May Day on the Finley
put it into words. We just enjoy being on the river, even when the fishing lags. We linger on a gravel bar, reclining on the crunchy gravel with life jackets for pillows, our outstretched bodies simultaneously warmed by the sun and cooled by the breeze. At times like these, it is easy to forget that there are equally pleasant moments on other rivers and in other seasons.
In the warm afternoon, we put our paddles down and float quietly along, feeling the smooth acceleration, as the canoe is pulled from limpid pool into foaming rapid. In a calm stretch, my rod laid sleepily aside, I become mesmerized by the miniature whirlpools spinning from our silently drifting boat. Looking up, I marvel at the tenacity of the scraggly cedars hanging for dear life high on the face of a limestone bluff. My mind drifts beyond the boat. But then the voice at the other end of the canoe snaps me to a focus.
“I’ve got one, Bull.”
Jud has successfully set the hook. While I drifted, nearly dozing, he fished. A moment earlier, through the surgical tension of his line, he felt the fish mouth and then take his jig and now he muscles and plays the premier grade of Ozark stream game, the smallmouth bass. The fish jerks and turns and catches the sun, flashing her bronze side from the greenish-blue depths. Jud’s rod tip bends impressively and we know that this fish may be spoken of in years hence. Jud, a broad grin on his face, draws energy from the fish. It helps him—us—feel better, even though, obviously, the fish would rather not participate in the therapy. In spite of that, we do care for the welfare of the fish. We are concerned about all the river’s inhabitants, from hellgrammite to bobcat, liverwort to sycamore. More than adding interest, the diversity of river life tells us that this section of the Finley, at least, is relatively unspoiled.
After a few minutes locked in a time-honored struggle, Jud proudly hoists the 16-inch smallmouth, fat and healthy and curling her tail. He measures, I photograph. Upon release, this solid bundle of muscle torpedoes away at lightning speed, toward the bank and the shadows of floating lily pads. On many trips, we will catch smaller fish and call them good days. On the other hand, the promise of even bigger fish keeps us coming back, faithfully, year after year. An 18-inch smallmouth hauled out of an Ozark creek is a cause for celebration.
That being said, every aspect of our float is a celebration. We frequently remind ourselves how lucky we are to have places like this so close to home. Spending time on the river lightens our loads, which, we readily admit, are already light. On the river, we don’t need to be profound, or witty—we can relax. We laugh at trivial, silly things. We breathe healthy air, tinged with river aromas, but robust and clean. We have no need to impress, but we are easily impressed. A red-tailed hawk circling on the thermals far overhead screeches and we look up, drinking in the sight for some time. Today, on the Finley, away from the maddening traffic and hectic schedules, we have the time. In May, the river has time for us.