When I finally see a one-day window of clear weather, I leap through it.
I have always found spiritual connections in rivers. As a child in Erie, Pennsylvania, I caught chubs and suckers in a polluted creek down the block. Later there were trips with my older brother for Allegheny Mountain brook trout. During Army tours, I caught golden trout in the Sierra snowmelt, and rainbows in brawling Alaskan waters.
There’s a tune by “The Band” entitled “The River Hymn,” a gospel reverie:
It’s noon when I park at the trailhead of a hike-in Catskills fishing spot. There’s not another soul. Social distancing will be easy. I head down the path under vaulting blue skies, and tranquility enters.
When I arrive at the shore, the river is high, cold and discolored from a storm. Mayflies hatch on the water and drift on the breeze, but no trout rise.
I rig up anyway and cast a dry fly, a bit of fur and feathers resembling natural bugs that trout eat. I cast for hours. Nothing.
Hope springs, so I tie on fly after oddball fly. Beadhead stone nymphs, partridge-and-orange wets, zonker streamers that mimic baitfish. If I had a Rat-Faced McDougal, I would throw it.
Out here in the woods, there is at least one reminder of the virus: This river is on a local airport’s approach path. Normally, commuter planes and military transports sometimes break the spell. Now the skies are still, no contrails, only mare’s tails.
It’s evening, the breeze has died. Mayflies fill the amber air.
The river has pitched a shutout. The wise angler says catching trout is icing on the cake – the river is joy enough. Fact is, getting skunked hurts.
I break down my rod, kick off my waders.
I hear the sound my ears have been tuned for: a trout sipping mayflies.
I spot the rings of the rise that blossom in the evening current. The fish rises again. Shivering, I pull clammy waders back on, re-string my rod, knot on a fly.
I get into casting position, one suspender trailing, cold water slopping over my waders.
My achy shoulder balks. The line snags a branch and the fly snaps off. I grumble, tie on another.
I get a drift over the rise and this time the trout inhales. My brain catches fire.
The rod comes alive, the reel ratchets and the fish dives. It leaps, droplets spray.
I gain line and the trout tires. I net it.
It’s a wild brown, maybe 15 inches, silver sides flecked with black specks and faint red embers. I snap a photo and release it to become part of the river again.
A few more trout rise. I wade to shore and listen as I pack up at dark. All around, day creatures find shelter as night creatures stir. A beaver glides to its lodge. Wood ducks wing to nest. An owl calls, “who-cooks-for-you.” The current whispers.
That’s the river hymn.
“Virus Diary,” an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Rob Jagodzinski works on the Nerve Center at AP headquarters in New York.