It's dark, about an hour before the sun wakes up the rest of the world, and I’m methodically laying out fishing gear in the garage waiting for my ride to the river. Luke is one of those casual, successful people who runs a minimum of fifteen minutes late for seemingly everything in life, so I’ve learned to plan around his quirk. I take the extra moments to string up the fly rod under sixty watts of incandescents and retie a few knots in my leader. Really though, everything is ready.
I flip over a five-gallon bucket, take a seat and exhale. Glancing at the small pile of gear by the door, I can quickly see it’s all there: boots, box, bag, rod, vest, waders, food, drink, net. I’ve been repeating that mnemonic for a decade — just an idiot-check that I started using after arriving to the river far too many times without one of the above.
I’m a pretty even mix of right and left brain. Much of the stuff in my life is unorganized but the things that mean the most to me need structure, or else small dashes of panic dart through my brain. So in a separate hemisphere to the left of other hopeless clutter, my fishing gear is always stacked, packed and ready for action.
Luke’s obligatory fifteen has passed, and I’m starting to wonder. The hot coffee helps fight off radiating cold from cinder blocks and a concrete floor, and the timing of distant thunder mixed with the patter of rhythmic rain in puddles form stanzas that mark time, slipping further toward the daylight. I’d like to get more from this moment, but I’m tired, and the small garage makes me feel trapped and surrounded. A lot of my long week felt that way too. I’m ready for the open water.
More minutes tick past, and the early, eager ambition that started my day begins to fade. My mind was only half awake to begin with, and a good part of my weary body is still fighting to be asleep.
It’s Sunday morning. I work late Saturdays — really late — usually parking the truck in this garage around 3:00 am. But years ago I made a grand bargain with my wife that Sundays are “generally” mine for fishing whenever I want them (yes, I know she is amazing), so a few hours with my head on a pillow has become enough. Thoughts, preparations, and plans for fishing on Sunday are often what carry me through weeks like this one as a fairly happy human. Everybody’s working for the weekend.
Ten minutes more waiting, and I start mindlessly cleaning monofilament scraps from the eyes of the streamers I used last trip. Busy work. Then, the text alert chimes through the air and vibrates my pocket. I know what it means before I even look. Luke has a habit of looking on the dark side. “It’s cold and rainy,” it reads. He cancels the trip.
Truth is, most diehard fishermen aren't all that diehard. A lot of fishermen are looking for reasons not to fish. Sound absurd? I’ve had enough people cancel plans to believe it. I also live within walking distance of the most popular wild trout stream in Pennsylvania, and I regularly observe some predictable habits of the fair-weather fisherman: he loves the sun, hates the rain, wants it warm but not hot, fears the cold, and doesn’t like mornings much.
Ironically, bad weather often makes for better fishing. Of course, that’s a standard chapter in the Fisher’s Handbook, and the next chapter is about good fishing at dawn. But ambition in the face of adversity is an elusive thing, and choosing banker’s hours, or sitting this one out on account of the rain is pretty tempting, I guess.
I get it. I understand why most guys only dabble in fly fishing — for many, it’s just another seasonal hobby competing for time in a life full of responsibilities to family and career. There's nothing wrong with that. But I guess I made a designed decision somewhere in my mid twenties to center my life around fly fishing. Family time often is fishing time; with my two young sons, the thoughts, stories and pictures of wild brown trout and the limestone waters we call home are woven into our everyday lives. It’s not the fishing — it’s not even the river. It’s what the river does for us.
Life is a search for happiness. Isn’t that what everything we strive for really comes down to? I think it does, and I think Rita Mae Brown had this right:
“Happiness is pretty simple: someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to.”
A life well spent fishing directly takes care of two of those simple tenets; it surely provides more than enough for you to do, and as soon as you step out of the water, thoughts and plans of the next trip are always something to look forward to. If you haven’t yet found someone to love, why not catch some fish while you’re waiting?
I know that living to fish isn’t for everyone, but on that same stream close to my home I also see a growing community of ambitious anglers that will fight high, muddy water for a few fish on a slow day; they are making fly fishing a personal lifestyle. It’s not crazy to fish through the winter anymore; the parking areas are no longer vacant in a cold February rain. They’ve found a passion for something and are following it through.
That kind of angler makes an excellent fishing companion but is sometimes hard to find. I’ve been lucky enough to stumble into a group of friends who love the water in the same ways that I do. We live through fishing, and no matter what the weather brings, or what shape the rivers are in, we find the water together every time life allows us.
Go get wet somewhere in a river. Fish now. Waiting for the perfect day takes too long.