The Sweet Spot

People who know about fishing but have never actually fished, except for maybe dipping a worm into a pay lake as a kid, think all fishing is the same. It is not. This fishing, that he was doing now, for trout in the mountains, is different from the kind of fishing he’d learned as a boy. Then, he and his father fished down-country rivers and lakes for bass mostly. Sometimes pike. The waters were wide and deep, unreadable to those who did not spend time out there as they had. The man and his son. Both of them named Frank, so he was Junior, which he hated.

They would rise before light and settle into the boat, he in the front, the old man in the back manning the outboard. The ride could be long or it might just be up to the bend in the river to what Big Frank had judged to be the best weed bed, gravel bar or drop off for that morning. As fishermen they were always looking for the best spot. He was right more often than not and big fish would rise to poppers as the sun broke the horizon then, later, dive for rubber worms as it burned overhead. As a boy he had learned from his old man how to lose himself in fishing. How to let it consume him so that there was nothing else for the time he was on the water.

Here, on the streams in the mountains, where Frank had fished since his war, it did no good to get there before the sun. The stream, deep in the cut valley, needed sunshine, especially in April, to awaken the mayflies and begin the hatches which in turn awakened the trout. He’d  seen them in this pool yesterday when he and Bill had scouted the stream. That’s what made the stream different from the rivers or lakes. Here he was stalking fish that he could see, not intuiting where they might be. 

And he saw them. The fish hadn’t been actively feeding when they saw them, just twitching in the current, moving a length this way or that, nosing upstream into the current but rising to nothing.  Apart from the big brown that rolled flashing his speckled side, he couldn’t name them all. But that was fine. This was a sweet spot. An uncommon sweet spot.“You fish this one, Kid”, Bill had said, ceding it to him. 

He appreciated the courtesy but knew that Bill had a bad knee from a fall out west over the winter and one walk up this mountain would be enough for him this weekend. He’d fish the flat water within easy reach of the truck.

Bill could fish where he wanted. Bill could do what he wanted. And if he wanted to call a grown man “Kid” he could do that too. Bill owned the mountain, or the thousand and some odd acres worth owning. A spot beyond compare. Mostly standing pine and hardwoods, nestling two excellent trout streams. One was fed by a small lake over the top of the mountain that Bill owned and a smaller bouncier stream that was fed by springs that he probably owned too. 

Bill got the land and all else through his father and uncle who had left this world suddenly, rich from rapaciously logging and mining anything they could lay claim to. Which was, as they said around here, a shit ton. Truth was, had they lived, this mountain would not have. Bill often said that at night he could hear them raging at him from hell, damning him for turning such a rich resource acquired for ruination and enrichment into a personal playground. He usually ended that part of the tale by raising whatever glass he was drinking from at the time and saying, “Fugg ‘em.”

Bill’s a good guy. Has his quirks, sure. Who doesn’t? Over the last few years, Frank had convinced himself that even if the forebears, that’s how Bill referred to them,  had lived they wouldn’t have been able to pull Bill into their life where money meant everything. That class of people always overreached, thinking that money could buy wisdom, insight or youth. Power though, was something different. Everyone had power, the secret is convincing someone to relinquish theirs. Everything came with a price. A tariff, Bill had called it. 

Frank had come out of a thick stand of mountain laurel to approach the stream across the thin gravel strip. Sunlight was crawling down the opposite ridge as he tied on a Blue Wing Olive and tried to cast to a riffle downstream from a rock where he knew a fish would be holding. As was typical of his first casts, he missed badly coming up short, but the fly no sooner hit the water than it was engulfed by a small splash and the line snapped straight.

“Damn!” he said, setting the hook which the fish had already done a good job of. It wasn’t a big fish, but it was a frantic one. A pink flash on the jump showed it to be a rainbow. He brought it in quickly, not wanting to tire it too badly, and pinned it against his leg with his free hand. Then, keeping it safely in the water, he grabbed the shank of the hook and twisted it out of the fish’s jaw. The trout hung there suspended in the current for a moment flaring its gills. Then, with a flick of its tail, it was off into the current and gone. Frank smiled that he botched his first cast and still landed a trout. Would be one of those days.

He worked upstream slowly, moving to keep his legs warm inside his waders. Most casts seemed to raise fish-if not to be caught, to be missed. That was fine. He was only going to keep a few for dinner so there was no pressure to catch every fish. That was never the point. As the sun crested, and the hatch changed, he switched flies. Then when he reached a shady hole where he knew some big fish would be stacked along the bottom he went with the beaded woolly bugger-something that would go deep. His actions were rhythmic and thoughtless until they weren’t. 

