It had taken fifteen memorable minutes—from the time she was hooked, that is. Before that, he must have used four night crawlers, which she kept stripping off. He could feel her each time, big and emboldened with each success. He was just as good at bait-fishing as fly-fishing and he could not believe, with how cunningly he threaded the crawler on the hook the fourth time, that she would get away with it, but she did. He preferred fly-fishing, but this early in the season on the Clark Fork, he fished bait the first part of the day. There was an art to it, which fly-men denigrated too easily because of the majority of lazy bums who practiced it grossly. But he had been taught better, by an expert who showed him precisely how to bounce a No. 3 split shot on the bottom so that it entered a hole repercussively; then you let the hook dribble, and, afterwards, lie and drift: it would generally be hit just then.
But he had never lost four struggles in a row before. She had to be big, bigger than what he already had, and canny, the canniest. He prided himself on his reflexes, but this one had hit the hook contemptuously, presenting a direct, almost personal challenge. That was why, even knowing she was too big, he went on. You were allowed five trout now, only one over fourteen inches. He always wanted his limit because his family were fish eaters, but he really couldn't kid himself that the second trout was only, say, thirteen inches. No, he knew what it was: in this hole it was the mate of the twenty-inch brown trout he already had in his creel. He couldn’t be exactly sure, but he knew. Others scoffed at the idea of mated fish in a hole, but it happened too often to him to be a fish story.
He had caught her on the side of the jaw, he found out afterwards, the hook lodged in the tough integument of the corner of the mouth. Of course, she still might have bitten through the line—number six, not likely—or gotten free of the hook not by throwing it but by wearing a big enough space in the puncture to slip it. That last contingency, which had happened to him before, was why he no longer took too long to bring in a big brown—no more than a quarter of an hour, say, which could seem, anyway, in the suspense he felt, like half the afternoon to him. (And eternity to the trout?)
What this fish did, finally, was head straight upstream. He had had that also happen before with big browns. They gained, not leverage, but some slack that way and could conceivably slip the hook. But walking from spit to spit, he kept above her as she moved to the upper end of the hole and the run. Then he stepped into the sandy margin of the river. He could see her now, long and trembling, facing upstream (visioning him sidelong?), trying to gain something on him. He marveled at her. He switched hands on the rod, pulled around his black-hung net with his right hand, grasped it expectantly, strained her toward him with his left, and then, doubtless because she was tiring and incapable of a horizontal or downward plunge, just holding herself rigid in the flowing water, he was able to scoop from behind as he eased up on the rod, and he came upwards with the net and fetched her out of the water.
Quickly, back on one of those shallow spits, on a hump of dry gravel, where he had let drop his rod, he held her aloft in the net with both hands. Then, on the ground there, he took her out of the net, felt her gravid with eggs (and felt her heart—no, it was the pulse in his own fingers) and used his pliers to dislodge the hook. He admired and eye-measured her—twenty-one inches, he supposed—for an extended moment. The long, big-bellied trout, prostrate and glass-eyes on the gravel (his looming image beginning to dim and spark out along her nerves), banged her tail twice and gasped. He wet his hands again and lifted her gently and stepped a pace into the water and put her in, holding her steady and upstream (the light zooming again along her nerves, exploding in her brain), and she was gone like a speckled bolt out of the run, up the channel above, back in time and the river.
He sat down soon afterwards and took off the spinning reel from the fly rod that he had been using lately for both kinds of fishing. He took out his Medalist reel from his inside fishing vest pocket and put it on the rod, stringing up for fly-fishing, choosing Grey Wulff, thinking about four more medium rainbow before the day Garcia was over, especially with evening at hand and hatches due. He put the Mitchell reel in his canvas creel, next to his one allowable over-length fish. The thought had certainly come to him, with the mate heavy in the net and then beautiful on the ground of the spit, to keep her too and call it a day; he was human. But he was not only a law abider, but a career-long upholder of the law. Also a pragmatist, believing in the results of strict wildlife management. Also, in the three-quarters of an hour of his engagement to that fish, he had graduated from competition with love for her—contemptuous, courageous, gleaming, beautiful—and a good part of him, the best part, wanted fervently to let her go. He, too, was at shameless shifting odds with himself.
