Because I couldn’t fight back the tears, I turned away. Because I’d never had a moment where I felt such immediate loss, I surrendered to the defeat. The emotion was too big for a ten year old boy, and I fell apart.
— — — — — —
Hours earlier . . .
I walked behind Dad to the river. I kept my head down through the steady morning rain, watching water drops grow on the brim of my hat and then fall in rhythm with each step forward. On a muddy side trail I followed Dad: my boot tracks into his, my wide and awkward gait to keep up, the sucking sound of mud and rubber separating with each step, and more water rushing in to fill the hole behind — then the splashing of my own half-sized boots into his full-sized tracks.
We walked until our path finally ended underneath a stand of spruce trees at the edge of the river. Dad looked back.
“Son, you can fish here today, and I’ll go upstream a little ways.”
He’d never let me fish alone before. I knew that’s how Dad and his brother fished, but until today, we’d never split up, no matter how many times I’d asked.
After he turned and walked upstream, I yelled to him . . .
“OK, Dad. Good luck up there.”
He looked back and nodded. Then I watched him cross the river and disappear through tall ferns and thin poplar limbs.
As I fished, I was entranced by a small waterfall pouring down the hill. It crashed over the slate and into the river before me. I thought about how the water never stops coming down the hill, how it joins and grows and becomes something more, how it’s connected to both the water behind it and the water flowing ahead of it — how it comes to me and then passes me, and how the water never stops pouring over the hill and onto the rocks.
With my new hip boots and the scent of fresh rubber, with my new wading skills and my new independence, I was finally fishing on my own.
And then something remarkable happened.
The fishing line tightened with a strength and a powerful weight that I’d never before felt. I was astounded when the enormous fish jumped — I remember how the whole space was filled with a splash when it landed. I didn’t know what was at the end of my line, and I didn’t know what to do. So I held on. My arms trembled in concert with the rod while I gripped tight with two hands and let the handle spin the way I’d been taught. “Surely Dad never expected this,” I thought.
I shouted for Dad.
Moments later, he barreled down the ravine, running through heavy water up to his waist. A powerful man. A calm man.
But the fish was already gone. When the line snapped, the sound shrieked through the damp air and scattered somewhere behind me, leaving behind the only evidence — a quivering rod tip and the bewilderment of my expression.
The air went still and transparent. And I began to fall apart . . .
— — — — — —
I turned back around. Dad stared at the river, and I stared at Dad. I felt like it was only us out there. All other life in the woods seemed to pause in deference to our moment, lending us the chance to recover.
He walked to me and placed his hand on my head. “That was a good fish,” he said simply.
We walked the path back together. And for the first time Dad followed me over the wooded trail, his footsteps into mine. I turned back to see him once. He looked at me and nodded with a determined half-smile that said, “You’re doing it right. You did it right. Some things just happen. Loss is part of this game and part of life.”
We made it home for an early supper.
Still damp from the rain, I told the story of the fish to my grandfather.
“Well of course you lose the biggest ones,” Pap said. “They test the limits of your tackle. They put a strain on your equipment and your own abilities. Most of all, luck is on the side of a truly legendary fish. That’s how it got that big in the first place, and that’s why you’ll probably lose the next big one too. That’s why a fish like that is called legendary, son.”
It was a long time before I could think of anything else.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N