It’s not cheating if you don’t catch anything – right?
By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor
I hadn’t visited in months, and I felt guilty. Or, perhaps more accurately, I was aware that I shouldfeel guilty, but I didn’t feel it strongly enough to assuage it. For the first time in my life, I had something in common with the United States Congress.
But unlike the rapscallions roaming beneath the capitol’s rotunda, I was honest with myself. The relationship I’d spent years cultivating was in trouble. I knew it. So did everyone else. The dysfunction was plain to anyone who had a spare moment to glance at our mess. And as much as I wanted to blame someone else, I knew things wouldn’t get better unless I put in some effort.
So, in stark contrast to the example set by our nation’s leaders, I swallowed my pride, admitted my fallibility, and decided to try and mend fences as best I could. I made the short drive to visit on a bright spring day – the kind where you roll the windows down in the truck and hope you don’t fill the cab with bugs and the white fluff that blows off cottonwoods in the spring.
The drive over is always gorgeous, but it felt particularly ostentatious that day. The beauty reminded me of what I’d so cavalierly tossed aside, and the fertility of spring was a particularly well-placed barb about the future we may have had together.
I took the turns without thinking, driving on autopilot as the road narrowed and grew steep. I was in the canyon, and I caught glimpses through the trees of what I’d come to see. After what felt like a longer than normal ride up the canyon, I pulled my truck off the road and parked. Once my truck was quiet, I heard nothing save for the sound that was familiar and intimate as it was painful.
I got out of my truck and shuffled through the knee-high cheatgrass. Scrub oak, cottonwoods, and a few pinyon pines dotted the shores, each a different shade of luscious spring green. As I broke through a wall of willows, I came face-to-face with what I’d been avoiding for far too long.
A river. My river, to be exact. My home water.
It was at once comforting to be in familiar surroundings, but disconcerting because I almost felt like an intruder, as though I was somewhere I didn’t belong. Which is probably how any politician feels when stepping inside a church.
The river didn’t acknowledge me. It usually doesn’t, though on rare occasions it feels like we’re conversing. Once, years ago, when we first met, the river gave up one of its rarest possessions – a wild brook trout. At that elevation in the Rockies, rivers are packed bank-to-bank with browns, and maybe a few rainbows. Brookies, especially in this river, were rare, if not downright unheard of. Without the pictures I took of that fish, no one would have believed I’d caught a brook trout there.
Although I let it go, I held the memory of that brook trout as a token of the relationship the river and I had. Throughout the coming years, I’d spend more time there than anywhere else. Sure, I fished it because it was convenient, but also because I thoroughly enjoyed its company. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve had to share its attention with anyone else. Whether I visited for minutes or hours, the river always lent a willing ear.
“Look, I’m not sure where to start,” I said. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and kicked sheepishly at some loose rocks around my feet. I couldn’t make eye contact.
“I love our time together, I really do. It’s just that, well . . . I dunno, things get sort of, old? Not that you’re old,” I added quickly. “It all gets repetitive, I guess. And then my buddies invite me to go to other places, and I can’t tell them no, can I?”
“What I’m trying to say is, that, I’ve been . . . I’ve been doing, oh, you know – the thing?”
“The thing you asked me to not do?”
“I’ve been seeing other fish,” I said, letting it all out at once. “There, I said it. I’ve been frolicking around the Rocky Mountains, seeing all sorts of other trout! I even saw a walleye in the Missouri River!”
Somehow, I felt vindicated. Probably the same way most of the House of Representatives feels anytime Donald Trump tweets.
“I spent a few days with some bull trout in Idaho,” I said. “And I found goldens here in Utah, up in the Uintas. I still haven’t hung out with Gila trout, and every time I go to visit, the Lahontans are never home.”
“I did spend a few days with, um, some carp,” I muttered. “But it wasn’t just us. We weren’t alone all the time. Some smallmouth were there, too.”
On cue, a faint plunk broke the steady burble of water over rocks, and I saw the rings of a trout rising to a dry fly dispersing in a pool upstream. I shouldn’t have mentioned the carp.
“It’s not that you’re not enough for me,” I started again. “You are. I just can’t stay tied down in one spot for too long. Even when we spent all that time together, I saw other fish on the side. And you knew about those ones. So why do I feel like I’ve been cheating on you?”
The same fish rose again, in the same upstream pool.
“I let those other fish go,” I replied. “Just like I do here. Hell, I got skunked a lot, too. Is it really cheating if I go somewhere else and don’t catch anything?”
A mayfly lazily fluttered by, floating whimsically in the special way those bugs have. It was light, butter-yellow and big. It was early in the year for pale-morning duns, but the river always has good hatches. Better hatches than a lot of the waters I’d traveled to, in fact. I’d roamed from the Rockies to the foothills of the Cascades, and even down into the desert of Arizona in search of big trout. All the while I’d ignored the steadying – albeit smaller – presence of the river 15 minutes from my house.
Another trout rose, in a pool a bit further upstream. I took the hint and went back to my truck, swapping my work boots for wading ones, and strung up my fly rod. When I busted through the willows again, the PMDs were everywhere, and the river’s fish were all looking up.
I stepped into the water for the first time in what must have been months, and it felt like stepping back into my great-grandma’s embrace. The rhythm of the river was just as I remembered it, and I settled in quickly, casting to fish I could see and catching just enough of them that I always wanted one more.
And just like that, the PMDs disappeared and the sun set behind the mountains. I took my sunglasses off, but even then there wasn’t enough light to see my fly on the river’s surface. I trudged back to the truck in darkness, listening to the river as it settled in for a chilly spring night.
“I’m not going to stop seeing other fish,” I said, more to myself than the river that now lay hidden behind the black of night and a bank of willows and trees. “But I’m not going to be away for as long this time. I promise.”
I’m still seeing other fish. But those ones, in that river – I see them the most.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.