Up in the wilds of the American Northwest, there is a quiet lake called Baum. It is brimmed with limber reeds, creaky trees, and a few wrinkled humans in lawn chairs with fishing poles. The backdrop is stacked full of muted grasses, golden hills, and puffs of evergreen which cut through the powder blue of an early morning sky, displaying themselves on the collected water, sparkling for attention.
My father and I were exploring the edge when we were drawn to the low rumblings of a short, rocky waterfall. We walked to the middle of a bridge that ran right across the top. Below, and a little way down the shoreline, the sight of a jostling fly fisherman snatched our gaze. Something was splashing far off in the water.
“Oh, look! I think he’s got one!” my Father exclaimed in a low voice. “Wanna watch?”
This angler appeared to belong to the lake. Dark waders melded straight into the swampy shore. Clear water danced around his knees and dampened the net that hung at his side. Two hands were set skillfully on rod and reel and we had stepped into a story already unfolding. Magic had caught us, it seemed, and we were hooked.
Of course, I wanted to watch! His pole bent lower and lower as the bout began. Even though we were blind to the catch, the fold of the rod and the lean of the angler told us enough–we were in for a good show.
His hands switched intermittently between reeling and resting, totally dependent on the moves of his opponent. Weight and stretch can cause the line to snap by pulling the fish in too quickly. Provide too much slack, however, and the fish may sense its opportunity and take off in a flash, potentially breaking the line or falling off the hook as it gains momentum. The nuance of any angler is to keep the appropriate tension in order to successfully bring the fish to shore. Caving to reckless enthusiasm would mean losing the prize.
Patiently, the angler waited and watched his line move back and forth, out and in. Only when the fish swam towards him and he felt the tension in the line lessen, did he reel. Oh boy! Did he reel! Bent over the pole, he vigorously wound up the line before the wrestling resumed. Then he’d straightened up to stillness, his gaze intent upon the water, hand poised to go. Patience, precision, and rest wafted upward on the wind, nourishing the air as it settled around us. Occasionally the struggle came close to the surface and we gawked at the flash of fin or glinting tail. Sightings popped up, closer and more frequent, as the minutes slid past. The beast began to grow sluggish in its resistance. It was time.
The angler gripped his net and crept down, deeper into the water. All was still. Quiet. Focused. Slowly, he raised the pole to further shorten the distance between net and catch, then waited.
The only perceivable movements were meandering ripples a foot or two in front of the angler’s legs and the rise and fall of our breath. His net was down in the water, waiting for the moment the fish would swim towards it. There it went! With one little scoop upward, the fight ceased. We caught only a small glimpse as it slipped into captivity. My, was it a beauty–a rainbow trout the span of his arm! Definitely a keeper, a trophy, or some real good eatin’! We basked in his triumph and waited for celebration, measurements, pictures, and ogling as he put it on a stringer.
Instead, he held the brim of the net on the surface of the water and allowed the fish to stay submerged and breathing. The angler stood straight and inhaled before bending back over and extracting the hook. Regarding it for a small moment, he ran his hand along its glittering side. He tilted his head in an unexpectedly tender manner, given the battle that had just ensued. His countenance radiated almost fatherly respect and awe. The creature lay strong and still, having fought and lost.
But loss would not be the final word.
With the pole tucked beneath one arm, he used the other to gently transfer the noble challenger from fishnet to freedom. He cradled it there in the open water while its wits returned. Just a few moments later, it shot off, back home, back to the deep, as the angler stood and watched it go. He was not baited by the temptation to interrupt the moment with haughty triumph but fully engaged, immersed in the elements – creation and it’s mysteries a little more known.
Suddenly, I heard a sharp noise to my left. My Father was clapping. An appropriate response to this stunning, albeit unintentional, performance. I joined him and added a little whoop and holler. The angler lifted his eyes from the water and slowly twisted towards the commotion. I think I saw the far off corners of his mouth turn just slightly upward, and he gave us the smallest bow.
He then turned back to his waters and we, back to our trail. We left him there to find more magic as we continued on to do the same. Strolling back to the trailhead, we finished the trip with no lessons or souvenirs, no ticket stubs or photos. Rather, we were filled with a grateful wonder that welled up and spilled over, tumbling into pools in which others could play. Perhaps a little like the water that spilled over rocks to be gathered and shared in Baum Lake.