I was trespassing.
Well, sort of. The company that owned the land that the stream flowed through hadn’t actively used it for years. And word on the street was that their concern was more about teenagers and their drunken revelry than fly fishers, duck hunters, and trappers. So, I’ll go ahead and file it in the “tree falling in the woods with no one around” category of property law. I was the tree, and I wasn’t making a sound.
I’d accessed this particular stretch of water before. Numerous times. It is a small tributary of an incredibly famous stream. The main stem gets slammed spring, summer, and fall. Additionally, the little branch narrows to a small, deep channel where it enters the main creek. It is overgrown, murky, and doesn’t seem worth a second look.
But most fly fishers should know better. Because a short walk upstream (after looking around to make sure no one is watching you deviate off the path) reveals that the tight little run opens up into a perfectly fishable creek.
Where this creek is… well, where it is I’m not exactly going to say. Where it is, generally, is old. People have been there for a long time. People have used the land, used the water. So although it is somewhat remote, there are traces of civilization all over. Busted out dams. Culverts. Diversion channels. And when nature takes those things back, they get awfully fishy.
Under normal circumstances, you’d be hard pressed to find an angler that is looking for rusted out culverts to fish around. Crumbling concrete with jutting, rusty rebar is not the imagery that makes the front of fly fishing magazines. Fish see things differently. Structure and cover are structure and cover. To a wild brown trout, a rock is a log is a pipe is an old stop sign.
Just pretend you’re fishing in a post-apocalyptic world. Those willing to fish creatively will inherit the trout.
I caught fish. A few good ones. Browns, exclusively. Thick fish with bright fins, sparsely spotted and deeply hued. I’ve seen brook trout in there. Relics of an era before people put in the aforementioned dams and impacted the stream in who knows how many negative ways. For the life of me, I haven’t caught one.
This isn’t the kind of stream where a fly fisher can target fish. You cast, wait, and do your best to take advantage of the single shot you are going to have. You’ll probably only have one. I’ve only ever had one. And apparently it has been that way for a long time.
I love fly fishing history. And as much as I enjoy reading about the preeminent names and places in the sport, I’m that much more enamored with local history. Books from guys who self-publish about their childhood exploits aren’t too hard to find. Compilations of newspaper columns and interviews of the men and women who came before my generation are the kinds of things that get me excited to be out on the water.
I’d read a few things about the main stream that I was fishing, and deduced by some locational clues that other, well-respected anglers had fished the little tributary as well. Back then it wasn’t on private property, but back then people weren’t as litigious. Furthermore, the way that they wrote about it made it seem like they wanted to keep those precise spots even more close-to-the-vest than usual.
One account really captivated me. It had to do with a particular brown trout that this fly fisherman had watched feed for a number of summer nights. He made a number of errors before finally hooking and landing the fish. It wasn’t his biggest he’d catch on the stream, but the way he described the challenge made it clear that it was a special fish in a special spot.
It was those kinds of periphery things that made this stream special. A little thrill from straying off the path. The used-but-wild feel of the water itself. Fish that looked the same, but different, then their kin downstream. A sense of history that was tangible.
One summer afternoon that last element became crystal clear.
After work I headed to the creek. I geared up and started off downstream to fish a hatch I had been fishing that week. The fish were plentiful, and I was confident I could get into a handful before dinner. For some reason, as I passed the little deer trail that would lead me up to the little tributary, I stopped. As I’d done countless times before, I checked to see if I was alone. Really, I was more concerned at the prospect of cluing someone in to the fishing possibilities than I was about getting “caught.” Priorities.
I slipped into the weeds and began to head to where I thought I could find some trout. Not even two minutes into my walk, I heard a sound. Deer were ubiquitous, so I didn’t think much of it initially. However, it quickly became apparent it was another person.
What to do at this point? Turn around and get back on the main path? Plead ignorance if it becomes an issue? Ask for permission?
But it was too late. In the thick brush, we were quickly only a rod’s length away from each other. We made eye contact and I could tell he hadn’t heard me. We both stopped.
Then I realized who it was. It was the author, the fly fisherman, that I’d read so many times before. Now well into his eighties, he was still at it. And he was still trespassing.
“Good evening,” he said with a smile as he resumed his stride. “Good luck!” And he passed right by me.
A perplexed “Hi?” was all I had to offer.
I took it as the conveying of a blessing. Seriously. Without any sort of formal, laying-on-of-hands-type exercise he saw a young man doing what he had done a half-century ago.
We’ve talked a number of times since, and he all but confirmed my assumptions. He’d certainly never use the terminology that I employed above, but he appreciated what I was doing and how I was doing it.
That stream means so much more now. That confrontation was another peripheral element that fed into the overall aura of an already special place. The trout are great, but they are simply the focal point to a rich landscape that engages me in a number of ways.
That is what fly fishing should be. A little danger, a bit of skill, a few fish, and fitting in to a picture bigger than yourself. Crossing boundaries that usually aren’t crossed. Thinking outside the marked paths.
Fly fishing demands some kind of trespassing.