His mind wandered, it always did when the fishing was good, to the mornings with his old man. They were not all good, he knew. Sometimes they went out and his father was still drunk from the night before. Sometimes he carried a bottle. Sometimes the boat would arc in a long circle before he turned to see the old man sleeping against the tiller, cigarette hanging from his limp lips. He knew there were those mornings. But on days like this, when the trout were rising and the creel was filling, he remembered every morning as spectacular with great leaping fish and his father young and strong before whiskey, cigarettes and the world ground him. 

He had met Bill in a stateside airport bar, awaiting the flight for his last leg on his final home trip from Kandahar. He had signed with the Army less than two weeks after putting the old man in the ground and signing everything over to the banks who had been dogging his father during his last, failing years. 

The man in the bar had a rod case leaning against his seat and Frank asked about it. He had ditched his uniform, his boots and everything that connected him with the previous four years. At that moment, in the bar, he wanted nothing more than to talk fishing. And talk was something that the big man knew how to do. Frank took most of it as bullshit, of course. Who in their thirties owns a mountain and was building a paradise for himself?

When he left to catch his flight, Bill called Frank’s phone so he’d have his number and told him to feel free to visit him on his mountain. What a character, Frank thought as he called for another beer. Then his phone buzzed with a text from the big guy with the coordinates to his place. “Come up if you want to learn trout fishing”, read the text. 

Three weeks later, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, he stepped out of his truck in front of Bill’s private lodge on his very own mountain. When he got there that first time, the place still smelled of sawdust and he parked next to the carpenter’s trucks. They were putting the finishing touches on the back of the house and his first tour of the property wound around ladders and chop saws. It was magnificent, he had to agree. “This will be your room”, he motioned into a room larger than his whole apartment. At least he thought it was big, until Bill showed him his own. 

That night, long after the workers had packed up, Bill grilled steaks and they sat beside a snapping fire in the pit and watched a darkness as deep and any he’d seen overseas settle over the mountain. It was then, over bourbons, that Bill laid out the tariff that he would impose for complete access to the mountain and all that was on it.  Frank paused of course. Who wouldn’t? It was a perfect spot though,  and if the fishing were anything near what Bill said it was, it could be worth it. It would be worth it.  Again, having nothing to do and nowhere to be, he agreed. Even with all of everything, Frank never regretted running into the man in that bar.

The shower was better than fine. The water was cold and prickly and he let it spatter the back of his neck until it hurt. The smell of the soap made him want to eat it, and the towels were thick and soft enough to pass as blankets. He’d never felt towels like these off of this mountain. 

He stepped out of the bathroom and into his room. They were all like this: seven bedrooms, seven adjoining bathrooms. He crossed to the sliding glass door and slipped out onto the deck overlooking the valley. The stored heat of the sun radiated from the thick pine boards. He closed his eyes to the falling sun and savored the afternoon breeze caressing his body as he leaned forward, liking the railing’s warm wood against his bare skin. 

The first time he’d stood on this spot he’d flashed back to the firebase in Afghanistan. Like this, it was on a mountain with a view of the valley below but over there, the view was a narrow one with cliffs on both sides funneling vision down to the crossroad and the town beside it. It was brown, it was gray, it was dusty. Then it was gone. That was it. That one thought. A blip. That one memory. It wasn’t a particularly bad one-not ominous in any way and it never happened again. Being up here had cleansed him of those years, he was sure of it. That one obligatory memory had to pop out like some kind of boogeyman to let him know it wasn’t far away if he let his guard down. But he wouldn’t. He was in a good spot. 

He flopped on the bed without dressing. What would be the point? The books on the bedside table were all about fishing and he picked up one he remembered, opening it at random. He read easily, skimming the words one at a time but failing to find any coherent structure. It was as if the words were children’s blocks cast carelessly onto the floor. He tried again from the top. It wasn’t working and the more he tried to concentrate the more his mind scattered. He recognized the feeling even if he wouldn’t name it. He should have taken the drink when offered, but there will be time for that later. 

Facing as he was, he could see the door swing open even with his nose in the book. The man stepped in wearing only one of those plush towels wrapped around his waist. He was carrying a thick rocks glass of bourbon with a single large cube. The way he was holding it, the brown of the liquor contrasted with his white middle. 

“And there you are”, the man said.

“And here I am.”

