A more perfect day of fishing

Some fishing days are perfect, and a few of those are “more perfect.”
farmington river fly fishing
Photo: David N. McIlvaney.

Oh, it’s such a perfect day;
I’m glad I spent it with you.
— Lou Reed

There are fishing days where everything goes wrong. I once arrived at the check-in counter at LaGuardia for a saltwater trip only to realize that I left my rod case leaning against my apartment door.

Forgotten gear, broken rods, blown-out water. When it happens, you try to laugh it off with some bullshit angling line like – A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of anything else. It’s not.

Once in a while though, the stars smile down and you get a good day of fishing … nay, a perfect day. A day that reminds you why you fish in the first place. Which gives us a much better bullshit line – A day of fishing is a day of fishing; good, bad or otherwise. Some fishing days, however, are perfect and a few of those are “more perfect.”

Last summer, I had a more perfect day.

It was our annual group trip of camping and fishing along the Farmington River in Connecticut—a tailwater that looks and fishes like a freestone. Mike Tsang and I arrived a day earlier to scout and set up camp. We had met on this river years before and hadn’t seen each other for a while, so our day was more about catching up than catching fish. We made plans and made camp and ate cold chicken salad with warm wine around the fire as we talked. The trout could wait.

In the morning, Mike and I grabbed our four weights and hiked upstream to two little runs created by a large mid-river boulder. We had seen some fish holding in the slack water behind the rock the day before. Mike took a look and said, “You fish, I’ll spot.” Fly fishing is usually a solo pursuit where you only see your friends at the beginning and end of the day. Team fishing was new to me.

I made my way to the tail-out as Mike moved to the side for a better vantage. For the next half hour, he was my eyes. “Another three feet and a little to the left.” Teamwork worked and we tricked a rainbow with an ant pattern tossed into the rougher water at the head of the run. Then we changed positions. “To the right and not as far, Mike. Get ready, he’s coming.”

We both love the upstream section of this river and at noon we decided to try a new spot about halfway up that stretch. A guide was giving a lesson at the pool we hoped to fish, so we dropped into the next run down and quickly caught a few trout in the black water underneath the overhanging spruce trees on the far bank. An hour later, the sports had moved on and we waded upstream. There was a fellow with an effortless cast fishing the head of the pool, but he happily waved us in to share the water. He was a buddy of the guide, who was now sitting on the bank smoking a cigar. Mike waded in and I joined the guide, Fred, as we fishshitted for a while talking about the big ones hooked and the bigger ones not, and watched our friends cast. No one caught; no one cared. The four of us let the river slide by and time was measured in the metronome of the casting stroke, the length of ash, and the growing shadow on the water.

Some contend that fly fishing is an art (I know too many artists to agree but I will concede that it can be artful), while others consider it a mathematical equation to be solved. The “artists” believe in the aesthetics of the cast and fly—the golden blue of a river at sunset and the tight arc of a pristine loop; while the “fishmaticians” look at the water and see it as an equation to be solved: the trout are there + they are eating this × the cast needs to be this far ÷ the correctly sized fly = fish in the net. Works for many anglers. As does the artistic approach. Mike is a nice combination of both.

I would be remiss to not mention the science-centered anglers as well, a subset of the problem solvers. To this group, fishing is rooted in a biological understanding of fish, their behavior and the predator/prey relationship. Their approach is to present a fly to elicit a predatory response in a trout, though their lab-like demeanor quickly goes out the door when they are successful … the tug is the drug!

Then there’s me, the hopeful spiritualist. My cast is the least artful I know, and my mathematical and science skills are rudimentary, so my approach to fishing is as far from virtuosity and calculation as possible. I am drawn to hope. To me every trout pool, every bend in a river, every glint of water through the trees is a promise from Nature that if I go fishing—that is put myself on the water—I will initiate a different kind of conversation with the outdoors that passive observation doesn’t provide and establish my role in the human/nature relationship as an equal partner. If she is Nature, then I become The Angler and as that archetype, I am forever and joyfully becoming the sort of person, as the philosopher J. Aaron Simmons once said, “who continues to fish.”

“When I go fishing, it’s not that I hope to catch fish, it’s that I hope to become the sort of person who continues to fish. So, while I’m fishing, I am the very thing I hope to be and, in that sense, I am already and not yet.”

I like all that role suggests. This has been written and pondered by better than me: Heraclitus, Thoreau, Haig-Brown, Sparse Grey Hackle; but when I set out on a trip, I care less about catching than I do fishing. My preferred scenario is hooking up then letting the trout slip off six feet from my net. I’m there to fish, not catch fish. But if I am honest, I may have another more salacious reason for fishing … lust. I’m there to seduce and be seduced by river and fish. When I step into the water, I feel it grab that taut piano wire along my spine and make it quiver as my breath quickens, my eyes narrow in focus, and my heart beats faster. It is truly an act of seduction for me—as life affirming as actual seduction—and I will make it as long and drawn out as possible. Consummation is way down on my priority list.

