Looking back on my childhood, it’s easy to see how I fell in love, not only with fishing, but fishing in some of the most remote and beautiful places in the world.
Early on, my dad took me to local lakes and ponds to impart the fundamentals—casting, retrieving, freeing snagged lures from the impossible heights of overhanging trees. Back at the house, I did my homework, scouring his fishing magazines, and gleaning tips from TV pros. While many years would pass before I pooled the two worlds into any significant semblance of skillful angling, a bright spark had been kindled and carefully nurtured into an undying flame.
Yet as every Midwestern fisherman knows, one can only pursue pint-sized panfish and the occasional lunker largemouth for so long before he starts dreaming of far-off locales promising ancient, toothy monsters or trout-filled mountain streams. We can point fingers at Saturday morning fishing fantasy programs or the foreign odysseys featured on newsstand cover stories, but I imagine there’s something more behind our visions of fishing utopias, whether it be the desire for an hours-long, mettle-testing fight or the final payoff for countless hours spent swatting mosquitoes and cursing bad luck.
All the epic fishing stories I read in school didn’t help. First there was The Old Man and the Sea. Then there was A River Runs Through It. By the time I got to Moby Dick, I earnestly believed that the best spots are hundreds of miles away. I understood why no writer had penned an Indiana fishing epic.
So I paid my dues and bided my time, always wishing those bluegill fillets were a little larger and sometimes pretending that underwater snags were fish so large they had become immobile. After all, if my line snapped, who could prove me wrong?
As an adult, I finally became able to find out for myself if there was any truth behind everything I had been told, or if they were all just fish stories. One summer I boarded a floatplane and landed in a remote Canadian lake accessible only by air and ice, where I played hide-and-go-seek with loons, watched caribou swim, and chased voracious pike and walleye. The following year I paid indigenous locals in a coastal Mexican village to take me with them to hand jig for the morning’s catch, enjoying the sunrise and salty sea breeze along the way. In Wyoming, I got lost on back roads and logging trails before eventually locating pools and rapids teeming with rainbows, the Rockies towering in the distance. I even spent a day on a commercial research vessel in Iceland carving up cod and herring and sorting out the occasional monkfish.
In many ways, these experiences surpassed my expectations. There is no denying (or describing, really) the natural beauty of those places. And the fishing really is top-notch. I didn’t bring home anything worthy of placing on the wall, but the memories serve as sufficient reminders of whatever angling glory I achieved.
Each time I returned to Crawfordsville, my home base, I set out anew, retaining that optimism that inspires even the most fruitless fisherman. As I launched into my familiar stomping grounds and settled at my favorite honey holes, a funny thing started to happen: that same sense of awe at my surroundings and peace with the world I’d become accustomed to while fishing in exotic places repeatedly manifested itself only minutes from where I grew up. I had crisscrossed the globe only to find exactly what I was looking for right outside my door.
It would be easy to attribute these feelings to being home, to the inherent comfort of the familiar. I know some local spots like the back of my hand. But to say that I treasure all these places I frequent because they are familiar to me would be wrong; they deserve more credit than that.
This past year, after spending more than half of 2006 on the road or out of the country, I decided it was time to reconnect not only with my friends, but also with my immediate surroundings.
So I embarked on a summer-long daily routine: wake up; think about fishing; go to work; think about fishing; leave work; go fishing. And I found myself going back, time and time again, to access sites on Sugar Creek, a 90-mile stretch of water that snakes through Montgomery Country before slithering into the Wabash River.
Day after day, I left my air-conditioned office to brave the brutal summer heat before finally dipping into the creek, letting its running waters form the perfect submerged equilibrium. Massive old-growth sugar maples and beech trees dominate the banks of the creek, and in some places all but block out the sun. The remaining light filters through their leaves. The heights of the trees are matched only by towering sandstone cliffs that bear witness to the gradual cutting influence of the water over time.
Up until that period, my creek experiences were defined by hasty sprinting and splashing to deep, head-high holes, in search of smallmouth and rock bass.
Last summer, though, I approached the water with much greater patience and deliberation. I approached the water with due reverence. I stopped for minutes at a time to feel the sandy bottom underneath my feet and in between my toes. I paused long enough for minnows to curiously dip and dart around my legs. I waited for that feeling of acceptance into a place to wash over me, and as I took in my surroundings with wide eyes and a deep, lung-filling sigh, the favor was returned. And that’s when it happened—that’s when I realized the futility of driving across the country or flying to far off corners in search of what’s always around us, should we choose to look for it.
As boundless as it sometimes seems, the potential for transcendence offered by Sugar Creek is limited. If the water and the trees and the fishing allow one to briefly escape from the tedium of civilized life, other elements serve as reminders of what we initially leave behind. It’s easy for me to focus on the rambling rapids and the wildlife, but I would be leaving out the advisory signs at each access site that remind visitors of the mercury and lead content of the inedible fish. I would be forgetting the occasional tire or rusty household appliance that’s visible through the clear stream. And I would be ignoring the subtler but equally damaging effect of land "development" on the quickly eroding banks.
These problems are there, and unlike the fish and sand, they won’t just be swept downstream. While several sites seem untouched by human hands, others betray the stark reality that Sugar Creek has been, and continues to be, under attack by our presence, whether it’s our flooded pig farms, factory runoff, or casual indifference to littering and ground alteration.
In the 1970s there was a short-lived movement to dam the creek in order to create a recreational reservoir. Supporters of this initiative claimed such a lake was needed to address the increasing water demands of the Crawfordsville area. After several surveys by engineers and a handful of public hearings, the plan was resolutely defeated. Some 30 years later, it’s clear that the "need" claimed by the proposal was ill-conceived. There is no foreseeable threat to the local water supply, and people from around the area continue to enjoy Sugar Creek in its natural (albeit tainted) condition as one of the state’s leading smallmouth and canoeing destinations.
In many ways, Sugar Creek now needs us, instead of the other way around. It needs people to continue the ongoing efforts of restoration and conservation. It needs the community to develop an enhanced breadth of knowledge about its history and what can be done to protect it in the future.
And it needs individuals to stop idealizing far-off places and recognize what’s readily available to them.
Contact Nate Mullendore at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Friends of Sugar Creek at www.friendsofsugarcreek.org and read Terry Tempest Williams "Creek Story," written during her 2006 visit to Wabash.