City Angler - by Randy Kadish
I am a city angler.
I was born in a city, and grew up in a city, and fish in a city or in rivers that are near train stations close to a city; so when I walk down the street or ride the subways, when I carry my fly-fishing gear, when I wear my official fly-fishing vest and wear my galoshes over my felt-soled wading boots, people stare and probably wonder: Is he an alien?
No, I'm not, I know.
I'm just someone on his way to Grand Central Station, where last week I bought a train ticket and a slice of Junior's cheesecake, and rode the rails up to Croton Falls to fish the Croton River.
The branches of the river flow into a big pool about a hundred yards behind the small village. The pool reminds me of the famous Junction Pool on the Beaverkill River, but the Croton Falls Pool is not famous; and neither am I, though I once wanted to be.
I stepped off the train. Since the Croton River is fly-fishing paradise for many, no one in the town stared at me. I was sort of invisible. Thankful, I tried to decide where to fish.
The big pool? The shallow, rocky riffles of the East Branch? The long, long, slow pool of the lower West Branch? The classic trout water of the upper West Branch?
The Upper, I knew, was popular with the anglers who formed, what I called, The Croton Falls Fishing Club.
But I was from the city and not a member.
I put on my waders, set up my seven-foot, four-weight rod and thought, it's a weekday. The Upper shouldn't be too crowded. Besides, I can walk the path alongside the river, and easily find unfished water. And if the Upper is a crowded - well, aren't I a little lonely?
I crossed the footbridge, then Route 100. I turned left on Butlerville Road. Only three cars were parked near the bridge over Garcia Pool. I knew, therefore, I would have most of the river to myself, but not whether I should I be grateful.
I looked through the woods. Three anglers stood in the clearing on the pool's bank. The clearing was really a clubhouse without walls. Wondering if I was going to be welcomed, I stepped into the woods and walked into the clearing. A bulletin board hung on one of the trees.
The anglers looked at me. They were in their sixties, probably, and were strangers to me. They stood around a small table, a rectangular piece of wood nailed onto a fallen tree. They ate sandwiches, using waxed paper as plates.
I asked, "Anything happening?"
"With all the cold weather fishing has been real slow," the angler with long, hippie-like, gray hair said.
The stocky, bald angler stared at my galoshes.
I said, "They make funny noises when I walk."
"I'm Jim," the stocky angler said. "Where'd you come from?"
"The city. I took the train up."
"I'm Gil," the long-haired angler said.
"I'm Pat," the tall angler said.
"Have you ever fished up here?" Gil asked.
"Two years ago I fished here a lot. Are the big browns still around?"
Jim bit into his roast beef sandwich. "The state and city," he said with a full mouth. "Aren't taking care of the river the way they should."
"And they're not doing anything to stop the poachers," Gil insisted. "Guys are coming in, using worms and taking fish."
"We call the DEP Police," Jim stated. "But they take their time getting here, and by then the poachers are gone."
I looked at Pat. He said nothing. He was the quiet one, I assumed.
Jim and Gil filed more complaints in my mind. Soon, however, their complaints shucked their anger and hatched into cherished stories about big fish they caught or lost, and about how, ten years ago, the Croton was a great river to fish.
So I wondered, was there was a golden age of fly fishing the Croton the way there was a golden age of fly fishing the Beaverkill? And are these obscure anglers - Gil, Jim, Pat - of the Croton, reflections of the historical anglers - Hewitt, LaBranche, Darbee - of the Beaverkill?
"After that one got away," Jim said. "I never used 7x tippet again."
Jim looked into my eyes, warmly and, without speaking told me I was accepted into the club, in spite of my galoshes.
I asked, "Who is Garcia?"
Gil grinned. He finished his turkey sandwich and said, "He's a heck of a guy and an angler who used to be like the Mayor here. Just before he moved to Vermont we named the pool in his honor."
"But we might rename it again," Jim said.
