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A rod’s length between us

Squid boats, Monterey Bay, early May 2020

It was the squid boats at sundown that did it for me.

I had been holding on to a lot of tension. I knew this. Much of it was linked to my recent move halfway across the state.

But most of the ways that I usually deal with stress involve activities, including fishing, that have been severely constrained of late, thanks to this fell Coronavirus. 

That evening though, I stopped casting for stripers on a beach near Monterey to watch the day drain into the Pacific, and I could feel it easing, like air leaking from a float tube.

Moving isn’t fun, plain and simple. Especially when you have accumulated, by age or crass consumption, so much stuff you can’t even recall why you acquired some of it in the first place.

Figuring out what’s vital, what you really don’t want to be without, aye, that requires some work.

Ken Oda, practicing social distancing and perfect double-haul technique.

Like your favorite trout stream.

I had come back to the Monterey area, where I grew up and had resided again for the past four years, for the first time since completing my move to the Sierra foothills. One of my fishing friends said, “You traded steelhead for trout.”

Leaving aside the question of whether such a trade is wise, I had to move somewhere. And I found an appealing place nestled between two forks of the upper American River.

I haven’t really begun to explore my new neighborhood, for trout or anything else. That’s something to look forward to, when I won’t feel guilty about “non-essential” travel.

I justified my visit back to my former stomping grounds as a family exigency. My mother and stepfather, in their eighties and still living on their own, could use the company and maybe some help.

I guess hug-free social distancing with a mask over your mouth and nose still qualifies as company. The hug-free part drives my mom crazy.

And the beaches, with striped bass active of late, were a welcome tonic for me. No, the state hadn’t ordered these beaches closed. Local officials had just made it difficult to find a place to park.

The Steelhead Whisperer, rocking a Coronavirus beard.

The Steelhead Whisperer had figured out a formula, though. We met in the early morning as fog purled over the dunes. Perhaps three dozen other anglers were there already, strung out in a ragged line over a mile of beach, each occupying a promising bit of structure.

At first, all I did was watch. I’ve heard the ionic qualities of sea air have a salubrious effect, so I just breathed deeply for a few minutes.

Then I got tired of admiring the Whisperer’s perfect casting form and began the exercise myself, albeit far less adroitly. It wasn’t very long before I felt a solid pull as I stripped the Clouser through the trough at the toe of the beach.

I let the handsome four-pounder go, thinking it was auspicious to get one so quickly and that surely others would be forthcoming and one could be delivered to my folks for dinner.

Naturally, no other stripers were forthcoming that morning. Or that evening.

The author, finding a single striped bass, and plenty of emptiness.

The world is making and unmaking itself always around us. We see into the vacuum of uncertainty more clearly in hard times.

In fishing, we embrace uncertainty, and, at least in the ways and the places I like to do it, absence. Sometimes the fish are absent. Sometimes their appetites are absent. Sometimes joy, or sorrow, are absent. And ever the water offers emptiness in equal or greater measure to satiety.

It was good to lose myself in that emptiness for a while, plowing through the fine golden sand of a familiar beach with fishing friends, a rod’s length between us.