At nine years old and alone without my Dad, I was scarcely prepared to confront the wily old trout poacher all on my own. Or was I?
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FRIDAY AFTERNOON, the 17th day of April, 1959. And trout season was due to open at dawn the following morning.
I had turned in my homework and gotten Monday’s assignments from Mrs. Whitten, and Dad picked me up at school at 3:30 sharp. We were heading straight for the Upper Ford of Roaring Fork, where I knew my age and size would not matter. Not to me, not to him, and certainly not to that close-knit group of men who always treated me as an equal whenever we were trout fishing.
We bore west out of town, then turned left at Frog Level, weaving south out across Thompson Valley and up the northern flank of One Way Mountain before turning down into Roaring Fork. We made the Upper Ford by dusk.
It was good to see everyone as we set up camp. With supper done and gear organized and stories told and retold, I crawled into the tent alone without formally telling Dad good night.
Dad and I rarely told each other good night. We didn’t have to, for we were each other’s best friend and knew that we didn’t need to conform to such proprieties.
I awoke at 4:00 a.m. to the aroma of hot coffee and the sizzle of bacon and the sounds of lanterns hissing and men talking loudly and laughing lustily. I was snug, wrapped as I was in my old wool blanket. But the air was cool and inviting, and when I stumbled out into the fire-lit darkness Dad handed me a cup of steaming hot chocolate.
It seemed ages before breakfast was done and the first glow of sunrise began filtering into the woods. I knew everyone there, including Mr. Ward—the state game warden who pulled in to join us as I was finishing my eggs.
We had seen Mr. Ward here two weeks earlier as we’d helped him and his crew stock trout. As chief game warden in that area, Ted Ward would often call Dad to let him know when they were stocking, because he knew how much I enjoyed helping out.
He would always have a smaller bucket on the trout truck just for me. He’d make sure I had three or four of the bigger fish to carry down to the creek and then would have three or four more picked out by the time I scrambled back up the trail. It was always good to see him, and now he grinned at me and scruffed up my hair and asked if I was excited to finally be able to start fishing.
Dad and I and Mr. Ward headed upstream at first light. But soon Mr. Ward disappeared—rather abruptly, I thought.
It was a cool, clear morning, and by ten o’clock Dad had caught five trout and I had caught two. And as the morning wore on and we climbed higher and the creek became choked with laurel, I decided to head back downstream on my own.
Today this might sound a bit risky, allowing a nine-year-old to go off on his own so far back in the wilderness. But this was a different time; I knew the creek and I knew the trail, and Dad trusted me. Besides, our friends and Mr. Ward were somewhere below to help me if I needed a knot tied or a line untangled or twisted an ankle or broke a leg. So me’n Dad parted company, agreeing to meet back in camp at noon.
IT WAS A GRAND FEELING being here all on my own with the creek at hand and the woods towering around me. The laurel was thick and the water inviting, and soon I broke out into a tiny opening next to the stream.
It was a lovely, deep little pool below a narrow waterfall, no more than a few feet across. And it was filled with trout, a dozen or more stacked two and three deep. My presence didn’t seem to bother them all that much, but try as I might, I couldn’t coax any of them to hit.
I tried drifting the bait to them; I tried dangling it in front of their noses; I even tried moving it away. But nothing worked.
And then I saw him.
Or to be more precise, I heard him, lumbering through the brush on the far side of the creek—a rough-hewn hulk of a man shouldering his way through the woods and into the small opening across the water from me. I stood very still, and in my faded jeans and dull plaid jacket he didn’t see me until he looked up from the little pool and the wad of fish there in front of him.
“Hey.” His greeting was pallid and without sincerity.
“Hey,” I echoed.
“Catchin’ anything?” His roaming eyes swept the woods around us without ever looking directly at me. Then he turned his gaze back to that clutch of trout between us.
“No sir . . . they ain’t hittin’.” He was, after all, a grown-up, and I was just a kid.
We settled into a listless and anemic conversation, and I watched in growing anger as he began threading a small piece of night crawler onto a big treble hook and started fishing in my pool. This angered me greatly, for there was barely room here for one person to fish.
Everything was ruined—not simply by the other fisherman, but by the unwanted incursion into what had earlier been an unspoiled moment of pure independent bliss. But darned if I was going to surrender to this intrusion or this intruder, and I stubbornly held my ground, despite the fact that every trout in the pool was by now clearly spooked.
But the attention span of an angry nine-year-old is all too readily compromised, and finally my concentration began to fragment and my focus began to falter until my rod tip started dipping downward and my single-hooked minnow settled perilously into place beneath the exposed underbelly of one particularly large trout.
“Jerk there, boy, and you’ll snag one,” came the gruff voice from across the creek.
His words shot through me like hot lead, and I felt the blood rush to my face as the adrenaline rushed through my body. I wanted to hurl myself across that narrow space between us and pummel him with my fists and tell him what I thought.
I wanted him to hurt. I wanted him to bleed.
But as I said, he was a grown-up and I was little. Still, looking him straight in the eye I seethed, “We don’t fish that way!”
He tried to back off, tried to apologize. But my cold smoldering glare told him what I thought of him and he looked away.
Oh, I stuck with it for a while longer . . . long enough at least for him to know I was leaving on my own terms and not his, and I didn’t respond to him when he called “Good luck.”
I was fried, and, honestly, I didn’t want to see anyone.
And so I fished.
I fished hard. I fished intensely. I fished with a fervor I had never known, until I had lost all track of time and place.
And when I had fished my way through my anger and the sun was beginning to drift precariously to the west, I finally broke out into the long, open run just upstream from camp where our day had begun.
DAD SAW ME BEFORE I saw him, and when I looked up he was coming toward me—rather deliberately it seemed.
I knew I was long overdue and that I would likely be told as much. He was still a ways off and surrounded by the other fishermen, who I could see were also looking intently in my direction.
And then he spoke.
“Did some guy try to get you to snag a fish!”
I had never heard such anger in his voice, and I desperately began trying to explain what had happened.
But how did he know?
Had the stranger come back ahead of me and lied to him and told him I was rude?
Surely he would understand. Surely he would believe me.
Surely he would still be my Dad.
Then he was there, towering over me with his hand firmly clutching my shoulder and his face mirroring love and concern, and not anger—at least not with me. And then Mr. Ward was there as well, and he reached down and scruffed up my hair again and shook my hand as I tried to figure out exactly what was happening.
IF NONE OF US KNEW the stranger, Mr. Ward certainly did. And he knew his record. That’s why he had disappeared so suddenly earlier that morning.
He had watched the old poacher from the moment he’d first spotted him and had finally trailed him to the top of the steep slope above the little pool where I had been fishing. He’d remained hidden there, watching us, watching me, as I tried to coax a hit from the reluctant trout, and he had heard the guy try to get me to snag one of them.
And he’d heard me when I had said, “We don’t fish that way!”
After I had left, he’d watched the guy snag a trout on his own, then appeared with the mandatory offer of a ride into town and free lodging for the foreseeable future. The man was, even now, waiting handcuffed in the back of Mr. Ward’s patrol car.
Dad and I fished together for the remainder of the day. He, of course, filled his limit, and I wound up with five trout of my own, which Mom fried up fresh for our supper that very night. By the time we finished and got all our gear put away, I was very tired.
And when I finally settled into my soft, cozy bed, Dad came in to say “Good night.”