Each spring the three men assembled to discuss the coming fishing season. Each fall the same assembly gathered, and then the talk would eventually turn to elk hunting. Now it was spring and the men’s talk centered on the lower Middle Fork and one perfect place for a large trout to hold. The cut bank was deep and shady, and food blown in by the wind or filtered downriver always roiled past the dark water.
Dan listened from his bedroom to the men in the kitchen.
Since nobody had ever caught him, nobody knew his age, but to Dan it sounded like the Kaiser had been skulking in his hole since the Civil War. Dan thought about the Civil War and wondered how long fish lived and decided to ask Dad in the morning during chores. Dan's great, great grandfather, Conrad Fredrick, wounded at Shiloh and discharged, walked all the way home as he had walked all the way to war. It took three years. Dan thought about how far Shiloh was and decided to add that to the list of questions to ask during chores. The first thing Grandpa Conrad did when he got home was to go fishing; the monster trout he lost under that cut bank was now legend.
Dan’s Dad had promised at Christmas that this was the year for Dan to learn how to fly fish for trout, no more suckers or whitefish with a worm for Dan. When Dan was alone at their place, he would sneak out to the old bunkhouse where the fishing tackle was stored. There he would gently take down Dad’s beloved bamboo fly rod, making a mental note so he could replace the precious rod exactly. Dan then would go out to the lawn and practice casting, without fly or leader, on the grass. He had watched his Dad cast many times and tried to mimic the form. Dan kept his practice casts to twenty feet or less, wiping the line when he finished and removing any evidence. Dan didn’t know what Dad would do if he was caught practicing with the fly rod, but the punishment would certainly involve more chores.
Two weeks ago, in the spring before irrigating began and the willows on the inside of the bend were just budding, Dan hooked the giant trout while he was supposed to be out fixing fence. It was a nice afternoon and Dan thought to take a short break from his chores. The first graceful cast blopped a large homemade bumblebee above the cut bank then the big dry fly rode and bumped the waves down to the dark water.
The giant old trout had taken the fly in one slurp.
Wearing work boots and not waders, stranded, young Dan battled the wily squaretail from a small patch of dry spring grass on the bank of the Middle Fork. Somehow, for one reason or another, the Kaiser didn’t leave the pool or run up stream. The giant trout dashed back and forth across the big pool. In time, the fish tired and Dan eased him toward the bank, allowing the boy to get a good look at the Kaiser. The ancient orange-spotted trout was bigger than his leg. Sensing victory, Dan stepped out into the river and dropped to one knee. The river quickly soaked his pants and work boots. He brought the Kaiser to him under tension and reached his left hand down to try to slip it past the hooked jaw and into the gill. With one last desperate lunge, the monster darted directly at the fisherman. Balance was lost, and slack went into the line. The fish rolled then the hook pulled, and the fisherman sat back into the river. Trout and fisherman momentarily locked into each other’s eyes and the fight was over.
The Kaiser had then drifted down the current until slowly fading out of sight like a wonderful dream fades shortly after waking. Dan remembered how excited he had been when he opened the kitchen door to stand full-framed in the doorway, dripping and shaking. Mom got him a towel and dry clothes. When Dan had calmed down and got his story out, Mom proceeded to give it to him for not taking care of his chores and tracking water and river silt onto her linoleum floor. Mom never seemed to comprehend the manly pleasures of trout fishing and elk hunting.
Joy gone, young Dan had apologized to Mom and gone back out to his fence mending, knowing there would be just as much fence mending to do in the kitchen later that evening. Chores were a way of life around their place, Mom had her chores, Dad had his and Dan’s older brother had his.
Now the men below grew silent. Their discussion of trout, ranching, weather and trout was over. Dan’s punishment for taking Dad’s beloved bamboo fly rod and skipping chores had been more chores and two weeks confinement to his room. Time was up and tomorrow young Dan was free. Outside, an owl hooted. The air coming in still smelled like spring.