(Note: In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is difficult to think about anything else. But it helps to escape, occasionally, into the comfort of quieter, less perilous times. Reverie now, reality later.)
In life, there are truths, lies, and fish stories. Fish stories may end in truth — finally landed that sumbitch — but they usually get there by way of invention, if not outright prevarication.
These three stories, however, really are true, if a bit off-beat, and occasionally manipulated for effect:
1. My father was a trout fisherman. He didn’t boast about his fishing successes. He was, by nature, modest, as were his fishing skills.
In his retirement years, he transitioned from catch-and-keep bait-fishing — when success (or failure) was measured by what he brought home (or didn’t) — to catch-and-release fly-fishing, when what he brought home were stories like this:
He was at his favorite spot, on Fish Creek, north of Utica, NY. Fish Creek’s bed is rocky and slippery. As he worked a fast-running stretch of water, above a deep, slow-moving pool, he slipped and dropped his pole in the stream. The fast water swept the pole away and carried it quickly into the pool before he could recover.
He figured that was it, that his fly rod would lie forever at the bottom of the pool. But, instead, it floated slowly on. (A fly rod is very light, and most fly-fishing lines float, so the line wound on the reel may have helped.)
He was able to recover his footing and make his way to the downstream end of the pool in time to grab the rod before it could enter another long, fast stretch. As he got himself reorganized and began to reel the fishing line in, it resisted. He assumed it had snagged itself on something just under the surface, probably a waterlogged branch or a mossy stone.
As he tried to free the line, it resisted even more actively, began moving back and forth, and, suddenly, rocketed up out of the water in the shape of a trout. The fish had somehow hooked itself as the fly floated through the pool. Dad reeled the fish in, unhooked it, put it back in the water, called it a day, and returned home with a story that became a family joke about just how much skill it takes to catch a fish.
2. When I was living in Colorado Springs in the early 1990’s, I took a fly-tying class and, during break, recounted Dad’s story to our instructor. As it turned out, he had a similar one:
He was up on the South Platte River, west of Colorado Springs, in South Park, a flat plain in the midst of the Rockies. Like a stream in a cow-pasture, the South Platte there has carved a meandering path through the fields. Except in drought or flood, its water-level is close to bank-level.
He was fishing with a dry fly, floating it along the surface. As the fly passed close to the bank, a trout exploded out of the water, completely missed the fly, and landed on the bank where, flapping desperately to try to get back into the water, it merely moved itself farther and farther from the stream.
Our fisherman quickly crossed the stream, hoisted himself up onto the bank, got hold of the madly flapping fish, got it back to the bank and slipped it gently back into the water.
(He didn’t mention whether this, too, became a family joke about fishing skill.)
3. When I was living in Israel, I regularly fished on the Dan River, in the country’s far north, near Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights. My quest was for rainbow trout, which are not native to Israel, but escapees from kibbutz fish-farms that utilize the area’s cold mountain water.
I seldom encountered other fishers, though I did once briefly share a stretch of stream with a snorkeling spear-gun fisherman. (And the Dan River was too small for dynamite-fishing that was not uncommon in the Sea of Galilee, farther downstream.)
One time, fishing from the shallow edge of a quiet pool, I sensed someone watching from the bank, behind me. I didn’t turn around, but could feel that he was edging slowly closer. In the meantime, I caught and released a good-size rainbow.
Finally, he came up to the edge of the pool, and politely cleared his throat. I turned around, waded back to the bank, and we greeted each other. He seemed puzzled at what I was doing, and finally said, very politely, You know, the forel … the trout … is very good to eat …
I agreed, and searched for a way to explain my strange behavior. Finally, I simply said, I fish just for enjoyment … for sport. He nodded, with a still-puzzled look, wished me well, and walked on. I fished a little longer, reeled in my line, walked to the kibbutz’s guava orchard where my car was parked, and drove home, fishless but contented, as always.