I had begun by
that time to wonder if indeed there were trout in the river. I thought I had
seen them, sipping flies from the surface or flashing their sides butter-yellow
as they grubbed for nymphs in the deep, gravel-bedded pools. But I didn't yet
know how to fish a nymph, and my casting was still too clumsy to bring one to a
dry fly. I had about given up.
I came to the
river at dusk for one last day that summer. School had resumed and with it,
football practice. I had an incipient charley horse in one leg, my knuckles and
elbows were skinned (along with the bridge of my nose—no face masks in that
day), and there was a constant taste of grass in the back of my throat. It had
rained earlier in the week, one of those slashing rains out of the northwest
followed by a cold high out of Canada that withered the last tomatoes in the
Victory gardens. The river glinted brass under a gunmetal sky; the weakening
sun looked bilious. But a big fish was rising steadily, upstream of me. I tied
on a Mahogany Drake, about a number 10. Dad had given me a handful of them just
that morning. "They used to come off about now on the Wolf River, up
north," he had said. "The trout were crazy for them, big browns. But I
don't know if Mahoganies happen down here."
I stood shivering
within 40 feet of the rising fish. The water was up to my crotch, and I could
feel the current flapping the legs of my jeans, scouring the gravel from under
my sneakers. The riser was resting now, and I took advantage of his break to
work out enough line to give me the range. O.K., he's been down a
The fly dropped
just where I wanted it, upstream and a bit to the left of the fish, so that the
curve of the eddy would drift it over his lie. I flipped in just a tad of
upstream mend and focused on the silhouette of the fly—big and black as a
pirate ship in that gloomy light.
The fish took me
by surprise, the huge head suddenly surfacing, the open-and-shut slash of the
jaws. The downward swoop of dorsal and tail left me paralyzed for a second.
Lucky it did, otherwise in my eagerness I might have yanked my Mahogany Drake
right out of his mouth. When I tightened on him I felt something heavy and
solid, but only for the instant it took him to feel the bite of the hook.
Then he exploded.
A great muscular shining shape, black and old gold, head shaking in a flurry of
pewter-colored water, erupted once. Twice. Then twice more as he raced
upstream. At first I thought it must be a smallmouth, the biggest I had hooked
in the river. But the afterimage of the jumps showed spots on his sides—big
maroon and black spots the size of dimes. Dear God, let it be a brown.
And it was. Ten
minutes later I had worn him down and worked him into the shallows. He was on
his side now, and I could see his hooked jaw working, the tattered fly firm in
the corner of his mouth. I had no landing net, so I got the toe of my sneaker
under him and with a punt that would have done the Green Bay Packers proud,
levitated him into the willow scrub and pounced on him. I was shaking, but not
from the cold.
I would like to
tell you how I unhooked him tenderly, gently; that I carried him in both hands
back to the water and worked him back and forth into the current until his
gills were pulsing, until I felt him squirming strongly in my hands. I would
like to tell you how he finally burst away from me with a flick of his tail, a
golden tail as broad as my hand is long. But that would be a lie, because I
didn't. Catch-and-release would come later, much later, along with maturity.
Instead I brained him with the haft of my bone-handled knife, ran him up to
where I had left my bike, and pedaled back home as fast as I could to show him
to my folks with the big fish going glassy-eyed in the basket, his head and
tail sticking over the edges. He was 20 inches and pushed four pounds on Dad's
spring scale. We ate him that night for supper.
That was 45 years
ago, on the Menomonee River in southern Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee. It
was my first "home water."
dead now, outflanked by the surge of suburban expansion. Silt lies six inches
deep over its ancient gravel beds. All it is home to now are carp and the
occasional bullhead. It was a moribund river when I last lived in Milwaukee,
after college and three years in the U.S. Navy. That was in 1959, and I
remember driving along the river one bleak fall day shortly after my return,
indulging sweet melancholy, probing the irrecoverable past the way you would an
aching tooth: just to suffer a little. I saw a county truck parked on the
shoulder and signs reading MEN WORKING IN TREES, and heard the snarl of chain
saws. I stopped and walked down to the river. A gang of workmen was removing a
huge, blighted elm tree. I remembered that tree of old: It had stood, alive, in
the middle of a thicket of briars. My dad and I had hacked our way into it one
winter when we were trapping, and we measured the elm's girth at breast height
by our arm spans—we hugged the old tree around its circumference, about six
feet worth of hugs. The chain saws yowled. For me at least, the Menomonee died
in that moment.