A Modern Angler in Judge Voelker’s Court

A lone fair-weather cloud in an otherwise blue sky was the first thing Josh recognized when he regained consciousness. The familiar sounds and smells of the river came next. Then, gradually, he began to remember the missteps that had caused his awkward fall.

Josh would have drowned if the old fisherman hadn’t pulled him from the river. “I’m glad you’re okay,” the man said, “but when I first saw that voluminous pack protruding from your chest and those shapely waders hugging your hips, I thought I’d finally found a curvaceous mermaid emerging from the deep dark waters of the Glide.” The old man’s laughter was calming, but Josh had spent much of his life fishing the South Platte River in Cheesman Canyon and he couldn’t recall any section of that river called the Glide.

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Josh sat up and surveyed his surroundings. The river’s tannin-stained water was the color of weak tea, and the only substantial rise in an otherwise flat topography was a high eroded bank on the opposite shore of the downstream bend. He did not recognize this river.

Today was Josh’s thirty-sixth birthday, and—as he had done for most of the past decade—he took the day off to fish alone. Josh worked as a fishing guide, outdoor writer and lifestyle photographer, and his stories and photographs appeared regularly in the most prominent fly-fishing magazines. His website, The Modern Angler, began as a measly personal chronicle but had since become one of the most viewed fly-fishing blogs and chat boards in the world.

Much like Norman Maclean’s father in A River Runs Through It, Josh Duchaine was a confident man who was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. But in sharp divergence from the Reverend Maclean’s creed, Josh had come to believe that all good things—trout as well as personal achievement—come by status and status comes by fame and fame does not come easy.

The old man stood next to and partly over Josh. He removed a book of matches from his tattered fishing vest and struggled to ignite a long, thin Italian cigar. After a prolonged pull of the cigar’s inexpensive smoke, the man returned the matches to his vest but the matchbook slipped from his unsteady hand and fell to the ground. Josh’s gut welled with anxiety. Would he live long enough to be a frail old fisherman who struggled with tasks as simple as lighting a cigar? Neither answer— yes nor no—gave him much comfort.

“What’s that crate strapped across your chest?” the old man asked.

“The Bright River chest pack.”

“Does it get in your way more than a vest?”

“A little.”

“Does it hold as much stuff as a vest?”

“Not really.”

“Then why don’t you wear a vest?”

Josh hadn’t worn a vest for several years. Vests, he believed, were for old-timers or weekend wannabes who bought their gear from the big-box sporting-goods stores. Besides, he was on Bright River’s envoy staff and they had sent him the pack to review.

“Well, I usually cram everything I need into the pockets of my jacket or waders. Otherwise I use a chest pack, fanny pack, or sling pack. Sometimes I wear a backpack, but never a vest.”

The old man paused by the river’s edge and watched several small trout feed in the tail of a shallow run while he drew smoke from his cigar with a subtle sense of purpose.

“Your waders have pockets?”

“Of course,” Josh said.

The broken shadows cast an alluring light across the man’s back, and a swirling cloud of cigar smoke rose above his head and suspended in stark contrast with the dark cedar trees on the far side of the river. The lighting was perfect—about six stops from the brightest to dimmest parts of the scene. What a great photograph, Josh thought, although he knew that few magazine or calendar editors would be interested in a picture of a fisherman wearing a vest and canvas waders.

“What are you fishing for, son?”

Josh sensed that the old man was asking about more than fish, but as he began to respond the breeze shifted and a horrendous smell knocked him off course.

“My God that stinks. Did someone throw a dirty diaper on a campfire?”

The old man chuckled, swirled the cigar under his nose, then hoisted the stogie toward the sky.

“You, sir, have the same distaste for cigars as a summer floodwater mosquito. But back to my question. What are you fishing for?”

