Catch and Release
By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine, November/December 2015
The other day, my wife Kim dropped a pair of nearly-new Costa del Mar sunglasses into the Battenkill River. I can’t say exactly how this happened, as I was in the downstream boat, blithely missing fish while my glasses remained firmly in place. For all of you salvage experts, the exact location of the incident was just upstream of a blown-down maple in full foliage, on the high side of the New York State line, and on the downstream side of the river’s headwaters in Dorset, Vermont. Needless to say, if you are able to pinpoint the exact location of the sunken treasure by these less-than-precise coordinates, the Costas are yours for the taking, with my blessing.
There are a few details of this loss that rankled me for more than a week. Foremost is the fact that the glasses were a gift from me, and the hard-won culmination of a few day’s guide tips, or the equivalent of a month’s worth of good, canned, IPA. When I thought of the glasses on the river bottom, in my mind’s eye I saw two limp and undulating likenesses of Ben Franklin, ethereal and out of reach, but no less representative of my time and affability. But harder still for me to swallow was the fact that Kim, a minimalist at heart, has refused to put a tether of any sort on ANY pair of glasses EVER, much to my disproval. She’s done this for years, shrugged off my grandmotherly suggestions that she buckle up and wear a helmet and hide her money in a zippered belt (what for the pickpockets and loose women that frequent our southern Vermont hill town). So she’s the cool cucumber, and I’m the nervous Nelly; but who ended the day with the glasses still on his head, and who didn’t… am I right or am I right?
Now when you are married, and one of your longstanding gripes about your spouse plays out in such a way as to shine a favorable light in your direction, you are faced with three options: you can, and some do, relish the opportunity to dance around and gloat, singing a little ‘nyah-nyah-nyah, I-told-you-so’ song from the take-out all the way to the bar. This rarely bodes well for the cultivation of those delicate home fires, or for the success-rate of the unborn progeny. The best of us smile the beatific smile, and simply take the higher road, calmly relaying some Zen koan about material and immaterial, and sand through dust-dry fingertips. And some, like me, squeeze a psycho-emotional lemon into the wound by shaking our heads quietly and, just as our parents did to our tortured teenage selves, relating a sincere disappointment in the lack of foresight that our beloved’s choices brought to bear. “I guess you’re just not ready for nice things…” I thought but fortunately refrained from saying, as I helped haul the boat onto the trailer.
Kim weathered my chosen treatment pretty well, and in her defense there was some story of the boat getting stuck in a strainer and a quick change-of-direction cast and a big, articulated fly that whipped the line past her face and wrenched the glasses from her forehead. She didn’t openly admit fault, nor did she acknowledge my ongoing warnings that just such a disaster might one day befall her. She took my little tssk-tssk in stride and said not a word more about it, giving me the sort of look that indicated I’d be well-served to follow suit. And so I did, until yesterday, when I lost my glasses in the exact same way.
In my case, I have no excuse. I was fishing a remote brook trout pond near the Canadian border, the day was placid and calm, the craft was a beamy aluminum rowboat with more than enough volume to catch a small tanker-load of errant shades. There were no obstacles or impediments for a mile in any direction, the trout were wild and chunky, eating dry flies with splashy abandon, and I’d been casting like a Rajeff all day long. When a good trout rolled right behind me, I interrupted my intended forward cast to lay a long backhand out over my shoulder. I did so, and turned my head to watch the line zing out, and somehow swept my $200 Smiths clean off my face, Croakie and all, and into the drink. Kim, fishing with a friend a hundred yards off, didn’t hear my curses because I held them in, where I figured they’d do more damage. And as the curses rattled around in my conscience, the glasses sank languidly through the murky depths to disappear forever, to me anyway. I afterwards realized I could have gone in after them, but I suppose the subconscious recognition of due punishment kept me immobile through those heart-sinking moments. Plus there were leeches in there, and they are scary and gross.
Losing things on the water is a curious marriage of littering and penance, a gesture of our unintended sacrifice to the fishing that we love, and the waterways we frequent. If you could mine the rocky bed of the Yellowstone River, or the sands of Monomoy Flats, or even the conifer banks of the Beaverkill, just imagine the treasures you’d find. Generations of anglers have unwittingly left rods and reels and all manner of accessories throughout the world’s great fisheries, and the better anglers have anguished over those losses. I know that a Hardy reel that was briefly under my ownership lies somewhere alongside Route 14 in Craftsbury, Vermont, and it has lain there for nearly two decades, despite my sleepless nights. I feel somehow that I owe it to that little masterpiece of British ingenuity to anguish over it still. Needless to say, I’ve never left a reel on the bumper again.
But maybe the better course of action is to consider these losses true sacrifices, and gifts to the lucky ones who come downstream, or upstream, or over the sands behind us. Years ago on the Missouri River my friend Breuer and I happened upon the boat bag of an absentee angler. We looked all around, but no boats were hauled up on or near that particular piece of island, and by Missouri River standards anyway, not a soul was in sight. We of course did the obligatory dump-out, and rifled through the poor guy’s stuff like two kids at the end of a fruitful Halloween. After we’d taken stock of the booty, we methodically arranged it into two piles, one for each of us, depending on our needs. This bag was a treasure trove: reels, lines, extra spools, and literally thousands of dollars in flies. Then, of course, we found the license in the bottom with the name and address, and we packed all the booty back up and called the guy from the bar in Craig. He was concerningly ungrateful, and never made good on his promise to buy us each a steak at Izaak’s, but we left his bag at the fly shop anyway, and I figure he was glad we did.
I sometimes think that we should have kept that bag of goodies, or at least tried a little harder to let the license blow into the river. It seems that the things we leave behind, the things that may be worth thousands and thousands of our dollars and our hours, may be well left in our pasts. I mean, it’s our fault, after all, that we forgot or dropped or walked away from these things, and they might be better kept by someone else, someone who cares a little more, or drinks a little less.
So the lesson, you ask, wondering what in tarnation this little tale of woe and ego and conscience and carelessness was supposed to communicate after all? Well, I guess it’s like this: glasses will come and they will go, as will all the guide tips and cool gadgetry, and in the end, perhaps we were just taking care of these things until they slipped through our dust-dry fingertips. Maybe, at root, that is what we are looking for in all of our fishing, the fleeting moment of ownership and then the willing release. We let the fish go more often than not, and it steals nothing from the experience, or from its permanence. Maybe we should be better about doing the same for our on-stream losses, enjoying the material trappings while we have them, but not anguishing over their departures. Chances are, they’ll be found and used again, or at the very least they’ll become precious and expensive aquarium toys. That in itself is the release, the reminder that what we are after is not possession, but presence in the moment. The good stuff is the stuff you don’t have to put a lanyard on, like a fly fishing wife or a wild brook trout pond or looking pretty damn cool in the glasses you are wearing at the moment. Let’s lean back into these things and feel the throbbing weight of them, while we let the physical stuff go free.