Spring floods require us to hold on to root and rock while the once trustworthy solid ground, like sand at the beach under our toes is getting eroded out from under us and flushed out to the ocean. Rivers swell and fill in ravine and swale, forming tendrils that reach out from the main current and attempt to pull the covers off the land like two lovers in bed locked in a nocturnal battle for the blankets. Amidst this undressing, the landscape becomes temporarily aquatic, a place where rivulets careen down footpaths, submerge spring ephemeral wildflowers and fill deep hidden pools whose dark tannic water lies in wait to engulf a distracted fisherman up over his chest waders. One must mosey with care this time of year lest you lose your footing and end up getting swept over long-forgotten grist mill dams and through rusty highway culverts on your long swing back to the ocean. You wouldn’t be alone should you go for a long swim this time of year, although like driving against rush hour traffic, you may see more headlights than taillights.
As you slip into the water that up until recently was locked up in it’s solid, hibernatory phase you feel the bone aching cold that slows your blood down to that of the brown trout you find parked in calm eddies behind rock and log, snatching small aquatic insects in free drift but who are not really warm enough to work too hard for that meal. The cold water thickens life, it thickens sounds and soul too bringing every action and movement into question of worth as in “is this really worth the discomfort to be fishing right now?” It’s the first of May but my hands are numb, it’s been raining all day and I’m beginning to shiver. I have spent many days in cold water and, just like beard frost in the winter, I use my body as a thermometer. Today I’m guessing by the ache in my legs that the water is around 40 degrees, although since the air temperature is only 39 and I’ve been wet all day the integrity of my inner thermometer may be off a few degrees.
You get used to it though, or maybe your pain receptors, no longer receiving any new stimuli are switched into their off mode. I have felt this in natural hot springs where the water was hot enough to cause pain and an elevated awareness of life, or at least an elevated awareness of your sometime faulty decision making process. When you’d slide into the hot water it’d hurt for a half minute then, as long as the water stayed perfectly calm you’d slip into a state of heat- induced meditation that lasted until someone else entered the pool and made some waves or you committed to making a mad dash out of the pool when you’d reached your cooking temperature. Hot water, cold water- it’s all the same to us, but not to the fish.
You are making your way downstream, neutrally buoyant in the water, passing suckers full of small peach- colored eggs the size of half a pencil eraser. They are heading up to their gravel beds to spawn, giving life to future suckers as well as to the trout and salmon who feast on their eggs and the eagles who are better fisherman than I. I found a sucker mostly eaten by some large bird, osprey or eagle probably, on the sandy river bank surrounded by the golden blobs of her egg sacks like the halo around the Virgin Mary or the long blonde hair of Botticelli’s Venus. I’m not sure why the eggs were left uneaten, I assume it was the eagle giving me a chance to see the size and color of the sucker’s eggs so if I were so inclined I could tie on an appropriately sized and colored egg to my fly line and catch a trout or two unawares to my avian-inspired knowledge.
As the river slows from the frenetic white water pace upstream and enters a lower gradient meander to the ocean, you pass the ghosts of salmon, Atlantic salmon that used to clog the small river by the hundreds of thousands and push my comfort limits of fecundity and life. Fish by fish the runs shrank. Some were caught by the ton off shore for food by us and other nations. Others were choked out by rising water temperatures and lower oxygenation. Some were impeded by dams that placed impassable barriers between the ocean and the clean cold gravel beds some hundred miles upstream. A couple hundred years ago you would have been pushed back up river by the amorous rush of fiscian love, now you only pass a few lone survivors, salmon that avoided the “black hole” of salmon mortality in the Atlantic where scientists don’t really know why juvenile salmon are failing to return from their few years of life in the open ocean.
They are hatchery fish, these salmon I see now, raised in the headwaters and planted by various means in the same gravel beds the wild running fish used to come back to. I caught a couple yesterday, 14” flashes of silver that looked like puppies in a pet store; innocence born out of simple, blissful ignorance. They have yet to breath the tangy salt water or see the real life ahead of them. They swim with hope, hope that they will have a life we can relate to: a safe childhood, a place to grown and learn and a home to raise a family. The salmon I saw were like middle school age kids. Sure they had probably chased each other around and taken a few token pot shots at some smaller suckers but they were good fish, fish that were on the brink of a big adventure, an adventure we’re pretty sure they won’t come home from. The chance of truly living doesn’t come with high success rates for anyone, only around 1% if you’re an Atlantic salmon whose home river is in southern Maine.
The water warms past head tide, the fresh water is replaced by a tidal rush that pulls you out to the open ocean. While you’re out there maybe you could ask around and find out where the salmon are going who don’t make it home. Maybe you’ll decide after a few years it’s time to come back home. Where the river grows small and cold and tunneled by cedar and hemlock you’ll see me again, shivering in leaky waders, dead drifting a #12 Hare’s Ear Rubber Leg and a #16 Pink Frenchie through the deeper runs. Maybe you’ll just see my boots as I bend over a small birch sapling adorned with those same flies and hear my muttering about the state of my fishing affairs. Just like yesterday, I’ll stop fishing for the day when I know you’re down there, you have a rough go of it and the last thing you need is to be pestered by a half- frozen human. I’ll just sit on the bridge eating cold chicken parmesan and drinking equally as cold coffee in the late afternoon drizzle, imagining the river filled bank to bank with your ancestors and trying to make out your shape in the dark water below, enviously imagining the travels you have in front of you.