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The men locked eyes, and—for the first time since they met—Josh realized the stranger bore a striking resemblance to an elderly John Wayne. Though the tattered brim of a Stetson fedora shaded the man’s face, his eyes projected a vivid blue sparkle through the shadows. The two men had been together for only a brief time, but Josh sensed an extraordinary and self-contradicting presence in the stranger: intelligent but unpretentious; serious but playful; old but youthful.

The man was unlike anyone Josh had met before. If another person had asked, Josh would have dismissed the “what are you fishing for” query with a worn-out quote from Thoreau, Gingrich, or Zern. But there was something unusual about this man. Deflecting his questions or obscuring the truth seemed pointless.

“I fish for fame.”

The man said nothing, but his eyes coaxed Josh to continue.

“I started fishing for fun, of course. I didn’t care if anyone knew how I fished or what I caught. But after I published some photographs and articles in a few magazines, the most important thing for me was that everyone knew where I fished, what I caught, and how I caught it. I loved being the fishing expert that everyone wanted to meet, or, better yet, be. Hell, I’ve gotten to the point now that the first thing I do each morning is check the number of hits I got on my blog.”

The old man interrupted. “I don’t know what it means to get a hit on your blog, but it sounds like indecent fun.” He flashed a wry smile, then returned to the topic.

“So you’re a famous fisherman?”

“I suppose so.”

“A happy fisherman?”

“I used to think so, but the other day some jackass reviewed something I wrote and said my narcissistic hubris deserved the wrath of Nemesis.”

“Ouch!” the old man said. “A self-centered chap who overdosed on arrogance and self-pride? That’s rough company.”

“I don’t usually worry about jealous rants, but this one stuck with me. It’s been on my mind ever since, and when I got to the river today I started thinking that maybe he was right. I am the primary subject for most of my writing, and the morals of my stories are nearly always the same. Josh Duchaine is the most clever, insightful and expert trout fisherman alive.”

“A piscatorial epiphany at the riverside?”

“I suppose. Then I slipped on some rocks, and, well, here we are.”

“So you are a famous, conceited and clumsy fisherman?”

“Well, I’ll probably leave the conceited part off my business cards.”

“Oh, but fame and conceit can be as hard to separate as whisky and headaches,” the old man said. “People who put fame before something significant like genuineness usually get very little of either. But people who put genuineness before fame often find a considerable amount of both.

“I once wrote some stories myself, or yarns as I liked to call them. Nothing too fancy, just stories about the beautiful places I’d seen and the genuine folks I’d met, most of whom where fishing for things other than fame, or even fish for that matter. Mainly, you see, I wrote about something I called the magic.

“Along the way I even acquired a little fame. But I didn’t use my fame for influence or prestige. Instead, I bought freedom. Freedom from phones, from meetings, from cocktail parties and all other sorts of insufferable affairs that attract pretentious and self-absorbed people the way manure attracts flies. Mostly, though, I used my fame to buy the freedom to fish when, where, and with whom I chose.”

From his pulpit of sand and loose gravel, the old man’s sermon morphed from a carefree discourse about fishing into a deliberate and purposeful exposition on life. Though most of the man’s counsel was strangely familiar, Josh couldn’t recall from whom or from where he’d heard it before.

“The world is full of people who are blessed with compassion, wit, and common sense. But don’t go looking for them in board rooms or highbrow cocktail parties. Nope. You’re more likely to find these folks telling stories or playing cribbage in a booth of some small-town diner or bar. People with big hearts and small egos. These are the people you should write about. These are the people you should write for.

“Everyone wants to be an expert these days,” the old man said, “but few people know what it means. Knowing things that other folks don’t doesn’t make you an expert. Knowing the limits of your knowledge—knowing and sharing precisely what it is that you do and don’t know—and using those things to make people wiser, happier, and more caring. That makes you an expert.

“A brilliant man once told me that an artist can become great only when he is sincere to himself. Sincerity is something we owe to ourselves. Humility is something we owe to the world. You’ll have a fuller creel if you stop fishing for fame and start fishing for the magic.”

A look of anxiety suddenly overtook Josh’s face, and the old man moved from the river’s bank toward the younger man’s side. Then Josh passed out again.

