Word count: 1235 Kindred Spirits
I came west from the southeast, where the rivers are wide and their banks muddy. One river that I fished back east was more cesspool than river, and it makes me cringe now when I think of what must have been on my hands as I stripped my fly-line through my fingers. Most of the bridges had a fisherman’s access, a place to park with a foot path leading down to the river and along the bank. One day as I approached one of these bridges with the intention of wetting a fly, I could see that the side with the easier access was occupied and I would be forced to take the side with the much steeper path.
After stringing up my rod, I walked over to look at the steep, muddy path. It looked more like a drop-off than a path, but I thought I could make it. It’s funny how you can deceive yourself when you want to get to a fishing hole. Looking over at the opposite bank I caught sight of the other angler. He was sitting on a bucket with his tackle box, bait can, and cooler within easy reach. His poles were propped up on forked sticks and I counted three bobbers floating about thirty feet in front of him. He was a bait fisherman. Not a problem I thought; after all, he was a fisherman, and therefore a kindred spirit. I raised my hand in greeting, but my gesture was ignored. Not a problem I thought; after all, there was plenty of river for the both of us.
Looking down from the head of the path, I noticed some old bridge pillars sticking about two feet out of the mud. I had made it about half way down when my feet shot out from under me. I remember looking up at my boots as I went over the embankment and landed on one of the old pillars. I lay there for some time with the wind knocked out of me, making strange sucking sounds. When I was finally able to sit up and pull up my shirt to check the damage, I had a gash under my left breast that ran around my torso and disappeared from sight. I looked to the other bank thinking that I would see my fellow angler showing some sign of concern, perhaps even offering to come and give me a hand. What I saw was him disappearing over the top of the hill with his fish poles, cooler, and bucket. It wasn’t until then that I noticed that my “kindred spirit” belonged to a demographic that nowadays prefers to be called “little people”.
Using the offending pillar, I pulled myself upright and slowly made my way back up the hill, gasping out Randy Newman’s hit song “Short People” through clinched teeth.
Over the years I have met some good people on the water, developing friendships that sometimes lasted for decades, and sometimes lasted for only a day. Some of these friends I still fish with, but some have passed on, and we now fish waters of memory.
I had taken a job that placed me slap in the middle of some of the best fly-fishing in the country. I had weekends off, so on Fridays after work I headed for the river, set up camp, and fished until late Sunday evening. Fishing a big western river was not only new to me, but mind blowing. I didn’t have a clue. I would pound the river for twelve hours straight and catch one or two fish. It was frustrating, as I could see other fisherman hauling in one fish after another. I tried to learn from watching the more productive anglers, but it wasn’t working. I was submerged in a festering morass of ignorance. The other fishermen seemed unfriendly and unwilling to impart any information. After all, I was just another rube with out of state plates. My inexperience shinned like a glittering jewel in a goat’s ass—I had an old fiberglass rod when everybody else used graphite, my waders could be more accurately described as ditch boots, and my fishing vest was a pair of bib overalls. Clearly, I had not paid the initiation fee to be in their fraternity. But help was on the way in the shape of a kindly old man named Ed Jones.
I met Ed on a cold, foggy Sunday morning. He was sitting on the back of his jeep struggling into his waders, and when I walked up to him he looked me up and down and exclaimed, “Well goddamn!” It was a greeting that I would hear from him many times in the coming years.
Ed was in his mid-sixties. His head had a thick covering of white hair and his frame was bent from years of hard work. The joints of his hands were swollen from Arthritis and he had special magnifiers on his thick glasses so he could see to tie on his flies. As he geared up we made small talk. I told him that I was from back east and would be in the area working for the next few months. He told me he fished there rain or shine every Sunday. He told me that he thought of the river as his Church, and it was on the river that he felt closest to his Maker. I noticed that he kept looking at my rod and I started to feel a little self-conscious.
When he was rigged up and I was about to be on my way, he grabbed my rod and began rebuilding my leader complete with flies from his box. As he worked on my leader, he explained to me what he was doing and, more importantly, why he was doing it. Satisfied that he had me squared away he handed me back my rod and told me to follow him.
That day under Ed’s tutelage I went from catching one or two fish a day to catching four and five an hour. When we parted that evening he said, “I’ll see you next Sunday.” It was a fishing date that I kept for the next three months. A few years later, I relocated to the area and we picked up where we left off.
Over the years Ed became crippled with age and came to rely on me to help him. I built his leaders, tied on his flies, and helped him with his waders. He leaned on me as we moved up and down the river, his weight becoming lighter with each passing year. We had gotten into the habit of calling each other during the week to talk fishing and make plans for the next Sunday, so one week when I hadn’t heard from him by Friday I gave him a ring. I was surprised to hear a strange voice on the other end; it was his son who informed me that Ed had passed on earlier that week.
I haven’t fished that river since that last Sunday we fished there together. I go there though, to look, sit, and think. When the clouds slide down the mountain and hide the river in foggy mist, I can almost see him casting—there—at the edge of sight . . . and I say, “Well goddamn.”
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