The Trout Gods Are Smiling
by T.G. Grayhackle, Clear Spring, MD
Half a year gone since I had moved to Maryland's Cumberland Valley from
the seemingly endless forests and streams of New England, and I was still
suffering severely from culture-shock. Addicted to wilderness, cold water,
and trout, I just hadn't been able to force myself to regard the murky,
slow moving, flatland rivers as suitable substitutes for rushing mountain
streams and the splendor of spotted fish. My misery was steadily rising,
and by October I could no longer abstain. I needed a fix! - so I bought a
license, deciding to have a go at the somber, brownish waters of a small
river which ran nearby. Early one chilly morning, I donned my waders,
grabbed vest and rod, and headed for a spot about a half-mile away. Since
I had no knowledge of the local watershed, I figured this would be as good
as any, to cast my lot and line. Stepping out into the chill morning of this
foreign place, I was a bit surprised by the mild surge of adrenaline I felt as
I surveyed the scene. After so many months without rod in hand, even the
prospect of just one wayward trout, exiled to this drowsy southern river,
was enough to stir the soul.
About twenty yards from the bank, there is a long, narrow, tree covered island
that splits the little river fairly equally down the middle, forming a long pool
between itself and the near bank. This slow-water extends the full length of
the island, joining again with the rest of the river at the lower end, about a
hundred yards downstream. At this convergence, the early season high-water
had formed a rather long sandy shoal which was now a narrow triangular beach
extending beyond the lower tip of the island.
In the Spring, a pair of Canada Geese had laid claim to the sheltered slow -water
between the woods and the upper end of the island, near where I was standing.
I had been watching their youngsters grow into handsome adolescents, and late
in the summer had seen the parents chase a pair of crank-bait fishermen back
to their car. Although, by then, the goslings had become fine large birds in their
own right, mom and dad had not relinquished their roles as defenders and guardians.
I hadn't seen the geese for some time, and assumed they had moved on to warmer
climes for the coming Winter, so I chose to enter the water, at the edge of the
woods near the upper end of their pool.
There was an opaque fog hanging low over the river that morning, and the sun had
not quite crept into view above the horizon. As I prudently toed the water's edge in
search of safe footing, the stillness suddenly erupted into a cacophony of honks,
hisses, and thrashing water. The blanket of fog was thrown aside by a tornado of
wings, and I was soon beating hasty retreat, pursued by a gaggle of angry
geese - two slightly larger birds nipping menacingly at my waders, with seven
mimicking teen-agers bringing up the rear. Much to my relief, they gave quarter
as I scrambled madly through the briars and bushes toward my truck. So much
for my assumption that they had made their trip South for the Winter. When I finally
caught my breath, braced myself with a cup of tea, and just a wee sip of "medicinal"
Glenfiddich, I opted for the shoal water at the far end of the island.
I waded toward the near side of the tree covered sliver of land, and was
standing in water just inches from the top of my chest-highs, my heart
still pounding a bit erratically from the recent foot-race through the bushes
and the wade across unknown bottom. Now, I will admit to being a fair snob
when it comes to fishing. I sold my soul to the trout gods long ago, and had
sworn that as long as there was even the remotest possibility that one salmonid
still swam in cold water, I would never blaspheme by casting over "lesser fishes."
I had recently been advised by a few locals, that this was a "smallie- crick,"
so it was with great trepidation that I stood there in flatland water, mud sucking
at my felts, staring into mist-shrouded fly boxes, trying to decide what to throw
at - "Them smallies". The trout gods would likely be offended.
I had finally chosen a rather "largish" yellow foam hopper, and was standing
quietly in the chill water, only my head and shoulders above the fog. I was praying
silently to the gods for forgiveness for what I was about to do, when suddenly - and
quite unceremoniously - I recoiled forward, face down, into the water. I had just
been assaulted by a thunderously loud, heart-stopping GRA-W-W-W-K-K!, from
just behind, and very close to, my head, that set my ears to ringing even louder
Startled immediately back upright, by the water sloshing into the front of my waders,
half-fearful of being devoured by some prehistoric Maryland river creature, I was
delighted instead, by a most pleasant sight. The fog ahead was parting in whorls,
beneath the undulating wings of a Great Blue Heron who was now heading directly
upstream, a few feet above the water.
Apparently, he hadn't seen me standing there at his table, until the very last moment,
and had almost landed on my head as he arrived for breakfast. Whether his cry was
one of fright, or merely a sound-scolding for my having had the audacity to invade
his space, is uncertain, but the effect was surely apparent, as I stood there in
semi-shock; a wet chill slowly creeping down over my stomach; water gushing
noisily onto the stream from the pockets of my vest.
