Thursday, August 10, 2006

If you spend enough time wading swift moving water in search of rascally smallmouth bass, you are going to have some pretty interesting, and sometimes fascinating stories to tell. I had one of these experiences not even a week ago, and while at the time I was hardly laughing, I now sit back and have myself a hearty chuckle.

It had been quite some time since I had fished or even laid eyes upon the Upper Potomac. Work and other endeavors that I had foolishly deemed more important than fishing had been keeping me busy. Up until this trek through the mountains of Western Maryland, my fishing season had been made up of trying to pluck stocked trout out of a tiny creek, and offering bugs to whatever might be hungry on any number of crowded Chesapeake Bay tributaries. Unfortunately, this is the life of an urban fisherman. Weekdays spent in Washington DC rarely give way to weekends in scenic locales chocked-full of wild fish, so I take what I can get, when I can get it.

So I was incredibly anxious to put the soles of my wading boots on the bottom of an old river that I had been fishing since I was a very small boy. Over the icy winter and the flooded spring, I begin to wax nostalgic about fishing the Potomac, as if every foray into its waters was a scenic, dew-laden, postcard picture of a morning. It’s not like that at all, but we tend to remember the best and forget the subpar. The best is a river loaded with smallmouth, all of whom seem to have a predisposition towards fighting. And it is indeed a beautiful river, arguably one of Maryland’s finest freshwater varieties. But the worst is a riverbed lined with boulders, the most imposing of which just happen to come to rest where the water is at its deepest, making them hard to see and almost impossible to avoid. The river tends to beat you up, tires you out and makes you begin to wonder if your time wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere.

But in fact there is no better way to spend a warm summer evening, than trying to entice a smallmouth out of whatever rapid or riffle he calls home, and then releasing him to return to his chosen spot and to fight another day, maybe once again on the end of my line. So on this particular day, I stepped into the cool river, and immediately began to work my fly across an underwater ledge that was creating a small waterfall. I had caught many fish there in previous years, and it’s always where I focus my first casts. Sure enough, on the third or fourth cast, my line went tight, and my Wooly Bugger disappeared into the current. It was my first smallmouth since the previous summer, and I felt as if I was at the only place on earth that I wanted to be, standing in that river, fighting this fish.

My trips to the Potomac always follow the same game plan, me walking about a mile of shoreline up and around an unnamed island, which separates the Maryland and West Virginia shorelines of the river. The formation is kind of like a lap around a race track, only that the island is large enough to prevent me from seeing the opposing shoreline, and is sufficiently covered with enough gnarly looking flora (and quite possibly a great deal of interesting, and rather unhappy species of fauna, as well) as to prevent me from having even the faintest desire to cross over it, for any reason.

As I continued to cast and walk upstream, a light drizzle began to fall, bringing a slight degree of relief from the humidity and the air, which had been stagnant since mid-June. The rain progressed from a drizzle to a rather steady stream, but it was by no means enough to make me leave the river and drastically cut short my first smallmouth trip of the year. Yet things that go downhill often do so quickly. In a matter of minutes the rain achieved torrential proportions, and I was soaked through and rapidly acquiring a severe chill. It didn’t take long for the sky, which had darkened ominously, to flash with a white-electric bolt, followed quickly by a thunderous clap. It took even less time for me to realize that I was standing in the middle of a river, holding what was effectively a lightening rod in my hand, so I quickly stumbled onto the rocky shoreline of the island’s upriver end. I stood there, freezing, when suddenly it dawned on me that I was still taller than everything around me, and my eight-foot fly rod didn’t help matters much, so I decided to lay down just like I was told to do by the Boy Scout handbook I grew up reading. As I lay there uncomfortably, with river rocks gouging my body, a new concern arose.

Lightening is a fairly predictable beast; it will strike what attracts it and ignore everything else. In order to avoid getting struck, all one has to do is make oneself unattractive, which I find to be relatively easy to do. However, one aspect of this downpour that could not be so simply avoided was the potential for the river that I happened to be in the middle of, to begin rising, quickly, making it impossible for me to make it back to shore, and essentially trapping me on this island, until the waters receded, or until the island itself was flooded, in which case I would be swept down river.

So I looked out into the river, and found a rock about twenty feet off the shoreline that rose above the water about a foot. I made a mental note of the water level on the rock, and kept looking back every minute or so to see if the water had come up or not. I was laying there, face in a cold puddle for a half hour, but it seemed more like the better part of a day. The rain was cold, and I was frigid and still worried that I might be stuck on this island if the river came too far up. Luckily, after about thirty minutes the rain ceased.

I stood up, confident that the lightening and rain had passed, and hopeful that the sun would come out to warm me and dry my drenched clothes. Still I had no desire to stop fishing, despite the now-apparent message from God that today probably wasn’t the best day. I again started to cast, off the West Virginia side of the island, into some fast moving water that had always proven productive, but the water was now slightly discolored by the previous deluge, and the fish had gone from cooperative to wary. On one particular cast, when my Wooly Bugger hit the water, it coincided with a tremendous crash, not usually associated with the silent approach technique utilized by most anglers. The terrible tandem of thunder and lightning were again blazing a path right down the river, with only a drenched fishermen meagerly standing in the way of their progress.

Having already ignored plenty of obvious signs pointing me toward the relative safety of the shoreline, I finally took the hint the clouds were attempting to give me, and began to circumnavigate the island, hugging the shoreline. Of course, the speed of my movement was severely impaired by the fact that I was walking in a moving river lined with slippery rocks. The harder I walked, the more I tended to stumble, and the more I stumbled, the more the rains came. I knew I still had to cross back over the river to get to the shoreline, where my car and a change of clothes were parked, but what was an a hour ago merely a simple task of walking through waters that were clear enough to keep track of the bottom’s intricacies, was now a challenging slog through angry and chocolaty water, complete with a minefield of now hidden boulders lurking just below the surface. The river was rising noticeably now, and it was clear that my window for crossing was closing, and as I stepped out into the main stem of the Potomac, daring the lightning bolts and foolishly fording the surging water, I put my well being into the hands of nature.

Claps of thunder made me jump, and the lightning crashed all around, but as I took that last step out of the river and onto dry ground, I couldn’t help but think that nature was on my side that day. Maybe Mother Nature escorted me safely across that irritated river so that I could return to my desk in Washington, because she knows that she needs all the allies on Capitol Hill she can get.

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