The sun was dropping into the hills, casting a golden hue over the broad Connecticut River as we rambled over its darkly swirling currents into Vermont. I'd been calmly driving for two hours, alternately chatting with my daughter about this and that and then being left alone to angle in the quiet rivers of my own thoughts, still vaguely trying to sort out some kind of reasonable itinerary. I was feeling slightly better and Maggie, displaying the faith of a mustard seed, seemed downright thrilled to be headed God knows where after trout.
She asked if we could stop and fish the Connecticut and I replied that we couldn't because I hoped to make the banks of the Green instead before dusk. It was only a few miles ahead and I even knew a place we might pitch camp.
"What's the Green?"
"A river. The place I learned to fly-cast by verse."
"Did Granddaddy teach you to fish there?"
"No. He taught me to spin-fish in North Carolina. Fly-fishing is something I picked up much later. Spin-casting and fly-fishing are entirely different, Mugs. Sort of like hockey compared to figure skating."
"Who taught you to fly-fish?"
I smiled at the image of his face.
"Funny old guy. Just somebody I met when I first came to Vermont." A moment more and I recalled his oddly apt nickname. "Saint Cecil."
"Was he really a saint?" We'd recently read a book about Saint Francis.
"No. Just a retired college professor. A devoted dry-fly man."
"Tell me," she said, and crossed her bare legs Indian style on the seat, anticipating the tale.
I had six weeks and nothing better to do. So I told her. "As I frequently used to say to my overly serious first-year students at seminary, naked cameth I into this world and naked I shall surely leave it, except perhaps for the Hardy Brothers split-cane fly rod and a couple Royal Coachmen and the odd brookie in my creel. My little funny was meant to loosen them up, prepare them for a life that takes itself much too seriously, though I'm afraid it seldom had the desired effect. The Lord loves a good joke, you know.
That's what I used to say. Except those we see fit to elect to higher office.
The speaker was a powerful-looking man in his late sixties, bullnecked, sun-wrinkled, his bristly hair gone the color of new snow. He had a small audience of attractive young women drinking white wine.
"That's Saint Cecil," Dorothy whispered to me, "my late aunt Edna's husband, an old lefty preacher who's positively mad for fly-fishing. He used to teach New Testament at some Bible college down South until they ran him off. Not shy for opinions on any subject, I'm afraid. He and my aunt always came for the Bach festival in Marlboro and he's just kept coming. He'll be underfoot here at least a week." She issued a small tragic sigh, then glanced at me. I was her new tenant, having just signed the lease on the small wood-heated house she owned on the banks of Vermont's Green River. "You're from the South. I nearly forgot. Please
tell me you adore trout fishing."
I hated to disappoint her, but she seized my arm and dragged me over to meet her uncle regardless. He threw his hand at me like a punch and nearly fractured a couple knuckles squeezing my hand.
"I know why I'm here," he declared with a booming Alabama drawl, "to soak up the two-hunnerd-year-old strains of a Leipzig choirmaster and chase truite de mer.
That's French Canadian for eastern brook trout. Question is, why the hell are you so far from home?"
It wasn't a question I was fully prepared to answer. I didn't wish to tell him I'd run away from home at age thirty, so I smiled and mumbled something polite about taking a year off from my journalism career, a hiatus, a much-needed sabbatical before I resumed interviewing politicians and murder suspects for my magazines.
"Reporter, eh?" The revelation seemed to annoy him. "Do you fly-fish?"
I said no and explained that I used to bass-fish with spinner bait but I mostly played golf now.
"Golf's a splendid game for old men," he agreed, lowering the tide in his wineglass by half with one swallow. "Tell you what. I've got several rods with me. I'll be by and pick you up at dawn and we'll spend the day on the water. Put a whole new perspective on the situation, fly angling. I'm a dry-fly man, myself. You can keep your sinking nymphs and blast your emergers. Dry angling, in my view, is to fishing what free will is to any intelligent discussion of religion. The fun comes from the damned difficulty, you see?" He finished off his wine with a fierce gulp.
I nodded dumbly, wondering whether we were talking about faith or fishing. It appeared useless to protest that I knew absolutely zilch about the art of fly-fishing. Saint Cecil slapped me on the shoulder hard enough to loosen a filling, barked something about wearing shoes I could get wet, and wandered away to harass a nice couple just up from the Berkshires who were thinking of opening an organic grocery store in the village.
We spent three days climbing in and out of the swift shallow currents of the Green River together, talking a little about religion and a lot about fly-fishing. Uncle Cecil was impressed I knew a little bit about the Gospels and even more pleased to have a complete fly novice to abuse on the water. The Green is a pretty, winding river in southeast Vermont, but not on a par with the state's justly famous trout streams like the Battenkill or Mad. Over three days I learned how to tie double blood knots and needle knots and how, in order to assure a good presentation of the fly, the leader must roll out "sweet as a Bach cantata" over the water. Fly-fishing was a study in natural deception, Saint Cecil said, pointing out that the world's first great fly angler had been a trout-crazy nun from a priory in Hertfordshire. Among other indispensable tidbits, I learned that Plutarch had strongly advocated using stallion hair in tied flies and that fishhooks had been found in the ancient River Euphrates. "Possibly belonged to old Adam himself. That's the location of the Garden of Eden, you know. Crack dry-fly angler."