"We shouldn't," Gil argued. Looking right at me, he said, "You want to know about Garcia? I'll tell you. Garcia always boasted of his skill at playing and landing fish. Well one day he forgot to bring leaders; so he borrowed a 4X, fluorocarbon leader from his buddy, Sal, then tied on a Woolly Bugger. About twenty minutes later Garcia hooked a monster rainbow. He played the fish for about five minutes, but just as he was about to land him, the fish broke off. Garcia lunged with his net, but slipped and fell face-first into the river. His hat came off and started floating downstream. Garcia jumped up, and started chasing his hat. Finally he landed it with his net. He put it on. Water dripped down his face. He stared at Sal and yelled, 'Are you sure that was 4X fluorocarbon?' Sal swore it was and said, 'At least you landed your hat.'
"Anyway, about a year later Garcia and Sal were eating breakfast in a diner when Garcia started reminiscing and laughing about his losing the rainbow and falling into the river. Sal finally admitted that he had mistakenly given Garcia a 5X nylon leader. Garcia jumped up, marched out of the diner and didn't talk to Sal for a month."
The members of the club laughed; so I did too.
"What about the time," Jim said. "Garcia spent days trying to catch the big brown living below the bridge. He tried twenty different flies; then one day as he ate lunch, an angler no one had ever seen before, made three casts under the bridge and hooked the big brown. Garcia spit out his soda and screamed, 'He took my fish! He took my fish!'"
To me the Garcia stories didn't ring true. But again I laughed; and in my eyes Gil and Jim stood in a warmer light, maybe because I often wrote half-true fishing stories, and because I knew Gil and Jim were just trying to turn someone they missed into a legend.
Will anyone ever want to turn me into a legend? I wondered. Probably not, I answered, then remembered I had a seven-seventeen train to catch. I asked, "What's been taking fish lately?"
Gil said, "Nymphs and Caddises. I'm going with Hare's Ear. Well, let me give it a a shot. I'll take below the bridge"
Jim said, "I'll take the middle. I'm staying with my beetle."
I looked at Pat.
He didn't say anything.
One by one the members of the club stepped down the bank and waded to their positions.
I thought of walking upstream and leaving the boundary of the club, but then I decided I didn't want to be alone yet, especially since there was plenty of unfished water upstream of the pool's mouth.
But there wasn't a hatch; so I tied on my favorite attractor, a Royal Wulff, and waded toward the mouth.
The water was almost up to my waist, but so clear it looked as if it wasn't there. I counted the lace eyes of my boot, then looked upstream. The river, shaded by overhanging branches, reminded me of a train tunnel. The roof of the river tunnel, however, had holes in it. Sunlight poured through the holes and seemed to turn into flat, hanging sheets of weaved mist. But when the sunlight crashed onto the river it seemed to break and scatter and turn into small, bobbing flames.
I stared at the fire and was sort of hypnotized. Then I snapped out of it and remembered where I was. I pulled line off my reel and cast my fly down and across.
I fished for about an hour, often watching the members of the club, often hearing the voices of Gil and Jim. But most of their words were drowned by the rumbling of the turbulent tail water. I managed, however, to hear something about someone named Robert, then something about Gil's ex-wife moving to, or living in, Vegas.
For some reason - maybe my own projection - I sensed that Gil still missed her, then I thought of a woman I still missed. For the hundredth time I asked myself if I should have said good-bye. Then I told myself, I'm not here to find an answer. I'm here to fish!
Slowly, I waded and fished upstream, losing sight of Gil, then Jim, then Pat. The sound of the rumbling tail faded into the sound of boiling water.
I didn't catch a fish; so I retrieved my line, looked at my cherished Royal Wulff and told myself not to be stubborn.
I tied on a beetle.
Ten minutes later I landed a twelve inch rainbow. I pulled the beetle out of his mouth and looked into his eyes. I saw fear, whether it was visible or not, and I wished I could tell the rainbow we were in a no-kill zone.
And if we weren't? I wondered. Would I still let him go? Was I as he was: a predator? Or was I as he saw me: a mountain-size monster? An alien?
No. I was none of those; so I wanted to change the rainbow's point of view. Gently, I put him back into the river and let him go. He darted away, grateful to be free, I was sure.
I cast to the seam behind a fallen tree. My loop was tight. My fly turned over and fell gently; and in my mind I saw orange and gold leaves falling, then white snowflakes. Soon, I told myself, it will be too cold to fish, unless I can do away with winter.
But I can't. So next winter I'll study fly fishing, the way I studied fly casting. And maybe, finally, I'll become a good angler.
Why? I wondered. Just to catch a fish and to let him go? What's the sense of it all? Why is it the older I get the more I fish, the less I work? Just who am I these days? Do I know, really?
The fast-moving water bowed my line downstream and dragged my fly. I forgot to mend. I retrieved line and cast upstream, again.
Most of the small flames, I noticed, had gone out. The sun had retreated behind the king-size trees that lined the river and reminded me of a fortress wall. The darkening riffles reminded me of miniature, undulating hills or sand dunes.
The riffles, I thought, will hide me from the trout. I'll be invisible, again.
Thankful, I looked downstream and saw a rise, then another. I thought of wading back; but then a young girl and a man I assumed was her father waded into the river, near the rises.
Now it was too late to wade back, the way it was too late to wade back in life and to play baseball instead of football - a sport I was too small for - and be the athlete my father wanted, and it was also too late to accept my mother before she got sick and be the close son she wanted.
Downstream, the father stood behind his daughter, and moved her casting arm back and forth. Finally, the father let go of his daughter's arm. Her loops widened into circles. She giggled.
I wondered, am I ever going to be a father? Or has too much time passed by?
I retrieved my line, waded to the bank and climbed up to the path. I walked upstream, toward Frustration Pool, the big pool below the bridge at Croton Falls Road.
An angler wearing a white baseball hat fished the pool.
Disappointed, I watched the angler false cast. His loops were wide, like the girl's. His line splashed onto the water. He too was a novice angler; so I wanted to help him, but knew I couldn't unless he asked.
I climbed down the steep bank and waded into the run below the pool. I cast upstream. My beetle landed in the fast tail water. I retrieved my line, quickly and asked myself, is the water too foamy for trout to see a floating insect? Should I try a weighted streamer? Is that what more experienced anglers would do? If I only had a longer, richer angling past to draw from, to predict the future from. But does the past always answer the questions of the future? If so, why don't I know if I'll one day earn enough money from writing to support a son or a daughter?
Suddenly, I felt powerless and frightened, like the trout I had let go. I tied on a weighted Woolly Bugger and cast to the tail, again and again.
Still no fish. I climbed up the bank and walked upstream.
The novice angler looked at me. He was young and big and built like a weight lifter. I smiled and asked,
"How's it going?"
"I'm new at this."
"Today that's how I feel."
He grinned. "I fish up here because I'm scared that the guys down there will laugh at my casting."
A big guy like you, I thought of saying.
"I watched you," he said. "You can really cast." He hung his head, shamefully I thought.
Is he just too afraid to ask for help? I wondered. "I didn't laugh at you," I said. "My loops were once wide too."
I smiled. "Well, what I learned is not to pull and push my elbow. Instead, I keep my elbow closer to my body, and rotate my hips and let them move my elbow back and forth. To help me to that, I start the cast with my right foot a little behind my left."
His dark eyes opened wide. He was really listening, I knew.
I demonstrated a cast, then said. "Also, casting a fly rod is different than throwing a baseball. When casting I always try to move my hand in a straight line. To do that, I break my wrist only halfway at the end of my forward cast."
"Let me try."
He lifted his line off the water, keeping his elbow in place. His loop was tight. He cast the rod forward, moving his hand in a straight line. His loop was again tight. I was gratified.
He smiled. "Thanks. Where'd you learn to cast?"
"I guess from all over."
His mouth dropped open. My answer confused him, it seemed; but not having time to explain it, I walked on.
He yelled out, "My name is Brad."
I looked back, told him my name and said, "Maybe I'll see you on the way back."
And maybe, I thought, I am a good teacher, like the father downstream.
I crossed the bridge, and walked past the little island, and then the wide bend. I waded into a slow-moving, dry-fly run, and tied on a Royal Wulff, again. Thirsty, I reached for my water bottle, but then I cupped my hand and drank from the river. The water tasted cool and filtered-clean. Suddenly, it was as if surround-sound speakers were turned on. Birds chirped, but their notes - some loud, some faint - were spattered like paint on a high ceiling and weren't shaped into a song.
I looked up but saw only one big, black bird. If I could disappear, I thought, like a bird in a tree, I'd catch more trout.