Maybe that’s it at the end. Fishing allows me to stand inappropriately close to the world and say, “Whisper your secrets in my ear and make me blush. Show me the longing that runs deep in your marrow. Caress my cheek with a brush of your hair and fill me with what I didn’t even realize I desired but am so desperate for. Make me forget about everything but you. Make me whole.”

Is that lust or love? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference where one stops and the other begins. Either way, that I get to experience this sensual awe at the working end of a fly rod, all the better.

But make no mistake, I have gotten lucky in nature seduction, that is to say, I have caught fish. A lot of fish. Truth be told, I have caught all the fish I deserve and if it was determined that I have reached my lifetime allotment and would never be allowed to catch another fish, I would continue to go fishing. Maybe it is love after all. An overwhelming all-encompassing spiritual and emotional connection to another being. Often followed by a solid kick in the groin. That you come back for more seems to be true in both love and fly fishing.

Mike and I continued to fish out the day, stopping where we cared to and not where we didn’t. Of course, while the best fishing stories are rarely about catching that big fish, the “more perfect” ones demand it. This one does.

After dinner, most of the other guys were in their tents when Devin Ross stood up and said, “It’s eleven, lads. Time to go.” Mike, Brandon Dale and I grabbed our 6 weights, pre-tied with mouse patterns, and followed Devin down a dark trail alongside the river, heading to the bottom of a large pool he had scouted earlier. A spot I normally wouldn’t fish in the day as it would require a great drift and the fish can see you from a mile off.

There was a slight moon on the water as we lined up on the bank and slowly stepped in. The bottom was forgiving, and I shuffled out as far as I felt safe and had enough space for a decent back cast.

I was getting some line out when there was a splash on the right and Devin called, “Fish on.” That seems fair as this was his hole. A moment later, Mike and Brandon both “holy shitted” their confirmation that they had hooked up. We hit the “hatch” at just the right time as the fish seemed to be stacked up waiting for us. Stacked up for those guys anyway as everyone but me caught a trout in the first 15 minutes. They were netting for each other in the dark and giggling like schoolboys as they called out the size of each catch. Brandon let out a whoop when he caught a 16” Brook trout, rare for this river.

My mouse was a delicately tied imitation with realistic eyes and proportionate whiskers that a friend had given to me. Very pretty but it didn’t seem to garner any interest, so I swapped it out for one a little more expressionistic—black foam and brown deer fur with a rubber tail and no whiskers or eyes. I asked Brandon about his timing.

“Slap the mouse down on the water. Let it sit there for a moment as if it was stunned, then give a couple of hard retrieves followed by smaller mousey moves.”

I went over every mouse experience I’ve had to find some “mousey moves” and settled on a slow steady retrieve with a rod tip twitch. Three casts later, I was on with a respectable 15” brown. And then another. Bigger.

We hopscotched our way upstream as the best shots were on virgin water. Once we realized that the fish didn’t care about how much noise we were making, we started moving quickly, each lead man giving a shout of a hookup. It was my turn in front and my second cast landed in about 12” of water—I measured it the next day—when it was swallowed whole and my rod took on a hard bend. I had quickly tied on a little extra 3x when I changed patterns and now was praying that the surgeon knot held.

The fish was taking me deep toward the far bank and a mass of downed trees, so I leaned the rod to the right and guided him back to the middle of the river. Mike came over to net him and caught a glimpse of the fish as it passed. He let out a quiet, “Oh shit.”

“What?” The reel screamed as the fish made for the far bank again.

“We’re going to need a bigger boat. Brandon!”

Brandon pulled his net out and the three of us steered the fish in. Big brown.

“The opening on this net is nineteen inches and this thing is sticking out on both ends. Hang on.”

Brandon pulled out a tape and laid it along the trout. “Twenty-two, no … twenty-three inches.” The mouse was deep in the fish’s throat and it took a moment to back the hook out. Fortunately, the brown wasn’t affected and started fighting the mesh. Since I never take pics of fish, I lowered my arm and let him slip out. He was a python slithering into the water.

It was the largest brown trout I’ve caught in North America and it seemed like a good place to end the day. We broke for the camp and Mike and I stayed up for the last of the fire and whisky. Mike is from Minnesota and has fished the Boundary Waters, so I asked if there was any truth to the rumour that they use live squirrels with hooks tied to them for muskies.

He looked at me over the rim of his glass. “We’re not insane. That’s a Wisconsin thing.”

The stages of an angler reads:

  1. I want to catch a fish
  2. I want to catch many fish
  3. I want to catch a big fish
  4. I just want to go fishing

And sometimes I just want to be the person that continues to fish. With a friend for the day.

We talked until the embers died and the bottle was empty. Mike hit his tent and my more perfect day ended looking up at the stars, picturing us in the sky working together to catch Pisces.