There is a river in the Provence region of France that runs clear and cold in my dreams.
It is full of huge trout. Five-pound rainbows slurp mayflies and caddis on the main street of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, where the river is channelized by waterworks built by the Romans. The entire river boils out of the base of a mountain in one giant raging spring at Fontaine de Vaucluse where some of the first paper in Europe was made. Big trout were lined up on the outside of the runs in sight of the old paper mill. Further downstream I played petanque with my French friends (mes amis) while more large trout boiled the river in the background. I still dream of the Sorgue flowing cold around my legs in the arid heat of Provence, of making an upstream cast with a cul-de-canard caddis and watching it disappear so I can shout “Sacre bleu!” before retiring to a brasserie to sip pastis and insult the French sense of fashion with my waders. That’s on my bucket list for sure.
I’ve had a lot of dreams about fly fishing. Nowadays we call it a bucket list, thanks to that movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in which they took off around the world in search of adventure before they died. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in this era of Covid, not simply because of the off chance it will kill me, but because I’m at that point in life where I’m taking stock of what I still want to do while I can still do it. My bucket list is a deeply personal thing and subject to change at any time. Some things have dropped off the list, some have been added, some have never changed.
If you’re young, you don’t get a bucket list. If you’re in the prime of your life, smoking, drinking, ingesting controlled substances, and sucking and fucking, you don’t get to have a bucket list. You’re living a bucket list. If you’re on a two-year sabbatical guiding in Colorado to make enough money for that winter trip to a New Zealand summer, no bucket list for you. Bucket lists are for people like me who are counting the final years of able-bodied-ness and calculating exactly how many arduous trips we’ve got left in us. It’s not for young people bungee jumping off bridges who pack a travel rod to unwind after. You can’t plan what you’re having for dinner much less where you’re going to fish in five years.
Your thirties are when you start putting such lists together, but you won’t be ready to embark. Your career is finally getting going, you’ve got two nickels to rub together and you’re still young enough you want to climb every mountain, cross entire oceans in search of Indo-Pacific permit, and still sleep in a moldy sleeping bag on the dirt floor of a thatch hut.
You’re goal-oriented. You get shit done. There’s just one hitch: you’re likely married with children in that newborn-to-grade-school age. If that’s true, you’re not getting far. You’ll be doing well if you can get a Sunday morning once a month on a local trout stream, and if you don’t live near trout water you’re stuck sneaking off to the bluegill pond. Carp are the height of adventure. If you’re lucky you will spend early mornings on your Florida vacations before everyone wakes up casting in the marina to sullen mullet, and you better not be a moment late when it’s time to go to Frank’s Mermaid Adventure and Gator Safari or you’ll be the worst dad in the world.
Once you’ve reached your forties you can start putting together a bucket list. At this point you’ve likely got some money and your kids are will be old enough to survive on their own in the wild. Your wife is less likely to miss you, or even notice you went. If you haven’t fallen into complete midlife-crisis meltdown, you are no doubt at least acutely aware of your coming mortality and the need to start tying up some loose ends. You’re going to want to follow some guidelines.
The first thing to remember about a bucket list is that it is aspirational. We live on a planet covered in water, scenery and fish. You’ll never get to it all. Give yourself a ten-item list, but only commit to one item at a time. If you check off three items before you cash in your chips, you did pretty well.
Second, don’t let your bucket list rob you of your joy. If you fly fish at all, you are in a lucky minority on this planet. If your life is weighed down with bills, dirty diapers, and after-school activities, count yourself lucky that you can step out on a Sunday morning and catch some bluegills. Your kids should be on your bucket list, too.
Third, remember that it’s a fluid situation. Former me may have lusted for arapaima in Guyana; to current me it sounds like a lot of mosquito-bitten hard sweaty work, a trip probably worth it for the cultural experience more than the fishing. Now I’m more likely to lust after the north shore of Lake Superior for musky and coaster brook trout than the depths of the Amazon.
Fourth, let some of the bucket list come to you. One of the best trips of my life came from a last-minute invitation, from guys I didn’t know, to the Algoma District of Ontario. We saw three bears on the way in, on the roughest roads I had ever witnessed. We spent a long weekend bushwhacking into remote lakes for big brook trout, and we found them. At night we howled at the moon around a campfire and ate grilled walleye we caught in front of camp.
Fifth, pick species that will take you to unexpected places. That is why bonefish are one of the best bucket list fish. Bonefish are found around the world from state parks in Florida, to the limitless flats of the Bahamas, to small island and atolls of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They’re as close as a quick flight to Cancun, and as far-flung as St. Brandon’s and Cosmoledo that require days-long boat rides after a flight around the world.
Sixth, roll deep. Catching a bonefish was fantastic. Watching Louis Cahill make a cast into a 40-knot wind and land a bonefish was epic. A trip I took to Navajo Dam to fish stocked tailwater trout was made perfect by going with a good friend. The memories you make with your buddies will far out-strip any exotic fish or far-off destination in value. If you combine the two, so much the better.
Maybe the movie had it wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t have this list of things to do before you die or you’ll somehow feel unfulfilled. Remember, if the religions of the world have it right, once you die you will have passed on to something far more fulfilling; fishing will have been something you did to pass the time without being miserable in this mortal husk. It’s in our nature not to go to our graves feeling unfulfilled. Are you really going to die in agony and tears because, yeah, you caught some fish, but that ONE species or destination ultimately eluded you?
Yes. Yes you might. You’d better get going.