An Angler Of The
by Randy Kadish
My mother taught me to love music and
literature and to always stand on the side of hardworking garment workers.
Then in 1910 she died.
Three months later my father looked at my
grades and yelled that I spent too much time fly casting and not enough time studying.
Later, he sneaked into my room and snapped my fly rod. So for the next year I was furious
at him and rarely looked into his eyes. Still, I studied hard, earned very good grades,
and let my father believe that, down the road, I would enroll in Columbia Law School and
follow his way and become a great lawyer and not a great writer. I hated living a lie, but
still I lived it.
Then one night, I walked into my room. On
my bed was a round, silver, metal case. I didn't have to open it to know what was inside:
a fly rod. It was a three piece rod, with an extra tip. The rod was glass-smooth and
orange-tinted. The varnish didn't hide the thin, long, grain lines. Dividing the lines
into inches were dark-purple thread wraps. The decorating wraps were thin, but the guide
wraps were about a quarter-of-an-inch wide. The guides, the joints and the short, butt cap
were polished silver. Carved on the cap were fancy, script letters that read: H. L.
Leonard Rod Maker. I put the rod together, and wrapped my fingers around the cigar-shaped,
cork handle. The rod was much lighter than my old one. Though I knew little about fishing
rods, something told me
what I held was very special.
"I have something else for
you," my father said.
He stood in the doorway, holding a silver
fly reel, a pair of rubber hip boots, and a straw creel. He smiled. His smile fell,
suddenly. His eyes turned red, as if he was about to cry.
"Ian, I'm, I'm so sorry for
what I did," he said. "Losing your mother, well I guess turned me into a, a
monster. Please understand."
I wondered, should I run to him, and hug
him and say I understand? I didn't. And so I wondered, am I really a bad son? I muttered,
"Ian, there's still light
out. Let's go to the park so you can show me how well you cast."
"I haven't practiced for so
long. Maybe we'll go in a week or two."
"Whenever you're ready. By
the way, the man in the store told me you can take the railroad up to Hawthorne and fish
the Saw Mill River."
"I don't know anything about
"Well that's why there are
The next day I went to the big library on
Fifth Avenue and took out two fly-fishing books. That night, as soon as I finished my
homework, I eagerly opened one of the books and read about different kinds of flies -
wets, nymphs, dries, caddises, emergers - and about how each kind was fished differently.
Fly fishing seemed terribly complicated.
I closed the book and wondered if I really wanted to become an angler, especially since,
even if I caught a trout, a crowd wouldn't see and cheer. Then I remembered how my mother
had wanted to fly fish. I opened the book and took notes. Three hours later, long after my
bedtime, I finally put the book down. The next night I again opened the book. This time I
read and took notes about the different parts of rivers and streams - lips, tongues,
mouths, tails, runs, pools, banks, riffles - and about how to read them. Rivers and
streams, I learned, hid trout almost the same way good poems hid meaning. The job of the
angler, therefore, was to read and interpret the water and to unmask it.
So as winter stepped toward spring, I
stepped toward becoming an angler, but then I wondered: Can real anglers be born from
books, or from only streams and rivers? If only from streams and rivers, will the real
anglers on the Saw Mill River laugh at me? I told myself, no. I won't let them. Night
after night, I studied my notes, and counted the days to April 1st.
Six more days to go. It was a beautiful
spring Saturday. Someone working for the Triangle Waist Company tossed a cigarette into a
bundle of cotton, and a spark turned into a flame, and a flame turned into a fire, and a
fire turned into an inferno; and for some workers there was only one choice: to burn to
death or to jump. Many chose to jump. From the ninth floor bodies fell like rain, crashed
on the sidewalks, and lay like broken, twisted dolls.
Eighteen minutes after is was started,
the fire and a hundred-and-forty-six young lives were put out. And so would have another
hundred or so lives if the elevator operator, Joseph Zito, had not risked his life and
acted so heroically.
The next day my father walked into the
office of the Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and offered to file legal motions for free. I
was proud of him, and knew my mother, a garment-worker sympathizer, would be too. And I
wanted her to be proud of me too; so when April 1st finally arrived, I showed respect for
the garment workers who had died, and left my fly-fishing equipment in my room, and
waited, day after day after day.
The leaves and flowers bloomed; and I
knew it was time to continue on and to find the courage to become an angler. Luckily I
wouldn't need a lot. I was on Easter recess, and knew that, on a weekday, few anglers
would fish the Saw Mill River.
I went to a fly shop and asked the clerk
to pick out some flies for me.
"In America most everyone
fishes wets," he said.
A few days later I rode the railroad up
to Hawthorne. Nervous, I walked to the stream. I didn't see another angler. I was
The Saw Mill River was straight and about
twenty-feet wide. It slowly flowed and softly gurgled, as if it whispered words I couldn't
understand, like the foreign words of immigrants. The stream's banks were about as tall as
I. They were lined with short bushes and tall trees. The bushes seemed to grow out of the
water. The trees seemed to form a dense, leafy roof and to shape the stream into a long,
green tunnel, especially because the trees closest to the high banks tilted forward.
