February 26th, 2007

The Owl and I
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

I have come to know that angling is so much more than merely a numbers and size game. Those whose prowess and self esteem are measured in numbers or inches that they earned in piscatorial conquests with creatures whose total brain mass would not fill a thimble are not to be honored but pitied. For those who have arrived at that point in their angling experience to realize that angling is a means to an end rather than an end in itself I dedicate the following piece.

I have a propensity to do most of my best angling in the final moments of the fading day. There is something special about those magic moments in the gathering darkness as the western horizon turns from pink to mauve, or the flash from distant lighting highlights the bottom of glowing cumulus clouds framing the mountain peaks. In the gathering dusk the creatures of the evening begin to emerge; deer materialize from willow thickets and bats whirl and twist as they pursue their evening meals. Trout slide from beneath the weed beds and undercut banks to feed with confidence in the gathering darkness.

There is a sense of urgency about these twilight moments, and perhaps it is this very quality that makes them so appealing. Nature itself senses this urgency as creatures of the day make haste to complete their necessary tasks and snatch just a few more moments of the fading day. As the last rays of light fade from the western horizon the hurried frenzy fades into the gathering darkness, and creatures such as us, with senses that function best in daylight hours, are left to ponder the wonders of those creatures that prowl the night.

I do not know when he appeared or from whence he came but suddenly I felt that I was being watched. Standing waist deep in a heavy run I slowly turned my head to see who or what was watching me. Sitting atop a fence post a Great Horned owl with fierce yellow eyes met my gaze.

From my youth I have had a great affinity for owls having raised orphaned Screech owls and Long-Eared owls that had been delivered into my care. They are the most remarkable of birds, and the Great Horned owl is truly a magnificent example of all that makes owls so fascinating.

With two large feathered horns held erect over its head the Great Horned owl is an impressive bird, and while not normally associated with trout streams, they are common residents along riparian areas. During the day they could easily be overlooked as they sit silently perched close to the trunk of a large tree. Sitting on the top of a gnarled fence post my unexpected guest was hard to ignore.

As a lover of all things wild it was hard to decide if I should watch the owl or continue attempting to fool the brown trout that was rising sporadically at the head of the pool. I returned to the rising brown, but I continued to glance over my shoulder between casts to see if my large feathered friend was still there. Although I was only about 15 yards away from his perch he seemed to be in no hurry to find leave, and seemed generally disinterested in me and my activity. For long moments he sat perfectly motionless except for the occasional blinking of his large yellow eyes. Intermittently he would slowly swivel his head until he was looking directly behind his back, an achievement of physical contortion which always leaves me with a sense of awe.

Fly casting to a rising fish is not well suited as a multi-tasking activity, and during one drift I turned to check out the owl when the Brown decided to take my offering. I felt a sharp tug as he took my fly, and my untimely response left my finny friend with a new fly for his collection. My exclamation of disgust had no obvious effect on the owl except for an exaggerated yawn and a ruffling of his feathers. Perhaps, I thought, I am boring him.

I reeled in my shattered tippet and dug through my fly boxes for another fly. When I finished selecting one fly and knotting it to my tippet I glanced up at the owl and he was gone. As silently as he had appeared he had moved on in his evening quest for a meal. What had he thought of the strange creature standing in the water waving a stick around? Had I enriched his life to the extent that he had enriched mine?

Over the many years that I have spent casting bits of feather and fur I have been blessed with many such encounters. The memories of woodcock twittering over a Michigan trout stream, the stately countenance of a great blue heron stalking the shallows, a white-tailed deer timidly stepping from the shadows to drink; these and so many other similar encounters are etched on the window of my memory more indelibly than the number or size of any fish that I have ever caught.

As I set at my computer keyboard recording this memory I am once again waist deep in a Montana trout stream in the cool of the evening. The water is like an oiled sheet of steel broken only by the occasional rise of a trout, and a Great Horned owl is sitting on a fence post in quiet contemplation. I am truly blessed. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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