He flicked his fly, going upstream along one of the several channels. He caught a trout off an oxbow. It put up a pretty good fight before he brought it in, with the lax confidence or casual indulgence of a man who has already landed his big ones, and he dressed it out promptly, as was his habit, and put it in the creel with the other. That’s when he first saw the other two fishermen.
There was something in the way they were standing together, conferring, that disturbed the day. No, the impression was a vagary only, and he stood up and followed on his way upstream. Actually, he had had the idea of going back downstream to a favorite spot for end-of-the-day fishing, but he went up-stream of them, who had been standing on shore opposite him and facing downstream as if to go that way themselves.
He must have struck his second Grey Wulff rainbow five minutes later around the next bend. Seeing the two men again, walking upstream and pausing to watch, flustered him, and he brought the trout in quickly but awkwardly, skipping him along the surface twice before beaching him where he stood on another midstream spit.
When he glanced up, after creeling the fish, they were still there, opposite him, waiting. They did not say anything—no cheers or halloos—and neither did he wave amicably, as was his custom with solitary strangers met on the stream. They weren’t solitary, though, and something about them—their common slouch and premeditative languor instead of a riverside busyness of their own—alerted him. Alarmed him? No, why jump to professional conclusions, he thought, as he made a wide inner stream circuit away from them, across several narrow channels he knew in the widest part of the riverbed. He even forgot about them in his encounter with a rainbow that leaped about five times in a trough of swift water. He thought he might lose the jumper but didn’t. He netted him finally, and, walking up to a shallower stretch, he mounted the raised bank and on a margin of bankside cottonwoods he slit and emptied the fish. His rod and creel were on the ground, and he returned to the water to clean the trout and came back up to the bank, and there they were.
They stood, slightly apart from one another, facing him about ten paces away, above him, gazing at him at once curiously and—what, what?—appraisingly. Well-equipped and spiffily outfitted, he was as attractive as the contents of his creel was; they would clean him out, thoroughly. A passing phase of river rats. There they stood, waiting for him.
Nonetheless, he put his last trout into his creel, brushing the spinning reel inside when he did so. Still crouching, looking directly at them now, he nodded.
“Howdy,” one of them said.
He nodded again.
The other touched his grease-spotted John Deere hat in a half-salute.
The first one said, “Any luck?”
They had probably seen him take the big brown female, maybe even her mate before that. Exactly when they had decided to pirate him he didn’t know: early on, or braving themselves to it as they walked along and watched him, somewhat later? It made no difference. They stole John Deere parts—maybe whole tractors—and ripped off fisherman as easily as anything. Not a new breed, just an expanding one. He opened his creel perceptibly and put his left hand in the opening, which faced the other two. He knew they’d think, at first, that the gesture of his was involuntary, nervously protective of the catch bulging inside. But he kept his hand there.
“We ain’t had no luck,” the first man said. He sort of lounged where he stood.
“Nothin’,” the other said. On his face was a dark practiced scowl that he tried to alleviate with a false-friendly smile. Theoretically he looked past you, but never succeeded, his eyes falling on and flicking over your possessions—fish, rod, wristwatch, whatever. Mugging, here in the great Montana outdoors, was also a distinct possibility. The tips of both their dilapidated rods were broken off. “Nothin’ at all. Not like you.”
“How do you know what I have exactly?”
“We know. We can see the bag.”
“Oh. And you’ve been following me?”
“Yes, sir.” The mock diffidence was lovely. “Every since the big first one. You sure know how to fish.”
“And now you’d like some?”
The lounger said, “We want all of it.”
Sure, he thought. His heart began to bruise his ribs, but he held himself preternaturally steady. His mouth was dry. The last of the sun streamed through the cottonwoods in dimming rays. His hand and wrist opened the creel aperture some more, and he felt the spinning reel and grasped it now and pulled it toward the wide mouth of the creel; he did not quite take it out, but laid it cross-wise at the opening, his hand loosely grasping it, half-revealing it, gleaming blackly in the declining light, and half- concealing it. He did not stand up.
He said evenly, “What I’m going to say I’m going to say once and not twice.” That got their attention; both men suddenly stiffened, even the lounger’s shoulders straightening. “You’re going to turn around and, when I give the word, you’re going scamper down that bank and—“
“What the hell—“the second one said, taking a step forward but then halting.
