BY JAMES HOGGARD
’ve said it before: Flyfishing is one of the only sports whose process is good in itself. The notion has always sounded right, but I have been put to the test, and I’m thinking now, there may be a serious difference between what sounds quotable and what is actually the truth. I recently went flyfishing in northern New Mexico, in a place that had been good for me the year before. Going upstream, I went considerably farther than I had gone the previous year. True, the water was swifter than it had been, and this time I’d arrived a month earlier than last year, so the stream might not have been as well-stocked as it had been. I know: I sound as if I’m making excuses for bad luck; and the fact of those excuses might well cancel my initial point—that flyfishing is good in itself, that quantitative results aren’t important. An empty creel, I’ve insisted, does not augur despair. Or is that just talk? Through the years I’ve caught mountain trout on dry flies in fast-moving water as well as in pools. Points where a stream elbows are often magical places, and few things equal the intensity of one’s immediate response to a strong strike. I’ve seen huge trout in deep places near the bank, but I’ve never had the monsters do much more than glance at my flies. Still, I’ve caught other good ones there, and a 12-inch trout from a stream is big. Yesterday, however, I never even got a strike and saw no evidence of fish feeding at all. So what was there to do except to endure a balance-challenging hike through stream and brush and rock and forest for close to four hours? Plenty, I’ll say. I relearned the art of artfully stepping across moss-slick rocks in fast-moving water that in places came close to being hip-high. There’s a thrill in the threat of a fall. The same twigs and limbs that can snag a fly in mid-cast can also serve as hand-holds. At the same time I noticed that during the morning there were only a few flies on the water, but aspen daisies, fairy trumpets, and purple chimingbells were in full bloom. Ducks were also about, more than I’d ever seen here, and I’d been coming since early childhood. Sizable butterflies periodically appeared before me: sweet nymphs in disguise. Near the water, brush and trees were thick enough that again and again I had to side-arm my casts. I needed to float my line lightly onto water. Rusty after a year’s absence from the sport, I rehearsed technique to keep my leader from getting tangled. Disciplining myself, I imagined keeping a magazine in place under my casting arm. But no trout struck, so I switched my lower fly to a nymph. Clamping the lead shot on my line, I thought that maybe the swap would change my luck. Weighted, the nymph would drop into the depths where the real, the succulent nymphs, stayed. But the fish—if there were any fish where I was—weren’t striking what I was offering. At times like that one inclines toward metaphors—life-lessons, the earnest call them. That impulse, however, did not settle anywhere near me. Nothing like a suggestive or even mildly profound life-lesson came to mind, and frankly I was glad. I often distrust such trucked-in produce. Like a momentary puff of ectoplasm, however, the notion of endurance did drift into view, but it quickly disappeared into an absence that did not even rise to the level of pointlessness. To put matters bluntly, I was neither satisfied nor frustrated. I certainly was not thrilled, but I was having an acceptably fine time. Up ahead, a sizable distance from me, I saw a slow pool near a fallen tree trunk. I decided that the best path to it was the water rather than the brush-crowded bank. On the way I experienced the sudden thrill that momentary panic brings when I stepped into a sinkhole. I managed to gather my balance and, laughing at my instant clumsiness, vowed to keep my feet well under me. Instantly a mallard drake flew over me, the path of his flight low, and almost immediately I saw a Steller’s jay on a pine limb across the way. A breeze rose, and the bright green medallion-shaped leaves of the nearby aspen were quivering. The constant shimmer somehow seemed as sonic a phenomenon as it was a visual one. Drying my fly and my nymph as I took them for a back-and-forth ride through the air, I decided to try to land them just under a branch that hung out over the water. The attempt at placement worked. The current caught my line, and I watched the fly and nymph ride the surface downstream. Shortly the nymph sank from sight, but no fish interrupted the journey. I made my way upstream toward the log and the pool I had seen. The place looked even more promising than I had thought. The pool was broader than it had seemed at first—but also, as far as I could tell, the place was troutless, and after fishing it for a while I left it. The mountain’s slope was now considerably closer to the stream than it had been. I especially needed to pay attention to the environment now. If I didn’t, I’d find myself up among the big rocks high above the stream, but if I were on the more forested side, I might also be impossibly distant from the