With a great deal of anticipation I loaded my fly rod into the back of our station wagon and drove to a familiar steep valley where a small spring creek meanders through farm land. It was a hot September afternoon—the season of the trico hatch—and my friends had been torturing me with stories of their success on the local streams. The sky was washed-out, almost the same hue as the bleached-denim shirt I wore. It seemed the color had drained from the sky to the hills. The leaves of the trees were dark green and the edges between field and hill glowed with the bright yellow of Goldenrod. There is a hole on the stream that has yielded some nice brown trout in the past. My fishing partner, Dave, has pulled two trout over twenty inches out of it. “David thinks like a fish!” my wife likes to say. I think she’s right.
After parking next to an old silo I walked expectantly toward the hole. Would I catch a monster today? The stream tumbles into the pool through a narrow opening formed by two rocks and flows along an undercut bank on the left. Earlier in the season the stream had been easy to walk, but now the ragweed and alder saplings had crowded right up to the edge and at some points even into the stream. The right side is shallow and usually muddy, but here the vegetation had taken over as well, the water plants had pushed their way into the shallow and displaced what little water had been there. The tail of the pool just twenty feet downstream narrows and flows into a shallow riffle. I knew that often it was under the left-side bank that the big browns would hide; there they were safe from the blue heron that knew this stream even better than Dave and could fish it a little more often. Some of the smaller trout would lie in the middle of the pool, protected from the heron by the depth of the water.
The water naturally flows along the undercut and then out into the middle before flowing back to the tail. Casting a nymph between the two rocks at the head of the pool and letting it dead drift down along the undercut bank and into the middle had proven productive before. If I didn’t hook up with one of the lunkers hiding along the bank, I always had the chance of picking up a smaller trout at the end of the cast. I hoped the same drift might work for a dry.
I waded across the riffle and slid quietly into the tail of the pool. I stood motionless, quietly tying on a small parachute Trico even though there were no Tricos in sight. I was hoping that some of the trout might remember the recent hatches and latch onto my fly out of habit.
As I was getting ready to cast I realized that a ten-inch brook trout had taken up a feeding position less than a yard from my feet. I watched him as he glided back and forth obviously feeding on something close to the surface, but whatever they were, they were too small for me to see. “My first victim!” I thought, but my cast sent him dashing to the deep.
I waited patiently, quite still. Even though there was a slight breeze I could feel drops of sweat run down my neck under my collar and down the middle of my back. Still I waited. Finally, I was rewarded with the sight of the brookie returning to his feeding station. This time I barely moved my rod, but was still able to land the fly a few feet in front of the trout’s nose. He rose to the surface, interested, and allowed the water to carry him back a foot or so while he studied the fly. He decided that he wasn’t interested. With a shake of his head and a slight flip of his tail he resumed his original position. I tried that same cramped cast a dozen more times. The first three or four elicited ever-lessening responses and then he totally ignored my fly. I worked to make sure that the fly was floating drag free. I tied on a more realistic pattern…then a smaller one. The brookie—oblivious to my growing frustration—continued gliding effortlessly back and forth feeding on who knows what! I considered offering him a nymph or a midge pupa but doubted that I had anything small enough.
I hardly had more than the leader out of the end of my rod, and as I mused about what to do next, the fly floated down stream and came to a stop between my legs. I lifted the rod tip instinctively and the breeze from my back caught the fly and skittered it a few inches across the surface. Would this work?
I lifted the fly off the water and allowed the breeze to carry it up to the brook trout. He noticed it immediately, followed it for a few inches and with a burst of speed broke the surface and took the fly. I yelped, “I gotcha!” and immediately remembered that earlier I had heard the sounds of someone else approaching the stream. For a moment I was embarrassed—embarrassed that I could be delighted with such a small fish and worried that someone might look over the bank and see the size of my catch. But the tug on the end of my line brought my mind back to the trout I had just caught. He struggled but I brought him to the net quickly. I slipped the fly from his lip and studied him for a moment before allowing him to make his escape.
