Out of the East
By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine May/June 2012
The Millers River bows out of the east and swells behind a procession of dams that once powered the industry of central Massachusetts. Beyond the mills, it unfolds between willow banks for a mile or two, then tumbles into the cobbles at Farley Flats. A railroad trestle spans the untroubled water at the head of the flats, and its central support cleaves the river in two, funneling the weight of water into a broad, slick pool. The water there is ink-black and cool until summer’s progress warms it through in the upstream shallows. In the correct light I can stand on the cinders of the trestle grade and look downstream, watching trout materialize out of the deep to feed. They hover there, languidly suspended in the current as the events of the day pass by.
On a June evening, standing in the bankside willows, I looked up at the pool slipping towards me. The trestle was mirrored in the stillness of the river, though at intervals its likeness bulged before the nose of a rising trout. Fish sipped, and I added tippet for the delicacy of the drift, snugging the barrel of the blood knot between my thumbs and trimming the tag ends flush. That June day was my thirty-fourth birthday, and I intended to savor it; an evening on my home river under a resplendent summer sky, a pool-full of sipping trout, and a conviction, unfamiliar to me, that I was about to make a killing. I pulled line off the reel until it lay in coils at my feet, and stretched it there, letting it unfurl to hang in the current. I lifted, false cast, and checked sharply, lowering my Adams to light above a steady riser, watching as it floated through dissipating rings back towards me. Not a look. Another whisper cast, another unhindered drift… and another flat refusal. The riser sipped nearer to shore, and I recalculated, letting the Adams ride through the sliver of landscape gliding past. Nothing. I raised the rod-tip and swung the fly towards me, snipped it, and dug around in my bag for the midge box.
Over the next hour, trout fed steadily through the pool, gulping audibly, unconcerned with my presence. I threw everything at those fish, including some patterns that, in polite company, I don’t admit to carrying. Each was spurned and retired to the drying patch, which had begun to resemble the fly-strip that swings from the dairy-barn ceiling back home. A fellow fisherman had taken up residence on the opposite bank, and I noted that he too pawed through his boxes. The sun sank below the ridge-top trees, and I called to him in the stillness
“What’ve you tried?”
“What haven’t I tried…” He smiled at his drifting line, but didn’t look up.
“I think they’re sipping something in the film… just can’t tell what. You tried any spinners?”
“Naw, that’s the one box I had to leave in the truck.” He looked up from the water. “I always leave the box I need in the truck. It keeps me on my toes…” He drifted off, grumbling a bit to himself.
We went back to our trials and our errors, reporting across the river as we worked through our respective quivers.
Just before dark, the pool dimpled with rise forms as though a steady rain had begun to fall. Snipping off another fly in the fading light, I noticed in the corner of my nymph box a tiny Partridge and Yellow soft-hackle, sparsely tied and apparently never used. With the last of the day I tightened the turle knot I favor for small flies, and snipped the tag of tippet as close as I dared. The cast was awkward and open going out, an unfolding disaster that I lacked the skill or the conviction to correct. The fly splunked down with a notable splash. A big belly of line disrupted what seemed to be endless whispered rises… and by the divine grace of an empathic god, the fly disappeared into the ring of an eager taker. Aware of my audience, I played the fish as elegantly as I could, and held towards my companion a fine fourteen-inch rainbow.
I didn’t give him a chance to ask. “Partridge and Yellow… a small one,” I said. “You got anything like it?”
He shook his head no.
“I’ll run one across.”
He waved me off. “Keep fishing… I need to leave soon anyway, and it’s almost dark.”
I blew back the hackles on my fly and cast again. Another solid take, and the fish bulldogged away and sounded, shaking its head among the cobbles at the bottom of the pool. At length I turned it and led it towards the shallows below my slab; another rainbow, this one deep through the belly and longer than the first. I tickled the fish’s flank as I released him, and he disappeared with a push, while the silt of the riverbed bloomed to obscure my hands.
I looked across the stream, flicking water from my fingertips. “Sure you don’t want one?”
“Naw…” He continued to cast the fly that wasn’t working.
“I think I’ll head out then,” I called, reeling up. “Good luck. It’s a lovely night to be out.”
He nodded and smiled, cast again into the pool that had come to boil under the first stars.
In the communion of sportsmen, there are two distinct camps: those who share, and those who don’t. Indeed, there is something undeniably attractive about the fly angler who seems to possess all of the secrets, who catches fish when others can’t and hides his secrets behind a veil of silence and pipe smoke. Lord knows I’ve cast pleading glances at such men in the fading light, with the weight of the horse-collar descending fast upon my shoulders. I confessed this to a friend recently. He was appalled.
“You’d actually ask another guy what he was using? Really? Jesus, when I was a kid, my own dad wouldn’t tell me what he was taking them on. My uncles either… how else besides agonizing over the failures is any sorry bastard ever supposed to learn how to actually look at the water in front of him?” He walked away, shaking his head.
I sometimes wish I were made of such enigmatic stuff. But we all, at some point, admire that which we are not, and I am, after all, one who shares. Perhaps it is my own ego that I’m stroking in doing so, but I’d like to think it stems more from a delicately balanced sense of reciprocity. As a child, it appeared that all anglers besides myself possessed some deeper understanding of the game; they seemed to catch fish at will, and though my will was strong, it was rewarded only with a procession of snagged weeds, logs, and boulders, punctuated at times by a gurgling shiner. In response to my failures, or perhaps in spite of them, others took note. In all honesty, it was those patient souls who’d spent the hours sitting on the bank watching, spent the days drifting fruitless patterns, who allowed me to avoid most of the work that breeds a successful fly fisher. I’ve been lazy, and I know it, and perhaps I’ve lost something in taking the charity of older and wiser fishermen who’ve offered me patterns and praise, or even simply a smile across the rush of river at the landing of fine fish. But then, as I grow older, I am ever more convinced that there is something central in the sharing, the fulfillment that lies in both the passage of experience and the knowledge that its reception is appreciated. Fly fishing is, after all, the finest and most valuable of all angling inheritances, both for the hand that receives and for the one that gives away. It is, I’m convinced, that shared moment on the stream, or over the vise, or even gearing up at the roadside, that makes good days in pursuit of trout all the sweeter.
Walking back to the car on that birthday night, I was oddly happy in the knowledge that the pool continued to boil behind me. I left behind a swirl of nighthawks and an angling problem I’d translated into success. With that second fish landed, I knew that I’d gotten from the evening all I could hope to get. Yet somehow, underneath the satisfaction, there was something more substantial offered by the man across the stream. We’d found, without any expressed understanding, that we were partners in that pool, and it was, as partners, that I’d left it. There was no rivalry between us, or in fact, between us and the trout, but somehow we’d all circled together for a moment to find an answer to something of consequence.