Derek Billey, Personal Essay
Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Sweat seeps from beneath the brim of my cap and trickles down my forehead. My eyes, weary from the relentless reflection of the sunlight off the water, burn with the sting of sunscreen. I’ve been on the Deschutes River all day, but I’m still waiting. My fly bobs quickly through the current for the umpteenth time, screaming “gobble me up!” but nothing bites. Still, I wait. I pick up the rod to cast again, my arm like lead as it struggles to lift the line out of the water. With a grunt I fling it out to the middle of the river. I watch it travel downstream, willing a fish to ensnare its maw on that little hook. But I’m left standing thigh-deep in the freezing eddy, waiting.
When I was 12, I would have wondered: why do you subject yourself to this? Still fresh in my memory are the days when a sour mood would build just 10 minutes after nibbles, and the days when getting hung up on a rock would get me so frustrated I wanted to cry or quit altogether. At that point I never could have imagined that I’d be where I am now, content with my inability to attract fish.
During my adolescence most things came easily to me, from hitting a baseball to building LEGO airplanes from scratch. Then a fly rod was placed in my hand: seven and a half feet of flexible graphite, with 35 feet of fly line. I tried to get my line to create that graceful U-shape behind my head as I’d watched my dad do many, many times. “10 to two, 10 to two, 10 to two,” I’d say to myself, imagining my rod as the hand of a clock, per my dad’s instruction. But I was usually met with failure. One day I let my fly sink in the water for too long and got hung up first on one rock, then again on another. Another time I hustled excitedly through the trees towards the river, tripped on a root and sprawled onto the bank, shattering the silence as well as any chance of heeding my dad’s advice about stealth and quiet.
But I stuck with it. The prospect of hooking a big fish always lured me back for more.
It took repeated trips to rivers around the Pacific Northwest for me to grasp the fact that what my dad and I were doing was called “fishing” and not “catching.” I finally understood that throwing an imitation fly into a roiling river to entice one of the smartest creatures in the water to bite is not an activity designed for success. Yet, reminiscing on a trip up the Stehekin River, what I remembered most wasn’t the unwillingness of any fish to bite. It was the soft mountain breeze shooting the aroma of pine and red alder up my nostrils; the bright, wavering reflection of the evening sun off the river’s surface; and the fluid, effortless motions of my dad’s fly rod—a dance with the river. These things were what mattered most.
On the Deschutes, the wet line slides effortlessly through my right pointer and middle fingers as I pull it towards me in preparation for another cast. My arm, now a sagging stick of muscle, bone, and lactic acid, groans with the effort. I feel the line exit the current and fly back in a graceful curve behind my head—10 to two—and I flick my forearm forward to send the fly back out. The rod catches, and I yank some high brush behind me, nearly tearing my arm in half. My fly is caught on a bush. All I can do is chuckle, gently set down my rod, and search among the tangled salmonberry for that elusive artificial fly.