When the world shuddered to a violent halt in March, a great silent blizzard was sweeping Laramie, Wyoming. Winter had always commanded us to shelter at home; this year, our snowfall felled flurries of worries. COVID was upon us. The virus was unraveling life’s delicate woven threads. My unconquerable Wyoming spirit decided to fight ripping chaos with articulated acts of order. And so, I picked up the tip of my thread.
The sacred art of fly tying has had mountains of philosophical literature singing its virtues for decades; there is no need for a cattle-minded rangeland ecologist to add to the pile. Those winter flies, my profound companions, were little saviors. My nervous hands and overloaded mind found serenity in every thread wrap. My solitude was mitigated by each completion of a unique little friend. My hope was reignited with future possibility – imagine! What big trout might gobble up this fellow here? The vise became my church; a beacon of stability, a shield against isolation, and a true emotional sanctuary. Tying had blessed me with purpose.
ABOVE: Fly tied by Ella Bishop-Heil.
As winter weaned, roads cleared, and the formidable COVID warhead continued rip society’s seams, I had an army of threaded soldiers in my pocket ready for duty. Quiet, cold rivers and lakes had immunity to all things infectious to humans. Wading belly-deep into the domain of the benthic, I was reminded that human beings are only temporary visitors to these vast, enduring mechanisms of nature. Truly, nature is the one certainty.
Touching the belly of a fish was the first species-to-species contact I had experienced in weeks. My flies had manifested beautiful connection. My job was gone, my college education halted, all social institutions obliterated, but Wyoming’s great wilderness welcomed me with glorious normalcy.
The mail had left a small brown box at the stoop. I knew what was inside: brown and gold regalia that would never walk a stage, robes that would miss the tearful embrace of mom, and a naught-to-be-tossed cap. Disappointment refused to open the delivery of vile reminders and frustration tossed it into the closet’s forgotten bowels. An unwelcoming, uncharacteristic stoic pessimism was creeping towards victory.
I had fallen ill with a bad case of the poor-me’s. Years of therapeutic training in the fight against negative thinking suggested to my brain the world’s most difficult prescription to take – attitude adjustment. On the eve of my greatest singular achievement, depression would not have a starring role. I roped up some hope. Hopefulness thought of the one place on Earth appropriate enough to spend Graduation Day, to replace the university stage with a platform more personally meaningful and still experience the same sense of joy and accomplishment. That place was the North Platte River.
May 16, 2020. I crawled my Ford along a narrow mountain pass as my beloved partner, Garrett, craned his neck out the window for good glimpses of the river below. I had been too anxious to sleep the night before; I mean, what would it be like to wake up as a college graduate? But this morning, all those racing, tumultuous, questioning, incessant emotions were gone. This morning, I was just fishing.
ABOVE: Rainbow trout caught using tied fly.
We hopped out of the truck and gave a good stretch (the kind mandatory after a long drive). The rumble of machinery fell quiet, and we were enveloped in the chilly, healing stillness of Wyoming air. Our river was waiting. Stubborn Me had finally decided to open that damn box and its contents were squeezed inside my trusty dusty fishing bag. Waders were donned, line was strung, and flies were fussed over. I had created a new fly pattern – a simple, sparkly adaptation of the caddis larvae – and couldn’t wait to try ‘er out for the first time. After all, a fly is no good until field tested.
We reached our first hole along a section of the Platte that a fishing Scrooge had once said was “too difficult” for me. Humbug to that! Garrett was the first to land a fish, a true first-cast beauty. Due to the circumstance of the day, he uncharacteristically gave up his spot, telling me to stand exactly there. I felt tension, my line ziiinged, I probably screamed. Fish in the net. Smiles were now permanent fixtures on our faces, laughter was filling up the valley. Recast, mend, wait, mend, mend, mend. Mend, mend. Another one on; this time, he was a better size. Fish in the net, my new fly in his mouth. My trembling arms made sure to keep him underwater; he was the one.
Garrett took the net from me and I went to shore, to my bag with regalia. Not to brag, but I held it together pretty well while putting on the stuff. The cap was the last to go, and as I turned around, my heart gave out and my soul broke apart. There, before me, I saw heavenly rays of morning light beaming down onto the pooling water, onto Garrett waiting for me in the middle of the run with my fish. Not another human was near. True isolation, true wilderness. This was my walk across stage. This was the most special moment of my life.
I was sobbing, I was laughing. Garrett embraced me, he was crying. He never cries. I kneeled down into the gentle arms of the mighty North Platte, my stole wet with river water, and picked up my fish for the picture.