Wild Trout, Mushrooms and Perspective

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By Louis Cahill

I’m not sure there is such a thing as being lost in the woods.

I certainly don’t feel lost as I walk the trail, once an old logging road looking down on a beautiful, tumbling trout stream. I feel much more at home than lost, even though my new vision is not good in the confusing visual surroundings. The smells and the sounds are all old friends, as are the feel of the dirt and water and fine layer of sweat forming everywhere on my body. The warm, wet embrace of the forest feels like home. It’s Justin that I’ve lost.

It was so generous of him to drive me up here and take me out fishing, knowing I’d be slow and likely a burden. We were both so excited to fish that we couldn’t help but stop where the trail crosses the first stream and see if anyone was home. I was sure I’d seen him start up the trail and, when my calls got no answer, I figured I’d better get after him. I didn’t want to be the invalid slowing him down. I was too concerned with proving I could keep up to realize I was leaving him behind.

I still can’t get used to the idea that I can no longer trust my eyes.

Just yesterday, my wife was telling me about a beautiful humming bird in the garden. I couldn’t see it. After she went inside, and I was about to do the same, I spotted him. He was hovering right in front of me, almost like he was blocking my way, so close I could almost reach out and touch him. I froze and watched him for thirty seconds or so before it dawned on me that it was not a hummingbird four feet away, but a big ass bee four inches away, warning me away from his nest. Perspective. Not as easy as it once was.

A mile and a half up the trail, the idea is just occurring to me that it was likely not Justin I’d seen headed up the trail, or it was Justin and this was not where he was headed. Either way, I’m alone to enjoy my stupidity. That’s the charitable nature of my self examination. Too proud to think of myself as handicapped, just enough self loathing to think of myself as stupid. I started back down the path letting out the occasional “Hootie-Hoo!” and listening for Justin’s response. 

I have to keep a good eye on the trail, lest I walk off the edge. There’d be no stopping the tumbling on that slope. Along the edge of the trail I spot scattered orange trumpet shapes. I know that color, not quite orange but not yellow. Chanterelle mushrooms, I’m pretty sure. Kathy will be excited. Maybe too excited, she’s way more comfortable popping forest treats in her mouth than I am. “Pretty sure,” is not a great place to be with wild mushrooms. Damned sure is almost sure enough. I pick two and put them in my pack for further inspection by the smarter half of the family. I “Hoot” again and this time I hear Justin hoot back.

This stream is one of those you don’t talk about.

Maybe, after fishing with a guy for years, seeing how he handles fish, seeing how he treats his family. understanding his religion and politics, maybe seeing him take in a sick stray dog, you might casually drop the name. 

“Hey, you ever heard of…”

Then if he gives you that look, like he isn’t sure he should say yes, like he’s quietly judging you, maybe thinking about that time you had one too many and lost your temper with that idiot in the bar in Jackson, and then he says, “Yeah, I fish up there.”

Then the two of you might plan a trip. You hike up there for a day, not more than once a year, because you know how special it is and you don’t want to screw it up. You catch little wild fish on dry flies out of every pocket, and once, maybe twice in your lifetime a fifteen or sixteen inch fish charges out from a dark undercut bank to eat your fly, in a stream you can jump across, and the two of you never forget it but you never talk about it. That’s the kind of day it was.

It was my first real day of mountain trout fishing in over a year. The first time I’d hiked a trail since having six surgeries on my right eye and spending six months in bed. The first time I’d scrambled down a steep draw, hopped boulders or climbed waterfalls. The first time I’d tried to cast in a dense thicket or spot a tiny trout finning in a deep pool. it was the first time, in a very long time, I’d felt like myself.

The isolation of my recovery rolled right into the isolation of the COVID pandemic, and then into the emotional isolation of civil unrest and rioting. Feeling vulnerable, I withdrew from the world as it spun out of control. Like you might look away, when passing a terrible accident, or run and hide when police open fire on a crowded street. It was a good time to be lost in the woods.

Back home, my mushrooms passed inspection so days were taken off and plans were made for a harvest. Kathy and I packed a lunch, some water, a little fishing gear and a very excited potcake dog into the truck and headed to the mountains. Kathy doesn’t fish so it’s especially fun for me to share such a special place with her. Josie is always excited to cover some ground and take a good soak in creek water.

