Contour lines moved ever closer; blue lines faded to dotted blue lines and then disappeared altogether. We were off the map. In a strictly technical sense, we could have used a compass to shoot an azimuth, estimate our distance to two nearby hilltops, and then pinpointed our location on the grid, but insofar as bug chucking goes we were most definitely in the land of the lost. According to our map - a USGS topographical survey circa 1984 - the stream we were fishing disappeared into the bedrock at least three quarters of a mile farther downstream, yet there we were - knee deep in a spring fed bog that reeked of decomposition and sulphur, a swamp from which a small brook emerged that we erroneously thought might hold a brookie or two. We finished the day exhausted, with nothing more than mud splattered clothing and a torn pair of waders to show for our substantial effort.
Of course, in several decades of fishing together Adam and I have managed any number of trips that were every bit as successful as the aforementioned was disappointing.
"What do you think? Have we a plan?"
"One upstream, one down?"
"Sounds good. I'll go up, you go down. If you sting one, come up and let me know."
"Will do. Luck."
I worked slowly and methodically downstream through riffles and pocket water, both to be thorough and to avoid the dunking that had become almost standard on our exploratory missions. I remember that my first impression of the stream was that it was barren, probably ravaged by acid rain, and likely devoid of any fish worth chasing. In less than twenty minutes, however, Adam came bounding downstream - sprinting through the water and leaping from rock to rock like that gnu featured in the opening theme of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.
Only twenty minutes since we had parted ways, and already he appeared disheveled. His breathing was raspy and came in labored gasps. Rod and vest were missing, presumably left streamside; carried gingerly in both hands was his net - as a Greek priestess might have presented an offering to her goddess.
"There's ... up ... up there ... there's a ... a waterfall ... first cast."
If Adam said much else then I didn't hear him. I was staring - wide eyed, stunned, almost certainly with my mouth agape - into his net. Struggling against the moist cotton mesh was an outsized brown trout that seemed much too big for such an inconsequential little brook. Shocked as I was, all the usual superlatives and vernacular abandoned me.
"Jeez ... wow ... that's one ... er ... a ... whoa!"
Adam beamed and enjoyed the moment. The fish was impressive in all the ways that mattered: thick and heavy, unmarred and unblemished, beautifully spotted and caught in a pool that likely hadn't seen another angler in decades if at all. Adam and I first found that stream (as we did most good things in those days) on a map, and in the twenty odd years since that first trip to its banks we've only ever shared its location with our most trusted friends and family.
As I reflect, I realize that my angling life has delivered many such moments of discovery: mud flats loaded with carp, gentle glides that are blanketed with hendricksons each spring, bass and bream by the bushel, even a nameless Montana spring creek that only locals fish and then only rarely. I've been very fortunate, but fortune only takes a bug chucker just so far. We cannot count on our good luck to see us through those too few seasons that we're given. Instead, we must be diligent experimenters and explorers who demonstrate a willingness to go off the beaten path, to travel outside the confines of our little piscatorial box. We need to take risks because it is risk that gives us the right to keep or to divulge the secrets we've learned.
I must admit that I've become complacent. I've been satisfied, sated, and perfectly happy to rest on my laurels. I've stopped experimenting at the vise, and my maps - all of them so well worn and creased - have either been discarded or forgotten on a shelf. As I look forward to the remainder of the year and the opportunities it will bring I make myself a promise. I'm going to travel outside of my comfort zone. I'm going to visit new water, and try to see old water with fresh eyes. For every dozen, proven flies I tie - I am going to tie one experiment, one Franken-Fly, and I will fish that fly at the first opportunity. I will find my way out of the bug chucking rut in which I seem to be mired. I will learn something new, and once again - I will earn my secrets.