How is it that sometimes we escape into thoughts of a river flowing with quiet all about except for the sound of a king fisher or meadow lark and the sight-filling flutter of insect wings, the dapple of trout feeding in the cool breeze that strangely warms our hearts to a better way of life? Sometimes when my days seem too full, I drift off remembering the very first trout I caught on my own, a fine cutthroat from Sand Creek in the Panhandle of North Idaho. I’d ridden my bike out a dirt road to get there, stashed it and waded into the cold mountain waters of mid-June, walking up the free-stone stream that tumbles out of Schweitzer Mountain where skiers go. That rush of water was then as wild at its source as Hemingway’s tale of a boy fishing his way out of trouble.
I remember wading in the cold, post-runoff, clear-as-glass water and seeing trout, some of them good-sized, as I shivered in jeans and tennis shoes in those days of skinny legs and not much fat. I remember looking into pocket eddies in the shadows of log jams spying on dandy trout holding in submerged-root pockets. I remember balancing tenuously atop a bleached log trying to get over a ripple too strong to wade so I could fish an eddy I couldn’t reach otherwise, hesitating half-way across where falling off would have done me no good, thinking my mother might kill me if she knew where I was, that she might kill me if I lived long enough to get home and tell her about it.
It was just after crossing that log, in the cold morning light of my first solo trip, that I placed a fresh garden-dug worm ensconced on a hook into one of those pockets and felt the bite. When I pulled the flapping trout onto the sandbar, a 12- or 13-inch wild cutthroat, I threw down my rod and pounced on it, grappling to hold it’s sleek, squirming body in my hands. I couldn’t let it go. I looked with wonder at its beauty, sparkling in the morning sunlight and remember still how with a breast full of pleasure I lifted my innocent eyes toward heaven where God lived and thanked him for the beauty he’d created for all of us who found it.
That wasn’t my first fish, but it was one of the best because it was the first fish I caught on my own. I was ten. I was growing up for sure! and the rest of my life was going to have fishing in it; I knew.
Except I didn’t know then what I know now. I didn’t know that I would go long periods without fishing, that life could rule and enslave you if you didn’t wake up to a better way, if you didn’t take courage and demand independence to live like a child full of joy. Though I’m on the other end of life now I dream still. As I sleep I dream of cutthroat and brook trout, of rainbows and browns too that ought not to be that big and of rivers wild and long.
I learned to read trout water on Sand Creek. I learned where the trout were and why they were there. I learned what lay hidden beneath the dark shadows of a log jam if you placed your worm just right, and I learned to whistle nameless tunes that kept me company and expressed my happiness about fishing.
It’s good to think back, good to reflect; but its better yet to think ahead and dream of the next river and the next big trout that comes to fly or spinner, spoon or crank bait–and it doesn’t bother me to fish with a worm, either–I’m not too proud. It’s the catching that matters to me. Methods differ in their delivery; the delight is the same in the catch if you let it be there.
So I’m counting trout when I go to sleep. You can count sheep if you want; I’m counting trout jumping from the lower pool into mine, jumping one by one over that soft white ribbon of water flowing through the River of Night.
How about you? Leave a comment; let us know of your first solo fish and your reason why.
Photo by Montana fishing guide Russ Moore
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