The missing mojo

You don't know what you're missing until it's gone
rainbow trout
Photo: Chad Shmukler

That old saying, “You don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone” is so accurate it’s cruel. You really don’t yearn for the routine until the routine is all screwed up.

Earlier this winter, I finally dealt with some nagging back pain that was getting worse by the day. By the time I walked into the hospital for pre-op, I was dragging my left leg behind me.

I’d put up with it for years. I’d acquiesced to the come-and-go sciatic pain that, on the best days, coursed through my left butt cheek, and on the worst days would shoot down my leg into my foot and make my big toe twitch. It was part of getting older. A sign that I’d put some miles on an aging body. That I’d been places. Done stuff. Seen a good portion of the world.

The price of admission for a life I could hardly complain about.

And then the price became too steep. Constant pain. Untouchable pain. Nerve pain can’t be beaten back by ibuprofen (or vodka, for that matter), and it doesn’t help when your fishing buddies say something trite, like, “Dude, just stretch it out.”

Until you’ve experienced it, you really have no context. Like childbirth. Or what I assume childbirth might be like. Until you’ve squeezed a 9-pound human from your body, you’re better off just being empathetic. And until sizzling pain screams down your leg rendering you completely immobile, it’s best to just zip it.

So now, nearly three months out of surgery and just a couple of weeks away from the end of my “light duty” prescription, I’m pleased to report that the sciatic pain is gone. But so is my strength, my stamina, a good portion of my confidence and, sadly, the ability—at least for now—to just up and go fishing.

And it’s almost nice here in eastern Idaho these days. We’ve had some days in the 60s. Blue-bird spring days that just tug at the loose ends of your soul and whisper in your ear, “Why the hell aren’t you on the river?”

And, yes, a year ago this time, I could have gone fishing. I could have powered through the pain, loaded up the rig and waded my favorite stretch of the Henry’s Fork. No problem. But not now.

“Because I’m fragile,” is the answer I now utter. “I’m just not there yet.”

I can almost feel the two titanium rods drilled into my spine with six screws to hold everything in place. I can feel the limit of my strength. Want me to carry a gallon of milk from the car to the house? No problem. A bag of dog food? Hell no.

A year ago, I could have reconnected the two massive 6-volt batteries that power my little camper without help from my 17-year-old son. Now, with warmer weather upon us and a couple of little desert seep streams that are primed for spring trout, I find myself at the mercy of a teenager with a bustling social calendar. Yeah, I suppose I could load up the gear and gingerly walk the banks of one of these great little stretches of water in search of willing fish, but it would incomplete if I had to reel up and be back by dark. It’s time to get out there and not have to worry about coming back right away. It’s time for camp fires. Meat cooked on a stick. A strong cocktail that’ll send me to bed in the camper without having to call an Uber.

And then, of course, there’s the actual act of fly fishing. Of lifting line off the water and recasting to rising trout. And what if I hook up? What if it’s big? Am I screwed?

That’s the missing confidence. The mojo, if you will.

I get that it’ll all come back in time—at least that’s what the doctor and friends who’ve endured similar surgeries tell me. But as I look at the calendar, time is something I don’t have a lot of. Soon, carp will be back on the flats. Eventually, even after a good winter, the snow will be gone from my favorite high-country campsites, and backcountry trout will be rising.

It’s a new degree of frustration for me—knowing that I could be out there, but knowing, too, that I shouldn’t. It’s one thing to crave the tug, but it’s another thing to understand that all the things that lead to the tug might be what sets me back … and keeps me from fishing even longer.

And that’s what I miss. The ability to just up and go, sciatic pain and all. I guess I figured I’d be all healed up by the time it came to seriously consider fly casting again. I assumed, judging from how I’ve mended from trauma in the past, that I’d be good to go by the time the carp showed up.

But I don’t have that ability. It’s gone. At least for now.

And I dearly miss it.