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Tributaries


From the pine-encroached rivers of Maine’s Aroostook County, to the turquoise flats of Florida Bay, author Ryan Brod draws unexpected parallels between places, while introducing unforgettable characters determined to follow their outdoor passions no matter the cost. Rendered in vivid detail, Tributaries examines tensions between presence and memory, illuminating fleeting yet transcendent moments.


Read the book's prologue below.

 

IT STARTED WITH A RED AND WHITE BOBBER. I loved the way, just after a take, the bobber twitched, white side skyward like an eyeball, then vanished beneath the surface. This was how I spent boyhood summers—fishing nightcrawlers or golden shiners beneath a bobber on the Serpentine River, in Smithfield, Maine. My grandparents, Anne and Al, owned a small red cabin there with a screened-in porch and a bell my grandmother used to call me in for dinner. The river was really a bog: milfoil choking the waterway by early summer, no current to speak of. I didn’t consider the water quality until my sister, Emily, and I jumped in one hot summer’s afternoon and emerged covered in slime and duck weed. Grandpa Al, who had once worked on submarines in a Great Lakes’ shipyard, kept a leaky rowboat at the dock. He fished occasionally but preferred to tinker on land. Every now and then he’d take me out for a row. I remember the squeak of the oar locks as he paddled. Once, rowing us back to the dock after a brief and unsuccessful afternoon of fishing, he stopped to whack an overgrown snapping turtle with the blunt end of his oar.


The Serpentine held impressive largemouth bass, living amongst fallen timber, around lily pads, beneath abandoned, crumbling docks like the one I used to fish from.

I loved baseball, too. I stole rocks from my grandparents’ short driveway to hit them into or, occasionally, over the Serpentine. As a bat, I used discarded table legs Grandpa Al—an avid woodworker—had salvaged. I got good at stealing a few rocks at a time, so he wouldn’t notice bald spots in the driveway, though he must have known, must have heard wood striking rock, the mechanical whuuurrrr-ing noise when I fouled one off, or my hollers when I finally connected, launching a moon shot over resident bass and into the woods across the river.


I was good at baseball, at first. I made the All-Star teams, hit home runs, threw a twelve-to-six curveball that made batters flinch. Later, in high school, I changed my windup, then hurt my pitching arm. I lost control of the strike zone, got the yips, couldn’t, as they say, hit the broad side of a barn. My high leg kick at the plate made me late on fastballs, so I couldn’t make up for it at the plate. I lost confidence and spent time on the bench.

It was this event—my ugly break-up with baseball—that activated my dive into fishing, or, at least, that’s the story I tell myself, the one that makes the most sense, in retrospect.

I fished alone a lot. This is not to say I was a loner; I fished frequently with my father, and with my good friend, Evan, and some of my best childhood memories involved big bass in a shared canoe just before or after summer sunsets. Mosquitoes stole blood and I didn’t care. I was so attuned to my surroundings, so happy to be there that I could have lost a pint of blood without noticing.


But fishing alone allowed me time to think, and fishing offered a new and challenging arena in which I could become as proficient as I wanted. I cast my blaze orange floating Rapala beside a stump, twitched it, then waited. There was a lot of waiting. A lot of nothing happening. My moods spiked and dipped according to my success (or lack thereof) on the water. I tied knots that failed, caught more trees than I could count, missed hook sets, hooked myself, buried a treble into my sister’s thigh that needed surgical extraction (sorry, Em).


I was told by those around me—my mother in particular—that I felt things more than other people did. I remember my father saying, not infrequently, “You’re so sensitive” in moments of frustration, his emphasis on the word undermining my feeling that something about me, something I didn’t choose, was quite wrong, maybe uncorrectable. My mother sometimes countered by reminding me I just felt things deeply, and that was a good thing, an attribute to be proud of, though I didn’t know how she could gauge my feelings, and I didn’t believe heightened sensitivity was any kind of gift. The world of boyhood and of organized sports supported my theory. Sensitive became a swear word, one I avoided, hated. I hid mine, or tried to, tried not to take everything personally, which I did anyway.

In that sense, fishing offered a kind of reprieve from a world that often overwhelmed me. The fish didn’t care about my disposition, and they lived by instincts invisible to me, feeding in the morning and evening as I did and, like me, operated at the disposal of weather systems, seasons. They didn’t care about my presence, unless I hooked one, and I was comforted by their indifference, as I was comforted by the ways the seasons clicked on without consultation. I loved the beauty of the Serpentine and the other waters I fished and loved returning to them in my own various seasons of mind.


