It was a change of season, bringing with it an annual American rite, that delivered me from the threat they posed. One day as I came on my afternoon shift, one sunny, shirt-sleeves, get-out-of-doors day, I passed the Interlaken playground, and there they all were. The cry of "Batter up!" piped in clear, sweet, childish tones, trilled like birdsong upon the vernal air. Blessings upon those Little Leaguers, and might they one and all grow up to be Babe Ruths! A small and rather dingy, but nonetheless inspiriting, copy of Old Glory fluttered on its staff above this enactment of the national pastime. Proceeding on my way to the pool, my pool, I was filled with devotion for this sports-conscious country of ours. I not only blessed baseball, but I was also grateful for golf, thankful for tennis, ecstatic for aquatics—for all the health-giving, body- and character-building warm-weather pursuits that keep our people in tone and out of trout streams.
My time to learn from old One Eye was short—what was left of the season. Neither he nor I would be there next year. I would be gone from the country; he would surely be dead. He was too old to survive another Berkshire winter. He could not live long in this little pool. No scope for his bulk here. He was, as it were, home from the sea, passing his decline in this sailors' snug harbor.
Each day that I went there to learn from him how to kill him, I waited anxiously for his appearance and rejoiced to find that he was still alive. I was not fearful that some other of his natural enemies might have gotten in ahead of me and killed him overnight. None had up to now; he had outsmarted, outfought them all. I feared only that he might cheat me by dying a natural death. He was now fighting his first losing battle, the one against the common enemy offish and men.
I logged his comings and goings like an assassin establishing his victim's routine. He came always to the same feeding station, an eddy at the tail of the pool where a tiny feeder stream trickled in, like an old regular to the restaurant table reserved for him. If there were other trout in the pool, none dared appropriate his place. When I had fixed the hours at which he issued from his lair beneath the bridge, I was there, prone on the bank beside his spot, waiting for him to come to breakfast at dawn, to dinner at dusk. He was unfailingly punctual in keeping the appointment with me that he never knew he had. Almost cheek to cheek with his sworn enemy he lay. And though he was a prodigy of his kind and I merely representative of mine, nature had given me a dubious superiority: unlike me, he did not know that he must die.
But though he might be ignorant of the end awaiting him, the fish acted as though he felt himself threatened every moment of his existence. Such a jittery creature he was, ever alert, ever fearful, as though he understood that he lived his life in a medium which exposed his every movement to hostile view. The fleeting shadow of a cloud passing over him was enough to send him darting for safety underneath the bridge. Old and big and wise in his way as he was, he could never for an instant relax his lifelong vigil; indeed, he must redouble it, because now he had but one eye with which to be twice as watchful.
That blind eye put between him and me the equivalent of a one-way mirror and, lying motionless in shallow, still, clear water, he could be observed as though he were in a tank in a laboratory or in a home aquarium. Yet, long though I studied him, and at such close range, I never got accustomed to him, never quite believed in his actuality. His difference from all others of his kind was too gross, too offensive to the established order of things. Surely for the latter part of his life his very size must, paradoxically, have been a protection against man, a conspicuous cover, if you will, a kind of flagrant camouflage. He was simply too big to be believed. Not looking for a trout his size, fishermen did not see him, or if one did, he disbelieved his own eyes, dismissed the apparition as a figment of his fevered imagination, a fisherman's fantasy and, knowing well how fishermen's tales are received by the world, never told a living soul. Thus, unseen, or else rejected as an impossibility, a wonder un-renowned, the big fish grew still bigger.
It might be expected that such a monster, such a freak, would be clumsy, muscle-bound, weak, short of wind, but the fish's great bulk was no impediment to his grace, his agility, his might. From dead still he could, when alarmed, accelerate to full power with a speed which if-amounted to vanishing on the spot—a magician's trick: now you see it, now you don't. Every part of that bullet of a body of his was functional. His mastery of his element was total. Without appearing to move a muscle he could maintain himself as stationary as a stone. By inflating and deflating his air bladder he surfaced and sounded like a submarine, and just as stealthily. He would sight his prey as it entered the pool. Then, light as a bubble he rose, his dorsal fin breaking water like a periscope, his huge streamlined snout silently dimpling the surface, and into that great maw of his a grasshopper or a caterpillar or a late-hatching mayfly drifted, borne helplessly on the current. Mission accomplished, he sank soundlessly from sight. When he wriggled to propel himself forward, the undulation of his muscles caused his spots to ripple like those on the side of a dappled horse when it quivers to the bite of a fly.
My studies were not confined to the fish, his hours, his preferences in food—which were, in any case, whimsical and unpredictable. It was equally important that I familiarize myself with his immediate surroundings, that small dining area of the pool in which I was going to attempt to take him unawares. I had to chart the currents I would be fishing as carefully as a riverboat pilot. That my river—the little feeder stream within the stream which served up the trout's food to him—was no more than two feet wide and not much longer than that before it dissolved into the pool itself, that it was slow and unruffled, and that my fly would float on its surface, above any obstructions, might seem to have made my task easy. Not so. The very stillness of the surface meant that my fly must fall upon it so unnoticeably as to seem not to have fallen but to have hatched from under it. And the very narrowness of the channel demanded a cast of pinpoint accuracy, the very shortness of it meant that my time of drag-free float would be fractions of a second. There were—there always are, in even the narrowest stretch of flowing water—more currents than one. These currents are what, sooner or later, always causes drag, that oft-mentioned enemy of the dry-fly fisherman. The fisherman's fly must ride down the same current that ensnares the live insects and carries them to the lurking fish. Meanwhile, the leader to which the fly is attached lies across the adjacent current, or currents, as well. No two currents of a stream, however small, however slow, however close the two, flow at the same speed. One of them will carry the leader downstream at a rate faster than that carrying the fly. After a while—about as long as it takes to read this—the leader bellies in the current downstream of the fly and begins to drag the fly faster and faster. Nothing could be more unlike the free float of the natural insect, and all trout are born knowing this. More, they not only refuse that one unnatural fly, but so unsettling is the sight that they sometimes quit feeding altogether and hide themselves in fright. The time the fisherman has in which to deceive and hook the fish is that brief interval between the alighting of his fly upon the water and the commencement of drag. Drag a fly over a wise, wary old trout and you might as well move on to some other stretch of the water.
I would have yet another problem. The limitation of the fish's vision, which had worked to my advantage while I studied him, would be a disadvantage when I came to fish for him. In a circle of 360 degrees the field of view of each eye of a normal trout is approximately 97 degrees. Within that compass the fisherman's fly must appear; if the fish is to take it, he must see it. However, to attract, entice and deceive old One Eye I would have to present the fly on his left side. To put down a fly from a distance of some 40 feet so that it would drift into his limited field of vision would not be an easy matter and, if it were not to frighten the fish away, the fly must alight with the delicacy of a wisp of down.
My awe of the trout and my awareness of my problems had mounted to the point that I was almost paralyzed by them, and it was this that made me decide the time had come for me to take him on. I had just waked to the realization that it was August—late August—almost September. The year's first yellow leaf falling to the water before me was what wakened me. The fishing season was fast running out. That wizard of a fish had cast his spell over me. It was another of his protective devices: by his very fascination he could beguile you into forgetting your intentions toward him.