The presence of cows only made the experience more surreal. But I suppose one should expect nothing less while fishing along the banks of a Wisconsin trout stream. On the last day of the season in 2015 my friend and guide Craig Amacker deftly cast his line over a narrow bend of the Blue River. It was a Wednesday morning in September and we each relished our good fortune to have chosen professions that encouraged us to play in the middle of the work week. As the river curved along the gentle contours of a driftless pasture with public access the bubbling water welcomed the cows to drink. As they slowly wadded past us their hooves churned mud up from the bottom and turned the stream a silty shade of brown.
“Don’t worry,” Craig said. “They’re bringing food up for the fish to feed.”
I stood ankle-deep in the water about 50 feet further upstream from where the cows had just passed. And as the flow gradually began to clear and settle I continued to cast my Tenkara fly rod allowing the imitation grasshopper and pink squirrel copper head tied to the end of my line to trace the natural course of bugs along the river. With no fish in sight I took Craig’s word for it. Beneath the surface they were feeding.
The strike came at the same second I felt the line hit the water. Instinct and reflex jerked the rod up in an instant to set the hook. Under the lapping water I could see the flash of a pale skinned belly, the underside of a red speckled brown trout. It was small, less than eight inches and yet as it writhed on the line struggling for its life I felt that incredible connection with all the universe. In that moment when the fish bites the fly everything seems to align and fall into place. Joined by a thin nylon filament and carbon fiber pole once again I became one with nature.
“Even if you don’t get it in hand you know you did everything right,” Craig said as he snapped my picture holding the fish. “You were in the right place at the right time with the right food. You had what he wanted to eat.”
Out of the water the trout wriggled as I removed the hook its mouth. Bending down toward stream I felt its tail whip and jerk sensing the water below. Holding the trout there in the direction of the flowing river it was as if the whole world lay full of life in my bare hands. In that instant time seemed to stand still in a exquisite expression of pure joy. Smiling I let it go and the fish swam slowly away. With the energy of its fins in the rushing stream the trout set back in motion the entire planet now free to spin on its axis, a world that whirls with life.
I never really understood the allure of fly fishing until I enjoyed a bit of success. Conditions have to be just right to coax a trout to rise. The satisfaction I experience every time I get a fish in hand includes an understanding that in that moment all is right with the world, the right fly, the right cast, the right amount of tension on the line. But to truly enjoy this noble indulgence there must be also be the right combination of things that have nothing to do with catching fish but everything to do with being right with the world.
In order to land a trout of any size I believe that it’s important to first create a state of being that includes good heath, solid economic security and uncompromised environmental integrity. As a nation, as a local community and as individuals I believe that we must aspire to create a world where anyone can wade out into a stream with line and tackle and stand a better than average chance of catching a fish.
Unless we’re prepared to preserve outdoor recreation only for the social elite with the free time and disposable income to follow their passions we must help to create opportunities for everyone to enjoy these incredible experiences outside. The true strength of any economy or eco-system must be judged by the ability of everyone to be successful. When all is right with the world I believe that we must designate public land for ready access to free-flowing streams and fresh water that is properly managed and protected. But I believe we must also provide citizens with the leisure time and peace of mind to enjoy it.
We must insist upon a living wage for all workers, a 40-hour workweek and paid time off. We must insist upon affordable housing, healthcare and childcare. And we can not forget the critical importance of quality education, conscientious law enforcement and equitable governance free of discrimination or prejudice. Though they may seem like completely different issues these are all the things that make environmental projection possible. When all is right with the world each of us has at least the potential to endulge their love of outdoor recreation. And if we’re going to create a world where everyone has equal access to fresh air, clean water and open green space to play outside environmental justice and civil rights must go hand in hand.
At the core of our pursuit of happiness is doing the things in life we love most. But in a free society it’s also important to help protect and encourage the happiness of others. Though fly-fishing or hiking or skiing isn’t for everyone I believe that by securing the potential for anyone willing to try we can assure the preservation of nature for all time. When all is right with the world every time a trout is caught and released safely back into a free-flowing stream its flashing fins will set the planet back in motion and continue to whirl with life.
~ James Edward Mills
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