I fished in thunderstorms, blizzards, heat waves. I remember long fishless periods. Punctuating those long droughts and dips of frustration were moments of pure exhilaration, moments that seemed to reset and realign me—a boil appearing where my Rapala had been, my drag whining as a largemouth darted for cover or leapt and broke the stillness of evening. I loved coming in with a story to share.


My friends went to pit parties. They held New Year’s Eve gatherings, drank beer like any bored, rural high school kids do. Meanwhile, I went to bed by nine so I could wake up before light to fish. I preferred fly rods to joints, tying flies to watching after-school fistfights. “Where’s Brody?” I imagined my friends asking. “Oh, probably fishing,” someone else adds. I never developed a taste for speed, jacked up trucks, or country music, despite their popularity within my peer groups. I liked girls, more so by the day in fact, and brought a few fishing, though it always ended up feeling like a production I didn’t want to be part of. I preferred to fish alone, or with those who appreciated fishing just as much—or more so—than I did.

My father, Steven, was one of those people. He grew up fishing for bass and hunting whitetails with friends in New York state. He moved to Maine with my mother, Madeleine, Brooklyn-born, not an angler by any means, in 1977. He earned his Master Maine Guide’s license before I was born and took clients striper fishing on the lower Kennebec River until he lost his ability to tolerate their bullshit. He was content to fish with his son, and I wanted to fish all the time. It was he who introduced me to fly fishing when I was ten; he had been introduced by a friend back in New York, since his father was often gone on work trips, and they rarely fished together. I wonder now if, by fishing with me so often, he was making up for lost time.


We spent summer evenings on the Kennebec, in Solon, him pointing out rises and me casting my not-so-pretty loops at the faint rings, brown trout, some big enough to break my leader. That a large and wary trout would eat feathers floating on a tiny hook baffled and exhilarated me. I couldn’t get enough.


Even after Dad’s heart issues, which were numerous and scary to witness, we went fishing together. During my parent’s prolonged separation and after their eventual divorce, we went fishing together.


We didn’t talk much on the water, and when we did it was mostly about the fishing itself: which fly to choose, or where to cast and when, exactly, we should quit. I always wanted a few more casts and Dad, I’m sure, wanted to get home before midnight. I’m not sure if we were avoiding harder conversations, or just caught up in the moment. My father was a counselor by trade, talked to people for a living, so it’s not that he was particularly laconic, or that he didn’t have experience talking about difficult topics.


I struggled to make sense of my parent’s split. Neither parent had a clear explanation for their fracture, just that they had drifted apart over the years. They continued to co-parent Emily and me. They came to all our games and events, and they seemed to get along better as friends. Most of my friends’ parents were married and there was no playbook for navigating a broken family as a twelve-year-old, even though I knew divorce was not uncommon in the world at large. My father the therapist and my mother the high school teacher—surely they had experience dealing with conflict, and I fantasized that they would get back together, which of course they did not do. The lack of resolution, the lack of clarity, buried itself somewhere inside me. Moving water helped. A clear directive helped: an open evening and my five-weight and a waiting canoe and the river nearby.


More than once Dad and I spent long evenings in the canoe not talking at all, and me not knowing exactly why I felt irritated, or frustrated, or angry, or to whom my feelings should be directed.


Over the years, we grew closer as I dealt with some of that buried frustration, as I acknowledged and tried to accept myself, and my father, even as he remarried, divorced, and remarried again; as my mother remained, by choice, alone. Grandpa Al died, and Anne sold the camp on the Serpentine to an out-of-state couple who painted the exterior gray, and ripped out the rotting dock to build a new one.


Dad and I didn’t and still don’t always have deep conversations on the water but sometimes we do, and we often reminisce about memories we’ve made together. We fish and hunt together when we can, which is not as often as I’d like.


It’s amazing how passion flares, catches, moves with startling speed—a wildfire jumping roads and ditches. I did not expect those hours with the red and white bobber to flash with such intensity, to catch and bloom beyond any expectation, to engulf so much of my time and energy and thought, the way that it has. I worry I’ve spent so much time on the water, have developed my angling muscle to such an extent that other parts of me have atrophied. I suppose that’s true of any passion, and sometimes I worry mine will consume me, or restrict me from vital components of life, like building my own family, or living with some semblance of financial security.


