The human spirit longs for connection to other beings, to our physical environment, and in no small way to a “Greater Something”. Throughout my angling life as a boy, a father, and as a human being, I thought I sought only a connection to fish. Now, I see that I was also angling for things much more elusive, and infinitely more rewarding.
The White River, central Vermont, the Spring of 1974. “Uncle Gus”, a long-time friend of my late Father’s had picked up my eight year-old self, my sleeping bag, and my hopes for my first weekend of fishing ever; Vermont’s Trout-Opener. A rusty iron trestle bridge at the end of a logging road spanned the cold, clear waters of the White River as She ran over a bed of marble and shale. A dozen vehicles crowded into the small parking areas. The shoreline was dotted with men, women, and children, rods in hand and lines in the water, seeking a connection. Uncle Gus showed me how to use the Zebco 202 spin-casting reel; “Robby, ya jess push in this budd’n, give’t a swing, an’ leddit go. Yah-sir-ree! Jezz like dat!” I remember looking down from the gravelly bridge-deck into the water; glimpsing, pondering, and longing to understand the world below the surface…a part of my world, but yet apart from my world. I watched the silhouettes of fish, large and small, lingering in eddies. I watched them harass one another. I watched anglers catch shiny trout and hold them high for all to see. I watched people connect with one another, and with The River. Under Uncle Gus’ tutelage, I landed two big suckers that afternoon on pink bubble-gum. We brought them back to Uncle Gus’ modest Cape Cod style home and Gus’ wife prepared our catch for dinner, giving my suckers the same reverence and praise as Uncle Gus’ trout. I remember feeling grateful that these people, seemingly childless themselves, had welcomed me and appeared to love me, in the absence of my Father. Connections.
More recent connections have transpired at The Upper Iowa River, Lower Dam, in the Coon Creek Wildlife Management Area. As soon as the air is warm enough, and the water is low enough, my children and I love to visit Lower Dam. The dam and waterfall itself are gorgeous vistas of power and splendor, with thousands of gallons per second surging over the century-old concrete and limestone barriers. The riverbed below changes yearly, with new holes and banks being cut with each Spring’s rush from Winneshiek County’s vast watershed. Sometimes we fish together, my eldest child casting and retrieving Little Cleo spoons, hoping for a strike from an aggressive northern pike, walleye, white bass, or smallmouth bass while my younger children soak minnows or nightcrawlers, thrilled to connect with other species such as redhorse sucker, channel catfish, mooneye, and rainbow or brook trout. Other times, we explore the beaches and shorelines, eyes cast down, searching for “cool rocks”, mussel shells, and quite often, fossils. We collect pockets full of mineral treasures. We sit together on broad rocks warmed by the afternoon sun, eating granola bars and apples. We comment on the wildlife we see; bald eagles, great blue herons, crows, kestrels, deer, frogs, snakes, turkeys, and songbirds. No television, no computers, out of cell-phone range, and apart from material distractions…we connect. Together we connect with our environment; hands and feet in sand, nostrils full of river-scent, wind on our faces. Together we connect with other creatures; longing to understand the motives and movements of the fish, and hoping that we can become in sync with our prey. Together we connect with one another; sharing time, space, feelings, and ideas in the freedom and purity of the outdoors.
Finally, I go to Trout River on the eastern edge of Winneshiek County. Here I seek connection not to other humans, but to a Greater Something. This stretch of stream is stocked frequently from April to October, so there are many large and well-worn paths through the forest and underbrush. I follow them only as long as I have to, then I stem out onto tiny, narrow deer-trails. I am immediately humbled by my environment; stinging nettles are eager to annoy my exposed skin, and wild parsnip insidiously lies in wait to share its toxic oils with anything it touches. My progress is slow and careful. The undergrowth thickens as I approach the sound of running water. I must circumnavigate downed trees and tangles of vines. The sound grows greater, as do my hopes. At last I see a break, a vacancy in the tree tops. I move towards it and finally I am rewarded. Before me lies a small waterfall that drops into a pool no larger than a living room, but easily twelve feet deep. My approach has spooked the residents; a dozen or so large brook trout, and I kneel, giving them time to settle back into their stream of consciousness and forget about my footfalls. In the stillness, I look around. There are no signs of other anglers; tackle-packaging, line scraps, cigarette butts, or even tiny piles of nighcrawler dirt. Nothing. I listen. Above the sound of flowing water I hear songbirds, and the “chittle-scrittle-chatter” of squirrels. I hear a fish jump. I hear my own heartbeat. I feel the urgency to bait my line and plan my tactics…but I do not yield to it. Instead, I yield to the need for connection. I dig my fingers into the cool, soft earth. I feel the sun on my face. I diminish. My needs become smaller, as the forest looms larger. My self-importance lessens, as I feel myself a part of something I can’t begin to comprehend. I am connected to a Greater Something. I breathe.