Tuesday, December 20, 2016


I don’t like killing things.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    That may come as an unexpected confession from one who loves the sport of hunting, and has a somewhat precipitous body count in the area of squirrels and deer. I’ve got a lot of blood on my hands—not in the least figuratively. No more, though, than any regular consumer of meat. I don’t like killing things, but I don’t think twice about it.

    Every year, there’s a first blood. The hunting seasons take a siesta for the summer, and I join them, wet-wading the creeks and farm ponds of Central Virginia, casting flies and spinners for the usual warmwater varieties. The return of autumn and crisp days brings the annual opening days, and the ensuing fight between life and death that rages in the woods between man and beast, in the dying embers of hardwood trees. Some years it’s a squirrel. Some a bird flushed from cover. Some, a deer that gives its life and welcomes me back.

    This year, it was a deer. A six-point buck, built like a race horse. I took its life in the young of a harsh October morning. Squirrels danced haphazardly in the limber crowns of sweet gums, and resident geese onk-or-ed on high, on their way to splash-down in the nearby pond. He was relaxed, munching on clover in the gray shadow of a pine thicket, as the sky illuminated a bluebird sky, before beams of sunlight could get a direct shot at the ground. He was preparing for the day with a trip to the clover patch.

    My shot was good. He rolled over in his tracks, before the foul effect of adrenalin could marinate his muscles with the taste of death. I have no precise body count, but the cosmic tally he marked was one of several. My nerves are considerably calmer prior to the shot now than they were years ago with my first. I don’t like killing, but I understand it, and I embrace it. And I’ve learned to do it with dignified purpose.

    A sliver of guilt flashed through my mind as I approached the buck and took a knee. Of course, his spirit had long since departed, but it’s a motion I require of myself, to pay respects to the dearly departed.

    Dearly? Perhaps if I enjoyed the act of killing, I would not be so attached to the animal, so profoundly touched by its passing. But Dearly? The offensive voices of a defensive, out-of-touch society scream at me: What reasons have you for killing this creature? Is your life worth more than its?

    It is not. I know that there is no hierarchy in the value of lives. There is only predator and prey. In that moment of sustenance acquisition, I thought of the coyotes and the rabbits that probably jumped at the echo of my rifle shot through the pine thicket. One’s existence is dictated by the other in a series of checks—the coyotes’ by the health of the rabbit population; the rabbits’ by the vitality of the coyote population. I thought of the rearing of a pup coyote, and the rite of passage that was its first kill—the rite of passage that was my first kill—and the realization that in order for one to live, another must die.

    This realization I revisit annually, in some holy October arena lit by the dim light of a waning or waxing day. And though I do not enjoy killing, I have come to cherish the emotional consequences. To take a life and stare into the inanimate eyes of a fellow being is to declare one’s own mortality, to claim a culturally forgotten equivalence within the ecosystem, a clear position within the food web.

    These consequences I hold as advantages over the faction of humanity far-removed from the drama of nature—to experience in their rawest form remorse for loss of a life, respect for a departed champion of their environment, integrity as a steward of the Earth, thankfulness for a bounty endowed unto me, human for my inclusion in all of it. And I promise my continued participation to the animal and to the Earth in repayment for the perspective.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Friday, December 16, 2016


I caught a beaver once. Rather, I almost did.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    One summer evening I was bass fishing a small farm pond when I eyed hopefully a beaver hut in a few feet of water. I delivered a plastic worm to the doorstep, let it sink, and gave it a small lift off the lake bottom with my rod tip. Animated resistance brushed the hook and jumped through the line into my hand, and I set the hook with gusto. The hook didn’t drive home, but an ovular, chocolate mat of hair breached at the end of my line and slammed the door with its paddle tail—communicating its lack of enthusiasm for my housewarming gift and sending water a story into the air.

    A similar thing occurred another summer while dry fly fishing a promising run on the Moosehead Region’s Roach River. My gaze hadn’t yet found the hut on the far bank when a coffee-colored submarine (that would have quadrupled the state’s brook trout record) rose out of the center of the run towards my stimulator as I stood by dumfounded and struggling to react. It of course bypassed my fly and headed for cover, but not before I had time to reflect upon its bizarre choice of behavior. Had I been nymphing, I surely would have had him.

    Both occurrences are memorable and, I often think, might have been more so had I succeeded in placing a hook in beaver flesh. But I’ve seen—and heard at midnight in a swamp—what kind of power those oversized rodents can command with their tail, in a pinch—not to mention their infamous caramel incisors—and I count my lucky stars it didn’t end up that way.

    Surf casters know a kindred issue, especially if they’re doing it right. Birds and predator fish both chase bait, rolling in a dizzying tornado of adrenaline that the surf caster is charged with threading a weighted object dressed with treble hooks through from a distance. Thus the star-crossed gull occasionally finds itself smacked into a downward spiral by the spoon-shaped hand of God and subsequently skittered over the surface and sharks onto the beach to be toyed with by a herd of bumbling humans.

    I’ve known a handful of individuals to have completed the feat and released the seagull to return to its position as bowling pin of the surf—an honorable accomplishment given the general temperament of a hooked gull. And though it’s a conversation starter in some briny circles, it’s hardly a pleasant undertaking in the moment.

