“Hope is the thing with feathers– That perches in the soul–,” said Emily Dickenson, who probably had no idea of what a trout fly is, but who certainly understood that
feathers– on a bird or on a fish hook– have a metaphorical link to hope and freedom.
Not long ago, I brought my own version of hope and freedom to the trout stream, to the West Branch Genesee in an evening when the sulphur mayflies were expected, but at a time when I couldn’t see any stream activity for the first quarter hour of fishing. Finally, trout began to rise to an imperceptible insect at the surface of the stream.
Getting refusals to a Sulphur dry fly and a spinner pattern, too, I chanced it with a small, dark imitation (think Ant, Grannom, Midge) and that was the key. I went from the yellowish fly to a dark Grannom (caddis), sparking a blaze of heated casting that raised my hopes and expectation through to nightfall.
Rainbow after rainbow rose to that dark imitation drifting over the pool with undercut banks. They were stocked fish, but strong, leaping trout that averaged 12 or 13 inches long. And that’s the thing about fishing: there is never any certainty about success but, as long as there’s fish in the stream, there’s always the possibility of a catch.
Although the great majority of our casts do not connect with any living emissary from the depths, every now and then our gamble pays off with a beautiful life form for our eyes (or stomach) to feast upon.
We catch a fish; we reinforce our ego and strengthen an image of ourselves as angler or as someone with a shard of natural wisdom. That’s how it goes, at least in theory.
A few nights later I returned to the same stretch of Genesee headwaters, feeling pretty confident about renewed success with the trout. There was no more guarantee or certainty in this act of fishing than in any other aspect of life, but I did approach the water with an increased heart rate and the hope for renewed enjoyment.
I also returned with a 25 year-old fly rod, an Orvis Superfine that had been my first ever graphite wand. The company had guaranteed the new rod against breakage of any kind for 25 years, but that night the guarantee was expiring.
If I broke the rod on its 25th birthday there was always the chance that the company would replace it with a comparable new Superfine model, but there was no way I wanted to do that. I’m not crazy about dishonesty and, besides, I had too many pleasant memories wrapped up in the use of that old fly rod.
I expected another good evening with the rod and, yeah, I got it, luckily enough. Trout rose quickly to a Cahill or a Green Drake floater, and I knew from experience that I’d better enjoy every moment of the action while I could. Most nights to come wouldn’t be so wild and carefree.
When the world of work or economic strain or politics or religious fervor or personal grief gets too heavy and begins to challenge our hope and happiness, it’s nice to know there’s another life close by that offers temporary peace and refuge. It might be on a mountain or a seashore, in a forest or a desert or a prairie, or even in a backyard or a city park.
One of my favorite places is wherever mind and body can embrace a small stream and its secret (or not so secret) lives. That’s my place where the thing with feathers can be found.