The place is my native Wyoming. It's early May and the rivers and streams have just broken free and begun their migrations down the steep slopes and into the valleys, gathering runoff as steadily as a man breathes air. High above me the white-capped ramparts of the Rockies are blinding against a deep blue endlessness.
From an old bridge, I watch the big dark mysterious flow of the Platte, letting my winter-trained eyes re-tune themselves for the next six months. Under the skin of reflected sky, down among the glimmering earth tones of the steam's subtext, trout hungry and sleek and strong for having survived the icy lockdown are holding in the lee of granite boulders and limestone slabs, their conical vision scanning the moving essence of the river.
But if the trout can see clearly, I must take their presence on faith. My eyes have yet to pick up their shapes, much less the rippling of their tails and the flexing of their gill plates. So I stare into the pockets of flat water, waiting for the visual acuity I know will come just as surely as it comes to a soldier on night patrol.
I was 15 then and spring rushed through me with a pulse and surge equal to that of the Platte, its heavy, muted qualities mysterious and heart-quickening. I am now 82, and so help me the feelings remain as strong. Only now I peer into the Platte through my mind's eye, searching less for trout as for meaning. What, I wonder, is the magic of trout fishing, and why has it held me through a lifetime.
Under a palm tree now, my back to the house, I gaze across a bay in South Florida. It shimmers with early heat. Tomorrow my wife, Gerry, and I will drive to the Keys, where for a few days I will search the flats for bonefish and permit. But today I will sit and dream.
Somewhere behind me, by the house, Gerry is telling the gardener where to plant some Azaleas. I plant a cigar (one of two I am allowed each day) in my mouth, light it with a wooden match and with my constant companion, a toy poodle named Fifi sprawled in the grass beside me, I let my memory roll back over all the fishing seasons of my life. I have been lucky. I have fished across the world. No man, I decide, has been luckier.
The list of place-names is too long to remember; the trout rises are almost infinite. Each fishing day, like every baseball game I have ever covered, has been slightly different, like flakes of snow and leaves of grass. You get to know this over time, decades folding on decades, each day a page of my life illustrated and written deep in my memory.
A mother's lessons
As I peer through my memory into the upper reaches of the darkly glimmering river, a woman's face emerges, ghostly against the moving backdrop. I know her well. She not only gave me the gift of her motherhood, she taught me how to live, how to look at the world. Often, her lessons were not welcome, nor did I always feel up to the standards she set for me.
The only thing I disliked more than those afternoon piano lessons were those dreary sessions in the art of elocution, standing for hours reciting vowels. But they mattered. I never performed in Carnegie Hall, but those eternities at the old standup gave rhythm to my speech, and those lessons in enunciation helped take me to the top of my profession. My mother said: "Any man who can speak comfortably and effectively to a roomful of people has a chance to go far." She was right, over time.
Ruth Gowdy was right to make me read every story in the local newspaper every day. Right to urge me to read novels where worlds far from Cheyenne waited in the darkness between their covers to be lit by the expanding power of my imagination. Right when she got me kicked off my high school basketball team because my grades had slipped. To this day I regret that particular action: we had a chance to win the state title. But my mother's eye was on more important goals down the road.
I see her face before me, smiling now from the other side of the stream, and I appreciate why she drove me so hard. Without her providing me with forward movement, I am not sure that this luckiest of men would have been so lucky.
Tomorrow, down on the flats of the Keys, I will catch a bonefish in her honor if my "luck" holds.
Tight lines, folks.
CITGO's In Search of Flywater will return to ESPN2 in July. A new Curt Gowdy memory appears in this space every other week.