THE MARSHALL PLAN: Inner peace in a cast

Culpeper Times columnist Marshall Conner

As the coolness of morning makes its daily retreat into heat and humidity there are a couple magical hours when fish are active and on the move. 

I spot a passing gar and a conga line of chubby carp in the shade of a tree branch. A school of red-hued minnows dance away from my wading boot into a little pool of brown and white rocks. I take a few minutes to watch them dart.   

An Osprey glides overhead scouting for a little breakfast sushi and a Great Blue Heron stands patiently waiting to spear a cocky bluegill.    

As my son and I wade out to a mid-river island I can feel my breathing settle and my eyes scan for signs of feeding fish. I limit my profile and move into a promising spot. I survey the open spots between bushes immediately to my rear and strip enough line to allow for a long but gentle cast. 

Fly-fishing at its finest is gentle, smooth, and accurate— calmness prevails until a fish appears. A quality cast will land my olive and white Half-and-Half fly created by my brother’s skillful hands about 25-yards to the surface tension of a swirling pool behind a submerged rock I have fished for many years.  

The first cast brought a smile, even when it did not result in the strike of a fish. I repeated the process.

The fly disappears in a flash of green and I strip to set the barbless hook.  

A larger than normal smallmouth bass immediately feels the hook’s sting and the dance is on. It surges towards deep water then breaks to the surface for three jumps — on the first one, the fish goes airborne at least a foot from the water with its tail pounding the air. 

As I fenced with the bass a smile spread across my face and I felt the same joy as when I caught my first fish as a preschooler. The same joy that all fish bring in mid-battle—from the big ones in distant places to the ones in my own hometown. I slide a hand under the fish’s belly and bring it up into my airy world for a quick selfie. It was a quality smallmouth bass, immensely helpful to my psyche.   

The smallmouth bass of the Rappahannock River have always been a favorite. They are perhaps my favorite fish — whether they are golden, or richly camouflaged in green, black and olive hues. I like their heart and fight.     

This smallmouth was a true blessing in a world that has become more unhinged each day. 

When I release it back into the moving water a tiny part of its life becomes woven into my own. I wonder if it realizes just how much I appreciated its time with me.  

Fly-fishing is my refuge and release point for days spent trying to adapt to the “new normal,” a term I have grown to hate. On the river I do not have to worry about a mask, politics, protests, paychecks or what fresh disaster awaits each week.  

When I am knee deep in the current the world fades and my mind only cares about an unfurling fly-line and the hope for a welcome strike. I fondly remember days spent with my brother, a best friend or a favorite fishing guide.   

The question of how we can enhance our lives in a messed-up world comes into play. Many times, I have heard friends say that this time of separation, isolation and stress has refocused the mind to what really matters in life.  

Men have become better fathers spending precious time with their families, some have found greater meaning in their chosen faith or become more empathetic to the struggles of others. On the tough days at work I have learned who will stand with me to solve problems — rather than hide from them.

A well-cooked meal created with family or a loved one is a pleasure that we often let slip in busier “old normal” days. Our time was managed too well — perhaps we needed a timeout. 

The time to think is a luxury, isn’t it? 

Those that know me know that I am a selective extravert and a lover of life experiences. I confess that I deeply miss the hugs, shared laughter, and handshakes. I miss live sports, concerts, dinners with friends, Wednesdays with the Silver Club, and high-fives with all my little Kid Central friends. 

Our current world has brought greater appreciation for many things in life that were often muddied by distractions. Instead of critiquing professional athletes I have refocused on improving my own skills.

I have realized that most of it is just entertainment and distraction.    

I have revisited old films, books and writing projects. I even knocked the dust off my drawing pad and mountain bike. I have spent more quality time with my Border Collie. It offered a grateful paw while riding shotgun in my well-worn car.     

A Buddhist monk once wrote that we all need to find ways to calm the “little inner monkey” that lives in all our brains. It chatters and disrupts our mindfulness—I have named mine Mr. New Normal and I like telling him to shut up.   

Find something that makes your heart leap like a Rappahannock smallmouth when times are tough.

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