    Likewise, loons patrolling the more heavily fished brook trout ponds of Maine have decided their role in catch and release. As accomplished swimmers, they’ll dive from a safe spectator’s distance to nab the struggling brook trout produced by a canoe and a fisherman’s bent rod.

    This understandably incites some frenzy in the fisherman, and though I’ve never personally been faced with the task of removing a fly from the gullet of a loon, I can’t imagine them to be ideal canoe company.

    The snapping turtle would argue its superior displeasantry. It’s my theory that the Old Man was in the beginning stages of snapping turtle sculpting when serpentina opened its beak with an aggressive hiss and was flipped down into the farm ponds of the world pissed off.

    I have a grandfather who caught one measuring over two feet long with rod and reel, once, from a john boat on the lake in Tidewater Virginia where he built his home. It was “landed,” so to speak, and the shell promptly spray painted orange so as to be seen from a distance, and avoided at all costs.

    I remember it vividly, as I do the evening I spent casting dry flies to rising rainbows and browns on a very low Pine Creek in north-central Pennsylvania. The sun was dropping below the horizon and I was praying for a trout to have a moment of poor judgement. As I reached out further, to another rising fish, my backcast tipped a shoot of broomsedge on the bank behind me. Only when I turned to take stock of the situation, the perked ear of a black bear was frighteningly close to that waving grass shoot.

    I counted my lucky stars as the bear cursed my foul casting ability, and pondered the consequences of landing a #14 brown caddis a job as an earring. Today I tell that story with pride, though it could have ended in tragedy. And I go on my normal way, casting to trout and smallmouth, avoiding the oddities at all costs.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, December 15, 2016


It's been a while since I put fly in water. A while by my standards.

    The southwestern corner of Virginia has been experiencing a drought that's run on since early September. And once the smallmouth fishing slowed in October and trout fishing would have theoretically taken over, streamflows bottomed out. So, for lack of ideal opportunity, I yielded to my duties to academics, to my freshmen residents, and to writing, disheartened by the environmental condition, and chivalrous towards the fish in their stressed state.

    Dare I say, it's been the better part of a month since I've strung up my four weight and felt the chill of mountain water and the slime of a wild trout on my hands. A sharp contrast to my summer's industry, fishing darn near every day, pausing to hear what carries me in the mountains, and fulfilling passion as often. Despite the weight of final exams mashing pedal to metal and the oncoming roller coaster of the holiday season, time has slowed to a crawl, like the flat, meandering trudge of the South Fork of the Holston creeping through defoliating hollows. I’ve grown less tolerant of daily disturbances. Life, through my eyes, is less rich without the regular return to nature.

    It's been nearly a month and in that time there have been several deadlines. Several deadlines that were not met clacking excitedly away at the computer, eyes still sparkling, translating the majesty of brook trout and a mountain stream explored over the weekend, or the sense of accomplishment at duping a sex-crazed brown from the South Fork into tearing into a streamer before class. In these periods of real-time inspirational drought, I dive into reflection, focus on a memorable or defining moment, and celebrate it. For what means bounty without shortage?

    It's been...24 days since I last set foot in my home water, but today I'm breaking the streak. Such a hiatus constitutes an emergency, and I have to tend to it, regardless of reward. I've long been proud of my ability to adjust to different angling situations, and have regarded time on the water as a powerful exercise in realignment and realized identity. After all, what means a singing stream without the whisper of drought?

    The water is cold, despite its level, as I slosh my way upstream through the familiar vein that slices through thousands of acres of national forest land. The sun pulls the barren forms of hardwoods over its face. My mind expands into the hills and then sounds inward like the rapidly branching plot of a soul-striking novel. I am home again.

    The usual riffles and runs are choked, empty and exposed, but the deeper holes retain promise. A small black stonefly nymph dropped quietly at the head of a large aqueous bowl rouses the spirit of a wild rainbow typical of this stream.

    Mine is roused, too. It's been a while.

    In that time, we, the American people, elected a new head of state. There were struggles before him—against the movement for federal land transfer, for action on climate change, for a healthy transition to a more sustainable future—but they were catalyzed by a statesman who believed in such things. The newly elected has made clear his intentions of slamming shut that policy window, with interest in coal and oil over the health of the Earth, favoring impolitic lust for capital over survival. Progress is always hard. Sometimes it’s harder. But what is a movement without opposition? Passion without test?

    It is admittedly difficult to maintain hope in light of these events, standing in the stagnant nature of autumn-thus-far in the Southeast. In a puddle of a river once coursing. In 70 degrees in November. In a drought egged on by the hottest summer on record. Watching the fall brown trout season evaporate, and the story potential of my favorite season squandered. Such stressors even the river can’t save me from, and so my stimulus-starved mind rages, hungry for action. I could give up. But I can’t.

    It’ll be a while—that much I’m sure of. Winter, probably, before the return of seasonal rainfall, and the restoration of a healthy fishing pattern and flow of stories to write. Four years, at least, before the majority of representative government stands faithfully on the side of the Earth and the rivers and streams that support the sporting lifestyle we live.

    The water will rise, once again, and the fishing, the writing, the fighting will be easier. But integrity keeps on when the going gets tough. So in the meantime, I’ll be at the river, persisting, waiting. For what means victory without struggle? 

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian