When you tell your friends that you’re coming down for a long weekend of revelry and catching up on good times – the last thing on their minds is a world record grass carp. But then again, there is no such thing as a “normal” trip to Memphis.
When I travel, I’m about as close as it gets to being narcoleptic. The minute I step on a plane, I find my seat and promptly pass out until landing, dreaming of fish all along the way. It’s a fairly sweet system I’ve developed. Yet, on the flight back to Memphis to visit my alma mater and see the old friends, favorite bars, and eateries I left behind en route to the “real world”– I couldn’t sleep. The amalgamation of memories – Stauffer Field, frat row, tailgates, the “Barnett Library”, Zinnies, finals anxiety, fried chicken friday, Alex’s Tavern, the sight of long lost faces, and the return to my fly origins - encouraging my mind to race faster than if it were on Adderall . But I think the real reason I couldn’t sleep was a much simpler one - I brought my fly rod with me.
Most people know Memphis for its music and food. Whether it’s munching down Rendezvous dry ribs, Huey’s burgers, or Gus’s Fried Chicken while listening to the Sun Studios crooning of B.B. King or Elvis Presley along Beale Street or bumping bass to 107.1 (where hip hop lives) along Summer Avenue – Memphis is defined by its willingness to please your senses. Unfortunately, it will never be confused with a world class fly fishery. But what Memphis is – is a city defined by its opportunities and those individuals who seek them.
I like to think that I sought out my opportunities in college. I came to the Bluff City an obnoxious undergrad bent on dominating beer pong tables and the baseball diamond and left a relatively sane, rational-minded fly fisherman with a bum elbow and a healthy perspective on life. The person I was on my first day of college radically differed from the man I was on my last. Memphis forced me to blaze my own path to happiness - every cast into the unknown teaching me something new about life. Every dumb golf course bass a cure for the pangs of home sickness. I can only hope to repay this good fortune down the road - to inspire those around me to find true happiness in whatever they do.
I guess fishing will always be what I want to do. It will be the first thing on my mind whenever I see water or travel to a new place. It drove me to wonder onto an empty golf course on a cold night in the pursuit of largemouth bass and happiness my freshman year. I know for a fact it is the reason I convinced my best friend to move to Mudd Island instead of living closer to campus my junior year (there are neighborhood ponds). And despite an incredibly supportive group, is how I kept my sanity in Memphis despite all the obstacles that school, baseball, and life threw my way. Simply put, fishing has never asked me for anything more than a chance. I will always give it one….
The return trip to Rhodes College and Memphis was one of mixed emotions. I knew I would be walking into a situation where time had visibly passed me by. I would feel old and unwanted. There would be new buildings, new faces, and the inevitable first introductions to people I would probably never see again. Yet, I also knew that the faces and places that I came to love in Memphis would be there - that my friends, surrogate family, and most importantly - my fish would be there.
I won’t bore you with tales of how infuriatingly close I came to triumph or how several potential world record grass carp gave me the fin. I won’t tell you about how silly I looked hiding behind a tree and roll casting to a fish from someone’s backyard. I sure as hell won’t tell you what happened Saturday night. But I will tell you this, there are opportunities everywhere. All you have to do is look.
February - it’s close to 3am and there is a prodigious falling tide. I’m fairly sure that I’m supposed to be asleep because there are neither cars on George Washington Parkway nor the sleepy running lights of commercial vessels on the Potomac in any direction. Even Reagan National is still. But that’s not a bad thing. Far as I know, everyone in the Nation’s Capital is warmly dreaming of things to come in their beds. And here I am balls deep in a chilly morning on the Nation’s River all by myself. Despite the numbing sensation spreading through my extremities - I couldn’t be happier. But why am I here? I guess I hate normal.
As I stand in the nearly frozen water, Jack Frost doing his best to turn me into a frost giant from Joddenheim, my mind starts to wonder. Each roll cast, drift, and retrieve a test of my will to be there. But I chose to be in this moment. Normal people wouldn’t. This isn’t a normal situation. But honestly, there is no place on earth I’d rather be. All of this in spite of knowing that I’m playing against the odds this early in the season – that the water is too cold, the summer’s plentiful baitfish are no longer plentiful but on par with the unicorn, and that most sane striped bass have booked it to the Outer Banks by now. But fuck it. Anything could happen. There’s always a chance at the spectacular. You can’t have any doubts.
Unfortunately most people I speak with about fishing tell me that it’s a game of luck. I agree with them to some extent. But if you’ve only wet a line a couple times in your life, I can imagine that “luck” would be a convenient explanation for the inevitable successes and failures that belie this sport - similar to the ways magic, superstition, and blind faith were used to rationalize mystical concepts in medieval times. Simply put, anything can be attributed to luck. So naturally, I’d argue that this sport is about more than that. That skill, knowledge, and chance define fishing and life more than anything else. It’s about knowing what to do in certain situations and not being afraid to try something new when that fails. It’s about seeing the water on any given day and knowing, I’ve been here before. In other words, confidence under any condition is a valuable life trait. But damn, it’s hard to sound macho when your cajones might freeze off.
My contemplations continue for little over an hour. The time goes by without anything more than a powerful but brief thump. I’ve caught plenty of stripers here on past nights but looking at my phone, it’s now 6:30 AM. If there were fish here tonight, they would’ve shown themselves by now. But I have it all planned out from here anyway - leave at 6:45, in bed by 7, wake up for work at 8:30, in the office by 9:15. It will be a normal day. I’m not sure why this upsets me. My mind tells me, “Goddamn Rem - your hands are long past the point of being useless. Your ears hurt. You can’t feel your toes. You’re going to be tired for work. Why the fuck are we here?” But I decide to make one last cast, fully aware of what might happen.
The fly lands on the outter edge of the current flow. The line starts drifting and I mend to keep the fly in the strike zone. As it drifts through the main current seam, I give it a quick strip.
It’s now 8am. I have work in one hour. I’m still in my waders. I smell like I got jumped by a gang of striped bass. I’m tired and my day hasn’t technically started yet. But I feel fantastic and energized at the same time. Shaking my head and cracking a red bull, I can’t help but think - it’s amazing how one last cast turns into 100. Thank god I hate normal.
I doubt I will ever change.
Remick Smothers is a native son of the District of Columbia and the founder of FlyTimesDC. A self taught fly fisherman and fly tier, Rem graduated from Rhodes College with a double major in fly fishing and English in 2012. He has been celebrating the fly life ever since. Just remember, if it's dark out, there's a shark out. Above all else, stay fly. #flytimesdc