Return to the River

Peter Oumanski

I DIDN’T see it coming. I was in Spain visiting a friend I’d known since fifth grade. We’d driven from Madrid up into the mountains to go hiking, spending the night in a hotel, where my snoring kept him awake all night. We headed out on a 6-hour hike through rough brown country to a lake and back. Strictly speaking, the trail was paved, but paved with the kind of ankle-rolling cobblestones that were perfect for some ancient religious pilgrimage where suffering was the point. I’d felt weak and brittle from the outset, as if fighting off a bad cold. I tried to tough it out, but my head was swimming. After two hours of walking and pondering sins of commission and sins of omission, we crested a ridge and saw the lake in the distance. It looked a good ways off.

“Buddy, you go ahead,” I said. “I think I’ll sit here and wait for you.” Charlie trundled off, as if pleased to demonstrate that he was feeling fine. The sunlight in Spain in August is a physical thing, a 100-layer turtleneck. I felt as if I were plumping like a Ball Park Frank. Having neglected to put on sunscreen, I tried to shield my arms and legs by sitting with the sun at my back.

Back in Charlie’s apartment late that night, I came down with a fever, body aches, chills, and a headache. Three years of successfully dodging the virus had left me believing that I was stronger than other people. That particular illusion vanished quicker than a pickpocket. When I confessed the next morning that I might have COVID, Charlie said, “Then get back in your room and shut the door.” An antigen test slid under the door and two lines in the results window confirmed it. For the next 72 hours, my meals appeared on a chair outside my room, and I lay in bed with a temperature that pushed 103.

Fever’s just a number when it’s happening to someone else. When it’s your turn, you turn yourself inside out, changing position every 30 seconds to try to get relief. A couple of times, I summoned the will to stumble to the shower to try to appease the fever. I dreamed that I was trying to argue my way into a party through a toilet-paper-roll megaphone and wasn’t getting far. An announcement over a PA system accused me of being indifferent to the suffering of others.

I was also more than a little anxious about flying home. I felt it was morally wrong to travel with COVID and wouldn’t have wished the malady on the IRS automatons who had audited me a few years back. There was also the issue of spending eight hours sitting upright. On the other hand, I was short on funds and about out of a medication I need.

A doctor eventually cleared me to fly home. I no longer had COVID, but I was still dragging. It wasn’t until a week later that I felt good enough to reconsider my wish to spare the IRS. Guys that insensitive probably wouldn’t even know they were sick.

Nothing reaffirms the life principle like going fishing. To celebrate, I spooled up a 5-foot ultralight rod with 6-pound-test, wondering about the vagaries of Stren marketing 330 yards of mono as “crappie line.” I rummaged around in the basement for 20 minutes, finding some 3-inch pearl Twister Tails and 1/16-ounce jigheads but not my trove of Mepps spinners. So be it. The white Twister Tail was the lure that had taken me to the dance 50 years before. It was more than enough for this spin around the floor. I still have no idea what it resembles, but it gets bit when nothing else will.

It’s not possible to go fishing without hoping to catch. But this being August and the water predictably low, my hopes were not high. I told myself I didn’t even need to land a fish. I just wanted to feel something—anything—tugging back. I waited for twilight and drove to a rock garden on the Potomac well inside the Beltway, waded into the warmish water, and began casting. My first three casts all snagged on rocks or wood, and I had to wade out to free my lure. I began reeling faster and high-sticking it to keep the thing up. After 20 minutes, I got a hit, like a quick combination of punches. I missed it but felt happy that I was alive and had reestablished a connection to the invisible world of wild beings. It was probably only a bluegill, but the savagery of the strike impressed me, as it always does.

Ten minutes later, having gotten a second strike, I told myself to bear down and wake up. As I teased the lure along just upstream of a fast riffle, I hooked a fish that darted here and there among the rock holes as if one of them were the tunnel to freedom. I brought to hand a 6-inch smallmouth. I was seized by the urgency of the warm water, releasing the stressed fish fast without removing it from the river. A few casts later in the same pool, I hooked a bigger smallie, 8 inches if it was a millimeter. I released it even faster, as if my survival were somehow linked to that of the fish, which it actually is. At some point, I looked up and realized the sun was gone and that the miracle had happened once again. For the better part of two hours, I hadn’t once thought about anything but fishing. I walked an overgrown trail back to the car, found the beer I’d wrapped in layers of newspaper, and pronounced myself cured.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 Issue of Field & Stream. Read more F&S+ stories. 

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