he waters below Beaver Dam, tucked into the Ozark hills northeast of Fayetteville, are icy even in the heart of summer. Crane Roost Bluff looms high above, casting a shadow so deep the sun shines into the pools only near the height of noon. The flows of the river itself are drawn through dark pipes directly from the bottom of Beaver Lake, hundreds of feet below the boaters basking in the sun above. And that’s in August.
In January, with the tailwater mists hanging in the air like displaced ghosts, the water is beyond freezing. It is Antarctic—polar. All of this I could read plainly on my friend Charlie’s face moments after he took one step too far into the riverbed. His neoprene duck-hunting waders instantly became a miniature Niagara Falls as the water, just barely liquid, plunged down, past his fleece shirts, then bottomed out around his wool socks. In three horrible seconds he went from a rosy-cheeked wintertime boon companion to a stammering waterlogged Michelin Man.
I have never laughed harder in my life.
We built him a fire, of course, poor soul, and he spent the rest of that day huddled as close to it as he could without doing himself bodily harm. It was my first trip to the river to watch my friends as they practiced their new sport of “fly fishing.”
At the time, I had no idea it would consume my life.
Two of my friends set us all on this path: Jake and Charlie. I do not know what whim took them or why they decided to join the ranks of floppy-hatted old men in curious vests and baggy pants. All I know is they purchased cheap rods and reels in a plastic bubble pack from Walmart, and set about being fishermen. Their first year was, as far as I could tell, totally and categorically unsuccessful.
Neither caught a fish. Neither seemed likely to ever catch a fish. That summer, as we were leaving high school and preparing to part ways for college, I asked them for a lesson. This was the blind leading the blind, so it is appropriate that my first fly-casting lesson came in the dark, on a golf course. I couldn’t see all the knots I was weaving in the air, and that’s probably why the sport took.
More than 15 years have passed now since that evening on the golf course. These funny little twiggy rods, bouncy like insect antennae, have taken me around the world. I have waded in rivers that flow to all corners of this continent and some others. I have stood atop a ruined Mayan lighthouse nearly consumed by mangroves, fed dry flies to cutthroat trout in places first named by Lewis and Clark, caught and eaten piranha from the stained depths of the upper Amazon.
I hear the sound of a well-casted fly line in my sleep sometimes, feel the rhythm and the release as the rod stores power and then unloads. I once pursued a certain obscure salmon in the mountains so punishingly that I later dreamt it had grown fur and learned to swim through grass. I had that dream more than once, but I don’t know what it meant. I’ve learned that sometimes a pursuit—like my pursuit of that fish, or pursuit of a person, or of a career—can become so all-consuming, we wind up moving through life with blinders on. There are lessons to be absorbed, but we never receive them unless we break our single-minded focus. It took a while to figure that out.
A few years ago, I was floating a favorite stream, fishing for striped bass. This is a difficulty quarry. I saw another angler, about my age, using similar tackle but using it wrong. He could cast, but I could see he didn’t know where the fish were. I usually mind my own business in these scenarios but something triggered me to stop. This was a fishery I knew well. I asked him what he was using, and when he told me I explained to him, as gently as I could, that he was under-gunned for stripers. But, I said, if you’ll just cast that way, along the rocks, you might catch a shoal bass.
Most people would tell you where to go if you presumed to offer that kind of advice, but he didn’t. Instead he shrugged and threw the fly where I had indicated. On his first cast, his line came taut and the rod doubled over. His face registered shock as he landed the fish. I laughed, paddled on, and jokingly called back “Cast thy nets on the other side, brother!”
He replied, “What’s your name?” I told him, and then he told me his. Soon he will stand next to me again, this time as I wait at an altar. He introduced me to a friend of his, you see, and after a while I asked her to marry me.
I’ve thought a lot about the nature of coincidence in the last few years, and even, yes, the engine behind it. I might never have started fly fishing, but I doubt it. If Jake and Charlie hadn’t introduced me to this life in the cold long shadows of Beaver Tailwater, with the eagles reeling overhead, I think I would have found my way here somehow. I might never have met Scott, the man fishing on the rocks, but again I doubt it. If not that day, then some other time, and I am sure he eventually would have mentioned his friend, Tracy.
Water moves in a cycle, driven by an unseen impetus that we will never completely comprehend. But if we trust the water, as I have learned to at great cost, and consent to follow its braids and paths, it will not lead us astray. All rivers flow into the sea, and yet the sea is not full. To the place from whence the rivers come, there they return again.