On the Road (Once More)

[Sorry, Jack & Willie, for the blog post title… The rivertops are winter quiet now, so I thought I might serve up something different here–  a few memories from my road of life. Also, the accompanying photos are reflections of a recent outing on a Lake Ontario trib. The fishing was difficult but fun. The road to 2020 has been plowed & opened.]

1. It must have been our seventh annual New Year’s jaunt (a few days late in 2020). Once again, anticipation buoyed us on arrival at the Lake Ontario trib. As before, there was no guarantee or recipe for success. The first signs were less than promising: snowfall on a deep muddy river, temperature hovering just above the freezing mark, three anglers leaving– unsuccessful with their early morning work.

I’ve stood in warmer waters than this northern trib…

Familiar lines of river structure had been sunk by heightened flows. It struck me that fishing the inland waters could resemble casting at an ocean’s shore. Still, wintering browns and steelhead might be found here, and we hadn’t made the long drive just to watch the rain turn into snow. Despite long hours of repetitive casting and, despite the idiotic frenzy bound within, each drift of line explored an unknown territory possibly inhabited by a large wild fish (and memories of time gone by).

2. It must have been in 1976. Rumbling homeward in the county truck, I crouched behind old canvas flapping near the spades and picks, the rattling drums of oil, the workers’ faces shorn of hope and care.

Earlier, the morning sun had touched these laughing men on break, their beer-guts rippling near the bridge abutment where they wasted public dollars gathering newborn snakes emerging from rocky dens. Several guys burned the snake eyes with their cigarettes, charred the tongues into filaments and tied small bodies into bloody ribbons.

After play, the fellas worked an hour, broke for lunch then took a nap. By noon I was done with them and quit the job. Rumbling homeward in the county truck, I saw green April slicing through the flaps.

We weren’t the only fly fanatics in the river…

3. It must have been in 1981. I found a pile of horseshit in the yard and a Thank You note in my kitchen. Holly, a college student, and a friend of a friend of mine, had stopped for the night while I was gone. Her horse had just absorbed its first eighteen miles en route to Holly’s home near New York City. Fresh hay had been eaten in the barn while Holly slept in comfort on my living-room floor. Our first meeting would have been a pleasure, surely, over coffee and a sunrise dialogue about the Greenwood hills. Before Holly saddled up to face three-hundred miles of travel on her horse, I would have wished them a safe and happy road.

Sycamores frame a popular spot along the river…

4. It must have been in 1973. Wayne and I had hitched across the country, and in L.A. faced our rides through Hell. The smog lay heavy, and a Hoarder, driver number one, told us that his crankcase hid a load of heroin. A second driver was solicitous, trying to entice us with his porno schemes. A third guy, long-haired like ourselves, proved to be the greatest disappointment, thanks to his sister sitting in the front.

We had hoped for rescue in L.A.– perhaps by Rebellious Angels or Virtuous Pagans– but the long-haired driver and his sister told us to abandon all Hope and ride for sixty speechless miles of coast-road Limbo toward the northern redwoods of Salvation. She said, “Put your hands up on the front seat!” and her brother told us, “She’s not joking.” That’s the way we rode for sixty miles. Like disciples of Charlie Manson in a sleepwalk of obedience.

Walt, we’ve got company!

5. It must have been in 1985. I hitched into work and caught a ride with a local farmer whom I vaguely knew, one of New York’s most respected dairymen. He told me that the marriage of his son (his business partner) had dissolved, and now the son wanted to abandon farming. On the dashboard of the truck were photos– prized Holsteins on the auction block– cows to bring big money when they sold. He said, “I’ve been in farming since I was seventeen. I’m sixty now. You can do the math. I’ll hold on for another year, perhaps. I told my son that he can have the place if he comes home within a year. The farm’s been in the family for generations and I hate to give it up. But this arm needs surgery again… As for the marriage, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know.”

Half way to work, I thanked him for the ride, stepped out from the truck and resumed my quest. A woman and her daughter stopped for me. The driver told me that her husband had left her, that she’s tried to find some meaningful employment, but she wasn’t having any luck. It’s a difficult time, I said. What else could I do? She was working hard to balance the endless pressure from the madhouse with her dream of living on the land.

A 24-inch brown. Took a Black Ghost streamer…

6. It must have been the shout downriver that brought me back. Tim had a fish on the line. I did the tributary shuffle, slow but sure. It was time to put that big net underneath a set of wavering fins.

Nice goin’, Tim!


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 On the Road (Once More)

  1. Brent says:

    What a journey! It has the air of urban fantasy (and I’ve certainly never heard any of these stories from you), but the details are just close enough to believable that I can’t be sure. Maybe that’s the point, though, and who could blame you for fanciful memories while your feet freeze in a cold Great Lakes tributary?

  2. Bob Stanton says:

    Love your stories, Walt. I have no trouble conjuring the imagery to accompany the words. And I don’t think that you need to apologize to Ol’ Jack – he’d approve. It might sound grandiose, but I believe that the beat generation lives on in some of us.

  3. loydtruss says:

    An outing such as you described takes devoted and seasoned fly fishermen. Fishing high water and cloudy waters take patience and determination. Congrats to you guys for making this a successful outing. Thanks for sharing

  4. plaidcamper says:

    Thanks, Walt, for sharing a different kind of road trip. I enjoyed drifting along the memory stream with you, and haven’t you had some interesting times?! Wishing you many more ahead…

  5. Tim says:

    Hi Walt,
    Deep waters, and contemplation. As always great to be out, sharing a river, and the experience with you.
    I didn’t realize that the fish was spilling eggs when I’d lifted it for the photo. Seems late for a brown trout to be spawning.
    I look forward to our next adventure!
    Glad things are looking up…

    • Thanks partner! Hey, I didn’t notice it either, but the spilling eggs are evident in the photo. Goes to show that in the heat of the moment, there can be more going on than is first apparent. As you know, browns are typically autumn spawners but this seems to have preferred a later hour. Anyway, it’s always an adventure!

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