Trout Therapy: On Death and Flyfishing

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A brief respite from getting our lines stuck in the bushes. 

Note: ‘Fight Club’ is at risk of being overfished — fated to end up like all the other has-been holes in Michigan rivers. The first rule, of course, is don’t talk about Fight Club, but since I am undeniably breaking that rule right now, let’s just say this: You won’t find Fight Club, Fight Club will find you. So don’t go looking for it. 

There are waters — deep and wild and holy — that guides here refer to as Fight Club.

To understand Fight Club is to learn to embrace the raw hours of the early morning, the minutes and seconds and moments between bar close and the time when sensible people would be waking for their morning commute; the time reserved for insomniacs and murder mysteries. You don’t talk about Fight Club, that’s the number one rule (yes, I’m breaking the rule)— it’s a time and place defined by ethereal moments, buzzed back casts and emotions that can only be described as innate, instinctual. Raw.

Fireflies blink in your peripherals.

A friend upstream loses a fat brown, piecing an insult out of every obscene word he can come up with when the trout spits the fly and races downstream.

A pair of eyes radiate from the bushes under the glow of my headlamp.

Clouds roll in. Clouds roll out.

The Milky Way illuminates Ursa Major. An animal stalks us from behind a stand of ferns.

You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at Fight Club.

***

I’ve had three family members pass away in a month and a half timeframe.

Two were within four days of each other — cancer. One was my stepmother.

I spent roughly 22 hours in a Catholic church in a matter of two weeks in April this year. By my estimations, 22 hours in a church over two weeks was a personal record, despite my Methodist upbringing. For 14 days, familiar latin hymns flowed over the deepest growls of an organ,

In Paradisum deducant angeli

In tuo adventu, suscipiat te martyres

Et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.

Chorus angelorum te suscipiat

Et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere

Aeternam habeas requiem.

In Paradisum deducant angeli — led to paradise by angels. In this I find peace, my life suddenly defined by holy water, minor harmonies and hymnal promises of angels and heaven. I hoped for her sake that it was all real.

***

Fight Club is so-called because you don’t talk about it. Local guides don’t bring clients here — this is where they go to remember why they do what they do, to experience the moments that define flyfishing at its most honest. They find in the beaver holes and tall brush and 29’’ browns something tangibly convincing. And when you’re first introduced to Fight Club it’s an experience not unlike a rite of passage, a holy communion defined by darkness, ceremonial in its inherent struggles; by 3 a.m., passing deer begin to resemble cougars, unseen obstacles have eaten all your flies, and you’re covered in ticks. Lots of ticks. Fight Club is notorious for ticks. And when you walk away, covered in said ticks, with not a take to show for it, it feels a little like apprehension — like maybe I won’t come back later this week. But also, a little like beauty, and a lot like perfection.

***

It’s been three months since Kim, my stepmom, passed away. I don’t remember her for the Latin hymns or Corinthians 5:6, though I do remember her in motion, which is both appropriate and important. I remember the way a humble smile would crease her suntanned cheeks. I remember that same smile despite dire circumstances, vibrancy amidst sorrow.

I’ve found the best way to handle the now wide-open issue of mortality is the motion that so defined my stepmom. Some find clarity in prayer, in worship, in congregation. My chapel changes frequently, sometimes with the weather, mostly with a whim — singletrack weaving through stands of hardwoods; hearing fish rising in front of me as the current hits my shins; the ethereal calmness of an inland lake from atop a borrowed paddleboard.

And yet, the location and lack of Latin hymnals doesn’t defeat the purpose of my devotions. I’m here to find coherence in moving water, in nights so dark I can only turn to my other senses for balance — I hear my cast and my fly hitting the water; I feel the turbulence of the river at my feet; I smell soil, wet brush, the telltale scent of waders left wet in the back of the car for too long. And I know that no church, no Catholic mass can fulfill a desire for things so lucid.

After a night in Fight Club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down.

***

I want nothing more than to learn from my experience with death, to find a tangible lesson in witnessing suffering first hand. I want an epiphany, an a-ah moment, something to justify all the grief and unfamiliar emotions and unfair circumstances.

But the darkness is overwhelming. Days defined by tears. A whole life and beautiful existence, now a void to be filled with beer and cigarettes and compulsive lawn care and every other vice we can come up with; this inevitably becomes night fishing, an undertaking fueled largely by energy drinks, the sound of rising fish and the occasional meteor shower, brief as they may seem — coming and going, coming and going. Now you see it, now you don’t.

Fight Club is my vice.

Vicious takes followed by browns barreling just above the surface; that sky, those trees silhouetted by the sun rising on the horizon; the ticks and tears and falls and trips and everything I’ve experienced. The sound of a trout tail slapping upstream gives way to celebratory yells and a tight line, and I consider all the small, indefinite moments that brought me to this seemingly extraordinary one, this brief instance of clarity in a world so confusing and unfair. A moment is the most you can ever expect from perfection, and with that moment I had found my epiphany:

Without pain, without sacrifice, we are nothing.

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Zack with a big ole, 29-inch Fight Club braud.

4 Comments

  1. I am taken back to many a time I have found my solace in the wilds or on a river! Thanks so much for sharing your journey through this thing we call life and don’t you ever stop “living”!

  2. Amanda….that was beautifully written! You don’t know me but I was good friends with your Mom and your Dad in our schooldays and I know both of them must be extremely proud of you! I know I would be! Keep writing……you do wonderful work!

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