May 26, 2021
Pandemic is one of those words that most people only see in the titles of horror movies and dystopian science fiction novels, but I had been considering its inevitability during many years as a counterterrorism Marine and disaster preparedness professional. And now it was coming, and I had tickets to fly to Reno just as things were heating up. I planned this trip for months and had begun to consider the wisdom of flying anywhere after things began to spread from China to Korea to Italy and beyond. But I could hear the words of my father ringing in my head saying, “You’ve got to keep on living, Steve.” Yes, I understand the irony of those words when what you are doing might include risking your life; people risk their lives all the time for something as silly as a job. At least I was doing it for a good reason. I was going fishing with my dear friend Cinda Howard and my new friends Chris, Adam, Ned, and Patti. Together, we hoped to connect with some of the big, beautiful Lahontan cutthroat trout of Pyramid Lake.
We began casting at first light. In the beginning, there was just enough illumination from the full moon over my shoulder to make out the strike indicator as it bobbed and slipped over the silky chop. In time, the starlit morning melted, and a sliver of golden-yellow light peeked over the mountain’s rim. It was glorious. It was the kind of crisp, cold daybreak that makes you grateful to be alive in that place and time. It was the kind of moment that demands you breathe a silent word of gratitude, no matter if you believe in any deity, or not. In that moment, standing there in that cold, cold water . . . and listening to the sound of the windswept lake lapping on the shore, I was supremely happy to be alive.
For a long time, there were no fish. We all stood silently in the morning light, casting and watching as our indicators drifted from left to right, and from deep to shallow water. The rules of the game are simple here. Each stepladder is evenly spaced at a distance that seemed steeped in tradition, but had no other rationale. You cast within the wedge of water that is in front of you. During the long periods between strikes you have three options: boredom, meditation, or philosophical meanderings. I chose to alternate between the last two, and only rarely drifted into boredom.
The wind picked up, blowing brisk and cold into my face, and I began to see the lake come alive with leaping and rolling fish that were likely between four and fourteen pounds, but that looked more like forty pounds as they leapt like dolphins. One of the guides hollered, “Here they come!” And we all re-cast our lines in unison, not because we had to, but rather because it just felt right.
There were big trout rolling almost up to our ladders. Farther out they continued to leap into the air or porpoise with their massive shoulders glistening in the now sunlit waters. Soon I noticed Adam’s rod bending to my right, and then Cinda’s on my left, and then a fish rolled in front of me, and my indicator went under the surface, and I set the hook thoughtlessly . . . just as we always should. Instinct is faster than choice.
I’m not sure that I can adequately express the joy I felt when I held my first Lahontan cutthroat in my hands. These are the moments when you learn things about yourself and others. You learn who your friends are and what you value. To the second point, it was not the size of the fish I was in love with, it was the fish itself. To the first point, I suddenly found Cinda standing beside me with her camera in her hand and a joyful smile on her face. We hugged and celebrated, and I will never forget watching that beautiful wild fish as it swam away. Just moments before, Cinda was fishing from her own ladder and yet she knew what this moment meant to me, and there she was. That, my friends, is kindness. We need so much more of that in this upside-down world.
This electric pandemonium continued up and down our ranks until it stopped, suddenly, like breathing does at the end of life. It’s always like that; the end of things. It’s always like someone flipped a switch. And whenever this happens in fishing or in life, I am left with nothing but memories and that kind of feeling that you can almost taste. I think it’s the feeling of silence. I think it’s the feeling of stillness and utter solitude. It’s like birth and death. It’s like suddenly realizing that the snow has melted in the sunshine and wondering where it went. We cast again, hopeful in unison.
During one of those long stretches of peacefully watching the little yellow bobber, my mind wandered back in time and forward again. I began to muse about how no matter how much we call it a “strike indicator,” it’s still just a bobber. I guess it’s the difference between saying caviar and fish eggs. I prefer to keep my pinky finger down. After all, I began fishing, like so many other sons of the South, with a hook and a bobber attached by a length of monofilament to the end of a cane pole. In a way, it was our version of tenkara.
Those were magical times for me and my dad, as we pulled everything from bass to bowfins out of a gator hole. Nowadays, I only fish with barbless hooks and a catch-and-release mentality. Still, to paraphrase John Gierach, we all have a Zebco spincaster and a stringer full of panfish hiding somewhere in our youthful past. I know I do. Don’t you?
The remainder of the morning slipped by without connecting to a single fish. My groggy morning optimism gave way to a feeling that the day was going to have more fishing and less catching than I had originally hoped. I was okay with that. The fishing had its own charms. We were all in this together . . . fishing, life, and the pandemic.
I was settling into the rhythm of things, casting and drifting, drifting and casting, and always watching my bobber. It felt right. I felt privileged. I felt happy. There was a strange sense of both solitude and community in this kind of fishing, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We were together, and yet on our own. We had moments of conversation and even laughter, followed by long periods of casting and watching and listening to the sounds of silence and solitude. Wind, water, body, mind, and soul are all that each moment contained. It was just me and my bobber and the lapping of the lake and the murmur of my thoughts. I stood on my ladder for hours, casting and watching, and like Jesus of Nazareth’s apostles, I caught nothing. But I was at peace with it. I had experienced everything I hoped for and more. There was something magical in that lake.
I have learned a great deal from dead prophets and poets. Ram Dass once wrote, “It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.” It’s true, you know. It’s as true as anything can be . . . life unfolds as it will. The important thing is to proceed, keep learning and living, and be open to the things that a historic pandemic or prehistoric fish can teach us about ourselves and the universe. The important thing is that we keep casting forward, searching for our native selves and those of our tribe. It’s all good. It’s all fishing. It’s all life. Do you understand? There are important lessons we can learn from solitude and silence. No one has ever learned a thing while talking. There are lessons about what does and does not matter. There are lessons to be learned about living authentically in the moment, and about impermanence and the power of our choices. Listening without expectation is how I grow.
Before the day was through, my friends caught many other fish, including a sixteen-pounder and another that went over fourteen. Around five in the afternoon, I decided that I was content with my day of fishing. I peeled off my waders and stowed my gear and alternated between photographing my friends in their many moments of joy, and simply burning the images of this lake and its surroundings into my mind.
I didn’t need to catch any more fish to be happy; it was the fishing that mattered. It felt like back in the time when I was a boy, with only a hook, a bobber, and a length of monofilament attached to the end of a cane pole. Words were unnecessary, then and now. Bluegills and cutthroat both have their charms. If silence is golden, then stillness is magical and sometimes the universe is suspended, just below the surface. I knew then what I have always known. If we’re seeking something of value, often we have to go deep.
Steve Ramirez is the author of Casting Forward (Lyons Press, 2020). You’ll find a review of that book on page 30. This essay is an excerpt from his next book Casting Onward, scheduled for release in the fall of 2021.