SHE SEETHED LIKE A TRAPPED WOLF, constrained by the cold hard steel that held her. But she could still move, and she moved quite well, thank you, now leaping as she had first leapt when she’d felt the hook bite into the white leathery tissue in the roof of her tooth-strewn mouth. But for the most part she simply sulked deep in the pool where earlier she had stopped for a few hours to rest and feed during her relentless cruising up and down the river.
She had, in fact, been in this very same pool since just before daybreak, having tarried here after the water had begun to go down as the generators in the dam upstream shut off on schedule at 5 A.M.
But that was another creature’s method of keeping time. For her, time was meaningless, life instead measured by the persistent cycles of day and night, darkness and light, smell and sight, as it had been for as long as she had been a part of the river. Whether she possessed any concept of future or past, I do not know. It really doesn’t matter, for she had always lived in the present, occasionally sipping a fly from the surface, but now more often sifting the deeper currents for nymphs and probing the moss beds for scuds and sowbugs, and lately taking other fish and even her own kind for meals that had made her large in girth and quick in reaction. But never had any morsel bitten back at her with such vengeance as had this little yellow-bodied, brown-winged delicacy now stuck in her jaw, which constrained her and confused her and caused her to grow more and more resentful with each passing moment.
And she expressed herself so well, leaving no question as to her feelings or intent. Her powerful body undulated deep along the underside of the current, and her broad, flat, arrow-shaped head pierced the flow and was occasionally given to violent wrenching in a vain attempt to rid itself of this sinister sting that worked itself deeper with her every surge.
The colors along her sides rightly rippled through shades of maple and purple and gold, an iridescent field of tone over which black dapples danced and butter-rimmed crimson orbs glowed like lanterns.
Yet strength was not the answer. She had already tried being strong on her initial run upstream after her first panicked leap, and she had leapt again in fear and frustration when she realized she couldn’t outdistance this unknown force that held her.
She had always been able to flee from danger and toward life, her quickness and stealth the difference between eating or being eaten. From her perspective, it had been this way forever, always about the getting of meals, and it had never occurred to her that it could change.
But now she sensed a subtle shift, if a brown trout can ever sense subtlety, as her frustration grew into determination and her fear turned into cold controlled rage.
I REMEMBER THAT TROUT. From the moment I first heard her, I intended to have her. I listened as she fed from the thin, late-evening hatch that had barely materialized just before dusk, and it was sheer dumb luck that I happened to be watching the same tiny caddis she was watching as it drifted into her sight window, for her take was barely perceptible in the warm evening light that brushed the frayed edges of the current she was working.
The sound she made as she fed was not a mere reckless surface splash, but instead a subtle liquid thump that resonated above the keen whisper of the river as it shredded itself on the rocks below.
Other trout and other fishermen were rising and cavorting and chasing anything that moved. But not her. Instead, she jealously held her lie as though she had a significant allocation of life invested in its finding, and her measured, metered gulps bore stark evidence that her investment was paying handsome dividends.
It took three long minutes in the waning light to tie a new piece of 6X tippet into my leader, my eyes long since hazed by the sun and wind. I carefully circled to get into position below her, covering the last fifty feet as quietly as I could, and finally got within comfortable casting distance of where she was working. My little #18 CDC Comparadun was so perfect that a natural actually landed on it and rode it clear to the end of the drift. On my second cast she took another natural that floated just inches from my own offering. It was clear she was not buying what I was selling, so there was nothing to do but change the fly.
The minutes seemed to ooze as I fumbled in the fading light, listening to her methodical feeding as I focused on selecting the new fly. It was clear that subtle deception was not the answer, so with time and daylight drifting downstream with the river, I opted for a #14 yellow-bodied Stimulator.
An errant wisp of wind caught my first cast, and the new offering landed short and slightly behind her. I let it drift far past her before lifting it as gently as possible from the water, fervently hoping that a smaller trout would not take the fly. The second cast went long by a couple of feet, and I winced as the gossamer tippet passed mere inches above her. The third cast landed much too close to her, and I tried desperately to calm myself by pretending this was just a fish. But the amber flash that swirled on my fly put an end to any thought of calm.
THE BIG BROWNS on the Clinch rarely leap; so when she cleared the water as I set the hook, it elevated my soul. But not hers. A brown trout has no soul. Souls are reserved for the fisherman and his kind, along with the accountability that most assuredly accompanies a soul.
But this trout did have spirit, as all trout do, and I was surprised when she took my fly three feet into the air when I struck. She did not hang for the requisite cliché moment in the low golden shaft of sunlight she penetrated. Instead, she twisted back into the edge of the current and burrowed deep, as though she had surprised even herself with her leap.
I knew immediately that she was a brown, for she was barely twenty feet in front of me and nearly at eye level at the top of her antic, and the low evening sunlight bore no evidence of coral along her buttery sides. But even had I not seen her, I would have known she was a brown trout, for her spirit betrayed her identity as she complained deep along the base of the current.
Did I mention she had spirit?
