READ­ING THE WA­TER

A CON­VER­SA­TION BE­TWEEN A FA­THER AND SON FISH­ING A MOUN­TAIN STREAM FOR WILD TROUT

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

A fa­ther and son share a love let­ter to trout, art and fleet­ing time spent to­gether. By TODD and NOAH DAVIS

What the Son Says

Boul­ders dwarf my fa­ther as he casts to the green wa­ter on the far side of the plunge pool. The cur­rent has carved the rock the way a bone is worn by time, div­oted and eroded by use, eas­ing the flow of snowmelt. A brook trout ap­pears from the crease, its sil­hou­ette hov­er­ing un­der the Royal Wulff. The mo­ment the trout re­lin­quishes its doubt and trusts the fly, a de­cep­tion that marks all fish­er­men as char­la­tans, is clouded in the col­ors and sounds of dap­pled sides and a sun­light-etched back break­ing the sur­face.

Dad’s line jumps, and I scram­ble to net the 7 inches of North­ern Ap­palachian brookie. “Worth the trip,” Dad laughs as he reels in the slack.

We’ve driven over 400 miles north to fish re­mote streams in Green Moun­tain Na­tional For­est. The na­tive brook­ies and wild brown trout we catch will run the length of my hand, like their cousins we cra­dle in our home streams along the Al­legheny Front in Penn­syl­va­nia. But each year we’re pulled to these wa­ters, strewn with glacial er­rat­ics, for the same rea­son we wade into all wa­ters: to search for what we know is there but have yet to see.

Grow­ing up, I didn’t know it was odd for your dad to be a poet. I re­mem­ber in fifth grade writ­ing a poem on a piece of pa­per dur­ing class and the girl be­side me ask­ing if I knew what I was do­ing. I told her cock­ily that it was in my blood. She said po­etry was stupid, and I got held two min­utes af­ter the bell for not us­ing my in­side voice.

We free-climb our way to the next run. The wa­ter’s cold, and it takes a few sec­onds for the blood to rush back into my calves. Wet­wad­ing in early June might not be the most com­fort­able, but the walk to the stream is two-and-a-half miles, and I’m still de­bat­ing if I need to buy a pair of cram­pons. I catch my breath while watch­ing Dad pick his way up the in­cline. Not a lot of po­ets, let alone

52-year-olds, would fish this kind of ter­rain. I just fin­ished a four-year col­lege bas­ket­ball ca­reer and am ner­vous about where I should put my foot and whether it will hold.

Be­fore I ever caught a brook trout or tried to read a stream, my fa­ther taught me that in or­der to be a good writer you must pay at­ten­tion to a world few no­tice, and for us this meant hunt­ing and fish­ing, for­ag­ing for wild edi­bles, be­ing in the pres­ence of liv­ing things, other than hu­man, and lis­ten­ing to what they have to say.

When writ­ers would come and speak at my fa­ther’s col­lege, they’d of­ten stay in the spare room across the hall from my bed­room. Rick Bass spent an ex­tended week­end dur­ing the fall of my sixth-grade year. Hand­writ­ten notes from David James Dun­can found their way into our mail­box. Chris Dombrowski left our home at 3 o’clock in the morn­ing for a flight to the Ba­hamas af­ter giv­ing me vi­sions of car­niv­o­rous Mon­tana trout and reel-emp­ty­ing runs of mus­cled bone­fish. All of these men I ad­mired and wanted to fol­low in terms of their knowl­edge, both in let­ters and the rivers they fished.

A fallen hem­lock cre­ates a small pool be­tween three rocks, shap­ing the wa­ter into a swirling tri­an­gle. Be­tween two rif­fles is a stretch of slack wa­ter thick as two fingers pressed to­gether. The sun­light bleaches the stones, and from my el­e­vated po­si­tion I can see the fins of a trout mov­ing back and forth through the churn­ing bub­bles of the two small wa­ter­falls. I drop the elk hair cad­dis and twitch it through the seam. The fly is gone. No splash or any other in­di­ca­tion that it was ever there. A brown trout races un­der the fall­ing wa­ter, then back into the wash, long­ing to catch the cur­rent and slip over the log, grav­ity aid­ing its hoped-for es­cape.

