Night School

After a month and a half of intense and diverse fly fishing it feels like a lifetime ago that I was sitting at my tying bench anxiously waiting for the rivers to open. But that doesn’t mean the anxiety is gone. Michigan Junes are so full of important hatches and active fish that I am terrified I’ll miss a critical week or evening or hatch or rise or fish because I managed my time wrong. I feel actual physical anxiety over this for the first part of the month.

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Living in the North means waiting for spring. The winter has its charm, with its silent woods and clean whiteness; but at some point it reaches its annual apogee and begins to decline, through thaws and melts and mud and gasping blizzards. We notice this turn with our noses. Frozen air does not carry scent well and it’s the first smell of earth and water that recalls our ancient memory of spring. At that point we stop enduring winter and begin waiting for spring.

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On really good writing

“…when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
Holden Caulfield

I’m not sure a phone call is always appropriate, but I understand what he’s saying. We all crave just a few more words from Maclean and Hemingway, yet we know that in truth it’s the unanswered questions in their stories that leave room for us: missing sequences in a DNA helix, for us to splice in just enough of ourselves to allow the story to really mean something.

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The night is dark and full of terrors.

Especially for Hexagenia limbata in northern lower Michigan.

These American mayflies spend most of their two-year life span burrowed in underwater muck banks, but near the end, they are compelled by hot June weather to swim to the river’s surface, shed their nymphal shell in the surface film, and ride the current as their cellophane wings dry. They are cumbersome, nearly two inches long, and don’t fly well, so they evolved to make this transition at night, when they are less visible to fish and other predators. For thousands of years, this emergence was the ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner

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Last week, mobile phone cameras and social media made it possible for me to watch the real-time inundation of my hometown, Duluth, Minnesota, by a 500-year rainstorm. Up to ten inches of rain fell on a region with full water tables. Roads throughout the area are washed out, bridges damaged or gone, sidewalks buckled, and low-lying neighborhoods are full of mud and water. Tons and tons of clay sediment stain Lake Superior orange — visible via satellite. Familiar places are underwater, on Weather Channel highlight clips.

I expect home will feel different when I visit next week. Physically, the damage will be there, people will be talking about it, and I will feel like I’ve missed something significant, something that people who live in northern Minnesota should not have missed.  

But I don’t live in northern Minnesota any more. And each time I return, minor changes stand out in sharp relief from the people and places I used to know.  These changes are gradual — it takes leaving a place for a time, and returning, to see them.

Flyfishers abhor change. We obsess over preservation and restoration. Mainly of rivers, the goal being the protection of the fish and fishing for ourselves and future generations, but also of tradition, sport, legend, genetics, and heritage. 

One of the reasons we love rivers is because they seem constant.  The current is always there, with its unending sound. It can literally drown out all distractions, and along with the rhythms and aesthetics of flycasting, a river can completely enthrall us as a place of peace and beauty. Add in willing fish, and highly addictive moments of perfection begin to occur. Before long, we need our river. 

But the truth is that a river is the essence of change. It is never the same two days or two years or two moments in a row. Banks erode, trees fall, sand shifts. Water rises and drops. The very idea of a river is difficult — is it the streambed? Or the water? The streambed is just earth. Stones and mud. The water is transient: on its way seaward and only just passing. It’s never the same water, even though we think of it in those terms.  

And so goes Duluth, or any other home town. The people and places have always changed and continued to change by the moment. It’s true that when I leaned off the clutch in 2009 and headed for Michigan that I would never return to the same home; but that had been true my entire life, every time I left for the weekend or for the afternoon. 

 *     *     *

The Lester River is a small swamp-born Lake Superior tributary that flows past the front yard of my childhood home. It was and is my Curtis Creek. It has never held a lot of trout, as it enjoys little or no cooling groundwater, but it has for the last century or so supported a small wild population of brook trout, supported by occasional DNR stocking. Most of my childhood summers were spent chasing these fish. They taught me about patience, determination, reward, and mosquitoes. 

I’ve watched the Lester evolve over the years. The trend seems to have been toward warmer water and mucky weed growth, and therefore away from ideal brook trout habitat. When I fished it last summer, I caught one twelve-inch painted brookie and one twelve-inch wolfish northern pike.  He could have been an explorer, down from one of the upstream lakes, or he could be a harbinger of something more significant.  

But last week somewhere around ten inches of rain fell on the small but already-full Lester River watershed, and the river went over its banks in a violent way.  The bridge on our driveway remains, but had water running around it and up to its iron I-beam foundation. Two grey telephone poles have spanned the rapids next to the bridge since before its construction. Perfect for sitting and watching the water pass underneath and trout rise in the pool below. Those poles are now somewhere downstream. 

They say it’s a 500-year storm. That could (in a stretch) be taken to mean that no white man has ever seen the Lester River with this much water in it.  I have no idea what it means for the trout. I’m hoping that the muck and weeds will wash out, and exposed gravel and boulders and newly-fallen trees will provide fresh habitat for the brook trout that remain.  I’m hoping that runoff from washed-out roads and new construction upstream doesn’t choke it with clay, sand, and sediment. Either way, it will be a new river. 

Then again, it’s a new river every day. All that changes is how new.