The first person we meet in the movie “Low and Clear” is JT Van Zandt. He has a famous father, but that’s not important. He’s calm, reserved, and he loves to fly fish. This is, after all, a fly fishing movie that promises to explore the relationship between two old friends, JT and a guy named Xeenie. When we meet JT, he’s gliding over saltwater flats in a small boat that he built himself. He’s talking about life, about his girlfriend, about Redfish. He lives in coastal Texas by way of Colorado, where he learned to fly fish and became friends with Xeenie. When we meet Xeenie, he’s the anti JT, and this contrast is on full display as he curses a mighty blue streak at the fish, the wind, the camera crew. Like most movies about fly fishing, it’s supposed to be more about the friendship- the human condition- but it’s always mostly about the flies and the fish.
The first fish we see in the film is a Redfish, taken by JT in those Texas waters. The fish is bright and bold, and as Midwesterners we know that Redfish are simply carp, but don’t tell that to JT. When he releases the fish, he pauses for a moment and his voiceover says that he can see emotion in the eyes of the fish, and he can hear what it’s telling him. “Trust”, the fish is saying, “trust”. It’s easy to think that, because JT is indeed calm and steadfast, and as he gently releases that saltwater carp it’s obvious that the fish was right to trust him. This is the movie, and I don’t expect you to watch it. I only tell you about it because I, too, have held fish in my hands and had them speak to me. It happened last week a few times, and then again last night.
With my new bike and my undying devotion to fly fishing, I have combined the two into a stealthy form of hobby trespassing. My house is not near Delavan Lake, but it’s closer to Delavan than it is to Geneva, and so on certain nights this spring I’ve loaded a fly rod into a backpack, strapped the pack to my back, and pedaled over to Delavan Lake to fish for panfish in the channels and lagoons that are common on the south and east side of that lake. In the summer, these shallow bays and channels are choked full of weeds and scum, and as such, they are unfishable. During these stagnant summer months the water brews and stales and smells like all things dead and evil, and this is why I wouldn’t ever dare consider pedaling over to throw a fly during any moth that falls after April. But alas, it has been April for a while, and the panfish are gluttonous and fall easily to a presented fly.
If I were to drive in my car over to these fishing spots, I would have to park in a location where my car would not be welcome. I’d have to trespass, or at least park in a way that made my trespassing known. By bike, I can dip and dive into the backwater lagoons, and I can hide behind stacks of shore stations and against brushy shorelines. The bike allows me great freedom to go where I am not permitted, and the anonymity is rather delicious. My fiberglass two weight rod bends with each sip of my fly from a crappie or a bluegill, the small fish turning every way, tugging away from my reach. When the fight is over and I hoist that small fish to my hand, I gently release the hook and let the fish back into the water. It’s for that brief moment when I hold them in my hand that I hear them speak. Take me with you, they say.
The first time I heard this, I wasn’t certain I was understanding. I knew I sensed something in their eyes, but what was it? Was it trust, as JT feels them say? Or was it fear, which wouldn’t be likely given the fact that I’ll never keep and kill a fish on purpose. It seemed to me to be neither, instead, it felt like a simple plea, emanating from the glassy eyes of that small bluegill. Save me, it said. Save me from this channel and this filth and this stagnant water that clogs my gills and dulls my color. Free me from this watery sentence, from these weeds and this surface scum and these stifling summer temperatures. Take me with you, save me, treat me to something different, something pure, something clean, something- anything- other than this.
With newfound sympathy, I turned the fish away, one after another, for so many of these past few nights. In different spots, after stashing my bike against the trees or down into the weeds, I caught these fish of varying makes and models, yet while the location changed and the fish as well, they all looked at me with those eyes that spoke the same words. I’m helpless to help them, you see, because there are so many and it would be so hard to fasten a large enough water tank to my bike. Instead, I’ll just go back again and again, for the next few days or until the weeds choke out the channels, and I’ll play with these fish, hoping to entertain them if only for a while, to take their minds off of their surroundings.