In 1823, along the North Shore, the explorer Stephen Long christened the 9-mile ribbon of riffles and pools that splashes downstream from High Falls to Lake Superior the “Baptist” River.
Within a few decades the river’s handle was recast as the Baptism, a title that focuses more appropriately on the regenerative properties of water, especially that which courses from point to point.
Earlier this week, with a fly rod in hand and a blue sky above, I stepped into a stream that was not the Baptism with its bedrock of basalt and gabbro. That river and its steelhead existed only in my mind’s eye. Instead the stream I chose flows through farm country nearer to the Twin Cities, rolling initially over sand and dividing sedge meadows before cascading atop rubbly gravel into the Mississippi and the great beyond.
Peeling line from my reel and casting upstream, I only halfheartedly cared whether a brown trout darted hungrily from the undercut bank near which my bead-headed nymph landed.
My immediate goal instead was to continue the positive vibe that had begun at sunrise that morning. Scattered ahead of me on our otherwise routine daybreak hike, the dogs seemed particularly spirited and upbeat. Also, sap flowed readily from maple trees into a receptive vat, and in a nearby pasture a horse’s gentle shape gained form against the higher angle of sun. As if providing a seasonal soundtrack, Canada geese intermittently honked overhead while arrowing along a still-frozen river. This was spring, I thought, in the north country, and you can’t beat it with a stick.
Elsewhere, of course, people were dying or worrying about dying, or losing money or worrying about losing money, news of which pulsed virally through gizmo-laden TVs ballyhooed as “future proof,” a particularly laughable claim nowadays, for gadgets and people alike.
Years ago, a friend of mine, consummately befuddled, declared that at all costs Minnesotans should avoid making major life decisions in January, February or March, an opinion he forged when he awoke one spring morning to realize he had divorced his wife in January and couldn’t recall why.
“If I had gone fishing instead,” he said, “I’d still be married.”
His point, kind of, wasn’t that fishing is uniquely therapeutic in troubled times. Rather, that the salutary effects of water accrue to those who frequent it most, anglers among them.
Counterintuitively, for many who fish the prospect of landing a walleye, northern pike, bass or trout isn’t, ultimately, the main attraction.
Rather, the exercising of memory, imagination and curiosity, each of which simmers in fishing’s fertile estuary, is the pastime’s biggest catch.
So it was earlier this week that while driving to my farm country stream I imagined the hours of fishing that lay ahead while simultaneously recalling in vivid detail and bright colors days past when I fished the Baptism River on the North Shore. And not just the Baptism, but farther up the shore, the Cross and the Brule, and in the southeast, the south branch of the Root and the Whitewater.
I imagined also May’s opening day of walleye fishing and jigs baited with minnows dropped into chilled water. Maybe this was on Vermilion or Leech or Upper Red or perhaps a secret backwater where fish jump into the boat.
Whatever the location, each day would end with fillets frying in hot oil feeding good friends having great times, our boats tied to docks that in the morning would be covered with frost, bait buckets swinging from nylon ropes.
Bonus daydreaming, I imagined also paddling on boundary lakes, perhaps Basswood or Iron or Crooked or Burke, where not long after ice-out, canoes slice through water like scimitars and campfire smoke drifts alongside tents pitched beneath tall pines.
Psychologists call these mental meanderings escapism. To Native Americans, they are visions or, in variation, dreams. Either way, truckloads of each are in order, no matter the topic, fishing or otherwise, because these days, reality is a real dose.
Casting again to that undercut bank, and finding no takers, I paused a long moment before wading downstream, clear water enveloping my waders.
Overhead, the sky was as blue as it ever was — as blue as it ever will be — and I sat on the riverbank to tie a fly onto my line.
Whatever else everyone was doing, they weren’t doing it here. Social distancing to the max, I had the river to myself.
Warmed by the sun, and hoping the morning’s good vibe would continue, part of me wanted to shout, “Bring it on, coronavirus.”
But another part cautioned, “Hold your horses.”
Rolling out another cast, I kept fishing.