Novel Excerpt: The Beaverkill, 1911
I put on my waders, took my Leonard rod and my fly box, walked outside and turned onto Bridge Street, a street lined with small, wood buildings. I felt as if I stepped back into the Wild West. But instead of gunslingers I saw a piano store. I went inside. The clerk welcomed me.
I said, “I’m surprised to see a piano store up here.”
“We’re people too.”
“I’m sorry.” I pointed to the baby grand. “Is that a Steinway? My mother had one.”
“Do you play?”
“I never wanted to.”
“What a shame.”
“At least fly fishers, unlike aspiring musicians, didn’t really get their hearts broken.”
The clerk flinched. Abruptly, I left the store, walked to the fork in the road, bore left and marched toward the small, metal railroad bridge. I walked faster, then marched onto the bridge and right above the upper Beaverkill. From bank to bank the gurgling river was fast, riffled and rocky, and about twice as wide as the Saw Mill. The trees that lined the banks had trunks that seemed too thin to support their dense layers of branches. The trees didn’t look like the tall, umbrella-like trees I pictured at Cold Harbor, but instead like overgrown Christmas trees. Their short branches didn’t come close to forming a leafy roof and to closing out the blue sky.
To me, the Saw Mill was prettier than what I saw of the Beaverkill.
Below me a fly line shot out and unrolled. The leader swung left, as if the caster had moved his elbow too much. The fly landed gently, upstream of the line and just outside a swirling eddy. The fly drifted about two feet, then was retrieved. The angler below me wore a black suit, hip boots and a gray cap. He cast again, pointing the rod out at an angle of about 45 degrees to the water. The leader swung again, and the fly landed just outside the eddy.
I walked off the bridge and down the road. Following Clay’s directions, I turned onto a narrow road and into a rocky clearing. The clearing, I quickly saw, was the north bank of the Beaverkill. Across the river, the far bank was about six feet high and tiled with big, flat rocks. Above the bank was a big corn field. Way beyond the field was a mountain. On the side of the mountain was a two-story building, probably as long as the Metropolitan Art Museum. Surrounded by trees, the building stuck out like a set of false teeth. I wished I could move the teeth, and give them to the peering eyes at the end of Main Street so that the eyes would have a mouth of their own.
The angler under the bridge wrote something in a small notebook. He looked familiar. Could he be—yes he was, George M. L. La Branche!
I walked to him. “Mr. La Branche?”
He glanced at me. “Yes?” he said coldly.
“I saw you cast in a tournament.”
“I cast in a lot of tournaments.” He stuffed his notebook and pencil into his pocket.
“The one in Central Park that Izzy Klein won. Do you know what happened to Izzy?”
What Happened? I never saw or heard anything about him again. I’m very busy right now.”
Busy? He was fishing. I was stupid for starting a conversation with a man with two middle initials.
I walked downstream. The river widened into the shape of a huge funnel. The funnel, I knew, was the Forks. The stem was the Willowemoc Creek. Like the upper Beaverkill, it was riffled from bank to bank, and reminded me of a marching army.
Why, I wondered, did images of armies, instead of beauty, pop into my mind? Was it because I felt I was in foreign, hostile territory and about to do battle with the Beaverkill?
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If so, at least I was glad the Willowemoc and Beaverkill armies didn’t collide. Both slowed, surrendered and merged into a large plain of what seemed like neutral territory. The plain, however, was wrinkled by swirling eddies that soon changed directions, as if they were lost and couldn’t find their way.
What formed the eddies?
The biggest eddy disappeared, suddenly, then popped up a few feet downstream.
Did eddies, like stars, form out of nowhere and then disappear?
Way downstream of the big eddy was a big, round island, covered with tall, uneven grass. The island looked as if it needed a haircut; then I remembered the tree trunks that blemished so many mountains.
Maybe nature was better off not having Man as a barber.
I walked to the pool’s tail. Two currents flowed in opposite directions, like the lines of immigrants strolling up and down Orchard Street. Near the end of the tail, the upstream current about-faced and merged into the downstream current, and the whole river seemed to smooth into a football-field-long pane of sliding glass. At the end of the field, in the end zone, the river sloped sharply, sped up and reformed into a riffled, roaring army, more powerful than either of the armies flowing into the Forks.
