A few things happen when one first lays eyes on a new piece of water. The eyes linger. The mind stacks visual perception against a hopeful conception of character. Contrast and comparisons are decided between familiar waters and the unexplored. A breath is held or released dramatically, as it all takes place. And then you wish to know it.
The allure of small streams has always struck me strongest. Without the pretense of exorbitant volume, the small stream affords an opportunity for intimacy. The fish in such waters are rarely discriminatory. The puzzle of fishing all but totally dissolves into the babbling of nature, and meditation takes over, leaving only the stimulus of running water and an interactive relationship with the Earth to remain. An infatuation with small streams is a romantic profession of that thing we fish for that isn’t a fish.
It’s true that some are richer than others, but these rambling odes vein nearly every county of beautiful country I’ve come to know. With them come their people—those whose lives are transected by running water—who too hear what I hear, and who call a river an integral element of their stories. Charged with assembling my own church, those are the souls I’d recruit as my body.
One such stream flows like liquid sapphire dozens of miles through scrubby ranch and grasshopper country in an arid mountain valley of southwestern Montana. I was the richest dirtbagger to ever live the day I met that river and discovered that a four weight and a handful of grasshoppers were exceptional tools for tricking as many wily browns as I could ask for.
As I approached the water for the first time, a working landscape churned atop the high banks as much as an oppressive summer sun would allow. This river belonged to somebody else. And though I believe that in the perfect system we, as American citizens, all have a right to access these places, I yield spiritual ownership, believing that others would do the same for me. For I have a river of my own.
My own is a modest tributary stream that rarely exceeds 10 feet in width, located on the outskirts of a Virginia college town, which I can be ankle-deep in 15 minutes after leaving home, catch a dozen wild trout in a half hour and be back in time for dinner. Through the rushing of its water I can hear my own drum beat with utmost clarity. Its modest flow has diluted soul-crushing heartbreak and disabling intellectual strain. It has inspired ideas, taught me lessons, and mortared friendships. It has aided me in introducing others to the art and spiritual calibration of fly fishing. It has become a part of my identity—and I recognized my new Montanan acquaintance as a part of someone else’s.
Behind me, the rancher from the adjacent property, his blue heeler attached to his leg, climbed down into the creekbed to celebrate the end of another work day and the flight of the grasshoppers, calloused hands toting an old fly rod.
What minds have been soothed here, stresses eroded?
In the dirt parking lot where I ditched my car, a group of college friends, long since graduated and geographically dispersed, reunited over beers and the intoxicating, nostalgic potential of their home water. Some brought their kids. Some wished their fathers could be there.
What families gone-away reminisce about their days along the same banks, about a reunion of the same sort? Who has been remembered?
From the dusty corner of a Main Street fly shop in the next town drives a guide and fly shop owner on the evenings he can afford. He invests his time on the bigger, more lucrative rivers for his customers, but yearns for the simple, soul-refreshing joys of wading alone the small creek that dissolves the stress and struggles of small business ownership into something worth it.
How many more souls owe their purpose to the delicate commentary of the river? How many have fostered passions, ideas, and relationships? How many have found personal salvation?
One whom I know of spends his days off from work on the creek—homework, as he cuts his teeth as a part-time guide for a local outfitter. Every experience is valuable. After daylight hours, the fish wriggle into his pulse from the current seams and leap into written words that he searches for a printed home for.
I’m familiar with the feeling. For all who share a romantic relationship with rivers have stories of a common chord. Like minds serve as my fishing companions.
Not long into my own first drift on that Montanan creek, a surface assailant created an audible pop by sucking down a golf ball-sized piece of water surrounding my grasshopper. A quick hook set turned the water to froth, as a brown pushing two feet attempted to execute evasive maneuvers in inches of water.
I netted the muscly brown and was pleased by the justifying congruency of the size of the fish and the intangible spirit of the creek. To call the fish mine, I thought a bit selfish. Instead I found comfort in the opportunity to tangle with the same fish that have flavored the lives of others like me. With a fervent hand, I pulled the brown from the net and let his tail slip through my fingers back into the creek, shaking the hands of those from whom it was borrowed.
The last crimson peel of sunlight was extinguished from the creek’s surface after several more browns of similar stature fell. The grasshoppers yielded their right to crackle to the fall of dusk and the amplified volume of running water and an acoustic strum.
Climbing from the water and over the bank, I identified the source of the song. Like the spirit of the Montana ranch country, she strummed guitar and sung tradition on a dusty fence rail by the river, skin bronzed from a life in the elements of a Montana summer, blue eyes shimmering in sharp contrast, sharing a spirit as sweet as the running water of snow melt. We exchanged a few warm words as night encroached. In her tone it was obvious that she could hear the river’s song, and was doing her best to reflect it. And in that I wished to know her. But judging from her serenade to the river, it was clear that, at least a part of her, I already did.