A cruel mistress, gentled

It's possible to give trout too much respect
brown trout fly fishing
Photo: Chad Shmukler

There’s always a fizz of elation when, after driving 75 miles with your mind set on fishing a certain stretch of a certain trout stream—and various happy scenarios playing out in your imagination—you arrive to find the parking area empty. This is especially the case here in Wisconsin, where the streams tend to be small and there typically isn’t a lot of room for competing anglers to operate comfortably.

But when I found a particular parking area on the Tomorrow River empty on a recent warm, sun-splashed afternoon, I was not only elated, I was relieved, too. The place held bad memories for me; in fact, it had been the site of what the great cartoonist H.T. Webster (who grew up in Wisconsin, perhaps not coincidentally) would have immortalized in pen-and-ink as one of Life’s Darkest Moments.

On that occasion I’d pulled into the parking area—a grassy clearing off of a dead-end road—just in time to see the backs of two wadered-up anglers, fly rods in hand and nets suspended from their vests, as they sauntered away from their SUV. It’s deflating as hell, of course, to drive that far and find your destination already occupied, to say nothing of the self-recrimination that boils up knowing that if you’d left home ten minutes earlier those same two guys might be staring at your back.

Still, I was obligated to do what trout fishermen do and “look at the water,” hoping that this reconnaissance might yield some useful information. After an hour-and-a-half behind the wheel, I also needed to pee fairly urgently. I parked behind and a little to the driver’s side of the SUV, which was pointed directly at the river, and strolled down to check things out. The Tomorrow looked as fetching as ever, gliding along with a supple, almost feline silkiness, murmuring her coded enchantments. A beauty, yes; but I knew from bitter experience that in the absence of a hatch—and there was none that I could detect—she was a cold, cruel mistress.

The drill on the Tomorrow is casting to selectively rising trout with dry flies that imitate, or at least approximate, what the fish are eating—period. Throwing nymphs, streamers, or attractor patterns there is a fool’s errand, an enterprise as foreordained to fail as throwing facts at the Trump Administration.

Now that it was clear I wasn’t missing anything, the spring returned to my step. And with my competitors nowhere in sight, I could safely turn my attention to the other business at hand. Still gazing longingly but without illusion at the lovely enigma that is the Tomorrow River, I unzipped and took a long, blissful leak. Then, after shaking the dew off the lily and zipping up, I turned to walk back to my car—and saw, no more than 50 feet away, a woman in the passenger seat of the SUV.

What was Hemingway’s definition of courage? “Grace under pressure,” or something like that?

The woman was concentrating very hard on the book she was reading; which is to say, she did not look up, or even cut a sidelong glance in my direction, as I approached, drew even, and walked past. I wondered if I should make some gesture of apology but quickly thought better of that idea, calculating that at best it would serve only to exacerbate our mutual embarrassment and at worst had the potential to be gravely misinterpreted. Plus, as offended, disgusted, or possibly even amused as she undoubtedly was, she had to have put two-and-two together and concluded that I’d assumed the SUV was empty and that, ipso facto, there were no witnesses present. It wasn’t as if I’d behaved like some slavering perv, waggling Old One-Eye around for all the world to see, for crying out loud.

There was this thought, too: Who the hell leaves their wife, or maybe girlfriend, to sit in the car and read while they go fishing? Or, to spin it slightly differently, what kind of woman is content to do that? None that I know, certainly, the women in my demographic having come of age in the first heady, bra-burning flush of the Women’s Liberation movement. This explains why it never occurred to me, not even for a nanosecond, that there might be someone sitting in the car after I saw the two anglers leaving it.

So, by any reckoning, the act was completely innocent. Wrong place, wrong time, as they say. If anything, I was probably more traumatized than the woman was, and at this remove I can look back on it and laugh. I hope she can, too, if she remembers it at all. As I’ve been told more than once, I make a more lasting impression in print than I do in person.

On that recent afternoon when I had the river to myself, I found her in an uncommonly charitable, even generous, mood. Black caddis were coming off, trout were rising eagerly to take them, and over the course of a couple of glorious hours, until the hatch petered out, I enjoyed some of the best fishing I’ve had in a long time. The trout weren’t easy, mind you; on the Tomorrow they never are. But when I put the right fly in the right place and got the right drift—also problematic, given the Tomorrow’s vexingly tentacled currents—I was rewarded with gratifying regularity.

I even cracked the code, at least for that day, on a notoriously tough piece of water that could pass for an English chalkstream—there’s even an old grist mill—a stretch whose hyper-selective browns have shown me so little love in years past I considered them functionally uncatchable. It took some outside-the-box thinking on fly selection*, but I ultimately managed to fool a half-dozen nice fish—great fun on my bamboo four-weight.

Knowing how little skill I possess in the grand scheme of things, I have to say I was pretty proud of myself. I felt like I’d accomplished something noteworthy; it seemed like some eminent person wearing a suit-and-tie should be coming forth to present me with a Certificate of Achievement. Or something.

I think the lesson to be learned from this moment in the sun, if there is one, is that it’s possible to give trout too much respect. Which is not to say that they still won’t routinely humble us.

* The pattern that finally did the trick, after the usual black caddis imitations had failed spectacularly, was a #16 Elkhair with a tan wing, a gray body, and a green collar. In retrospect I’m pretty sure an Adams would have worked, too, but I was so giddy over the success I was having with the Elkhair that at that point the thought of changing flies was as remote as the thought that my wife would have dinner waiting when I got home.


This the best you can do?


A fun article. Very enjoyable!

Loved the article! Great writing!