The flowing water, I realized, was
whittling away the banks like a knife. The leaves on the top of the trees shined like the
pieces of stained glass in my father's church. But unlike the glass, the leaves caught
most of the light, so lower down the trees, close to the stream, the leaves looked like
small, hanging shadows. Yet enough light filtered through the leaves and reached the
stream to turn the riffling water into a shattered mirror. The mirror distorted and
twisted, but didn't completely break the images of the trees and the bushes.
I put on my hip boots, set up my rod, and
tied on a Hare's Ear wet fly. Again I asked myself if I really wanted to become an angler.
Yes, I answered. Read the water, I told myself.
Since it's shallow and slow moving I
should look for a downstream target, the way the books say. Parallel to the bank, slow and
fast moving water met and formed a long seam. I decided to fish the seam.
Stepping sideways, grabbing branches, I
climbed down the steep bank, and stepped into the water. I looked straight down. Almost as
if by magic, the reflected images disappeared. The shattered mirror had seemed to turn
into a glass cabinet top. At the bottom of the cabinet, instead of valuable jewelry or
trinkets, there were worthless gravel and rocks.
The water was almost up to my knees. I
waded toward the middle of the stream. The water pushed hard against my legs, as if it
tried to knock me over. I didn't let it. Looking down, making sure I had good footing, I
slowly waded on. Suddenly, my foot seemed to go through the stream's bottom. I was
falling. My arm crashed into the water. The water was cold. It stung. My foot landed,
I didn't fall. Thankful, I stood up
straight. The water was almost up to my waist. I looked down. The water didn't look deep,
but its depth, I realized, was hidden by water that acted like a big magnifying glass. I
wondered, why hadn't the fly-fishing books warned me about deep holes hiding in streams
like trout? What if I fall and break my ankle and won't be able to make it out of the
stream? Will I have to sleep on the banks until someone finds me? Won't that be a lot
scarier than sleeping in Central Park? And what if no one finds me? Will I die here and
never see my father and sister again? Or am I again acting like a coward - the way I acted
when I didn't stand up to Brett?
Haven't I just learned a valuable lesson
in wading? So what's there to be scared of? Nothing. Downstream, a big, fat tree lay
across the stream. The tree still had leaves, so I knew it had just fallen. I noticed
parts of dead trees littered the banks. Suddenly the stream looked spooky, like a haunted
house where, instead of ghosts, the Saw Mill River chopped down and killed big trees. I
wondered, is shapeless water more powerful than solid wood? It didn't seem possible, and
yet my eyes told me it was. I waded to the middle of the stream.
I stood on gravel and felt safe. I pulled
off about forty feet of silk line from my silver, Meek reel. The water grabbed the line
and snaked it downstream. Suddenly the long tunnel brightened. Slanted columns of
sunlight, looking like hanging sheets of fog or smoke, poured through the trees, crashed
onto the water and broke into clumps of small, bobbing flames. But unlike the flames of
the Triangle Fire, these flames, I knew, were frozen in size and wouldn't turn the Saw
Mill into a long, horrible inferno. I remembered my mother telling me nature, not
Rembrandt or Michaelangelo, was the world's greatest painter. I wondered if my mother's
spirit, along with the sunlight, also poured through the trees.
The gurgling water suddenly sounded like
a gentle piano melody. Was my mother somehow playing the melody? I closed my eyes and
listened. For some reason I saw the image of broken, garment-worker bodies strewn on the
sidewalk like dead, Civil War soldiers strewn on a battlefield. I tried to fit the image
of the beautiful stream with the image of the bodies.
But unlike pieces of a puzzle, the images
didn't fit. I wondered, is it because streams are made by nature while sweat shops are
made by man? But isn't man part of nature? I didn't have an answer. Again I closed my eyes
and listened to the gurgling water, and heard the same notes over and over. No. My mother
wasn't playing them. I was alone. I cried, but only for a few seconds. I retrieved about
six inches of my line and paused. My line straightened and pulled against the rod tip. I
cast the rod back. But the water, unlike a lawn, didn't want to let go of the line.
Feeling I was in a tug of war, I pulled the rod back harder, and harder. The rod bent into
a half circle. Suddenly the water let go. The line and the fly flew off the water and
streaked passed me. The line unrolled quickly. Off guard, I wasn't ready to cast. The line
landed behind me.
I had too much line out, I realized. So
as the current swept the line downstream, I reeled in about five feet and again cast. This
time the water didn't pull back so hard. The line unrolled behind me. I cast the rod
forward, then abruptly stopped it and let the line slide through my thumb and finger. The
Hare's Ear turned over and floated down like a falling leaf. The fly landed just outside
All my fly-casting practice had paid off.
