Donning a purple hat tied to that day’s beholder; a pair of Naval BDUs as nostalgic as they were pragmatic; and a notion to divert the programs rewiring my son’s brain by introducing him to a real, old school type of live stream.
It was the voice of know-it-all inexperience so common on the lips of the world-weary 14-year-old,speaking from the passenger seat as we sped north toward the clear waters of the Rio Grande.
Sighing, I glanced over at my son, his permed hair and perpetually hooded eyelids giving me the urge to give him the back of my hand instead of another answer that would, once it had entered one ear and exited the other, be forgotten and, for all intents, ignored. I imagined his mind was haunted by the cartain absence of Wi-Fi and poor-to-nonexistent connectivity in the wild place we were going.
“I’ve read it in books, seen photos in the newspapers,” I assured him, glancing from the winding canyon road to see if he was, per usual, looking into his magic scry stone, errr, I mean, damned i-Phone, instead of me. Fortunately for him and the back of my hand, he was actually paying attention. “There are some very big northern in the Rio Grande.”
“Yeah well,” still, he was cynical, sitting back in the bucket seat and shaking his head. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
My thoughts went to Doubting Thomas and the tell-tale puncture wounds on Jesus’ hands. Sam’s hands went to the lever at the side of his seat, reclining it all the way back to its recumbent position so he could, likewise, recline. Thirty minutes later I pushed the shifter all the way forward, parking the car in the pullout on the side of the road overlooking our spot.
This particular bend of the river lies at the bottom of a precipice that is nearly 90 degrees vertical when you first jump in from the top of the bluff. Guarded by various spiny succulents, the possibility of splashing into the water at high speed, perforated by ten thousand cactus quills acquired on the tumble down is a distinct caution, but you’d more than likely just bash your skull to smithereens or break your neck on the boulders at the bottom of the hill that border the land and the river.
Though just north of 50 years on the planet, I’ve not yet come to terms with my own physical decline, having kept myself in good enough shape to still overcome most obstacles in pursuit of hard-to-reach waters where most anglers fear to tread. Thus, I did step over the blacktop curbing down onto the nearly vertical drop, pushing loose dirt with my ass and holding my fishing rod high to negotiate the first 5 yards. Sam, skated down on his feet, a hockey player with exceptional balance and coordination, he would not deign to lower himself to cover any distance, as I had, by the seat of his pants.
After the initial jump, I regained my feet and worked my way down the steep switchbacks with a mincing sidestep. Once at the bottom the reward for successfully descending a rock overhanging the river that has a notch cut from it that acts as a surprisingly comfortable and ergonomic chair. It was from this vantage that I made my first cast.
Sam had hung back, knowing from the last time we were here he could watch the silver flash of the stick bait reflecting in the sunlight as the shadows of the predators materialized like phantoms from the deep channel I was casting to over the sand bar midstream.
“Here they come!” he broadcast as I reeled my Rapala knock-off across the channel, tingling with anticipation from Sam’s peremptory play-by-play. “There’s five of them!”
The sudden resistance from the arrested lure translated through the line to the rod tip and into my hands, triggering within me a reflexive jerk. The hook set, the fish on the line pulsated like a racing heart beat. The bowed rod took the shock of the hooked fish’s initial burst of desperate energy.
“They’re chasing him!”
I nodded up at him as the fishing pole jumped in my hands. The fish charged back at me over the sand bar like a spawning salmon splashing through extreme shallows, its dorsal fin out of the water at full sail like the bronze spines of a miniature stegosaurus.
I reeled in like a madman so the fish couldn’t gain the slack it needed to spit the hook. The line tight between us, my fish plunged back into the deep water between me and its freedom, making a mad dash toward the sanctuary of the cathedrals of the line-cutting boulders submerged in the clear water to the left. I countered by leveraging it away by pulling the rod the opposite direction and steadily cranking the reel. The flash of silver slowed and its pulses diminished as its last ditch effort was thwarted and I brought it alongside. Leaning over on the stone, I reached down to land it by hand, its bristly lips no danger to my thumb.
Sam danced down the hill like a mountain goat and dutifully snapped the photo of the modest smallmouth I’d taken so much pleasure in fighting before I casually flipped it back in the river. It wasn’t so big as to warrant a temporary, much less permanent, place on the stringer. Judging from Sam’s color commentary from his high vantage, there was a school of smallmouth just on the other side of the bar and we were going to cash in on some relative monsters in comparison to the initial offering I’d just let go. We both were excited for the stringer-full of smallies to come.
