Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Gifts

Fishing is, at its heart, a solitary exercise. Just you and a rod and your line a simple connection to a watery world.

Don’t get me wrong. Fishing is a great activity to do with family and friends. Some of my best memories are of fishing for snook on the Gulf Coast of Florida with my grandfather when I was a boy, jigging for bass and northern pike in Minnesota with my own kids when they were young, and in recent years roaming central California beaches for surf perch and striped bass with a few local hardcores.

But my observation is that—especially as you become a more serious angler—you become more selective in your fishing company. And often it may be preferable to fish alone.

(L) The Steelhead Whisperer, enjoying some solitude on his home water.

One of my oldest fishing buddies claims fishing alone is one of the best ways to navigate troubled times in your life.

I suppose that’s true. This past weekend, however, I didn’t want to fish by myself. I wanted a companion with whom I could share small talk about wind and tides, compare notes on flies and tactics, hoot at steelhead if any deigned to roll.

The Steelhead Whisperer, who has made fishing by his lonesome into an art form, forewent the pleasure of solitude for the day and took me to one of his oldest haunts—a coastal stream that, in this region of dwindling wild steelhead populations, still boasts a solid run and sometimes epic fishing.

The Whisperer loves this water like no other and this love extends even to his work for Trout Unlimited—he has been a driving force behind streamflow enhancement projects in this small drainage that aim to keep more water in-stream for fish during the dry season and to improve dry season water security for local farmers.

It is no small gesture on his part to invite another angler to join him for an outing here.

As we began rigging up in the parking area, he offered another, not-so-small gesture. He handed me a slim metal box that once had held cigarillos. “Here,” he said. “Use these.”

I opened the box to find more than a dozen of the Whisperer’s custom flies that he ties specifically for this water.

The Whisperer is a throwback, stoic and pragmatic and dogged when the going gets rough. Like most men of his background he doesn’t readily dip into emotional subjects. But with this gift he had done so.

He had done so also by inviting me to have dinner with him and his wife and daughter once a week. He had done so, too, by calling me frequently over the past two weeks with a fishing report from the beaches, streams and estuaries within a hundred miles of where we live, passing on intel from his extensive network of fishing royalty.

He had done so by dressing up—which for him means a clean, plaid flannel shirt, pants that were not denim jeans, and shoes that didn’t have laces—for the memorial service for my wife the previous weekend.

I never went steelhead fishing with my wife, who was not yet sixty when she passed away on January 8 from a rare neuromuscular disease. She loved fly fishing with me for trout in beautiful places but, being a person of superior intelligence, slinging heavier line for hours in cold, windy conditions with rarely anything to show for it didn’t appeal to her much.

Not even the Steelhead Whisperer’s proven flies could raise a steelhead on Saturday. The lagoon was heavily silted up from recent storms and the fish had either moved upstream or were just being sullen. He finally caught a small juvenile on a size 16 Prince nymph as the light filtered out of the western sky.

It didn’t matter. Steelhead fishing is famously an exercise in hope. It requires the Janus-like coupling of focus and its opposite, abstraction. It requires embrace of mystery and, ultimately, faith.

These requirements were most welcome, that day. As were the Whisperer’s company, and unspoken conveyance of his sympathy through a palette of flies in an old box of smokes.

By Sam Davidson.