Why was it, I wondered, the Beaverkill presented so many different faces of water? Was the Beaverkill like an exposed army donning different camouflages?
But the river had no real reason to feel exposed. A mountain protected it like a fortress wall, and enabled the river to quickly surround the island; but instead of storming and sacking it, the river widened and gave way to it, then marched out of my view, without saying good-bye.
How could it? Did the Beaverkill, the sky or the mountains care about me? Wasn’t I like an unloved insect trapped in the vastness of the world? Or was I just trapped in one small world? If so, how many different worlds were there on earth? As many as stars in the sky? Could people go from world to world and not get lost or trapped? After all, less than thirty yards away was my eventual way out of the world of the Beaverkill: the railroad tracks. But for better or worse, for the next two days I had no other world to go to.
I set up my Leonard and tied on a Green Drake wet fly. I decided, however, to go after Clay’s monster trout later on. I walked back upstream, pulled line off the reel, and cast over the neutral plain. The eddies grabbed the line like a thief and wouldn’t let go. I pointed the rod up and tried to mend. The eddies pulled more strongly. I pointed the rod lower and fed line through the guides. The fly sank.
No take. I retrieved and cast a few feet downstream. The eddies left the line for dead, surprisingly. To give life to my fly, I slowly pointed the rod up and down, up and down.
Again no take. Again I cast, landing the line between two eddies. The smooth water grabbed the line.
An hour later I still hadn’t induced a take. Discouraged, I walked to the pool’s tail. The sliding water glowed brighter than a sun-reflecting marble floor.
Was the Beaverkill, or at least what I saw of it, more beautiful than Penn Station?
Not sure, I waded into the tail. The rocks on the bottom were flat, as if the moving water had shaped them so people could walk on them. The water rushed gently around my legs. Instead of trying to push me back or to knock me over, it seemed to caress and welcome me.
A cloud blocked the sun. The water’s glow faded and, like a chameleon, turned into the upside-down reflections of trees and the mountain. I thought it strange that less light brought out more images. The reflected trees and mountain looked as if they were sinking into the earth. Suddenly I didn’t know if I was in the bottom of a wide valley or at the top.
Or was I in both places at once?
I wished every time something bad happened, I could look at a reflection and the world would be upside-down. And then if I could also change the river’s direction maybe I could bring my mother and all the dead soldiers back to life.
But unlike flowing water, the reflections seemed cemented in place. I looked at the rushing tail. Instead of a marching army, I saw shattered, foamy glass.
A take! I snapped the rod up and back. The line went limp. I had jerked the fly out of the trout’s mouth. I cursed myself, again cast, then thought of how the Forks was made up of four different faces: the marching armies, the eddies, the two-way avenue, the sliding glass. Did the Beaverkill have as many faces as Fifth Avenue had mansions? Probably not. Still, the river was as beautiful as the avenue. And yet I still felt so alone. Was it because I had no one to talk to or listen to?
I listened to the world of the river. The wind-rustled trees sounded like the cymbals of an orchestra. Downstream a bird sang, but only the same two notes. On the near bank a bird shrieked, out of key with everything else in the river world. A third bird sang a soft note at different tempos. The notes sounded like Morse Code. If it was code, the bird surely wasn’t signaling the other two birds because they didn’t seem to answer. Unlike the blinking stars in Doc’s story, different birds didn’t seem to be on speaking terms.>>
I waded downstream. Though I knew I couldn’t, I wanted to try to cast all the way to the far bank. I false cast, shooting more and more line, then cast forward and let go of the line.
