April 01, 2023
By Steve Ramirez
I’ve been pondering the idea of “Home.” I’ve lived in so many places during my six decades of breathing, and there have been times and places when and where I may have felt “at home,” but it never lasted. Things change. Even those times and those places proved to be transitory, temporary, and transitional.
Humanity and its environs are consistent in their inconsistency. Your beloved home waters begin to dry, and warm, and empty. The fish you once caught in abundance become ever more scarce, and in time, you no longer recognize the river you once loved. So, you travel to new waters, landscapes, and communities that are far removed from the place you once called “home.” And if you’re fortunate, you find new waters that feel like home, not because it reminds you of from where you came, but rather, because it reflects who you’ve become and how far you’ve traveled in life. Why is that . . . I wonder?
Change is the only constant in the universe. Like tides and currents, the places where we live are familiar—yet ever changing. Even my own battered body at times feels like home, until a new ache or pain reminds me of its fleeting impermanence. Sometimes that change is frightening. Other times I accept it with grace.
So, I wonder, what is home? Is it a place and time? Is it a state of mind? Is it a choice? I suspect it is all of the above, and yet none of the above. One thing I do sense is that when you find home, you know it. And I find that I always feel at home on the water.
For my friend Chris Wood, Fletcher’s Cove is home. Fletcher’s Cove, often called Fletcher’s Boathouse, has been there in its current state since the 1850s. It has always been a natural indentation in the shoreline of the mighty Potomac River, but it has suffered the indignities of human choices that were lacking in forethought while containing a desire for quick profit for a few, at any cost, for the many. E Pluribus unum? Not much has changed in the way things are changed.
I flew up from Texas to join Chris in the annual shad run that happens in ascending sequence from the St. John’s River in Florida to the Bay of Fundy in Maritime Canada. It was raining the night before Chris and I were slated to fish. I don’t mean a dripping drizzle or soft shower; I mean a torrential downpour. It lulled me to sleep as it hit the rooftop of Chris’s other home, a three-story house in an urban community on the edge of Washington D.C.’s wooded northwest.
As a child I was always lonely in the darkness of my room—the door closed, the nightlight giving little solace. But when it rained I would press my ear against the wall next to my bed or simply listen to it hitting the tin awning at my window, and I felt at peace. The raindrops kept me company and washed away my fears. That is how I felt the night before we fished. At peace.
The downpour turned into a drizzle by morning, and then only a light mist by the time we arrived at Fletcher’s Cove. Both shad and I love rainy, overcast fishing days. The sight of raindrops on the water’s surface seems to calm and comfort both fish and fisher. I love fishing in the rain.
A pileated woodpecker had made its home in a dead tree behind the tackle hut. It was busy tapping its rhythm of resonant drumming upon the hollow tree while intermittently calling out its rapid and boisterous “woika-woika-woika . . . kuk, kuk, kuk” notes into the damp morning air. Pileated woodpeckers seldom seem discreet, but I love watching their antics and must admit that I was more focused on the bird than I was the conversations about fish and fishing that were going on all around me.
Chris and I walked out on the docks, grabbed some oars, life jackets, and hopped into one of the signature wooden rowboats that are fixtures and artifacts of fishing at Fletcher’s. Each boat looks much the same, painted red with white letters that read, “Fletcher.” Every boat at Fletcher’s Boathouse has a rock and rope anchor. Each rock is different, but the ropes seem much the same. I like that—individualistic symmetry.
The process of shad fishing is methodical and magical all at once. You cast, and then you count as you allow the shad dart to sink. After allowing it to swing with the current you begin the slow, rhythmic, strip-strip-strip of the line until with any luck you feel the bump, bump, bump, of an annoyed shad showing its displeasure with your minnow imitation messing around in their space.
It only took a few tries before I received and missed my first bumps. It was exciting to feel them, and I was taken by the fact that the bump of a shad doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever experienced. I missed a few before I managed to hookup to a good-sized hickory shad. It leapt into the misty air while tossing pieces of the river upward and outward until everything tumbled back where it belonged. Gravity is the one truth I know. When I brought him to the boat there was no mistaking it for anything other than a hickory shad with its protruding lower lip and sleek silver-green sides. He was so beautiful, and I was happy to watch him swim briskly away from our little red boat.
Chris and I both caught a few more hickory shad before things slowed down and we pulled up anchor and drifted upstream a little ways until we came within talking distance of where local shad fishing legend Mark Binsted was anchored. We had been watching him as he hooked and landed one fish after another, most of them American shad. We asked what his secret was and he said, “You’ve got to get deeper and go slower.” After giving Mark enough space so we didn’t intrude on his fishing, but could still enjoy his company, we dropped the rock-on-a-rope—I mean, “anchor”—just as the rain began to pick up, along with the fishing.
As I’ve mentioned, I love fishing in the rain. I love the way the water looks and sounds as the raindrops join the river or the sea. I love the fresh smell of the air and the way the water drips off the edge of my oilskin hat. I love everything about it. It feels like adventure.
The rain came down and the three of us continued to cast, count, strip, strip-set, catch, and release one shad after another. I lost count of how many fish we caught but I did notice that we were finally landing some American shad, about one American for every three or four hickory shad we caught. It was exactly the opposite for Mark.
In between casting and catching we chatted back and forth between our two boats, which brings me to another thing I love about Fletcher’s Cove. It is a community of people, not just a place along a river. It feels like everyone who lives out their angling life here, also has a feeling of belonging here. It feels as if it’s their home. I was clearly a welcome visitor, but a visitor, nonetheless.
I don’t want to live in Washington D.C., but I do wish I had the same little notch in a river where “everyone knows your name” and there is a feeling of us all being in this together. Perhaps it’s that feeling of community that at least partially defines and describes “home.” I love that feeling of being where I belong—like a cypress tree rooted on the riverbank. I support the river and the river supports me.
I’m not sure if home is something we find, or something we create. I suspect it’s a little of both. I do know this . . . when I was a younger man I sought out solitude and adventure. I wanted to travel away from the places I already thought I knew. Now, travel and looking outward holds far less charm or allure. I love the comfort of the familiar. And I enjoy companionship when it is with someone who adds to the experience, not detracts from it. My best fishing companions are always the ones who can be at peace in total silence, or in the kind of conversation that is calming, restful, and comforting—like a soft rain on a dreamy night.
The American shad is becoming a human success story. For shad, salmon, and other anadromous fishes, home is the vast journey between freshwater rivers to deep salty ocean currents. Perhaps it’s that way for us too—depending on where we are in any life’s journey. After two centuries of damming its spawning tributaries, polluting its waters, and overfishing with nets and traps, we are finally beginning to heal those wounds. All we had to do is get out of its way to allow it to thrive.
I guess that’s kind of true in our own lives. We need to tear down the barriers and clean up the environment that surrounds us. We need to move together in great surges of benevolent joy and shake off the detritus of our former lives. And most of all, we need to realize that our home is not a house or a village or a nation as much as it is this beautiful blue orb we’ve been given—the only true home we will ever know. We have a long way to go before we arrive closer to where we began, but I remain hopeful. Do you?
Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of Casting Forward (2020) and Casting Onward (2022). His new book Casting Seaward will be available from Lyons Press in April 2023.