Northern Michigan fly fishing can straddle the line between a simple, systematic outdoor activity and a naturally-induced meditative trance, as MyNorth contributor Michael Delp acknowledges in the following essay on Northern Michigan fly fishing. Delp’s piece was first featured in the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
I was a dog on a hot day in mid-July, one of those afternoons when you know that worse heat is on the way in August … something you sense in the particular weight of humidity. There were no fish in sight, and I was wading wet—no waders and a light shirt. I couldn’t tell the difference between the river and the sweat dripping down my back. I had no business fishing, but fishing is always enough to get away from the desk, or out of the yard, or just away from all those troubles brewing under the roof.
I was fishing through a haze, for sure. My mind was drifting through a literal haze in the air. I felt like I was fishing inside a cloud, hoping to see or hear at least one fish feeding. Even the young grasshoppers were lying low, holed up somewhere under the shade of summer grasses. The other haze I was working through was mental. I’m 65 now, and have long-since given up the notion of even a first glance, let alone a second. Long ago I retired notions of myself as a high school Romeo, or some college boy intent on another pursuit with cheap wine and bad music. Besides, my wife wouldn’t let me.
I almost never let my mind wander on the river. It stays on the fly and the line, the rod and the reel, all of it awash in the current. Zen, some people call it; that perfect arrival of the senses when we realize that the map is the territory, that the river is inside us and outside of us at the same time. Most of my outdoor life is spent on rivers, and I measure some of a person’s worth on whether or not they know what a fly rod is. I love everything associated with fly fishing and have long since turned myself over to the vagaries of the sport, and the attendant vices: flasks and cigars. What is the sound of one fly line sweeping the air? … it is not a Zen koan, but it should be.
Maybe the heat had weakened my synapses. I’m not sure, but I was thinking of all the women I’d known. Old college cheerleaders I lusted after without any glance my way. I once flunked a biology class because I had fallen in love with someone my junior year at Alma who had no idea I existed. I spent the entire semester brooding in the student union drinking horrible coffee hoping she’d walk in for a grilled cheese and sit down next to me, but it never happened. I even dipped back into high school, tapping those dark kegs of testosterone memory, where I soaked as one might lounge in a hot tub. In the river I was transported for a bit, an out-of-body journey that took me way too far into the dark mine of myself.
Then, I realized, I was not catching fish. Not even seeing them. In this mid-summer heat they must have been deep into underground rivers, their heads swelling with cold spring water, rather than offering themselves up to be poached in the ever-increasing heat of the Boardman River. So, I did what any angler with a speck of sense does … I sat down and watched the sky. The blue had that odd, opaque quality brought on by increasing humidity and no wind. The clouds looked even further away, and distorted, fusing into each other.
Above me, swarms of dragonflies hunted the river. They moved in, circled my head, sometimes hovering directly in front of me, then they would bank off and dart away, eating their way through the condensation lingering in the air. They were hunting, every bit as efficient as sharks, rolling and diving to catch and eat mosquitoes, midges, and gnats almost too small to see.
It was then, the poet in me, the one busy watching all those dream women take shape in the nebulous clouds, came up with the idea of sky fishing. I searched my fly box, fingered them like amulets, then picked the smallest midge I could see. I stripped my leader and put on the finest I had, tied on the fly and stepped back into the river.
For the rest of the hot afternoon I cast into the air, my line never touching water. The huge dragon hunters shot in, took the midge and then spit it out, again and again. I managed to catch several, brought them in and released them back into the sky, then sat down and waited like a monk for darkness. My head cleared, and while I watched the moon rise, I surveyed my largest flies, moved my hands over them as if I were reading Braille, and contemplated the bats just now slipping down out of the trees.
In what seemed like an endless twilight, I invoked whatever available gods were hiding in the weeds to send me something big and hungry, something with ﬁns, not wings.