Philip finds that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
It was the sort of month we can all do without. A sick child, finding a big ding in my parked car (and no note!), new responsibilities at a local club; and all this corresponding with a peak in my regular workload. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed to go fishing.
Most of my childhood memories – or at least the vivid ones – involve fishing. As I wrote in Back to the Beginning, there were plenty of good trout streams not far from our family home. The closest was the Delatite River. Several miles up the valley from our house, a logging road followed the infant Delatite above Mirimbah, crossing the stream every few hundred metres via basic log bridges. With me being a first grader, it was the ideal location for father/ (young) son fishing. Dad would sit me on one the bridges with my bait rod and a jar of worms. He would then disappear back down the road, jump in at the bridge below, and spin or flyfish back up to me.
It was the perfect system: there were at least ten bridges, so we never came close to running out of new water. I got to spend an enthralling, independent half hour or so fishing at each bridge, while Dad had the same amount of time to focus on the river alone.
I can’t remember the names of any of my school teachers from back then, and precious few of my classmates. But I can effortlessly recall every detail of those upper Delatite sessions – the smell of the mossy logs, tree-ferns and tea-tree draped over the river banks, the clear water tumbling over and around the smooth, dark bedrock and boulders, and of course a bird’s-eye view of the trout. They would remain hidden at first, but as my small form, perched on the bridge above, became a part of the landscape, I could watch their shimmering shapes dart out to investigate my bait. It may just be an angler’s mind playing tricks, but I always seemed to have caught a trout (usually a rainbow) by the time Dad arrived and it was time to move to the next bridge.
What I remember nearly as well as the experience of being on the river, was how I felt when I wasn’t there. Away from the water, a constant longing to be fishing was always present; sometimes lingering quietly in the background of my young life; sometimes an almost desperate need.
This primal urge to go fishing (and later, specifically flyfishing) persisted through my teens and into adulthood. It wasn’t as if fishing was just a pleasant way to spend a few hours, or simply a distraction from the everyday. It was a fundamental part of my life. This was sometimes hard to explain to non-fishing friends, girlfriends and acquaintances. Occasionally, I found myself wondering if such an obsession with fishing was actually healthy. Fortunately, I had plenty of fishing friends who felt the same way and they seemed normal enough, so the introspection never lasted long.
Flyfishing made even more sense when I quit my day job, swapping it for a career guiding and writing about flyfishing. Then an interesting thing happened. Now that I was out flyfishing more often than not, the desperation subsided. I liked that, even revelled in it. My childhood self, sitting on one of those bridges on the upper Delatite, would have smiled. I felt like I had won.
But here’s the twist. Lately, with flyfishing so ever-present, the thought had begun creeping in that maybe it had lost something. Compared to some of the other things going on in my life, it seemed less important, maybe even a bit trivial.
Then, after about my longest break between trips in 20 years, I had the chance to spend a day or so on some mountain streams. To be perfectly honest, I headed off more out of habit than with any wild enthusiasm. When I got to the pull-off near the river, I parked the car, rigged up and went downstream on an old track well back from the water. It felt good to be outside on a sunny late spring day, but I lacked urgency. I got to the river and began fishing by rote: generalist dry with nymph, fishing the likely lies with ingrained care; though perhaps not with the expected sense of anticipation.
At the time I wasn’t engaged in self-analysis, so I can’t tell you quite when the shift occurred. Maybe it was as soon as a nice brown rose up in the very first shade-dappled run and casually sucked in the Stimulator. If not, it had certainly happened by the time I missed a take minutes later. My world contracted to the next bit of water, where a fish might be, and what my fly was doing. I was still aware of the postcard surroundings and the sense of wellbeing that comes from simply being outdoors and active, but all that was secondary – I was hunting trout, and all my focus was on the next one eating my fly.
It was later in the day and many trout afterwards that I broke from the trance and it dawned on me. Flyfishing means as much to me now as when Dad sat me on a Delatite log bridge all those years ago. It’s as quietly joyous, exciting and fulfilling as it ever was, and I couldn’t lose it if I tried.