I saw the truck when I crested the hill, but I couldn’t see Gabe.
Then the lean man sat up. He stretched slowly and slid off the truck bed, onto his feet and into his sandals. The climbing sun made the blue paint of the pickup bed too hot, and when the shadows were gone, the dirty fisherman’s rest was over.
It was a quick sleep: more than a nap, but less than what happens when consciousness fully drifts away, and Gabe never lost track of his thoughts as he lay quietly in the truck bed dreaming about the next stretch of river.
Gabe leaned back on the hot paint again and grabbed the duffel he used for a pillow. The faded bag was stuffed with clothes: some stained, some clean, and most half-worn-out. He pulled a thin, long-sleeved shirt from the bag and changed, tossing his wet shirt toward a damp pile of gear by the truck tires. The long sleeves were his sunscreen; the beard protected his face; the frayed hat covered his head, and the amber sunglasses filled a gap in between.
Gabe was a trout bum. Not the shiny magazine-ad version of a trout bum either, but the true embodiment of John Geirach’s term: authentic, dirty, and dedicated to a lifestyle without even thinking much about it. He fished on his own terms. He was a part-time fishing guide for the family business and a part-time waiter –or maybe he was a cook — something to do with a restaurant. We never talked much about work. I just know that Gabe’s life was fishing, and everything else was a cursory, minor distraction.
“Did you sleep?” I asked him, as I approached from downstream. Water squirted from the soles of my wading boots, and my creek-soaked pants dripped dark wet circles on the dusty road.
“Nah, not really, but I got what I needed,” he said, as if it didn’t matter.
I can’t remember the last time I took a nap by the river while I could have been fishing, but I had the sense this was a regular thing for Gabe.
As a daytime Dad, full-time musician and part-time writer, I have to make time to to fish. And when I finally get to the river, I sometimes feel like I’d better do it fast. I think a lot of people feel the same: “Here’s my one chance to fish this week, I’ve gotta make something happen NOW.” Trouble is, fish rarely respond to such impatience; I think they sense it somehow. Or more likely, the pace at which we rapid fire the casts, hurriedly change flies, and sprint to the next honey-hole wrecks our chances.
I learned the need for a fisherman’s patience very young, sitting on the bank and watching the stillness of a red and white bobber in my neighbor’s pond: Bump, bump — wait for it. I now have two boys, a wife and a job, so a fishing trip can seem less like leisure and more like a race to the river and back — a desperate attempt to stretch fishing minutes into something more. But Gabe? He has the luxury of patience.
He shifted. “It’s amazing out here,” Gabe said, smiling and stretching his arms to the sky again. He sighed and turned in every direction, as if seeing it all for the first time.
This was one of our favorite places, and we’d fished the section we call “The Long Bends” at least a dozen times together since we’d met. I tracked him down in this same spot one morning after watching one fish after another jump into his net. He stayed a hundred yards ahead of me, catching trout with a fluid routine: Cast. Set. Fish on. Net. Release — repeating through the fog all morning long. I fished fast, but in two hours I couldn’t overtake him. He later admitted that he knew I was there and had set his pace against mine, making sure I wouldn’t catch up or jump ahead to the trout in front of him. When he finally walked from the water and into the woods, I followed and then caught up to him in the small, dirt parking lot. I found a cautiously friendly, vigorous man who fished hard and loved it deeply — a dirty, down-home guy living simply … to fish. And I found a new friend.
The Long Bends will humble the best fishermen often enough that most guys won’t go back. It’s hard, heavy water that weakens even the strongest legs, and there aren’t many fish in the water either. But we like this stretch. Gabe’s thin frame is trained and athletic from wading, and I’ve watched him pick apart the water as efficiently as a wise brown trout. He rests in the pockets, and he narrows his body through heavy currents. He fishes the water like a heron: rod tip high, following his drift with patience and intensity. He’s stealthy — waiting for a chance to strike.
Under the shady hatch of my SUV, I sat on the cooler and tossed Gabe a beer.
“How long are you staying this time?” I asked. “Are you gonna fish this stretch out and then head back?”
Gabe made his home on the other side of the state, but he came to my area often enough that I felt like he was local. I think he did too. Then again, he probably had a lot of places that he called home and a lot of friends who thought he was local.
Gabe opened the truck door, and it creaked a bit as he climbed in. He kept the door open.
The truck was dirty, because a fisherman like Gabe has better things to do. It runs. The wheels turn. It’s reliable enough to get him down the road and deep into places that don’t see many other people with rods, lures, flies or worms. He just fixes what breaks on the vehicle and moves on. Same with his utilitarian fishing gear — it’s sparse, lean and effective. Somehow, Gabe figured out what most of the rest of us cannot understand or will not accept: that nothing else is really any more important than what you’re doing right now. And that fishing is as good of a way to spend your life as any — probably better.
Gabe leaned back on the warm, ragged seat cushion and talked in his relaxed drawl …
“Yeah, I’m gonna fish the upper water, and then head back. My Dad has some filthy-rich guy he wants me to take out on the river tomorrow.”
Gabe propped his feet on the dash and looked at me sideways.
“You know what?” He paused. “There are no millionaire fishermen. I mean … no good ones, at least.” He shook his head. “Those guys have too many other distractions, man. Just imagine what it’s like to do whatever you want, and go wherever you want, and have whatever you want — anytime. How’re you gonna get down in the river hard enough to be any good as a fisherman? Nah … those guys don’t put in the time.”
He had a point. The best fishermen I know are all struggling with something: money, work, marriage problems, addictions, or the daily grind of a complicated life. They come to the river needing something. And they soak up all the things that fishing gives them back. Fishing seems to have an endless supply of those things if you dig deep enough. Wealthy men probably have too many distractions. Money provides the opportunity to pursue every whim. And you don’t become a good fisherman without giving a large part of your life over to it. Men with clean hands and no callouses don’t get dirty enough to understand the game from the inside out.
I drank the beer, packed the cooler, and closed the hatch. Then we shook hands, and I said goodbye to Gabe.
“Keep in touch, buddy.”
“You got it.”
I backed halfway down the dirt road and my phone rang. I stopped to talk with my wife for some time, and then my boys each wanted to say hello. As we talked, I watched Gabe at a hundred yards again. He walked to the riverbank and stood motionless — like the heron. Gabe was still there, staring at the water, when I hung up. Watching. Learning. Waiting. Because he has the time — because he has the freedom — to be patient.
Enjoy the day.