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Reflections of a Trout Fisherman

A trout fisherman should never look into a mirror. If he does, his ego will collapse like a pair of empty waders. Here he is, a full-grown man dressed like a deep-sea diver, with a ridiculous battered hat on his head instead of a helmet, and more gear hanging from his shoulders than a U.S. marine making a beach landing. And all this to go out and do battle with an adversary that most often is about as long as his middle finger and just as thick.

The trout fisherman is a phony who shrouds himself from any facsimile of the truth with a set of self-created illusions, delusions, laws, creeds, alibis and superstitions that would make a medicine man in a tribe of headhunters turn in his gourds.

The fisherman begins by forgetting the primary purpose of fishing, which is to catch fish. He frowns on any method that is simple and productive, like using a chunk of liver on a hook, or netting, or patronizing the frozen-fish counter at his supermarket. The fisherman has a sagging ego, which he must feed by reducing the odds in favor of the fish with use of artificial flies (preferably homemade) and gossamer-thin leaders.

Above all, the devout trout fisherman distorts fishing in his mind until it is no longer fishing. It becomes an "art": The Piscatorial Art, with himself as the wielder of the brush. It becomes a Heroic Epic, with himself as the wielder of the sword, battling with superhuman efforts of will and might against an unconquerable adversary. In his illusion the trout (legal size: six or seven inches in most states) becomes the "wily" trout, or even the "noble" trout, which slashes and darts and heaves its mighty shoulders through the foam of the rapids.

One of the fisherman's face-saving rationalizations is that he does not meet his adversary on common ground. If, for example, he and the trout were in a bathtub together the result would be inevitable. After a few grasps at his slime-slippery adversary, the fisherman would call upon the higher intelligence of his species: he would pull the plug and end up with his prey gasping in defeat against his flanks. The absence of a bathtub changes everything. It leaves the man in his element hankering after the trout and the trout in its element hankering after whatever trout hanker after.

Confused, often browbeaten, always ego-faltering, man can't leave well enough alone—especially in the spring, when the sap is beginning to rise in him, and he is suddenly Man. He is the protector, the provider and, with flaring nostrils and glinting eyes, he must convince himself of the fact. His blood roils and boils. Only the conquest of a powerful adversary will uncurl his upper lip. It is his destiny, and he cannot deny it. He has got to go out and conquer a trout. But trout fishermen, once they have outgrown the barefoot-boy, tree-branch, store-twine, bent-pin stage, cannot just go out and catch a trout. They must prepare for a crusade.

Preparations usually begin in midwinter, when snow witches are dancing over the white land. They consist of reading the books written by experts on fishing, who somehow always find time out from fishing to write books about it. The rods (plural) are carefully inspected. Although it is virtually impossible to cast with more than one rod at a time, each fisherman has to have several rods. He has soft-action rods that he uses for wet-fly fishing and fast-action rods for dry-fly fishing. Blindfolded he couldn't tell the difference.

The fisherman must also have a multiplicity of lines: lines with long tapers and torpedo-head lines, lines that together sink with wet flies and lines that float with dry flies.

Tying his flies can keep a fisherman busy for months and years on end. These flies are tied to imitate any and every insect that has ever lived or might ever live—and in any and every stage of its development from the nymph stage to its last fluttering moment. These artificial flies must imitate the natural fly precisely. All the experts say so. A minor error might escape the scientifically trained eye of an entomologist, but it would never, never deceive the wily trout.

So the fisherman goes on preparing his armament and dreaming of the fateful day when he will meet his foe face to face. Strangely, that moment when man and fish meet is not known as The Moment of Truth; it is known as Opening Day. That day, marked on every trout fisherman's calendar, sustains him through the frustrations of his everyday living. He doesn't audibly snap back at his boss, he meekly permits himself to be herded to the back of the bus, he allows his doctor to treat him like a none-too-bright child and obediently swallows the pills whose names he dares not ask, he lets insurance salesmen sell him insurance he does not need, he agrees with his wife that she is more capable than he of managing the family finances and he permits his son to practice the trumpet over weekends. He is an ordinary man. But his day is marked on the calendar. His day will come. And eventually it comes.

It is Opening Day! Cold and miserable, as most. Our trout fisherman stands on the bank and surveys his field of battle. His face is winter-pale, but he stands proud in his battle dress. Who ever heard of a knight without armor, a Robin Hood without a feather in his cap, a D'Artagnan without a cloak? Is not our fisherman going to perform rare deeds of valor and gallantry and prowess? To fight with heart pure and strong and pit his whippy lance and gossamer leaders against a monstrous enemy?

Well, anyway, he wears chest-high waterproof waders and heavy, hobnailed brogues. Above the waders he wears a woolen shirt and on top of this a short fishing jacket, which is little more than a vast collection of pockets sewn together. The jacket has a loop to act as a butt rest for his rod while he changes flies, which is often. There is another loop for holding a bottle of waterproofing liquid for his dry flies. There is a small piece of sheepskin sewn over one pocket on which to hang dry flies to dry.

