The city workers never stopped me from going onto the old, broken-down pier, though one had said, “There aren’t many fish here since we dredged last year.”
I often sought comfort in those words. They told me not to blame myself for catching only one striped bass after so many months of trying.
So with few expectations, I again walked towards the end of the seagull-inhabited pier on an autumn day. One by one the beautiful birds spread their long, gray wings and soared away. I was sorry I had frightened them from their home.
I continued on.
On the New Jersey side of the wide, fast-moving river the fluttering American flag told me the wind blew from the north, but not strongly. Because strong winds were the only thing I didn’t like about fishing, I was thankful, and wondered if I should go with a floating or sinking line.
I checked the sky. The cloud cover was breaking up. I chose a sinking line, knowing it probably wouldn’t matter. I set up my nine-weight rod, looked through my fly box and wondered, What should I try? A Clouser? A Deceiver?
I tied on a White Deceiver. On the other end of the pier seagulls gracefully glided down and landed. Glad they had returned, I thought, If only I could get my fly to land as gently. I cast up river, about 70 feet. Not bad. Trying to mimic an injured bait fish, I stripped erratically—slowly, then quickly, and pausing every four or five seconds.
Suddenly, as if a light switch had been turned on, the sun broke through a small opening in the clouds and illuminated the gold and raspberry-red leaves of some of the New Jersey trees. Yes, autumn is always the prettiest time to fish. But soon those trees will look like eerie, mushroom-shaped spider webs. Soon it will be winter and too cold to fish. So why on this mild day am I the only one here? Is it because, unlike most anglers, I’m not so obsessed with catching fish? If so, is there something wrong with me? Am I less of an angler?
A small motor boat approached. A middle-aged couple was aboard. They held hands, reminding me that I hadn’t held a woman’s hand since I had learned my mother had brain cancer.
I waved to the couple. They smiled and waved back.
“Any luck?” the man yelled out.
I shook my head no and remembered that I never felt alone on the pier.
I again cast. The front of my fly line formed a tight loop and cut through the breeze. Eighty feet away my Deceiver turned over perfectly and landed softly on the water. I was proud. Yes, maybe basking in the satisfaction of making a good cast is what brought me to the pier. But is there something more?
I lowered my rod, pulled all the slack out of my line, and tried to repeat my beautiful cast. My back cast loop was tight. When it almost unrolled I slowly began my forward cast. Perfect. I accelerated into my power snap. I hauled, but too late and not fast enough. My forward cast loop was wide. The breeze knocked it down. My fly barely turned over. The front of my line landed in a small pile. Disappointed, I quickly retrieved line until it was straight. Again I erratically retrieved. Maybe bad casts really aren’t so bad. Maybe a fish will still strike. Besides, my next cast will be better, I hope. Yes, to make better: how good it always feels, and how easy to do when fishing. If only fixing my executive search business had been so easy, but by the time I realized that the market had changed it was too late. And by the time Mother realized that her cough might be a sign of something really serious it was also too late. By then even the latest medical breakthroughs couldn’t stop the cancer from eating away at her, from leaving her a living, breathing skeleton, and leaving me feeling helpless and furious at a God who seemed brutal and cruel. Why did he cause so much pain? So much suffering!?
I looked up at the dirty-grey, cloud-covered sky and again tried to answer the questions. I couldn’t, the same way I couldn’t back then when, after my mother’s passing, each moment became a link on a chain gang of grief. I couldn’t find the energy to fish. Soon my apartment seemed like a dungeon. Then the walls became a vise and started closing in. Afraid I was losing my mind, I knew I had to escape. I wondered, but to where? A voice told me to take my fly rod and reel. I didn’t want to listen, at first, but then I took my fly rod out of its case. It seemed to shine like gold. I held the rod handle. The cork felt like silk. It comforted me. I went to my closet, put on my fly-fishing vest, and looked in the mirror. Yes, I was once an angler. Yes, once I loved being in the outdoors, especially in a gurgling river or a gently crashing surf.