As I’ve grown older, I’ve gravitated toward fishing that requires precision, patience, and resolve. I graduated from red and white bobber to floating Rapala, then to a fly rod. The first fish I caught on a fly was a stunted largemouth bass in a kettle pond near my house, in the early evening on a mouse fly, my father in the stern of the canoe. I loved the predation—the way the small bass leaped from the pond to grab the easy floating meal. Since that moment, I’ve sought a visual component as I trick fish with feathers. Even more failure, then, failure as a kind of expectation, a welcome guest on most outings, but me going anyway, experimenting, grinding, until something good happened.


The first time a tarpon ate my fly, oceanside near Lower Matecumbe Key, in Islamorada, Florida, some mechanism in my brain shifted, realigned—I’m not sure exactly what happened—and I haven’t been the same since. My fly line clinched around a button on my shirt and the leader broke. The tarpon swam off, but I was soaring. I’ve fished for them every spring since. If I have the opportunity and good fortune, if I can parlay teaching and writing and fly-tying with some other feasible income, I’ll fish for tarpon every year until I can no longer stand on the deck of a skiff. Tarpon electrify me, bring me to life, demand that I live attentively in the moment.


Tarpon, snook, muskellunge, carp—the toughest fish to fool with flies, that’s how I spend my time. I can’t explain it, not exactly, and I worry a clear explanation might rob me of the ineffable joys of the pursuit.


My father has always identified as a hunter first, angler second. For years I interrogated my own alignment and wondered why I was more in tune with angling, wondered if that meant I was less of a hunter, if I was, after all, too sensitive to partake in harvesting animals. It took me years to recognize my flawed thinking, how such compartmentalizing diminishes the complexity, and similarity, of our passions.


Which is all to say: like my father, I am first and foremost a hunter, even if much of my hunting is done with a fly rod, with feathers affixed to a hook. I love the other kinds of hunting, too, especially for whitetail and moose—the ritual and camaraderie, the precision and patience required, but mostly I dream of fins and waters.


Hunting begs reconnection with my senses, and a pushing back against sensory-deadening screen time. I can offer that hunting touches upon some primitive human mechanism, which is true but also feels beyond the limitations of words. For me, the act of hunting is the act of focus—attention, stillness, listening, reacting. It is the forum in which I feel most alive.


The French artist and director Agnès Varda famously said, “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes.” I understand what she meant. If you opened me up—as you might, to some degree, by reading this book—you’ll find landscapes: pine forests and winding rivers of Aroostook County, Maine; shallow, white-washed expanses of frozen New England lakes; a brackish bog where I first learned to fish; turquoise flats of Florida Bay. I realize the oddity and messiness of linking Maine and Florida, polar opposites in many categories, two territories at the termini of Route 1, governed at each end of the spectrum, but somehow, they’ve become kindred, linked, at least to me.


If you opened me up, you might also find those I care about most, those I choose to spend time with outdoors, where I am my most myself. My father, of course, is in here often, as he must be; and my dear friend, Parker, who is like a little brother to me, one of the most kind-hearted humans I know, who still needs another ten feet on his goddamn fly cast; and my guide-turned-good-friend Rich, Rich with a similar fire, consumed in some sense by the same passion but navigating it, somehow, oscillating between indulgence and homeostasis.

Occasionally, as I dig back through years of accumulated gear, through discarded tackle boxes, I find an old red and white bobber. The plastic globe is dusty and weathered, cracked, an abandoned miniature planet. I cannot recycle it, will never use it again, unless I have children, which is, at this point, very much up in the air. I lift the bobber—barely any weight at all—and wonder where I would be without it.


I’m not concerned about hero photographs, or in filling some ego-need to pass on wisdom or accumulated knowledge. I am still fairly young in the scheme of things, not yet forty, have been alive a millisecond in comparison to the landscapes and waterways I return to. I’m still learning and will always learn something valuable every time I venture outdoors. What I’m aiming for, then, when I head to the woods and waters I love, is a story—some meaningful, specific moment, unknowable, unbelievable, until it happens; a narrative to archive and revisit, when I need a true story more than anything else.


Here are a few of those stories.


Shipping October 24.

 

Ryan Brod became a Maine Guide in his early 20s, after spending his childhood hunting and fishing in the Belgrade Lakes region. From guiding underdressed New Yorkers on a frozen lake to chasing a giant Florida tarpon, to finding peace outdoors during a global pandemic, Brod has seen it all in just a short amount of time. Many of these stories have appeared in The Maine Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The FlyFish Journal, MeatEater, and more.





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