It appeared that he now had his eye on the shallows at the upper end of the
island - from whence, I had just been evicted - as a suitable substitute for his
morning repast. Mesmerized by his elastic motion, and the tunnels of spiraling
fog, I stared as he arched his magnificent wings, lowered the flaps, and extended
his landing gear forward, for a touchdown - at the exact spot where I had recently
been forced into rapid withdrawal from the goosery. He hadn't a clue as to the
reception he was about to receive . . .
The fog to the left of the island exploded! The noise was deafening. The stream
became a churning froth, and in less than a heartbeat, there appeared two geese,
necks outstretched like ancient broad-swords, their feet hammering away on top
of the water. With determination in their eyes and mayhem in their manner, their
purpose was unmistakable. No fish-eating Ichabod Crane was going to interrupt
their family discussion of whether to follow tradition and head South, or just
winter-over at the park-pond in town - where the pickin' is easy. Uninvited
guests were absolutely not welcome.
The heron's toes had not yet disappeared into the mist, when he became abruptly
aware of the two incoming surface-to-air missiles, and decided on yet another
variation of course and cuisine. I've never witnessed such a totally graceful
change of mind, and reversal of motion. That great bird's feet had barely
slipped into the fog, when in less time than it takes to blink, he rose,
turned, and vanished around the island's upper tip, without so much as
a ruffled feather.
The patriarch and his lady, dropping back onto the water like drunken skiers,
but without losing even a minute measure of dignity, turned to the youngsters,
raised their heads, and honked triumphantly. "That, children, is how respectable
geese deal with intruders."
The heron gone, the geese settling into sounds of rustling feathers and quiet
chortling among themselves, beneath the reassembled fog, my senses began
to return. I became uncomfortably aware that the October water which had
found it's way over my wader tops during my defensive curtsey, was now
trickling past my knees, and was indeed - quite cold. I briefly considered
heading back to the truck, but the half-year abstention from fishing had
been far too long. I had come with a purpose, and although it had been
quite entertaining, an air-show was not why I had come. I had come to
fish - and fish I would. Wet clothing - be damned!
Being completely convinced that an attempt to share water with the geese
would be a foolish exercise in futility, I slowly edged my way toward the
downstream tip of the island. Working out enough line, I dropped the big
yellow hopper - with a splat - onto the water at the far side of the small beach.
The instant the bug hit the surface, it disappeared in a flash, and began a
passionate run upstream along the far side of the island, with me sloshing
and stumbling onto the sand in an attempt to keep my line from tangling in
the bushes at water's edge. Suddenly, my reel went silent; the line slack;
my heart sank; but just as I was about to utter forth with a profound
procession of angler's blessings, the gears again started screaming - now
One more step - I was past the trees, and had a clear view upriver. The scene
unfolding was like a clip from a surreal PBS documentary. The sun had leaped
into the sky, and there was only a skiff of mist left on the water's surface. Orange
and red leaves were trickling down from still half-green trees; the only sounds
were the screaming reel, and the rapid pounding of its handle against a fly box
in my wet vest. The heron, apparently having made only a short jaunt around to
the opposite side of the island after his censure by the geese, was now flying
straight up the center of the river, my fish clutched securely in his beak, head
and tail dangling from the sides. Without missing a beat of his glorious wings,
he defiantly shrieked another GRA-W-W-W-K-K!!, as if to chide me for having
had the impudence to enter his restaurant in the first place - without invitation
My reel, reaching the end of the backing, went silent. As the tippet broke, the
leader, line, and backing, fluttered gently into squiggles on the water. The old
boy disappeared around a bend, just as the silence was again shattered by the
nine geese rising toward the East, and the city park pond. Their conference
had ended - their decision made.
The trout gods had been angry with me for venturing into "smallie" waters, and
breaking my long-ago covenant. They had given me good-show in compensation
for their interference, but their point had been made - as had "my" decision. I
drove past home, heading North, not stopping until I reached the first fly-shop
in Pennsylvania. I bought a license and trout stamp, and in another twenty
minutes, I was knee deep in a cold mountain stream - catching trout. The banks
were lined with laurel; the stream nestled beneath giant hemlocks - a stream
much like the one where I had pledged my fidelity over half-a-century before.
It was as it should be. The brookies were small - but handsome and wild.
They were trout - and there's just something about trout. To zealots such as I,
a bass is . . . well?. . . a bass is a fish. Fly fishing for
trout? . . . That's a religion.
The trout gods were smiling.
~ T.G. Grayhackle
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