The clerk at the convenience store seemed frustrated. No doubt, he’d had a long shift, punctuated by the challenges of a demanding late-night crowd after the bars let out. He’d probably built a dozen gas station subs and dunked cheeses, meats and sliced potatoes into stale fryer grease all night long and was entirely sick of customer service. His late-shift duties surely had him cleaning everything from the cooler glass to the toilet seats, and he knew exactly how many minutes he had left before clocking out — probably at 6:00 am. I knew this was the end of his shift and not the beginning, because it’s easy to notice these things if you’ve ever done similar work in your life.
He looked at me for the first time and asked if all I wanted was the coffee. I nodded while I saw him spot the fishing logo on my coat, along with the lenses hanging around my neck and my windburned face.
“Are you fishing in this?” the kid asked with some excitement. (I’m old enough to call someone in their twenties a kid now.) He motioned toward the double doors and past the ice-melting salt pellets that he’d surely spent time spreading over the sidewalk. It was early December, and the first mix of thick, wet snow had come a little earlier than usual. Because weather forecasts are now entertainment and not real news, a short but weak cold front had been manufactured into a mini-drama that had all the locals stocking up on milk, bread and Slim Jims the day before.
I stared at the clerk for a moment and sized him up. Was he grumpy because of the job, mad at the world or just needing something more out of life? I decided on the latter.
“Yeah, man.” I answered. “It’s gorgeous out there, right now. Do you fish?” I asked. I peeled back the plastic tab on the coffee lid and burned my finger enough to know that I should let the steam escape before daring my first drink.
“Yeah,” the kid nodded. “But I didn’t know trout would eat in the winter. Are you fishing over on the big river?” he asked. We both looked east, through the double doors and over the rolling mountains of stacked spruce trees. The peaks were tall enough to block the sunrise for another hour or two, but the morning was already turning from the black of night to the mixed blues of pre-dawn.
I stared back and sized him up again. No longer grumpy, the kid’s eyes were lit up at the thought of trout fishing. And I liked that.
I consider myself to be friendly enough, sometimes — kind of. But if I’m asked a question like, “How’s the fishin’, mister?” by a stranger, I’m more likely to answer with something that discourages further investigation and changes the subject. My friend, Smith, chuckles, because I give the same reply every time: “It was slow, man. Caught a couple of rock bass though.” (This, in the heart of cold water trout country.)
I wasn’t quite sure why I’d asked the kid if he fished in the first place. But there was something about him that compelled me to share. And here I was, about to give up a guarded secret.
“Do you have a piece of paper back there?” I asked. “I’ll show you something.”
“Sure!” he said.
The kid reached behind the counter. Then he slid a lime-green menu across to me and turned it upside down. He looked eager.
I raised my eyebrows.
“Pencil?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he stammered. “Sure.”
The kid fumbled through his company-vest pockets before producing something I could write with. Then I began to draw a map while I asked him a question.
“Ever been down Coal Road?” I said.
“Yeah, we partied back there in high school,” the kid admitted sheepishly.
“Ah, so those are your beer cans,” I said with a smile. And he loosened up a bit.
“Well, that gate is never actually locked, and it’s not a dead end.” I said while I kept drawing. “It’s state land beyond where you guys had your keg parties.”
“Really?” he asked. “Are you sure.”
“Sure, I’m sure.” I nodded as I formed the outside bend of a riverbank with the pencil.
“So there are three big rocks on the north side of the ridge off the tram road. Park there.” I tapped on the edge of the green menu and looked up at the kid. Then I drew a line down to the river bend. “It’s a hell of a walk down a steep mountain. And I wouldn’t say there’s anything like a path, really. But you’ll find your way down to the river with a little ambition. Know what I mean?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “My Dad and I hunted in that area a couple times when I was a kid — up on the ridge though.”
“Right . . .” I interjected. I tapped the menu at the riverbank again. “You can hear the fast water on this river bend from all the way up on the mountaintop, especially when the leaves are off.”
The kid nodded and studied my pencil lines on the menu.
I made a dark X on the downstream side of the bend. “The whole thing is good, but that bottom end is something you don’t want to miss.”
Then I laid the pencil on the menu and slid the lime-green paper back across the counter before picking up my coffee.
I stared at the kid for another moment, still sizing him up. He smiled a lot and said thank you a few times, like I’d just given him an early Christmas gift.
“Sure thing.” I nodded and turned to leave.
At the double doors and by the bucket of ice-melt, I paused for a moment and looked at the kid’s reflection in the glass. He was still behind the counter, waiting for his shift to end and now possibly making fishing plans.
I looked back at him again.
“Hey, don’t tell anybody else about that spot, alright?” I asked. “But enjoy it. It’s a great little out-of-the-way slot in the valley that no one else really gets down into.”
“Yeah, for sure.” Thanks again!” he said.
“Yup. And if you see my truck there, come find me and we’ll fish together.”
“Alright, you got it!” he said. The kid looked happy.
A couple of months later, the opposite happened. I drove down Coal Road and was surprised to find fresh tracks in the new snow beyond the gate. I followed the tire tracks to the three rocks and recognized the white Jeep Wrangler as the only other car that had been in the lot that snowy morning at the gas station.
After making my way down the icy ravine, I found the kid fishing by himself in the valley, just downstream of where I’d made the X on the lime-green menu.
From fifty yards away, we easily recognized each other, and we both waved. The kid waded to shore as I approached, thanking me again.
“Forget that,” I said. “I’m glad you found it. So tell me how you like winter fishing.”
The kid took off his fishing pack and pulled out a thermos. He poured steaming coffee into the lid and handed it to me as he drank from the thermos.
Then we sat on a snowy log and told fishing stories.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N