The jacket pockets contain a few necessities: a handkerchief, a pipe and tobacco, two packs of cigarettes. The pipe is traditional and he smokes it once during each fishing trip until it begins to raise blisters on his unaccustomed tongue. But who ever was a trout fisherman with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth and looking like Louie the Dip? The jacket pockets also hold a windproof lighter; a waterproof matchbox full of kitchen matches in case the windproof lighter doesn't light; special glasses for underwater vision; a bottle of insect repellent with a leaky top; a small bottle of ammonia for the bites of insects the repellent did not repel; a leather wallet with felt pages for bucktails and streamers; another wallet for wet flies and nymphs; a leader case; a line clipper; a transparent, compartmented box for dry flies; a similar box containing hooks, strip lead, split shot, spinners, swivels and a lucky buffalo nickel; another box of dry flies; a fishing knife; a sharpening stone; a wader-patching outfit (compact size); a stiletto for opening the varnish-plugged eyes of hooks; a small folding ruler; a slightly inaccurate, but flattering, weighing scale; a thermometer for testing water temperatures; a tin of line dressing; three sticks of chewing gum; a "priest" (the fisherman's version of a blackjack, for dispatching unruly captives); two egg sandwiches; and a small flask of snakebite lotion imported from the hills and stills of Kentucky. Such items as a camera, an extra reel, a notebook and pencil, a small first-aid kit and a soft-bound copy of the Rubaiyat are so obvious they need not be mentioned. A rod, landing net and creel complete the fisherman's armament. And, of course, The Hat.

The Hat is as individual a piece of equipment as the blazon on a knight's shield. This is this man's hat. He has punched it out of shape, squeezed it, kneaded it and caressed it through long winter evenings. He has festooned its sheepskin band with colorful flies and stained its brim with greasy fly dope. He has religiously dipped it into each stream or lake he has ever fished, as a clarion warning to all fish that he was present and to beware. If he dared, he would have The Hat bronzed and slate in his will that it is to be buried with him. That hat is his final thumb-to-nose gesture at Brooks Brothers and the society that shapes his everyday life.

Our fisherman thrusts out his jaw, dips the brim of his hat into the roiling water, clamps it on top of his head, steps into the stream and begins to cast. He forgets the vicissitudes of life; its slings and arrows are splintered memories that glance off his armor. He ignores the fact that there are millions of him throughout the land doing just about the same thing he is doing. This is his moment, and he is aware only of the fact that he has this part of the stream all to himself—and he hopes that it is not so remote that the fish-hatchery trucks missed it while they were stocking the streams.

He fishes long and hard, aware of the chill air and the sky and the pressure of the water against his waders. He fishes as the experts have written, as he should, conscious of the action of his rod, of the tension in his wrist, of his elbow tight against his side. He follows their battle plans, and his fly flutters and lands light as thistledown—and nothing happens. It drowns in a riffle—and nothing happens. He changes flies and tactics—and nothing happens.

He abandons dry-fly fishing, the "pure art form." and tries bucktails and wet flies. Twice he sees a flash in the depths behind his offering but strikes much too late, and the trout that took the fly spits it out quicker than a wink.

Oh, damnable, wily trout—hatchery-born and hatchery-raised on a diet of ground-up liver and fish and vitamins—put into the streams three days before Opening Day, ignorant of streamcraft, ignorant of the facts of their life which, since time primordial, dictated to their species that they must feed on insects.

At last the fisherman puts away his cunning and his artificial lures, which he has fashioned with such pains and eyestrain, and he splashes to the bank of the stream. He would not do this if other fishermen were watching him. He could not bear to lose face with them. But he isn't having any luck, and the water is too dark and cold, and he can't face his wife with an empty creel, and he can't tell his boss that he was skunked by the wily trout.

With the heel of his brogans he breaks off a chunk of earth at the stream's edge and peers eagerly. There! A nice, wriggly, pink, fat worm! With trembling fingers he ties a bare hook onto his leader and, with his teeth, squeezes a split shot onto it for a sinker. He threads on his worm, steps into the stream once more and tosses the worm into the pool. (The piscatorial gods forgive him. He tossed it in, not cast it with perfect parabolic arcs of rod and line.)

The fisherman feels a tug...feeds out line...feels another tug...feeds out more line...braces himself...lifts the rod tip smartly.... He has a fish on! It's not much of a fish. He can tell that because the upward motion of his rod when he struck the fish nearly flipped it out of the water. But he's not going to let trifles belittle this glorious moment of battle. He can compensate for the size of the fish by easing his muscles on the rod.

He plays the fish slowly, prolonging his gratification as a masochist prolongs his pain. The power of the fish, its frightened surges, swift runs and throbbing convulsions are exaggerated as they transmit themselves to him through the sensitive link of line and rod. By some strange alchemy of projection, he becomes the fish; its struggle for life becomes his own struggle through life. For this brief moment he fights the forces that control his life, as the fish lights the hook and thin leader that lead it, inexorably, to its destruction.

He feels the deep hurt and deep anger and futility, and his own muscles quiver. When, in a reckless leap, the trout leaves its element and shakes the spray from its body defiantly he feels that grand gesture as a part of himself and, for a moment, he, too, rises above his element. How brave, he thinks, how hopelessly sad and brave.

And then, because he is a man, the thin bond alters and, instead of being a filament, it becomes a chain and, instead of being one with the conquered, he becomes the conqueror. He becomes big, bigger than he was. He raises his arm and draws his victim toward him. He dips his hand into the water and touches and holds the slick body. The hook is deep inside the fish. If it were on its lips he would have twisted it free and returned the fish to the water and felt like a god for having granted life. But the hook is deep and fatal. He forces his fingers into the palpitating gills and lifts the fish into his creel.

And so his day goes, and to some fish he grants life and to others he passes his cruel verdict; and, at last, he leaves the stream, exhausted as from a great love, yet reborn somehow.

He goes home and, with a flourish, dumps his catch into the kitchen sink; the man, at last—the provider. As he goes down the hall to wash up and shower, he catches a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. He takes another step, stops and looks more closely.

I told you that trout fishermen should never look in a mirror. This one did, and he saw himself. And do you know who it was?

It was me.