Fall Creek (Ithaca, N.Y.) has been painfully difficult to fish the last couple of autumns. We’ve had intermittent rainfall during September and October, but the water level of this Cayuga Lake tributary has been inadequate for a decent draw of spawning trout and landlocked salmon. The creek is a fair distance from home, so I’ve kicked myself for each of my two visits this season.
The other day the air was cold, and the sky seemed pregnant with the chance of snow. Arriving at the creek I saw one angler on the stretch that typically holds half a dozen fly-fishers on an autumn morning. The angler’s silhouette against the bottom of massive Ithaca Falls did not look comforting. For me, it symbolized mankind as a tiny thing, a fragile creature, stupid in a lonely pursuit where all the world pours down on him.
Concentrating on small eddies on the far side of rushing water, I heard a shout. It wasn’t from the angler way upstream. He was exiting the freezing mist, apparently done for the day. “Heh!” The sound echoed through the gorge where I was fishing. Looking up, I saw a man and a boy standing on the highway bridge and staring down. “Catchin’ anything?”
“No!” I answered. “Haven’t seen one. Low water!” I gestured toward the flow, implying that the lack of rain had not invited the spawn, although in likelihood there were also other factors involved with the apparent absence of fish.
“We’ve been up to Ludlowville (at Salmon Creek, a neighboring tributary) and didn’t see a single fish!”
I shrugged and felt relief, as if the weight of the waterfall had been lifted from my own shoulders. “Who knows what’s going on?”
“Good luck!” shouted the man on the bridge. He and the boy then walked away. Good luck. Encouragement, indeed. I could use it. The words would fuel me, the last guy on the creek, for my wade down to the next bridge, all the while keeping an eye out for an occupant of the pocket waters. The stretch between the bridges had been wonderfully productive in the past, but timing is a critical matter while fishing Fall Creek.
At the bridge abutment and its pool, I found that my fuel of hope had dissipated. I had one fume left, maybe, for a final cast. Then nothing. Damn it all! I should have gone to Naples Creek instead. It’s closer to home, and it’s probably more productive today.
So, not every trout excursion gets a good review. This post is like a write-up for a less than satisfying book or video or record album, except for this: If you’re the last man or woman standing in the river, shivering, waiting, with a rod and reel, there’s still something positive to say about your motivation. Right?
I remember an evening on the Yellowstone River. It was getting dark, and once again I seemed to be the last guy in the water. I heard a chuffing, growling sound, a crashing of brush along the bank where I should have exited 20 minutes earlier. Grizzly! I was finished. I’d soon be stumbling through the dark on a big bear’s hunting ground! Well, I’m here to tell you that it sure was pleasant to be proven wrong. The sounds had come from a drunken bison (which can be even more confrontational than a sober grizzly).
My point is that the last guy in the river sometimes earns a memory worth reviewing on occasion. Sure, you like to catch fish, but there’s more to it than that. The migrating birds are chittering, or singing, in the sycamores along the bank. They might be saying, “Winter’s coming. It’s good to be on our way!” On the other hand, they might be questioning why you’re standing alone in the river on a day like this. It doesn’t make sense to them that you’re as stoic as a heron, that you’re shivering like a fool and seeing nothing in the way of fish.
Yeah, there’s more to it than catching fish. But the trick is to express those other pleasures and satisfactions to yourself. And if you really want a challenge, try to explain them convincingly to someone who’s never cast a line.