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Prodigy in a puddle
William Humphrey
September 18, 1978
Resplendent in the roadside pool, the huge trout was too big to be caught, yet too big not to be fished for
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September 18, 1978

Prodigy In A Puddle

Resplendent in the roadside pool, the huge trout was too big to be caught, yet too big not to be fished for

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By my time, more than a century later, it was largely unchanged, and the fish that switched themselves against its current with quivering tails were still tiny. It was suited, for fishing, for boys only. Indeed, in the section of it that lay in the lower part of Interlaken, the fishing was restricted to children under 14.

Boys were fishing in the pool just below the bridge in Interlaken one day in July when I had a flat there on my way home from the library. I watched them as I rested after changing tires. They were catching panfish. But they were neither keeping them nor throwing them back. Whenever a boy landed one he stepped on it to keep from getting finned while he unhooked it. When he had baited his hook again, he left the fish to flop on the bank. Very intent they all were, yet no boy bothered to string or even keep track of his catch. Maybe they meant to gather them all together when they had enough and have themselves a fish fry. They ought to have killed them quickly, though, not have left them to flop on the ground until they died.

I was withdrawing my eyes from the scene when they snagged on something. It was lying in shallow water near the bank, downstream from the boys. A log, probably. Or a long narrow rock. The dappling on it had to be sunlight and shadow. It could not be what it looked like. Not anywhere—least of all in this little roadside puddle.

I got my binoculars from the car. What they showed me was a brown trout, 30 feet long. It could not be included in the glasses' field of view; it had to be scanned, section by section. The spots on it were as big as those on a dappled horse and gave to it the look of a submarine hull painted in camouflage.

My binoculars being eight power, the fish was actually between three and four feet long. I skipped a breath. I was being shown—I put it that way because I had a strong sense of having been chosen—one of nature's prodigies and given a glimpse into her inscrutable ways. Not in the remote, still, unpeopled wilderness of Labrador (where it would still have been prodigious) but here in this little roadside pool, where cars whizzed at my back and where the mood music of daytime TV serials came from the houses clustered all around, lived one of the world's biggest trout. Few men—I mean by that, say, half a dozen men—even those whose monomania, whose profession was the pursuit of trophy trout, had ever seen one anywhere near as big. I was of many minds about having been singled out to receive this revelation. I was proud, and I was humble. I knew I did not deserve this distinction. I was glad, and I was scared. Whom the gods would bring down, they first exalt.

Seeing me with my binoculars trained on them, the boys all quit fishing as one and, leaving their catch behind, clambered up the bank and fled on their bicycles as though they had been apprehended poaching.

I went down to the water's edge, treading softly so as not to spook the big trout. Some of the bluegills abandoned on the bank were still giving an occasional feeble flounce, others were dead and dry, curled up like shavings; all had had their eyes gouged out. I could account for this barbarity no better after finding a tangle of line with a hook baited with a fish's eye. In addition to being atrocious, it seemed senseless. Catch a fish and pluck out its eyes to catch another fish with, and all only to throw the fish away? This—to say the least—unsporting behavior seemed all the more shocking and saddening in this setting, in the same pool where a truly noble fish lived. One thing I understood—the boys' flight. They knew that what they had been doing was wicked.

The big trout lay almost touching the bank. I crept up on him cautiously. I need not have. It was to protect himself where he was unguarded that he lay so close to the bank. His eye on that side, his right, was blind. It was opaque, white, pupil-less; it looked like the eye of a baked fish. That, too, was saddening. One hates to see a splendid creature impaired.

An explanation for the boys' behavior now dawned on me. It was pretty farfetched, enough to make me wonder whether I was not a little touched, but I could think of none other to account for the presence together there of the blind fish and the blinded fish. The boys were not fishing for the bluegills, only for their eyes to use as bait. With these they were fishing for the trout. I theorized that they were performing an act of sympathetic magic—or unsympathetic magic, if you will; that they credited the trout with an appetite for, or a hatred of, fishes' eyes because of resentment at the loss of that one of his.

Be that as it may, it was my ardor for fly-fishing—something that has given me much pleasure, and possibly kept me out of some mischief—that drew my attention to the boys on the bank of the pool and thence to the big trout within it. I was going to fish for the fish, and without reproach to myself that I had trespassed upon the boys' prior claim to him. They had forfeited all right to fish for that trout. It was my revulsion and shame at the ugly business of their gouging out the eyes of living creatures that made me forswear all live—or once live—bait and determined me to try again, hard as I knew it was, badly as I had been beaten at it before, to fish for Cyclops with artificial flies. Not only that, but also with dry flies. Nothing but the most sporting of methods was worthy of that once-in-a-lifetime fish. On paper it sounds pretentious, but I felt I had been chosen to atone for those boys and to show that noble trout that not all his human adversaries were ignoble in their ways.

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