13 summers ago, in my late 20s, I learned to fly fish here, and it was like finding a new religion. I watched smallmouth ascend from murky depths to inhale No. 8 bass poppers, tear off 30 yards of line while tugging an 85-pound canoe through weed beds and rocket from the water like marlins, showing white bellies gone fat on perch. The idea of warfare with the natural world had never occurred to me. But here we were, two species locked in a primal symbiotic battle, woven together in an explosion of flesh and bone and state-of-the-art manufacturing. Those early days bled into years, a medley of surly bass and Old Milwaukee and getting devoured by black flies. All of the biggest freshwater fish of my life have come here on a nine-foot, five-weight rod: four-and-five-pound smallmouth hauled from their shoreline beds in June, netted and released back into the lake. What’s crazy is nobody else fishes here — not for bass. You’ll see an occasional trotline rigged for lake trout. Otherwise, it’s all loons and owls, minks and moose. Living in New York, the lake has been my portal to psychic renewal, my Stargate wormhole to a saner, quieter dimension.
It didn’t come easy. As a boy in Michigan I bait fished for perch and salmon off the pier in South Haven, catching squat. The whole enterprise baffled me. A permanent headache is all it seemed, and for what? Eventually I gave up on fishing. After I got an M.F.A. in creating writing — two years and $50,000 and all hope of future employment flushed down the sacrificial crapper of self-indulgence. I decided I needed a hobby.
As it turned out, I was also, constitutionally speaking, poorly established for fly casting.
Financially speaking, I was poorly established for fly fishing. Before I ever set foot in the water, I dropped $500 on a rod, reel, waders and vest at the Orvis store in Manhattan. Fly fishing, I already sensed, occupied the elitist margins of sports — like skiing in Gstaad, yachting in Monaco, and Duke basketball — and was disproportionately populated by robber barons who brewed their lattes in the blood of Central American children and thought nothing of blowing $3,000 on Tom Morgan trout rods and mounting endangered Burmeister’s porpoises in gilded trophy rooms. But what’s another $500, I figured, when you’re 50,000 clams in the hole?
As it turned out, I was also, constitutionally speaking, poorly established for fly casting. I read the manuals, studied the instructional DVDs, practiced qigong. A lot of good it did. I told myself again and again to keep my casting arm rigid, to wait a beat on my back cast, to control the line speed with my left hand while managing the rod with my right, but it didn’t compute. My cast decelerated when it needed gas, loped and dipped and furrowed where it required crispness and pace, and died in a hideous, noose-like spindle. I worked up some Tourette’s-like tirades about Orvis fly rods and bemoaned my coddled, numbing cubicle life while salting my ego with reminders of how much this was costing me.
Over time, I suppose you could say I improved. But not much. A friend who fly fished offered encouragement, reality checks and Nietzschean pearls such as: “You just got an M.F.A. Time to unplug your head from your ass.” He had a point.
That June, months of failure were field-tested in Vermont. The first two days, nothing happened. I paddled a decrepit canoe and fished and fished. My cast fell apart. A bass-shaped hole formed in my heart. The lake, blue-black and riffled, became an arena of shame as I lobbed bass poppers with devastating futility. They languished out on the bruised water, reminiscent of the bobbers that had stalked me through my childhood. I contemplated my fly rod, its impersonal authority and ruthless inertia. Depending on your outlook, these things provided either the consolations or indictments of your day. In few realms was success so close yet so out of reach. A single moment could shift your entire emotive transmission from grief to joy. And everything boiled down to this wobbly contraption that defied my every attempt to control it.
By day three, I was ready to pack it in. Narcotizing my disappointment with Old Milwaukee, I suddenly noticed how sore my ass was, how numb my fingers were, how monstrously bad I had to piss. I’d made a huge mistake. I had no business out here. I wasn’t a fisherman. I belonged to namby-pamby New York and the feeble urban masses, compulsively checking my email and guzzling Venti lattes in a $400 ergo-aerated chair, cursing my dismal future.
And then everything changed.
As the sun slipped into the hills, I cast a yellow popper towards a cedar hanging over the water. For a moment it sat there, barely visible in the gloom. I gave it a flip, let my mind wander. I had quit paying attention, so resigned I was to catching nothing, that when a fish finally struck, it took a beat or two before I realized what had happened. In a shiver, the popper was gone and an incandescent groove notched onto the surface where it had been.
It was a small thing. But it was a miracle it ever happened.
My heart exploded out of my chest and sailed into the trees. I reared back to set the hook, the water trembling where my line jabbed into it. The fish, suddenly possessed, broke for the shallows, ripping line from my reel and bowing my rod tip so comically I was afraid it would snap. The fish wheeled and rushed back towards the canoe, coming head-on like Jaws. As I madly stripped line, it spun and ran into the weeds, little waves rushing along the bow of the canoe. Every move the fish made shuddered through the rod to my hands and up my arms. Back again it charged, torpedo-like. My elbows wobbled and a hammer thrummed in my head. The fish kicked to the surface and hung there for a heartbeat: a golden cylindrical burrito of arbitrary natural perfection. Finally it tuckered out. I reeled it in, snagged its lower lip, hauled it aboard. My hands shook as I unhooked it. A 14-inch smallmouth, perhaps two pounds, with eyes speckled red and black and a copper band like stardust along its sides. The world felt utterly fresh. Loons called from the far shore as if to congratulate me.
After releasing the fish, I cracked an Old Milwaukee, the first I’d earned all day. The whole thing had lasted maybe 45 seconds.
I caught 11 more smallmouth that week, a few upwards of four pounds, and hooked several more. My casting technique, though deplorable, started to click. Calluses formed on my palms. My arms throbbed in new places. I managed to put my fussy, claustrophobic life in New York behind me and, for the first time in years, began to relax.
I looked anew at my fly rod. Such a flimsy thing, a fickle nine feet and three ounces of carbon-graphite composite, tapered to a fraction of an inch at the tip. It seemed a puny conduit between man and beast, laughably insubstantial. But what a conduit it was. Being tethered to a fish so you felt it tremble in your heart, drawing it close until it stared at you, glassy-eyed and gasping, landing and releasing it, watching it swim off and disappear without a trace. It was a small thing. But it was a miracle it ever happened.