Well it goes without saying that the best laid plans of mice and men … the school dissipated as if it had never been. The number five forecasted by Sam from the bluff didn’t turn out to be five bites or five follows, let alone fish. We plied the still waters with our hard plastic silver minnows. Sam became discouraged and climbed back up the hill begging off because, he said, he was tired. I eventually moved from the seat rock to a thin shoreline farther up stream that looked to be adjacent to a good pool of deep water.
As I worked the bank, Sam emerged on a rocky peninsula 50 yards downstream. Learning my lesson from the earlier primal screaming session that had probably scared off all the fish, I acknowledged him with a wave, disrupting the rhythm of click bail, whoosh and retrieve only a little. It wasn’t too long I caught him in my peripheral bringing in a fish, and thanking God for it since his patience was about as goldfish as his attention span. The process was enough for me to beneficially reap regardless of the ultimate result, and sometimes it was difficult to remember ever being so young, often expecting him to understand some of the more wiser obscurantisms simply because they’d been pronounced from the sage lips of the wiley old man. He was an apple off of my tree. He had no right to that blockhead and chipped shoulder…
As I watched him kneel down to unhook the small fish he’d dragged onto the rocky shore, my reflex to jerk back on the fishing pole I was wielding was tripped. Once more I felt the life pulsing on the end of the line and soon it came into view writhing up from the depths to reflect a dazzling silver in the sun that was then almost directly overhead. Up, even beyond its watery realm to arc into the air, a daytime firework enhanced by the light and exploding with diamond droplets shining in the sun. Not once, not twice, but three times it jumped clear of the surface barrier of its watery home until I was convinced it was going to spit the hook.
“It’s gonna get off,” Sam teased even as he dutifully wound his way from his new spot back to me with his not-so-terribly-horrible magical i-Phone camera.
Determined to play it out, I steadily reeled it in and, when it was alongside the shore, kneeled down and slipped the slim steel arm of the clasp on the stringer under its gill plate and out its mouth for easy handling while posing for my photo. Anyone who’s tried to hold a flopping trout with just two hands can figure out why. I secured the clasp, picked up the trout (which happened to be the nicest rainbow I’d theretofore ever had the pleasure of catching) and smiled as Sam framed the shot.
It’s not that I can’t stand progress, for me it’s just a matter of degree. When half the country’s in thrall to an app that creepily distorts the features of their faces and calls it capitalism I must beg to differ and ardently disagree with the wisdom of giving any credence whatsoever to anyone who puts one iota of value in such an ultimately empty pastime. I worry too about the ease with which these electronic devices have made pornography on demand. A one click proposition mirroring the cheap and easy way they are encouraged to give themselves away in this ‘swipe-right’ hook-up culture. Now that they’ve become ubiquitous as fedoras on men’s heads in the ’40s used to be, I’m to the point of hoping for a nice quick EMP to disconnect them en masse, once and for all.
Still, there is hope and I’ve not yet given into despair. One summer reading project’s past I made Sam read Norman Maclean’s seminal novel, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT. I have no proof that he read the whole thing cover to cover, but I’d like to believe in some things even though they probably aren’t true. I think I’d rather believe in something that might not be all the way,or even halfway true rather than believe in nothing. Bringing him to the river was just another arrow in the quiver of my overall plan to introduce him, however modestly, to streams that are not electronic, bites that aren’t smashed together with bits and a vista that he can experience with all five of his senses instead of just sight and sound bundled with the unreal expectations of unlimited do overs and infinite lives. I would hope these brief glimpses of the beauty of the natural world will one day trip some incendiary time bomb in his soul that leads him back to the river bank to heed the wild call within and without him that the modern world has reduced to a buried blog post or a skipped-over ad between youtubes of some far-flung and never taken primitive LARP of a wilderness vacation.
Musing thus, lost in the motions of casting lures upon the water, I was reminded of my word, though not given specifically as a promise, I felt compelled to get Sam home by 6 so he could go play (Yes, excuse me, I know the proper terminology for this particular phase of adolescence is ‘hang out’ but what they do with flying thumbs, catheters and gallon jugs of Mountain Dew is play, right? So don’t even…) over to his friend’s house to, uhhh, hang out and game. And so, memories of good fishing already priming my subconscious to plan the next trip, we hooked our lures to the guides, hiked up the steep hill, and shipped our poles and tackle in the hatchback and then I got behind the wheel and turned the key in the ignition.
The sun rode above the high gorge walls as I turned south out of the Orilla Verde Recreation land preserve toward home. Winding down NM 68 through the gorge I spotted a bend in the river that commanded me to stop, and I slowed down and exited the highway, my tires crunching over the gravel turnout that had conveniently materialized on the side of the road.
“Why are we stopping?”
“I just want to try one more spot,” I said with an edge to my voice that made the statement non-negotiable.
