He was a natural at reading water. Whether in a kayak, a whitewater raft or a fishing boat, he simply saw water differently than most. He was good, no doubt about it. When I was learning to row a raft down whitewater, I asked him for his guidance. He would sit in the back of the raft coaching me on waters and their currents. With his help, I too began to see the waters differently and read the river.
It wasn’t only the big waters he could read. He was incredible at looking at a section of a small stream and knowing where the wild trout would be holding. That was his gift. Although he didn’t know every Latin name of the aquatic insects found in streams or tie award-winning flies, he didn’t need to. He had an advantage — an inherent knowledge of how water pours over rocks and how currents work. He read the waters of small creeks of home simply better than anyone I’ve known, and could he ever catch fish.
We would often times meet at the creek to fish when the bugs were flying around in the still of the evening. Although we fished together throughout the year, summertime was when we flourished. We would take turns fishing the runs as we walked upstream. Countless times I would watch as he pulled a trout from an area of the creek that I would have sworn no fish would live. By reading the currents, he would cast his fly well upstream and know exactly how it would drift in the approach to the trout. We caught a lot of fish together over the years.
I recall the last fish I ever saw him catch very vividly and here are the words that match my memory: As the humid air was settling into the evening, and the fog was rising from the cold water of the creek, we waded upstream. I watched as he lifted his rod in a quick fluid motion and the drag of the reel let out a screech. The fish made a wake as it darted nose-down to the bottom and ran toward the deeper waters of the cut against the far bank.
“You’d better turn him before he breaks you off,” I said loudly so he could hear me over the rushing water.
The battle between angler and fish raged on in front of me and I decided to join in the efforts as I grabbed a net and walked downstream to an eddy suitable for landing the fish. As the trout slid head-first into the net, I looked at my friend and smiled.
Looking back now, it was much more than just fishing and searching for a 20-inch brown. Our visits on the creek became an important part of my life. It was there, listening to water rushing over rocks, where I heard his words the most clearly. And it is there I will always return to hear his words again.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”
— Norman Maclean,
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories