The spreading catalpa tree was there on the left, yet there was something, some very specific thing, not right. An incorrect view was set before my eyes. I had returned along the slippery rocks from my position down river, the rising tide nipping at my boot tops, and found the spreading catalpa tree standing there and my belongings sitting beside the trunk . . .
. . . gone: the rod case, the rain jacket, the bulky, roomy courier bag that had contained my water bottle, binoculars, even -- no lie -- my Good Book.
I found only a man, not twenty feet away, who was fly casting a large blue and white streamer for striped bass. He stood slightly unsteady on a damp boulder. Middle age and heavyset, he fished light -- no tackle box or vest -- no evidence he could be a bandit on the getaway. I looked back down to where I had been casting and over at the whitewater falls of the Fairmount Waterworks. That’s when my private eye deduced he was the father of the boy and girl casting bait off the wall below the fish ladder.
I walked politely up to him and waited for him to finish his retrieve. “Excuse me, did you see anyone else here?”
“What? No. Why?”
I noticed he did not appear shifty, or in any other visible way guilty, so I pointed toward the catalpa. “My gear was stored over there by the tree. It’s gone now. Stolen, for sure.”
“That!” He paused for effect. “That is something you never want to do here, guy!”
I knew well what he was about to say: the little speech of experience. This was city fishing, fishing in a city with an attitude of “Gimme!” and full of opportunistic characters. Suckers come along all the time. I was not one, though, was I? I had my own experience. I had fly fished this stretch of the Schuylkill River in sight of the Philadelphia skyline for two full and fun and fish-filled years and had rarely encountered any people, let alone gear pilferers!
“Two guys with gray hooded sweatshirts did buzz around me and the kids up above a while ago. We were getting out of the car. They looked creepy, hiding their faces, but I’m a big boy. Maybe they came sniffing down here, saw your stuff, and helped themselves. That’s why I let the kids stay up there on the wall where the light is brighter. You can see that spot from the road.”
“Hooded sweatshirts?” I said, thinking -- figures, hoodlums wearing hoodies. And I had just been had.
“Any luck?” I asked.
“Better than you, it would appear! Hey, grab yourself a beer out of that cooler.” He pointed to a niche between his rock and the next. I saw he had indeed brought a container, a red and white insulated lunch box big enough for a six-pack. “I tell the lady its stink bait for catfish.” He laughed. “She won’t take the risk and inspect inside for fear I might be right.”
I laughed with him, took out a river cool can, and popped it open.
“The tide won’t creep up much higher than this,” he said. “We could fish for channel cats all night here if I had brought the stink bait, but then we’d have no beer!”
I watched the funny man throw a serious double haul, which launched the streamer far across the swift middle currents of the river and into the wide eddy below the fifteen-foot wall of the falls. He stripped in the artificial baitfish with quick jerks, breaking the calm surface in the same teasing way that lake fishermen use to coax aggressive surface strikes from largemouth bass, which are actually not a true bass like the striper, but a sunfish.
“What type of streamer is that?” I asked.
“Glad you noticed,” he replied, bringing up the fly between us. “I call this blue and white beauty the Blue Jay Heron after my two favorite birds.”
“I’ve seen herons fishing along the rocks at low tide.”
“Exactly. And you’ll hear blue jays shouting out at you from that tree behind us. Those guys have left behind a few feathers for me from time to time, which give this pattern its distinctive and handsome hackle.”
His focus switched from fly back to fly-casting. Resigned to spectator fishing, I watched him angle, my own fly rod in hand, myself too depressed by my loss to keep on casting. Watching him did keep my mind a safe distance from the demonizing images that would have come had I repeatedly itemized each and every stolen object. And I had never hooked into a striped bass before; I pursued smaller fry, panfish and small stream trout, mostly.
Four long, silent, methodical casts and retrieves passed, and then he shouted --
“There we go!”
He struck! His light saltwater rod suddenly bent like the neck of a late summer sunflower. The floating green fly line, followed quickly by the thin, white, Dacron backing, sang an extended falsetto off the reel. The underwater battle ensued: long, fast runs in between deep dips and pulls. I could visualize the strong fish maneuvering around the underwater structure.
The sodium lights along the road above switched on, giving the graying dusk an added glow. Evening mist was thick and forming fast.
“Here she comes!” I saw first the bright white belly, then the full striped sides. The gaping mouth he reached down to lip and hold steady belonged to a fish of ten pounds, if not twelve.
A few calculated shifts and twists freed the fly. He held the plump bass by both ends on its side, face first, in the surface current. A magnificent, spirited, still-winded city fish; perhaps an anadromous tourist, yet one drinking the same water as the locals like my new acquaintance and me. A few more moments passed until a strong sideways shake set the fish free on its way.
“That’s what it’s like to catch a city striper!” He stood and beamed, his success being shared in part to give me a contact high. The words and the deeds and the beer were helping.
He hooked the streamer onto one of the eye guides of his rod, bent down to grab the cooler, and took a few jump strides toward the catalpa. “Fireworks tonight! You know that? Waterworks fireworks over the PMA. The kids think they got the best view up there, but I know better!”
“Really?” I replied, just as the pomp commenced.
The catalpa tree formed a half frame for the scene. There he stood, within the space beside and below the branches, perched in sneakers upon a little peak in the rocks. He held up his rod arm in triumph, sipped from a can of beer in the other, and circled his hips with glee. That bass had been big and beautiful, and he had had a witness! And the fireworks were starting! The first red and bright white filaments began to burst above the Museum of Art across the river. The reflection on the water below doubled the show. The mist held the light and made the entire scene glow.
“Carry just what you need to go, need to go, need to go!” I sang beneath the booming. “Carry just what you need to go! I’ve lived! I’ve learned! I know! I know!”
copyright 2008 by ron P. swegman. all rights reserved.