The young man went straight to that stiff body protest plank that is invariably coupled with a sneering squeal. Before I could raise my voice enough to break his bored, he relaxed and reclined back the passenger seat as he’d done that morning 30 minutes before we had arrived.
“You go,” he said, reasonably enough to give me pause to consider his request. “I’ll stay here and take a nap.”
I walked around to the hatchback to get the gear. Cars whizzed by on the highway at high speed just 20 feet away and I decided.
“I can’t leave you hear alone on the side of the road,” I slammed the hatchback and walked around to open his door. “You got to go with me.”
A few more expletives were needed to get him moving in the right direction. The trail head curved down at a casual decline, but the distance to the river was a hike down a varied grade of plateau’d sagebrush, scrub pine and cactus. With the pouting grumbler keeping time behind me, I cut trail, careful to be wary of the ground cacti that would lie in ambush and, seemingly from out of nowhere, rise up to bite your foot. One or two barbs in the big toe, twice as painful to yank out as they were on the insertion, will quickly learn you.
Ten or so minutes of careful winding and we were back on the banks of the slow rolling river, which in the spot we were at then widened out almost like a lake.
After having taking a right turned from the steep canyon walls of Orilla Verde, there was a stretch of more gradual gains in elevation along a gentler arid desert alluvial plain. A beach of sorts, made up of gravel and pebbles instead of sand, led down to the water just north of the wide stretch of still water. Farther north a rapids dully roared. Tall marsh grass guarded the banks to each side of the beach, but a riverside trail made it all very convenient for fishing. The sun glint off the green waters at flat angles, sometimes catching you blind.
Fully expecting Sam’s truculence to emerge in another futile act of defiance, I was pleasantly surprised to see him unhook the silver minnow from his pole’s guide and start fishing. Finding myself on the north side of the widening bend, I walked a bit farther up river to the fast water pool just downstream of the rapids, was about to unhook my lure when Sam shouted, more in awe than terror. I hurried back downstream to find him on his knees pulling in his fishing line by hand as the hook end zigged and zagged like dancing spider silk digging deep into the river.
“My reel won’t work,” he said matter of factly, “but I got one on.”
No kidding? Pulling in the line like a survivalist doing it without the luxury of a pole, he brought in the fattest rainbow, excepting the one I’d caught earlier of course, that I’d ever seen, still champing on the hard plastic of the imitation trout lure.
“They’re cannibals!” I exclaimed, noticing the likeness twixt predator and prey, as Sam dragged the fish up onto the beach and worked out the hooks.
Now it was my turn to take the i-Phone and snap a few pictures for the conquering fisherman who only barely avoided throwing a hissy fit before grudgingly accompanying me down to this enticing stretch of river below a seemingly innocuous turn in the road.
“Here,” he said, handing me the fishing pole he’d been using after all the photos and fanfare was done and the fat rainbow given back to the river. “I feel sorry for you.”
“Why?” I asked a I handed back the phone.
“You haven’t caught anything in a while.”
He had a point. My pattern recognition overrode my sense of logic and proportion as I did not protest as I handed him my antique ugly stick for his neophyte Shakespeare ultralight piece of garbage, albeit with a monofilament snarl of a knotty atom modelling the paths of a million electrons that would have to be excised, so I might partake of its fish-catching allure. With the inevitable outcome of the ill-fated switcheroo so obviously foretold in retrospect, it pains me to admit I was such a sucker.
Unfortunately, the snarl also had worked its way into the spool and I had to pull out more line than expected. Once all of it was stripped out and floating away from us down the river, I realized the greatly diminished amount of line adversely affected my ability to cast the imitation rainbow more than 2o feet, which didn’t bode well for my chances of duplicating what I’d just watched my son do before me. Downcast, realizing my folly, I turned downstream a pace to where Sam could not revel in my lamentation.
Then, through the marsh grass I heard him say, “I think I’m snagged.”
Around the bend and through a partial screen of rivrside flora, I saw his pole (my trusty old Ugly Stick which I’d so easily swapped for the promise of a hot lure) bent double .
Forgetting my complaints, I rushed back to where he was standing on the bank fighting to a stand still whatever monster was on the other end. Feeling the excitement of the moment, I tried to adjust his drag, dialing it down a quarter turn so the line wouldn’t snap when the fish made its run. Then it rolled near the surface in the gin clear water, its mottled green body arcing powerfully like a flexible submarine.
“It’s a northern!” I shouted, thinking all at once with wonder, irony, joy and also the anxiety of the horror of the line suddenly going slack and it all just becoming another close call forever slotted in the crowded memory banks along with all the other best laid plans that only ended in frustration kept alive in the world by the telling as the proverbial, forever changing and ultimately impotent ‘fish story.’
