I was ready to go home. I’d been fishing for a couple of hours and had nothing to show for it. No follows. No strikes. No reason to hope for either anytime soon. It would’ve been one thing if I were on a brand-new stretch of water. But I had been coming here for years—and in that time, I’d yet to have one truly good day of fishing. There were trips when I might land one or two trout, but those outings were the exceptions. This day seemed destined for another skunking.
Doubts ran through my head. What the hell am I doing here? Does this river even hold trout anymore? Or have I just forgotten how to fly fish? I was a few hundred yards downstream from the car, thinking that I should just quit. I decided to fish my way back, and if nothing bit, I’d leave.
Most of the stream between me and the car was pocket water. I had fished these spots in the past, but never with much intent. Now was my chance to try. I rigged two nymphs beneath an indicator and began high-sticking the softer water around the boulders. To my surprise, and delight, a 9-inch rainbow took the Copper John on one of my first drifts.
Two casts later, another trout hit—but came off. Losing that fish hurt. Given my lack of success here, I was certain that I wouldn’t catch another. But in the next hole, my line came tight again. The trout flashed past me, granting enough of a look to register that this was the biggest fish I’d ever hooked on this stream. I was terrified to lose it, and as I kept tension on the fish, I came as close to prayer as I have in ages. I desperately wanted to land that fish. I needed to land that fish. Looking back, I suspect I was battling something larger than the trout.
It was for the best that no other anglers were around, because when that brown finally came into my net, I shouted, “YES!” I’ve caught bigger fish in my life, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had a bigger reaction to one. I regained my composure and released the fish. When I was younger and more competitive, I would’ve rushed to start casting again, greedy for another trout. That day, though, I opted for a seat on a boulder in the middle of the river. At that moment, all I wanted was to enjoy the warmth of the sun coming through the trees and listen to the water rushing over the stones and try my best to remember everything I could about a fish I hope I never forget.
By then, I was standing right below where I’d parked the car. I kept fishing.
And the fish kept biting. I picked every pocket I could find, and in almost every one, a trout took my fly. What made the day so special, though, wasn’t just the number of fish I caught. It was the deepening connection I began to feel to the river as I worked my way upstream. I noticed movements and intricacies—how certain eddies swirled, the pace and paths of drifting foam—with more detailed awareness than I have on any other river. The other anglers had all left; I felt as if I’d uncovered the secret to this river when no one else was looking.
Usually, at the end of a day’s fishing here, I exit the stream and walk the road to the car. It’s faster. This time, I stayed in the river and waded downstream the whole way, wanting to preserve the connection I felt to the water as long as I could. Halfway to the car, I spotted a blue heron stalking near where I’d caught a fish. I stopped, hoping to watch him get something too, but the sight of me spooked him, and he flew downriver.
I returned a couple more times in the spring, and the success continued. As did the deepening connection I felt to the water. With each trip, I learned something new about the river, locating more pockets that held fish. Once summer arrived, I was fly fishing at a level I hadn’t achieved in a long time—not since I was in my late teens or early twenties, back when fly fishing was possibly the only outlet in my life I could always rely on for happiness.
I didn’t fully come to understand and appreciate the sense of escape this river had been providing to me until the summer, when it was warm enough to start wet-wading the stream and targeting fish with a hopper-dropper rig. Few things in life bring me as much pure joy as that style of fishing. Even when the bite was slow, I didn’t care. Because on those afternoons, the doubt and anger and fear I battle nearly every day of my life vanished. I was simply happy to be doing something I loved—and to be doing it with confidence. I came to understand too that my connection to this river was coinciding with a deeper reconnection to fly fishing.
I tried to put these thoughts down in a letter I wrote last June to the author John N. Maclean, whose father’s classic, A River Runs Through It, is the reason I took up fly fishing as a teenager. John and I had struck up a friendship earlier in the year after I interviewed him about his latest book, Home Waters—a companion memoir to A River Runs Through It. We stayed in touch via Facebook, but also through letters. In one, I wrote to John about how I’d begun to feel as though I had discovered my own home waters—and I thanked him for inspiring that discovery through his stories of the Big Blackfoot River. A couple of weeks later, a note from John arrived in the mail. I was eager to open it but decided to save it for the right time.
