Deftly, admiral, cast your fly
Into the slow deep hover,
Till the wise old trout mistake and die;
Salt are the deeps that cover
The glittering fleets you led,
White is your head.
—W. H. Auden
The waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River were bright and clear right down to its rocky bed, and how undeftly did I cast my first fly—a gray caddis—on them. At times the waters roiled over large and small rocks (this was also white-water rafting territory), and at times the waters grew dark and heaving in pools tucked between rocky ledges along the riverbank.
“I’ve seen a big one in there,” my guide said, pointing to one such pool, and I felt a thrill. It was the end of summer and I had come to the edge of Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana—in search of what? To see if any trout were foolish enough to be taken in by a beginner? Unlike Auden’s admiral, my military rank had risen no higher than PFC. Would the “wise old trout” of his poem fall for a lowly draftee?
The weather was very hot—in the low nineties—and the sun was harsh on a bare arm that was trying, and failing, to cast gracefully, so I was glad whenever the guide rowed us to the side of the river to let parties of white-water rafters, looking smart in their bright yellow life vests, go rushing by. I did not envy them. This was a place to linger. Why skim over the surface of this river when so much more lay beneath it?
Obligingly, a cutthroat trout took my fly. The subtleties of coordinating hand and line and rod challenged me, but the fish, though full of fighting spirit, soon found itself in the guide’s hand. Less than a foot in length, it looked neither wise nor old, but it was beautiful. The state of Montana encourages catch-and-release, so after cradling its lovely, slapping body for a moment and removing the fly, my guide let it slide back into the river, but not before I was told that it was a tradition to kiss one’s first fish. Traditions, even slightly embarrassing ones, are hard to resist.
Our religion is no stranger to the curative powers of water and to symbols of fish and fishing. There is that troubling moment in Matthew 4:18–22 and Mark 1:16–20 when Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, called to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to drop their nets and follow him. “I will make you fishers of men,” he told them. And, then, a little farther on, he called to James and John, sons of Zebedee, who also dropped their nets and left their father to continue his work without them—one of those uncomfortable moments in the early days of Christianity. Whoever reads Matthew 10:35–37 knows how harsh the Gospels can be to family life.
It is Zebedee, the abandoned father, whose character stays with me. He is said to have been a wealthy man, but to lose two sons so suddenly must have been a cruel ordeal. Perhaps the conciseness of the narrative makes it seem even crueler. But from all accounts Zebedee appears to have accepted their going (his wife also became an early follower of Jesus). With his hired men, he had nets to mend and fish to catch. Auden’s admiral and the story of Zebedee come together for me in a line of another great English poet, Philip Larkin. Larkin’s short poem “The Trees” ends: “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” Perhaps Zebedee understood that some cannot continue to fish forever in the sea of Galilee: he honored his sons’ decision, and went back to work. There are different ways to begin afresh—the way of James and John, and the way of Zebedee.
I caught four more cutthroat trout and two rainbow trout that day, and felt happy to see them returned to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, to make their own fresh start.