Highs, Lows, and Rainbows

People are fickle enough on a good day. Even at our best, there are plenty of small things that can send us down emotional roller coasters of highs and lows: free brownies, traffic jams, bad days fishing, hirings, firings, beginnings, endings, spilled milk, and burnt coffee. And lately, I’m rarely at my best. That means I’m extra susceptible to the roiling, tumultuous course of any given day’s waking hours.

Today is one of those days where every high and low of the day before is buried beneath a crushing headache that makes it hard to remember what went well and what hurt. And yesterday and the day before were the kinds of days where almost everything hurt but a few things went well.

When I was driving from Arkansas towards Tennessee, I made it a point to stay in the Ozarks for as long as possible, to hit as many trout streams and drive as many undulating roads as I could before reaching Nashville. Through vague rumor and internet hearsay from twelve years prior, I’d found rumors of a spring inside of the Mark Twain National Forest that created a sort of ‘natural tailwater’ fishery that cooled several miles of river to a temperature suitable for sustaining wild trout. Details were decidedly fuzzy. One forum mentioned a canoe outfitter, and Google didn’t give me anything more than their address. On a whale tail and a prayer, I headed out of Branson early on my way toward White Plains, Missouri and then deep into the forest.

I found the outfitter easily enough, faded canoes sighing under the first falling leaves and still-hot October sun. It looked functionally abandoned, but I decided to inspect it closer. A handwritten note on the door read ‘CLOSED FOR THE SEASON. CALL IF YOU NEED ME.’ I pushed on the bathroom door and was granted access, a welcome respite after hours of rushed early-morning driving seeking mysterious and distant waters. I walked out and kicked around on the patio for a minute before heading back towards my car to figure things out on my own. Just before I got in, a van pulled up and a middle-aged man got out.

“Can I help you?”
“I’m here to talk fishin’ and buy a license from you.”
“Ok, alright. Come on in!”

We entered the canoe outfitter, seemingly frozen in time from the day it was first opened. It was old and lived-in but not quite dusty or abandoned. A strange combination of steady use but low traffic preserved it in a state of adequate repair. I handed the man my driver’s license and he made me a Missouri Fishing License on an old school machine that punches each character manually onto a pre-loaded piece of paper. It took a solid five minutes for him to peck the letters and numbers out one at a time.

“Will I be able to find trout in the river today?” I asked him while he was facing away from me fiddling with the machine.

“Oh, sure,” he said, “they’re in there.” He went on inputting characters in his machine. When the license was finished, he turned around. “If you follow down the highway, cross the bridge, pass the campground entrance, pass the entry to the cemetery—your car won’t make it down that road this time of year—you’ll see a little worn-in turnout on the left side. Pull in there and follow the trail towards the river. There’s an island there. And that part of the river is nice for fishin’.”

“Got it. So how far down is that?”“Oh, couple of miles or so.”
“Great, thank you!”

I headed for the door.

“Oh! I need my driver’s license back!”
“Alright,” he grabbed it from the counter beside his licensemaking machine.

I left the outfitter and hopped into my car, then headed down the road away from the tiny sliver of ‘E’ cell phone service I’d had at the highway intersection and into total digital darkness amidst the tall pines and thick underbrush of the Ozarks. I rolled down the road for a few minutes towards the spot. When I saw it, I jumped on the brakes and whipped to the left into the gravel turnout. I built up my fly rod and grabbed a few essentials, locked the car, and headed down the trail. Within 200 yards, my Chaco-clad feet and bare legs were irritated, and by the time I encountered a curious box turtle a quarter mile down the trail, my legs were on such a fierce type of fire that I simply had to tell my brain to ignore those neurons and keep walking towards the river. Fifteen minutes of walking later, I was scarcely any closer to the water than when I began, its sounds just audible above the dense woods. The trail seemed to parallel the water at a safe distance and showed no intention of getting any closer to it.

With nothing to look forward to, the pain in my legs took center stage in my mind.

“God, please help me understand why this is happening. I don’t want to be so mad at you and Nature and everything. Hiking and fishing are supposed to be fun. It really is beautiful here. I’m sorry.”

