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.