“—and out of sight,” he said steadily, grasping and slightly turning the cylinder of the reel, allowing them to see that movement and glimpse the black foot—or hand?—of something in the recess of the creel, “ and you’re going to walk—no, run until I can’t see you. And now if you take another step forward or even sass me,” he said under self-marveling control, “I just might use this.”
“Wha—?” said the first, not moving anymore either.
“And since it won’t do to have witnesses, I’ll do the both of you.” He paused momentarily. “I tell you what—maybe I’ve got nothing in here at all, maybe I’m bluffing. But if I’ve got what you think I have in my hand, I’ll never pull it out but to use it. I’m so fed up enough with the likes of you”—now he flipped the brake switch, like a safety, so they could just barely hear it—“that I see everywhere these days that I might finish you off anyway, right here. Now who the hell would guess it’s me—or anyone in particular?” He moved his bulked left hand out from the creel just perceptively. “Both of you left in a lonesome heap here. Nobody’s downstream right now and nobody upstream—you’ve scouted that. Now, you going to take a chance—or take off?” His covert hand moved again, just a little.
“O.K.,” the scowler said fast. “It was only a joke.”
“We was only foolin’,” the other said. “Jeez!”
“Get going, you hypocrites—just up and go. Don’t even look back. I’ll have it in my pocket, handy.” He moved his hand once more. “Move!” he said. “Now.”
They moved. They didn’t look back. They scampered. Maybe he was capable of giving it to them both in the back, they thought.
He stood up. He was lucky that his brake switch, half-broken since May, made a snapping noise lately. His mouth still felt fry, especially in the corners. He pulled on his shoulder creel belt.
He walked through the cottonwoods. They wouldn’t circle around and come back after him either. He felt pretty certain.
Actually, he wasn’t exactly sure what he felt inside him. Sweet safety, and something extra-exhilarating he allowed to linger.
Three pasture gates and twenty-five minutes later, out by the road where his parked car stood, old man Reynolds, who had given him permission to cross his ranch to the river, was standing by his tractor.
“Hello, Judge,” Reynolds said.
The judge stood stock still by his car. He couldn’t stop a broad smile. “Some,” he said. “But I’ve got a full creel.”
Old man Reynolds half-noticed the conjunction in the judge’s reply. “Reached yer limit?” he asked, walking toward him.
“You might say that.” Then he hefted and shook his creel a little for Reynolds to appreciate the plumping noise the heavy trout bag made inside.
“Sound like you had a good day.”
“Yes… All the way around.”
There was something—again—a mite mysterious in the judge’s answer that Hiram Reynolds did not quite get. Anyway, when the judge said, “Come,” Reynolds followed him to the hood of the judge’s car, where the judge placed and opened his creel wide for Reynolds to see fully.
“Ah-h,” Reynolds sighed.
“Here,” the judge said, ferreting out another plastic bag that he kept in the creel and transferring a trout into it for Reynolds.
“Thank-ee,” old man Reynolds said and took it and turned back to his tractor.
The judge called after him, “What did you think of my Garcia Mitchell .45 in there?”
“The spinning reel?” Reynolds turned about. “It’s their 300—the bulky black one, their best. Sure-fire.”
“You’re so right,” the judge replied. His emphasis cryptic again.
“Uh-huh,” Reynolds said, tolerantly. Maybe the judge would explain right now or some other time. The judge was the smartest, nicest man he knew and always spoke to point. The old man mounted his tractor and laid the trout on the seat beside him. He started up the engine. “Be coming back soon?”
“Sure will. Now.”
There was that extra note. Reynolds waited for more, but that was all. “Well, anytime you want,” he said sincerely, the tribute beside him not counting. “You have a good day,” he said, starting off.
“Just did,” said the judge, “sure as shootin’.”
There it was again, old man Reynolds thought.
Jesse Bier grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, and served in World War II. His most recent novels, The Cannibal and Ocho Rios, were published by Milltowne Press. His new novella “After Dying,” is forthcoming. He is professor Emeritus at the University of Montana and continues to write in Missoula, Montana.