I could hardly get a silent “Amen” out before the underbrush sliced into my legs and a not-so-silent stream of expletives came rushing out of my mouth like a wide river trying to force its way through a narrow passage. There wasn’t enough time or space to vocalize the searing pain I was feeling. My mind subconsciously flitted towards the phrase “Stinging Nettles” and stuck with it as I high-kneed my way back along the overgrown trail towards my car, forced to endure another mile of the same torture that’d gotten me to that point. The sun was getting higher, the day was growing shorter, and I hadn’t even presented a single fly to trout I wasn’t even sure were out there.

The Mark Twain National Forest’s main visible denizen that day seemed to be spiders. They were strung between every two trees they could find, and there are a lot of trees there. As I clumsily stumbled along the trail minding my feet and my 8-foot-6 fly rod, I ruined several spiders’ homes with my face.

I finally made it back to my car, broke my fly rod down just enough to fit it inside, and skidded away towards the campground entrance I’d passed earlier in hopes that I could find water or something that would alleviate the fiery burning spreading across my legs and feet. The still, warm air in the car exacerbated the pain, so when I pulled into the parking lot of the campground, I went sprinting towards the boat ramp and ran into the 55 degree water up to my waist before I even noticed it was chilly. The relief was immediate and immense, and soon I was able to regain my composure enough to reassemble my fly rod and head towards the water.

The river was swift and deep, and I was disheartened by how “un-trout-y” it looked. I threw a few casts into the current and swung the Wooly Bugger wide hoping that I could tempt something out of the depths into the current. Several fruitless drifts and nearly drifting away myself had me ready to write off the half-day detour as an exercise in rashes and irrational anger, before one possibly-fishy strike had me refocused and ready to get re-aggravated all over again.

I worked my way upriver for nearly an hour trying every drift, angle, and fly to no avail. Finally I braved the shallower, swifter waters under the bridge to make one final, desperate pass at the trout-iest looking drift I’d come across. I took my approach and presentation seriously, and on my third strip, the fly was hammered by the hardest hit I’d encountered on my road trip. Immediately, the preceding several hours of misery faded into oblivion as all my focus shifted to not losing the trout at the end of my line.

What followed was three hours of the best fishing I encountered on my entire road trip, which had me leaving the Mark Twain National Forest almost five hours later than planned, grinning and glad for every trial and tribulation I’d encountered along the way. Over the course of essentially a workday, I’d been so despondent and pained that it was easier to say fuck to a garden spider than amen to God, and I’d caught so many gorgeous trout and bluegill that I’d forgotten it was an answered prayer at all.

Earlier this week, I had a day on the Guadelupe River that was a bit too familiar. Howling wind, a frigid Norther blowing in, stammering around in my Chacos waiting for my new waders to arrive, fighting for a slice of solitude on a crowded river with high flows and not enough space to go around.  Tying a basic Palomar knot takes me ten times as long as it should with only one thumb at my disposal, which furthers the frustration. And the largest insult to injury was finally getting into a big rainbow after slogging through water and weeds to find some solitude, only to lose it to a bad knot.

It was the type of day that led me to reply to a text asking how was doing with, “I’ve had a horrible day.”
“I’ve always heard there are no bad days fishing.”
“I’d heard the same thing…”
I traipsed through brush and rocks and tried to be grateful for the sensations and sights—the slices on my shins and blustery Hill Country winter were just enough to crack through my headached and hardened soul and piss me off. Some small slice of me was grateful to simply feel.

I decided to work one more run, which looked much more promising but had been slammed by fairweather fishermen all morning. I missed a few fish but was filled with hope and wonder at their presence alone. After exchanging pleasantries with a gentleman who was just arriving for an evening session, I refocused on the tail end of the run. I observed one trout chase my Wooly Bugger almost all the way to my feet, driven wild by a more erratic and aggressive retrieve. Noted.

A few casts later, focusing on the presentation and retrieve, I was greeted with that familiar, heartstring-pulling tug. Someone was on the other end of the line. And he was big. The fight was surprisingly raucous. Between the elevated river flows and his large, muscular body, it took me nearly ten minutes to land the fish on my four weight fly rod.

Once again, a single fish had completely altered my attitude and perspective on the day. Which bums me out a bit—because fishing is never really about catching fish—but also highlights the way in which a dutiful pursuit if it isn’t abandoned. I’ll take it.