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Reading the Water at the National Gallery of Art

Daydreaming about where the fish might be.

Reading the Water at the National Gallery of Art

(Al Hassall art)

My heart fluttered as I looked at the water. Fringed by boulders and framed by scrubby ridges, the Deschutes was the big Western trout river I’d hoped to fish since the days when I first gawped at fly-fishing magazines. But now, after weeks of effort and planning to get myself there, I realized that I’d neglected a key question: How was I going to fish it?

I thought about the guy in the local fly shop that morning. He urged me with a significant look to book a float trip—and then shook his head slightly in a you-are-an-idiot sort of way when I declined. I was starting to agree.

Wading the river was clearly out. The bottom seemed to drop away like a ski run, and the flow was far greater than anything I’d seen back home in the East. I had thought this might be my breakout moment, my chance to hook into the kinds of fish you see in the photo shoots, maybe even take a selfie holding one that barely fit in the picture frame.

I worked hard for this adventure, carving out time from a family road trip. My wife agreed to wait with our kids in a tiny motel room, but reminded me of the terms as I bounded out the door. Only a few hours, she said, and please don’t be late.

Standing in the water now, I imagined redside hogs gorging themselves on nymphs just beyond the reach of my cast. I could almost hear the ticking of a clock. To make matters worse, a guide and his client drifted by, casting and chatting amiably. They looked insufferable. I felt like the student who arrives at his algebra class and realizes he has forgotten to study for the final exam.

Scanning the river for clues, words from one of the fishing magazines popped to my mind: Read the water. Yes, of course! Read the water, I told myself. I furrowed my brow and squinted at the river. Problem was, I had no idea how to read the damn water.

My understanding of the angling art at the time could be described as highly rudimentary. I was at that stage when I was content to keep my tippets from tangling. I still considered an outing successful if it was a pretty day. “Read the water” sounded to me like a piece of fortune cookie wisdom. At the time, I secretly wanted someone to point me to the fish and whisper in my ear how to catch them.

The pressure resulting from the Deschutes scenario—the circumstance where the promise of a huge fish bumps up against a lack of skill and an absolutely inflexible deadline—was about to change everything.

Didn’t someone say once that desperation is the mother of a quick learner? I searched my memory for books, articles, videos, even passing remarks that might help me crack the code. One of the first things that came to mind seemed absurd. It was a slender book called Trout Fishing in the Shenandoah National Park by Harry Murray.

The Shenandoah’s biggest stream and my favorite at that time was the Rapidan River, almost a rivulet compared to the Deschutes. The Rapidan charges down the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains through rocks and car-sized boulders, creating a universe of tiny pools, brief runs, and plate-sized back eddies where brook trout thrive. Murray’s book includes a retro black and white photo with feeding stations labeled in bold black text.

I try to have faith in the thoughts that bubble up from nowhere, even when they seem far-fetched. So I took the cue and examined the shoreline of the Deschutes more closely. I matched what I saw against my memory of the Rapidan photo. I noticed something intriguing. The rocks near me broke up the edge of the Deschutes into a bunch of little runs. What if I fished it like a horizontal version of the Rapidan?

Since I was running out of time, I gave it a try. I tied on a bushy fly with a bright yellow post known as Mr. Rapidan and began casting to some of the spots that Murray recommended: the corners near where the river forced its way through the rocks, the edges of currents, and the backs of the pools.


I had resigned myself to a zero-fish day, but I wasn’t quite as distressed as I had been. If nothing else, it was a heck of a pretty day.

And then, one second I’m tracking Mr. Rapidan’s yellow post, and the next the fly was gone. I figured it got soaked and sank below the surface. So I lifted my rod with the idea of waving the fly around to dry it out. But the line tightened. And now I assumed it had snagged on a rock or weed.

Then I heard the sound, the thrilling sound of fly line ripping off my reel. On autopilot, I lifted my rod as high as I could and watched as it formed a perfect arc. After two or three runs, the fish relented. Green, speckled, and blood-red on the gills, it practically vibrated in my wet hands as I slipped it back into the Deschutes.

Painting of a rainbow trout chasing a mayfly superimposed over a book
(Al Hassal art)

As the trout’s tail gave a last little wag on the way into the water, a switch flipped in my brain. Reading the water became real for the first time. It has been a focus for me ever since, a sort of avocation, my noble quest. To be honest, it is a little out of control.

I’ve lost count of the times I crossed over the Potomac River on the Beltway near my home in Northern Virginia and strained to get a glimpse of the water far below. I know there are loads of bass there, but finding them can be tricky, and I figure I need all the mental practice I can get. In trout country, I’m the guy you see occasionally standing on the iron bridge, staring straight down into the water. I may look cataleptic, but my eyes are moving, following bubble trails, and boring into pools.

A local stream called Four Mile Run regularly seduces me during my walks, even though it’s generally too warm and polluted to support game fish. I pause on the wood walkways over the water, examining the workings of its little riffles and braided currents as though trophies lurk below.

Hell, I don’t need actual water to get worked up now. Remember that scene from “Big Two-Hearted River: Part 1”  where Hemingway’s proxy stands on a railroad bridge? “Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current . . . Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved.”

When I re-read it not long ago, I imagined standing in Nick’s shoes, looking at the stream and concluding that, at that time of summer, pounding the banks with grasshopper patterns was the best way to go.

Even the Bible can trigger me. “But let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” One minute I’m thinking about doing the right thing. And the next, well, you know.

Once at the National Gallery of Art I was looking at a quartet of large paintings called The Voyage of Life. They depict a man from infancy to old age. Each painting shows him floating in a boat through the wilderness, on rivers ranging from placid runs to rocky torrents.

The paintings are big and vibrant and compelling. (The middle-aged fellow seems terrified by his fate, by the way.) But I found myself blanking on the allegory. Instead, I was daydreaming about the currents, pocketwater, and such. Call me a philistine, but don’t expect me to apologize. After my experience on the Deschutes, how could anyone reasonably expect me to resist pondering where the fish might be, even in that great shrine of art?

Robert O’Harrow Jr. is a reporter for The Washington Post.

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