Fishing With Thoreau

A  summer daydream, or maybe something more.

1   I went to the creek to examine my motives for trout fishing in a hot dry month. For fishing when most streams had minimal flows and marginal water temperatures, when most stream anglers had given up for now, or were hundreds of miles away.

de blooze

de blooze

I left the house at dawn and headed for a mountain stream. I listened to blues on a college radio station, knowing its format framed my expectations. “Even a blind dog sometimes finds a bone,” sang the husky-toned blues man, as if to an angler headed upstream by himself.

Fishing with compatible others is a good thing, but when you’re living on the far side of nowhere, as I do, compatible small stream addicts might live a journey or two away. Consequently, on most of my fishing ventures, I have only myself to argue with.

The drive to the creek was beautiful. Clouds hung low in the sky. The road dead-ended at a small closed bridge. I suited up and savored the misty hour. No one was around. Not an angler, nor a critic who might have seen this as another bad attempt to escape reality. I edged through the tall grass and entered the stream. Trico spinners undulated overhead.

The current worked its magic at my ankles and lower legs, eroding the unnecessary elements as I waded upstream. The creek was low and thin, the water temperature cool.

I entered green tunnels of shrubbery. Bees droned, and a red bird sang its late season song. I broke into an opening beyond which great white pine trees shaded the banks. My insecurities meant nothing here. A cell phone seemed as handy as a drowned plastic bag.

 In wildness I could turn down the noise of modern living stuck inside my head. I could feel healthy for a while. The bumblebee and vireo and riffle had distinct voices. I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcould even conjure a personae to help me stay focused. Yes, I lost concentration and made a sloppy cast. I looked away and saw an angler up ahead. A fisherman named Henry Thoreau.

The author of Walden lives in another time and place. An independent thinker and naturalist, Thoreau is an inspiration to thousands, a therapist for a broken world. I’ve always liked the way he leads the charge against conformity, the way he chides the mass of men enduring lives of quiet desperation.

I fish for the freedom it allows, for the feeling that self-improvement is an option. In my trout dreams I can even meet up with a hero like Thoreau. I was humbled, certainly, and honored.

Henry had been casting in a pool above the beaver dam. The pines shading the eastern bank offered an illusion of the wilderness past. The burble of water was an undertone to the writer’s mumbled comments on the virtues of simplicity.

I carried less gear than most Complete Anglers I knew, but was it necessary to pack in four fly boxes today? A few spools of tippet, a clipper and a few Trico flies were probably enough. But a surplus of equipment wasn’t the greatest barrier to freedom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Being insensitive to the special qualities of a place is a barrier. Being unaware of the heartbeat and rhythms of water is like wearing shackles on the soul. The main thing is to fish well in a rare place and to feel alive… I had the feeling that Henry was planting thoughts inside my skull. I think he saw me as another desperate soul, but one unafraid to speak.

“It’s a fool’s life,” said Henry.

“Leading to waste,” I added.

“Too many folks let luxury eat them out of house and home.”

“People rot in front of televisions and computer screens,” I quipped. “But hey, we’re here to fish, not to bring up government and economics.”

“How can you avoid them?” asked the writer. “Here you’re living with unprecedented threats to the environment. All I really had to face in Concord were the railroad and the loggers and the scheming minds of a mushrooming population. Aarr! Government and economics rule the day. The baseness of the soul!”

“This is a beautiful stream, isn’t it Henry?”

“We had better love these woods and waters while we can.”

It was time to bring up the inevitable…

3   “Yes, our baits are different,” he said, ” but our purpose is the same!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFishing with a bamboo rod and artificial fly, I found it only slightly challenging to accept Thoreau’s casting of a night crawler. Hell, if this great individual agreed to fish and to converse with a pitiful dreamer like myself, who was I to tell him of a more refined approach? I was happy just to have him lend an ear.

“I knew a poor farmer once,” stated Henry. “John Field was his name. The poor bastard was condemned to a life of slavery, unwilling to change with the times. I fished with him often. He killed more than he needed, and when he hooked a fish, he saw no sense in letting it go. It never occurred to him that a fish is more than meat. The guy had no instinct for the higher life; he never tried breaking the chains that bound him.”

