A Sportman's Life: A Sinking Feeling

There's a very good reason I'd never spotted any fishermen here.

IT'S HOTTER THAN two mice in a wool sock right now, and the heat makes a man do strange things. After years of eyeing a cattail pond--really more of a marsh-- 2 miles from my house, I've decided it's time to fish it. A forgotten little triangle of urban wetland, it's hemmed in by an interstate highway, the parking lot of a six-story office-condo complex, and an asphalt bike path. The county refers to it as a "park," but you never see anyone inside.

Although the area is 90 percent swamp, there's an arm of open water 40 feet long. I've seen mallards putting about here, turtles sunning themselves, and ripples from what are almost certainly rising bluegills. Bluegills, of course, are reason enough for a fisherman. And where there are bluegills, there may be bluegill-eating bass.

Waiting until dusk to avoid the worst of the heat, I biked over carrying my pack stuffed with chest waders and a four-piece 5-weight. Even at 6:30, it was still in the mid 90s, and I showed up dripping sweat. It was the strangest suburban park I'd ever seen: no trails, no trash, no evidence of anybody ever having been inside. I might as easily have walked into a coat closet and emerged in Narnia. I wouldn't have been surprised to look up and find a talking centaur advising me that an Orvis Enrico's Turbo Frog Popper was his go-to lure this time of year. The untended greenery was as thick as any jungle. It took me 20 minutes to crawl, slash, and bull my way to the water's edge.

Once there, I saw that getting into position to make a cast required wading out about 30 feet through cattails, spatterdock, hydrilla, and God knows what else. With my first step, I sank up to my waist and got a good whiff of the gym-bag-from-hell odor that any marsh emits in summertime when disturbed. At least that's what I told myself. Surely, I thought, they'd have had to put up signs if this was the local Superfund site. With my next step came the realization that I had yet to touch bottom; I'd been walking on matted vegetation. The good news was that it appeared to be holding my weight.

In this case, the distance from "so far, so good" to "so what the hell did you think was going to happen?" was exactly two steps. It was at that point that the vegetation decided it had supported me long enough. My feet punched through and I sank right down to my clavicle. I remember thinking of the word clavicle at the time because I had the odd feeling that the water level had sought out the slender, horizontal bones at the top of my chest to draw attention to the fact that I was now within 6 or 8 inches of having my nose and mouth submerged, at which point it would become challenging to continue the breathing process that had become habitual with me.

Meanwhile, my waders were shipping water just below my armpits. This was not an unpleasant sensation, as it cooled me off and restored some brain function, at which point my interest in fishing decreased dramatically. My revised goal for the evening was to avoid drowning. I attempted to turn around but found that my feet, sunk firmly in the muck, were uncooperative. I suddenly recalled reading an obituary of a well-known flyfishing writer some years ago who had perished in the spring flow of his favorite trout stream. His death had been a great loss, the fishing community agreed, but many had found consolation in the fact that he had passed away doing what he loved. This rationale irritated me even then. He didn't die fishing; he died drowning: choking and flailing against the overpowering force of water.

Now highly motivated, I heaved my body shoreward, attempting to spread my weight out evenly over the matted weeds, like a man negotiating thin ice. This worked briefly, allowing me at last to free my feet and establish a higher center of gravity in relation to the water. But then the mat gave way and I began to sink again, the difference being that I was now arranged horizontally, like a swimmer too heavy to stay afloat. It occurred to me that my death would be rationalized in a different vein than the flyfisherman's. I could see people shaking their heads and thinking, That idiot drowned in downtown Arlington, Va., at rush hour, people within a hundred yards of him in all directions, in a grubby little hole nobody in their right mind would have fished. They would sigh, shrug, and say, "Tell you the truth, I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did."

I grabbed at the plants ahead, pulling carefully so as not to break any of them. Inch by inch, I hauled myself into the shallows. I'd never even assembled my rod.

Wet but alive, I rode home, enjoying the cooling effect of water evaporating from my clothing. As I coasted into my driveway, a neighbor saw my rod tube and asked, "How'd you do?" I smiled at him and said, "Pretty good, actually." And for once, a fisherman was telling the absolute truth.