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Afraid of Small Spaces

Afraid of Small Spaces

(Al Hassall Illustration)

Here, try these. I’ll see you after lunch,” Brandon said, passing me a box of soft-hackles and midges. I thanked him, and we promised to meet up after his morning guide trip.

I analyzed each one between my fingertips, forever mesmerized at how something so small can evolve into grander memories. I put them aside, pulling out a 2X leader in preparation for casting streamers, which are nothing more than floaties for a groggy-eyed saltwater angler. While I make the most of untangling webs of 6X, I found comfort knowing that portion of the day was still some hours away. An unorganized box of sculpins, Muddlers, and articulated shanks suggested eminent grandeur, the same feeling that overcame frontiersmen before fever, bears, and natives interjected. I pushed forth, hoping to strike gold.

After a few minutes of studying a slow stretch of river, I found some trout feeding along a deep stretch with a silt bottom. Following my standard operating procedures, I spotted my prey well after the ante was up. A fish darted away from me and through a patch of others, his path traced by the faintest puff of silt stirred from the bottom.

I retraced my steps and waited, taking a look around. Midges began to pirouette above the river in the patches of sun in swirling, erratic swoops that lacked grace and mission. Dozens turned into hundreds and they spun about me like subatomic particles bound to collide given time and opportunity. I couldn’t move, I could only marvel, and watch them swoop and dip like lovers enthralled in dance, every single one of us drunk off the morning sun.

Despite knowing better, I cast a streamer in the hope that a hunk of meat might entice a fish into forgetting my presence. After I enticed only one small brown in a long stretch of water, I decided to relocate and change tactics.

 I was pleased to find faster water. The coos and caws of a run are music to the ears of seekers of wide-open spaces. While my sleep machine might replay the gurgle of mountain streams, its artificial rendering is nothing more than the words of an old love letter, the scent long gone, but hard to let go of all the same.

A moss-laden bank jutted into my path beneath an overhang of hemlock. I sat, resting my feet on the exposed roots beneath the bank where high and fast water had licked away at the foundation. As I rerigged, a deer tick crawled up my arm in search of a warm, dark home. While I’ve never heard of a trout eating a tick, I gave it a moment’s thought as I dispatched the parasite like a booger. I replaced my leader with 6X and ate my customary river lunch, a pack of crackers and some water, using the time to study the stretch before me.

Every gathering at the river reminds me that bodies of water are the borderlines on the map of my rearing. This moment, on this river, was no different.

A creek in the backyard of my youth defined both the boundaries of my exploration and the origins of a persistent curiosity. It ran yellow with pollen in the spring, turned to dust in summer’s drought. It was overgrown with brambles by fall and in the worst of winters it froze, a grand opportunity to learn about the density of ice.

In that creek I began to understand the process of things, to first observe the metamorphosis of species from their most basic form into complex beings. Jelly balls of frog caviar buoyed about the bends, copperhead moltings lay dried along the bank. I held squirming tadpoles between two cupped palms, clasped pissing toads between my thumb and forefinger. These were customary traits and activities for children of the wild, when computers were only on the cusp of domination. But those moments, however brief, could define a lifetime not yet lived. The place where the first synapses bonded the passage of water to my better self, where I transitioned from a curious child into a man beholden to the sun, at the mercy of passing water to subsist and prosper. One falls in love with the outdoors before fly fishing comes into the fray, but their juxtaposition forms an entity that cannot be dispatched nor ignored, and at some moments, is downright unfair to the psyche of the angler in question.

I was surprised to find a brown a few feet from me. The water was quick there, but no deeper than my knees. With a Flashback Midge, size 20 soft-hackle, single split-shot, and a wisp of indicator, I was finally in the deep end, prepared to spend the rest of the afternoon unwinding late hook-sets from the branches above.

Although veteran anglers spend little time messing about with bundles of fishing line, they did at some point. Those growing pains alone are enough to break the spirit of casual fishermen. It is an activity meant to be at once loathed and savored. It is a teacher and a tormentor, a strength trainer for patience but the chastity belt of catching fish. With no disrespect to the late Pirsig, it should have been titled Zen and the Art of Untangling a Clusterf*ck of Tippet.


The fish was almost too close as I tried to drift the soft-hackle across its nose. I let out a few more feet, casting farther upstream, and as I went to mend, the yarn shivered as if taken by fright. I set the hook and a rouge cheek broke the surface, turning toward me, meeting my eyes as if the rainbow sought to ascertain the dimensions and battle readiness of the angler on the other end. Were he observant, he would have found a slack-jawed boy-man on the verge of a cardiac event. Wide-eyed and panicking, I knew the rainbow had the upper hand, for not in my wildest dreams did I anticipate encountering a trout of this size.

Trophy fish are the chapter heads, the full-page spreads, of an angler’s life story. They are the reference points for our memories, the conversation starter, while much of the nuance, the no-fish days, time with friends, and outdoor experiences, are the words between the chapters. I do not fish purely for the trophies, but when they come along, I realize I have begun another chapter, another story, with all its subtle details and intricate pieces there to be discovered like another segment in a longer, beautiful narrative.

Afraid of Small Spaces
(Al Hassall Illustration)

The trout thrashed before taking off into the middle of the stream, and then up it. The irony of my situation was that I had cast streamers all morning because they lure large, predatory fish, while I now battled the largest trout I’d ever hooked on a barbless, size 20 midge.

“Oh God. Oh. My God,” I said, hoping someone might stumble along the river with a large net. But I had wanted to have that Monday morning all to myself, to turn to my left and right and see no one. For once, my wish had been granted.

I managed to get the rainbow close three times, and each time it turned and returned into the river, working each angle in search of a rock or fallen limb to snag my line. Over the next ten minutes the fish took me upriver and down, explored the shallows, and plunged toward what holes it could find. Each time I got the fish close to me, the reel sang my favorite tune and the fish was off again. Breathless, I was able to work it into the shallows upstream, turning it onto its side. This was it. I have done it. I pulled my net from the back of my waders.

I dipped the wooden frame into the water and under the fish’s tail, past its pelvic fin and up its fat belly. As I did, it thrashed again, a final attempt to render itself free from alien abduction. I pushed the net farther, hoping to get the head of the net past its belly. One more inch, maybe two. I extended my rod back farther, wishing I could dislocate my shoulder from its socket. In a few seconds it would be over, a few quick photos to confirm the experience to myself as more than just a dream.

Snap! The rod slingshot backward, the tippet went slack, the fish’s tail slapped once and disappeared. I let out a pained cry, an embarrassing show of emotion fit for Shakespearean stages.

I held my face in my hands. Not to mask my anguish but to still them from shaking. I sat back on the bank to tie on another midge in hopes of another bite, but I knew that part of the day was gone. I relived the scenes of the fight, my buzzing reel, the trout’s lateral line so broad and long. No reassurances could fill the pit in my gut. It was a sugar-coated pill, a taste that was all at once terrible and terrific. A dose of reality I had to swallow.

But I could not fault the trout, could only relate to its fear of being captured from its natural habitat and placed in tight confines, withdrawn from the water that is both essential for my equilibrium and necessary for its survival. It is a sentiment I understand and respect. Children of the outdoors and fly fishers are prisoners to the same disposition as fish: To grow and prosper means to pursue the wide open, to structure our better lives around clean air, swirling insects, and the passage of water. Our bond is characterized by our need to roam free, and in the simplest of terms, to live and die afraid of small spaces.

Aaron Wood lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and splits his fishing time between the salt and the watersheds of Appalachia. He is an avid fly tier and writer, devoted husband, and in 2021 became a new father.

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