By Jerry Audet
Standing at the trail head, I know I look foolish. There’s a middle-aged woman in a full-length down jacket trying (unsuccessfully) to usher her muddy and joyous black lab into the back of her Honda Pilot. She pauses, staring at me, looking confused. My running shoes and short-shorts clash with the sling pack over my shoulder and the 6-foot fly rod in my hand. I pretend not to notice as she attempts to catch my eye; her mouth is slightly agape, as if she’s about to ask me something. I whistle a little, acting like all this is totally normal, as if everyone jogs with a fly rod. I move faster as another car pulls up, rushing to get on the trail- have to keep my spots secret.
It won’t take long to reach the first spot. I plod along at first trying to get warmed up, shifting my rod from one hand to the other attempting to find a comfortable carrying position. I notice a couple of juncos hopping along a berm, they are harbingers of winter; castaways of the Arctic, this is their south. It’s another sign that I’m probably wasting my time. Most would say that brook trout season is over, I refuse to believe it.
I know I probably should have just focused on running. Last spring I attempted to train for my first 100 mile trail foot race. I’ve done a few 30-plus mile races, but the “100-miler” remains elusive. Last spring I fell during a late season back-country skiing trip and hurt my back and leg, which halted my training for months, and precluded me from even toeing the start line. If it’s going to happen this year, I’m going to have to focus.
But, on this particular day, I couldn’t make up my mind on what I wanted to do. I was stressed out from trying to be an active, productive member of society. I just wanted to escape making any more decisions. To be present. Still, the pull between passions, is a constant for me. When you want to do ten things at once, time constricts; can feel suffocating. The question I have to ask myself is, ‘can I really do both?’” Or rather, can I really do it all?
After only a half mile of rocky single track trail, I arrive at a steep ridge, this is my first stop. As I shuffle down the bank, I notice immediately how high the water is. Turbid and tannic, it looks more like road runoff than an iconic, gin-clear, babbling trout stream.
I found this body of water using a State info-graphic about wild trout distribution in Massachusetts. It’s the ideal spot for me: under-fished, hard to access, even harder to fish. It can only be reached through a confusing labyrinth of trails; you can’t just park the car and wet a line. However, many times, I don’t even bring a rod, I just go and run and try to spot the little trout as they torpedo away from the bank and my thudding footfalls. I know I can catch them, which often, is enough for me. I don’t have to hold them.
But today, I find myself slipping and sliding down the bank trying to do exactly that. I get my line caught in a tree. After untangling, I start to creep down to the shore, knowing that my blaze-orange safety vest is a liability; but then again, I don’t really feel like being shot by a careless hunter either. I bend low and try to put my feet down lightly. Even though this is all likely a waste of time, I still take it seriously. I can’t help it. To be a fisherman is to be a persistent and relentless optimist.
Practically on my knees now, I deliver a bow-and-arrow cast across the small, swollen stream. I squeeze the tiny hook between my fingers, pulling the rod into an arc. When I let go, it shoots the fly across the stream, plunking down silently into the riffle. The simple casting technique avoids the tree limbs and brush on the banks. I watch, suddenly in rapture, as the miniscule black fly spins and swirls with the micro-eddies. I’m holding my breath and I don’t even realize it. Focus is complete. I mend my line once to keep the fly moving naturally with the drift, but it’s quickly out of the current and against the bank. I cast again. Nothing.
This fast little rivulet feeds a large pool where the brook takes a hard right turn. It’s an ideal ambush point, and actually a pretty complicated little hole. There’s the fast water and the break points as it enters the pool. Then there’s the slow, gently spinning eddy and cut bank. Several trees have fallen into the water here, excellent structure. As the stream leaves the pool, the outflow undercuts a log large enough to walk across, and changes dramatically in depth, inducing a rapid increase in water speed. Today, that portion is raging with the affects of the last couple day’s rain. I grimace, knowing intellectually this is never going to work, but emotionally denying it.
I make a few casts, but I’m probably fishing too quickly. I can’t make up my mind where the best lie is, and rush to try them all. This is one of my shortcomings as an angler who is also a runner- I want to do it all, right now. And in the back of my mind I am already thinking about the next spot on my afternoon route.
I don’t bother changing flies today, the greedy and aggressive brook trout is seldom fussy, and even less so this time of year. I just keep trying different presentations. I cast to as many spots-within-spots-within-spots as I can. I spend enough time at this location to start to get cold. I start to shiver. It reminds me I’m supposed to be running; supposed to have set a timer so I could also keep moving and get a workout. I never set that timer.
But, the tug of the trail does start to pull at me. The final straw comes when my line snags in a bush and I stumble into the water trying to retrieve it. It won’t stop my running, but I take it as a sign that it is time to move on. I scramble back up the bank, feet sloshing in my shoes, and continue on. I decide to put in a mile before I fish again; there is a good crossing about that far from where I am now.
As the clouds darken courtesy of an impending Nor’Easter, I pick up the pace. I’m gliding along now, catching my stride. A gang of blue Jays cackles and screams at me as I burst around a corner and flush one from the ground. I pause for a moment to try and apologize, but they only seem more perturbed by my human speech, rather than appeased by it. I spring away, leaving them to their chatter.
I bound along the trail, stepping up the pace, enjoying the closest feeling I’ll probably ever have to those flying Jays. I jump along rocks, and dodge downed trees. I’m seven years old again. I’m running from my neighbors barking dog, because it spotted me catching frogs behind their house. I feel now, as I did then, the same burning in my lungs and movement of air across my face. Grounded, connected to myself, present and past… free.
It’s not long before I reach the crossing, less than 15 minutes. It’s a raging, boiling mess, as it plunges over the rocky bed and pours over its eroded bank. It’s clearly angry, and I want no part of its wrath on this day. Onward.
I run on, covering more ground quickly. I decide to try a small bridge another half mile away. I bushwack a little instead of following the trail. I want to see if a particular log is still in the brook. Running in the deep leaves and soft ground is difficult. But, I find it after only a few minutes, still intact after a full year of flood and drought. That could hold good fish in the spring.
I get back on the trail, locking back into a solid pace. One more stop.
As I feared, the bridge is unfishable too. I stand, frustrated, panting slightly. I watch the water churn and tumble on its way to the sea. I’m several miles from the car now. Not far, but I’ve spent more time fishing than I anticipated, and it’s getting dark. It’s time to break down the fly rod, and head home.
I run back the easy way, on the fastest trail. I don’t scorch the earth with my pace, but rather try and keep my head up and enjoy the fading day. Soon, that brook will be covered in ice, devoid of fish. I reflect on my fishing-run. I’ve covered fewer miles than I hoped; and caught zero fish. A wasted trip. I start to get in my head, “I could have done…” or “I should have gone…” or the most persistent “I could have run further”. A waste.
“No,” I say under my breath. I realize that the stresses that sent me here have fallen away. This afternoon was anything but a waste. I lengthen my stride, and race the failing sunlight back to my car.
The little brook will still be there tomorrow.
By Dave Anderson
Jerry showed up at my house around 8 p.m. and we headed to a shallow bar that has a long history of late-season stripers. The fishing was decent, but far from spectacular, Jerry had the hotter hand, we topped out around 16 pounds, I don’t think we landed more than six fish. The night was quiet and calm, and as the tide receded, we inched out until we were more than 150 yards from dry land. We had camera gear set up on the shore, out of sight and mind, we never used it. We were getting cold.
This bar is a high confidence spot for me and it’s hard to leave, even when it’s been slow. I was trying to will one more fish out of the flat, black ocean when an unsteady whistle snaked through the periphery of my hearing like a faint whiff of smoke, the dark eye of my mind focused on a point along the blackened shore. “Dude,” I half whispered to Jerry, “did you hear that whistle?”
“No,” he said quietly.
Then the wavering call pierced the darkness again, I looked over at Jerry, “Listen,” I said, “Did you hear it that time?”
Jerry was silent, his silhouette bent slightly at the hip, leaning in toward shore, as if trying to hear it. And the whistle meandered again through the same spooky melody, uneven, seemingly blown through dry lips.
“I heard it that time, could it be a bird?” Jerry wondered out loud.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’ve never heard a bird like that in my life.”
We laughed and then I whistled back, doing my best to mimic the haunting song. The shadowy shoreline whistled back and I responded again—after two or three volleys, the whistling ceased, but I could swear I heard clumsy feet on the bank. I squinted at the two-dimensional ribbon of stubborn blackness, sandwiched between the pewter water and the deep glow of the new moon sky—I got nothing. I blamed it on the waves.
The fish had been fickle all night, taking a needlefish, then a large glidebait, then a few on a Danny—then nothing on the Danny, nothing on the needle, nothing on a Red Fin, nothing on an Atom Junior, then they were back on the Danny again. It had been close to an hour since our last hit. The whistle was still haunting me, I was worried about the gear. I just knew it wasn’t animal. We stuck it out for a while longer, but the cold was taking its toll, the inconsistent bite removing any hope for an adrenalin-fueled warmup. We made our final casts and made the long, cold wade back to shore.
The gear was still there, but the large flashlight I left on top of my camera case was now beside it; my senses told me that someone had messed with it, but I tried to brush it off as a coincidence. We gathered our gear and headed up the shore. I was trying to keep the pace pretty brisk, get some blood flowing. Jerry, a long distance runner, was unfazed.
Then a voice came seemingly from nowhere. “Were you guys SWIMMING?” It asked.
We stopped dead in our tracks, our eyes scanning the scene for the source of the sound. “Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “we just swam back from Block Island!”
“COOL!” the voice called back; clearly this guy wasn’t getting the joke.
“Nah man,” I said, “We were just fishing, Block Island is like 15 miles from here!”
In that moment, I saw him. It was a long-haired dude, slightly overweight, kind of lounging against a driftwood log—not exactly a common sight at 1 a.m. on a Thursday in November. For the next five minutes the man on the log lead us on a dodgy ride through a wide array of subjects. He just kept switching gears. He talked about fishing, then spear fishing, then some shop in New Bedford. On a dime he changed to tautog and the fact that he didn’t believe the fish ever migrated—he figured people just stopped fishing when it got too cold and proclaimed that he was going to be fishing through the winter. (Good luck with that!) It was weird enough that he was even out there at that hour, but the fact that this guy seemed to have some general knowledge about several local fisheries seemed even weirder.
He didn’t have a rod with him and he seemed a little nervous, fidgety, and taken by surprise, as if he really wasn’t prepared to have to hold a conversation. Maybe a little messed up, a lot like people I’ve known or met by chance that were having a hard time staying within the lines after a dose of LSD. Think of it like being on a rollercoaster that you wish you weren’t on, using some Zen technique to keep from freaking out—holding onto reality, but only through intense effort. And, let’s be honest, some solo dude, sitting on a log in the middle of the November night looking at the stars and blabbering on about anything that comes to mind? He was clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin and miles from the nearest road. He very well may have been pulling back from the deafening drone of reality, channeling his inner Timothy Leary and running to the ocean to remove the weight of real life from the pressure points of his chemically-altered mind. I suppose it’s just as likely that he was a social outcast, who was really only 100% comfortable when he was alone. I didn’t ask and I’ll never know but, his tone rang with the shape of a constant smile, tainted with wonder and a general overtone of giddiness, spelled with varying hues of twisted happiness and sudden nervousness.
Then he asked, “Hey, was that your stuff over there?”
We both replied in unison, “Yup.”
“Oh man,” he said, “I saw that stuff and was like, ‘oh my god, what did I just find?’ At first I thought someone had forgotten it, but then I could tell it was, like, legitimately set up for something, you know? Don’t worry, I didn’t touch it… well, I did touch it, but I didn’t, you know, mess it up. It really looked like some badass equipment! Was that thing in the box, night vision?”
I laughed flatly, “Yup,” I said—now knowing that he had more than touched it, he would have had to actually open the box and take the camera out of the case to even have an idea that it was a night vision camera.
“WOW!!” he was gushing almost at the top of his lungs, “That’s SOOO COOOL! Night vision, man? Man, I knew it! That’s just too cool man! I knew I couldn’t just take that stuff, I knew it was set up, I knew you… someone, would be coming back for it!”
Jerry laughed in a tone that made it clear he was rolling his eyes, “Well, hey man, thanks for not stealing our stuff!” (We were more than a little lucky that he didn’t!)
“Was that you whistling?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “I was just trying to, you know, see if anyone was around.”
The guy went on for a few more minutes, he almost seemed proud of himself for knowing not to steal someone else’s shit! I really think he wanted us to acknowledge this good deed he had done by… doing what any normal person would do if they found $2500 in camera equipment on the shoreline—leaving it there.
We were finally able to bust free from the conversation and head back toward the cars. But his repeated and enthusiastic interest in the equipment made me feel just a little uneasy. He certainly seemed like a nice enough guy and seemed to be channeling some seriously positive vibes (man). But there was just this little sense in the back of my head that made me check behind us now and then until we were off the beach. He didn’t follow.
As surf fishermen, we run during the hours of misfits, lowlifes, lovers and coyotes. And these encounters, however rare on a remote beach, are always memorable. We see the edge of the land and sea as the place where our passion plays out, but in the darkness many others see it as their only shot at escaping to a world untainted. The night ocean is mysterious, it’s the edge of the last great wilderness, it’s unknown to nearly 100% of the Earth’s population. It has that special ability to erase civilization and remind us how small we are, and how individual we are and how insignificant our problems are—shore, ocean, horizon and sky. We are alive either way, but, at times, it takes something bigger than what our eyes can see or our minds can comprehend to actually believe it.