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Seasonable Angler: The Journey Home

Like giving and accepting a gift, being home is a choice.

Seasonable Angler: The Journey Home

(Rob Benigno illustration)

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It was just one day prior that my friend Ross Purnell and I shared a day wading and wandering together along the forested edges of upper Penns Creek. We fished from the glow of first light until the arrival of the soft, gentle, half-lit evening. When that day receded, mayflies tumbled from the heavens, weary of flight, yet content in giving their last full measure. Together we had come full circle—returning to the home waters of our ancestors. As a young man, my father once cast across these Keystone State waters.

It was a day that I will never forget. It contained all the most important elements of a truly magical and meaningful fishing trip. Birds sang in the bright green trees as conversations and moments of silence and solitude were gratefully shared. The river ran quick, cold, and clean around my legs—taking my cares away with its persistent currents. It was a perfect day. Did I mention that I caught nothing? Ross caught a few. Like so many people whom I fish with, he is a much better angler than me. It doesn’t matter. I loved every fishless moment.

And now it was a new day as we gathered together to float down the same river—transformed by its accumulation of warmer waters. Nature is full of paradox and parables that act to teach us the power of perspective and remind us that change is our only constant. Even gravity might someday vanish, allowing whatever is remaining of this wounded planet to float aimlessly like mayfly spinners on a global twilight riffle. Until that day we still have the opportunity to become our better selves and choose which harbor is the right harbor. Drift boats don’t really drift unless we surrender our ability to take up the oars and choose our response to the pull of the currents and push of the winds. This is true in the life of our rivers and the rivers of our lives.

When we arrived at the river we met up with our fellow adventurers for the day, who included Ross’s son, Carson, Jay Nichols, and Ben Annibali. This was my first time meeting each of them and luckily for me, we became fast friends. This day felt more like a celebration than a contemplative moment of solitude on the water. There needs to be room for both celebration and contemplation in our precious and finite lives. Fly fishing allows me both solitude and sharing.

The lower portion of Penns Creek is bass water. And as much as I enjoy the ballet of catching trout, I am a bass angler at heart. Being a son of the South I grew up tossing spinners at largemouth bass and later in life, casting a fly rod to Guadalupe bass in my Texan homewaters. After two days of daintily dunking nymphs and delicately presenting dry flies to softly rising trout, it was going to feel good to enter the equivalent of a barroom brawl with a truly American fish—the smallmouth bass.

I was casting a 7-weight Orvis H3 and tossing a big tan-colored articulated Game Changer. I had fallen in love with Ross’s 5-weight H3 on upper Penns Creek the day prior. Somehow, it felt as if we belonged together and every time I cast it I felt peace, joy, and a sense of oneness. We felt at home together, me and that fly rod. Relationships come in all forms, between living beings, places, and even inanimate objects.

I was slated to begin in the bow of the boat that Jay was navigating, and Ben manned the back of the boat. As soon as we got into good water with a little cover under some massive trees, he began to connect, and he landed three bass before I could manage one. But then it was my turn and the surface of the cove transformed into the kind of splashing, slashing, swirling, battleground a bass man like me lives for! We’d only been on the river for a few minutes and already that action was furious.

Ben and I were evenly matched in our exuberance. I laughed every time I blew it on a hook-set—and I laughed often. Ben and Jay traded commentary back and forth as we each took turns catching and sometimes failing to catch and land fish. All too often the strike came as soon as the fly hit the water. Bass aren’t shy creatures nor are they persnickety. They’ll eat just about anything they can get in their maws from a dragonfly to a duckling.




Most of the bass we were landing were of moderate size, but a few were pretty hefty including a big female that I hooked into in a back eddy where the water was so clear that I could watch everything unfold even within its depth and turbulence. She was a hefty hunk of bass flesh and although I tend to shy away from grip and grin photos, I was all too happy to hold her briefly, as Jay snapped a photo. I’m a conservationist, not a saint.

There wasn’t any part of the river that didn’t seem to hold fish, but some areas were simply schooling with good sized bass that seemed to be eager to smash anything that landed on the water. At one point I tossed the fly out into what I thought was an unlikely trench in the center of the river and even there a nice bass rose up and smashed the fly. I brought him boatside, wet my hands, and lifted him carefully so that I could quickly return him to the water. But he had taken the fly in deep, and I asked Jay if I could borrow his forceps. They were the tiniest set of forceps I’ve ever seen. I started laughing and said, “Jay, your forceps are so damn cute! Where’s their momma?” We were all laughing as the bass splashed me in the face, seemingly unamused by the encounter. He was a handsome but humorless fish.

Ross had been casting and catching with a regular rhythm that bordered on monotonous, but now even time itself seemed to stop as something massive rose up from the depths and engulfed everything he was attached to except the boat. At one point this big-bellied bass tried to jump but it could only manage to get its body about a third of the way out of the water before it submerged like a breaching whale. Jay started to laugh and began saying in a voice that I suppose was “bass-like:”

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“Oh, I tried to jump but I’m just too fat!”

If there was one part of this journey that was most memorable, it wasn’t the fish, although they were plentiful. It was the laughter and the lingering feeling that by the next day, I was going to miss this place, and miss these people.

The sun was behind the trees by the time we came to our takeout and as is my habit, I stopped fishing for a while and just sat in the bow trying my best to absorb every aspect of this place and time. I took notice of the sound of the birds and the rhythmic rolling swirling sounds of Jay’s oars pushing us ever forward. I listened to the murmurs and laugher of people who were at a riverside campsite, and I grew thoughtful as I saw them all living and loving in a community of tents and trailers, complete with coolers and cookers and all the comforts of home.

I have been pondering for some time—where is my home? How can it even be a single place when I seem to be leaving pieces of myself everywhere I go?

Every place I once thought of as “home” has changed beyond recognition. It’s like having an old girlfriend who ended up strung out on drugs and ruining her life. You may still love her, but in truth, you love who she once was before the fall. Drained marshlands and dried-up rivers leave only memories and regret. We can feel at home with another human soul, but then they change and move on. We can feel at home with a place, until it too changes, and we move on.

Perhaps home is a feeling . . . a connection that comes naturally and cannot be manufactured. Not long ago my wife and I discussed what we might do if the other passed on. We both came to the same conclusion: sell the house, because it would no longer be our home. Perhaps love and home are the same thing, ever changing and yet timeless and unconditional.

The next day I flew back to Texas. And then I went fishing in my Hill Country homewaters, and it all felt wonderful, yet not quite complete. I couldn’t stop thinking of the week of fishing in Pennsylvania with Ross and the other members of my tribe. And this has happened to me before, in Alaska and Montana, where I seem to have left a part of myself in those places that my friends call home.

After a day of solitary fishing on the Guadalupe River, I returned to my house to find a package waiting for me at the door. It was Ross’s Orvis Helios 3D 5-weight, and a note from my friend. He had gifted it to me along with the words, “When I saw you with that rod, it felt like I was watching a Jedi who finally found his own light saber. I knew you had to have it.” I was so deeply touched by this selfless act of friendship and kindness.

In the morning, I am boarding a plane for Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I’m taking that rod with me. Every time I hold it I will remember that week with my friends on their Pennsylvania home waters. I think I’m realizing what being home is all about. It’s about relationships that are filled with respect, caring, and gratitude. So, wherever I go, I guess I’m home. Like giving and accepting a gift, being home is a choice.


Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of Casting Forward, Casting Onward, and Casting Seaward. The fourth book in the series Casting Homeward will be available from Lyons Press in September, 2024.

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