Love on the River
I have a confession: I love to fish. I learned to cast to rising trout with a fly rod and a dry fly from a moving boat on the Yakima River, with Chuck Cooper, guide. I swear, fishing saved me from drowning under the weight of children, husband and home in my 40s. But now at 60 I’m reconsidering.
I found Chuck in the Yellow Pages under Fishing Guides, in May of 1998. When I run his name past the women of the Northwest Women’s Flyfishing club at a monthly meeting, there are some polite smiles and one “hell, yes.” We set a date; I bring another woman along for safety. We launch at 9 am on the 15th of June, and come off the river, in darkness, at 10:00 pm, chilled to the bone by a howling wind. We catch fish. We are adventure women, toughened by the elements and our survival skills. Something clicks and I feel proud. A door to the world of nature and the wild has opened.
This week, fifteen years later, Chuck and I have a reunion on the waters of the Yak. The day is brilliant with sunshine; cottonwood’s producing that sweet river-bank scent as they come out of winter’s hiatus, with wind rushing downstream through the clefts in hillsides and basalt. Trees barely leafed out, the river banks are freshly cut by rising waters. Calm, raw nature, as spring grasps a toehold. Summer is clawing closer but has not arrived.
I study Chuck when he isn’t looking. He is thinner now, hair graying, slight stubble on his chin and cheeks. I notice his hearing loss in the first five minutes and mention it. After I repeat myself more loudly he responds, “I can hear, it’s just selective hearing.” He has lost most of his hearing, and I realize I must face him and shout slowly, and let him read my lips to be understood. I think of my grandfather and smile. Twenty seven years as a river guide has extracted a punishment.
I am thankful Chuck does not remark upon my weight gain since last we met, my grey roots in need of a coloring, my hobbling. One knee is worse than the other and a replacement is scheduled in a month. This trip is my last fishing until I go bionic. I need this outing, this restoration, this proving I still am the adventure-girl. He in great measure gave me this gift, and I want to show I still own it. That the careful instruction has not been wasted.
Age has met the river. The river has met change. Everything is affected now. I find it shocking.
We pull on our waders, raise anchor, push off to float from Bristol to the Thorp Bridge. We have personal catching up to do as well as catching fish. The sandy banks absorb the sunlight, expel heat towards the river; our sunglasses reflect the water’s sparkle. We don’t talk about the thing that matters—the fight we had on the river in 2000. It was late September, a warm afternoon.
A trout rises in front of the boat, arcing gracefully and vanishes. We won’t see another fish for three hours, but we don’t know that then. Our optimism is intact. I cast and Chuck rows. My accuracy improves with a few casts, and I feel the familiar rhythm of muscle memory taking over.
Chuck is a legend on this river. He was guiding before the famous Jack Mitchell arrived. They learned the river together, shared stories and perhaps women in the early days— covered each other’s backs, watched out for each other. New guides came and went. Fly shops opened and closed. They married and divorced and married again. Watched the river channels redefine, flood, relocate, flood, expose roots, shift the gravel. Change.
The upper river of the Yakima is a sanctuary, the lower river a playground. Chuck owned the upper and Jack made a living off the lower. There were fish in both places, although always more fish in the lower. Bigger fish frequented the upper reaches, hiding in the slow corners and cutbanks and tree roots. Cutthroats preferred the cooler temperatures upriver, the rainbows content to adjust to warmer, chemically altered, farmland-drainage irrigation water lower downstream.
We caught and released many 17 inch cuts and cutbows in that peaceful water before our denouement. I have photos. Chuck often said he preferred trading quantity for quality in the solitude of the upper river. Perhaps he just didn’t like crowds.
Thirteen years later we can’t remember what the fight on the river was about that autumn day. I think it was about my determination to photograph a fish I had landed, and his stubborn but ethical stance that the water was too warm to have the fish out of the water that long. I reached for my camera, tipped the plastic compartmented fly box, upended scores of hand-tied flies into the bottom of the boat. Scrambling to retrieve them I was met with sullenness and anger and a silence I have never forgotten. He rowed in silence the remaining forty-five minutes to the take-out, and I sat with my rod unmoving, feeling like a child that has gone too far against the parents’ command. Our relationship changed forever that day. We did not fish alone together again for thirteen years.
This day on the river I catch no fish. During six concentrated hours we see only two fish rising in the middle of the river, and one fish that comes up for a look and rejects my fluffy dry fly. Although I am back with my mentor, the source of my hard-won techniques and muted confidence that has transported me to fishing locations on three continents, I get no fish-love. We eat peanut butter and sliced apples in a quiet eddy, stare at the water, and watch for signs of fish action. Nada. The wind howls in our ears. We pull jackets tighter.
“I’m always a little disappointed in this river a little,” Chuck says.
There is a peace in the boat, fish or no fish. A reconciliation unspoken. Memories and literal water under the bridge. We notice the change in the river’s course, the change to our bodies, change we can’t resist. Life or not, that is the only choice. Nothing lasts forever.
My friend Syl listens to my tale. He tells me he knows why we saw no fish. His explanation makes as much sense as anything I can offer. He says, “The fish remember your fight and have left that place. Bad fish karma is forever.”
“But we made up,” I say.
The story lingers in institutional river-guide memory Chuck says. Guide gossip. What was that fight about they ask? We both laugh and tell each other we can’t remember, but I am sure we each have our own secret explanation. And when I post a photo of Chuck, in his boat on the river in the wind on Face book, another river guide from Montana, a mutual friend, posts immediately referencing the bit of never-forgotten history.
If we can’t forget and forgive who can blame the fish?
photos: from the camera of Ann Bodle-Nash
Category: Indie It Travel