Casting by Fish Fischer


Whish, whish, whish, whish. My fly line whistled quietly through the air before landing in an L-shape on the surface of the water. As it floated past me, I flipped more neon yellow line out upstream and followed the L-shape it drew on the water with my torso, eyes focused intently on the end of the line, aching to see signs of a fish. Once the L straightened out and my line was fully extended downstream, I began stripping in line, pulling it with my left hand, inches at a time. Strip, strip, pause. Strip, strip strip, pause. One long, deliberate strip before I let my fly drift downstream again.


After a dozen casts, it became clear that the fish were not interested in the fly. I reeled in my line, placed the rod handle into my armpit with the rod tip facing away from me, and awkwardly grabbed the end of my line as it fluttered mockingly out of reach. I clipped the fly off my line with my nippers and secured it in the foam patch on my vest.


Maybe they’re feeding on the bottom. I selected my box of nymphs — imitations of newly-hatched flies that live on the bottom of a river — and gingerly opened it, wary of any movement that might inadvertently send the box downstream and out of reach. Insects of all shapes, sizes, colors, and weights greeted me, crying out: ‘Pick me! I’ll catch you a fish!’


Puffing air out of my cheeks, I debated the pros and cons of each fly. The Copper John is a weighted nymph that shines vibrantly in the water due to the copper wire around its body. That might catch a fish’s eye. Or, there is the Pheasant Tail Nymph, an all-purpose fly imitation that mimics many insects. That might increase my chances of a fish mistaking it for food. I instantly made a decision, selecting the Pheasant Tail nymph, and shut my box with a click. Then, to ensure I would catch a fish’s attention, I also chose a Stimulator.


Stimulators are dry flies that imitate stoneflies, grasshoppers, and large mayflies, all of which are considered to be delectable snacks for fish. About 2 inches in length and brightly colored, this fly is meant to be an attention-grabber. Pheasant Tail nymphs imitate all immature insects living close to the bottom of the river. They typically have a silver or gold bead with a brown abdomen, shimmery green thorax, and a wing-case. They can be as small as ⅜ to ¼ inches long (which is tiny).


Maybe this will work. A quick toss of my rod behind me sent the fly line arching gracefully through the air before smoothly reversing direction and rushing forward. For a moment I lost myself, entranced by the grace of the dancing line. Willing myself to focus, I tended it with added precision, wary of the Stimulator being pulled underwater by the fly-line, exposing the flies as metal hooks and not buzzing, active insects.


I cast and cast again. Clouds passed overhead and the river dulled. Then sun returned and it glittered. The cloud pattern repeated, as I cast and cast. Yet despite the change in setup and technique, the fish still had no interest.


With a huff, I retrieved my line and took a moment to reflect while changing my fly once again. The tranquility of standing in a river with tree branches rustling in the background reminded me I wasn’t just here to catch fish. I often find I’m most at ease when I am standing alone in a river. A river doesn’t care about money or deadlines or appearances; it simply flows through a channel. I’m just an obstacle for the current to navigate around. Reassured by this thought, not catching fish didn’t seem as big of a concern anymore. I tucked my fly box in a vest pocket and turned my body upstream to cast.


Movement in the corner of my eye prompted me to look up, and I froze.


My body tensed. Water flowed around my legs, but it felt as though time had ceased to exist. I disregarded my rod sliding out of my armpit and into the river and the line tangling around my wading staff. My focus was on limiting all movement, fading into the background and melding into the landscape while I observed the scene unfolding upstream.


Sunlight shone through the tree canopy, bouncing and scattering in a random pattern, casting golden and green patches of light on the river. A breeze whooshed and weaved around the tree trunks along the riverbanks. Gentle shadows blanketed the landscape, their outlines shaped by wispy clouds. Not to be outdone, the river bottom radiated a defiant citrine-yellow. Uprooted trees and boulders could not prevent the flow of slow-moving water downstream, the glassy surface blemished only by delicate bubbles.


Tucked behind a fallen tree and against the riverbank, a great blue heron stood on its spindly legs and casually preened its feathers. Each fibre of muscle in my body screamed at me to move, but I remained frozen, captivated by its elegance. Its orange eye contrasted with the blue-grey feathers of its wings, glinting spectacularly in the sunlight. Upright and dignified, the heron resembled the still figure of a human posing for a portrait. I was about to resume fishing but sensed another movement in my periphery, causing me to turn my head slowly.


A weasel stood on its hind legs on a fallen log, watching and unconcerned. It was close enough that I could make out its beady eyes and front paws. Even though the weasel was only a foot tall and covered in dark brown fur, its behavior seemed oddly human. I couldn’t help but think of a birder scanning the terrain with binoculars, taking in the sights and sounds of nature. Neither the heron nor the weasel appeared to notice my presence. I wondered if they were bothered by the intruder in their habitat. As if to answer my question, behind the weasel, an otter scampered down the river bank, dove into the water, and swam without concern across the river.


The animals moved with ease and familiarity, their actions raw and unfiltered — each spot they occupied was of safety and comfort, one that had been established some time ago. Only in complete solitude could I have experienced this moment.


I exhaled silently to avoid infringing on the creatures’ serenity, hoping for the moment to continue. But the spell the river had cast on us, bringing all four of us together to that place at that moment, finally broke. The weasel dropped to all four legs and ambled off the log. Shortly after, the heron finished preening its feathers and took off downstream. A very human emotion—longing—washed over me. Longing to observe the animals again, to immerse myself in the magic of permitted intrusion. But there was no turning back the clock.


With a shaky breath, I began casting again, but without my previous determination. My arms no longer held their usual strength and felt oddly buoyant while holding my rod. Strangely, the river bottom felt unsteady, though it was solid moments ago. Even my accuracy was off — the fly continued to land a foot or two away from my intended target. Conceding I was in no state to fish, I packed up my gear and waded toward the bank.


I was the only human invited into the wild realm. I felt cast out of myself, my species, my usual modes of awareness. Rather than controlling the river, I was one of many species sharing its resources. Perhaps my stillness, my solitude or my empathy was why they were not afraid of me. Walking back to the car, my mind was distant, and my soul wavered, for still I was hypnotized by the lingering allure of otherworldly witness.




Fish Fischer is  a fly-fisher, scholar, and lover of our natural world, from Massachusetts, who is seeking to join the fight against climate change by inspiring love for Nature. Find out more.


The photograph at the head of this essay is of the Swift River, Massachusetts, by QFamily, taken in 2007, and is used under license.

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