Luck Is Never Far Away

It’s early October in eastern Canada. A misty drizzle gives the air a pregnant, mysterious quality. My guide and I carefully are driving along a pothole-infested, filing rattling dirt road; his turns with unquestionable assurance. The truck has long seen better days. All imaginable dashboard lights are on; I doubt he cares.

Together, we have been chasing Atlantic Salmon for the past five days. Nary a boil, tug, or pull to be had—no luck whatsoever.

I worked hard mentally and physically in preparation for this trip. I spent hours reviewing the literature – the whys and wherefores of previously unknowns and their adventures. I researched the classic Atlantic Salmon fly patterns and learned about their history and those that tied them, investing hours tying classic Atlantic Salmon flies – working the materials, starting over when dissatisfied with the results. I treat all this as dues I need to pay to earn the right to join the cast of those who have come before me in pursuit of these beautiful wild creatures. I have driven two long days to get to where I am going – all through New England and well into Maritime Canada—finally arriving at a lodge that is beautiful in its simplicity. Setting foot inside, I immediately realize this is more than a lodge. It’s a temple dedicated to Atlantic Salmon and those who fish for them. I think batting practice is over. I am about to step up to the plate.

At the start, I met my guide, who is a local close to my age—early seventies. His face is long, thin, and deeply furrowed from the sun. His are the hands of someone who owns the hardscrabble life — deeply calloused, fingers broken and healed every which way. A hard guy, made hard by having to do whatever is necessary to provide. We are going to be together for five days.

We are two strangers randomly thrown together, each knowing little to nothing about the other. Our conversations are brief and dominated by long periods of silence. Initially, what we do talk about is superficial. My guide is trying to figure out what I can and can’t do. I am trying not to set his expectations too high so that I embarrass myself—a verbal dance between strangers.

Each day that passed between us, the hidden becomes slightly more revealed , until one day, he tells me something incredible.

“When I was a kid, I had this spin rod. I used it all the time, trying to catch a salmon,” he says, speaking in fragments, partially formed sentences in that heavily accented Canadian English that often ends with the inflection of a question. “Yep, all the time. Skipped school. There’s no need for that when I wanna catch a salmon. I was casting about one day, and these two guys sat near me on the bank. I pay them no mind. ‘Hey kid, try this.’ One of them gets up and hands me this fly rod. He takes some time and shows me how to use it. I tried but failed. ‘Keep at it; you’ll get the hang of it.’ As he turns to walk away, he says, ‘It’s yours’. That’s how I got my first fly rod. Only later did I learn the guy who gave it to me was Ted Williams”.

“So Ted Williams gave you your first fly rod?” I ask, trying not to sound incredulous.

“Yep,” the guide confirms.

I can hardly believe what I just heard. Ted Williams, who interrupted his hall-of-fame baseball career twice. A veteran of two wars, an American hero sainted among the fly fishing community, another example of his legendary impulsive generosity. Once again, this reminds me why doing this matters. It’s not just about the catch but rather the whole picture. It’s where I can fish, the environments, the people I meet along the way, and the stories they have to tell. It’s the telling of their stories that inspire me. All I have to do is listen; it’s all there.

“We’re going to the camp he once owned to try our luck,” he tells me.

We finally arrived, which is good. I don’t know how much more my back can take. As I gather up and ready my equipment, my guide hands me a fly.

“Here, use this,” he suggests. “Watching you these past few days, you’ve earned this.”

I immediately recognized it – a fly called a Jock Scott – “the one fly that rules them all.” Initially created by John (Jock) Scott in England around 1850. Among fly tyers, The Jock Scott is a complex fly, given the materials and techniques necessary to create one masterfully. The fly itself is so revered that it has passed into a metaphor for fly fishing itself. Tradition has you can’t call yourself a salmon fisherman unless you’ve hooked one on a Jock Scott.

The pressure is slowly and steadily building. Salmon fishing is a mystery, thinly disguised. It’s in their nature. In the ocean, salmon are voracious predators, storing vast quantities of fat in reserve. These fat reserves are what make them battlers. But here’s the rub: upon returning to their freshwater spawning grounds, they don’t feed. The reasons for this behavior are by no means clear, and this is what makes them so hard to catch.

