Bobby meditatively emptied three creamers and three pink packets into his coffee. He gave the mixture a stir, and imagined a dozen beautiful rainbow trout rising from the white vortex. Trout season started next Saturday.
He was relieved the opener was on a weekend instead of a week day, because he had already burned through half of his sick days with the ice fishing season; he sensed the other half would be used up by his fly fishing pursuits. Bobby’s’ thoughts were distracted by the tinkling of the bell over the restaurant door only to see his faithful fly-fishing partner walk in.
Conrad nodded to some folks he knew across the room and then waved to Bobby as he strolled over to the table. No one but Conrad would dare show up in this country cafe wearing Patagonia. It was the mark of a serious fly-fisher in a land of worm dunkers. They were as far away from a good trout stream as anyone in the contiguous 48 could get.
“Coffee, please,” Conrad told the waitress, a young high school girl who walked with a perky step. She flipped over a clean, white mug and filled it. She pointed at Bobby’s cup.
“Sure.” He answered.
After refilling the cup she hurried off to another table. Conrad sat down with his back to the wall and watched her speed off.
“The new girl seems quicker than the rest.”
“Give her a week.” Bobby responded dryly.
“Fishing starts next week,” Conrad started as he traced the outline of a cigarette burn on the plastic gray tablecloth.
The fishing season actually started the first of March, but for Conrad the only fishing was trout fishing, and as far as he was concerned that was done with a fly rod. Not that he was on the river all season; it was just a matter of principle.
“I was thinking about that when you came in.”
“You have any place in mind?”
The old ritual started again just as it did every spring.
“The Pere,” Conrad stated quickly. Indicating the Pere Marquette River located on the west coast of the mitten that is Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The river was within a half-day’s drive and there was a great place to stop for flies and pie on the way.
“Sounds good,” Bobby said, confirming their opening day plans. For all the strategizing that took place for months in his head, the final decision was usually over that quickly when Conrad made such an announcement.
Conrad watched Bobby pour a few more packets of cream and sugar into his warmed coffee.
“Would you like some coffee with that?” Conrad teased. Bobby cast him a mock glare.
“You know,” Bobby began, trying to keep Conrad’s last comment from drawing the smile across his face. “When I was a boy I had heard that the Conservation Officers planted some trout in Brush Creek.”
Conrad leaned forward placing the palms of his hands over his mug in a tent shape as if warming them. This was something he did when a topic interested him.
“I remember that,” Conrad confirmed.
Bobby waved to someone entering the restaurant, lowered his voice then continued, “I even caught a couple. They weren’t more then 4-5 inches, but it was more trout than was caught there before.”
Conrad smiled at the comment and nodded in agreement.
“What do you think happened to those trout?” Conrad asked.
Bobby raised his eyebrows in thought.
“Oh, must not have taken to the surroundings, lots of sand there, died off I suppose,” he answered, probably too quickly.
“That, and folks poached them for their ponds.” Conrad added sharply.
“Yeah, that too,” Bobby supposed while taking another long gulp of coffee.
The waitress hurried over to fill them up again. After fixing his coffee Bobby tossed out a question.
“Hey, you don’t suppose a few of those trout lived and started multiplying do you?”
Contemplating the question, Conrad blew across his cup with his eyebrows raised.
“I suppose those that did probably ended up as bait for the pike and other fish in the creek.”
Conrad paused for a moment, took a light sip of his black coffee, and then asked, “You said you caught some around there, huh?”
“Just those couple I mentioned earlier, but mostly chubs. Maybe we should go fish it? See if there are any monster trout hanging out there.”
Conrad wrinkled his face up.
“Naw, if there were chubs before the trout, then that’s all you’ll catch now. Sounds like a wasted effort to me.”
Lifting his cup to his lips Bobby said, “I don’t know; we could get lucky.”
Inside his head, however, he felt ridiculous for even making that last statement.
A couple weeks later, Bobby found himself surreptitiously driving the dirt back roads to the place he caught those small trout years before. Pulling up to the state land, he stopped his truck. Once upon a time, farm fields and wooded lots humbly stood; now doublewides and trailer houses lurked.
“Times do change,” he said to no one.
He was nervous about exposing his fly rod in an area where fly-fishing had never been presented. Embarrassment was probably a better word. The kind a guy might feel pulling out a butterfly net at the goose hunt.
There did not seem to be anyone around, nor was there a turnout worn into the shoulder; a sure sign that fishermen were ever present.
Still uneasy, he reached for his raggedy ball cap, instead of his favorite brimmed fishing hat, from under the seat. Some kids appeared out of nowhere and it didn’t take them long to migrate over to get a view of what this stranger was up to. His pace quickened and in his rush he dropped the machete he’d brought along for the trip. He brought the machete in case the overgrown weeds and thorns that once guarded the trail to the creek were still there. When he retrieved the tool he heard the kids run off to the house yelling something about a maniac on the loose.
“Perfect,” He said to himself. “That should keep the kids from following me.”
The machete turned out to be a wise choice after all. The path along the abandoned railroad trestle was indeed filled in with brush and thorn bushes. As he worked, he could hear a faint rustling in the weeds that fell down the far side of the raised trestle. He could also hear the trickle of the creek. The sound of running water always got him excited.
After gaining access to the stream he searched for a fishable area. Some basketball-sized rocks that some farmer from another time had pitched from his field lay strewn around. Boulder-sized chunks of cement from the construction of the bridge were also in abundance. These were places where a fish could take a break from the heavier current, not that there was a heavy current. His sister would have called it a merry current. As a child she would sing as she placed leaves in the stream to be swept away. That was a memory he did not plan on having.
