North Fork Cutthroat


WISPS OF SMOKE HANG IN THE DISTANCE, but on this particular mountain, directly overhead, the sky is latesummer blue. Huckleberries color my tongue ink black, taste buds tingling with this singular delight.

Like most anglers, I’m not willing to tell you where what happened next actually happened.

But trout move. They swim where seasons or water temperatures or hatches compel them to go, and it’s impossible to replicate the confluence of events that leads to a fish or even several fish of a lifetime.

In anticipation of such a fish, when a puddle of minutes seems to expand into an ocean of hours, time comes undone and the only appropriate measure is the float of a fly, the unspooling of line.

I continue upstream, and I’m not entirely sure what causes me to hesitate. No rising fish. No bugs in the air. Likely it’s the need to assess more fully the stone structures that serve as a foundation for the pool’s center. Miniature mesas mounting like high-rise apartments among single-family homes. Current flowing heavy on each side, rushing close to the banks.

I tie on a Purple Haze, thinking of Jimi Hendrix’s soaring riffs, the musical genius of his shortened life. I’m hoping the trout, if any are looking up, will think terrestrial, will imagine the notes of a song that an exoskeleton makes as jaws close around it.

The flow demands several mends, line sweeping over the geological maze drenched in desert colors. I scan the softer water, hoping the fish that have yet to appear, secretive as spies, will grace me with a rise.

I don’t wait long.

A head appears in a slow swirl. Water dimpled with the take. Deliberate and graceful, like a gourmand’s first bite. The luxurious pause to consider the flavor. Not worrying about the bill. The pleasure of eating, not simply to stave off mortality and that burning fire in the belly, but also for the joy in the act itself.

And the hook set: not hurried, pulling back just quickly enough to ensure the fish will not swim away from our engagement.

Line rolls off the reel with startling speed, like a kite caught in the wind, twirling toward something as infinite and inconceivable as the heavens.

For as long as it takes to land this fish, I’m connected to something larger than my fragile ego, which later will desire a photo of me holding the fish. An impossible request without a companion.

The muscular agility of the trout helps me feel the current and the mountain’s pitch that drives downward to the valley. A force that reminds me of a younger self, when my muscles were limber, when they longed to burst into motion simply for the sheer delight of explosion.

And this trout rising into the air, defying gravity for a moment: back arched as it breaches the water, eyes turned first to the sun, then to the water glittering with the sun’s energy. A magnificent westslope cutt diving back into the viscous, sparkling element where it belongs, where all its ancestors lived, where it was spawned and somehow spared the various deaths that take so many other fry and fingerlings.

This fish resists the possibility of being landed, leaping again and again, seeking to snag the line by running the length of the pool. A native consumed by fear that its body and spirit will be imprisoned, rent from its rightful place in the order of things.

To watch a fiercely wild fish—knowing humans did nothing to bring about its existence or presence in this place, yet also realizing in the 21st century that its very survival depends upon human diligence—is humbling, even alarming.

And so I am humbled over and over for what I later realize is a little less than an hour. A total of nine cutthroat. The smallest 21 inches. The largest 26. A buzzing in the ears brought on by this convergence. An offering. A serendipitous blessing.

After all, what did I do to deserve this?

The valley was hot. The air to the west smoky. Climbing a mountain stream to escape the end of the world isn’t exactly an angling strategy.

In these moments, the cold waters that bathe these fish, that sustain them, have washed over me as well, numbed the agitation in my skull, a momentary respite from worry.

I understand the loneliness of rivers and creeks that wind through deep forests. Their solitary companionship. The wash of water on its ever-flowing course. How its movements always leave the observer behind. The river, like time, coursing around the body, going forward, ever forward. The remnants of what we lose in its wake.

And now my hands are empty of everything except the memory of those fish. The future of this place written upon their flesh.

Todd Davis spends much of his time in the game lands above his home in Tipton, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of six books of poetry, most recently Native Species and Winterkill, both published by Michigan State University Press. When he’s not in the woods, he teaches environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College.