Last week I took some time off from working the colt, writing, and fixing the myriad things around the Figure 8 that broke in the last big snowstorm. I put all that away for a three-day fishing trip down the Lower Deschutes. I went with my friend, neighbor, and legendary guide Steve Erickson, and an old cop colleague who has spent much of his adult life working violent crimes – a grueling career that has left his armor severely dented by the sword and axe-blows of human behavior.
But an early season trip down the Deschutes, away from madding humanity, and away from the keyboard where I sit long hours and bleed, can go great lengths to repairing the soul and transfusing the body. We had 36 miles of the river virtually to ourselves, the weather was perfect, the canyon grasses were in an Irish pique, the eagles, ospreys, sheep, and beaver were all out and busy with their lives, and a small advance party of salmonflies made a tantalizing appearance.
And we caught a lot of fish.
Fishing, like horses, attracts all kinds of people. I’m usually drawn toward those folks in either pursuit who can put their pride aside and admit they don’t know everything. That’s hard to do, particularly as we get older, but there seems to be something important about the willingness to keep asking questions, and to keep learning instead of insisting. In both fly-fishing and horses it’s probably vital.
And, I think, it’s often just helpful to have someone along who knows more than we do.
Steve Erickson is that kind of guy. It’s an old saw, but remains true: Steve has forgotten more about fishing than I’ll ever know. I love fishing with him because he’s also an intuitive teacher, with a refined sense of humor, and that combination of knowledge and skill, and just plain good-peopleness, creates a three dimensional experience.
Because, truly, a trip like this one is always about more than just fishing. Any bear can stand in a river and catch fish. But done well, a great fishing trip teaches lessons from etymology to ecology, from casting and mending to humility and patience. Which is to say nothing about lessons-learned in the differing quality of small batch bourbons.
Somewhere above Hole in the Wall I felt that tug that anglers dream of – hard and fast – and fought against my tendencies to jerk the rod wildly and in the wrong direction, and set my hook in a beautiful Redside. I was doing everything right, right up until I wasn’t, too greedy and too full of impatience to get that fish in a basket, revel in my own glory, and pose for a ridiculous “grip and grin”. And as disaster struck in slow-motion increments, from somewhere downstream I could hear Steve yelling, his voice echoing off the canyon: “For the love of God man, let it run!”
Which, in retrospect, is really funny. Because of course I didn’t, and because of course I lost the fish. But there was a lesson in there that transcends fishing. It’s important to let things run. That’s also true when writing columns or when training a young horse — always an animal that learns from the release of pressure — which magically draws it closer to you. I think it’s important in parenting too. My daughter graduates from college next week, and as much as I want to keep a bend in the rod and reel like a maniac, I’ve got to let her run.
Later that night, at Hole in the Wall, sated on a great day of fishing and learning, we walked out into the grass after dinner to look at the stars. For just a minute we thought about renaming the constellations because the ancient names don’t hold our fascination the way they did once, when people all over the planet lived under a night sky they could actually see. Then, the constellations were invigorated by origin stories. Now, we are disconnected from those tales, and we get excited if we can see the stars at all.
And we were admiring that rare view of the stars, letting our minds run, when a train came through, scrimshawed along its sides by tags and gang monikers like desperate messages from some off-planet world. The train came up the tracks out of the darkness and then followed a turn in the railway, away from us and into the canyon, headlights washing the canyon walls and crevices like an old street cop walking down an alley with a flashlight.
Early on our last day, Steve rowed us ashore just downstream from a reeking beaver haul-out. My cop buddy ended up fishing there. When it was time to go we convinced him that whatever that stink was — beaver castoreum or effluvium from the depths of Hades – he was now wearing it.
He wasn’t, not at all, but we let the joke run for a while, until it finally broke up in laughter. And here was another gift of simply fishing with friends: it felt great to watch a great detective, so often steeped in other people’s misery, get reacquainted with that store of joy we sometimes bury too long, and too deep, and to settle into the drift of the boat and the perfect river — and let it run.