I acknowledged his account but said, “Up here the water’s faster.  It’s good to have cleats on the bottom of your shoes.”

“All I need is my old pair of boots,” he said. “Leather gets me where I want to go. You’ll see my footprints in the muck all over. You know, I used to be a hunter in my youth, but I gave up trying to bring meat to the table. I outgrew the urge, most likely. But fishing’s different. It’s still primitive, but more sublime.”

“Our reptilian nature?” I asked.

“Savage, maybe, and good. In balance with a higher order… Hey, I’ve got one here!… A cold water fish, by golly, not a pickerel or a perch!”

I felt like a debutante roll-casting on a mown suburban lawn… And then I cut him loose. Fishing or writing, Thoreau was a busy guy. People like myself pestered him too much. He didn’t need another intrusion from this world.

I edged into a deep pool and wondered about Henry’s God. An Artist, maybe? Creator of Walden Pond, as well as this cozy, gravel-bottomed pool? If so, his God was not my own. I often saw a multi-faceted spirit, something that inhabited pools and craggy mountainsides. One that had the names of brook trout, muskrat, pine tree, and hawk! One thing, many things, that embraced me when I walked and fished. Like old friends in a good mood, full of understanding.

Henry had caught a trout, and now it was up to me. I had to keep moving in the right direction. I had to hear those blues I’d heard on the radio. I had to focus on the stream and hear the blues give way to songs of unconfined nature. Songs of pristine water. Tales of a fishing guide whose only charge was to pay attention. “Keep it simple,” he had said.  “Live one life, and love it if you can.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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14 Responses to Fishing With Thoreau

  1. Benjamin says:

    Very profound, Good Sir!!

  2. Ken G says:

    R.L. Burnside and conversations in your head with worm dunker. Makes perfect sense.
    Nice piece Walt.

  3. Junior says:

    I think this is one of your most interesting concepts. It almost has the feel you’d find in classic supernatural fiction, and the fact that Thoreau himself is your conversation partner in this vision only adds to that.

    Was this something you’ve been sitting on for a while, or the product of a cold winter’s night?

    • Thank you for the insight, Junior. Yeah, I like this, too. The original conversation is a summer or two old already, so I’ve been sitting on it. But I just took it out, to warm myself up, so to speak, and applied the whittling stick.


  4. Dale Houseknecht says:

    Hi Walt
    This dead end at a small bridge woudnt be at young womens would it?

  5. says:

    Evoking the spirit of Thoreau always warms the heart of all those that seek to inhabit the wilds.

  6. Keith,
    Thoreau lives on, thankfully, and wonderfully.

  7. Another fine post, Mr. Franklin! When I was in the 9th grade, I attempted to read the Sage of Walden Pond’s masterpiece but it was beyond my comprehension at that point. Years later I was able to “get it” upon reading. It’s funny, but I also think often of Thoreau while I fish. Actually, there’s usually a running conversation or narrative going on in my head…one in which I am a great philosopher, and gents like Henry David and Ralph Waldo are my peers. Chalk that up to delusions of grandeur, heh, heh. My favorite Thoreau “moment”: when on his death bed, Thoreau’s aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God. Henry replied, “I did not realize we had ever quarreled.” Genius.


    • Bob,
      I entered your comments in the wrong spot (above) but I’m glad to have them. Yeah, to have tackled Walden in 9th grade is admirable and brave (unless it was a class assignment– unlikely– which would’ve been a disservice to everyone, since most kids don’t yet have enough adult experience to handle this). But it’s excellent to have the Concord minds on the book shelf and to dip between the covers when the urge comes on. I tend to reread parts of Walden every year, and though I rarely take it consciously to the trout stream or the hiking trail, I feel I’m never far from its influence. I love those final words on the death bed. Auntie’s mind was surely blown!

  8. I’m afraid I’m more John Field than Thoreau, but I do feel more refined after reading your work. As always, the writing is captivating and makes me wish I lived near a mountain stream.

    • Thank you Jim. In my estimation, John Field is the kind of guy that lives inside most of us who have a deep connection to the big outdoors, and thus he remains an important, if rather nebulous, figure. I think Thoreau is the man who, by virtue of his writing ability, keeps John Field alive for us. I’m glad you pointed out the distinction!


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