Reflections on a Rhode Island Ramble: Fly Fishing with Forest Woodward
I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. At the age of one I was fortunate to meet my best friend Jacob, and over the course of the next 26 years we have had countless misadventures. Emphasis on the mis. When Jacob came to visit me in the spring of this year, we decided to load up my old Scout for old times sake and head North in search of fish and maybe a little (mis)adventure. We found one of those things. 6:00 we load up the Scout with rods and waders, and put the peddle to the metal cruising out of town on the BQE at top speed – a scorching 45 mph.
Words and Photography by Forest Woodward.
7:30 – As we drive out past the Brooklyn bridge, eager to be out of the city and into the Adirondaks, dark clouds tear at one another above a ragged metallic skyline, unleashing a deluge that will continue for the next 36 hours. The wet road hisses under the tires as the building shrink, decay, and eventually are replaced by the naked silver trunks and meandering stone walls of Connecticut. The year I turned 8, Jacob and I spent a month in his dad’s garage in the mountains of North Carolina carving down two carefully selected osage orange logs, bending, steaming, shaping, steaming, and eventually stringing up two sturdy traditional long bows. We spent the next summers roaming the hills around our houses “stump hunting” – a game in which each stump is assigned an animal species based on shape and size, and then hunted. Needless to say, we were mostly successful in these hunts. Later, we took notice of the streams that our stump hunting trails criss-crossed and, trading our bows for a single fishing pole, took turns trying to trick the cagey mountain trout into biting. In this we were far less successful than in our stump hunting, and as the teenage years came, we forgot even the stumps, our interest turning instead towards things with longer legs and eyelashes, who like the trout also tended to elude us.
High noon - With the rain pounding down and the prospect of finding fish dwindling, we decide to reroute and turn east towards the coast to seek shelter and counsel from our friend Aaron at the Engine Room in Mystic. Sympathetic to our soggy predicament, Aaron sits us down for a strong pint and story time, regaling us with prohibition era tales of the powerful engines that were once built in the Engine Room, and the bootleggers who used them with toothsome success to outrun the law.
20:00 - Our spirits lifted by our layover with Aaron, we head on down the road a couple more miles to reunite with our friends at Gnarly Bay in Westerly, RI. From the safety of the Malted Barley, we watch as the river separating Rhode Island from Connecticut pushes her shoulders against the two states, urging them a little further apart.
22:00 – When it is proposed that we adjourn to a friend’s house to shoot bows and arrows in a sheltered space out of the rain, Jacob and I decide to shoot first and ask questions later. Rekindling our old archery rivalry – he was the junior South East traditional bow archery champion, I was runner up – seemed like the perfect way to spend the rest of the evening. Much to our surprise, and nervous delight, that “dry place” was not a barn or garage, but was instead a 30 feet strip of hallway between our friend Travis’ studio, through the kitchen, and into the living room of our friend’s 100+ year old house. **do not try this at home. at least not at your home**
8:00 – Making an early escape, and counting my blessings for not having caught an arrow in the shoulder while rustling for a slim jim in the kitchen last night we head for a sleepy town called Pawling, near the confluence of the Housatonic and Tenmile rivers. The year my family moved out to the Cascades in Washington State, I found myself living in a 10′ x 4’ closet that had served as the “fly tying closet” for the previous owner of the cabin where we lived. Jacob and I were pen-pals, and over the course of the winter months I wrote to him proudly as I taught myself to tie a woolly bugger, and later, under the tutelage of the valley’s resident fishermen, I began tying more complex patterns. In the spring I convinced the headmaster at the one-room school house to let me take the hour recess to ride my bike a half mile to Rainbow Creek, where along with my friend Blake, we would methodically leap frog from hole to hole, pulling out little rainbows whose favorite hiding spots and personalities over time became as familiar to us as the carved surfaces of our old wooden desks. When summer came it was time to put our winter’s work to use in earnest. No desk to return to, just long afternoons fading into dusk as we took turns rowing the Little Dipper up the mouth of the Stehekin River, giddy with excitement as the light fluttering of fingerlings on Rainbow Creek were replaced by heavy hitting Cutthroat and Rainbow, powerful as they were fat.
14:00 – Arriving in Pauling we pull up to the Angler’s Den, where we find Tom quietly tying flies in the small shop (that was once an old bank vault) while his dad makes friendly conversation with the customers. Safety deposit boxes that once held the life savings of the valley’s farmers now hold a colorful array of hackles, furs and hooks. They welcome us, quietly shaking their heads in bemusement as to why anyone would be trying to fish right now. We explain that it’s our last 36 hours before Jacob flies back West, and Tom offers to meet us early the next morning to show us a couple of his favorite spots.
17:00 – Setting out to explore a bit on our own, we find (as expected) the Tenmile is full and fat from the days of rain. After a couple hours with no luck we decided to explore the backroads and look for a place to make camp for the night.
As all good things must, the Stehekin years faded too, and fish were all but forgotten again until Jacob and I found ourselves spending the summers between college in Missoula, Montana. Drawn again to the old voice of the rivers, we set out to learn more about the fish we had chased so unsuccessfully years before. The learning was slow, but our teacher, the river, gentle for the most part. In those early days of learning, one quote in particular from A River Runs Through It seemed to surface continually, “If our father had had his way, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” Norman would have been quite pleased to know that we disgraced very few fish during those first summers; and yet we continued to return, inexorably drawn and fueled by an eagerness that far outstripped our success or tact, yet which anyone who has ever heeded the call of the river has felt.
8:00 - Up early, we meet with Tom to hike the steep beautiful ridge that guards the Housatonic, following it downstream until we eventually arrive at our destination – the confluence of the Housatonic and Tenmile. Here we wade out to offer up a veritable piñata of nymphs and streamers in the silty flow. The results (or lack there of) were similar in many ways to Jacob and my first foray chasing cagey trout in the streams by where we grew up. 16:00 Heading back to the city I thought back to Jacob and my tumultuous relationship with fishing, and wondered at it. The past couple days have been the worst fishing we’ve done since we first tromped the streams of our home mountains. Yet we are happy as ever. Gratification comes in strange ways. Sometimes it is not as obvious as the flash of silver and pull of line. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, carried in the rustling branches of an old forest, and whispered in cold waters over rounded stones. It is a voice as elusive and seductive as the trout we chased, yet whose echoes will resonate within us long after the rains have passed, and the fish we chased have swum on.