After making this survey, Bobby settled on a small section of rapids. He could actually see a few small fish, though he could tell they weren’t the species he preferred. Picking his favorite nymph, the Beadhead Prince, he tied it on and stepped into the water, trying to keep his enthusiasm in check. Feeding out some line from the rod tip, as he hauled up the slack in preparation of the roll cast into one of the feed lanes, he was startled by a sudden jolt at the end of the rod. Pulling the line taut, he smiled at what he realized was his first fish here in 25 years. Seeing it wasn’t a large fish, though it certainly was a fighter, he decided against the net. He quickly brought the energetic fish in and watched it dance about the top of the water before reaching down to scoop it up. While inspecting his catch, Bobby made half a grimace after noticing the horns set atop the fish’s head.
“Chub,” he said to the fish and lightly tossed it back into the water.
Conrad’s words, “a wasted effort”, crept into his head as he released the Prince, which swung out toward the water, hitting with a plop. Midway through the next cast, he again felt a jerk on the rod. He quickly pulled in another chub about the same size as the last one. After releasing the fish he again released the hook, but this time making sure to keep it off of the water before casting it up stream, which he thought was silly thing to do when he was catching fish just by dropping the line in the water, but he did it anyway.
Midway through the rapids the now familiar jerk signaled another chub. He smiled at the silly, simplicity of it, and made the assumption that this creek was only stocked with stunted chubs.
He questioned whether or not he had ever caught trout here at all. After all, he was a kid and hadn’t really known what a trout was. From this line of thought Bobby remembered what his mother said when asked if his fish were trout.
“Of course they are. See these lumps on his head? Let’s put them in a bag and freeze them. When you catch some more, we’ll eat them up,” she’d said.
Strange, while Bobby remembered catching more fish to bring home, he never remembered eating any. Disappointed at finally being let in on a thirty-year old joke, he released the fish and placed the hook in the clip near the reel.
He hiked back up to the trestle, squeezing through the small path he’d hacked out. Climbing the steep grade to the top where the track used to be, he could hear the same faint rustling he’d heard on the way down. He looked down at his feet to concentrate on where the sound was coming from, and to his horror discovered what had to be hundreds of garter snakes writhing around one another in their annual spring dance. Overcome with revulsion he took off in an unintended direction as fast as the brush would allow him
Finding himself upstream and away from the snakes, he decided there was no way he was going back through that snake-infested area just yet. Catching chubs was a far better alternative, at least until his skin stopped crawling. He surveyed possible fishing spots.
Pulling his hook free, he managed a vertical cast to keep it out of the weeds and placed the Prince a few feet ahead of a nearby hole. Anticipating a small, familiar jerk he was shocked by what he thought was lightning hitting the rod in his hands. His mind was reeling as line was sailing from the spool at a rapid pace. Bobby found himself running down the stream trying to keep up with the monster chub, or maybe a pike. He reprimanded himself for not using a metal leader, and then shook it off because he knew a person could not prepare for everything.
Those thoughts faded as the fish chose his place of battle in a deeper, widened out section of the creek very near the trestle. This water seemed much deeper than he remembered from his younger years. It was certainly deeper than the pair of homemade waders he wore the last time he fished here, snow boots stuffed with bread sacks.
Finally the fish made a brief appearance before heading to the bottom to sulk over the hooking. Bobby’s jaw unhinged from utter shock. Judging from the spots he saw and the profile the fish gave him, he could only conclude that he had hooked a brown trout.
His body was on autopilot and was presently moving toward the shore so the fish would have to fight two battles, the hook and the current, when the fish suddenly made a run so strong Bobby began to question whether or not the 5 wt R.L. Winston would be able to withstand the strength of the fish.
Slowly, however, the fish began to falter as Bobby continually changed the angle of the rod from the right side of his body toward the left in an attempt to keep the fish working to hold its ground.
Finally, bringing the big brown to the net, he laid the giant along the length of his rod, which had been marked with a measuring tape. It measured nearly twenty inches. As was his custom, Bobby reached for the digital camera in his vest, snapped a quick couple shots, and gently held the monster in his hands until it caught its breath and moved on to the depths to recuperate.
After releasing the big fish from his shaking hands, he laughed to himself nervously, realizing that he may be the only person to know this secret. Walking back to his truck, he paused among the snakes to thank them for their part in this fishing trip.
The next morning, Bobby looked up from his paper as the restaurant door swung open and Conrad walked in. Conrad nodded to some folks he knew across the room, and then waved to Bobby as he made his way over to the table.
“Been here long?” Conrad asked.
“A few minutes,” Bobby answered.
“Has the waitress been over yet?”
“Yeah, right.” Bobby grunted while rolling his eyes.
After finally getting their coffee ordered and fixed up Conrad asked, “Did you ever get up to Brush Creek?”
Bobby nodded his head as he swallowed his first gulp, then responded, “Went yesterday afternoon.”
“Did you catch anything?”
“Chubs.” He answered.
“What a waste of time,” Conrad laughed.
Bobby just smiled, feeling the burn of the Conrad’s chub statement; calculating whether or not he was going to share the knowledge of the new local hotspot now or later. Then remembering Conrad’s own revulsion of the slithering horde added, “Oh, I also saw some snakes.”
Bobby’s smiled broadened as he watched Conrad shudder. Then, sliding yesterday’s photo across the red checkered, cigarette burned table cloth, he added, “One of these, however, may change how you feel about snakes.”
Bobby had to pick up his pace after throwing some money on the table to catch the quick walking old man as he flew out the door. Bobby knew he made the right decision about sharing his find. After all, if you can’t trust your fishing buddy …