A Captive Audience
By Reid Bryant
On a November afternoon, my friend Brian Price geared up for a bit of urban warfare on the Salmon River near Pulaski, New York. The kings had begun their annual journey, and though the pulse of fish out of Lake Ontario was thinner than usual, there remained the potential for something hook-jawed and far out of scale in the framework of or our eastern rivers. In response, the hopeful had congregated in droves, descending upon a river that, owing to a misallocation of species, has become the northeast’s destination for the big-fish faithful.
Preparing to make his way into the masses, Brian assembled his gear at the truck: he strung up a stout 8 wt with a dirty egg rig, swaddled himself in polypro and wool, and pulled a cap down low on his ears. With the afternoon beckoning, and the roar of the nearest riffle a proximal temptation, Brian buckled his waders and zippered his coat. Then at last, he strapped on the signature piece of his fly-fisher’s kit, namely young Piper with the long blond hair.
Fast approaching a fourth birthday, Piper was something of a veteran on the Great Lakes tribs. She knew all about articulations and hot-head beads, riffle water and tail-outs, and the smug elitism of taking ‘em on the swing. Whether she knew these things academically or empirically was another question, but her short experience on earth had been enriched with angling idiom, and angling lore. In turn she became one of those apples that fell not far from the tree, learning from Brian as much by osmosis as by rote directive. When your house is littered with feathers and fur and rod tubes, fishing becomes the mother tongue.
Young Piper has also acquired that opposition of hope and defeatism that lives in the heart of the salmon and steelhead angler: in her skeptical, blue-eyed stare, the resolve she was given by her father couples with a child’s intrinsic cynicism. You can tell that she presumes most things attempted by overeager adults, her father being one, to be laced with deceit or destined for failure. She’s heard the ‘eat your liver… it’s soooooooo delicious’ speech, and so too the standby ‘I know you’re cold, just one more cast’. But Piper’s trust wins out, and she assumed her position that November day, with her little face as round and glowing as a harvest moon, and blond hair spilling down into the backpack that held her tight to her dad.
It was the typical full catastrophe on the river, with lines every which way and anglers stacked cheek-by-jowl. The gear-chuckers reeled hard, jerked their rod tips, reeled hard again, all the while maintaining a ‘gee warden, I didn’t know’ innocence when they came tight to a snagged fish. The fly-fishers did what they could to steer their indicators through the spider’s web of monofilament, setting up every pause and jiggle. They were less than mindful of the airborne lead that resulted from missed strikes, but became ever mindful of the sidelong glances that indicated a tangle with a gear-chucker’s line would be a tangle indeed. And through the thick of it all there was Piper: ever watchful, ever skeptical, ever hopeful on her dad’s behalf as he picked his way down the bank, in and out of the melee, and into some fresher water.
The afternoon wore on with nary a strike, and the late-season sun sank low. Piper’s suspicions were playing out, and it got cold. But at the point of an island, where the channels converged, Brian ran a deep egg down the trough. Through slanting mist and a tangle of blond hair Piper watched as the indicator dipped and dragged. Brian jerked back with a hard strike, and became fast to something monumental. A few yards out, a brawling buck salmon disapproved vehemently of the sting in his lip.
Over the ensuing hour, a man and a fish played tug-of-war, while a little blond girl rode saddle-bronc. Needless to say, there was plenty of adrenaline, and enough splashing chases and reel-screaming runs to allow Piper to buy in entirely. Through it all (it was later recounted) a squeaky little voice repeated ‘you can do it, daddy, you can do it’. And with a medicine such as that bending nature to will, how could Brian have done anything but land the beast? In the coming snow, and the descending dark, he held a buck salmon in his hands, shaking and breathless for his daughter to feel, as her hair streamed over his shoulder. She beamed at the whims of fate. The fish measured 38 long by 27 around, and was street-fighter mean right to the end. And there is the story of Piper and Brian, and the biggest king salmon that two seasoned anglers ever saw on New York’s Salmon River.
When I heard this tale, and saw the pictures that corroborated it (after all, even fly-fishing fathers can lose their ethical compass when big fish exaggeration comes a-calling), I got a little pang. It wasn’t altogether a father-daughter sappiness that triggered it either. I realized that I, like Brian, try hard to communicate the magic that pulls us back, time and again, to the fishing that we love. In the slicing rip of water that means a fish is making his exit stage right, there is something that grips our souls and squeezes. We can write about it, or photograph it, or make a movie starring Brad Pitt about it, but we can’t communicate it with whole authenticity. Or can we?
I’m well past the kid-wearing years at this point, but I used to strap my girls on my back and go fishing. I remember so vividly a late-summer soiree on Vermont’s Lamoille River, when my Nell was so tiny that, worn on my chest in a bohemian wrapper, I was still able to zip up my vest with room to spare. We fished well into crickets and bats and starlight, and caught a few dinks, and left when nursing time came. My goal then, I now realize, was to share my joy, to share the sounds and sights and smells that score my finest moments. And if I was lucky, and if I dared dream, one day my little girl would associate rushing water and goldenrod pollen and fast-beating hearts with a father who loved her, and loves her still. I knew not as a young man, nor do I know now, how better to communicate that orchestra of sense and emotion than to tuck a captive audience into my vest and go fishing. And so I did, and I hope in turn planted a seed.
In writing and telling stories about fishing, I’ve never hoped to dictate emotion. To the contrary, I’ve always longed to be able, even remotely, to share with a reader something resonant for both of us, something universal. But I don’t know that words can capture it all, can encompass something as precise as the quickened breath of a waited-for rise ring, or the heart-stopping tragedy of a lost fish. When Brian told me the story of the king, and of little Piper with her bright blue eyes, I suddenly realized that he had the medium pegged. I imagined how it must have felt for her, faithful in her father’s ability and footing, lending her conviction to his own, becoming linear to his very heartbeat and hitch when that big salmon took and ran. She was probably a little bit scared by a hook-jawed critter bigger than she, but warmed by her father’s protection. No matter his enthusiasm or acumen as a storyteller, there’s no way Brian could ever have gone it alone, then come home wet and cold, with the moment gone lifeless, and done the story of the salmon enough justice for his daughter. Fortunately for both of them, Piper was there to feel it. I have to think that it etched a little something into her emotional DNA, her angling DNA, or at least into the part of her that loves and understands her dad.
I spent last evening with a fishing friend who is expecting his first child, a daughter, any day. Knowing him as I do, I imagine that the coming months will see a baby girl and a damned good angler wandering the Vermont freestoners with a 3 wt in hand. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of what lies in store for him. After all, in that limited window of wonder, in those few years of utter impressionability and unabashed love, he will have the chance to tell a story. It will be a story rich with tinkling water and mosquitoes and heartbeats and bug dope, and it might well be the best he ever tells. And a little girl will hear it in real time, and I can’t help but believe it will live in her soul, whether she ever picks up a fly rod of her own, or just remains connected, cosmically at least, to a dad who loves her dearly.