Returning home empty handed from the northwest Wisconsin town of Brule after the semi-annual Steelhead run I wondered if there was anything positive to take away from the experience. Chris and I planned this adventure for weeks, searching websites for river reports, visiting the hatchery, talking with fly shop owners and experienced fishermen familiar with the area. We carefully studied the topography and scouted the sites twice in the weeks leading up to the trip. Reading and listening intently to the excited words of those who had fished the run, we had convinced ourselves that this was going to be an experience to remember. After this weekend we were going to add something to the repertoire that few others could boast of: conquering the mighty steelhead and wild salmon migrating upriver from the inland sea we call Lake Superior.
But the steelhead is an unusual breed. Their migration depends upon more variables than our analysis had predicted. The river was somehow not ready for them yet. As we fished for two days, walking miles of thin trails and wading shallow currents, we noticed what the fish had sensed twenty miles downstream out to sea; the sky had not paid the river its due, rain had not carried the nutrients into the water system, insects were not flourishing streamside, wildlife was barely present. Just as the trees had begun their colorful seasonal transition and lost their fruit, so too had the river.
What I enjoy almost as much as catching fish is the time I get to reflect upon things while I am looking for the fish. The sound of the stream burbling over the rounded stones and gravel is an irresistible white noise that can calm the most horribly depressed MBA graduate. The still pockets of water beneath the large red cedars and white pines is where the fish are likely to surface if I could just stop panting long enough and squint hard enough. The steady rush of the current against my legs at times looks and feels like gelatin if I should dare to stumble upstream for another look. Afterwards, my eyes jitter from searching beneath the river’s steady surface movement for something out of place.
This particular fishing trip was different for me. In my effort to find something meaningful to take away from being outsmarted once again, I discovered something about myself; like the fish making their way upstream, or the bugs’ metamorphoses, or the region’s decaying economy, for the first time I noticed my own transformation. On this trip I stumbled and fell into the water twice, probably from my deteriorating depth perception and vision. My back ached from balancing in the current all day, not to mention I had put on weight. Standing on the stream taking this all in, it occurred to me that my best days may indeed lay behind me. I had my turn in flight, had spawned my own offspring, and had sensed the time to gracefully step back into my proper place in the cycle. I could acknowledge that it was Chris’ day on the river. I smiled through the crow’s feet that had rightly appeared over the last seven years of recession, military deployments, graduate school, and family life. My reluctant transition into the autumn of my life had begun.
Chris is a former chemist who after earning an MBA started work as an institutional bond trader responsible for more than $1billion in assets on any given day. His approach to fishing is not unlike his approach to work; he doesn’t screw up. An accomplished fisherman, Chris takes careful notes in his journal on the sky cover, barometric conditions, flow rates, and popular lures after each trip. His tackle box looks more like a surgeon’s instrument kit, which in effect it is. Prideful of his ability to find and catch fish through the scientific method, Chris would never consider hiring a guide. His natural cheapness would reinforce this decision. He landed two fish to my zero.
As for me, I enjoyed simply having an occasion to wear my Panama hat and smoke a great Don Thomas on my folding chair after a hard day. Long curls of thick smoke flowed like the river current earlier. As a younger man I might have complained of the brisk temperatures that morning when it approached freezing. It would have made me miserable and I would have made sure everyone else knew of my discomfort. Now I accept this pain, I embrace it; I enjoy it because it reminds me that I am still alive. And I know that like all of the pain I have endured in my life, I will adapt and things will get better if I just keep trying.
Explaining my philosophy to Chris I noticed over his shoulder a large splash in the distance below the bluff we rested on, but I knew better than to mention it.