“Stuck,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply casting to trout on a Western river.
Photo via williamgtapply.com

Fly fishing can be the best kind of therapy.

It was noontime on that pretty Wednesday in September, and I was sitting on the sofa watching television when Vicki came into the room and stood squarely in front of me. “For heaven’s sake,” she said, “why don’t you go fishing or something?”
“Fishing?” I said. “What good would that do?” I waved my hand for her to move. “I can’t see the TV.”
“I never thought the purpose of fishing was to do good,” she said. “You like fishing. You should do something you like to do, that’s all.”

“What right do I have,” I said, “to do something I like to do?”

She smiled. “That’s the whole point of being alive.”

“You want me out of your hair,” I said. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” she said. “That’s a good way to look at it.” She sat down beside me. “All you’ve done for the past week is watch the news and play solitaire on your computer. You’re stuck, sweetie. I wish you’d get unstuck. Go fishing.”

I shrugged. “I don’t feel like fishing.”

“Boy,” she said. “That’s a first.”

“This whole thing,” I said, waving the back of my hand at the television, “is a first.”

Somebody on the television was saying that the best revenge would be for all of us to just go on doing whatever we do. We should live our lives fully and defiantly. That would be a good way to show the bastards that they hadn’t won.

“You believe that?” I asked Vicki.

She shrugged. “Kinda glib, I think. But essentially true.”

“You think if I went fishing, the bastards would notice?”

“No,” she said. “But I would.” She kissed me and stood up. “You would, too,” she added, and then she went back to her desk.

After Vicki left the room, I thought about fishing as my moral obligation, my patriotic duty. It was a different way to think about fishing.

I thought about getting out of Vicki’s hair, too, and it occurred to me that if I went fishing, it might reassure her, at least, that life did in fact go on. Perhaps that was my duty as her spouse.

I couldn’t imagine going trout fishing. Too far to travel. Too complicated. Too engrossing. I didn’t have the energy to match hatches, tie knots, interpret riseforms, read currents. I didn’t feel like concentrating on anything.

Okay, dig some worms, I thought. Go to the millpond, sit on the bank, watch a bobber. Dragonflies would perch on my rod tip, bullfrogs would grump in the lily pads, herons would highstep in the shallows, migrating warblers would flit in the bushes, and bluegills and horned pout would make my bobber jiggle and dance.

It would be like when I was a boy, when my whole world was a quiet millpond on a pretty September afternoon.

In the end, I took a box of panfish flies and a spool of 3X tippet and one of my cheap old bamboo fly rods. I didn’t have the energy to dig worms.

My millpond is a five-minute drive from my house. The dam dates to the industrial revolution, and it backs the river up for several miles. When I was a kid, this was one of the dirtiest rivers in all of New England. On any given day it would run crimson or turquoise or vile yellow from the dyes and other chemicals the textile mills dumped into it.

Since it was cleaned it up, it has become a decent panfish and largemouth river. Taking care of our rivers was one of the good things we did. We Americans made plenty of mistakes, but we cleaned up after ourselves.

I parked in the pull-off beside the pond, and, as I always do when I go fishing, I got out of the car and walked down to study the water. The pond looked like a bomb crater. It was lower than I’d ever seen it. Sunken trees and rocks and waterlogged brush piles that were usually hidden under the surface poked up, and the mud banks that stretched out from the normal waterline were bare and still wet. I figured they’d opened some gates in the dam downstream this morning.

Then something swirled beside one of the rocks, and a switch clicked in my brain. I went back to the car, got my gear out of the back seat, and rigged up. I tied on a Turk’s Tarantula, a buggy-looking thing made of deer hair and rubber legs. It was just the right size–small enough to fit in a bluegill’s mouth, big enough to entice a largemouth. I stuck the fly box in one shirt pocket and the spool of tippet in the other.

My sneakers squished in the wet mud as I walked to the edge of the water. I false-cast a couple of times, the old South Bend bamboo flexing slow and pleasant, and dropped the Tarantula beside the rock where I’d seen the swirl. First cast, a hand-sized bluegill. Two casts later another one from the other side of the same rock.