I closed my eyes. The gurgling river played a looped, soothing melody. I was sort of hypnotized, again. I snapped out of it, and asked myself, since nature always broadcasts in high-fidelity stereo, why for the past hour have I heard only the lone, incessant voice in my head? I opened my eyes, pulled line off my reel and cast toward the gentle riffles. I told myself, forget about fishing the big pools. Concentrate on this run.
Upstream the river was as straight as train tracks. The plunging, crashing water of the distant waterfall shined like white silver and sounded like the rumbling tail of Garcia's pool.
An angler sat on the bank. A low branch his face. Startled, I flinched, then waited for the angler to say something.
I stepped upstream, past the low branch. The angler, I saw, was old, close to eighty, probably. I asked, "Did I take your spot?"
"No, I'm resting. Are there a lot of guys downstream?"
"Not too many."
"Up here the fishing isn't as good, but sometimes I have it all to myself."
"So you don't like fishing Garcia's Pool?"
"I come here to fish, not to talk," he stated. "Besides, the pool isn't anyone's to name. I started fishing the pool right after I got back from the war. There was no Garcia around then."
The old angler wasn't a member of the club, I knew. I said, "I see your point."
"I've seen hundreds of faces come and go on this river, hundreds, including yours now. And I've, I've...."
I waited for him to continue.
I pulled line of my reel and asked, "Do you fish anywhere else?"
"I fished almost every great river in this country: The Madison, The Ausable, The Snake."
"Every real angler around here has fished the Beaverkill."
"What's your favorite river?" I cast upstream, slightly.
His laugh sounded like a howl. It reminded me of a chilling wind. "There is no favorite," he insisted. "Like people, rivers have their own characteristics, but what kind of angler are you that doesn't know that when you come right down to it, all rivers are a chain of riffles, runs, and pools?"
Are people really like rivers? I wondered. Are we all just a chain of regrets, hopes and fears? I said, "Maybe you can tell me something I should know: How are rivers born?"
"Will knowing help you catch more fish?" He laughed again.
Maybe he's right, I thought. After all, will knowing change this moment and help me put my regrets, hopes and fears aside? And will knowing, therefore, help me assume the shape of this river? Help me become as tall and as wide as I can see and hear? Help me run through this hilly countryside for the next thousand years?
Because soon I will grow old and weak and unable to stand here and cast a fly rod, unable to borrow, to become this vision, as so many anglers - Jim, Gil, Pat, Garcia - have before me; and as so many anglers will after me.
So in this moment am I every one of them? Am I therefore no one? Am I just a link in the chain of infinity?
But today I didn't have to ride the rails and join the angling club; so I must be more than a moment. But what? A chain of choices? A self?
So when night - a link of infinity - comes and I ride the train home, maybe I won't choose to hear or to see my regrets and my fears. Maybe I'll instead hear and see dreams and memories of catching trout and letting them go. I just wish trout could choose also more than deep pools, or shallow riffles, or long runs.
But trout aren't city anglers.
My line bowed way downstream. I forgot to mend, again.
"Are you fishing or dreaming?" The old angler asked sarcastically.
"Both," I insisted.
I retrieved my line and looked at my watch. It said six-forty. I waded to the bank, climbed out of the river and walked back to the train station.
I fished the Croton three more times that season. Each time many of the faces and the names of the anglers changed.
And the face of the Croton changed too. It became lower and slower.
And the hatches changed. They became sulfurs, then tricoes.
And, as I knew they would, the colors of the overhanging leaves changed. They became orange and gold.
And though the holes in the roof of overhanging branches didn't change, one cloudy day the holes let in rain instead of sunlight; and the water became pockmarked with large, splattering drops.
But it wasn't only the river, the anglers, the hatches and the leaves that changed.
I changed too. I still thought of my regrets, my hopes and my fears, but they became shallower, slower and fainter.
And through it all something didn't change. I still walked the streets and rode the subways, carrying my fly gear, wearing my vest and my galoshes.
And I still received stares.
I was still a city angler.
And something more.
Maybe one day I'll exactly know; but today it's all right if I don't.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Randy Kadish
I'm an outdoor writer living in New York. I'm also the author of the novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace with the World