December 26th, 2005

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

The Fishing Watch
By Nathan Gubbins, Fargo, ND

The old man awoke from slumber, the early morning sun piercing through the blinds to cut the darkness of the room. He sat up and rubbed his eyes to ease the itch of dehydration that a case of Leinie's had incurred the previous evening. Bed springs poked up through the mattress as he rolled over to find his slippers. They were not there. Lucy must have taken them.

"Lucy, c'mere girl," he grumbled, sighing as he pulled himself up and placed his feet on the cold tile floor of his trailer. A distant click-click-click-click slowly made its way to his door and a wheezing golden retriever stared at him with a soggy slipper in her mouth, her old brown eyes looking sorry and pitiful yet full of life after her 14 years. The old man smiled, cursed himself for having left the door open and ruffled through the pile of clothes across the tiny room to pull out a moth-eaten old beige sweater covered in bloodstains and burrs. Torn coveralls and plaid wool socks finished his outfit as he scratched his old girl behind the ears and pondered what to pick up for breakfast, or if it was even needed at all for today was the opener and nothing would be more satisfying and filling than the first casts over the virgin water in the cool, damp morning air.

Grabbing a worn vest, a few boxes of Chironomid and Baetis patterns, his fishing watch, and a favorite Garrison and Battenkill outfit his son had given him for Christmas the year before the accident, the old man set out to the stream alone. He glanced at his watch to check the time, knowing full well it said 7:03, and smiled to himself. The time on the watch had been there for the last dozen or so years that he could remember, and likely longer than that. He left it there because it marked the perfect time to get on the water in spring, it marked when he could expect the evening hatch of the tiny black caddis that the trout would be going crazy for in a few weeks, and it was the perfect time of morning for the Tricos of July and August. And it brought him fond memories, as the watch had died after being dunked in the Madison while helping his son land a massive Montana rainbow while showing him how to cast so many years ago. He'd been so proud as a father then, and swore to his son that he wouldn't replace the watch until his son had children learning to cast their own flies, and the watch could die again landing another large trout. But that chance would never come, the accident had made sure of that.

The old man shook off the painful memory as the old Ford rattled its way down the winding dirt road to the river, sunlight just beginning to penetrate the valley and cast colorful orange light on the newly budded trees. "Today will be a pleasant day to fish," he thought, "but I will not be alone." Opting instead for his own secret spot, he continued past the river where trucks were already lining up and veered off on a backroad, headed out to the pocket-water of the nearest tributary high above the river. There, he reasoned, the brook trout would be eager and willing, and stealth would not be as much a concern as it would be for the others fishing the flat water in the valley below him.

The farmer and the old man had been friends since their school days so trespassing was not a concern, and the old man parked his truck next to the gate between the fields. He took care not to ruin his friend's fields, now carefully plowed to break the soil loose for planting if they hadn't been already. The old gate creaked as it swung open and creaked no less as it was closed behind him, and he made his way across the fields and through the wood to where the first sign of the water would be heard long before it was spotted. Indeed, the burbling pocket water made plenty of noise as it cascaded over small falls and through swift rocky channels into a few large, slow pools, the dirty spring water washing with it the various nutrients found streamside after a long winter.

A flitting image caught his eye and though his old eyes often failed him, he knew a few of the Olives must be hatching. He watched for more telltale signs, and soon enough a splashy ring appeared on the near edge of the pool. Others followed and the old man selected a favorite pattern that had rarely failed him, a variation on Quigley's emerger, and knotted it to his 6X. After watching a few more rises, he made his first easy casts that settled the fly on the water as soft as could be. An eager take soon disrupted the drift of the fly, and a spirited little brook trout was brought to hand. Only a couple more followed before the pool was spooked and the old man moved downstream to the next. There the story was the same, and more brook trout came eagerly to the imposter. The old man treated each as though they were the last trout he would ever catch, painfully certain to be sure that the hook came out easily and that only minimal discomfort came to his fish. And with the same level of effort, each beautiful little brookie splashed off, making the old man smile as though he'd seen a miracle despite seeing this thousands of times in his years.

The morning wore on and the sun drifted higher into the noon hour and the valley was lit with the colors of spring: gray bark, brown water, dirty white snow patches, the dull green of the mayflies and the vivid orange-red bellies of the trout. The old man was nearing the end of the stream and soon would be facing the main river with its rainbows and browns. "A rainbow would be good for the pan tonight," he said to no one, turning his back to the small stream in front of him that slowly grew in size as the sun warmed the remaining snow in the woods. Soon the water would be too dirty to fish, and far too high to wade safely, so the old man abandoned the bugs and opted for a larger offering.

The six-weight Garrison easily threw his nymph deep into the holes of the main river while he mended carefully to let the fake stonefly drift even deeper, bouncing amongst the rocks. Twice he hooked what he thought to be the largest trout in the river, only to never feel a headshake or a pull - it was real estate, terra firma, the bottom - and consequently broke off his rig twice. But the third time he set up, on the fourth drift through the far side of the hole, his line stopped. Ready for another encounter with something the local realtor would have been more interested in, the old man pulled back. The line came tight. Then it slowly turned downstream like a stick pulled from the bottom, drifting along as dead weight in the water column, only to suddenly accelerate as the old Battenkill screamed under the trout's raw power in the current.

Twice the trout leapt, showing the old man its bright white underbelly before sloshing back in the water with the dull whoosh that only heavy fish make. Twice it ran, once nearly taking all his line out before stopping at the head of a heavy riffle, and twice it was nearly to hand before darting back out into the current. The old man's years of experience had shown him that patience and calmness were an angler's best qualities, which combined with pressure from his six-weight to bring the beast to hand. As it lay gasping for breath, its pink stripe alight in the sun's afternoon rays, the old man noticed a dark trail leading up under the trout's gill. He felt a tinge of sadness as he realized this fish would not live with its gills damaged this badly, not with half of a side ripped by the large stone's hook during the hookset. The old man removed the hook as gingerly as he'd ever done, the mild sorrow making each move more careful out of respect for the old rainbow. With the rod in one hand and the rainbow in another, the old man went back to his truck as he was done fishing this day. He glanced out of habit to see what time it was; his watch said 7:03.

A handful of gray clouds covered the late afternoon sky as the old man arrived home with his catch. The truck clattered and clunked when the engine was shut off and the old man cursed it for not being as young and new as it once was.

The interior of the trailer was cool, but not as cool as the spring air surrounding it as the sun had warmed it in his absence. He replaced the Garrison back in the corner with his vest and hung his waders to dry over the one rickety chair nearest the heater, all the while considering the different recipes for trout he'd come to favor over the years. He finally settled on a recipe handed to him by his daughter-in-law, one he'd enjoyed many times before the accident. While the grease in the heavy cast-iron pan sizzled, he called Lucy over. She sat still while the old man quietly scratched her behind the ears and sat in the other chair in the tiny, dark kitchen. Something caught her hair and was pulling against his sweater - a few hairs had caught in the metal clasp of the watch. He sat for a moment, reached for the watch and undid the clasp, and set it on the table near the pepper shaker.

He scratched Lucy a few more times before looking up over the sizzle of the frying pan to check the time.

It said 7:03. ~ Nathan Gubbins


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