My fa­ther also taught me about the ridges that guard our val­ley, which trees are na­tive, the names for wild­flow­ers and which bird’s spi­ral­ing song nar­rates our me­an­der­ing through the crease on a May af­ter­noon. He’s the one who pushes us to the head­wa­ters of many streams, who will fish that much longer past dark, who tells me trout are still ris­ing in some stretch of river we’ve yet to find.

A gray band the width of a white-edged anal fin runs up the body of the trout to where the red-rimmed adi­pose curves on the spine. Red spots burn the sides of the fish, like teaber­ries against the last tongues of snow. At 9 inches, we take pic­tures of this small-stream tro­phy and re­lease it back into the run.

Be­ing to­gether to ad­mire a trout, as with any piece of art, helps aid in the ap­pre­ci­a­tion, in our im­mer­sion into the ways beauty changes us. When we read each other’s work, each other’s casts, we can of­fer dif­fer­ent an­gles to what we hope to hold for a mo­ment.

I strug­gle up the bank and pass Dad as he ties on a fresh fly, read­ing glasses cling­ing to the end of his nose like a nuthatch crawl­ing down the trunk of a maple. Af­ter 25 yards, I climb onto a slab of bedrock and mark the way his line floats in the cur­rent and pauses in the ed­dies. In the pool be­low me, the bod­ies of trout hover, wait­ing for those of us fool­ish enough to fol­low.

A Fa­ther’s Re­ply

Light drifts down Noah’s shoul­ders, col­laps­ing into the pool at his feet, wa­ter shim­mer­ing around his knees, as he casts be­tween one of three wa­ter­falls cre­ated by an artery of boul­ders wedged into a space that has cap­tured their de­scent and chan­neled the force of the stream into a place where brook trout hide.

I of­ten won­der if these char pos­sess an aes­thetic sense. While they re­quire some of the most pris­tine wa­ter to sur­vive, they also tend to choose places whose de­sign is ex­ceed­ingly in­tri­cate: fallen logs laid just so; a hem­lock’s branches hov­er­ing over a pool; a select group of rocks ar­ranged in a man­ner that not only di­rects the flow of wa­ter but also sug­gests a pas­sage­way up the spine of the moun­tain, into its depths, the kind of place that seems time­less while also ac­knowl­edg­ing the course of time.

“How long have we been fish­ing, Dad?” Noah asks. This is a game we play with each other when we’re in the woods, our short rods in hand. Read­ing the wa­ter to­gether, talk­ing to each other about where fish might hide, or the weight of some worry we’ve car­ried through the week, makes an hour feel like 15

min­utes. The only thing that keeps us from be­ing com­pletely lost in brook trout rel­a­tiv­ity is the sun’s move­ments and the di­rec­tion of shad­ows as they change shape.

Time, of course, cuts the grooves in our faces as we age, shapes the mus­cles as a child grows from boy­hood into man­hood. How of­ten as a fa­ther have I wished to stop the pas­sage of time, to ar­rest and de­tain a mo­ment of sweet plea­sure, damming its flow? Like this mo­ment now. Fish­ing a nar­row moun­tain stream with my 22-year-old son. Still able to stay a few yards be­hind him. Lov­ing this hour of the day that shows me the breadth of his back, lean, strong legs strid­ing the cur­rent. I’m thank­ful for how we’ll go on in this cold wa­ter.

Study­ing oxy­gen’s path, the places stone has col­lapsed, or fur­rowed, or bent the cor­ri­dor of the stream into strik­ing con­fig­u­ra­tions that al­low our pur­suit of these trout whose an­cient an­ces­tors were land-locked mil­len­nia ago, sep­a­rated from the ocean of their orig­i­nary spawn, ex­iled from an unimag­in­able ex­panse of wa­ter to a fi­nite stream.

