It’s only human to want to relive the past, to recreate the good old days. But, it’s a tough task; we often find it’s just not quite the same.
As an avid fisherman, author Ron Davis tends to agree, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
Back in 1972, I was a sophomore at UW-Eau Claire. I was pretty clueless then about what direction my life would take, just content to be in college and not Vietnam or working a grueling paper mill job like many of my buddies. One thing I did know though was that I ached to fish, desperate to find a place where a poor, boat-less college kid could catch a smallmouth bass.
One of my professors, a fellow angler, drew me a map of a “secret” stretch of the Eau Claire River I could access with my old Honda 350. So on a crisp, early fall day, armed with a cheap spinning rod bungeed to my sissy bar, I followed a labyrinth of township roads to a dirt path leading down to a section of the river canopied by overhanging trees.
The water didn’t look too promising, just an open pool about 30 yards wide with none of the usual rock banks and roiling currents you’d commonly associate with smallies. I waded in and the chilly water coursed around my blue jeans, as Jim Harrison once wrote, “at the exact but varying speed of life.”
I made a few casts with a silver spoon, then had a line snarl, and my lure sank to the bottom. Once I got the line untangled, I started to reel in and felt a snag. But then the line moved—a fish! A big smallmouth sprinted and breeched all over the pool, but I finally lipped him, removed the hook and gently lowered the lunker back into the root beer-colored water.
Fifty years later, I moved back to Eau Claire, and again was jones-ing for some piscatorial action. Larry Stordahl, an old friend, had taken me around to a few places on the Eau Claire he thought I could wade, including one practically in the middle of town. So on a steamy July morning a week later I decided to give it a try.
Decked out in my fancy chest waders, carbide-studded boots, fly fishing vest and a preposterous caped hat, I felt a little self-conscious as I waited for traffic to clear and crossed a city street.
I tried to edge my way down the steep, rocky bank sideways but wound up sliding, stumbling and finally gracelessly skidding on my butt to the shoreline. Wading in, I teetered my way through a treacherous jumble of sharp, slippery boulders hiding in the stained water and cautiously worked the river a little with a floating Rapala.
Even though I was just a few blocks from Main Street, the steep slopes covered with greenery and flood-worn rock outcroppings cut me off from city life, other than the occasional honks and Harley revs that percolated through to break the spell.
After a few hours of fighting the prospect of tripping and floating through the city’s center while I struggled to free myself from water-filled waders, a medium-sized smallmouth hit and gave me a nice fight, a lovely, bronze-backed fish which angrily darted back into the depths after release.
Swaddled in all my gear, the heat by then had me breathing hard and swimming in sweat. I thought about things like heat stroke, wrenched knees, my cell phone left in the car—old man worries that made me surrender and set to clawing my way on all fours back up to civilization.
I suppose you could say the Eau Claire was the same river I had found in my college days, at least in name, but I definitely wasn’t the same man. As Harrison also wrote, advancing years can kick you hard, but fishing a river, “you forget the kick.”