water. The stretch of the stream immediately before me was fordable, but because of some deep rapids, the section of the stream just beyond where I was really wasn’t. Whatever direction I took, I’d be on close terms with the changeable textures of earth. My nymph now hooked to my rod’s corked handle, I would not be fishing for a while. I’d be hiking and keeping my eyes sharp for wild strawberries. Even a lip-puckering gooseberry would have been welcome, but the area’s long dry spell made finding fruit treasures unlikely. or a moment or so I drifted into memory. Even as a child I had accepted the rare wild strawberries—considerably smaller than the store-bought varieties—as a pleasure that was no greater than minor, but sustaining the memory corrected my perception. I never had been much concerned, I realized, with quantifying my pleasures or pains. Of course, some seemed immediately more glorious or wretched than others, but whatever the level of the response, one’s attention was on the immediate sensation, or the possible results of the experience. There were always options aplenty. Wet or dry, one might slip on a rock and, long slide or not, get scraped raw. Then, too, memories or projections might place one in a realm of the welcomely voluptuous. The world was full of possibilities, and so was the stream I was fishing. Variety was everywhere, and last winter’s high volumes of snow seemed to have altered portions of the stream. The water rushed faster than it would in a month, and some of the busier pools would calm as the season advanced. I had fished this stream before. I had taken a fair share of trout from it, too; but now it was fishing me. Some of the pine needles had turned rust-colored from lack of rain, and I had read notices that whirling disease was killing a lot of fish. Close by, though, in a marshy area, the ground cover was deeply green, ripely healthy; and just a glance away, in an upward sweep, pine and aspen were sparsely spread. The friable, rocky ground around them looked as if, long ago, the topsoil had slid away. Were the trees holding on through the drought, or dying away? The question itself seemed foolish. Nature, most often, does both. Even a brief and relatively puny rain can make a desert burst into flower. I glanced again at where I was. One of the stream’s sloping walls tended toward the arid whereas the other wall, at least from my own vantage point, was lushly and fragrantly forested. That’s when I realized I was standing in mid-stream. I had removed my line from the water sometime before. My attention had drifted beyond where my feet were. A ruby-throated hummingbird looked as if it were floating just above the bank before me, then it rushed away, and a large butterfly—its wings black except for a cream-colored upper band—appeared in its place. There were mallards around here, too. I’d seen a fine number of them, but they weren’t visible now. Suddenly a group of four females sped by. A couple miles back, when I was still close to town, I’d had a brief talk with a man in an RV park by the stream. He had just finished breakfast with his wife and son and apparently the family from the next van. He and his son came toward me as I came up out of the water onto the sandy bank. Without introducing himself, he started talking about flyfishing and how much he enjoyed it, how much he admired it. I mentioned what I’d said before, that it was one of the few sports whose process was good in itself. An empty creel, I said, did not mean failure. He agreed enthusiastically, but I kept quiet about the fact that I was getting receptive to considering the notion nonsense. A pair of ducks waddled out into the water, the female splashing her wings mightily. Maybe eight, maybe six, the boy was watching them, then looking up at me and, taking charge of a brief lull in his father’s conservation, he told me that he’d been fishing, too, “And I hooked a duck, too,” he said excitedly. “I bet that was scary,” I said. “It was! And I didn’t know how I was going to get the hook out.” “That’s amazing,” I said, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed a deep appearance of love in the way the father was looking at his son. I was sorry my own son was no longer near the boy’s age. “I’m going fishing today,” the boy informed me. “I bet you’ll have a lot of luck, too,” I told him, remembering how much my son had enjoyed fishing when he was a boy. Sometimes he went with a friend, and a couple times we went together, but a lot of times he went by himself. The presence or absence of society when he was fishing had not seemed to make any difference to him, and I felt the same way. “I will,” the boy told me, “I’m going to catch a lot,” then as I turned to go, the boy’s mother said, “We’d invite you to have breakfast with us, but we ate it all,” and both families laughed. Smiling at them as I waved goodbye, I noticed how firmly the boy’s gaze was now locked on the swiftly moving clear stream. James Hoggard is the author of 16 books, most recently Patterns of Illusion: Stories & A Novella and Medea In Taos & Other Poems.