Noah raises his arm, and the fly rod in his hands looks toy-like. While at 6 feet I was never a small man, he tow­ers over me, more than half-a-foot taller. I wasn’t a fly-fisher when Noah was a boy. I grew up with a spin­ning rod on the small lakes of south­ern Michi­gan. When we moved to Penn­syl­va­nia, it was our bar­ber who taught Noah and me to cast. Like his jump shot, Noah’s mo­tion is fluid and grace­ful, line shut­tling out­ward in a sibi­lant arc, find­ing its place in a pocket of soft wa­ter. A brookie ex­plodes next to a foam line, mim­ick­ing the arc of the cast, only to re­turn to the dark wa­ter be­neath an over­hang­ing boul­der where it re­al­izes its will is not its own.

Noah grins as he brings the fish to hand, keep­ing it in the net so we can take pho­tos. This fish is yet an­other ad­di­tion to a fa­nat­i­cal col­lec­tion we keep on our com­put­ers. A com­bi­na­tion of nat­u­ral his­tory and art his­tory, cat­a­loging the size and col­oration, the de­sign and move­ment, mar­veling at a thing made so well, so beau­ti­fully, so per­fectly fit for its en­vi­ron­ment. We’ve both tried to write po­ems about speck­led trout, and nei­ther of us thinks we’ve suc­ceeded yet.

For the last four years, Noah’s been away to col­lege. I’m still not used to the sepa­ra­tion. I fish alone for brook­ies in the months Noah is ab­sent. Long be­fore he and I be­gan fly-fish­ing, I was ob­sess­ing over the na­ture of this most ex­quis­ite trout, even writ­ing an ars po­et­ica in an early book of mine about their spawn­ing rit­u­als: the vi­brancy of their col­ors in late au­tumn, the man­ner in which they dance the dance of pro­cre­ation, do­ing what is nec­es­sary for a por­tion of their lives to go on.

While Noah was in el­e­men­tary school, I’d trail up streams, find­ing redds, watch­ing the grace and good­ness of this an­cient cer­e­mony. So was it some­thing ge­netic, an in­her­ited trait, that caused Noah to fall in love with these trout, too? Why wouldn’t a boy, raised on the banks of the Lit­tle Ju­ni­ata River, be con­sumed by size, like his class­mates, pur­su­ing stocked “tro­phy” browns to post on In­sta­gram, in­stead of ask­ing his dad to hike deeper and deeper into the moun­tain forests for fish that sel­dom grow larger than 8 inches?

Po­etry, at its root, is an at­tempt to trans­late ex­pe­ri­ence into a lan­guage that can rep­re­sent, or at least ges­ture to­ward, the most el­e­men­tal as­pects of be­ing hu­man, which in­cludes liv­ing in con­cert with other crea­tures. Noah un­der­stands this fact with a ma­tu­rity be­yond his years. It marks a con­nec­tion be­tween us and changes the ways we han­dle these fish, as if they were a sacra­ment, which we both be­lieve they are.

“Did you see that?” Noah barks and then be­gins laugh­ing, as he de­scribes the trout he’s just wit­nessed leap­ing to­ward a patch­work sky quilted over in the canopy by white oak and tulip po­plar leaves. The temp­ta­tion of a mayfly dip­ping above the sculpted cur­rent has caused a fish to leave the so­lace of wa­ter’s tem­pered weight­less­ness, to test the air where time and grav­ity im­me­di­ately cling to its sides, its toothy grin glis­ten­ing as it strains and surges to­ward a mo­men­tary stay against the mor­tal hunger we share.

Noah Davis ad­justs to the con­tours of a small stream in Ver­mont.

The el­der poet/fish­er­man probes the cool wa­ter flow­ing through an artery of boul­ders.

A small-stream tro­phy wor­thy of ad­mi­ra­tion.

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