Tasmania’s North Esk River is hit and miss for trout. Below the agriculture, it’s almost always a miss, at least for me. But once you get into the headwaters, above the farms and into the forest, it’s magic. When a friend told me about a stretch of the headwaters that I hadn’t tried yet, I decided it was definitely worth an afternoon with the fly rod.
I thought I had a reasonably good grasp on the lay of the land. There was a road running parallel to the river for a few kilometres. I found the spot where I thought my friend had gone in. My thinking was that it wouldn’t be far to fish up to a bridge where I could easily pop out and then walk back to my vehicle.
It took about 20 minutes for me to get from the road down to the river – much more than I expected. But once I got down there, I was enchanted. I found the most stunning stretch of river. It was all shallow enough to wade, with plenty of riffles and glades. There were beautiful banks under which trout could shelter. Where there were small rocky or sandy shores I saw no evidence of any other recent fishermen. It was pristine, like I was the first person ever to fish these waters.
Now, as the saying goes, there’s a difference between fishing and catching. But on this sunny afternoon they converged. I started off with a scruffy old Royal Wulff fly and, after three misses, I finally got on the board with a small brown. I soon switched to a Hi-vis Klinkquill Para and then the action really heated up.
My largest conquest was caught behind a fallen log running across the river. I often tell people that I catch fish despite myself. Though I’m trying, I’m still very much an amateur. When I wade through the river, I do so with all the grace and stealth of an elephant. But on this occasion, that fallen log over which the water was running masked my approach. It also gave me a lower profile as I came up to the pool where this bigger brown was hiding. I made a little overhead cast along the side where I though a fish might be. Within a second, it was game on. He put up a good fight, trying to run for cover, as browns are wont to do. But in the end, he wound up in my net.
If he’d been towards the end of the day, he might have ended up in the frying pan at home. But it was still early, so I spent a moment with him, took a picture, and then released him to fight another day. You might be tempted to think that complacency almost killed this fish. But this is a trout. They don’t think like you and I do. They’re strictly operating on instinct – they just want to survive. So when a fly lands above them and it looks reasonably like food, and there are no danger signs around, the survival instinct demands they go for it. If the trout doesn’t spot me, that’s not because he’s complacent, but because I’m either providentially blessed (some might say ‘lucky,’ but I don’t buy that) or exceptionally stealthy. In this case, I’d say it was the former.
Through the course of the afternoon, six more small browns came to hand. As I worked my way upstream, the whole scene just became ethereal. The late afternoon sun turned everything golden. My mind got lost in the beauty.
Around 4:00, I started to notice the sun was declining to a point where I’d have to be getting out soon. It’s autumn in Tasmania and the days are getting shorter. I thought I’d only have another bit to go before I got to the spot where I was planning to exit the river. Another bit turned into another bit and on it went. I stopped fishing and started wading through the river with more determination and speed.
At 5:00 I started thinking I might be in a spot of trouble. What if I didn’t get to the bridge before dark? Should I set out through the thick bush towards the road? What if I get turned around in the bush and end up lost? If I’m honest, I’d been complacent about the risk factors in that afternoon’s adventure. I hadn’t told my wife where I was going. I didn’t have a full survival kit with me. I didn’t have a map, compass, or GPS – and I hadn’t consulted the map before leaving home either. I didn’t have any food. There was no mobile service out there. On the other hand, I had plenty of water – in the headwaters you can safely just drink straight out of the river. It wasn’t that cold and I wasn’t wet. I had a fire-starter, a knife, and plenty of fly line with which I could have built a shelter if I had to. I had survival training. I told myself not to panic – if I had to, I could likely survive a night in the bush with what I had and then carry on in the morning. I decided I would keep walking in the river until 5:15 and then reassess if I hadn’t reached the bridge yet.
The time came and I had to make a call: keep going in the river or start bush-bashing in an effort to get to the road. The river was meandering quite a bit at this point, so I thought I’d just be better off by trying my best to head for the road. I could hear vehicles, so I knew it wasn’t too far away. I disassembled my fly rod, drank some extra water from the river, and then set off into the ferns and trees. Well, about 100 meters up from the river I came to a cutline. As I looked up, I saw a powerline and I knew immediately where I was because I’d been in this cutline before looking for access to the river. With a prayer of thanks, I headed up the cutline to the road and within 45 minutes I was back at my vehicle. It was a lot longer walk than I thought it would be.
That could have turned out quite differently. My complacency may not have killed me, but what about my dear wife at home? If it was 9 or 10 o’clock and I still wasn’t home, she wouldn’t be in a good place. I’ve resolved that next time I’m going to be much more careful and much more prepared. The wilderness is beautiful, but it can also be unforgiving.
Complacency can endanger your earthly life when fly fishing, but spiritual complacency is even more threatening to your eternal welfare. Unlike the trout, we can’t operate on instinct. We have to be intentional; we have to plan and prepare when it comes to the health of our souls. Become complacent about church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, and you may soon find yourself in grave spiritual danger and not even know it. The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “Satan loves to fish in the troubled waters of a discontented heart.” It’s equally true that he loves to fish in the calm waters of a complacent heart. It’s why Paul tells Timothy to keep a close watch on himself (1 Tim. 4:16). It’s why Christ tells his disciples to “watch and pray” that they may not enter into temptation (Matt.26:41). It’s why the Holy Spirit says in Prov. 1:32 that “the complacency of fools destroys them.” Spiritual complacency can be deadly. Dear reader, pray that God would help you to be conscientious and attentive in your spiritual walk.