Standing in big Pine Creek on a mid-November morning was a cold affair. Beads of ice clung to the rocks and weeds along the bank. The sky was cloudless but at 10:30 a.m. the sun had yet to bathe my section of the north-south running creek, ostensibly the largest waterway in the country labeled as a “creek.” The Pine, near Slate Run, Pennsylvania, was a frigid, crystalline river, and I was out for one of its hefty brown trout stocked by the sportsmen headquartered at the Slate Run Tackle Shop.
That was the framework for a very good looking Saturday when most folks in the valley were either waiting for the bike trail to reflect some heat or else were dressed in blaze orange and scouting for black bear on the first day of the big game season. I was glad to have left New York and the center of the finest deer hunting in the state — always a crazy situation on the opener of the whitetail season– although if truth be told, I don’t know if a retreat to the freezing pools and riffles of Pine suggests more sane behavior.
I’ve never been a big fan of fly-fishing Pine Creek downstream of the famous gorge, but my other fishing venues were struggling for adequate water supply and decent angling opportunities, and I knew that Pine not only had good public water (with Delayed Harvest regulations), it also had larger than average brown trout put in by the club. The few times that I’ve longed to sample the Schoolhouse Riffle down below the bridge on Pine, there were fellows casting in it, but on this chilly Saturday I found it empty.
Slate Run is a fascinating little village with a history of industrialism and a present day subsisting solely on the income from recreational pursuits. You know, angling, hiking, hunting, and bicycling. Somewhere up on the eastern bank where I was fishing stood the old village schoolhouse. Working my way downstream through the deep riffle and the placid pools now starting to collect the welcome rays of sun, I had plenty of time and solitude for thought.
As a writer, I am often messing around with poetry and narrative ideas, and as I moved out of the Schoolhouse Riffle I remembered an old poem I wrote, and I began riffing on its “schoolhouse” theme…
“At dusk, a one-room building,/ Gray and empty under deep/ November sky./ Alone at the river/ I hear water whispering lessons,/ rocks and branches rustling,/ carving the air of schoolday thoughts….”
Fragments of a poem I wrote a generation ago, moments flashing in the warming sun along Pine Creek… Casting a long 5-weight line across and down the stream, the weighted nymph or streamer drifting along the bottom, by chance to cross the window of a logy trout… In five hours of repetitive, zen-like working of the fly rod through the air and restless water, I caught nothing, again. Oh, I had a heavy fish on at one point, no doubt a two year-old that I lost in fast water down toward Naval Run, and had a second hook-up, briefly, on returning to the Schoolhouse Riffle, but the poor autumn fishing scored another point against me.
So what did I learn while fishing the Schoolhouse Riffle and beyond? Ask one of my elementary school students what he or she learned in school on any given day, and the answer you’ll probably get is, “Ah… nothin’.” Ask a geezer fishing out his hours down on Pine, he’ll say, “Ah… I didn’t learn as much as I… remembered things.”
I remember hearing the two-note cry of an eagle and thinking that even though I couldn’t see the bird, the eagle was somewhere near the water. I caught nothing on that Saturday but I couldn’t dismiss the creek for the lack of fish. I’ve had excellent dry fly fishing here in spring. Earlier this fall the angling was remarkable for any number of folks who regularly fish the water. I learned the day before that Israel and the Palestinians were lobbing missiles at each other again. I knew that wartime never really ends, that global misery, here and abroad, can unhinge us if we’re not careful.
I remembered that we have much to be grateful for at this Thanksgiving season, in this place and across the world, and if we get too wrapped up in ourselves to sincerely appreciate this life on earth, our days will be gone prematurely, like the sunlight that leaves the canyon when the water finally warms.