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. 

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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. 

The last two months

The last two months have sped past without much time to reflect. In memory they exist as an incomplete collection of moments rather than a linear history. Here are some of them.

At the Head of the Lakes, one of my favorite places, the beautiful and remarkable woman with whom I am closer than I have ever been to anyone else agreeing to become my wife.

A perfect day with old friends roaming and fishing Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Surreal weather in early March bringing summer fish into the shallows of Lake Huron and new friends with insider information inviting me along to chase them; big-lake early-season fish coming easy.

Good company on the magic Au Sable river, in a 1920s Au Sable riverboat, casting self-tied flies to rising wild brown trout, who in some cases obliged me and ate.

Gaping at the unpolluted and moonless starry sky that night, all sounds fading but that of the river, soaking in the strong medicine.

Discovering that even without a guide or boat I can find rising trout, cast to them, and in some cases convince them to eat; and do so on the same water I haunted all winter seeking steelhead, but is very different in spring, and full of visible life.

Driving through Chicago and feeling content with how alien the city seemed.

Finding inspiration in the history and astonishing healing power of the Mayo Clinic–St. Mary’s Hospital, its staff, and architecture.

Trusting the heart of a loved one completely to strangers, at the same time literally and figuratively, and finding them in both cases not just capable, but in fact gifted.

Being surprised by the eager, wild Minnesota trout from the geologically unique Driftless Region, who came to hand easily and immediately, as if they knew I only had 45 minutes to fish and wanted to make a good impression.

Returning “home” to Michigan and realizing that those quotation marks are less necessary than they were last year.

Being introduced to a tract of country that is fascinating, beautiful and unique in terms of its fishing, history, and geology; a place that after visiting alone I find myself in a contemplative but slightly frightened state of mind, as if I have been watched, trespassing on some other time’s property, and got out just in time.

Startling at the spiteful, thrashing escape/release of first northern pike of the season and being left wet and grinning.

Feeling slightly liberated by catching beautiful trout on dry flies in a picturesque setting but deciding to not try and take any photos of them; laughing aloud alone in the woods at how much damn fun I’m having.

A huge brown exploding on dry fly while I was looking for a spot to put my foot; the leader instantly snapping back at me flyless, the trout keeping my Robert’s Yellow Drake, size 14, as face jewelry.

Fishing with friends instead of alone for the first time in a month; last summer’s river, running high and muddy, with trash and “Eat No Fish From This River” health advisory signs lining the banks, and bass slashing at hatching bugs.

Spotting a large bass who thinks he is a trout sipping mayflies (early Isonychia bicolors) 70 feet from my vantage point on the bank; somehow managing to place my big streamer in just the right spot to remind him that he is a meat-eater; watching him rise and look at my fly for an instant before inhaling it–only to have my knot fail and line go limp almost immediately.

Realizing later that the bass mentioned above was the most rewarding fish of the night, even though I landed several others who ate unseen from deep water.

I have never caught a steelhead.

I have never caught a steelhead.

I have tried to find them in Lake Superior’s North Shore tributaries. There, they are crowded out by stocked Kamloops rainbows and I was crowded out by territorial bait fishermen.

But there is something about steelhead. Something beyond their size and power and beauty that draws fly fishermen to them like few other species. It’s a tradition born in the green rivers of the Pacific Northwest and brought to the tributaries of the Great Lakes along with the fish themselves.

So I have begun trying again, now in Michigan, so far still without success. But not catching steelhead is more rewarding here — you can fish Lake Michigan and Lake Huron tributaries in the winter, when Lake Superior’s are frozen solid right to the bedrock. In the winter in Michigan you can catch brown trout incidentally and have the snowy river to yourself.

In the past weeks I have become an adept builder of egg flies and flashy streamers. I can tie my leaders with almost no feeling in my fingers. I have learned the value of a hot cup of coffee from a thermos at lunchtime. I have become a roll caster and stack mender, though my attempts at line control are often crude and unpleasant to watch.  My partner and instructor — a wizard of this particular river — divines fish out of pocket water with ease and skill, after letting me try each likely spot first.

The steelhead are not forgiving of an imperfect drift. It’s strange that they will eat something that is made of sparkly plastic and feathers, of a shape and color nowhere occurring naturally on this earth, but if it does not drift perfectly they will refuse even the most perfect stonefly imitation.

Fortunately, some will eat a fly on a perfect drift even after I’ve swum one past their face nauseatingly. This means that my partner might hook it and I will get to help land it — get to lift from the water a round, healthy fish, outlandishly large for the size of the river in which it is a transient: a giant annual intruder. It seems to be changing color from silver to dark rainbow before your eyes, as it acclimates from its blue great lake environs to the confined and dark holes the river offers. We keep it from the water just long enough for a picture before it angrily shoulders its way back to the dark cut bank.

So he catches some, and we kill none, though I would not hesitate to eat a hatchery-born fish.  I keep trying, missing strikes and feeling for a moment one heavy fish shaking its head somewhere on the end of my line in a black-green hole.

As the season turns, the snow melts, and the waters and temperatures rise. Fresh, aggressive fish enter the river from the lake in large numbers, and the fishing improves drastically. But I suspect it will be at the price of the solitude and beauty the winter woods have enamored me with. Soon I will be elbowing for space among a host of hungry bait fishermen, with their fillet knives ready to kill and bleed the bright, wild fish onto the muddy bank. My chances of success will be much higher in the coming months, but I find myself dreading the spring.

It occurs to me that what I fear is not the company or even the killing of fish but instead the diminishing of the fish and the river itself as objects of my pursuit. Their mystique fades as they become a commodity managed by the state for angler consumption rather than a wild animal to be understood. I fear the woods will change from quiet solitude to trampled trails littered with trash and fish gore.

It feels backwards, but for the first time in my life, I’m wishing winter would remain a bit longer, so I can keep fishing.

Ice and Fire

We paddled a black river in steely woods under a grey sky, where the only liquid water was moving water. Any that paused for a moment on our rod guides, gloves, and waders lost its last bit of entropy immediately and we crackled like broken light bulbs with each movement.

I’ve heard it called “cast and blast,” but it doesn’t really fit here. The river is too small for swinging flies, so we were rolling indicators. Hardly casting. Our deer rifle’s technology was obsolete in the 1860s and we spent most of the day floating through private property, so there wasn’t much chance of any blasting.

The only action we were to have was one brief hookup to a wide, black-backed steelhead right away in the morning and later, on a landlocked sliver of state forest, a brief glimpse of the backside of a deer as he deposited some impressive tracks in the snow. There were the several bonus brown trout — a surprise of gold from that leaden water, released quickly as if they, too, would freeze solid in a moment.

We left a handful of flies in underwater logjams and a single .54 caliber roundball in a muddy bank and made the takeout just before it was too dark to see it.

Part III

The yellow of gas lights and a dusting of snow paint an image of home not much changed in almost a century. The atmosphere inside: warmth, laughter, food, drink, and excitement for the next day’s hunt probably not much changed in millenia.