by David James Duncan ’04 hon.
Clark Fork River, late September, and I’m kneeling in a patch of forget-me-nots. The light is reddening: a fast-setting fall sun. Fly rod in hand, I’m working a vast sliding glide of strikingly silent water.
Kneeling pays. A fish begins rising not two rod-lengths away. I flip out a mahogany-colored mayfly. The take, my strike, and the leap are simultaneous. A trout and my face are suddenly side by side, the only sound in the world the wild pulsing of its body in still air. We hear nothing so clearly as what arrives out of silence. The trout’s airborne pulsing is like a word clearly spoken in an empty hall. There is no bottom-of-the-boat indignity in this airborne thrashing. Trading water for sky, meeting no fluid resistance, the trout’s swimming becomes a spasm of speed, its whole heart and fear and body producing a sound like a bird taking flight. The trout leaps again. I hear wings again. Leaps again. And now I feel them. My heart lifts; body vanishes; mind flies into a jubilant spasm, and I suddenly know a litany of things I can’t know: that the souls of trout too leap, becoming birds; that trout take a fly made of plumage out of yearning as well as hunger; that an immaterial thread carries a trout’s yearning through death and into a bird’s egg; that the olive-sided flycatcher, using this thread, is as much trout as bird as it rises to snatch the mayfly from its chosen pool of air; that Tibetans, using this thread, locate departed lamas returned in the forms of young boys and, if they’d look closer, girls; that the flycatcher that was the trout was before that the mayfly that was the river that before that was creeks, last year’s snowpack, last year’s skies, eternity’s ocean… and that leaps are exhausting.
Still kneeling in forget-me-nots, I forget.
Played out, the trout turns on its side.
I ease the fish into my hands, and unhook the fly. The trout streaks for the depths with purpose. I stand in the shallows with nothing of the sort.
There are no rises now on the big silent glide. The one trout’s leaping has spooked things for a time. If I were a younger man I’d say the show here was over and rush, before light failed, to the next likely water or showing fish. But there are desires the vaunted energy of youth conceals. What I most often want now is to be more present where I am. There are tricks to this, as with any kind of fishing. Here is one. When trout rise in rivers, the rings of the rise drift quickly downstream. For this reason a fly fisher must cast not to visible rise-rings, but to an invisible memory of where rings first appear. I’ve heard this called “the memory point,” and knew of this point when I was young. What I did not know, then, was that one’s best casts to it are not necessarily made with a fly rod. Leaning mine against an osier, using eyes alone, I cast to a memory point now: In the last hours of a September day you can’t see down into the Clark Fork. The sun is too low, the light too acutely angled. In the last hours of day the river’s surface grows reflective, shows you blue sky and red clouds, upside-down pines, orange water-birch, yellow cottonwoods. Deer hang as if shot, by their feet, yet keep browsing bright grasses. Ospreys fly beneath you. Everything is swirling. In a snag, way down deep, you might spot a flycatcher. It’s hard to believe these clouds and trees, deer and birds, are a door. It’s hard to believe fish live behind it. Yet it was the clouds at my feet the rainbow troubled by rising. It was into this false sky that I cast the mahogany mayfly. It was out of inverted pines and cottonwoods that the trout then flew, shattering all reflection, three times speaking its winged word.
Not every cast hits the memory point. But when one does, this word goes on silently speaking. It says that death is like the Clark Fork, very late in the day. It says winged words are eternal. It says eternity moves through doors and worlds as it pleases.
David James Duncan, who received an honorary doctorate from the University in 2004 for “the power and passion and prayer” of his work, is the author of the novels The River Why and The
Brothers K, and of several collections of essays, notably the superb My Story as Told by Water.