That Elusive Fish
My son and I snuck up on a large rainbow trout in the Bighorn River and watched it feed on nymphs in a predictable pattern. The trout held inside of a distinct point pushing the small side current into the main body of the river. We worked out the mechanics of getting a fly into the proper seam before the current pushed it out. Anything landed above the point would be pushed out, and anything landed below the point would only have a couple of seconds to sink to the depth of the feeding trout. It was a formidable cast requiring pin-point accuracy, perfect timing, and an exact amount of weight. My son fished first. I was jealous. I wanted to catch that large trout. On the outside, I encouraged him. On the inside, I secretly rooted for defeat, like after the fourth AYSO soccer playoffs game.
My son didn’t catch the fish, so I tried. I presented fly after fly. Nothing. We crouched in the fish’s blindside with water clear enough to watch the undiscerning trout go after every food item in the river except for my fly. Finally, I did what any respectable fly-fishing father would have done. I told my son, “good luck,” and then went to the cooler for a drink. My son continued to cast for it. He wouldn’t give up so easily.
There were much easier fish in the river for my son to catch, but they would have needed more satisfaction. He was determined. It’s in accomplishing hard things that we find the most pleasure. Sadly, pursuing hard things seems lost today, with our country losing a depth of character. We’re looking for the quick fixes, enslaved to borrowing for the illusion of success now instead of sacrificing for true freedom later. Then we act surprised when the illusion runs out, or worse, blame others for whatever we feel we deserve but don’t have.
We live in a day and age where we can easily project any image of ourselves and our lives that we want. We can carefully curate our images and use all the right hashtags, but you can’t build character from the outside in, no matter the trappings we adorn ourselves with. It’s easy to craft a quotable tweet. It’s harder to live a quotable life. Despite contrary societal trends, character is always hewn from perseverance.
I heard my son yelling from his spot on the bank. He hooked the fish. The trout made a magnificent leap, shaking its head and revealing a bright pink lateral line magnified in swirls of water droplets, then landed and swam into the river’s primary current. My son’s reel clicked furiously as the trout emptied his line into the backing. He fought the fish calmly, patiently allowing it to run while keeping his rod tip high and a steady tension on the line. When he finally brought the trout to the net, it was the largest he’d ever caught. Almost as large as his smile.
Rivers offer essential lessons. If we’re willing to pay attention, they’ll help build character traits such as patience, humility, and perseverance, and like with all training, the results deepen with repetition. What we do in practice is what we’ll do in the game. The river provides a chance to practice with small things. We cast again and again. We change tactics and begin casting anew. There would’ve been no real consequences if my son hadn’t caught that fish. He could have walked away and gone for something more manageable. But someday, he will face much greater trials than a picky rainbow trout. When he does, I hope his time spent building character along the river will have helped prepare him in some small way for the wider world.
Roger W. Thompson is the nationally acclaimed author of We Stood Upon Stars and My Best Friend’s Funeral, as well as an avid fly-fisherman. His ability to write about fishing and adventure while connecting to the deepest meanings of the human experience has earned him the nickname “The River Bishop.” Roger lives with his wife and two teenage sons in his coastal hometown of Ventura, California, where they surf, skate, snowboard, and build furniture together. Roger will be writing an exclusive series of essays for RareWaters.com over the coming weeks and months. We hope they inspire and encourage you.