I Got Him—or Does He Have Me?
Father and Son on the McKenzie River
My father, being a devout fisherman, had many tools in his arsenal. From his Orvis fly rod and reel, to his Caddis felt bottom wading shoes. I on the other hand had little equipment other than my Eagle Claw spinning reel pole.
The McKenzie River is cold snow run off from the mountains and the riverbed is an assortment of sand, boulders, and river rock usually at around six inches in size. Over the years I had mastered the art of walking over the river rock, deftly balancing each step as I cross the unstable and shifting rocks. The banks of the river were mostly made up of these rounded river rock and I remember the odd feeling of the rocks rolling and shifting under my feet as I trudged to our daily fishing spot.
I would think of myself as a billy-goat, so agile, as I moved across the shore. The white stones covered with dried algae bright in the summer sun.
My father and I had found a decent spot to place our bait in the water. My father had his handmade fly, and I a worm I dug up from our backyard.
Dad gracefully walked into the river feeling the riverbed under his felt bottomed feet. The river moved swiftly and my dad teetered like a toddler across the smooth slippery stones. There was a quick drop off that nearly sent my dad swimming but he quickly corrected and stepped closer to the shore by a step or two.
“Watch yourself Joe,” my father exclaimed. “The water is really fast here and there is a drop off.”
“OK,” I replied and I started to make my way into the icy river.
Now unlike my father, I did not have felt bottom shoes. Just a pair of well-worn old sneakers my mother had approved for ruin in the river. I walked out into the river stepping like I was on a frozen pond. I actually saw my dad hold back a chuckle as I flailed about trying to keep my balance. I maneuvered to a spot a step or two closer to the bank as dad and twenty feet downstream then proceeded to prepare my pole and hook for fishing.
I speared the poor worm on my hook I offered my submission to the river gods by casting out my trout temptation and started to slowly wind in the line to keep the bait from catching on the river bottom or any hidden underwater trees or branches. The current of the river pressed against my legs and pushed at me causing me to shift on occasion to re-plant myself on more stable footing. My dad, satisfied I was established and on my way to a trout dinner started to cast his line on the water.
I remember the light warm breeze blowing down the river and the smell of crisp stream water with a hint of old dead vegetation. It may sound unsavory to someone who has not experienced it but to this day I can remember the scent and I always smile.
We continued like this for about a half of an hour, casting our lines, reeling them in, then casting again, over and over without so much as a nibble. I was beginning to get bored as young people often do and was ready to go back to the bank and tromp around the brush for a bit to change the pace. That is when I felt it. That unmistakable pull, pull, pull on the end of your fishing pole that indicated that something was nibbling on your bait.
Now even to this day whenever I get a bite when fishing I go through the mental checklist my dad burned into my memory from the time I could walk.
Don’t get to anxious, be patient. Let the fish take the bait, don’t pull the bait out of its mouth. Wait until the fish takes the bait then set the hook. Reel in fast because the fish will want to bolt and you don’t want your line to get tangled around a rock or other snag.
Fighting the rush of adrenaline I patiently waited for the fish to quit nibbling and chomp down on the bait so I can set the hook.
Suddenly, there is a sharp pull on the line. Like instructed I pulled my fishing pole quickly setting the hook and I start to reel in the line. Like many fish in this situation when it realized it was hooked the trout at the end of my line bolts, trying to swim to freedom. This was a big fish, the drag on my line was like the pulling of a whale. The strength of the fish pulled on me and almost yanked the pole from my hands. The sudden strong tow pulled me forward and I had to take a step to try to correct my balance. Moving my feet, my worn shoes quickly slipped on the slimy rocks beneath the rivers fast flowing water and with a sudden sense of panic I quickly tried to regain my footing and balance. For a brief moment I looked like a cartoon character skidding across the ice, legs flailing in every direction. Eventually gravity enforced its irrefutable law, my legs flying out from under me, I hovered for a second then came splashing down into the ice cold McKenzie river.
By some miracle or the shock of the cold water making every muscle in my body contract at one time, I still had the fishing pole locked in my hand. My father had always trained me that when you have a fish on you keep your pole up straight to reduce the chance of snagging your line and losing your catch. Even with my head below water I managed to keep the pole up. Later, my father told me he saw me fall into the water and then just a hand with a fishing pole floating down stream.
Eventually, after sputtering and sliding down stream for a ways, I ended up in a shallow enough area that I could roll over and crawl towards the shore, the rocks pressing hard against my knees.
As soon as I could I stood up and attempted to reel in my line. By some grace of the angling gods the line hadn't snagged and the fish was still on.
Shivering from the cold, trying to catch my breath, my heart beating out of my chest, I continued to feel in the line. I slowly worked my way into the shore and eventually saw the opponent that drug me into the river. Reserved to his fate, the large fish ceased to swim away from me ended up at my feet. Laying in front of me was a cutthroat trout that was at least a foot and a half long and three inches thick. The shimmering rainbow scales mesmerized me and I momentarily felt a wave of remorse flow over me for taking such a beautiful creature from its home. The regret quickly subsided as I remembered the battle we just waged, how cold and uncomfortable I was, and how this beast would taste with butter and lemon.
My father came walking down the bank a look of wary concern on his face. “You okay?” he asked. I realized I was too winded to talk and simply raised my fishing line to display my trophy. My father’s look of concern instantly melted into wide eyed amazement. “My God he’s huge!” he exclaimed. “He could have dragged you all the way to the ocean!”
We both smiled, my Dad with his proud father/fisher dad look, me a weak tired smile of pride for landing this whale and for my father’s praise and admiration. My father put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze and I felt a bit warmer inside.