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Far too often we as sportsmen become blinded by the end result of a hunting or fishing trip.

Blinded so that we miss much of the beauty and adventure of the journey. I recently went on a fishing trip that yielded and empty creel, yet was filled with rest, adventure and fulfillment.

Nearly a month ago I was helping my father on a job pressure washing the bleachers of a high school football stadium. All day we stood under the sun. Its hot rays reflected off the aluminum walkways and burned every inch of skin left uncovered. We guzzled water, but nothing stopped the unrelenting heat that is South Georgia in mid-July. It was there that I promised myself that if I didn’t die of heat stroke, I would go to the mountains and jump into the coldest stream I could find.

Two weeks later, some friends near Winston-Salem, North Carolina invited me to go trout fishing near the the North Carolina-Tennessee line. Still nursing my stadium sunburn, I accepted. I loaded my Ford with fishing gear, a small bag of clothes and a camera and headed to North Carolina. I dreamed of cooler weather and clean mountain air. The seven hour drive melted away. Before long worries of college, work and life’s problems disappeared.

Finally my buddies and I slipped into chest waders and descended a tall bank. Cold waters gurgled below. We separated. Within moments I was on my own, 500 miles from home, deep in the North Carolina mountains. Despite being alone, I never felt lonely. To my right an orange and white butterfly floated from place to place. Birds chirped in the trees. Emerging from the forest, a doe stepped to the river’s edge. Cautiously, she sipped from the life giving waters, calm and with grace. I froze, hoping she hadn’t noticed my awkward attempt at silently maneuvering through the loose rock river bottom.

She continued to drink, licked her lips, then raised her head. She looked straight at me. It lasted only a moment, but felt longer. We locked eyes, yet still she showed no fear. We accepted each other’s presence. She broke her stare, drank again, turned and vanished. I continued shuffling along the stream. Hours drifted by. It felt as though I’d only started fishing when I heard the sound of my companions approaching. We looked in the usual places trout might linger, but found them empty. We agreed to make our way back to the truck and move to one of the more populated rivers.

A concrete bridge stretched across the stream. Its pillars were coated with dirt and graffiti. Unwelcome signs of civilization washed in and out with the current. We were standing on the outskirts of a heavily populated tourist town. People rushed to get to their destinations. Many were fleeing the summer heat from lands of lower elevation, just as I was. We crossed the bridge to find the trail leading to the waters edge. I looked into the crystal-clear water below. Resting on the bottom were trout, big trout. They must’ve been eight feet down, at the coolest depths, unmoving. It was almost as if they were an armada anchored at port.

Our trio once again descended into the water, but this time it was different. We were sure fish were nearby, but the distractions of our surroundings were too obvious to ignore. Perhaps the fish weren’t trying to escape the heat, but rather what lurked above. It didn’t take long to realize we had made a mistake. Shortly after, we headed back to the quiet stream in the mountains.

Once again I waded through the swirling waters alone, yet in good company. The sun felt warm on my back. A comforting breeze rustled the pines and oaks above. Aromas of nearby flowers filled the air. In my mind I thought I had come to catch fish, but at that moment I knew the call to go was for something deeper. The trip ended almost as quickly as it began. I caught no fish that day, but the river rewarded me with something far more special.
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