Recently, my brother, who lives in South Florida, sent me a photograph of a tarpon he’d caught off Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. “I practiced socially distant fishing,” he said. No need for a mask. There was no one else aboard his boat, let alone on the water. “The lack of boats on a Sunday morning was eerie,” he told me. In a neat trick of maritime multitasking, Andy piloted the boat, fought the 110-pound fish, photographed it and released it.
I confess to a twinge of envy. I live in Washington, D.C., an inconvenient distance from good, fishable waters, and I don’t own a boat. Anyway, my favorite fish are trout, which are far from an urban pursuit. Usually during this time of year, I’d be streamside in Devon, England, casting for browns, but the coronavirus put an end to that. The Arundell Arms, a sporting hotel I like there, is closed. For now, a plane trip seems too chancy.
So I dream of trout and gaze longingly at a photograph that hangs in my home office. It was taken in Panama in 1941 by Luis Marden, a former colleague, much-missed friend and legendary explorer, writer, photographer for National Geographic. The image features three rainbow trout on a bed of moss framed by a surround of yellow orchids and red coffee cherries. Marden — a polymath who spoke five languages, discovered the wreck of the HMS Bounty, retraced Columbus’ voyage to the New World using the original logs, and was a pioneer in underwater color photography — habitually found a way to cast a line (almost always a fly line) into nearly every drop of exotic water he encountered on assignment. Somehow, in the course of a trip, he discovered a trout stream on the cool, tropical slopes of a volcano.
Marden was a man of impeccable taste and manners, given to Brooks Brothers stripes and shirts made from Sea Island cotton. Naturally, he was a dry-fly man. It was his canny proclivity for pairing assignment travel with fishing that inspired my purchase of a Smuggler three decades ago at the House of Hardy in London. The aptly named 8-foot, 2-inch graphite rod breaks down into seven sections; cased, it measures 18 inches and fits neatly in my handbag.
The Hardy store has since closed and been absorbed by Farlows, another of those outdoor-country-pursuits-by-appointment-to-her-majesty brands on Pall Mall, where you can, if you are sufficiently well-heeled, buy a leather-lined pair of Chameau Wellingtons for £360 ($450). The rod, a splurge, has long since repaid my investment. It accompanied me on assignments — coincidentally, many near some fine trout waters — as my accomplice when fishing for cutthroats in the icy headwaters of the Pecos in the mountains of New Mexico, rainbow trout in the Beaver Kill, and browns in that skein of small, swift rivers in Devon.
“Fishing is a solace,” Marden wrote, quoting George Orwell. It is “the opposite of war; a civilized, gentle and healing occupation.” For now, however, the pervasive viral fog has interposed itself between me and that solace.
There was a modest remedy. I took my Smuggler from its case, admired the dark gleam of its oxblood finish, assembled the rod and its companion Hardy reel, went outside, walked through the backyard to the alley and began casting. There was satisfaction in the tremble of the rod as the line was flung forward onto an asphalt river. Instead of trees, hazards included the overhead menace of telephone wires, garbage bins and parked cars. No doubt, my neighbors might have wondered about the crazy lady fishing in the alley. When I told an equally city-marooned, fishing-deprived friend who owns a cabin on the Blackfoot in Montana about my lunacy, he was properly sympathetic. “You are not alone,” he replied. “We’re all slightly bonkers.”
The fly angler’s spring is sometimes called the “sweet of the year,” a phrase lifted from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. In the Bard’s England, where I, alas, am not, hawthorn is blooming in bridal white; its fragrance fills the air. It is the best time to pursue trout. Not this year, quel dommage. But next year, hopefully.