As we stood calf-deep in the freezing stream (I was wearing gym shorts and leather boat shoes), he ran through his personal repertoire of fly casts--basic overhead cast (eleven o'clock to four), back and roll casts, false casts, the art of shooting line, double hauling--then stood back and glared with amused disgust as I repeatedly snarled my line and tied myself up in wind knots. "It won't work worth a damn to try to bludgeon
the fish to death," he shouted helpfully at me from a distance. "Slow that rod down, sport. Nice and easy. Stroke the air. Know any poetry?"
Through gritted teeth I admitted that I knew a few lines of a few poems.
"Excellent. Pick a stanza and recite it aloud as you make your cast. That little trick may help. Nice and slow, less wrist, and let it go."
Self-conscious in the extreme, I recited a few lines from Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
I said, But I have promises to keep--
I truly hated being called "sport" but the trick worked and I started to get the hang of it--And miles to go before I sleep--
developing not quite a skill but something perhaps faintly resembling a skill--And miles to go before I sleep.
I learned, too, about damsel nymphs and stone flies, great diving beetles and water boatmen, how to scour the water lines and "match the hatch," how to strip line, tie on more tippet, debarb my hook, pinch my line.
"Interesting poem," Saint Cecil thundered at me as we left the water. "Frost wrote those lines when he was in deep depression, contemplating suicide. What a miserable sod."
I guess I'd known this, I said. Or maybe not.
"You a Scotch man?"
I didn't care for Scotch but it seemed impolite to say no. He opened a pint of Highland malt and we sat on the bank for a while taking small nips of Scotch from Dixie cups he kept in his beaten-up willow creel.
"Which gospel is your favorite?"
I was startled by the bluntness of his question but probably shouldn't have been. I sputtered "Matthew," not really knowing Matthew but recalling that it was the only gospel I'd read completely from beginning to end. I'd read parts of the other Gospels but at that point in my life reading the Bible didn't rate high on my list.
"Matthew, eh? Bit florid for my tastes. Grossly embellished the whole business about the resurrection and virgin birth, you know. Mark was a much more reliable journalist. Leaves a bit to the imagination. That's the point of a good mystery story, you know--to keep you asking the right questions. People want easy answers, and that's the Almighty's wily joke on us--there aren't
any. Salvation is a little like dry-fly fishing that way: You've got to do the work to catch the fish. Always thought it was clever of Christ to pick fishermen
for his sidekicks. Natural-born storytellers. Hate to let any
fish get away."
We talked further and I learned, among other things, that Uncle Cecil had been a navy cook at Okinawa during the war and had marched, against the advice of some of his colleagues, with civil rights groups in Memphis and Detroit in the sixties. A bit like the prophet Amos, he thought the church establishment was going to hell in a handbasket--more interested in building steeples than saving souls--and that Ronald Reagan and his "stooge" James Watt (then secretary of the interior) were criminal phonies who were destroying the environment and ruining America's best trout streams. Cecil said the sound of a clean-running trout stream was living poetry, a symphony in the wild--"Trout Music." And he had fished almost everywhere: for steelheads in the Boundary Waters and wild browns in Yorkshire, Scotland's Doon, and Henry's Fork in southeastern Idaho; chased salmon through the mouth of the Columbia. When I asked him his favorite place of all, he thought for an instant and replied, "Montana's good--the upper Yellowstone particularly, absolutely stunning country, though it's getting too damned crowded with well-dressed fishermen. The Snake's excellent, or used to be; haven't been there in a while. There's a canyon below the dam on the San Juan, though--that's in northern New Mexico, just as the river runs out of the Colorado Rockies. The trout are big as your arm and damned wise. All catch-and-release. Beautiful fish, gorgeous water. Edna and I were out there for a week a couple years back. She painted landscapes and I fished. A living cathedral. Real Trout Music."
I liked that. Trout Music.
We went back in the river and fished in silence. "Above all else," he mused a while later, pausing to snip a sodden fly off his line, "the thing you never want to do is outlive your beloved. Avoid that fate, son, if at all possible." His wife had been dead for two years. Just after he said this, Saint Cecil caught a nice brook trout large enough to keep, but wet his hands and released the fish back to the stream. I finally caught a trout, too, a small one, its pale pink gills pumping. He showed me how to remove the hook with forceps and cradle the fish in the water, facing the trout upstream so oxygen could quickly revive him.
On our last afternoon together, he brought me a small book called A River Never Sleeps,
by Roderick Haig-Brown, told me to keep it awhile and read it, then send it back to him in Alabama or he'd come hunt me down like a mangy yellow dog. He suggested that I read the Book of Mark, too, if I knew what was good for me; learn to ask the right question rather than seek the answer--with a little luck, one would lead to the other; and for God's sake keep my wrist out of the cast. I gave him back his loaner fly rod and we shook hands. The man could break your fingers.
I read his book and sent it back but I never saw Saint Cecil again. I bought the cheapest fly rod Orvis offered and fished the Green and other area rivers off and on for the next year. During that time I became very good at golf and fairly respectable at presenting my fly to truite de mer,
though nowhere near in my teacher's class. I caught a few trout and let most of them go. I got a yellow pup to keep me company in streams and named him Amos, after the Old Testament prophet who thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket.
Excerpted from Faithful Travelers by James Dodson. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.