For the next few days, I am publishing some very short, memoir-ish travel tales that have been swimming around my files for years. They aren’t necessarily about trout fishing though our hero goes trout fishing in them. Together, they form an odd, little book. I hope you like them. This is the third.
Adrian, the history professor, and I had driven seven or eight miles west out of Laramie. The spring melt had not begun in earnest, but the first runoff provided enough flotsam to wake the trout from their winter sleepiness. The day was warm, with wind off the valley floor rolling crickets and mosquitoes into the river. The twitching insects provoked the winter-starved trout, now nothing more than oversized heads with tails, into rising.
We parked at the public access on the Laramie River, where private land crowded with cows hemmed in a small square of parking lot and sandbar. Behind the fences, men and women in chaps on horses herded cows. They were going to drive those cows to public land higher up in the mountains. Those alpine pastures were just greening with the kind of tender fodder cows love before they go to slaughter. The cowboys and cowgirls looked down from their hats and ball caps at the history professor and I as we waded into the stream.
“Since you’ve never done this before,” said Adrian, “find a spot where you think trout might be, and they might be there. They won’t be in the open water. They’ll hang out behind rocks or down on the bottom of deep pockets behind sandbars and riffles, always with their heads upstream. Just think of places where the water might be running slower, with enough cover and food falling out of the current.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I stared out over the river and down a line of cottonwoods that wound through the valley from Laramie, around Sheep Mountain, to the dark Snowy Mountains in the west. Sagebrush choked the long, anemic drainages that widened out into cottonwoods at the river. Outside of isolated yells and whistles from the cowboys, there was only the sigh of wind in the sagebrush.
I walked up to the river, took a deep breath, and threw my first cast above a rock midstream. This much I knew about fly fishing: The fly went on the end of the tippet. The tippet was connected to tapered leader then to the double tapered floating line, and to the reel that was attached to the rod in my hand. With the toes of my new waders in the river, I felt good having a connection to air, sagebrush, water, and mountains. I imagined trout everywhere, though I couldn’t see them.
The Laramie’s trout repeated rejection of my wooly worm didn’t turn me into the frustrated wreck I usually became when I fished lazy, muddy water in Missouri. I felt a calm I had forgotten long ago. The air along the sandy banks was good and clean. I fished a riffle that spread across the river like a stair step and tried to throw long casts over the riffle but often found my line in tangled piles on the water. Adrian stalked trout upstream behind rocks bankside. He had made his way down to a cattle fence along one of the small ribbon arms along the side of the main stream, where the cowboys and cowgirls wrangled cattle. From where I stood, he looked like he pulled two little rainbows out from behind a cowboy and one from behind a cow. I caught nothing, but was having a hell of a time casting the wooly worm into the back of my hat.
When I could get my fly in the river, it broke the mirror of water above the riffle, sunk a little, and fell into the foam. It stayed in the swirl for a moment before shooting out into the deeper water. Playing the fly over that riffle became like hypnotism. I didn’t even imagine trout any longer. I just stared and cast. Soon, I was empty—a space as clear and blue and deep as the sky above.
Thoughts flashed through that clear space, and I let them pass without judgment. I hadn’t been doing well in Laramie. Grad school was miserable, and I had let a couple of professors get to me. Once under my skin, those professors kept me up at night, so I was tired and felt worthless during the day. In the evenings, I talked to my daughter’s mom long distance, who told me about my daughter’s antics and made me feel like a cad for having gone to school. In between, I was broke, always broke.
I remembered the mornings I lie bed wondering if life would turn a corner, when there was a time I would have peace. And I when I rose, I looked out over the Snowy Mountains, I longed for quiet in my head. I wanted the worry and noise to go away, to stop existing. I tried to imagine what that would be like, but couldn’t.
I noticed as I stood in the Laramie River, casting into the glass smooth water, that the constant stream of shrillness in my head had stopped. I thought that people don’t shoot themselves in the head because they want to die, but because they want to turn off the ruckus.
When the trout struck, I felt as if someone slapped me. It was like opening the door to a noisy party on a quiet street. My pole bent like a divining rod, moved as though on its own, the line pointing to the trout as it tried to throw the hook.
Once I hooked the fish, I could only remember I had heard that it was not a good thing to let a trout jump, so I let it run. I pulled in line when I could, inching the trout to shore. I shouted to Adrian who was sneaking up to a rock behind a cowgirl and a steer. I looked up to see his head pop out of a fence post.
That trout and I went around for a long time. I felt electric. Adrian sidled up next to me and said, “Wow, mister, seems like you got something there.”
When I finally brought the fish ashore, the wooly worm hung precariously on its lip. The fish was shaped like a twenty-two-inch-long football, healthy and thick in contrast to the starved mouths with tails Adrian had pulled from the stream. I picked it up by the jaw, removed the hook and stared at it. Adrian came up close.
“My god, that is a big fish,” he said.
“What kind do you suppose it is?” I asked.
“It’s a damn big fish.” I stood there, staring into its eye. I was still and oddly peaceful. Turning it around, I studied its anatomy as if it was a cadaver.
“You better get it back into the water before you kill it,” Adrian said.
“Shouldn’t I take it home for dinner?” I asked.
“Why not just put it back in the river and say thanks?”
It wasn’t such a bad idea. I held the fish in the water next to the sandy shore until it swam away slowly, listing from its time in the air. I turned and watched Adrian, who’s moved back among the rocks, bobbing his fly in and out of pools under the cowboys. I was finished. One was enough. I lay back on the sand and stared up into the sky.
I heard something in the blue, a fizzle and snap, like sounds on an empty telephone line. Another, whole new world opened up in front of me like Barney Buzdikian’s fly box. Looking at the sky, I knew the treasures of the reborn lie in the future, clear as trout water, and everyone knows trout need the cleanest, clearest water.