Flyfishing is as much art as sport. And it’s not even my art so much as the joy of taking my place and fading into the art all around me when I’m doing it right.
If you wade into the Little Red River in Arkansas at just the right time, day, and season, you can find a mist over the water, which is reflecting the color of the leaves and the sounds of geese splashing and telling one another of a hole with food in it. After you do it a few times, you learn to recognize the correct coldness of the water through the insulation of your waders to know whether trout are likely to be feeding, or if it’s too warm. Even if you know the temperature is not quite right, the fishing is still good if you can sight a rainbow in the water or a fellow predator on the bank.
On one such occasion, I spent my morning happily matching wits and skill with an otter on the opposite bank. Spoiler: he won. But for hours he and I and a trout under the ripply surface were playing cat and mouse. I would watch where the otter was looking, cast my line to place a sowbug an inch or two away from the shore on that side and below the otter, and I would feel just enough of a nibble to pull, for nothing. The otter would chuckle and as I pulled my line in for another cast the otter would dive in, chase, and come out with “my” fish. When my nemesis took it up higher onto the bank I had a better chance, and took advantage of it, catching and releasing. The otter would return to the game though, sometimes spooking my fish and sometimes catching it. As he had no grocer and I did, I didn’t begrudge him the food. We had a good time, and I felt like part of the natural equation, rather than an intruder in a big loud boat.
There is a code among flyfishermen: don’t invade the other guy’s space and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk. This art form first captured my attention in Scotland, when I didn’t even know what it was as I watched old men in the River Ness casting graceful lines that seemed to loop and float on air. That hooked me, even though I didn’t start until I moved to Arkansas.
The Little Red is a dammed river, the headwaters flowing from Greer’s Ferry Lake. This means sometimes there is a heavy flow requiring boat fishing only, and sometimes there is a light flow allowing wading on the shoals. In the fall of 2004, a couple of friends and I pulled on our waders, put our kayaks in the water below the dam, and paddled down stream looking for the big browns for which this river is famous. We stopped when we saw a promising pool and cast out to see if anything wanted to play, catching a little and – like I said above – enjoying the nature and the fact that we were part of it. We floated and cast and floated and cast, and around midday we came upon a fork in the river. The right channel was obviously the main channel, but the left had swift water, was shady, and was appealing for the fishing as well as the paddling. “I took the road less traveled, and it made all the difference.” Again. (M&Ms; Roll Permit)
My two friends were far enough behind that they could see which way I went but I could not consult with them on the decision. As I entered the channel to the left, the water speed increased and the paddling was more enjoyable. I wasn’t paddling now so much as guiding the boat in the current and I noticed a tree laying across the narrow channel ahead. The roots of the tree were still buried low in the left bank, leaving the top of the trunk maybe 3 or four feet above the surface of the water on the right bank. I estimated that I could paddle to that side and smoothly duck under to continue on to the next playful trout. Apparently though, the horn that signals heavier water flow was inaudible this far down stream, and I hadn’t noticed the water level creeping up as I had been paddling. The strengthening current was pushing me towards the submerged end of the tree on river left, and I fiercely as I was paddling to the right, I touched the tree right in the center of the channel and the force of the water pinned me to the bark, refusing to let me move.
As I tried to pull myself and my boat upward and toward the opening, the rising water began to seep into my kayak, pulling me downward.
I could feel the skin of my right arm rubbing raw on the bark of the tree as I hugged it trying to stay up.
The cold water was now running into my waders, numbing my legs and panicking my head. I struggled to keep my face above the surface until I knew I had to take a deep breath before i went under. Once I was forced to let go, it was a new world and I thought it was the end of this world. It’s true that you see your life flash before your eyes.
I must’ve squinted a little because I can remember seeing the river bottom and the light shining through the tree above, but my eyes were mostly closed and I remember seeing my wife M, and C, and baby L. That’s when I started fighting, knowing that if I didn’t, they wouldn’t have a dad. My legs were locked into the snug cockpit of the boat by the pressure of the water, my waders being full, and my legs being numb from the cold. I couldn’t move them to get out. I began pushing inward on the outside of my knee to bend it enough to free myself, and it finally, suddenly gave way and I bobbed to the surface, gasping for air and trying to yell to my friends who were coming the same way. They made it to the left bank and helped me out to catch my breath and sit for a minute while they caught my boat, which also come to the top now that I wasn’t holding it down. Once I calmed down, we returned to our boats and continued down river. After some time, we found a bank of neatly cut green grass lawn, sloping down to the river from a cabin. We pulled over here to take my waders off and get the water out, which is when I discovered that the cold water had been my anesthetic until then. Both of the friends were therapists, and apparently knew exactly where to touch a broken knee to test it and produce maximum discomfort. I screamed like a little girl at the unexpected shot of pain, and they secured a ride to the nearest emergency room from the elderly owners of the cabin.
I had broken my own knee with my hands to free myself from certain death by drowning. I did so after seeing MCL and knowing that I didn’t want them to lose their dad even earlier than I did. I would break it again for the same reason.
I sold that boat to my pastor, and only recently have I started kayaking again. I am now quite comfortable underwater, diving, jumping in, and I would gladly retrieve the stupid coins thrown in by the swim teacher, (monstrum) just to be a better student. But I cannot go back; I can only go forward with the lessons from the past.