By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine July/Aug 2012
The Mousam, like many tidal rivers, fishes best on an outgoing tide. That said, I am always intimidated by the volume of water that departs through the narrow channel at its mouth. The retreating current carries a bounty of feed, and the Stripers stack up in a rip that cleaves the sand of the outlet. It is a river with half its heart born of the sea: the ebb and flow of tide, saltwater, and sand scour a riverbed that is raw-boned and ragged. On the northern side of the mouth, a jagged rock shelf defines the intersection of river and ocean, and limited space dissuades faint-hearted fly casters; it also guarantees solitude. The southern shore describes a crescent sweep of sand beach, and since it allows room for an unhindered back-cast, it is the obvious choice of the fair-weather angler. The beach often finds itself clogged with fishermen come mid-morning. In Spring, I plant myself alone on the north side, morning after morning, and make short, choppy casts into the fog.
I grew up close to the ocean, but never fly-fished the salt until my late teens, and I must say that I have never felt thoroughly at home in tidal waters. Time and again, the saltwater deceives me, taking a place that I think I know and reforming it beneath my feet. Early in my relationship with the Mousam, a friend and I decided that our best chance for a coveted 40+ bass lay in a midnight venture, for the big fish were sure to feed aggressively under the shadows of the nighttime sky. We wore headlamps, and accessed the river from the accommodating south side, assuming correctly that no other fishermen would be present at the late hour. The night produced a steady, late-April rain that dumped an excess of water into the already swollen river. As we entered the shallows, we felt the pull of the current on our ankles, and as we waded deeper, we both fell to our knees as our footfalls kicked the sandy bottom out from under us. We quickly regained the certainty of the beach, and from there surveyed the current, the light from our headlamps dancing on the water. Standing there, wet in the dark, the concept of a river’s treachery first occurred to me, and I shivered at the prospect of a swallowing tide pulling me from my feet into the belly of the ink-black sea. From that moment on, I sought more solid ground from which to chuck my Clousers.
One morning, I made my way in the dark to the ragged north side, picking my path between boulders and mats of rockweed. The salt spray joined a dawn mist that smothered the river and sea, stifling it somehow before me. As the dawn slowly broke, birds collected above the braid of outgoing water, gathering to dive and slash driven bait that pocked the surface. I took my favorite solitary perch, and tangled at once into a schoolie that surged with its brethren in the outgoing tide. Summer was near, and each morning to date had brought more and bigger fish to the mouth, and more fishermen to the opposite shore. I watched them move in again as the day lightened, watched them flailing with their brand-new tackle, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit superior. Alone on my rocks, I was hitting all of the spots that the fair-weather sports couldn’t, and I don’t mind saying that I was putting on a clinic. Lipping another bass, I looked up casually to make certain of my audience, and in doing so I noted two older gentlemen who had arrived well after the party had begun. They took a position on the downstream end of the queue, easing further and further into a mist that served to disconnect them from the beach and water. One of these men, in an obvious attempt to reach the school in spite of his limited casting, took one step too many into the cleft sand of the bank. I stood alone on my ledge and watched as he slowly, inescapably, slipped deeper into the edge of the rip, clawing for a shore that was sliding past as the sand bloomed liquid around him. As he descended, he never spoke, but he twisted his aging body upstream to look with pleading horror at the other fishermen. All present watched as the morning steadily engulfed him. It was an appalling thing to see, as it happened so gradually, and for a moment I myself revisited that sickening departure of sand from beneath the boots.
I suppose that any and all of us who find joy in the natural world come up, at some point, against the utter fickleness of nature. Perhaps this is why we put ourselves out in the cold, dark, and wet, to remember, if only in passing, how frail we actually are. But the bottom drops quickly out of a fish-filled dawn when the horror of another man’s departure makes itself plain right in front of you. I watched the man and noted distantly, abstractly somehow, that a hollow panic was rising in me just as time slowed to a creep; none of it happened fast. No violent suck and pull of current tore the drowning man away from our world and into one much colder, and darker, and more powerful. Instead, he simply seemed to slip silently away, and I remember that his face was ghost-pale in the mist, and his hands clawed upstream, grasping at a flow of water that he could not come close to holding onto. I looked across the river mouth. The line of men on the southern shore stood stalk still, agape, silently watching this thing transpiring. I surprised myself by saying, in a voice that was immediately smothered by the mist and the crash of waves, “that man is going to drown”. The words were useless to me and to him. I was fifty yards from the man, a sucking rip of current and rock and frigid water between us, and I grew cold with helplessness. In those paralyzed moments, the top of the man’s head disappeared into the swirl and he was gone.
In an instant, with an acuity I will never forget, an upstream fisherman turned, snappily hauled his line from the water, and laid it into the downstream fog. He stripped, and in a moment his rod-tip dipped and sprung, and he leaned back with steady, inside pressure against the pull. As the mist parted briefly, I followed his line from rod-tip to water, and noticed a hump of body into which the line disappeared. The current pushed on the drowning man, the upstream fisherman held tight, and the line swung out of the rip into a quiet eddy of saltwater and sand.
I watched as the old man dragged himself from the water, clearly shocked with exhaustion and fear. He crawled up into drier sand, and rose to his feet, while the onlookers all turned back to the water with a respectful discomfort. He stood, nodded a ‘thanks’ to his rescuer, and headed sheepishly up the beach to empty his waders, dragging the rod he’d automatically retained behind him. The hero-caster, seemingly undisturbed by the whole ordeal, rearranged the line in his stripping basket, and went back to fishing. I watched him. He soon found himself fast to another small bass, which he hand-landed and released. I turned to my line in the current, hanging there in the place where the river and ocean had long ago met, and I noticed my heart still pounding. Across from me, the assembled fishermen had all taken a step back towards the beach, aware, perhaps for the first, of the shifting sands beneath their feet. In the rising morning, though, panic had soured my joy, and I reeled up and snipped the fly. It was a day or two before I could trust the Mousam again, if in fact I ever learned to trust her again at all.