I can feel the increase in pressure as the shoulder straps dig into my shoulders with every heaving step up onto another piece of talus. I just crossed the eleven-thousand foot mark. Five miles and fifteen hundred vertical feet, not all that bad, considering.
The dry winter has opened up the high country early, so I am heading to a small glacial tarn that is about 500 vertical feet and a half-mile off trail. I have only put my rod together once in the last 6 months.
Struggling out of an alpine willow thicket, I drop my pack in view of the lake. More like a pond really – but deep as a lake.
This high water is not on the official stocking list for the state’s department of natural resources. Yet, the trout seem to overwinter well in its deep cold water. Moreover, it has no passable outflow to lower waters so the trout are safe from whirling disease and other such pests.
They sit under the ice all winter, waiting for their brief 4 months of feeding. I have timed it well – iceout was just last week it appears. One full shoreline is still snowbound.
I pull out some medjool dates and a water bottle, slowly chewing each date and rinsing it down with cold spring water from the lower slopes. I stand up and start getting ready.
A wind comes down the glacial valley from thirteen thousand feet and chills me. Despite the physical discomfort, it feels good, or at least right.
I pull out my rod, closely inspecting and aligning the four pieces as I assemble it. Shaking the handle, I watch the energy dissipate down the rod like a fencer preparing for a bout.
I pull out my reel, attach it to the rod handle, and begin to string the line along the length of the rod. With each narrowing loop the line passes through, I can feel the troubles left behind.
The student debt, the house payment for the house that hasn’t sold yet, the crisis of faith in my supposed calling, I feel them each dropping off. The only stress left by the time I have attached the leader is the loss of my daughter.
Yet, hers is a welcomed sadness. I didn’t come to forget her loss, but to be quiet with it – alone.
Opening my flybox, I pull out a dry-fly – the elk hair caddis. I know I’ll probably have better success with a olive bed-head wooly bugger – I almost always do. Nonetheless, part of the ritual is the dry-fly.
The First Cast
I hop out onto a large rock at the edge of the shallows. Gently moving my right arm back and forth, I let out line. After a half-dozen or so passes, I gently place the line down on the water’s surface where a trout might be cruising.
The tuft of elk-hair floats serenely on the water. I give all my focus to watching the water and the fly. It gently sways on the water as the wind moves over the lake. I slowly gather line in my left hand.
Feeling myself tense, I am fully in the moment with the water, the invisible fish, the mountain, and the sky. I am nowhere else, neither in time or place. I am fully present on the lake, on the mountain, watching this stupid fly.
Now We are Fly Fishing
Nothing happens. I try several more casts without any luck. I start to think about what fly I should try next: parachute adams, royal wulff, beadhead woolly bugger.
At that moment, I hear soft “plop” from the lake. The fly is no longer visible. I raise my right arm quickly, trying to set the hook, the fly emerges quickly from under the water – without a fish.
Fly fishing is ritual mindfulness. It seems that as soon as the future starts to steal your consciousness away, the fish and the water remind you of the pressing need of the present.
The trout, the line, the rod, the fly, the wind all demand such attention that you cannot enjoy fly-fishing without being a 100% present. When the mind wanders, you inevitably miss a strike, or catch your fly in stream-side brush.
Only 100% of you will suffice when fly – fishing. No less.
Heed the Lesson
I take the hint. I stop casting. Taking the elk-hair caddis in my fingers, I cut the leader and place the fly back into my box. I take out a woolly bugger and carefully attach it to the leader. After checking its fastness, I hop back to shore.
I walk to the other side of the lake where the mountainside plunges in the water with rocky abandon. Balancing on loose rock and snow I manage to dance over to a sturdy ledge which gives me lateral access to a cliffshelf. Beginning to swing my arm, I let out the line again.
I hear the bedhead plop softly into the water in front of the cliff as I finish the cast. Waiting 20 seconds, I let it sink deeper into the water.
I begin a slow figure of eight retrieval of the streamer. The line gently wrapping around the fingers of my left my hand. Suddenly, the line tightens and the tip of the rod bends sharply.
I firmly and quickly raise my right arm, I can feel the hook set well. The fish cuts to the left, the line singing as it splices the water’s surface. I can feel the strength of the fish – normally fish this high are small and hungry, barely fighting.
I slowly give the fish some line, keeping the rod bent in the process. The fish takes the extra line and jumps. It sparkles in the alpine sun as it sails 18 inches about the water’s surface.
I let the fish play for another 30 seconds or so and the resistance slackens. I begin to retrieve the line again. The fish protests, but with less vigor. The distance between him and I narrows. Soon, he is next to the ledge I am standing on, inches below surface. A beautiful fish.
With my left hand keeping the line taut, I extract him from the water with my right. Placing him on the granite ledge and holding him in place with my left hand which still has the rod, I deftly grab my needle drivers and thread them into his mouth, catching hold of the hook and removing it.
I gently place him back in the water and watch him swim off into the deep, clear water. “That was a nice fish,” I say out loud. Only the wind responds.
I clamber off the the ledge and over to my pack. Laying my rod against the pack, I sit down. I take in the mountainside, the lake, the upper coulee in the distance. Snow still hangs there in the shade.
I watch a shadow of a cloud glide across glacier-scoured granite mountainside, a golden eagle rides a thermal. The cloud reminds me of my daughter and how I would have like to have shared these moments with her.
I welcome the stinging sadness and let myself feel it fully. It feels needed. I breath the thin air deeply as a few tears form. Not a wailing, gnashing of teeth kind of pain, just a simple reminder of a love lost – yet still here.
I stop short of mourning the high country fishing trips we never had. Because we never had them, the future has not yet been and never was. Hell, she might’ve hated fishing, I don’t know. But it is nice to sit and pretend we would have done this together.
So, I sit for a while longer, feeling her fully. 100% present in this moment of grief and joy and peace. For a short time, I am nowhere else.