 


 

“Relax. You’re going to be okay.” It was a woman’s voice.

Josh opened his eyes, but he could see only the vague outlines of two people kneeling over him. As his vision slowly cleared, Josh realized that neither was the old man.

The young woman on Josh’s right placed her fanny pack under his head. “You must have taken quite a fall,” she said. “You have a pretty good cut on the side of your head, and there’s blood on that exposed rock out in the river.”

The young man kneeling on the other side of Josh spoke next. “Dude. Are you Josh Duchaine?”

“Yes.”

“Whoa. I’m Andy Roth. I post on your board all the time. Your photography is sick and your stories are epic, man.”

Josh sat up and looked around. Clear water. Boulders. Pine-covered hills. He was in Cheesman Canyon.

After several minutes, Andy and the young woman helped Josh to his feet. He was still shaky and disoriented, so the couple walked him out of the canyon and back to his truck. Josh resisted at first, but he eventually agreed that Andy would drive his truck back to Denver. The young woman, Kim, would follow in Andy’s car.

Andy talked continuously throughout the two-hour drive to Denver.

“I’m thinking of buying an entry-level DSLR. Which camera do you think would give me the best chance to get a photo published?

“What do you think about those new special-purpose streamer rods. Have you ripped articulated streamers with any of them?

“I need to get a chest pack. What do you think about that new Bright River pack?”

Josh responded to all of Andy’s questions with polite nods and words of encouragement. Andy seemed like a nice kid, but Josh kept thinking about his conversation with the old man.

Josh had only a vague memory of the man when he and Andy pulled from the parking lot and headed east toward Denver. By the time they reached Denver, though, Josh could vividly recall the fishing vest, the Stetson fedora, the blue eyes, and all the talk about the magic. Maybe it was just a dream, but, if so, it was the most realistic dream Josh had ever had.

After the young couple left him at his house, Josh began the deliberate process of putting away his gear. He placed the Bright River chest pack on its shelf and recalled the old man’s curious critique of the pack. Who decided that fishermen should stop wearing something as practical as a fishing vest? When did fashion become so important in fly fishing? Maybe the old man was right. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be about fashion and fame. Maybe it was about something more.

Josh hung his breathable waders on a hook and thought about the fisherman’s old canvas waders. Josh couldn’t imagine wearing those heavy waders, and this had little to do with fashion. Modern waders were superior in both function and fashion. But there was something alluring about the memory of the old man in those thick canvas waders standing next to the river and smoking that stinky thin cigar. Then Josh remembered the matchbook.

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Josh grabbed his chest pack from the shelf and reached into one of its small outside pockets. He was certain he had picked up the old man’s matchbook and put it in the pack. His hands trembled as he searched through the pack’s pockets. An old tippet spool, a packet of split-shot, a small LED flashlight, a few yarn indicators, but no matchbook. He searched throughout the pack, but the book was not there. It could have been a dream, he knew, but the matchbook was so vivid and real in his memory. The cover contained an old political advertisement supporting a candidate for the office of prosecutor. The candidate was a Democrat whose name began with the letter V. Josh’s mind raced.

Voetmann . . . Vogland . . . Vogler . . .

Then he remembered. It was Voelker.

That memory triggered another, and Josh rushed to his shelf and took down a dusty old book that his father had given him many years before: Trout Magic. Josh had read the book as a teen, but for over two decades he had not consciously thought about the stories or their lessons. He opened the book and began to read:

I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariable beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariable ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social postering I thus escape . . . 

That night—just as he had done as a young boy—Josh read each of the book’s stories. This time, though, he would not forget the lessons. This time, he would not forget the magic.

Howard LevettOctober 12, 2016 - 8:04 pm

Wonderful story in so many ways Tim. There are some wonderful lessons as well in Trout Magic.

Rob WoodlandMarch 30, 2017 - 6:31 pm

This brings a smile. It is clear that I have quite a bit of reading to do.

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