A black damselfly with luminous teal blue trim lands on a sycamore branch just inches from my face. It looks like a creature from another world, right out of the movie “Avatar.” I’ve never seen this species before, and I find it while standing waist deep in the pristine North Fork of the Illinois Bayou. The cool water pushes against me as I search for smallmouth bass in its rocky channel.
My home is ten miles away. A wood and brick structure complete with A/C, a recliner and a mailbox, but standing here in the shadow of the mountains I can’t escape the feeling of attachment to the creek. It’s a sense of belonging that washes off the cares and worries of life and sends them along with the water on its way to the Arkansas River, the Mississippi, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico.
Somewhere upstream I hear a belted kingfisher and look to see the slate blue and white blur splash into the water. The bird emerges with a redhorse sucker in its beak.
The slap of a beaver tail sends a jolt down my spine as the big rodent tells me in its own way that I’ve been noticed, and I hope that it’s alarm doesn’t alert other creek denizens to my presence. Apparently it doesn’t because a little green heron — the archetype of a patient angler — stands at the ready for any passing fish just beyond the shoal I’m facing.
All the books and articles ever written about how to catch more fish don’t offer a fraction of the education that watching this bird can provide. Lessons in the subtle nuances of staying hidden in the shadows, taking a step in knee-deep water without making a ripple and waiting for the right moment to strike are more effective when seen as opposed to read.
I cast to a pocket of calm water on the downstream side of a boulder and am rewarded with two taps and the solid “thump” of a strike. I quickly set the hook on a bronze torpedo. The fish’s power is all out of proportion to its diminutive size, but what I admire most is the sheer tenacity — the brownie just won’t quit. Finally, the fish is brought to hand, but it doesn’t roll on its side and give up; it’s still fighting me as a place a thumb in its mouth to remove the barbless hook. The very definition and embodiment of fierce unyielding wild. As it disappears into the liquid crystal with a flip of its tail I can’t help but smile.
Back at my civilized home that evening I close my eyes in the recliner and feel the cool creek water pushing against me. I feel the urgent pull of a smallmouth bass in my wrist. I see the tiger-striped fish vanish among the gravel. I can’t help but smile.