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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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Measuring your fish before you catch him is counting your chickens before they hatch, but as I did not much expect to catch that big one-eyed trout, I measured him first. I went to the pool at break of day the morning after discovering him, carrying with me a carpenter's six-foot folding rule. I stretched it, and myself, upon the bank next to which the fish lay. In addition to the rule, I took with me my wife, and while I do not expect to be believed myself, I trust that no one is un-chivalrous enough to doubt her word. She, too, was stretched upon the bank, and she is ready to affirm that the fish measured 42 and a fraction inches. I did not attempt to tape-measure his girth, but I have measured that of my own thigh, to which it corresponded. When the length and the girth of a fish are known, its weight can be roughly estimated. I estimated old One Eye's to be 30 pounds, give or take five.

He could never have attained that size in that little pool. He must have come down, and not very long ago, from Stock-bridge Bowl, perhaps been washed down in a flood. Nor could he have attained that size half blind. The loss of the eye, too, had to be fairly recent. Nor could he have attained that size on a diet limited to the tiny insects on which he was daintily feeding as I measured him.

But this was a very old fish, and old fish, like old people, experience a decline of appetite. Old trout do not like to exert themselves. There are tables that show how many calories, or fractions thereof, there are in a mayfly and how many ergs of energy a trout of a certain weight must expend per foot of movement in water with a current of a certain force, and what it all adds up to is that the more a big fish eats the more it starves. Old One Eye had once been even bigger than he now was.

Now, a fish that big cannot be caught. That he has not been caught is all the proof needed that he cannot be. He is too wise. He could not have gotten that big without being wise. In his time he must have seen—and seen through—all the thousands of artificial fly patterns that are said to exist. Considering the odds against it, his survival to that age made him a Hercules, a Solomon, a Tithonus of trout.

On the other hand, a fish that big is too big not to be fished for.

What happens actually is that the fish hooks the fisherman.

I struggled hard to get free of that one. I knew he could not be caught, even handicapped as he was by being half blind. That would only make him all the warier. He could not be caught—certainly not in the only way worthy of him, the way in which I was obliged to fish for him, with a floating fly. Certainly not by me. I knew I was no match for that fish, very possibly the record American brown trout.

In the end I hit upon a solution as to how I might catch him, which, though I say so myself, was brilliant. Crafty. Sly. Stunningly original. It was elementary, of course; every brilliant idea is—after somebody has had it. Like so many advances, mine consisted in going at things backwards. The problem: I needed a mentor. The predicament: I knew no one, could trust no one. As long as I kept thinking of my preceptor as a fisherman, I got nowhere. But once I thought of him as a fish, Eureka! Who knew more about the ways of trout than the world's greatest trout? Here I had him in a fishbowl of a pool, and he was blind on one side; without his seeing me, I could study his every move, every mood. I went to the pool. I set out in plain clothes, taking no tackle with me. For a long time to come I would have no need of any. Then, suddenly seeing myself as others might see me, a man out at odd, twilight hours, furtive, up to something or other, I reconsidered and went disguised with gear. When I got there I found those wicked boys up to their tricks.

I had forgotten about them. In my mind that fish had grown even greater than he was, and I had grown a great deal greater than I was, and in my mental photograph of the two of us, me smiling modestly as I held him up by his tail, the boys and their despicable tactics had been completely crowded out of the picture. Now there they were, one of them yanking a bluegill onto the bank, another stepping on him, still another with his bloody little paws busy at his grisly task. A fit resembling in all its symptoms an apoplectic stroke seized me. A superstitious dread, which turned instantly into a dead certainty, gripped me. I was convinced that those little Yankees, natives of the place, unlike me, knew something I did not know: that for a resentful old one-eyed cannibal trout, fishes' eyes were surefire bait. Generations of Berkshire Mountain boys had known this. So real that I all but saw it taking place before my eyes was this sickening vision: one of those cane poles bent double, a shout of "Got him!" raised in a boyish soprano, and my fish, my trophy fish, ingloriously hauled ashore by that brood of little imps.

As soon as I showed up, of course, they skulked away. And they made themselves scarce for however long I stood guard, defending One Eye against them and against his own savage proclivities. But I could not be there around the clock, not without neglecting both work and wife. Just the mornings, the afternoons and the evenings until the boys' bedtime.

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