Together, we walked along the riverbank. My guide led the way. Carefully, we wade across the river, facing Ted Williams’ camp along the far bank. My guide positions me where he thinks best – reading the water, as they say.

“Now everything is up to you,” the guide told me once again, just as he had in the previous four days. “You know what to do.”

Without hesitation, I wade out; letting out perhaps forty feet of line as I do, before beginning to cast. Airborne, my line has the profile of an airplane wing. A narrow loop, straight and slicing through the air. The product of hours and hours of practice. The Jock Scott lands ever so gently on the water. It creates a visceral line of communication. I feel it, and maybe it senses me. I let the fly swing around and followed it with my rod tip. No takers. When the fly is directly below, I retrieve it slowly, taking a step or two downriver, and repeat and repeat, and repeat, again and again. As I near the end of the run, suddenly, there is the shock and pull of something wild. I wait the briefest moment, take a deep breath, and pull decisively back on the line. I set the hook deep. Immediately, a silvery missile explodes out of the water – something powerful, raw, wild, and very mad. My heart starts racing with excitement. The adrenaline floodgates have opened.

“What do I do now?” I yell to my guide.

“Whatever you do, don’t touch the reel,” the guide yells, charging down the riverbank carrying an enormous net, shouting,

Line is ripping off a screeching reel. Where is this salmon going? I don’t know, but it’s in an awful hurry to get there. Now, my guide is standing next to me.

“If this fish takes any more line, we’ll have to chase it. Hope you’re ready,” he says. “If he gives you any, take it. Keep it tight. You don’t want this fish to jump; he’ll spit the hook. Don’t point the rod at the fish. You need more tension. It’s a big salmon.”

These instructions come at a rat-a-rat clip. This fish is heavy, taking all the line it wants at its discretion. I have to be patient. The moment he pauses, I wind, and wind, and wind again. He takes it all back, heading downriver again. He pauses. I wind. I keep the rod tip low and pointing upstream, keeping as much tension on the line as possible. I am trying to tire it out before he tires me out. This fight goes on for an eternity. Finally, I am taking more and more of the line as the salmon takes less and less. I am winning this contest.

“When I tell you, gradually lift the rod tip so as not to spook him,” my guide says, moving into position. “Get his head up. I’ll slip the net underneath.”

I wait. The salmon is almost visible.

“Now!” he demands, and I lift. The salmon is exhausted, and so am I. My guide carefully slips the net below.

Reaching into the net, I grab the salmon by the tail while slipping my other hand under its belly. Its steel-colored head stands out from the rest of its body like a knight’s helmet over chain mail. The drizzle of rain has stopped. The sun is peeking through – the salmon shimmers in the fading autumnal light. Gently, I face the salmon into the current, letting it revive itself. It will let me know when it’s ready and swim away.

“That will be unforgettable,” I say as I turn to face my guide. “Look, my hands are still trembling.”

“They’re supposed to!” he says. ” If that that stops, time to give this up and find something else to do. Congratulations, salmon fisherman, let’s go.”

We wade back across the river, hike to the truck, pack everything away, and drive off. Nothing noteworthy transpires between us. I am self-satisfied. My guide called me a salmon fisherman. It’s a badge of honor.

A self-portrait of a salmon fisherman. By Michael Silfen

Driving back, I became lost in my thoughts. I was puzzled. Why today? Why not yesterday, the day before, or the day before that? What’s so different about today? Everything and nothing. Indeed, the dynamics are different: weather, location, the fly, and its presentation. The literal collides with the fact that the salmon are not feeding. So, does any of this matter?

Luck is the only answer that makes any sense to me. Today, I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I hold the winning lottery number, nothing more. Thinking more deeply, what strikes me is the notion that my skills and efforts have fooled me into thinking I could affect a desired outcome when luck bears the responsibility. Whether good or bad, luck is masterful at manipulating what I do to its end. I often fail to admit I am lucky and confuse it with the agency.

When I do, luck taps me on the shoulder and whispers, “Forget me not, for I am never far away.”