“We take delight in things; we take delight in being loosed from things. Between these two delights, we must dance our lives.
—Philip Harnden, Journeys of Simplicity
My wife, Trish, and I have owned a camp in the Rangeley Lakes Region of western Maine for nearly thirty years. It is land that has not changed much. A time traveler from the late 1800s might find that the lakes, streams, and ponds there have remained about the same. The fish are still here. On average they are not as large as they once were, but a sixteen-inch native brook trout is not uncommon. Sometime in the late 1800s landlocked salmon were introduced and now also swim wild through the region.
When we first arrived, I spent all of my time casting large streamers and weighted nymphs in a manic search for ever-larger fish. Such fishing requires time on the water soon after the spring thaw, which in western Maine does not come until mid May. This is when the smelt, the region’s principal bait fish, leave the lakes to make their spawning run up the rivers — with brook trout and salmon following close behind. In the latter days of September, if the rains come in time, the trout and salmon once again swim upriver on their own spawning runs, providing the fly fisher a second opportunity to take a fish measured in pounds rather than inches. These are the times when most anglers are on the water.
But there is another type of fishing to be had here, one that is productive between May and September. It requires the fly fisher to heed the words of the legendary American naturalist, John Muir, who wrote, “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.” In doing so, I discovered the many tannin-stained brooks that slip across the Canadian border, streams that bend and twist through balsam and spruce for mile after mile, some of them headwaters of those larger rivers where the majority of anglers continue their search for trophy fish. On these hidden streams I can cast to brook without ever coming upon another angler. The trout here are diminutive compared to the fish in the big rivers. A few no larger than my pinkie, the largest fits snuggly in a palm. In these narrow ribbons of running water under the shadow of this vast conifer forest, I came to truly appreciate what Thoreau described as “…these jewels…these bright fluviatile flowers, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!”
I enjoy reading almost as much as fishing with flies. In my early years I read Hemingway and Steinbeck, Harrison and McGuane. Along the way, the fly-fishing poet, Richard Brautigan, brought tears to my eyes while the rabid environmentalist, Edward Abbey, forced me to raise my fists. In my 1990 edition of Gary Snyder’s thought-provoking book, Practice of the Wild, the poet-turned-Buddhist explains:
“The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”
I suppose it was inevitable that I would gravitate toward tenkara, a method of fishing that has extended this journey toward simplicity to my days on the water. Like a haiku by Japan’s seventeenth-century Zen poet, Matsuo Basho, tenkara strips away all but the bare essentials, freeing the mind to be in the moment and perhaps even stop time, as a six-inch brook trout slips from my moist fingers back into the cool current of some sunlit stream.
I now seek out those waters too small to gather serious attention from other anglers; those secret places, where trout live out their lives in the lee of boulders, under the shadows of spruce, pine, balsam, and birch, rarely seeing the splash of an artificial fly. No longer do I feel compelled to wing heavy nymphs past my ear, or make sixty-foot casts until my shoulder aches. I can leave my fly-box-laden vest at the cabin as well as my reel. Freed to boulder hop with ease, an activity that allows my middle-aged body to once again feel young, and carrying a wisp of a rod, I can gently dap my dry fly or work a wet fly just under the surface.
With less distraction, this uncomplicated method of fishing allows me to enjoy the creatures found along the edges of running water —the colorful flash of a tiny warbler or the song of the secretive thrush. I’ll catch myself smiling at the splash of a frog or staring into the eyes of a bashful toad. Along the way, I’ve seen otters, mink and beaver and even the occasional deer, black bear, and moose that have lumbered down out of the forest.
Our time in western Maine remains an escape from the madding pace of modern life while tenkara has made it possible for me to follow the road less traveled along a stream with brook trout, however small, willing to play tag with a bit of feather and fur.
THIS ESSAY FIRST APPEARED IN THE JANUARY 2016 EDITION OF TENKARA MAGAZINE