Cutthroat Chronicles: I am Taught by Waters

“A River Runs Through It” may be the most famous piece of angling literature produced in the 20th century – and that’s saying something considering books such as “Trout Bum,” “Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing,” “The Longest Silence,” and “In the Ring of the Rise” were written during this time. That’s not even mentioning the gluttony of fly tying books released, my favorite of which is volume 2 of the Great Western Trout Flies by Jack Dennis.

The final words in Norman MacLean’s game-changing novel (the book and subsequent movie are largely responsible for the spike in fly fishing interest in the 90s and early 2000s) are, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”

The final five words have always stuck out to me – much like a lone rising trout in an otherwise big empty river – every time I read MacLean’s story. Over the past few weeks, I’ve quit my full-time job and spent nearly every day on the water since. After a week of solid fishing, the days blur together and I’m not sure where one ends and another begins. I only have gas station receipts and cell phone pictures to serve as a record of my recent travels.

During the long silences I’ve spent waiting for a trout to rise, to bite, to show any sign of life, I’ve had more than enough time to reflect on life. Quitting a job isn’t a snap-decision, but I made it that way and suddenly I’m at a crossroads without a map.

I point all this out because those final words from “A River Runs Through It” have swirled in my head for the past week. I’ve tried to figure out what exactly MacLean meant when he said he was “haunted” by waters, if only because my mind needed something else to focus on when the fishing was slow.

I’m haunted by mistakes I’ve made in my life, relationships thrown away, and opportunities lost. But I don’t think MacLean meant that waters haunted him in that fashion. Rather, I think to him waters represented, as they do to any angler willing to slow down and listen, an opportunity to learn.

Knowledge can haunt a soul. The knowledge of the death of a loved one, knowing that life will never be the same as it was just a moment ago, knowing that you’ll never get back the seconds you’re using up right now, reading some smack-addled angler’s ramblings on the internet.

River running through a forest of foliage

I believe it was the knowledge of life, of the world, of our place in the universe (or lack thereof) that haunted MacLean. And over the past few weeks, I’ve come to be haunted by those exact realizations.
A river is a microcosm of life. At the top of the food chain are the fish – in this case, trout. Herons, eagles, and hawks can all prey on fish, just as lions, bears, and sharks can prey on humans. But in their element – the water – fish are unmatched. They’re cannibalistic, much like humans are (we kill over oil, over lines drawn on a map, over differences in theology or political belief) but in an eat-or-be-eaten fashion that possesses a purity humans will never achieve. We have a conscience; fish live and react purely on instinct. Even the persnickety trout that seem to count the tail feathers on your fly before refusing it are acting on base instinct. Nothing regarding emotion, or even sentient thought, enters a trout’s mind.

That large difference aside, us humans are much like trout in a river. We’re all jockeying for the best feeding lies, working hard to get fat so we can sit back and retire, dining on the occasional foolish fingerling that dares venture too close to our maw, or the endless stream of aquatic insects floating on the riverbed. Just like trout, we humans burn the candle at both ends for years, based on the promise that we’ll someday have the means to tell the boss to go to hell and live a deliberately chosen life.

Things rarely go as planned, however. Dams are put in place, stopping our spawning efforts. Angling restrictions are lifted, increasing harvest, increasing our chances of being yanked from our comfortable living and thrust into what may be certain death. How many friends do you know who walked into their office one day, only to find out they no longer had a job? Just as the trophy fish is kept to be mounted, we’re reeled from one position to another, fighting to keep our heads just above water.

On some occasions, the caretakers of the river put too many fish in and there’s no longer enough food to go around. Everyone is equally poor, and the river boasts a classless population, when in years past it had a bustling economy of middle-classed trout, making a good living and enjoying things as much as a 9-5 life can be enjoyed.

In other years, the salmon fly hatch is so thick that everyone gets more than they can eat. These years are rare, and often only spoken of by the old-timers, but we hold out hope for the day when things change for the better. When life becomes affordable again, when work is no longer work but something we enjoy doing every single day.

And in the most extreme of cases, some rivers are run so ragged they become barred, or worse, dried up. The fish that were there are lost, their memory slipping into the dregs of history until they’re no longer remembered, and a townhouse development sits on what used to be prime trout habitat.

I’ve drug this metaphor out now long enough, I think, to have made my point. Any event in a river can be likened to our own lives, and the realization of that is what haunted MacLean. It’s what’s haunted me for the past week, as I’ve contemplated the choices I have in front of me and which path I should take. Do I climb the fish ladder, or admit defeat at the base of the dam and try to spawn in subpar habitat? That is perhaps life’s quintessential question – do I give up or keep going?

Trout don’t have a choice. Instinctually, they will always choose to cling to life. Humans are different. We have the option to end our own lives – to give up – and that particular realization is the most haunting of all.

No matter what you believe in, no one is 100% sure of what remains beyond this life. I’m a religious man and I believe in a heaven and a hell, among other theology. But faith, by definition, is believing in something without definitive proof of its truth. Granted, I’ve had experiences in my life that reinforce my faith, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know for sure what will happen when my time comes and I return to the dust that humans are.

It’s the same with fishing. Each cast is made with faith that your fly is right, your presentation correct, and the trout present and hungry. You never know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that any given cast will result in a fish. But you keep casting because the possibility remains.

And we keep moving up the fish ladder, past the dams and back into the Rockies, where we once lived, spawning and leaving a legacy of perseverance and hard work behind us. Because one thing we have on trout is the ability to pass our knowledge down. The strongest, most stubborn steelhead can’t teach its offspring to keep fighting past the Snake River dams and into their native range. But we can teach our kids, our friends, our parents, what it means to fight and fight again.

Waters certainly haunt me because of their uncanny ability to teach lessons, but in the end, I am taught by waters more than I am haunted by them.

What do the waters teach you?