There are places that respectable anglers don’t venture near. These forbidden locations are just on the edge of everyday life. The normal places that one might pass on the way to go fly fishing. What keeps grown men and women away is fear. The kind of fear that stems from the oh-so-familiar knowledge that what exists just on the other side of the safe and acceptable is the exact opposite. An upside-down reality where things are eerily similar, yet terrifyingly different.
Usually, they are the back roads or muddy pull-offs. Instead of a well-maintained parking lot with a kiosk explaining the catch-and-release regulations, there are deep tire ruts and a few bags of illegally dumped trash. Where one would usually expect a narrow trail to a river, there is a wide path marked by styrofoam worm cups and Bud Light cans. The ultimate destination is even different: slow, or stagnant even.
Why a fly fisher would even entertain the thought of setting out in a place like this is hard to comprehend. The danger is palpable; the results are inevitable. It even feels wrong. The scene clashes with name-brand waders and any fishing rod that isn’t more aptly referred to as a “pole.” But every once in a while, you hear tale of some angler who treads these chilling trails, casts into these unholy waters, and encounters ghosts that were thought to be left far in the past.
The scary truth is that these scenes exist everywhere: public parks, highway overpasses, and suburban retention ponds. Fly fishers try to ignore what is lurking behind every fence and wall. But like a flickering light or shifting shadow, the memories tend to reappear when least expected. Most unsettling is the knowledge that these are not figments of the imagination, but rather real moments tied to tangible places.
For some, in those split seconds it can come flooding back like an uncontrollable wave:
Childhood. Grandpa’s pipe smoke. Lawn chairs. Nightcrawlers. Zebco. Red and white bobber. Summer. Ripples. “Set the hook.”
That blue, woven cord…
“Let me clip it right here, through the mouth and gills…”
Breadcrumbs and hot oil…
Only a well-known and oft-repeated phrase like “catch and release, catch and release” or “keep ‘em wet, keep ‘em wet” will draw someone from the clutches of these insidious thoughts. Thoughts which spiral into a place that breeds self-loathing. Moreover, there is the longing to run from the knowledge that if others knew what you were thinking – what you were capable of, they would think you were the monster.
Yet some fly fishers dabble in the darkness. Well aware of the risks both personally and socially, they go back to the farm ponds and canals that they left behind. Even more preposterous, they sometimes bring their otherworldly motives to a trout river. What’s more, they bring along their stringer. Where the special regulations signs end, their adherence to the social conventions apparently do as well. The lure back to that dark labyrinth that leads to catching, killing, and eating a fish causes them to do… the unthinkable.
Of course, the real problem lies in the fact that once you yourself have gone through the portal and back again you begin to lose your orientation. Which world is the real one?
Do you want to live in a world where the rivers, lakes, and streams are all treated like aquariums? A place where no child can laugh gleefully as a panfish flops its way from the grassy bank back into the water? A life where the experience of the streamside lunch of your grandfather, and his grandfather, and grandfathers back into time immemorial is unrepeatable?
Is the occasional stringer, filled with fish from a body of water where they can be legally and ethically obtained, the stranger thing? Or is the aberration the angler who has never caught, killed, and eaten a fish?