116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The stars were out, I could see the significant ones. The moon was a waxing gibbous at 91 percent.
The air temp fell quickly after sunset, that’ll happen in Autumn. In fact, the temperature was below freezing, I felt it in my fingertips. When I exhaled a plume of vapor filtered the light of whatever I was looking at.
At present I was looking at a city of lights. Lights from passing vehicles, lights from street lamps, lights on tall buildings. Green means go, red means stop.
What do lights mean to you?
The conspicuous lights at the moment were pink, outlining many buildings in downtown Cedar Rapids. My vantage point was from a low spot, about as low as you could go: wading in the Cedar River beneath the 5-in-1 Dam.
The pink lights were for breast cancer awareness. Lights give people hope in the dark.
I was prompted to hope for fall-run walleyes after I got a tip from a member of the senior class. He popped into my classroom to let me know he’d been having a lot of luck after sunset for walleyes. With the location and method secured, I thanked him and then he was gone — as quickly as he had appeared.
Whether it was a daydream or not, now I had a new fixation for my energies.
The street closures near the dam meant I had to waddle a couple of blocks in my get-up: waders, suspenders-style PFD, a hot pink reflective runners vest, and a red light on my cap for good measure.
I didn’t expect that gear to save me if I went down river in that cold water, but I figured it would make it easier for the firefighters to retrieve me later.
The river was low, 3.22 feet according to the downtown gauge, a far cry from flood stage at 12 feet. A generous sand flat stretched from the west bank. Walking that was easy, but once I was in that dark water over my ankles I realized two things. One, I would have to advance entirely by feel using one outstretched foot. Two, no one else was in the river so there wasn’t a reference point for how far I could wade.
I made deliberate moves, mostly forward until I was near hip depth. Then I cast, reeled in and cast again. Without the interruption of catching fish or snagging hooks or rocks, there was a pleasing rhythm to the pastime.
One man was fishing from the sandflat and close to the dam. Now and then when I looked his way he’d give off a momentary light. It was a quick pulse of red that just as quickly faded to orange and then out. I suppose his light gave him hope.
The voids of light on the river often obscured just where my cast went. The noise of the interstate and the water over the dam disguised the splash of the lure. My two key senses were impaired. The feel of vibrations through the sensitive graphite rod became all the more important.
I moved closer to the dam. The open spillway was in plain sight.
At a distance it was forgettable. But up close, that sight-and-sound stimulated all sorts of ancient feelings like wonder, awe and a healthy dose of fear. At close range, very close range, the tumbling river took on a mighty sight.
I changed my casting target from the river center ninety degrees to the dam itself. My second cast toward a closed gate hooked a fish. The rod arced and the reel gave line now and then despite my reeling in. The much hoped for thumping resistance shook away anxiety and cold fingers.
I fumbled for my landing net. Its cord was connected to my creel, snagged on my PDF, and flung over my shoulder. Thankfully there was no recording of that performance.
A patch of light colored scales shimmered, a good sign. I missed with the first netting attempt, the second reach found the mark. The fish filled the net.
Alas, it wasn’t a walleye but rather a freshwater drum, a curious fish that has a stone in its head and not much respect. I was happy to get off the schneid at any rate. Out came the hook and back went the fish, hopefully to make someone else’s heart race.
I took another half-hour from the river. The man on the bank had moved along. A fisherman atop the bridge was gone, too.
The cold in my fingers and the feeling of a wee bit of water working down the inside of my waders told me it was time.
My retreat was as slow as my advance. Nearing the sandflat I saw an odd fish at the water’s edge. It was a walleye that had been fileted of its lateral portions, leaving the head, tail and bodily skeleton like an early notification of Halloween. Then I saw another. Two violations of fishing regulations. Maybe the absence of light means deviance.
Safely ashore, I switched off my red light. I climbed to street level and turned to face the river and city of lights one more time. Feeling a strong sense of accomplishment, I resolved to come back soon to seek more light.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion, teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.