A Day on the Shenandoah River
|Beautiful summer afternoons like today make me think of just one thing. Fishing. And more specifically, fly fishing. The Shenandoah River is my home body of water. Despite our efforts, it has thus far taken every punch that we’ve thrown its way and somehow still remains a vein of life flowing through our gorgeous valley. Standing on her banks, gazing over the gentle ripples and swirling eddies, the Shenandoah gives any lucky soul an instant feeling of tranquility. The river is like a big dose of liquid muscle relaxer. The big drug companies produce their high-priced versions. Mother Nature does it much better.
I spent the majority of my life in the restaurant world. A world not inhabitable by just anyone. Successfully managing a restaurant requires a special blend of super-human characteristics. Most of which come naturally and rarely can be taught. Traits such as communicating well with a wide spectrum of employee and guest personalities, absorbing stress without going totally insane and somehow juggle a thousand different tasks while still maintaining a sense of humor. I often use the analogy of Robert Duvall’s character in “Apocalypse Now” to describe life as a restaurant manager. Standing on the beach during an invasion of Vietnam, while bombs explode nearby, Duvall instructs two young soldiers, both world class surfers before the war, as to where the best waves are breaking off shore. As other soldiers were diving for cover, as bombs burst and shrapnel flew, Duvall stood unfazed, totally focused on his mission of getting those two boys onto the next, best, bitchin’ set of waves.
Expediting in the kitchen on a Friday night would have been a challenge for Duvall’s character. Calmly screaming food orders to different stations manned by the kitchen staff, timing the barks so that a family’s entrees arrive in the “window” simultaneously; hot food served hot, cold food served cold. Seven hundred and fifty meals in six hours. In a ticket-time of fifteen minutes or less. Many, many nights, that was how I spent the second half of my twelve hour work day. Caffeine and nicotine were the gasoline. Alcohol was the brakes. Six days a week.
I left work early one day, a day very similar to today. All of the conditions were ideal in allowing me to skip out of work early that day. We were over-staffed, my strongest assistant was on duty, and I had a bar regular who was an attorney, just in case I killed the next employee who called in sick or dared even speak to me.
As I frantically rushed to the river to relax, I passed a slow moving vehicle that clogged the left lane. Son-of-a-bitch. Isn’t she too old to be driving? Couldn’t they tease her blue hair into an aero-dynamical, conical shape, to help increase her speed somewhere close to the actual posted limit. Geezy-peezy.
It only took three steps down a muddy bank and four steps into the cool water, to bring my body to a stop and unleash two ‘cracks’ from my neck. I was in the town of Shenandoah, just downstream from the old hydroelectric dam. Where a river-wide series of rapids is divided by a heavily-treed island, which then converges into a long, slow moving stretch of water. I wore my usual wet-wading uniform. A $100 pair of wading boots, an old pair of cargo shorts and a faded Jimmy Buffett t-shirt.
I waded downstream through the rapids and arrived at the beginning of the slower section. Even before I could unleash a cast, a movement in the water to my left caught the attention of my blood-shot eyes. It was a baby otter, maybe eight inches long. He was doing the otter paddle, struggling against the slow current, apparently on his way to the river’s island. When he got to within a rod’s length of me, I interrupted the surreal moment by saying “Well hello, Mr. Otter. How are you doin’ today?” In the book titled “How To Relax After Work”, a quip from page 153 suggests having a one-sided conversation with an infant wild animal on their home turf. It really works.
There’s an old adage that goes “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. Or something like that. For fisherman, the saying is “The fishin’s always better around the next bend”. As I waded downstream, I couldn’t help but gaze and wonder at the scenic area on the far side of the river. There was one long rapid, formed by a continuous limestone formation, which spilled into a calm, deep pool, a quarter of an acre in size. Framing the scene, rising from the far bank, was a huge, bare rock wall, a giant ‘climbing wall’, if you will. If it’s worthy of a postcard, then it must be home to a trophy smallmouth.
That’s the misguided logic of a hardcore fisherman. The harder a fishin’ spot is to get to, the better the fishin’s gonna be. So, from the easy wading conditions of my current location, I started off on a treacherous journey across the strong currents and some pretty slippery rocks. I ‘locked and loaded’ my boots into the crevasses of the limestone. As my first cast unfurled, it was met at the water’s surface by a loud splash/smack from the anger tail of a territorial beaver. Now I’ve been attacked by angry beavers before (had to go there), but apparently I had ventured a little too close to home for the beavers’ liking, especially since it was early in the year and there were probably young ones around. Speaking out loud, I apologized and begged for patience, as I retraced my slips and slides back to a safe zone. All along, Mom and Pop kept cruising from side to side of the big pool, menacingly slapping their tails against the water, despite my pleas for mercy.
So after going a quarter of a mile out of my way to avoid a humiliating death by beaver, (Doctor, it says on the death certificate “death by angry beaver”…Yes nurse, it’s a common cause of death for men over thirty-five), I began fishing again. As I continued my trek down the right side of the river, it became unclearly obvious that nighttime was setting in. I did what any intelligent fisherman would do and began to weigh my escape options. Wade back to where I had begun or hike over to the road that paralleled the river. Now, let’s see. Wading upstream against the current in near complete darkness on slippery rocks or climb through the heavily foliaged bank full of spurs and stickers and selfishly trespass through a nearly mature field of crops belonging to an unknown, possible armed farmer. So I kept fishing.
About a third of the way in river from the bank was a large, partially submerged boulder. Like a Titanic iceberg, with its top exposed to both the elements and a shroud of darkness, the bottom blindly submerged into the depths of the river, the formation created a large eddy downstream from its permanent spot. I knew that there had to be fish holding there in the eddy, not burning energy swimming against the strong current, venturing out from the calm only to snag a bite, a crayfish or a hellgrammite, any easy meal flowing by.
I cast a large, top-water popping bug into a perfect location, nearly grazing the back side of the exposed rock. In the darkness, I saw nothing, but heard a loud ‘gulp’ and instinctively raised my rod tip in order to set the hook. Like a scene from ‘Jaws”, the submerged line made a stealthy cruise towards my bank. A bronzeback weighing four, possibly five pounds, he must have been well fed because he keeps getting heavier each time that I tell this story. As he neared the calmer waters near the bank, my mind was racing. I have a waterproof, disposable camera in my vest, a Bic lighter to help see, the fish is on a weed-less hook, just tire him out in the shallows. And then he leaped out of the water, shook his head violently, and my trophy fish disappeared back into the dark, depths of the river. I hurriedly began casting back to the exact spot where I had hooked my white whale, the casts rhythmically timed with intervals of curses, spoken in the four new languages in which I was now fluent. Then I stopped. That big lunker was, without a doubt, hanging out under the trees of the river’s bank. I started to laugh out loud at myself. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. A grown man, standing in complete darkness, belly-high in water, with no convenient way back to his vehicle, incensed at not catching a harmless vertebrate which possesses a fairly small brain.
On the way home, I was completely relaxed. I drove more like that little old lady that I had encountered earlier, than my usual, piano strung self. I took a short pit stop to my local ‘watering hole’. A change of shoes, shorts still dripping wet, I bellied up to the bar for a mindless game of video poker and a cold draft beer. What a good day.