ESSAY: Home Creek

I have friends thinking about two weeks in Alaska, fly fishing. This is a dream trip, a sort of Shangri-La for the angler with huge fish, wild country, and endless water. They asked if I wanted to come.

I declined.

I said I was busy. What I didn’t admit is just the thought of the whole thing wore me out. The list-making and execution, the plane tickets, the logistics and rods, the reels and boots and flies and maps and anti-bear spray and boxes of food and emergency kits and God knows what else. All this for two weeks fishing on an unfamiliar river. Water you’ll start to know and maybe fall in love with and then never see again. It’s depressing. Why go there when I can toss my little three-weight into the truck and twenty minutes later catch a pretty good-size trout in a little Midwestern spring creek.

A creek I already love. My home creek.

It’s water as familiar to me as my wife’s shoulders and the curve of her back and let’s end the analogy right there. But it takes a long time to know a woman. Two weeks isn’t enough. Two years isn’t enough.

My home creek isn’t endless. There’s only so much water and I’ve walked most of it. I know it well, and yet there are surprises.

Until a storm took out the beaver dam there was a long muddy “flat” that looked dead to me. One afternoon lounging about doing nothing I saw a splash. I tied on a big fly and casting from the dam I let the fly float lazily along in that deep, oily-dark, stagnant water. Boring fishing, and standing in the sun, hot fishing. I threw more line out and the fly turned on its side. Then the explosion. A big, and I mean a big, brown trout rocketed out of the water, all the way out, seizing the fly and turning in mid-air before splashing down, nose first. I almost dropped the rod.

I didn’t think there were trout in there. Shows you what I know.

The little creek asked me to slow down and I did. I’ve found where deer bedded, the ground still warm. I’ve seen and heard the rare (in these parts at least) pileated woodpecker, a crazy looking red-crested woodpecker bigger than a crow. I watched ducklings eating water bugs like popcorn, their mother paddling happily behind. I found the wreck of an old bridge quarried from limestone, the mossy square boulders tumbled into the stream, where there is good fishing. I’ve had butterflies land on my hand and spotted wild orchids and yellow Touch-me-nots and watched hummingbirds feed from them.

The fishing is challenging. I like a challenge. No one has ever “improved” the stream, nothing’s ever been shored up or dredged or cut back and the banks are in a continual and natural state of collapse. It’s choked with lumber, deadfalls crisscross the water. Lanes for casting are narrow. You have to be good with the rod or you’ll spend your day in the trees.

She is not a creek for everyone.

But if you’re in no hurry and pay attention and approach carefully and plan your cast accordingly you will catch trout. I’ll take endless amounts of time casting to the same rising fish, first planning an approach, then tying on a fly I think will work. Everything has to be done right. The cast, the delicate drop onto water, the drift of fly over fish. You saw him. He must be there. Finally, on the tenth or even fifteenth cast there is the splash and you are hooked to a foot-long brookie, a “dandy” as we say.

It depends on the fisherman, but I’d rather spend thirty minutes like that than anything else in the world.

Far upstream, back in a glen is a huge old log, wide, white and butter smooth where I eat my lunch. In the shade I can lay on the log and with the buzz of flies and bees fall asleep, and I mean really fall asleep, and have dreams, only to wake beside my fairyland creek, a sort of dream in itself.

There’s lonesomeness, too. Happiness brings it on. I think of a friend who is gone for no good reason, a friend since childhood who loved to fish more than any man I ever met. I can still see him holding up a big trout. “What a fish!” he cries in that high voice. So long, old pal.

In June, a once in a lifetime thunderstorm (now happening every year) dumped seven inches of rain onto my little creek, gouging new channels and piling timber onto the oxbows. I was heartbroken. The old sweet spots were gone. But there were new bends and plunges to explore, and I found long sections where the river flushed away mud the way miners uncover gold, through hydraulic pressure. The exposed gravel is prime spawning habitat, and this fall I’ve been catching (and releasing) brightly colored brookies, spawning males in blacks and yellows and golds and oranges. The orange on the belly is a stunning indescribable orange which has to be seen to be believed. Call it Brook Trout Orange.

The river takes care of her own. She’s taking care of me.

So I don’t want to go to Alaska, I really don’t. Maybe some day. Right now I like my home creek. It took a long time to get to know her. And I still don’t really know her. Every day brings another discovery, another curve, another shade or mood I somehow missed. Familiarity deepens the journey, increases the fascination.

Her essence remains an intoxicating mystery. We are still talking about the creek, aren’t we?


Richard Donnelly

Richard Donnelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Classic flyover land. Which makes us feel just a little... superior. Mr. Donnelly's first book is 'The Melancholy MBA,' published by Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Georgia.