Meandering

A stream that folds back on itself can teach you a lot about trout...and life.

Field & Stream Online Editors

One of the great charms of a spring creek lies in its propensity to meander, to curl round about through the land in looping arcs, bending first in one direction, then another, sometimes doubling back on itself in a shepherd's crook so narrow that you might stand on the finger of land within and see water on either side of you flowing in opposite directions. A stream can cover a lot of territory this way, but its course is largely lateral; movement forward comes only in small increments as the current, rounding a bend, makes a little headway down the valley before turning aside once again, its onward progress-like progress of many kinds-achieved in the brief moment of changing direction. The shape alone, all crescent bank and switchback, endows the landscape with an animate quality, the flexing of a thing alive.

A meandering stream takes the shape it must, conforming to the principles of dynamics and work and energy balance. But as in other forms that shape themselves around other constraints-the hexagon of snowflakes or the helix of DNA, a sonnet or the blues-the borders still afford ample room for variety and distinctiveness. A few basic ratios of arithmetic can give rise to the most elegant improvisations. A spring creek meanders through shapely permutations, through close, backtracking turns that nearly touch one another; in regular, rhythmic alternations, clean as a sine wave; around right-angle corners; along flexing arcs that wobble as they bend, and through the graceful, elongated S-curves that are perhaps the loveliest of all. The 18th-century painter William Hogarth called this curve "the line of beauty" and pronounced it the most aesthetically perfect of all shapes.

It is a line of both motion and repose, a figure repeated in the dip and swell of rolling hills, the swerve of schooling fish, the twist of a vine through the understory, the curve of a woman's back. In a painting, Hogarth said, this line of beauty "leads the eye on a wanton kind of chase." In nature, it leads the feet as well.

Meandering is the curve of curiosity and exploration and sometimes of discovery-digressive and indirect, obedient only to an inner logic of its own but open to serendipity, its own justification because it answers to something elemental in nature, human and otherwise. Now here, now there, a meander is the tack of interesting conversation, the turn of unhurried musing, the unpremeditated detours of an aimless walk, the afternoon circuit of a well-fed dog with no appointments. Meandering is the shape of youth with time on its hands, when the years are still a given. All time is now, and a day merely the meandering arc of moments laid end to end. Sometimes, youth does indeed seem wasted on the young. Then again, it's all they really have.

It was in just such a wandering and indirect fashion that I came to know the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin and its spring creeks. Finding trout was the end but meandering the means, and even now I can scarcely imagine country better suited to this wanton kind of chase. Nothing is so tempting as a geography of small concealments, all nook and hollow and shady bend, every stream a line of beauty on the valley floor, every one-lane blacktop disappearing into the hills begging to be followed just to see where it leads.

Almost always, a small group of us set out, brothers and friends and brothers of friends, the precise number and makeup shifting from trip to trip, depending on who was around, who would make good company, who could be trusted to appreciate whatever small discoveries might be made. Informal and unstructured, it was less an expeditionary force than a fishing version of pickup basketball. A few of us made every trip and so became a kind of de facto core, though to call us "leaders" would imply a level of organization hilariously beyond the facts. We were merely the guys who brought the ball. Regardless of the specific particints, however, our aggregate angling qualifications amounted to little more than a fishing rod apiece and unremitting optimism, and over the course of many summers, we burned an unholy amount of time knocking around the countryside, fishing and exploring.

One of the first discoveries was that there were two routes to almost every trout stream. The quick way was the most linear course with the fastest roads; not necessarily a short trip in absolute terms, its degree of quickness was relative to the second approach, the back way. Almost always, we took the back way, zigzagging through a checkerboard of cornfields, alternately west and north. For a carload of amped-up fishermen wired to be on the water, it seems an odd choice, I suppose, this circuitous traveling that made a drive of two hours into something more like three.

"More scenic," we agreed, though we passed through it before daylight. No one ever publicly pointed out this discrepancy, privately relishing instead the sense of a sidelong route to a secret place, of somehow sneaking in undetected beneath the world's radar-a small thrill, to be sure, but along with the cool Midwestern night streaming in through the car window, enough to raise the hair on my arms every time.

For a time, we used only spinning tackle, and among us managed an assortment of rods and reels so miscellaneous that in the end they shared only one common characteristic-a complete ill-fittedness for small-stream trout fishing. Beyond rod and reel, each of us was outfitted according to his own idiosyncratic notions, though, on the whole, we tried to keep it simple. No one wore waders or a vest or carried a net or lugged around extra baggage of any kind. Fishing small streams requires keeping on the move, and anything beyond the bare basics only proved an encumbrance in the long haul. We typically, if presumptuously, slung a canvas creel over one shoulder. A little container of No. 14 gold Aberdeen hooks, split shot, and a few tiny spinners went into one shirt pocket. Worms went into the other.

We discovered that a little bedding or loamy soil in a pocket and frequent sprinklings with water for evaporation cooling sufficed as a morning's life-support system for half a dozen nightcrawlers. And if it didn't you could tell pretty easily when things were heading south. A troubled worm begins to smell even before it turns toes up; then it passes briefly through the corpse stage and in remarkably short time simply disintegrates without a trace. This was another thing we discovered: that worms are really little more than a loosely organized and slightly mobile form of dirt.

