At a fishing clinic years ago, I was asked to close my eyes and visualize my favorite water, holding the image in my mind as a source of strength. I remember that exercise and return to it now to anchor myself, at a time when I feel unmoored, conjuring in my imagination places that have been my sanctuaries for the last few years — places of comfort, places of peace.
Riding in a jetboat back to camp after a long day on the river chasing big fish, my best fishing buddy and I sit on the floor of the boat, leaning back against the bench with our legs propped up La-Z-Boy-style, sharing a beer. We’re pelted in the face by the evening hatch and have our buffs pulled up to avoid eating insects. This was a good day, perhaps the best. The riverbed is a dappled a mosaic of small, smooth stones, and a pair of golden eagles circle above the high banks. Open pastures rise up slowly into gentle mountains, marked with vivid yellow larch trees, flush with the colors of autumn. My face is wind-blown. Sunscreen stings my eyes, and I’m smiling.
In the darkness, laughter carries farther, our senses focused only on sound. I can’t see where I’m stepping, let alone where I’m casting, but I hear something as big as a bowling ball splash where my fly should be, and I’ve shrieked loud enough to scare every animal for miles. I’ve also almost peed in my waders. What was that noise in the bushes? Was that a deer huffing, or are we being followed? Everyone sticks together, hands-on shoulders, one-by-one. Someone has a headlamp and helps us avoid the barbed wire — safety in numbers, especially when the coyotes start howling. We make our way back to the car, and suddenly everyone is brave. I wasn’t scared. Not one bit. Were you?
I am wading in a fast-flowing river the color of turquoise and emerald. The shelf rock is slick as hell, but I have my footing and my wits about me. I’m at least another two feet from the drop-off, where the river flows deep and green. That’s where the steelhead are holding. I’ve finally found some distance with my Spey cast, and I’m learning how to manage my loops of running line with hands, fingers, lips and teeth. Downstream, the river carves its way through a narrow valley, old-growth forest rising up on both sides in a haze of yellow daylight. I can see my mom and my sister, holding their own against the current and the slick rock, their D-loops forming and flying. I’m not catching anything, and I don’t care.
The river is broad, and the water is inky, smooth as an oil slick. The pale, waning light of evening casts spruce and fir trees into silhouettes along the bank. This is one of my favorite spots to catch fish. I cannot see any detail on the surface of the water, but I can feel the running line beneath my index finger, and that’s all I need. The less I can see, the more I anticipate what lies below the surface. I am focused and filled with fire. A William Blake poem comes to mind, and I repeat the lines to myself like a mantra, casting, swinging and stepping: Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Cupping a driftless brookie in my hands, I release it, splashing and thrashing, to its plunge-pool home. The battery has died in my friend’s Subaru, and I leave the water to flag down passing pickup trucks, hoping for a jump. Strangely, no one carries cables out here in farm country, and apparently, neither did we. It’s getting dark, and we’re getting desperate, but not hopeless. We sing along to tunes played on an errant iPhone, drink a few beers, lie on our backs on the hood of the car and feel grateful. Thank God for the cooler. Thank God for brook trout. Thank God for friends, for warm summer nights and for AAA.
Erica Hickey is a writer, avid fly angler and palliative care nurse practitioner from Vail, Colorado. Struggling to write about fishing in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, she says this piece is about drawing strength and solace from our memories of the waters that we love. “I think that, as anglers, we can all relate to the sense of fishing as a sort of anchor during times of turbulence, and I wanted to give voice to something that I think many of us are feeling right now.”