The man set the drink on the bedside table and Frank rolled onto his stomach facing away. He didn’t have to see it. The first time the man had dropped the towel, on his first visit, he’d seen it. The first time he made the mistake of looking. Didn’t have to again. It would prod him, poke him, spread him and fill him. He didn’t have to see it. He heard the drawer open, where the lotions and rubbers were. He hadn’t looked in there either.  He knew what was in there. 

“You OK?” the man asked.

“Oh sure. I’m fine.”

“Good, good…”

The bed moved as the man maneuvered himself between Frank’s legs. “Those fish are perfect,” he said. “Stuffed  them with thyme and lemons. They’ll grill beautifully.”

“They are perfect”, Frank agreed as he heard the packet tear.

The man’s hands were on him then, pulling and positioning, touching as he liked to. His skin felt cauterized. He could feel the hands rubbing and moving, but not the touch. Even when the fingers moved lower and inside, the feeling was dulled. Then he felt the cool of the oil right there and hissed a breath. 

Then there was the stillness. Then the roll of the bed as the man loomed and covered him. Then the pressure at his bottom. Slow and burning at first but inexorable. He winced as the weight of the man settled on him and squeezed fistfuls of blankets. His mouth opened silently as he was penetrated. 

It had occurred to him before, that this is something, for comfort’s sake, that one should do more often or not at all. But it was such a sweet spot up here he didn’t want to bring it up.  

Elephant Rock

From downstream-coming up on it-
It does look like an elephant. 
Massive head and shoulders, reclining
Leisurely almost, facing the current,
Watching for what might be floating around
The upper bend and into its patch of river.

It’s watched as my old man taught us how to
Catch bait in it’s shallows and bass in
It’s channels or off it’s weed bed. 
It has sat unperturbed as generations 
Jumped from it’s head, climbed up 
It’s back and swam around it’s bulk.

My old man tried to capture it in
Water colors, oils, pencil and chalk.
It’s been photographed from the water in
Summer and from the shore when it
Sat alone, icebound and snow swept.

It looks no different today than it did
In the fifties when my old man sat me 
Up on its head and snapped away with
His Argus. 
On videos, forty years later, my daughters 
Hop and wave from its back. 

Today, as the canoe bounces gently against it,
I reach up and rub the warm, gray shoulder.
“Hey, old man”, I say-not knowing if I’m 
Talking to the rock or the man who had
First sat me upon it. 
I pushed off, passed through its shadow
And continued on-
Making one last cast into its eddy. 

Mike Schmidt’s 500th Home Run

Further up the mountain,

Almost three miles above the

Trail head parking and well off

The slashed trail is an almost forgotten

tiny spring fed lake.

It’s easy to wade along the sandspits

Between the two feeder streams and

Upstream from the WPA overflow wall.

Too close to the wall, or too far to the left or right

is quicksand that will suck your boots to China.

In summer the water takes your breath.

In spring, feet are bricks inside waders.

Nothing is stocked up here

And the water is persnickety enough that

Most fisherman ignore it especially

In the early season put and take fury

On the main stem.

But here thrive the slashing, thrashing

Electric pastel native brook trout.

All tiny terrors that can be

Quick hooked and released

Without damage.

On a good day they are suckers for

A maggot on a number 10 hook

Floating two feet below a bobber.

Thirty minutes up here is worth

A day anywhere else.

Turtle Heart

Snapper

Took this a few hours before this guy became a base for an interesting spaghetti sauce. Because soup would have been too much of a cliche. From the period in my life when I had to eat things.

An hour after it’s been shot between the eyes-

Beheaded, hung to drain and gutted-

The snapping  turtle’s heart will still beat.

Cut from its carcass and left on the cutting board,

It will beat, regular and strong-

pumping nothing-

but air.

Until finally, frustrated with nothing to do, it stops.

Doesn’t quit;

Stops.

Old timers-Turtle Hunters- reach into holes along the mud banks of rivers,

Happy that snappers crawl up into their lairs

Head-first.

But all could tell the tale of the contrary turtle that backed in-

Catching the contrary bastard that made a habit of reaching into

Holes in mud banks.

Turtles don’t let go.

They can be caught on a hunk of rope if they’re pissed off enough to bite on it

And be hauled into the boat.

Splayed in their mud cave, they can’t be pulled out.

Shovels are brought and mud banks are torn down to rescue the hand;

Sometimes minus the thumb or finger. But rescued.

And the turtle is still soup.

The brain that makes men reach into turtle holes

Is the same that makes them go into the mines.

Because their daddy did.

Because someone has to.

Because everyone else is afraid to.

Because we’re convinced that peace must be bought

With suffering.

 

TDR-2017