In the last line of the book "A River Runs Through It," as in the last line of the movie, Norman Maclean says, "I am haunted by waters."
I am practically haunted by that line. Thank you for giving us that personal observation, Norman. I couldn't have said it better.
As an angler, I could come up with something silly, such as: Water casts a spell over me. As a swimmer, I could come up something stupid, like: A wonderful feeling washes over me when water and I are as one. Egad, that's bad! Yet, Norman Maclean came up with: "I am haunted by waters." It fits me perfectly.
I grew up enjoying the world of water. I swam like a fish, and I fished for fish. Still today, I am happiest when I'm on the water or in the water or along the water.
Many kinds of waters exist on our planet; we have salt water and fresh water and brackish water; we have oceans and lakes and streams. We have different kinds of streams – brooks, creeks and rivers, for example. We also have ponds, pocosins, bogs, swamps and bayous. And we have big water and small water, and I guess we have in-between water, but I've never heard anyone ever talk about in-between waters. I especially love small water.
Some of my most memorable fishing experiences have come in small water – little brooks and tiny creeks, which are beautiful and alluring, and they're also intimate. Sometimes they're full of surprises; a little creek can yield up to you a big, beautiful, colorful, shiny, smooth, wet, jumping and arching, flipping and flopping, utterly fantastic, wild trout. The battle with the trout is always exciting, but the holistic beauty of the water, the fish, the cut of the creek through the forest or the meadow or the pasture, and the special intimacy of it all is wondrous and unforgettable.
My favorite small water is a tiny creek in the San Bernardino National Forest, in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. It's pools contain colorful wild trout, and it's edges and the surrounding forests – that would be the pine forest of the higher elevations and the elfin forest of the high chaparral, which exists at about 4,000 feet elevation and lower – are home to many southern Pacific western rattlesnakes and a lot of mule deer, black bears, mountain quail, bobcats and many more species of inhabitants, including a few mountain lions.
I discovered the wonder of my favorite creek back in the late 1980s, when I was a college student at Cal State, San Bernardino. I decided to study along the creek one day, surrounded by the serenity and solitude of the forest. I was new to the creek, and I had no idea it held trout.
Crystal-clear creek water flowed over smooth, granite rocks and into a beautiful pool next to me before it continued flowing down the north side of the mountain range, across more rocks, over stretches of rippling shallows, and through many more clear, quiet, beautiful pools. As I read my textbook, my eyes became distracted by some movement in the water. I looked up and saw nothing out of the ordinary, but I let my eyes gaze into the water, to take in everything under the water's surface. Then I saw it – a golden-colored rainbow trout. Instead of silvery, it was rather golden. Instead of a pinkish line down each side, the color along each lateral line was more reddish, and the fish had red on the gills and throat, like a cutthroat trout. But it wasn't a cutthroat, and it wasn't a California golden trout. Was it a hybrid? Was it a native? Was it indigenous just to this creek and nearby creeks? I didn't care. I was surprised the little creek was home to any fish at all. I put down my book, and kept gazing into the clear pool. I spotted a few more trout and decided to return the next day with my fly rod.
The first thing I noticed the following day was the congestion of trees. I could not cast my line because of all the pines, willows and mountain alders. So, I would need to sneak up to the hole, swing my line between tree branches, and twitch my dry fly across the surface of the water. It's one of several ways that we fly fishers utilize a simple technique called dapping.
As soon as my fly hit the water and twitched a few times, a gorgeous trout darted up to the water's surface and grabbed that fishin' fly. One jump, one flip, and that golden rainbow was gone. However, I had gotten a hit on my very first cast, and from that moment on, the little creek was my favorite place to be.
I almost checked out of life while fishing along that creek – twice. The first time, I was alone at a place where the creek is squeezed between two rock walls. The rocks walls might be better described as two tall, rocky, craggy, granite cliffs. I had fished two beautiful pools just above that spot. Now I could neither walk along the creek, nor wade the creek, because it dropped steeply and dramatically in elevation and amongst gigantic boulders, all squeezed between those tall rock walls. I had to either turn back and go around on higher ground, or climb out of the little creek canyon by rock-climbing straight up. Being the stupid and impatient person I am, I decided to climb straight up. All was going well, when I pulled myself up to a narrow, horizontal crevice in the granite, and there in front of my face was a southern Pacific western rattler, coiled up, rattling and ready to strike. I was surprised and a might-bit scared; I don't know why that snake, which was only two feet in front of my eyeballs, did not strike me in the face and sink its fangs into my big schnozzola. Before it could, I fell back and down a few feet onto a granite-boulder outcropping that saved my life.
The second time I almost checked out of life on the creek, I was alone and working my way up the middle of the creek, when I slipped on a big, smooth, wet, slippery rock. I fell backward, onto my back, and cracked my head on another big rock. I suddenly went woozy and started losing consciousness. I remember looking up at pine boughs, alder branches and blue sky, all of which began to blur together, and then my vision started turning black. The cold creek water must have brought me back, though, saving me. After a minute or so, I finally got myself up on my feet and standing, although rather wobbly. I was, of course, soaking wet; the back of my noggin was bleeding; and I had a whopper of a headache.
I have lived through other mishaps in other places and have harvested the bounties in many waters around the world. I have fished above the Arctic Circle in Norway, catching colorful char; dug for clams in Japan; speared Puerto Rican langoustes in the clear waters off the beaches of the Isla de Vieques; and I've caught largemouth and smallmouth basses in freshwaters across the United States, and I've pulled calico and black basses out of our oceans.
Canoes, rowboats, bass boats, ski boats and pontoon boats have gotten me around on freshwater lakes and steams, and the United States Navy has hauled me around oceans and seas aboard various configurations of amphibious assault ships. (You squids and jarheads will know what I'm talking about when I say I've sailed aboard an LHA, an LPH, an LST and an LPD.)
Jogging along water is also a favorite pastime of mine. My absolute favorite run is along the Pacific Ocean beach, tide pools and bluffs of the Point Fermin area of San Pedro, Calif. A close second is along the Atlantic Ocean on Onslow Beach at Camp Lejeune, N.C. And when my son was in the hospital for a year in Madison, Wis., a good stress reliever for me was always a long jog along Lake Mendota.
I don't want to water down this blog too much, so I'll end this and get out of your hair. I believe I'll jog out to Horner Park and take a walk around the lake and see if I can see any wintertime life stirring in the water and ice on this last day of January. Oh, how I'm looking forward to springtime and a good fish fry.