Austin and I left at dawn. We crossed the wide river at a tailout and entered a dense forest of hemlock and sycamore trees. Walking through dew and morning shadows, we quietly moved downstream toward a favorite, brushy island section for one final fishing trip.
Austin graduated from Penn State a few days before our trip last week, and he’s moving to North Carolina next week. And while many farewells in life are accompanied by a sincere “I’ll be back soon,” neither of us were willing to tell each other that lie. Sure, life may bring Austin back sooner than later. Or ten years from now I may be talking about a good friend whom I miss and haven’t seen for a decade. It’s hard to predict.
I like that. A good life is unpredictable. If you have enough lines in the water, something unexpected is bound to happen. We might label those events good or bad, but I for one am happy for the variety. I’m glad this life is full of surprises.
Austin and I walked a mile or more, catching glimpses of the alternating whitecaps and glassy flats just over the hillside to our left, until finally we scampered over that hill, ending up just downstream of an island and on the northern riverbank, staring into grey-green, flowing water, filled with hope and possibility.
Immediately, we shed our extra layers. At the truck, the air had been cold, but in the half hour of walking and stream crossings, the clouds gave way to a powerful sun. It burned off the residual haze and retired any remaining feelings of early morning. I commented to Austin that the sun was upstream of the fish too, and directly in their eyes (the worst of all possible scenarios, in my opinion.) And I started thinking about the bends in the river where we might escape direct sun if the fishing was slow.
I fully expected the fishing to be slow, but that’s not what the river gave us. Instead, we were granted a day like I haven’t seen for a long while. Every spot that should give up a trout gave up two. Average casting was rewarded with good fish. And dogged determination to adjust and perfect a drift at prime spots was rewarded with big fish — even a couple of Whiskeys. Hour after hour, our day grew into something special. We fished alongside one another and took turns, visiting, talking of the past and the future, and remembering our few years of friendship without ever addressing it so directly.
Around 11:00 the caddis turned on, and trout responded. They began taking our upper tag nymphs, just like they’re supposed to, and good fishing improved to excellent. Honestly, it was the kind of day where you get a little miffed when a likely spot doesn’t give up a fish, the kind where you expect — you predict — the takes on your best drifts. Like a hanging curve ball as it approaches a cleanup hitter, you anticipate a future. And when you do swing and miss in a perfect seam, you can’t help but shake your head and wonder how that just happened.
Austin and I wrapped up our day around 1:00 pm because life forced a conclusion. And I don’t know that I’ve ever been so satisfied with a half day trip. Even in the best times, I’m always left wanting more. But this day? This farewell trip with Austin, was just right.
— — — — — —
Charmed by the quality fishing, I planned a return trip three days later. I would pick up right where Austin and I left off, at the bottom of the run behind the low head dam. The caddis should be on by 10:30. And it wouldn’t matter if the sun was in front of the fish or behind them. The fish would be easy. The same patterns would work, fished the same way. It would all turn out so well that I invited my friend Bill along.
Of course I knew it wouldn’t happen. I’m not that naïve, and I’ve fished enough to understand the truth. There are no repeats on a thing like this. Bill knew it too, but we hoped for the best and were open to the unpredictability.
We encounter better conditions. The morning was cloudy, it felt fishy and smelled good out there. But right away, we knew things were different. The fish were off. And an hour or so in, we’d both brought only a few smaller fish to the net. We began rotating through tactics and patterns. We moved upstream faster. Then we were surprised by a herd of four anglers who front ended us. We continued moving upstream but were eventually surrounded by the herd. So we picked up the pace. We covered more water and fished worse. Just a few more fish, and with only two hours left on the clock, Bill and I relocated four miles downstream.
In those final hours, I caught a few more trout, but the caddis never did turn on. At the end of my run, I walked the high bank to search for Bill. I found him nymphing a thigh-deep section of hard water, facing the far bank and casting with intensity.
I watched Bill fish from a distance. I paused and ate a sandwich, sitting on a grassy ledge mixed with underbrush that becomes brilliant goldenrod every fall. Life felt still for a while as I added another memory of fishing and friendship on this river.
I was just about to yell up to Bill, to point to my left wrist with the other hand, using the universal symbol for, “It’s time.”
But I didn’t.
Instead, I sat and reflected on things that are and things that might have been. I thought of Austin and our friendship. I thought of Bill and the connections we all carry between each other. I stared at the mud, and watched crawling beetles begin their season in the warm sun. I lost track of everything for a while and felt at peace. Then Bill broke the stillness.
“Whoa! There’s one.”
I’ve always said that the best rivers give you at least one chance at a really good fish every day, as long as you put in the time, fish honestly and fish hard. And even on a slow day, this river didn’t let us down.
Some days are diamonds. Some days are rocks.
Some doors are open. Some roads are blocked.
Sundowns are golden, then they fade away.
If I never do nothing, I’m coming back some day.
— Tom Petty, “Walls”
Being a musician, people often ask me about my favorite song. I’ve had many, and like a lot of good things, it changes once in a while. But Petty’s message in this song hits me hard, it rings true because this is how I understand life.
I try to give everything I have to everything I do. I’ve always lived this way, from the time I was a boy. Now I coach Little League baseball teams and I teach them to play the game with all of their hearts and souls, leaving nothing inside that they might later wish they’d given over to the game. And when we lose, it should hurt. But only for a little while, because the next chance to win is coming soon.
The beauty of this life is in knowing that the best things don’t come around every day, accepting that it’s all unpredictable and trusting that the bad things will be followed up with something better. You have to let it all happen, and at the same time get out there and make your own way.
A good life is 50/50. That’s just the way it goes. Not much turns out how you planned. There are ups, downs, highs and lows. There are fears and joys, and somehow it all blends together in the end.
There’s something wonderful, calming and reassuring about that balance.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N