Delaware River, PA/NY

Secret Waters

Mark Singer

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TWICE A YEAR, four of us, guys with lots of miles, convene on a promontory above a stretch of friendly-enough Delaware River rapids. This is the Pennsylvania–New York state line, 125 miles from the nearest subway stop—a wide, noisy, rocky piece of river and a seeming accident of geography. Take away the spawning shad, which in May and June pause here on their upstream migration from the Atlantic, and we could be in Montana.

Our senior member and the fittest among us—call him John—owns a cabin with a Pennsylvania zip code on the bluff above. In New England, in 1937, he landed his first fish. This particular locale he’s plumbed more times than you could count, although, as it happens, he actually has. Twenty years of early-morning and late-afternoon data are recorded in diaries: dates, hours, water and air temperature, flow rate, fish by length, weight, gender. His day job might be moving words and sentences around on a computer screen, but he possesses the essential habits of a scientist. If a single collective abstraction has brought us here, it’s an unsentimental gratitude that we can indeed still come to a hidden-in-plain-sight retreat from, oh, stuff—a post-middle-age accumulation’s worth.

Fishing (and not getting skunked) is certainly on my agenda, but I’m just as happy to gawk at anyone else’s virtuosity—say, John paddling his canoe against the current, intending to anchor in an eddy well beyond wading depth. We’re fair-weather catch-and-releasers, so his task is to get a capricious roe shad on his fly line and play it into his long-handled net, which would mean shad roe in the skillet, then on the table. Which, inevitably, he will do.

Two acronyms in his diaries—LDR (long-distance release) and AWOL (absent without leave)—refer, poetically rather than euphemistically, to the ones that got away. You want to try convincing a fish that he’s “lost”? Feel free.

We have potential witnesses—eagles in the air, bears in the woods, neighbors along the riverbank—but we’re as alone and as lost as we choose to be. No one, more or less, can find us here.