I clambered over rocks and under fallen trees. My boots slid on slick boulders making the coffee in my stomach slosh against the eggs and biscuit I had for breakfast.
I threw the Copper John in a small pool and watched as it drifted through the water. A flash of orange shot out from under a rock and the fly vanished. With a quick rise of the rod, the hook stuck in the trout’s jaw.
Red dots speckled its side and blue halos enclosed them. A fish just a hair longer than my middle finger lay half in the water and half in my palm. Batting its tail against my thumb, it plunged back down behind its rock.
The first native Brook Trout is always a turning point. Soon, the dark brown Virginia winters will be overpowered by bright redbuds, flowering dogwoods, and hungry fish. A welcome sight after the dreary cold.
My wife and I had spent the winter, like most, quarantining. Our first child had been born in September and with a virus spreading across the country we took few chances. Often, a trip to the grocery was our only time out of the house.
This was a far cry from the spring and summer when my wife was pregnant. In nice weather, we would fish and walk by the local lakes and rivers. Often eating shore lunches of roast chicken before heading back home to the air conditioning where I would have bourbon to finish off the day and my wife some watermelon slices sprinkled with salt.
When the Virginia humidity became too much we would forgo the walk and spent time in an inflatable pool in the driveway. My wife would listen to podcasts about serial killers and would oooh and ahhh as the case unfolded. Those days I kept a close eye on the baseball bat downstairs and the ax in the shed just in case she got a wild hair to collect on the life insurance.
We had our son in Mid September. Shore lunches and fishing stopped but the occasional quick walk by the river remained. Getting outside and regaining our sanity from the bedlam of having a newborn was needed.
Soon the bright colors of Autumn that were prevalent in my son’s first month dropped and the gloom of winter set in. Temperatures fell and Covid spread, so we hunkered.
With everything else going on there was also an election, and with so many people at home, it was easy for the 24-hour news cycle to whip the public into a frenzy. Most everyone had already seen Tiger King by then so there wasn’t much else to do.
In January, the country boiled over. Political pressure, Covid exhaustion, and civil unrest fueled the fire. We worried about what kind of world we brought our child into. With our anxiety running hot, something happened. Our son had forgotten how to sleep for more than two hours at a time.
For better or for worse our attention was pulled away from the news and anything from the outside world as for the next few months the three of us struggled to rest.
By the end of February, he was sleeping normally again thanks to dairy-free formula and rigorous sleep training. All of us poked our heads out of our home like groundhogs and saw the sun. Spring was coming.
The outdoors always grounded me and my wife. What does eastern medicine say? Center your Chi? Yeah, that’s it. Like most of the world, we misplaced our Chi.
That early spring morning we went looking for it again.
The warm eggs folded nicely in the flakey biscuit and it tasted even better streamside.
A well-maintained gravel path ran adjacent to the little stream. The George Washington National Forest has some great secluded areas but my wife and son were set to meet me after his nap. So a long drive and hike were not in the cards with a six-month-old.
I fished for two hours before my wife and son met me just a quarter-mile from the trailhead. The fishing was red hot, having lost count soon after arriving.
We walked to an area that had a rocky bank where we all could stand by the water. In front was a long and narrow plunge pool with a small waterfall that fed it. Our son held close to my wife’s chest as I watched the water.
The magnitude of the moment hit me. My son’s first time on the river and even though he wouldn’t remember this, the need to catch a fish for him was overwhelming. I drew a breath and cast, watching as the fly danced on the surface untouched.
A second cast, no bites.
My heart sank as the third cast yielded the same result. A fourth cast landed at the base of the waterfall and the fly zipped downstream. A white fin tip flew from the water and the body of the fish went airborne with the hook poking out of the side of its mouth.
I raised the tip and the rod bent as a long white and orange belly flashed. A Brook Trout had risen and gulped the fly from the surface.
I pulled the fish in the net to show my son. He leapt forward hands first attempting to grab it. My wife scrambling to maintain control of the wriggling child.
I splashed some water on his hand and let him feel the fish’s tail and back before letting it go back into the water. With the fish now gone my son fussed as all of our stomachs growled. Before packing up we had the ceremonial last cast.
One drift through the current and a flash of silver burst through the water and took the fly back under with it. The trout was overpowering as my rod and line were made for a fish half its size.
Leaping a foot out of the water it came down with a splash. The violence of the trout’s head shakes could be felt down the rod, through the handle, up my arm, and in my chest. It stripped line from between my fingers as it used the length of the pool to its advantage.
With another jump and run the trout began to tire as I pulled in the last bit of line and slung it in the net.
Grabbing the tail with my right hand and stomach with the left I lifted it out of the net as my son again shot from his mom’s arms to grab the fish. He pet the sides and watched as I set it back in the water and it pushed itself back into the deep pool.
“A good one to end on”. My wife says.
South of the stream is a brewery where we stopped for lunch. At the edge of the property, a line of Adirondack chairs dot the shore of another stream.
The water trickled over the rocks as our son sipped his bottle. My wife and I sat and drank our beers and ate our fried chicken sandwiches. The three of us centered and enjoying our first shore lunch.
Article by Dallas Hudgens @dallas.hudgens, a father and angler based in Virginia.
Header photo courtesy of Dinapsphoto