Lighter Side

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March 12th, 2001

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 than usual.

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 in triple-time.

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 or reservation.

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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