It’s a question I ask of my friends and those whom I’ve just met. What are you working on? Because, whether we realize it or not, we’re all working on something.
“What do you do for a living?” is a common small-talk question. But I don’t ask that one much. I save it for later. What do you love? What are you passionate about? And what are you working on? Those are the more interesting queries that get to the core of each person.
So I’ve asked these questions for years. And it surprises me how often the answer is a blank stare. Some people simply don’t know what they love — yet. And that’s alright. Maybe they’re still searching for some passion in life. But inevitably, it’s those who light up with enthusiasm that I connect with. Tell me what you’re into. The topic hardly matters. I can listen for hours to someone who knows their craft from every angle, who understands what they love, why they care about it and what they plan to learn next.
I was driving a small Nissan pickup, halfway down a steep and rocky logging road, somewhere in the Pennsylvania backcountry. The truck crept down a small boulder field of mixed slate and sandstone. And the frame held solid while the suspension complained against larger obstacles. . . . That perfect, hour-long slow climb down a tram road and into the Fields Run valley was the beginning of a wonderful, memorable adventure . . .
There’s a world unseen below the surface. The riverbed weaves a course and directs the currents, giving shape to its valley. Water swirls behind rocks. It moves north and south against submerged logs. The stream blends and separates, merges and divides again as vertical columns rise and fall — and all of this in three dimensions. . . . Eventually, knowing and admiring what lies beneath is as easy as seeing what flows above.
These places change, but they are more constant than shifting, more lasting than fading. The stream that I fished as a boy every April still holds the same trout, and I follow those familiar bends upstream around rocky mountains. Fallen trees have diverted the channels enough to move the main flow twenty yards east or west, but permanence is more powerful. Here, change is minimal. And that’s comforting . . .
. . . He feels it too. And so he’s drawn to the woods, to these places larger than his small life that often seems too big. I’ve been doing the same for forty-three years . . .
While all five senses blend together into the rich, unmatched experience of fishing through woods and water, only two are necessary for catching trout — sight and feel. These two senses combine to tell us a story about each drift. Some of our tactics require both, while others require just one. But take away both sight and feel, and the angler is lost . . .
The whole thing started with four fishermen and a long email chain. That quickly became unwieldy, so Sloop and I set up a private message board for our small group of Pennsylvania anglers and titled it, Troutbitten. Each of us invited close friends — trusted fishermen — the kind of guys who could keep a secret, even after a few beers. And for a short while, a small, core group of guys called Troutbitten fished hard and shared their discoveries with one another . . .
In my early twenties I drove a delivery van for a printing company while finishing the last few semesters of my English degree. Life was pretty easy back then, and I spent much of my leisure time playing guitar and fishing small backcountry streams for wild trout. It was a tight-quarters casting game. And making the transition from the five-foot spinning rod of my youth to a much longer fly rod gave me some trouble. Until, that is, I received one of the simplest and most transformative pieces of fly fishing advice . . .
I sat. And I laid the fly rod across my knees like a hunter’s rifle. I waited and watched. I scanned the river and sank deeper into the mossy earth until my breathing evened out.
My heartbeat slowed and recovered its normal pace, having accelerated on the walk in. I was warm and content. I sat with a stillness reserved for moments like these and watched only with my eyes. The silence calmed me until I could feel the blood pulsing beneath my skin. I sat, alive and aware, eager and anticipating, serene and satisfied all at once.
John crossed the bridge with his head down. He watched each wading boot meet a railroad tie before picking up his other foot for the next step. Cautiously, he walked the odd and narrow gait required when walking the tracks. And with nothing but air between each massive railroad tie, he could see the river below.
I’ve never known anyone to fall on a railroad bridge. I suppose you couldn’t fall through. But you’d surely break a leg or twist an ankle with one wrong step on that slick wood.
So I stood by the “No Trespassing” sign, next to the edge of the bridge, and watched my friend slowly make his way toward me. He looked disappointed. And when gravel filled in the gaps between ties, when John was back on solid ground, his head stayed down.
“Did you catch a Namer?” I asked with feigned enthusiasm.
“Ha! Nope, I surely didn’t do that,” John said, waving his hand and brushing off my next question.”