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.
I took my fly fishing rod and reel, trudged to the old pier, and again I became an angler. Surprisingly, my grief numbed, or maybe even lifted. The next day I again went to the pier; and before long fishing was all I really cared about.
Finally, slowly, my other interests—football, music, history—returned, but none rivaled fishing on the pier, even if I had on the wrong fly.
I looked down from the sky, toward the murky water, and wondered if I should change flies. Soon I decided that, in the scheme of things—with nature’s vast beauty embracing me, soothing me in a way that my mother never did—the question of what fly I should have on seemed terribly small. I’ll stay with the White Deceiver. Just remember that, just before my back cast unrolls, I should shoot line and break my wrist and drift my fly rod down.
I cast. My forward loop tightened and streaked like an arrow. My fly turned over and landed about90 feet away. I smiled. Above the middle of the river a flock of seagulls circled. Their sharp chirps somehow sounded amplified by the peaceful vision of the orange sun, setting but still beaming down onto the gently flowing river and shattering into hundreds of bobbing and reflecting diamonds.
The seagulls didn’t dive. Bait fish probably weren’t around, so neither were the striped bass.
I wasn’t discouraged. So for the next half hour, as the sky ripened, like fruit, into dark pink, I cast and retrieved again and again, afraid only that the sun would soon sink behind the far bank and roll up the long, flickering path that seemed to end at my pier.
Slow down. Don’t worry about the sun going down. It will be here tomorrow, and so will I. And don’t worry about winter. Before long it will retreat and the bare trees will again bloom with life, and then maybe the stripers will return to the pier, but if they don’t, will it really matter?
No, because out here nothing is broken, except fixable casts.