The right time wound up being just after I released a stout 15-inch brown trout—my new personal best from the river. I sat down on a boulder, took the letter from my fly vest, and began to read. The note was short, but the words were kind, the message inspiring. John encouraged me to write, someday, about my home waters.
In late October, I traveled farther from my home waters than I ever hope to again. My wife and I took a trip to Egypt—a dream vacation that we’d booked in 2019 for 2020 but then canceled for obvious reasons. Midway through 2021, as the pandemic relented, we decided to go. Then, a couple of weeks before we were due to depart, we almost canceled again—not because of COVID, but because Amanda was pregnant. For us, this was a first. We visited her doctor, and he assured us that it was safe to travel. “Have fun,” he said, “and come see me when you’re back.”
Five months later, I still can’t quite comprehend many of the wonders we saw on that trip. The sights that have remained most vivid for me, though, are somewhat unexpected—a river and some birds. For six days, we sailed down the Nile, and in the mornings and just before dusk, the bird-watching was spectacular. I spotted a glossy ibis, pied kingfishers, a Eurasian hoopoe, and a gray heron, to name a few. Mostly I watched them alone, but one evening, toward the end of the trip, Amanda briefly came to admire them with me. I showed her the heron and told her that it reminded me of the blue heron I had seen back home, on my river. I rarely want a vacation to end, but in that moment, all I could think of was pocket water rushing over stones, a brown trout streaking past me, a blue heron flying downriver. I missed my river. I was ready to go home.
As instructed, right after we returned from Egypt, we visited Amanda’s OB. He’s a fairly animated guy who talks a lot—traits that, for me, made the silent blankness on his face the second he looked at the ultrasound monitor so telling. As he exited the room, he encouraged us to take our time before leaving. Amanda and I waited for the sound of a closed door before we moved toward an embrace and said we were sorry and cried.
That was a Tuesday. A numbing grief fogged the days that followed, but at some point in the next week I remember coming to a decision that everything else in my life could wait and that I had to go fly fishing. It was a random Thursday, and I had the river to myself. As always, I began at the boulder. A few casts in, I landed a small, red-freckled brown trout. Before I released the fish, I took a photo and texted it to Amanda. This one felt good to catch. I love you.
Almost as soon as I stepped into the river, a gentle snowfall began to season the water. I paused before casting and watched. One of the more remarkable things about fishing only the same stretch of the same river for a year is that you become more aware of the changes—the foliage on the bank, the strength of the current, the absence of certain birds—from one season to the next. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve stood in that exact spot on the river, looking upstream, and yet now, in winter, with the snow dissolving into riffles, what I observed felt brand-new. I’ve never seen a length of river look more peaceful or beautiful.
More than a month had passed since my last trip here, and I had begun to feel the restlessness that sets in if I let too much time expire between outings. The feeling is not so much a desire to fish—although that’s a big factor—as much as it is a desire just to be here, standing in these waters that, whether it’s true or not, I’ve come to believe I know better than anyone else in the world. So even if it meant I had to fish during a snowstorm on a day when the forecast high was 30 degrees—conditions in which my odds of catching anything were slim at best—I didn’t care. I was just happy to be back on these waters.
I spent the next five hours working my way upstream, hitting every spot that had given me a fish in the last year, with nothing to show for it. No strikes. No follows. No reason to hope for either anytime soon. And that was fine. Eventually, I decided to use what daylight remained to sit and enjoy being on the river. A scrapbook of the fish I’d landed here flipped through my thoughts—but so too did the moments when catching fish was the last thing on my mind, when catching fish was not the reason I’d come to this river.
There were times in the last year when I wanted to believe that as long as I was on this river, nothing bad could happen to me—no doubt or anger, nothing to fear. Deep down, of course, I knew that wasn’t true; it’s just that now, I better understand what is. And what’s true is that this river is here—here for me when I need a place to escape and think and heal, so that when I leave, I feel better. What’s true is that this river will always be here—here for me through the changes ahead in my life, one season to the next.
As I continued to watch the snow fall on the water, I began to imagine what the river might look like in the coming spring: Banks blooming. Pockets roiling. Heron stalking. I thought, Soon. For now, though, it was only getting colder and darker. I pictured Amanda, waiting for me in our warm apartment with the lights on.
I stood and began to walk downstream. I was ready to go home.
This essay appears in the Home Issue, the latest digital edition of Field & Stream.