Last Guy in the River

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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 DSCN1897occasion. 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.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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10 Responses to Last Guy in the River

  1. lesterkish says:

    Walt, what a beautiful waterfall! The sight of it alone would have made my day. I dabbled with fishing yesterday, found it so-so, snapped a few photos, and just reveled in the day. No need to please or convince anyone else. Just tuck the day away into the memory bank.

  2. You’ve got it, Les. Absorb the points of an experience, a beautiful waterfall, a trout on the line, a wild goose on a southward flight. And make of them what you will.

  3. Alan says:

    Your past experience has played out for many an angler, myself so many times. It’s all part of this passion we have. Someone who has never cast a line could not ever understand.

    • Bob Stanton says:

      These are the days that provide the balance, the yin to the yang, the times that underwrite the great days of fishing. Oddly, it’s the days of no fish, or of few fish and the “work” that had to go into catching them that I remember most vividly. I can’t say, though, that I’ve ever failed to see something cool while streamside, something I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the peculiar endeavor of trying to catch fish on fuzz-wound hooks. Didn’t someone once say something about hope being the fisherman’s constant companion?

      • These days certainly seem to be just that, Bob– the balance for the other angling season, and I’d have to agree that, although they often turn up shy for catches, they are memory-makers, for whatever reasons. You’ve got me wondering now which f-f guru made the comment about Hope being our constant companion. Probably been stated a number of times within the same context. Maybe Geirach or Haig-Brown or… Also poet Emily Dickenson compared it to, what, a “feathered thing”? Will have to check on that.

    • Well stated, Alan. “It’s all part of this passion we have.”

  4. Great column! By the way, how does a bison get drunk? I’ve often been the last guy on the river and you’re absolutely right: I’ve seen some very interesting things. The swamp has as interesting nightlife.

  5. Jim, Ah yes, an “interesting nightlife”! I can’t vouch for certain that a bison gets “drunk,” as we know it, but I recognize that, if you’re standing in the way of an approaching bison, especially a big bull, it has a certain swagger as if intoxicated by its own blindness and buffalo-intent. In that case, it’s good to step aside from their path. In one case I was wakened in my tent near Yellowstone, around 2 a.m., by a herd of grunting bison that I feared might trip up the ropes and tumble in. It was if they’d all been drinking in a village watering hole and were out to raise some hell. I felt a lot safer in my car. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. stevegalea6953 says:

    What a wonderful post! Fish or not, made me want to be there.

  7. Thanks for the compliment, Steve!

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