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The Guardian Angler




(This is a short story included in my book, Fish, Frogs, and Fireflies: Growing Up With Nature.)

I had been certain the smallmouth bass would cooperate following the afternoon rain, but they didn't.

After I lost my favorite streamer to a snag, I slapped my fly rod disgustedly against a branch. Droplets danced in a sparkling chorus line, but I barely noticed. Fishing had been poor for weeks and I was mad at myself for continuing to waste time on such a worthless sport.

Suddenly I heard an elephant-sized splash. I raced downstream and around the bend to the site of the sound.

An old man with unruly white hair bobbed along as the current filled his waders. "I slipped," he yelled through an equally white beard. "Can you give me a hand?"

I dragged him ashore and helped him pull off his boots. As he emptied his waders, two bluegills plopped out and tumbled back into the stream. "Been one of those days," he said as his river-green eyes appraised his dripping khakis and red flannel shirt.

For a second, I thought that I detected a brief smile on the old man's tanned face. Then, he squished over to a stump and sat down.

"Why do we fish?" he asked abruptly, and I had the disturbing sensation that he had just read my mind. "Most times, we don't catch fish. We get wet and cold. Bugs bite us. We spend a small fortune on tackle. I mean, what's the point?"

I said nothing, but I enthusiastically agreed. I remembered a reckless sidearm cast and a hook that stabbed my lower eyelid. The wound itself was superficial, but the visit to the hospital was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, especially because a worm was on the hook when it stuck me. I also remembered poison ivy and bee stings. I remembered broken lines. I remembered sunburns.

"What I'm trying to decide right now," the old man continued, "is whether to throw my rod and reel in the river or give it to my grandson. He would love to have it. but he's too young to know any better. I don't want it on my conscience that I influenced him to become a fisherman."

Again, I was taken aback. I remembered when I had been too young to know better. And I remembered the old man, a neighbor, who had influenced me to become a fisherman.

I remembered sleepless nights of expectancy. I remembered shivering in the boat so violently during the pre-dawn that I barely could bait my hook. I remembered how sharp and good the coffee smelled in the thermos and how the air on the water smelled of sweet cucumbers. I remembered the sun finally warming my face, burning off the mist, and making me inexplicably happy.

And I remembered how fishing continued to make me happy as I grew up. At first, I now recalled, I had thought it important to catch a lot of fish. Then I had wanted to catch big fish. And I had caught my share in both numbers and size.

But I knew for a fact that I had caught little or nothing on many of my fishing trips, and yet I couldn't remember a single time that I had come home from fishing unhappy.

Yet, I had been unhappy when I heard that splash, and if the old man hadn't started me to thinking . . .

What is needed, I decided is a guardian angel of angling. He could, of course, meander down idyllic trout streams to make certain that hatching insects look like the flies carried by fishermen who are about to come along, and he could whisper on the wind to bass anglers, telling them when to use chartreuse and when to use white.

But more importantly, he could keep us from forgetting that fishing is a lot more than just catching fish. He could remind us that fishing restores our souls through sights, sounds, and smells --- and the memories that it revives.

This is a rebirth for me, I decided. Never again will I fail to appreciate the sun's magic on raindrops. Never again will I forget the pure pleasure I derive from being on the water with ducks, dragonflies, bullfrogs, beavers, and all of the rest --- even if the fish aren't biting and I've lost my favorite streamer.

My eyes met the old man's then and I jerked back to reality. I smiled and told him that I once filled my chest waders with a farm pond while reaching for a moss-wrapped fish that was just out of grasp. "It's all part of fishing," I said with a shrug."

"If I were you," I continued, "I wouldn't give that rod and reel to your grandson. I'd buy him a new one and take him fishing with you the next time."

He laughed and slapped a hand against his stream-soaked pant leg.

"You're right," he said. "But before I go, I want to show you my appreciation for your help. I want you to have this."

He reached into his tackle bag and then extended his hand to me. As I opened my hand, he dropped a streamer into it --- a streamer just like the one I had lost.

"We all need a little help every now and then," he said as he waved goodbye.

Copyright Robert Montgomery.