“No way!” he shouted back, his rueful glance more illustrative than his excited words could ever be of the sudden fear of the unknown and sincere disbelief overcoming him. “Uh-uh. You’re kidding.”
Without having to think, knowing we’d never land it without a net, I jumped off the ledge of the overhanging bank in to the ankle-deep edge of the river, coaching Sam with not so carefully and often incoherent hollers to try and guide the toothy leviathan to me.
“Those things bite!” Sam shouted, managing to play the fish into the shallows as I had told him to do.
“Keep him coming!” I shouted in reply, watching the fish struggle and twist in the shallows, trying not to anticipate the tragedy of the the giant predator rolling and thrashing around, splashing shaking its head all the while, adding spray and fury to the already chaotic concentrated soundscape of staccato cries and glottal imprecations.
“Those things bite!” Sam repeated like a tweaking cockatoo as I splashed around and faced the beast.
As I maneuvered myself in position to grab it (could I get by the gills or were they, as I remembered hearing years before, sharp as razors blades?) I saw that it was hooked only by the slightest integument of its bottom lip. The next time it shook its head, the monster would be gone. Falling to my knees, I thrust my hands beneath its python-like body and threw it up onto the trail along the short cut bank. Scrambling up after it, I laid my hands on the squirming fish, securing the take down.
“Get down here,” I screamed at Sam, who was standing there awe struck as I tried to keep the fish from flopping back in the water. He snapped out of it, leaned his (my) fishing pole against the marsh grass and helped me keep the grounded fish, no doubt surprised to find itself out of the element where it ruled supreme, from escaping back into the river.
Standing, catching my breath, my thoughts turned to this river monster’s future disposition. Was it a wall hanger? Perhaps … but my immediate concern was how to secure it further so that I could get a photo of it and Sam? Then I remember the steel stringer was in the side pocket of the tackle fanny pack clipped around my middle and I zipped the pack open and quickly unfurled the stringer. Kneeling back down, I worked the lure from the northern’s jaw and slid the steel rod of the stringer’s clasp through the fish’s gill plate, back out its mouth and then snapped it shut, securing our catch for all time.
It was done.
I hefted the fish from the ground by the stringer to which it was now attached and swung it back in the water so it could breathe, after it had spent several uncomfortable minutes ashore being screamed at by two very excited fishermen. Admiring the lunker seemingly at ease again in its watery world, I took the phone from my son and told him to hold up his trophy, which he did with a an air of sincere joy.
With documented proof via cell phone camera, watching the giant fish swim slowly back into the depths seemed a better conclusion to the momentous event than hefting its dead weight a quarter mile back through the desert scrub (the rare times I do keep fish I try and kill them quickly on the shore with a stick and a few hard whacks on the head rather than let them suffocate in transit).
Not to mention, big fish are notoriously bad eating.
And so, we let it go. It swam a few feet into the clear waters and stopped, perhaps dazed and mystified by the harrowing ordeal. After a few minutes of half-hearted casts (the sun was sinking down over the gorge and we both knew the pike was the fitting close to that unexpectedly wondrous day) Sam waded into the shallows and reached down to head the fish he’d just caught back into its rightful domain of deeper waters. With a powerful flick of its tail, it was gone.
Sam reclined in the passenger seat and snoozed as we drove the winding gorge road back toward Espanola. The adrenaline dump had receded to a cool buzz as I replayed the day in my head and saw that it was good. Better, in fact, than I could have ever imagined it would be. Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus. And yes, Sam, there are northern pike swimming in the deep pools and lurking, suspended in the eddies behind the great boulders and backwater sloughs of the Big River. I looked over at Sam reclined on the chair, his feet pressed against the well even though the adjustable seat was slid back as far as it would go. With some sadness I realized the child I had so recently cradled in my arms was on the cusp of becoming a young man and could never again be so easily handled.
Bittersweet and only natural: Time slips the bonds that once clasped tight the liberty of every father’s son. All we do is head them in the right direction, as our father before us had done, and pray they find their way in the surprisingly chaotic and oftentimes brutal world.
If nothing else, I hoped the memory of that day would stay with him, as it would with me, for the span of days that would mark our brief and inevitably different dances in the sun. Perhaps even help him to endure some future spate of wanton suffering that was sure to come.
Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.Norman Maclean
Haunting, as conveyed in the final line of Norman Maclean’s aforementioned book, is not necessarily a bad thing. Memories are the figures on the balance sheet of a lifetime of experiences’ ledger. And, too, memories are ghosts, forever flitting between the worlds of past and present guiding us into the impenetrable depths of our shared but ultimately individual futures. I turned down the sun visor to block dusk’s glare as this new understanding of the words that always gave me chills dawned.