Mushrooming is a fun activity we can enjoy together.

It is not at all dissimilar to trout fishing. You’re paying attention to conditions and habitat. We observe as we hike the trail, watching the habitat change from hemlock and laurel to hardwood and leafy detritus. Finding the places where springs moisten the earth and raise the humidity. Finding the ferns that give cover, and there they are, the things most people never see or appreciate. In this case beautiful peachy mushrooms, but they could just as well be trout. Only this time there will be no catch-and-release.

Photos by Louis Cahill

We fill a mesh bag with mushrooms and take a break for lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fresh cherries, then I put my eight-foot four-weight together and make a couple of casts into the nearest pool. A feisty little rainbow crushes my fly and I bring him in to show Kathy his beautiful colors. One fish, just to share with her, and no more. It wouldn’t be wise to fish this water twice in a week. Little streams like this are far too fragile. These fish can’t afford to pass up a meal and aren’t strong enough to stand a second hooking so soon. Fishing this creek will have to wait for next summer.

Josie finds a sandy spot and, like all displaced potcakes around the world, loses her mind. She runs back and forth, barking and wide eyed. She digs and rolls in the sand. That beautiful sand, so like the Bahamian beach where she was born. It’s an amazing feeling to find oneself in nature, human or dog.

We resume the mushroom hunt, but with meager results. another half mile up the trail Josie lights up, sniffing the air and barking defensively before running ahead. When we catch up with her it’s clear that something has gone on. The ground is furrowed, as if it had been plowed. The underbrush and leafy forest floor laid bare. It’s methodical and extensive. only two animals leave this kind of scene. Men and wild pigs. With a little observation, it’s clear that we have been beaten to the prize. We find a couple of half eaten mushrooms among the debris. From the looks of it this was the mother load and nature’s perfect eating machines have left little for us.

As we continue up the trail, I can’t help but think of what this place used to be.

A hundred-fifty years ago, before this logging road was cut, when these mountains were covered in American Chestnut, almost the size of redwoods. Before the it was clear cut for lumber. Before a bug, imported from Asia, killed off what was left of the majestic trees. It’s easy to imagine simple people living off this land. Picking these mushrooms and taking a trout from the stream and maybe distilling a little spirit to sip as they looked out across the mountains, white with chestnut blossoms like new fallen snow. Never before in my life have I thought it might be so wonderful to be a pig.

The day is getting gone and we decide to head back to the truck. We have enough mushrooms for a meal, maybe two if we’re lucky. I watch Josie’s tail bounce back and forth along the trail ahead. We round a corner and are back where the pigs were feeding, but this time things are different. Where their noses had turned up piles of leaves and debris into little piles, there where flashes of peachy orange. Mushrooms, lots of them. Walking from the other direction, we hadn’t seen them hiding under the leaves. We lacked the proper perspective. Everywhere we looked there were mushrooms, some half eaten, some uprooted and left whole. Easily as many as we had picked all day.

The land was still providing for us. After all we had done. After cutting her forest, poisoning her air, draining her streams, paving her fields. After turning pestilence loose on her and behaving like squabbling children, like a loving mother she laid herself bare to feed us. We returned home, our bags and our hearts full.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “Wild Trout, Mushrooms and Perspective

  1. Great story, about a great day in the forest. I wish I could trust my little knowledge about shrooms. I would so enjoy picking a bag of them and cooking them for dinner, along with a couple of holdover stocked trout. Mmmmmmmm. Doesn’t get any better.

  2. This is a beautiful essay, dear Louis. I miss you and your lovely writing. I’m saddened to hear about your eye surgeries and loss of sight. This is a huge life adjustment but I know you will adapt and continue all the things you love, including writing, fishing, hiking. Hope to hear more good writing from you. And, I’ll bet the mushrooms were delicious!

  3. Great story Louis. Fishing is only half of a day like that. I enjoy the other half of the day, the hike, birds and other animals, the mossy covered rocks and the water. Great opportunity for some nice photos to take back home. A couple little rainbows is the icing on the cake.

  4. A wonderful piece, Louis, and a reminder to let all the sensations of a fishing trip soak in. It’s great that you’re back on the water!

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