The fish wait for him, and I will wait until they know a part of him is still here.
[by Mathew T. Burgan]
The scientist speaks to me. “So, you’re a fisherman?” He claps a big hand white against my shoulder. Wrinkled eyes beg me to say yes so he can prove me wrong. He is daring me to a duel. He taunts me with his palm on my shoulder, squeezing a knot into muscle.
“I’ve fished from the Florida Keys to Alaska’s Inside Passage,” I reply with bravado. I take a half step away to loosen his grip. His hand does not break from me. My step goes short.
He is a foot taller than I. He is white-haired and stoic. He smiles under a thin mustache that remembers blond shades of youth. His sun-bleached eyes search me over.
“Aboriginal war drums bounce in my brain. He is counting coup. It is the ultimate act of the victor over the defeated. “
I am confident. I have wrenched tarpon from shallow salt water and beaten barracudas from wavefrosted surf. I wrestled catfish bare-handed from Mississippi mud. I wrangled smallmouth bass on the banks of Indiana streams. Michigan largemouths rest in my belly. Alaskan salmon and halibut have gone from the end of my line into the icebox. I am 23 and I have fished the waters of 10 men.
He looks down to me. The light behind him silvers the tips of his frame. He smiles and rests his big, warm palm back to my shoulder.
“Let’s fish,” he says.
I nod up to him. I am ready. I will kick his ass. Young hands will cast farther and strike more often. I will haul in more fish than a Japanese trawler with a starving nation behind it.
“How about Saturday?” he asks. I feign a punch into him to accept the duel. He does not flinch. He knows a false punch. He knows that there is no strength behind it before I clutch my fingers. He clamps tight into me.
“What time?” I ask.
“Be at my place at five.” He smiles and gives me an effortless shake that rocks me toe to heel.
It is Friday and I drink. Billy buys a round, and Templeman buys a round, and I buy a round. We dance with loose women. Templeman has stolen a stop sign from a crossing guard. The stick is wedged in his dirty-nailed mitts. We stop pretty girls and walk them safely across the bar. We drink Kokanee and Pabst and Jack Daniel’s. We are public servants protecting the beautiful. We dance and shout over the band. We clink empty glasses on a sticky table. We slam two-inch circles into the checked Formica as we cross off shots. I smoke small cigars and chat up a full-breasted redhead looking for something fresh. She challenges me with tequila and bits of salted lime. I win. At 2 a.m., the barman shouts last call. I leave the party to stagger home with a phone number tattooed in blue ink on my hand. Billy and Templeman stay behind in smoke. They are trolling for bottom feeders. I fumble through locks and fall into bed.
The alarm sounds and I step stiff to the floor. Two hours of shut-eye. There is no time to wash smoke and beer and whiskey and tequila away. There is no time to let my heavy, frozen head thaw to something less burdensome. I push my rod and gear into the pickup and drive half drunk to the scientist’s house. I am 15 minutes late and he is waiting in the driveway. He shakes his head and takes long strides as he moves gear from my truck to his. I toss my waders into the back and make an apology. He restacks my rod and waders and cooler. He bungies things tight. He leaves nothing to chance. He climbs into his clean truck. I lean heavy on the door as we drive through town, over Memorial Bridge, and into the mountains. We make good time east to St. Regis and north and two steps west to the St. Joe River.
I am weary in the morning light. I want black tea. We drive. He offers me a cookie. I nibble with dull teeth. It is the best cookie I have ever eaten.
“Mary made them,” he says without looking at me. I want to know Mary. I want more of these excellent cookies.
“Stick close to me when we get on the river,” he says. “Let’s figure out what’s working.”
I think, Screw you, buddy. I gnaw Mary’s perfect cookie. I won’t let him mooch off me. I will catch fish, and he will wonder. I lick cookie from fingers and rest my head against the passenger window. His words lull me to sleep. “The river is rocky,” he chimes. I nod away. “The fish are fickle. . . .” His words drift downstream.
We stand together at the roadside. The river is narrow and deep. The current is strong. It is different. It is not broad Alaska, shallow Indiana, muddy Mississippi, or salty Florida. It is swift and clean and clear. I skip felt soles boulder to boulder down the bank. I stomp into the water. I measure it. I wade in. He watches. A wall of rock and willow breaks steel on the backcast. I hear the hook snap like a toothpick. I move to shore and retie. He watches. I wade thigh deep, lift and curl my line. I break off again. I return to shore and he is there.
“Let me help ya,” he says. He takes my rod and swirls the line into his hand. “Wind knot,” he mumbles as he threads tippet between fingers. He stretches the line, bites out weakness, and blood-knots new leader in. His fingers are deft, precise. He does not speak. He pulls the leader to eight feet, adding finer tippets as he goes. He spits on each knot to ensure it slides tight. He ties on a fly from his box.
He mutters to himself. “I tied this last week.” I hear him. The river listens. He passes my rod to me. He steps a few paces up the bank. Haloed by the early sunlight, he searches the morning sky and his fly box for something else that might work.
I crack my knuckles and try to clear my head with deep breaths. I tell myself that his chicken feathers will do no better. I am correct. I drift a half dozen times and nothing. He has chosen a dead hole. His broken fly has no life. He is all pose, quiet word, and no meat. Big hat and no cattle. I clamber up the slope to him. “No fish here,” I say.
“Well,” he mutters to the air. “Let’s give ’em a minute.” He breaks another of Mary’s cookies. His eyes do not leave the St. Joe. He sips cold coffee and searches the water. “They know we’re here,” he mumbles.
I am angry. Doesn’t he know I’ve cut a good drunk and a sassy redhead short to be here? I am thinking about buckling knuckles and smacking him a good one when he eases my rod away and takes a few lurching steps to the river’s edge. He dips his toes into the water and sits. He whirls the line like a buggy whip and lets his homemade fly drift to the head of the bend.