I knew that I was done for the day. I pushed the point of my fly into the cork rod handle, reeled in the extra line, and went home satisfied.
Since then I have often pondered that September afternoon. My obvious joy at catching a rather unimpressive fish made me wonder, “Why do I fish anyway?” Unlike some of my compatriots it wasn’t catching the biggest fish, or catching the most that brought delight. I hadn’t really used any special casting techniques. What I’d done was not much more than dapping. The fly I’d used had been a standard pattern. I had exercised some stealth, maybe, and a little ingenuity. Yet, somehow my dance with that ten-inch brook trout had satisfied my urge and desire completely. I’m sure that part of it was that I had outwitted a sly experienced creature in its own environment. But there was more. I had entered into the drama that is life on the stream and in some mysterious way I had connected. I had connected with that brook trout. I had connected with nature. And I had connected with something locked deep within me, some primal urge and purpose that is no longer needed in today’s mechanized culture of meetings, deadlines, and commercial motion. In some sense, I fish to find my “soul!”
I don’t mean “soul” in the sense of “the spiritual part of me that will last for eternity” but rather “the deepest essence of who God created me to be.” And, as I have pondered, I have become conscious of a real danger that lurks out there in the world of fly-fishing that threatens this pursuit of the soul. It is the danger of accepting someone else’s definition of “success” and thereby becoming caught: fishing to satisfy, impress or win the favor of someone else. Often times this isn’t even a real person but some imaginary judge that stands in the shadows of my mind always passing judgment. Always asking the question, “does it measure up?” And, of course, my catch rarely does measure up because the standard is what I see in the fishing magazines or on the walls of Gander Mountain and what I hear when my friends are telling “fish stories.” The essence of what I’m looking for when I go fishing can’t be quantified by “How big was it?” or “How many did you catch?” What I am seeking is much more mysterious, much harder to describe, much deeper, and in some sense much more “spiritual.”
I’ve recognized that this same “danger” threatens my relationship with God. If I let it, it will suck the very life out of my relationship with Him. My “dance” with God—this life that I live in an awareness of his presence and love—is deep and mystical, hard to describe, and spiritual. It is, in the most real sense, a quest to find my soul, a search for the deepest essence of who God created me to be. And yet, there is often present the temptation to try to quantify my experience and see if it measures up. There is that shadow judge always lurking at the edges of my mind. Now, the Bible tells us that we are to live our lives aware of God and aware that our actions (and even thoughts) will one day be judged. This is not what I am talking about. We ought to live our lives aware that God sees all that we do (and sees our heart as well). But the Bible talks about something else that is an insidious danger: living according to the standards of this world. Romans 12:2 says “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” And Paul takes great pains to let the Corinthian church know that he does not “live by the standards of this world (2 Corinthians 10:2).” The danger is that I might accept “worldly” definitions of what constitutes success in the Christian life.
When we think about a “successful” Christian life we often think of the authors whose books line the shelves of the Christian bookstore. Or we think of those whose spiritual gifts of prophecy or healing have brought them fame and a successful television show. If we are wise enough to reject these extreme examples we often are tripped up by comparing our “spiritual life” to others in our own church who have successful ministries or tell engrossing “fish stories” about how many people they have healed, delivered or converted. Sometimes we think of those who have read all the important books, or those who spend hours in quiet time. We don’t often think of the poor single mother who is trying desperately to live her life for God and hold her family together. We don’t often think of the middle-aged man whose wife left him and their children and who struggles with God daily seeking to hold fast to his faith. We don’t often think of the fifteen-year-old girl in a wheel chair who has trouble adding two and two but whose face lights up when she hears the name “Jesus.” And yet, from God’s perspective these might be the ones who are closest to finding Him! Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” A life with God is not about being able to add up all the successes. What I am seeking when I chase after God can’t be counted and measured and quantified. A life with God is about being engaged, seeking Him with all of our heart, struggling to know him, giving ourselves fully and honestly, and trusting with all our might. And when we live that kind of life—well, we might just find our soul!
© Rob Devens 2009 and 2016