Wednesday, September 14, 2016


My dictionary features a perpetual list of definitions for the word “success.”

Photo by Matt Reilly.

    One is manifest by the personal discovery of large, wild fish in an otherwise humble setting.

    There’s a river in southwestern Virginia that fits the bill. I didn’t discover it. That honor belongs to Daniel Boone, or one of the uncelebrated pioneers of central Appalachia. I didn’t discover the tremendous smallmouth bass fishery that exists there, either, though I’ve discovered it personally this summer, and have likewise reaped the rewards.

    My success has come in its upper reaches, where the channel stretches no more than 30 yards across and winds quietly southwestward through the Valley and Ridge to rendezvous with its sister rivers in Tennessee. During the low, slow flows of late summer, an angler of average height can wade for an afternoon without wetting his thighs, should that be their wish. And so the game becomes identifying those holes and runs that would wet a thigh—and the shady banks of sufficient cover—and approaching them stealthily through ankle-deep water to present a fly.

    On one such afternoon, when I was indulging myself in just that challenge, I encountered a hole chest-deep under the solar protection of an overhanging riparian canopy. A riffle headed its body and supplied it with the rich supply of dissolved oxygen that doesn’t go unclaimed in late summer, and three current fingers carried little foam saucers like rafts upon a quaking sea down into the tail.

    From it I pulled three smallmouths of several pounds—each respectable and seeming novelties for the size of the river. Their spirits were strong, but hampered by the oppressive season, but I fought them quickly and released them to rebuild their spirit, as I have countless bass before them.

    I recall that afternoon while standing idly on that river’s bank, crouched in a sea of reeds.

    The Native Americans themselves, who inhabited and thrived in these river valleys for centuries, also constitute a definition of success in my dictionary.

    It was during my pre-teen years that I learned of the Natives’ practice of turning river reeds into arrow shafts, obsidian into arrowheads, and the trunks of sapling basswood and elm into longbows to be strung with woven hair or sinew from harvested game.

    I tried to replicate the process using raw materials from my backyard—shale in place of obsidian, beech limbs instead of river reed. The attempt failed, and I retired my efforts to the sound industry of crayfish trapping, and took on a new, practical appreciation for Native Americans and the skills they developed to succeed and thrive while leading a naturally sustainable existence.

    Beyond the river reed, the river ran lower, slower than when last I visited, exposing the brown scaled back of yet another of my definitions of success. In just six inches of water, the pulsing body of a common carp of about 14 pounds inched along a gravel bar just feet from dry land.  Every few inches of upstream progress would bring a gill flare and the flashing of a pale pectoral fin as it sucked in water to digest a tiny morsel found on the streambed.

    Omnivores, they eat anything. As large, spooky adults, they have few predators besides man. And as generalists hailing from the sluggish waters of the Old World, they can reside just about anywhere, and have come to do so the world over. Their attentive eyes distinguish more effectively than our own, and their highly efficient hearing mechanisms can detect the sound of monofilament vibrating in the wind.

    An aesthetically humble species, sure, but the carp is a master of its environment, and thus, a worth adversary.

    I hide in the reeds, watching the fish’s forward progress, playing a game with myself to see if I can predict its next movement. I analyze its body language. Is it feeding? Yes. Has it seen me? Perhaps.

    The fish’s track has taken it several yards upstream of an overhanging sycamore, and I decide to make my approach. Fly rod in hand, I dip a timid toe into the river, cringe at the gritting of gravel, and pause. The fish goes about its business unfazed.

    Not wishing to take any more steps than necessary and risk detection, I see my opportunity and I take it. A 50-foot cast unrolls and places a leader and tippet just a foot to the right of the fish. The fly plops down softly a few feet ahead of it.

    The carp’s head encounters my fly and jerks towards mid-river. With a firm thump of its tail, it disappears to hide among mid-river structure, and success evades me once again. I grit my teeth and my heart sinks. Next time, perhaps a bit more observation from the reeds and success will be mine.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian