here, and the nearest covered bridge it exists far away, where it houses both the dreams and the still young heart of a girl. With the cold fading into shadow, darkness falling, it's time to head back to home. I didn't catch anything, my true catch was as intangible and indescribable as the twilight playing on the water. I think of what Thoreau said, "many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after".
We flirt with the water, and what it holds within it, we cast that line, dancing with fate. Icy water and warm lips, we thirst, we reach with that last translucent breath, closing our eyes to softly bite the secret barb. We are drawn in with a soft gasp of breath, chest softly heaving, as we look into the unknown, up into the eyes that desired us.
As we let ourselves be drawn to shore.