A river offers unique contemplative value as host to all who will come. Navigable waters are, by definition, public waters. That doesn’t mean you can cross private land to get to a river without permission, but if you can permissibly get to the river, and you stay in the river, you can fish on the river all day long wherever you want to wade or boat. This phenomenon is quite liberating, and very egalitarian in its application. While riverbank land values are in the financial stratosphere, once in the river, everyone is breathing the same air, walking the same current, crunching the same primal crunch beneath his or her boots.
I grew up on a river, so when my oldest son invited me to join him on a fly fishing trip to a river we’d never fished, it took me as long as it takes to book air travel to let him know I was in.
In the days leading up to my departure, I was wrestling with a decision about whether to run for the newly vacated U.S. Senate seat previously held by Mississippi’s long-serving statesman Senator Thad Cochran. The issues that bore on that decision were many and serious, and the mystical therapy offered by a few days on a river was the order of the day. As my mind scuttered along the setting and activities planned for the trip, and as I moved my gear around the house an embarrassing number of times just so I could see and feel it, I took particular pleasure and mental relief in envisioning The Perfect Loop.
The Perfect Loop, of course, is the unattainable goal in fly casting. Particularly is it so for me, not a fly fisherman at all, really, just a guy who likes to fly fish. I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in the blue collar town of Moss Point, where we fished with big hooks and big baits for big fish. Besides, my fingers are fat and my eyesight has always been suspect, so I never much wanted to fiddle with all the tiny stuff of the fly fisherman’s kit.
But our sons caught the fly fishing flu early on, and one of them has stayed on me over the years, first to take him somewhere, and now that he’s grown, to meet him somewhere, fly fishing.
So, for some years now, I’ve been in pursuit of The Perfect Loop. Because, of course, in fly fishing, the passion of the pursuit is as important as the moment of the catch.
For this adventure, son Drew had selected the Guadalupe River Horseshoe, just down from Canyon Lake in the Hill Country of central Texas. Imagine a small river running out of a big lake, halfway between Austin and San Antonio. You’ve triangulated in on the Guadalupe.
When I landed in Austin, I rented a Nissan Frontier pickup truck, manufactured in Canton, Mississippi. The Nissan facility in Canton is located not ten miles from where I live in Madison, and I took a certain state patriotic pride in going to Texas and renting a product made in Mississippi. Then, because I’m a State-Capitols-For-$1,000 nerd, I drove straight from the airport to the Texas State Capitol building. Not surprisingly, it is large and imposing, but inside it feels intimate and almost cozy. The Senate chamber was open for visitors, and I was struck by how beautiful and dignified the room is, but also by how each individual stand-alone desk on the floor looked like a separate island to me. Maybe if they pushed the desks closer together and made everyone stay in his or her desk, legislating would return to a more collegial tone.
Maybe I was seeing islands because I was thinking about the river. Or maybe I’m just old and sentimental.
I left Austin and headed for Canyon Lake, an hour and a half away, according to Siri, in current traffic conditions. I had plenty of time, as my son was not to leave his adopted home in Houston for his three-hour drive to our accommodations along the Guadalupe until the end of the work day. So, rather than the direct but boring Interstate 35 route, I had a delightful choice between two smaller highway alternatives, both taking nearly the same drive time.
Now this is the lovely sort of choice you want to face after a week of struggling with a much larger life choice: Should I take the highway through Bear Creek and Driftwood or the one through Woodcreek and Dripping Springs? I chose the latter, thinking to leave the other for another day, per Mr. Frost.
Traffic cleared quickly as I left town, and, testament to the volatile nature of flash flooding in the Hill Country, every time the road dipped into a hollow (they call them “bottoms” out there), I spotted on the side of the road a flood gauge erected on a post by the State of Texas, marked in one foot increments up to five feet. There was no water over the road the day I passed by, but I suppose the flood gauges are there so that the intrepid – or ill-advised – can decide whether the water is still shallow enough that a Nissan Frontier or similar may safely navigate the flood.
The road soon came to be marked with periodic signs proclaiming it the “Texas Hill Country Trail.” I felt like a cowboy. Prickly pear cactus plants appeared suddenly, reminding me that this is a passing unlikely place to come to fish for rainbow and brown trout, both cold water-loving species.
When I made it to the Maricopa Riverside Lodge, after the close of business, our key was in an envelope taped to the door. Now honestly, when was the last time you arrived at your hotel and your key was taped to the door? Seemed perfectly natural to me.
After throwing my gear in the room, I walked straight down to the river, not 100 yards away. As I reached the bank, four mallards came in for splash landings, lighted by a nearly full blue moon. The Lord is good.
When Drew arrived a couple of hours later, we hugged and visited and planned to get up at a civilized hour the next morning. I had located Granny D’s Home Cooking for dinner that evening before he arrived, so that’s where we went for breakfast the next morning. Coffee was served in big mugs; Drew’s said “Faith” and mine said “Love.” It occurred to me that if “Hope” had shown up, we’d have had the 1 Corinthians 13 Love Chapter trifecta right there at our table.
Trout fishing in Texas is the U.S. equivalent of the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, courtesy of Lone Star Beer. Really, the first stocking of trout in the Guadalupe in 1966 was partly funded by the founder of Lone Star Beer, because he wanted to trout fish, and he reasoned that the tailwaters pouring through the spillway at Canyon Lake Dam would be cold enough to sustain trout populations. Though they could not possibly survive the ambient summer water temperatures in free-flowing streams in the Texas Hill Country, monster rainbows and browns have done very nicely, thank you, in the toe-bluing chill of the Guadalupe for its first several miles below the dam.
We were fishing blind that first morning — which is to say, without a guide — but the water looked promising, and it was easy to tell where the shallows turned deep and the runs ran still. A professional guide in a drift boat fished his clients, another, much younger, father/son duo, just upriver from where Drew and I were wading. After several casts, we sat down on the near bank to let them pass, and the guide, recognizing the courtesy, said, “Thank you, guys.” The young boy hooked and jumped but missed a trout in the middle of the hole we had been fishing a few moments before.
Shortly after the guide and his clients rowed past us, Drew waded right back into the same hole. Within half an hour, he had hooked a career rainbow trout, far and away the largest rainbow either of us had ever caught before. His hands were shaking as he removed the little fly from this fish’s mouth, then tenderly revived her in the stream before setting her free again. Victory in trout fishing is bittersweet; I love to catch fish, but I always feel a twinge of regret when I win the battle. Relief comes when the catch swims away healthy — the redemptive power of the release is real, and it certainly was on this day.
When Drew released his fish, and I gave him a celebratory bear hug, I don’t think he knew I was crying. He didn’t think I knew he was crying, either.
On Day Two, we met John, our guide from Lone Star Fly Fishing, and shuttled to where he had his drift boat tied up behind the house he leases so he can guide on the river full time.
We stopped the boat every so often, got in the river, and wade fished. My son, who has outfished me for years, caught a nice rainbow in the very spot I had just fished for several minutes before he swapped places with me. An hour later I boated a small one.
We saw all manner of birdlife, my first bufflehead duck and an osprey, several wood ducks and four very noisy Egyptian geese.
I jumped and missed a big rainbow thanks to a bonehead mistake, then caught a small rainbow, then a large one, and a very nice brown trout.
And we saw another osprey, and a kingfisher on the nest.
The Guadalupe’s river bed is made up of huge slabs of limestone, many partly exposed in the river’s relatively low water flow level on this day, and worn smooth with lots of little circles routed out by fast moving water. The circles reminded me of the cowlick marks in salt blocks my grandparents used to have on their small cattle farm in Arkansas when I was a boy. I tried not to be any more sentimental than I always am.
The whole time, I was imagining the geometry (did we call that a parabola in the tenth grade?) of The Perfect Loop over my head, without regard for catching even a single fish. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I was pretty determined that I was at least going to land a decent response to Drew’s monster fish. Besides, our guide wanted us to boat fish even more than we did, which, at the time, I thought was pretty nice, though I later realized it was because he wanted to post pictures of our big fish on his social media account to drum up business. Oh, well, it’s how the man makes his living.
The passing of the mantle, father to son, happens in many stages and manifests itself in many ways over the years. The “better fisherman” mantle had long since been passed to my sons, and though I’ve been practicing law for over thirty years, Drew’s law practice and his brother’s cool role in public service outstrip what I was doing at their ages. On this trip, Drew fronted the costs for the room and the guide, and protested when I insisted on splitting the bills. When he left on Saturday night, he called me an hour down the road on his way home to Houston to check on me, because I was staying an extra night on my own.
I like having adult sons just fine.
That last evening, as I was reflecting, still trying to come to a decision about whether to make the Senate race, I went to the lodge’s deck overlooking the river that had just blessed us with so many memories in a very short time. I was looking for quiet, but there was a large family on the deck playing a game with large wooden blocks and grilling on an anatomically correct Longhorn Bull charcoal grill, playing their music a bit too loudly, but not so much as to be unneighborly. It didn’t even bother me; like the key taped to the door of the room, this seemed the way things should be here.
My last morning on the river was Easter Sunday, and I attended an Easter service at First Baptist Church of Canyon Lake in jeans, boots and my last clean (and white) fishing shirt, hoping I was dressed appropriately. Happily, I didn’t see a jacket or tie in the place, just lots of men in jeans, ladies in pants and a sweet fellowship.
At the top of the bulletin were the words “Hope Starts Here: Celebrate the Story of Easter.” Well then. Hope showed up after all, just a couple of days behind “Faith” and “Love.” Hope always does.
Maybe that’s The Perfect Loop.
Editor’s note: Four days after his return to Mississippi, Andy Taggart decided he’d much rather go fly fishing at a moment’s notice than become a U.S. Senator. You may follow his wide-ranging musings @andy_taggart