NOW NO LONGER would she leap. Instead, she would focus her instincts on freeing herself from that which caused her to fear. No longer would she flee straight from this thing that held her. Instead, her counterpoint movements indicated that she had consolidated her tactics, and from here on would contend with her savvy as well as with her strength.
Out into the main flow she moved, still upstream, ever widening the gap between herself and fear. For the first time in the struggle, she felt a certain invigorating sense of control, which told her that indeed all was not lost and that she was still free to hope.
She continued cruising left, heading away into the current, and as she moved, she sensed the constraining force moving with her until they were both once more nearly vertical to the flow. Again she gave her head a mighty shake, and in her anger she nearly leapt again. But with unplumbed self-discipline she constrained herself and settled back into the current. She could now feel strength flowing through her and out with the passing of the river, and she began to sense the need to make something happen to force this issue which she still could not understand.
I COULD SENSE her indignity as she sulked there upstream, and the smooth, controlled undulations of her sleek and sensual body indicated she had not yet decided what to do with me. So, I simply let her think, applying only enough pressure to keep her honest. I did not want to start playing her from the base of the little rod just yet; the tippet was not that strong, and I feared enlarging the tiny hole the hook had made in her mouth.
For a while she seemed content to stay more or less where she was . . . or did she just reposition slightly, sailing a little closer to the current? I was not willing to negotiate such an adjustment quite yet, so I applied the slightest additional sideways pressure to move her back to where she had been. But I could feel immediately that she resented this as once more she shook her mighty head and began easing out across the top of the run.
AGAIN SHE BEGINS MOVING to the left. But as she passes through the main current she can sense it pulling her backward, and she feels that now even the river is working against her. Down she goes, as deep as she can go, until the very bedrock forces her to halt for a moment, her egg-laden belly brushing the gravel that eagerly awaits the burden she bears. Her lower jaw scrapes the stones and sends tiny time-rounded pebbles fleeing into the flow as she again shakes her head in ever growing bewilderment.
Her measured strength is ebbing, and no longer can she maintain herself against the current. And so she turns, circling erratically in the flow, searching for an eddy, a crease, anything that will offer her respite and allow her to regain even a small portion of the strength she has lost.
But now she can sense herself being eased ever upward and backward along the current as the angle of force against her becomes steeper with every diminishing sweep of her broad, fanning tail. She is trying desperately to stay upright, but her strength is nearly spent and she is now beginning to lose the ability and even the will to resist.
And then she sees it—a tall, rippling creature towering overhead, seemingly disconnected from her, yet holding her by some unknown force she cannot comprehend. She feels herself being pulled downstream toward oblivion and tries to give one last surge, away. But she has finally arrived at the limit of her strength, if not her will, and she feels herself being turned one final time, first cross-current and then down, down, down toward the being that now nearly owns her.
With one last feeble thrust she tries to turn back into the flow, but she cannot. And as she senses the water moving past her upturned side and sees the thing now hovering over her, she can suddenly feel the creature beneath her and see the ceiling of her world receding below, and she senses a sudden pulling force that stings and tugs at her upper jaw.
And now she knows.
NOW AS I WRITE, I once again feel the same sudden chill I felt when I first saw her face. I have never before or since had a trout look at me the way that trout did. Her unblinking gaze was a dagger that pierced my sensibilities, and for one brief moment I nearly stepped backward, away from her. She lay in my own eddy at the end of my tippet, still on her side, the net just a few inches beneath her lightly writhing body.
And I just stood there like a fool, overcome by indecision.
As I said, I had intended to have this trout. We’d not fed on fresh trout for a long time, and I had promised Carly that I would serve her one that very evening. And now this trout was looking at me as though she knew I meant to kill her.
Did I mention she had no soul?
I could easily have netted her and postponed the decision for a moment or so. I could even have let her hang there until I regained my composure. But I did not.
I still don’t understand it. It made no sense then and it makes none now. She was a perfectly good trout, and Carly would have loved the meal. Fact is, we dined on trout that very night.
But not this one.
Because I knelt there in the evening flow and slipped my hand beneath her side and lifted her ever so slightly from the water and then carefully removed the embedded fly from inside her upper jaw. I spent a long time with her, working her side to side, her face upstream, in and out of the edge of the current, letting the life of the river replenish her own, and it took a minute or two or maybe even three before she began to complain once more.
And still I held her—she in the water with her nose pointed upstream into the flow, and me with one chilled hand held lightly beneath her chest and the other firmly around the base of her broad square tail, our two spirits for one lingering moment still entwined as her growing undulations expressed her ever increasing desire to be free. I do not recall the precise moment she left. But I do remember the way she eased backward down the edge of the fleeing current, looking not at me before easing out into the main channel, then turning and disappearing into the dimming dusk from which she’d sprung.
This story is from Michael Altizer’s book, THE LAST BEST DAY, ©2007 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. You may also purchase his books here by clicking on the RIVERS AND FEATHERS ‘BOOKS’ page.
The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER