By Franklin Burroughs
Twelve centuries ago, if Old English poets (scops) are to be believed, the wolf (wulf) watched the eagle (earn), the eagle watched the raven (hrafen), and the raven watched a Viking longboat run ashore and disgorge a troop of armed marauders (wicinga, aka waelwulfas — slaughter wolves). The Vikings headed inland, with a growing entourage of wolves, eagles, and ravens. Sooner or later they encountered the local Homeland Security detail, men similar to themselves in armor, weaponry, and bloodlust. The battle lines formed and converged. The wolves, pinch-bellied but patient, settled on their haunches and watched with intense interest. The ravens — dozens? hundreds? — circled overhead, croaking. High above them, the eagles soared.
This assembling of the Beasts of Battle is as regular a preliminary to combat in Old English poetry as the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game. These battles were sudden-death competitions. To the victors went the spoils; to the losers came those grim omens — wolf, eagle, raven — to feast and squabble.
He was waist deep in the river, catching fish, before he saw the first dark shape glide by, then another. Seals.
At the mouth of the river, their counterparts are seals, ospreys, and terns. At this season, they are always there: a few terns, flickering along low over the water; an osprey or two, lumbering along or soaring, at intervals folding up and plunging; the heads of seals pocking the surface of the river from one side to the other, just lying there, facing into the current, occasionally slipping with a liquid motion below the surface. Something may happen.
A friend, repairing the deck of a nearby house for its absentee owner, heard wings, glanced up: an osprey flying over, lugging a small striper. He could no more ignore the osprey than the wolf the eagle, the eagle the raven, or the raven the longboat. He looked riverward: terns whirling close inshore; seven ospreys circling, plunging, coming up empty or coming up slow, shuddering themselves dry, and laboring off, talons locked into a small striper. All of this was happening in a succession of temporary whirls, crosscurrents, and rips the tide created close against the shore.
Three days later, just before the tide was right, he returned in full battle-rattle: chest waders, flyrod, rain-jacket, wool socks, long johns. For a while, nothing: The tide slipped by. No terns or ospreys in evidence. A few seals loafing around, some in the river, some hauled out on a mid-river ledge. Then everything began: boiling eddies formed, terns materialized, yelping and diving, then ospreys. He was waist deep in the river, catching fish, before he saw the first dark shape glide by, then another. Seals.
“I could have touched some of them with the tip of the rod,” he said. “A cormorant joined them. It looked like a skinny little seal. Swam the same way too. I got maybe 30 fish in an hour. None big, but it was neat.” He laughed. “Kind of spooky too. A couple of those seals were bigger than I am.”
He invited me to join him the following morning. It dawned overcast, spitting a little rain. Seals everywhere, upriver and down. Terns too. One osprey. The tide ran out; as though by catalytic reaction, the eddies formed. Two seals swam in, heads up, hopeful as Labrador retrievers at suppertime. We cast and we cast. Next time I looked, the seals were gone. Waders, sweaters, windbreakers and all, it was hypothermically cold. Nary a flurry of feeding, nary a fish — just all that life and death out in that river, all that expectancy in the air. The catching of fish is not the most important thing in the world. While it lasts, the fishing is — a window into the world that may open for a moment, grant you a glimpse.