Proud, I watched the fly drift down the slower current. The faster water pulled the line,
looped it downstream, then pulled the fly. Trout, the books said, won't take a fly
drifting faster than the current. Therefore, I had to mend the line. Scared I wouldn't do
it right, I pointed the rod up, as if flipping a pancake, I threw the line upstream. The
fly drifted downstream at the same speed as the slower water. I didn't get a take. When
the fly was directly below me, I lifted the rod tip and waited, like the books said I
should. Still no take.
Three more times I cast to the front of
the seam. Three more times still no take. I remembered the books said an angler fishing a
small stream should cast to different targets.
Slowly I waded downstream, looking for a
new target. I found one: the mouth of a long, smooth pool. The mouth caught the water like
a funnel, then spit it out faster and foamier. The pool caught the water and slowed and
smoothed it. I cast straight downstream. The fly and the line moved at the same speed. I
didn't have to mend. I shook the rod back and forth, pulling line off my reel and feeding
the line to the hungry current. The fly drifted over the mouth of the pool, then into the
tongue. I stopped pulling off line and raised my rod. Again no take. Disappointed, I
lowered my rod, retrieved about ten feet line, and again cast to the mouth. As I watched
the fly drift downstream, I wondered, if I don't catch a fish today will it mean that I'm
still not a real angler? I wasn't sure of the answer.
I waded close to the mouth, and decided
to try to cast the fly near the bank, just below an overhanging branch. I cast the line
back. It pulled against the rod tip, but then stopped suddenly. I looked behind me. A
branch caught the fly. I tried to pull the fly free, but broke if off. I cursed, then tied
on another Hare's Ear. To give myself more casting room, I waded into the pool, making
small waves. The water was up to my waist. I waited for the waves to weaken and to merge
into the smooth surface.
The reflections of trees and bushes were
put back together. For some reason I thought of Humpty Dumpty and wished a stream could've
put him back together again. Then I realized characters in fairy tales existed only in
imaginations and, therefore, couldn't be fixed by real streams.
I cast to the middle of the pool and
retrieved line, six inches at a time. The leaves at the top of the trees, I noticed, now
also looked like hanging shadows. Nature's long painting had turned darker, gloomier and
didn't look so beautiful. Feeling lonely, I waded downstream and cast to the tail of the
pool. The line straightened and slid towards the bank. I thought, that's strange - fish
on! Set the hook! I lifted the rod. It seemed to have a pulse, then felt real heavy. It
throbbed. The throbs surged down the rod and jolted my arm. I almost dropped the rod. I
squeezed the handle. The rainbow jumped out of the water, shook its head and followed the
shape of a looping fly line, and dived into the water. The rod went dead. The line hung
limply. The fish was off. I yelled, "Damn!" I felt as if I struck out with the
bases loaded. I wondered what I had done wrong, then realized I should've followed the
books and lowered the rod and not give the jumping trout slack line.
Though my rod no longer throbbed,
something inside me did: a shapeless feeling I didn't quite recognize. I wondered, what is
it, a primitive, predatory, obsession to erase my failure and to catch a fish? Am I
nothing more than an animal right now? Then let me go with it! Quickly, I pulled slack out
of the line and again cast to the pool's tail. I retrieved the line, faster and faster. No
take. I told myself to slow down. Again and again I cast and retrieved. Still no takes. I
cursed the stream for hiding the trout.
Angry, I stopped fishing and deeply
breathed. The tunnel, I noticed, was a darker green. The sun was sinking and leaving me in
what would soon become a pitch-black tunnel. The realization scared the daylights, and
perhaps my obsession, out of me. The throbbing inside me weakened. I caught my breath,
looked downstream and wondered what the Saw Mill looked like past the fallen tree. I
reeled in all the line, then waded downstream and ducked under the tree.
The stream curved sharply to the right. I
couldn't see beyond the bend. I wondered, should I wade farther? But supposing I can't
find a way out of the stream? And supposing it gets too dark for me to wade back?
A sharp, breeze chilled me. I wondered,
is the breeze the river's way of telling me it's time to go? I turned and waded upstream,
against the pushing current. I reached the opening where I had entered the stream. I
climbed up the steep bank, knowing, feeling I had changed in some way, though I wasn't
quite sure how.
Was it by becoming a predator? Was it by
becoming close to nature? I walked to the train station and waited. The sun still didn't
set; so as I rode home on the train I became angry at myself for not wading around the
bend and into the unknown. I wondered, did I again act like a coward? What would have
happened if I had been the elevator operator at the Triangle Fire? Would more girls have
died? Maybe. So I swear I'll go back to the Saw Mill and wade around the bend, the way a
real predator would. But are cowards and predators parts of different puzzles? Or are they
really parts of the same puzzle, and do they therefore, mysteriously fit? If so, am I
going to become like the bosses who locked the doors of the Triangle Waist Company?
The train pulled into Grand Central
Station. I stood up, grabbed my rod and my waders. Then I reached for my creel. I pulled
my hand back, stood still and thought, I'd rather be a coward than a predator. Abruptly, I
turned and walked off the train.
By Randy Kadish, USA, © 2004
Randy’s historical novel,
The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make
Peace With The World, is available on