I moved to clockwise, one step at a time, covering the water, probing whatever structure presented itself, and every few casts something or other hit my bug. I caught a crappie the size of a dinner plate, a foot-long yellow perch, a six-inch largemouth, a dozen bluegills. Across the pond, where the early-autumn swamp maples were turning crimson and orange, a pair of mallards splashed in. There were deer tracks in the mud and damsel flies in the air and the mingled aromas of wet mud and rotting weeds in my nostrils, and it all reminded me of countless September afternoons when I was a boy on the bank of some millpond watching a bobber and trying to come to grips with the fact that my endless summer was actually ending.

Something caught my eye. It was less than a swirl. A ripple of nervous water, a fin briefly breaking the surface–a good-sized fish of some kind alongside a stump that was sticking up out toward the middle of the pond off the tip of a muddy point that would normally be an underwater bar. Aha.
I bit off my soggy, bluegill-chewed Turk’s Tarantula and tied on a bass-sized deer-hair bug. Then I eased my way out to the tip of the point. The mud was softer here, and it sucked at my sneakers.

It was a long cast from the end of the point to the stump where I’d seen the nervous water, but it felt good to throw a long line with the old South Bend, to feel its creaky old flex right down to my hand, to wait that extra second for the line to straighten out behind me, and it wasn’t until I tried to lift my foot to move one step closer that I realized I was stuck.

I was nearly up to my knees in mud the consistency of half-set cement. When I tried to pull one leg out, it drove the other one in deeper, and then I was in over my knees, half way to my crotch. I was really stuck.

It wasn’t like quicksand. I’d been in quicksand. In this mud, as long as I remained still, I sank in no deeper. So I stood there up to my thighs in mud and made a few casts out toward the stump, and I was thinking, This isn’t such a bad place to be, stuck or not stuck, with water in front of me and a fly rod in my hand.

Sooner or later, of course, if you find yourself stuck, you have to try to get unstuck. So I reeled in, hooked the bass bug in the keeper ring, and tossed the rod toward the shore. And then I lay on my back and made oars of my arms and rowed backward in the mud, and slowly, slowly, my legs pulled free, leaving my sneakers and socks behind. Then I rolled over and belly-crawled back to where I could stand up.

I found my rod and started clumping back to my car. That’s when I noticed that another car had pulled in beside mine. A pair of teenagers, a boy and a girl, were sitting in the front seat with the windows open. I could see that they were smiling at me. I figured they’d been watching my entire performance.

The boy leaned his head out the window and yelled, “Hey, mister! Any luck?” And the two of them laughed and laughed.

I was covered from head to toe with greasy smelly black mud. It was in my hair, up my nose, under my shirt, inside my boxers, and I thought: I wish Vicki could see me now. She’d laugh.

I gave the two kids a thumbs-up. And then, for the first time in a week, I laughed, and I finally felt myself come unstuck.

* * *

Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. 

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte seriesc. 

4 thoughts on ““Stuck,” by William G. Tapply”

  1. Last night at a TU meeting raffle, I “won” a 1964 hardcover edition of
    The Sportsmen’s Notebook and Tap’s Tips by William’s father
    H.G. “Tap” Tapply — author of the “Tap’s Tips” column in Field and
    Stream. For half a century Tap stood tall among the giants of a
    generation of beloved sporting writers. This scarce antiquarian book is
    a real gem; the folksy but perfectly detailed illustrations on nearly
    every page turn are superb. I’m giving it as a holiday gift to my son, a
    gifted graphic designer and fly fisherman. When I started fly fishing
    three years ago, I devoured a copy of Tap’s Tips that I’d checked out
    from the Howe Library in Hanover, NH. Remarkably little in this book is
    out-of-date some 50 years after it was published. Forever useful and
    practical know how seasoned with Tap’s dry New England humor and wit.

    Not being familiar with William, I ordered a hardcover edition of the
    Sportsman’s Legacy — the story of a remarkable relationship between
    father and son. I’m giving it as a gift for my younger son, a teacher,
    new father and fly fisherman.

    I was so impressed with William’s prolific writing I also ordered Trout
    and Bitch Creek to read over the long Vermont winter.

    “Fly fishing can be the best kind of therapy.”

  2. Excellent story! really enjoyed it. It captures the essences of being on the water. Great way to engage in the moment. At work we use fly fishing as a form of therapy through mindfulness and a way to engage in life and to take a break from the thoughts that can HOOK us. The more we struggle with the thoughts the more they embed in us like a fish hooked on a fly. This article has peaked an interest in the other writing of the tapply’s.

    Thank you for sharing!

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