IF MY FIRST TROUT is merely an imagined dream, then the first trout I actually remember is still as fresh as it was when the leader finally broke and the fish fell out of my small world and back into its own.
You’d think it would have been Dad who was there with me that morning. But he was busy loading coal from the tipple that sat across the hollow from the mine, spilling its contents into giant railroad cars and filling the air with coal dust that coated him and all around him in a fine blackness, until only his eyes were white.
That was our world back then: black and white, white and black, with not much more than grey to buffer the reality of keeping small children warm and families fed. So while Dad dumped coal, Mom and I and Bobby and Aunt Ruth headed across Stoney Ridge to Cove Creek for a hopeful day of provision and sport.
I was only five years old, and I don’t actually remember getting there. But it surely must have been in Uncle Sylvie’s two-tone blue Buick, because we didn’t have a car of our own back then. Uncle Sylvie wasn’t with us either, although he and I fully intended to go trout fishing just as soon as we could. But for now he was deep in the mine, loading coal and sending it out to the tipple where Dad would then grade it and dump it into the trains.
I don’t recall carrying our gear through the woods and down the trail to the water. And I don’t remember how Mom and I managed to climb out onto the big rock that sat four feet above the current. But I do remember that it was only wide enough for one mother, one five-year-old, our fishing rod and bait, and our dinner. And I remember how excited she was when she finally hooked her trout and how it hung there below us while she tried to decide how best to land it, and how carefully she worked the trout up the side of the rock to us, trying not to break the line or get it tangled in the thick laurel that lined the creek bank.
And I certainly remember how rough and abrasive the weathered rock felt through my thin tee shirt and on my bare arms as I lay there facing the trout, reaching, reaching, reaching for the line until I eventually had it firmly in my hands, and how the monofilament leader nearly cut my fingers as I lifted it, trout and all, from the water. The fish and I watched each other eye to eye as it twisted and cavorted against the roughened stone, rising until it was nearly within my grasp. But the thinning leader finally reached its abrasion limit and parted, and it took the trout a long time to fall back into the water.
I don’t think Mom had ever before caught a trout, and it was not for herself that she wanted to catch it. It was for Dad—for his grin, for his pleasure and his approval and for how proud he would have been for her. Not of her, but for her; he was already proud of her and could be no prouder, for that’s the way they always were.
Her disappointment, however, was total and deep, and she ran from the rock back to the car to get another hook, declaring to all the world that if anyone else caught that trout, it was hers.
And you know, that’s exactly what happened.
YOU SEE, THERE WAS ANOTHER FISHERMAN—one who obviously knew how to hook and play and properly land a trout. One who showed up an hour before dark, the most perfect hour there is for trout, and began fishing not very far downstream from the big rock that was still draped in disappointment when everyone else had gone home.
He fished that creek the way it should be fished, hard and with great precision, moving smoothly upstream from rock to pool to run to rock like a dancer.
He fished deliberately and wasted no effort as he probed the likely spots for the fish he instinctively knew must be there. For he, too, had a family who regularly fed on trout.
He came in from below, carefully and methodically fishing each run as he made his way upstream, his final focus the swirling eddy below the big rock where he knew the trout would most likely be working their evening feeding lanes.
He already had four fish before he reached the run below our now-empty rock, for fishermen such as this know how to catch trout. But he certainly had room for one more in his old canvas creel as he stepped into position at the tail of the run and began casting.
His drifts were surgical, and when the trout hit he struck neither too softly nor too hard. And whether Dad noticed the frayed leader hanging from the trout’s jaw as he worked it to his net, I have no way of knowing.
But he did see it when he lifted the fish from the stream and slipped his hook from the corner of its jaw, intentionally leaving the other hook with its frayed, trailing tippet firmly in place so he could show Mom and me when he finally got home that night.
THIS IS CHAPTER 19 from Michael Altizer’s benchmark book, THE LAST BEST DAY.
His latest book, RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES, can be ordered online from Sporting Classics (along with his two previous volumes, THE LAST BEST DAY and NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE) at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004.
The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER