Fly Fishing My Home-Town River

Cuyahoga River, North Akron near sundown. I drive out here on a lark, a place my brother took me once to catch smallmouth bass when we were teenagers. I map it on my phone and drive through parts of town I remember my mother telling me to stay out of. I watch the abandoned industrial Akron skyline rise up on the horizon. Then the road dives down into the valley and winds along the curve of the river. I pull into an empty parking lot. A trail leads down to running water.

I string up my four-weight Winston BIIX and Bauer reel – combined worth more than my car and most vehicles within a five mile radius.

The trail to the water winds through a forest of thick shaggy sycamore and maple trees. I didn’t even know what a sycamore tree was a year ago. The ignorance is part of that blind spot, I guess can be common, when you grow up in a place and don’t bother to learn anything about it. Or maybe the last time I lived here, I was drinking myself blind and chasing women instead of fish, not noticing the trees.

This river was so polluted and destroyed that it galvanized Congress to pass the Clean Water Act, some of the most influential environmental legislation on the books. And I’m standing in it, smelling raw sewage on the air, and getting ready to fish.

Nate had assured me that the Akron waste treatment plant was downriver. “But I wouldn’t wear flip flops,” he said. “Every storm drain, all the water that washes over the streets of Akron winds up in the river.”

I wear Crocs and wet wade in shorts and step in. Immediately the cracks in my heels start to burn. Psychosomatic response, or virulent bacteria and toxins entering my bloodstream? Likely both.

Despite that, the water looks like a river, curving over cobble and spilling into drop-off pools. I cast under an overhanging tree limb, below a riffle. A fish nearly jerks the rod out of my hand on the second strip. I’m caught off guard, fly line looping around stones and my feet, lose it. Two casts later, I hook a chub minnow. It’s beautiful and wild.

I’m fascinated with the potential of this little U-shaped river that built the town I was born in.

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