The fly landed about a quarter of the way to the bank. Not even Izzy could have come close to reaching the bank. The fly drifted downstream. The sun shined down again, the reflections on the water faded back into a glow, and the small world was right-side-up again. I pointed the rod up. The line tightened, then glided toward the far bank. A take! Smoothly, I pulled the rod up, piercing the hook into the trout’s soft mouth. I reeled up slack line, then pointed the rod lower and let the fish run. The reel clicked, then shrieked like a bird. The trout’s will to fight surged through the line. My beautiful Leonard seemed to throb with the heart of a beast. I clenched the rod handle. The trout slowed, finally. I tried to point the rod up, but couldn’t raise the tip more than a few inches. I tried to point it to the side. Surprisingly, I could. The trout broke for the near bank. Again I tried to point the rod up. I couldn’t. Gently, I inched the rod tip to the side. The trout turned suddenly and broke for the far bank. I tried to turn the reel’s handle. The trout yanked back, bending the rod into a half circle.
Back and forth he swam, never jumping, never taking more line, never letting me point the rod higher and bring him closer. So he had a strategy: to not fully fight and tire himself out. Somehow he knew to do this. How many fights had he been in before?
I decided to match his strategy and not exert all my energy. In effect, we were in an extra-inning tie, with neither of us trying to hit a home run. Inning after inning I turned the trout. He swam bank to bank and, seeming to acknowledge the standoff, he pulled back steadily. My Leonard rod seemed to throb in sync with my beating heart.
Was I in a game without an end? But in fishing, games weren’t called because of darkness. I had to gamble and try to win.
“Need help!?” someone yelled out.
I glanced back. An angler stood on the bank. He had long gray hair. He was stocky and of average height. He wore a green jacket and what looked like a gray baseball cap.
I answered, “Sure.”
The angler jogged downstream. I turned the trout toward the near bank. The angler stepped into the river, held his net just below the surface, waited, then lunged. The big brown trout was in his net. The tie was broken. But I had help; so did I really win?
I waded to the bank. The trout had two Green Drake flies in his mouth.
“Thanks, mister.” The man’s cap wasn’t a Confederate hat.
The angler pulled out my fly. “A monster brown.”
“Someone told me he likes Green Drakes.”
The angler held up the trout. “He’s one for the wall.”
The trout opened and closed his mouth, as if gasping for air.
“I’d like to let him go.”
“A fish like this?” The angler had a creel.
“A fish like this deserves to live.” I pulled out Clay’s Green Drake and put it
in my fly box.
The angler held the trout underwater, then let him go. “I’m Ray.”
He looked a little older than my father. His shallow, grayish eyes didn’t seem to have sockets. His round face was as flat as a frying pan. He looked like the man in the moon.
“I watched you. You’re a hell of a caster.” His voice was rough, as if sandpaper lined his throat. He glanced at my Leonard rod. “You from New York?” he asked coldly.
At least he wasn’t drunk. “Yes, I am. The rod was a gift.”
His top teeth were as white and as straight as a picket fence, but his bottom teeth were stained and crooked. His top teeth, I assumed, were fake. “Sir—”
“Ray, I’m looking for an old friend of mine. His name is Izzy.” I described Izzy, then added, “He’s the greatest fly caster I ever saw.”
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“No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him.”
“Do you know the man upstream, wearing the dark suit?”
“Mr. La Branche? I’m a carpenter. I once worked on his fishing club’s house. He’s a strange bird, a rich guy who’s in love with trying to prove that you can take trout on fast, riffled water with dry flies.”
“In England the rivers and streams are slower and smoother. But here, how
can trout see a dry through riffles? To me, La Branche’s theories are profane. And so is buying up land and closing it off from the public. This river is God’s. What if a minister bought pews and closed off part of his church? That too would be profane, damn it!”
He spoke forcefully, as if possessed. To be fair, however, not as possessed as a vote-hungry politician or a devil-fearing preacher.
If he is so against the fishing clubs, I thought, he shouldn’t work for them and accept their money. And I should hide that my father is sort of rich.
I asked, “What about the lower Beaverkill? Has anyone closed off parts of that?”
“The Barnharts. Their long pool is probably the most beautiful pool on the whole river. When I was younger I poached it a few times.”
“Were you ever caught?”
“Once. They threatened to have me locked up, so a week later I poached it again.” He laughed, but not as loudly as Clay and the drunk hooligans.
From The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace With the World. Copyright © 2007 by Randy Kadish.
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