Fear of the Deep

“Frateretto calls to me, and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.”

Shakespeare, King Lear


I try to move lightly in the water, drawing my foot gingerly out of the much so as not to swirl up too much current, but it’s no good. The felt-soled boots of my waders kick up a cloud of silt that billows out over the pond bottom like a nuclear explosion on a clear Nevada morning.

It’s April. I’ve come to fish this Vermont pond less than a week after ice-out, before the big caddis hatches, hoping to get lucky with some early risers. I’m all alone, maybe the first mammal this season to test the frigid water. I begin to see that I’ve fallen victim to an excess of cabin-fever optimism. There are no rises on the surface, and a north wind blows cold and hard, scraping the topwater into a platter of hammered steel. It seems an ill-fated day for fishing.

A strong gust slaps my leader back over itself in a tangled mass of monofilament. I try to contain my frustration as I tuck the rod under my arm and begin the tedious work of threading out the tangle. For a ten foot radius around where I stand I can see the olive-green mat of pondweed on the bottom. Directly in front of me the water darkens abruptly, marking a shelf that drops off into the deep middle of the pond.

Suddenly something creeps out of the silt cloud obscuring my feet, coming to rest on the bottom a few yards to my left. I squint, heart pounding, trying to make out what it is. It’s ugly, dull gray — a carp. Its pectoral fins flutter slowly back and forth, but otherwise it looks pale and dead on the bottom. It doesn’t even stir when I dangle my nymph in front of its unblinking, blue-rimmed eyes.

Without warning, it swims in a direct line toward my feet. I flinch involuntarily, and feel the tickle where the hair meets my scalp. Maybe it’s the pale regularity of its scales, or the slow inexorability of the line it takes through the water. Just before it reaches my feet it veers and swims sluggishly away, disappearing over the shelf and into the deep water like a ghost in the night. But the damage is done. My chest feels tight and I’m gripped by dread.

It often happens when I’m in deep water, fresh or salt, clear or turbid. I know there’s no real danger from the deep (at least where I usually fish), but still the feeling takes hold. In a backwoods Vermont pond such as this, even the thorny armored figure of a snapping turtle poses no danger, provided one is not clumsy or dumb enough to step directly on it. And what else could be lurking below?

(Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.)

It’s always the same. As much as I try to rationalize it out of existence, the fear always comes back, floating up to the surface of my consciousness like a drowned corpse.  It’s an unmistakable feeling, rising panic, quickened breath, heart pounding against my sternum like it wants to get out. I remember other times I’ve been possessed by fear of the deep: snorkeling for cast-away bluefish lures off the beach on Nantucket; plunging off a cliff into the obsidian water of a New Hampshire quarry; perched on a longboard above a forest of waving kelp off San Diego. It’s as if I harbor a vague genetic memory, some Stone Age aquatic predator that would snatch my distant ancestors from the surface and drag them down, screaming a long trail of bubbles, into the primordial depths. Neanderthal bait for the ravenous carposaurus.

I try to concentrate on fishing the pond. I’ve tied on a weighted hare’s ear, hoping to evoke an early caddis. It’s been a long winter and my timing is off—I’m not yet confident in the smooth rolling-out of a long loop—so I settle for a shorter cast and let the line settle onto the water. I bring the fly in with a twitching retrieve, pausing and stripping, imagining the ascent of a frightened caddis pupa: Don’t look back, man, just swim for the surface. Keep going, keep going, almost there . . .  Oops! Giant trout right behind you!

But it doesn’t happen. The fly seems pitifully small and drab, a tiny hairball in the oceanic volume of the pond. My fingers are numb from handling the wet line, and the icy water presses in on my calves and thighs through the waders. The wind picks up again. I decide I’ve had enough; three more casts and I’m calling it a day. Back to the security of dry land. A warm fire. A hot shower.

On the second cast a gust catches the leader and whips it around the rod. Luckily it’s not a bad tangle, and I can free the hare’s ear with a few judicious flips. On the next cast I use the reel to spool in the line, a few clicks at a time, pausing every so often to let the nymph drop toward the bottom. When the fish hits I nearly jump out of my waders. The five-weight rod is excessively bowed; whatever’s on the other end is big and angry. It jerks and runs, stripping out all the line I’ve reeled in and then some. I fight it in carefully, heart pounding.

Finally I get a glimpse of it. It’s a big brown, flashing gold in the clear water several yards out. I hold the rod above my head to bring the trout to hand, worried about breaking the 6X tippet. It’s a noble creature, a bit slim from winter’s privation, but still muscular under the orange-flecked luminosity of its delicate skin. I release it with a two-fingered flick at the jaw, and it zig-zags back to the deepest reaches of the pond, disappearing with a final, indignant flash. My hands are shaking.

I don’t look back as I push out through the cold water toward shore. My wading boots plunge into the silt as I step and I have to extract one foot, then the other, making slow progress. A voice deep within me whispers that the muck grabbing at my feet is too soft; that if I don’t keep moving I could get stuck in place or even pulled under. But I can laugh that voice off now. Catching the trout was a nice surprise. I’ve made an intimate connection to the depths, the first of a new season.

The edge is off. I’ll be back tomorrow.

This essay originally appeared in Yale Angler’s Journal.

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