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Will Fins Be Enough? Breathing Beneath a Falling Sky

Bluebonnets, white bass, and a moment of peace on Texas's Colorado River.

Will Fins Be Enough? Breathing Beneath a Falling Sky

(Rob Benigno art)

It was a two-hour drive across my beloved Texas Hill Country to the homewaters of my friend Cari Ray. I listened to the sweet bluegrass melodies of Watchhouse singing “Wildfire,” as the road rolled over the oak-covered hills toward the ever-expanding environs of Marble Falls. The haunting voices and melodies reminded me of my time casting to native brookies in the rural hills of West Virginia with my buddy Dustin Wichterman. For me, music and memories often mingle like the waters of the streams I seek. Both seem to reflect the best in humanity and the world. They both give me reason to keep casting forward.

When I arrived at the mighty Colorado River of Texas, it was a shadow of its former self. In this case the water was narrow and shallow because the dam had been all but closed upstream in Marble Falls. But all over the Texas Hill Country the springs, streams, and rivers have been drying up, becoming warmer, and concentrating the fish and other wildlife in unhealthy ways.

I often imagine what it’s like to be fish or fowl, flying increasingly north with the changing climate, and swimming closer together beneath the falling surface of the streams, rivers, and lakes.

My friend Lillian Stokes once posed the question, “Will wings be enough?” to save the songbirds? I wonder, will fins be enough to save the fishes? Where do they go when there is nowhere left to go? As the hills and canyons I love vanish beneath the asphalt and concrete of a million hollow houses, one question comes to mind. Where will I go if someday soon all of this is gone?

It was overcast and cool, with a soft drizzle descending toward the wounded Earth. It wasn’t enough rain to make a difference beyond cooling the air and calming the fish. Cari and I walked down the embankment where the high-water mark once was and across the gravel bottom, now dry and sprouting Texas bluebonnet flowers here and there. There’s a saying in Texas: “No bluebonnets—no white bass.”

The bluebonnets and bass were both arriving earlier than they used to, so we arrived early too, with our soft 4-weight glass rods, sinking lines, and rising hopes. Cari Ray is a professional singer-songwriter and musician who guides in both Texas and Colorado. She also has a wonderful podcast called “The Fisher of Zen,” and most importantly to me, she is my friend.

I’ve fished the white bass run in previous years and had some success with my floating line and weighted Clouser Minnows, but Cari wanted me to try fishing for them with a sinking line—retrieving low and slow. I’m so glad that I did. Leave it to Cari to remind me that I must always strive to meet every living being, not where I want them to be, but rather where they are.

The water was dark and cold, and so this was a chance to test our Zen spirits and simply connect to whatever or whomever we might attract. For most anglers fish might seem soulless, but for me and Cari, we hear their beating hearts and see their eyes forever transfixed toward the water that sustains them. As a child and man with asthma, I’ve always had compassion for any creature that struggles to breathe. I wonder if the fish’s gills ever tighten and ache as my lungs do in the thin air of elevation.

Empathy seems to be draining from our landscape as quickly as the fresh clean water. I hold my breath as I hold each fish, briefly, out of the water—if ever I take them from it. I remember that day as a child when I had not yet learned how to swim and I slipped into the depths of one of our favorite fishing ponds. I remembered how grateful I was to feel my father’s hands pulling me back up toward the surface, gasping for air and wishing for gills as my eyes remained transfixed toward the atmosphere that sustained me.




We walked up to the few deep pools along what remained of the river and began casting to likely places, then slowly working our flies across the unseen gravel bottom where we hoped white bass were congregating for the spring run—a continuation of the struggle to sustain the species without regard to the hazards of the journey. It’s a struggle we’re all embroiled in, no matter our place beneath the falling sky.

Cari hooked and landed the first fish. It was a nice-sized white bass, probably a female since the bigger ones tend in that direction. About the time she released it, my 4-weight doubled over and I brought my first “sandy” to hand. Here in Texas, white bass are often called sand bass or sandies. I don’t know why. We Texans have a way of misnaming stuff. We call ponds tanks, sunfish perch, prairies pastures, and juniper trees cedars. Again, I don’t know why. We seem to name things based either on what they reminded our European ancestors of, or based on how we “use” them. For me, there are no natural resources, only natural treasures.

It didn’t take long before Cari hooked into another “sandy” and then I landed one, and then her, and then me . . . as if we were politely taking turns. In between she caught a Guadalupe bass, and I caught a European carp, and we both managed to land a few freshwater drum and a couple of crappies. Over the course of an hour or two, we had caught and returned seven species of fish from these narrow pools along the rivulets of the riverbed.

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I wish I could say that I caught and released so many fish because I’m an amazing angler, but the truth is these fish were concentrated in what little water there was, and they were hungry. I think I’d rather have to work harder for every fish, while knowing the rivers were flowing freely. After all, I don’t really fish for the fish, I fish for the feelings of freedom, joy, and hope.

An osprey flew upstream as a kingfisher flew downstream, each calling out their delight at the predicament of the fishes. There wasn’t an ounce of sarcasm in their voices. They were just hungry too.

And who was I to throw stones? After all, I was here, just like them. We were a collection of anglers making the best of things. Still, the renegade within me wanted to open those floodgates and let the river flow freely to the sea like God or gravity intended. I wanted to witness free-flowing waters over ease of angling, so that the birds of prey, Cari Ray, and I had a more level playing field.

Cari Ray and I stopped for a lunch of tacos and cold Texas brews before I started back home. The girl from Indiana and the boy from Texas, two good friends, had shared a day together that brought a moment of peace in an all-too-often angry world. At the moment of our first cast, I let go of the recent images of wars and rumors of war and all the suffering and destruction that comes with such human foolishness.

I let go of the specter of drying rivers, rising seas, burning forests, flooded cities, pandemic, and of a nation seemingly teetering on the edges of collapse. With that first cast, my friend and I defied those dark currents. We created a space between the Earth and the falling sky where empathy could live, and songs could be sung, and joy could be found and shared. After all, just like the operation of the floodgates on the Marble Falls dam, freedom, joy, kindness, and hope are all choices.

I knew it was a two-hour drive across my beloved Texas Hill Country from Marble Falls to my home along the banks of the Guadalupe River. The low-slung clouds seemed to drift closer toward the living Earth as a soft drizzle descended upon my oilskin hat. I looked up and felt the mist resting on my weathered skin. Raindrops followed gravity along the contours of my battered old face and down into my increasingly gray beard—like teardrops from the heavens. It was a good day of music, food, fishing, and friendship. It was a day I will never forget for as long as I am fortunate enough to be breathing in hope, under this falling sky. Perhaps in some small way my humble words can help us all breathe a little more life into this beautiful world.


Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of three books including Casting Seaward (Lyons Press, 2023), which is now on sale. His first book Casting Forward (2020) played a prominent role in the feature film Mending the Line, which saw a widespread theatrical release in June 2023. For a complete review of the film, click here.

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