In this humor, we struck out across the meadows, singly or in pairs, to favorite bends or stretches, hiking through the waist-high, dewy grasses and drenched to the skin by the time we reached water. In early mornings, the particular water was most likely to be a stream I will call Jerusalem Creek. Beginning at Jerusalem Creek was also one of our traditions, which is another way of saying that it was a cyclic, self-reinforcing behavior. We fished here first because we caught trout, and we caught trout because we knew it best, and we knew it best because we fished here first.

We went at it steadily and hard for most of the morning, even when our efforts met with the indifference that is so often the fate of the righteous. As midday neared, however, we might stash our rods for a while and just amble through a meadow hunting out interesting plants or insects, or hike up the rocky bluff that overlooked the valley, or peck away with a rock hammer at great blocks of limestone, looking for fossils. Or we might catch a nap, flaking out on the streamside grass or dozing in the car, feet protruding from an open door. But by noon, the last of us would straggle back from wherever, and we would trade our various accounts of the morning, produce what trout we'd caught for general admiration, eat lunch if we'd remembered to bring it, and ponder a change of venue.

Jerusalem Creek, we believed-rightly in the beginning, wrongly in later years-gave us our best shot at catching fish, and so as I have said it became the customary early-morning starting point. But it was also a point of departure for afternoons spent driving around the countryside looking for new trout streams. Although we referred to these rambles as "scouting," the term suggests a more purposeful and workmanlike quality than they actually possessed; they were part fishing, part just looking around, part pure joyride.

When our scouting was done for the day, if there was time, we hauled out the maps and plotted a homeward course that took us past still other creeks-not to fish, just to stand on the bridge and look and to wander back on a route never taken before. In this roundabout way, our understanding of Jerusalem Creek grew a little deeper, a little more subtle, a little fuller, and as we crisscrossed the driftless area looking for trout, our experience of the landscape became wider and more inclusive. Each spring creek taught us something new, and we carried that idea back to other places, and so each stream was remade each time we fished it, increasingly familiar but always brand-new.

Such backtracking, piecemeal approaches are not the quick way but are perhaps most authentic. Indirection, I think, is that path of all intimate knowing. It is the way you come to learn both the places and people closest to the heart. You find them out gradually and in fragments-in flashes of personality, in quiet glimpses of character, in fleeting moods, in bits of biography, and even in those elusive parts that you will never come to understand-and you patch these together into a story you tell yourself that is all about why you love them.

We learned too, and in a similarly unsystematic fashion, how to fish a trout stream, acquiring the bulk of our education through trial and error-an expression, I might point out, of exquisite precision, since the term carries with it not the slightest whiff of success, only a sequence of efforts and mistakes. Its principal effect is not so much learning how to do something right as how to avoid making the same mistake the next time. And as a method of instruction, this one reinvents a lot of wheels and takes the long way around, eliminating all possible errors until what remains is more or less correct. But it is also how the thing often goes, this paring away to converge on some core of the workable, and proof, were any needed, that there is as much meaning in loss as there is in gain.

This is how I view the matter now, of course, looking back at it through a telescope with a 33-year magnification. But at the time, there was just catching trout or not catching them. We never considered ourselves as "learning" tion, eat lunch if we'd remembered to bring it, and ponder a change of venue.

Jerusalem Creek, we believed-rightly in the beginning, wrongly in later years-gave us our best shot at catching fish, and so as I have said it became the customary early-morning starting point. But it was also a point of departure for afternoons spent driving around the countryside looking for new trout streams. Although we referred to these rambles as "scouting," the term suggests a more purposeful and workmanlike quality than they actually possessed; they were part fishing, part just looking around, part pure joyride.

When our scouting was done for the day, if there was time, we hauled out the maps and plotted a homeward course that took us past still other creeks-not to fish, just to stand on the bridge and look and to wander back on a route never taken before. In this roundabout way, our understanding of Jerusalem Creek grew a little deeper, a little more subtle, a little fuller, and as we crisscrossed the driftless area looking for trout, our experience of the landscape became wider and more inclusive. Each spring creek taught us something new, and we carried that idea back to other places, and so each stream was remade each time we fished it, increasingly familiar but always brand-new.

Such backtracking, piecemeal approaches are not the quick way but are perhaps most authentic. Indirection, I think, is that path of all intimate knowing. It is the way you come to learn both the places and people closest to the heart. You find them out gradually and in fragments-in flashes of personality, in quiet glimpses of character, in fleeting moods, in bits of biography, and even in those elusive parts that you will never come to understand-and you patch these together into a story you tell yourself that is all about why you love them.

We learned too, and in a similarly unsystematic fashion, how to fish a trout stream, acquiring the bulk of our education through trial and error-an expression, I might point out, of exquisite precision, since the term carries with it not the slightest whiff of success, only a sequence of efforts and mistakes. Its principal effect is not so much learning how to do something right as how to avoid making the same mistake the next time. And as a method of instruction, this one reinvents a lot of wheels and takes the long way around, eliminating all possible errors until what remains is more or less correct. But it is also how the thing often goes, this paring away to converge on some core of the workable, and proof, were any needed, that there is as much meaning in loss as there is in gain.

This is how I view the matter now, of course, looking back at it through a telescope with a 33-year magnification. But at the time, there was just catching trout or not catching them. We never considered ourselves as "learning"