By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine, May/June 2014
Spring had returned to the plains in a broad brushstroke of light and color, painting the landscape a luminous green. Where the Rockies rose, however, the shadows grew deeper, and the advancing season lurched to a momentary stop. There, on the crumbling hillsides, the world clung to winter, built ream ice in the mornings and refuted the advancing spring. You could see the stalemate of the seasons then, where the foothills turned to mountains in the Front Range of Colorado. Through the heart of it all, the rivers ran cold, clear out of one season and into the next, cleaving a pathway from winter into spring. Standing in those rivers, in that suspension of time and season, a fellow could see some moments growing long and stubborn, while still others retained a cascading urgency. It was a concurrence of whispers and roars, lessons and canticles: the seasons at an impasse, while a river cascaded right through it all, and the little blue-winged mayflies unstuck from the connective tissue, to rise in their ephemeral flight. They too made a lifetime of a few short moments, aware only of rising and returning, as if it was all that they had.
The day had grown gray and spitting, as mountain May days are wont to do. What fell was something not quite crystalline, just a wet imitation of snow that collected on the collar and dripped down the neck. It was lovely dry fly weather, despite the chill. The Big Thompson River above Loveland was in spectacular pre-runoff form, tumbling out of the Park to split and braid in the straightaways, easing into some lazier turns where the grade mellowed above the iron bridge. Where the bends were widest, the river snaked along cliff walls and went silent, though the silence breathed a bit, and the water was black in the shadows. You couldn’t help but believe that big secrets hid in those places.
It was big secrets I was after that day, or the unraveling of them, as I stood in the shallows beside Barto Dean. He was leaning in close to my downstream shoulder, watching my fingers dance over the dry fly box while I surveyed both the water and my bugs, exalting in what was a foregone conclusion. Upstream, a riffle gave way to a slick, and built a bubble line against the outside of the bend. There, against the canyon wall, little eddies curled and recycled themselves, and collected islands of foam. Inside of that, the Olives had started to pop. In precise choreography, noses bulged the pool, sipping with the assurance that such abundance brings to bear. For Barto Dean, this was all a short cast and a high-stick drift away, and I could see it was going to be a cake-walk. I bet even Barto could see it, though he’d never before taken a fish on a fly, or tried to do so. I pulled a little parachute from the box and quick tied it on. All of the magic in the world was right there before us, and I could barely wait to get Barto lit up on a trout, and change his world for the better.
I tested the tippet. It grew taught and the knot slipped out, and the trout continued to sip. I re-tied without clipping the pigtail end, and the knot slipped again.
Barto watched patiently.
I snipped the tippet back four inches and re-tied, but dropped my fly, lunged after it, soaking my gloves.
The river snaked against the canyon wall. Big trout ate. The sky spit something resembling snow.
I cursed and gritted my teeth and looked at my leader, which was way too short, and I added two feet of 5X. I got my fly fixed, tested it; it held. I handed the rod to Barto Dean, who was still smiling.
I’d been grumbling through my little fit of failures, but we were clear of all that now, and the bugs were still popping, and the weather held steadily on the verge of something worse. I put the rod in Barto’s hand, took his hand in mine, guided his cast up and across. It sploshed down angrily and tracked badly, and I never even let go, just lifted and re-presented, up a bit further in a juicier lane. The fly spun and the leader grabbed current, and I worked Barto’s arm through an elaborate mend that only served to drown the little parachute. I cursed again.
Barto Dean smiled.
I asked for the rod and took it, in the name of education and assistance, and I false cast enough times to dry the hackle. I cast upstream again, and rode the drift down the seam I liked, and I got eaten just like that. And now I had one on, and I’d hand that rod to Barto Dean, and make him happy for the fish he’d retrieve, his first fly-caught trout, and we’d be elated and congratulatory and reverent and grateful, and then we’d release it and do it all again, and again, and again, until the hatch petered out, and success overwhelmed us. But in the moments of thinking these things, I outpaced that deep-bellied brown, and broke him off. I handed the rod to Barto Dean just as the electricity left it, and for a moment there, we held my failure together in our hands.
And I was mad. And I was damned if I wasn’t going to rig up as fast as humanly possible, and get Barto Dean into his first fly-caught trout… Barto Dean who just stood there smiling at me, and shaking his head, while a light flickered in his dark eyes.
‘Look,’ said Barto Dean, commandeering the rod. ‘You need to slow the hell down. The forest for the trees, right? We’ll get one. Or not. Either way, we’re here to enjoy this. No need to hurry; we’ve got all the time in the world.’
Which is, and was, a complicated assertion. That day in May, while I struggled and fumed, and Barto Dean smiled beatifically, and tried to teach me patience, he was dying. He knew it. I knew it. The rest of the men scattered up and down the Big Thompson knew it, and many were in the same place. Barto Dean had been, for the year prior, watching his body turn against itself. An advancing cancer had taken hold in his esophagus and bored its way into the bedrock of him. His response to this, the one he shared outwardly anyway, was one of mild puzzlement. That Barto Dean’s flesh could have turned on him seemed laughable, for his physicality, even then, remained so profound. He was a year shy of forty, with a wrestler’s build and wrists that were corded with muscle. He had that competent gait of an athlete, and an economic comfort of motion that now interrupted itself when the cancer tipped his balance, or chilled his fingers, or wore him out. Angered lymph nodes showed on the back of his thick neck. In the harder moments, I offered an arm to steady him, or my gloves to warm his hands. He’d look at me smiling, confused in the world’s perception of him as someone in need of help, confused in his body’s traitorous response to his will. Then, he’d matter-of-factly shove his hands into his armpits to thaw them out. Barto Dean was chiseled from a slid block of life; that life could be eluding him was barely comprehensible.
But there we were. And with Barto’s words there opened for us one of those lengthening moments, the hesitation of time wherein each breath is all that you need to be wholly, and peacefully, alive. We sat down on the gravel bar, and re-built the leader correctly, and we talked about knots. We talked about Barto Dean’s family, and his child, and what had drawn him to this Reel Recovery retreat, where he was fishing alongside other men, some intensely sick, some intensely well, but all unfairly conversant in the whims of mortality. We talked about fear, and faith, and fear. And, after an amount of time that eluded us both, we circled back to trout, and the catching of them. The bend pool remained dappled with rises, which was a wonderful thing, and walked back to the river, and Barto Dean caught trout. And I honestly don’t remember any of them in particular, or how many, or what exactly we took them on. But I remember, these many years later, Barto Dean in his blue jacket, dripping wet and bare-headed and smiling, attached firmly to all the magic in the world.
I like to think I slow down better now, thanks to Barto Dean. I like to think I find the spaces in which the moments stretch out like lengthening shadows, and go silent, but not vacuous. I like to think I’m not afraid. But when I am afraid, and when the cascade of things trips me, and saddens me, and fills my mind with noise, I think of him. He was ephemeral too; rising and returning, like the mayflies, and the seasons, and the words that touch our hearts.
Thank you, Barto.