There’s something about home water – a place where you don’t have to think about your setup, your bugs or technical line management. There’s something about a place that you know so intimately that you get lost in the experience and never worry about the details. You know what rig to use based on water speed, depth and clarity, and you come here enough that any changes in those things are obvious. You know where all the hungry trees and bushes and sticks are, and you’ve had enough snags to backcast between them with confidence. Maybe you know that a rubberlegs and a prince nymph will usually do the trick, and you'll probably hook a nice fish, not a record breaker, but one that puts up a fun fight. Home water is a place where you know the rules, you know what works, and you feel surefooted and steadfast in your ability.
Another thing about home water, what makes it a place of ease and familiarity, is that you’ve put in the time. It’s not something that comes in two or three trips, or even a season. Like any relationship, one with a river is an extended investment – getting to know its moods, understanding what makes it feel generous and what might make it spook. It’s having enough history to know when something’s not working, and enough respect to know when to walk away. It’s coming back again, previous slights forgotten, open to what it may yet offer.
I know my home water well, and love the experience it provides, but ventured to a new spot yesterday, and while I was initially frustrated that I had to actually read the river after a long day at work, that I didn’t know the holes, that I lost my bugs in a tree on my third cast and had to sit down and re-rig, I eventually found a certain rhythm - not mine, but the rhythm of the place. I stumbled some at first - the rocks were a different shape, the water a bit heavier than I’m used to - because I didn’t trust my usual routine, but I knew that there was something there for me.
It makes sense, really. I was only 5 miles from my home water. I was on the same river. The flies I needed turned out to be the same. The stillness I found in the movement of the water was the same. The coolness of wet boots, the same. I even tied the same number of wind knots, but sat down to sort them out with a new level of patience. I took it all in – both what was familiar and what was different – reminding myself that it was the ease that comes from being in the water that I was after, and that’s the same no matter where you’re fishing.
Like all water, this river goes about its business regardless of how I try to control it. In my mind, what I know from home should apply in this new place, but rivers are not rational, they are efficient, maybe even selfish. They do what suits them best, and so do the fish that live in them. Despite my efforts to work this stretch as I would the section that flows in front of my house, I caught nothing. The places where there should have been fish, there were none. The boulders, the drop offs, the tail outs - empty. Or so it seemed.
My night was growing short and I wanted to make the most of my time in the water. I needed to make the most of it. Part of me wished that I’d just gone home, that I hadn’t wasted my energy where I didn’t know what I was doing. I was getting hungry, tired and cranky, but I pressed on.
I worked the bottom of a hole below a large tree; I knew there had to be a fish in there. Just as I was about to re-cast, a strike! I set the hook and that fish pulled like nothing I’ve ever felt on the end of a fly line. He about bent my rod in half as he took off into the middle of the river. I only caught a flash of silver, but I knew I was into a big one. I struggled to stay even with him from the bank, but lost my footing and the tension on my line and he was gone.
I made a few dejected casts where I had last seen him before I moved upriver. I caught small fish here and there, and a few rocks and trees, but my heart wasn’t in it. The same water that was so generous just a few miles away had shut me out. I decided to make my way back to the car with enough time for one last cast at the hole by the tree, at my white whale.
When I got there, I looked around. There were caddis fluttering on the surface, but I didn’t see any risers. It was getting dark and I was a bit cold, but I checked my hooks, my knots. All looked good. I moved my bobber a bit lower, so that my flies would ride higher in the water. The river here is slower than it is at home, so maybe my bugs were dragging the bottom. I positioned myself below the hole, and made a few tentative casts into the gathering dusk. If I caught something, great. If not, I at least found it comforting to know that there were fish in here after all. One, anyway.
I made a point to stay in that moment, to focus on my technique, to pay attention to my surroundings, to think slow but respond quickly. I wanted this river to feel like home, no matter where it runs, and I knew that would take some work. I removed my sunglasses -this late in the day I didn’t need them - one less barrier between me and the fish.
As I stood there, enjoying the push of the river against my legs, letting the day’s frustrations drift away and feeling grateful to live in a place like this, I saw my indicator disappear beneath the mirrored surface of the water, felt the tug on my line. I instinctively set the hook and started to strip. My rod tip began to bend, and the slow, easy smile that comes when I connect with a fish returned. We moved together as I kept the tension downstream, slowly bringing him closer until I could grab the line. I tucked my rod under my arm and wet my hand before carefully lifting the trout from the water. I turned him onto his back so that he would calm down, and removed the hook easily. As I placed him back into the river, I noticed the dark spots on his back and the long pink stripe on his side. He wasn’t my white whale, but he was beautiful. With my fingers light under his belly, I held him for a few moments so that he could regain his strength. He finned in my hand - almost invisible in the water - and then darted back into the current, just like they do at home.