READING THE WATER
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON FISHING A MOUNTAIN STREAM FOR WILD TROUT
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.