BEST OF THE TRAVER AWARD: Anglers' Ball

BEST OF THE TRAVER AWARD: Anglers' Ball

The 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award 2nd Place Story

  • By: Maximilian Werner
browntrout

For Metcalf

When my children were in the first water of the womb, my wife Kim and I would periodically eavesdrop on them with the ultrasound. I remember the tiny sprigs that would become hands and feet, the cartoonish skulls, the sea-horse-shaped bodies. And in the midst of it all was a crisp dash of blinking light, the electrical beating of their fierce and infinitesimal hearts. This flash of light pulses deep within living things, and so even when death finally alights it must insinuate itself, like a thief picking its way into the locked rooms of the body, until finally it reaches the last place, which, though diminutive, contains just enough light to write a letter by, enough to lead us out of the now darkened house and along the moonless lakeshore. My own death is calling to me, but the sounds of the river fill my ears so that I cannot hear it.

Last summer I invited death to go fishing on the Weber River. On the way there we listened to Morning Edition on NPR. The stories were sadly familiar: A suicide bomber killed himself and 40 other men, women and children in a market in Baghdad; two American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb that had been stuffed into the chest of a dead dog; the body of a missing college girl was found inside her car in a river near her home town.

“That’s a fine trout river,” death says.“World class.” Then he takes a bite of muffin and chases it with a gulp of coffee. On this particular morning, northbound on Interstate 15, death is visiting my friend Jeff Metcalf, feeling him out, trying to read his light level: Too much light, death will hit the road; too little is an invitation to lay out the bedroll. I turn off the radio.

“Had your fill?” Metcalf asks. I could see barn swallows feeding above the apple orchards.

“My fill?”

Jeff nods and offers me a Thermos top of coffee.“Yeah,” he says, his thick beard hiding his mouth. I shoot the coffee and then hand back the top.

“Will things change if I say I have?”

When we get to the river, I turn onto a tractor road and park above the water.“Damn,” I say.“Flows are way down.”

Metcalf leans over and looks out the window.“It does look low. Maybe 60 cfs?”

I open the door, step out and stretch.“Something like that. Lower than I’ve ever seen it.” Although I’m soon busy rigging up, I’m still mindful of Metcalf. I note the six-foot, three-weight Winston; the oversized duffel bags whose contents to this day remain a mystery; and at the end of it all, a squiggly, three-foot spike of line that resembles a pig’s tail tied with a single fly.

“What do you have in there?” I ask as Metcalf rummages through the back of his vest.

“What I have in there, Maxee boy, is lunch. Take this,” he says, tossing me what must be just under a pound of sandwich expertly wrapped in tin foil.

“I can tell this ain’t P, B and J.”

Metcalf looks at me hard, as if I have committed a sacrilege. Then I smile and that does the trick.“Ohhhhoooo, no, no, no, no, my brother,” he says, holding aloft his sandwich.“This is pesto, and Parma prosciutto, melted Parmesan and sautéed peppers on toasted panini with a drizzle of 100-year-old balsamic vinegar.” He says all this as if it were an Italian melody, as if he tasted the words, their alternately sweet and salty music. I drop the sandwich into the back of my vest. I say Thank you but I’m thinking How can this be, Metcalf? How can you be so goddamn beautiful and alive and still be dying before my very eyes?
We walk above the river, careful to avoid a remnant braid of barbed wire that weaves in and out of the tall yellow grass. I need some contrast so I look down through the vegetation and glimpse the sun on the Weber. In the low light of morning, the water appears milky and slightly golden. For a moment I am awash in happiness. I debate whether to say anything to Metcalf. Somehow it seems callous to remind him of how beautiful the world is now that he is preparing to leave it. I decide to merely point to the river and say“Look.”

When Metcalf doesn’t respond, I figure he has stopped to admire the golden water.“I knew you’d like…” I say, turning back. But Metcalf is not there. I scan the river and see him through the trees, fishing the milky strand of water. He looks up at me and I wave:“You’re way ahead of me, man.” He smiles and puts his left hand to his ear. I shake my head and wave nothing. Metcalf nods and gets back to work. Watching him down there with that six-foot rod, working maybe 10 feet of water, his body leaning toward the river with each cast, head slightly tilted, as if he were both looking and listening: I realized how intimate fly-fishing can be, how immediate and near. And how often times the farther I cast, the farther away I get from myself and from the intensity of the moment.

That’s the trouble with moments: there are only so many of them. I also sometimes find that those moments already lived are still alive, or would like to be. And that is why we experience the passage of time. Snow can fall on a mountain stream and evoke a feeling whose age cannot be known. This is one difference between memory and nostalgia. Nostalgia is generally painful because it is often without a precise referent. It is like autumnal air and autumnal light. Wind blowing dry red leaves into the streets. Which is why I feel grateful when I reach that place where the Weber narrows and slows along its southern bank. There I remember the exhilaration of catching a big rising brown some 15 summers ago. Perhaps death is light receding, and the past is a faint glow that travels however far and lights the present moment. This is what I find each time I come to the Weber, or to any river with which I share a history.

As Metcalf works his line, I walk a few yards along the path and gaze up river. The trees on either side are thick with morning mist and birdsong. I must have walked this path 100 times, alone and with friends, many of whom are now gone. Not dead gone, but gone just the same. When I get to be as old as Metcalf, gone will assume new meanings, and most will be final. I ought to thank the river. I ought to thank Metcalf and my other older friends for showing me how life changes as it starts to wind down. I can’t see much of the future when I look at the friends my age. But with Metcalf, I see myself in 20 years. And so I prepare and I plan. It is a strange day. The sky is starting to cloud up and I can’t shake the idea that whatever animates Metcalf is slowly leaving him. A few caddisflies appear above the water. One alights on my thumb, crawls to my wrist and then flies away. One summer evening I witnessed a full-fledged hatch, the likes of which I have not seen since. My friends Tae and Nole and I had fished until near dark and were walking off the river when it began. Thousands of caddisflies filled the river corridor and rose some 20 feet into the air before they began to dissipate. They sheltered in my cuffs and crawled between the seam of my shirtfront. I had a caddis in each nostril.

“Better close your mouths,” Tae said, laughing. Or open them, I thought, fantasizing that these were all the words I had ever spoken coming back to me. I remember looking down at the river and seeing the rolling silver and slashing fins of frenzied fish as they gorged themselves. It didn’t even occur to me to fish. Instead I stood there, entranced by the primordial spectacle of killing and eating.

Metcalf had since reeled in.“How did it go down there,” I ask him, extending a hand to help him step out of the river. He waves me off, kicks his toe into the bank, grabs a handful of grass and hoists himself up. We make our way up river to a long run that has produced some big browns over the years. When we get there I’m tempted to tell him how I fish the hole, but I catch myself because I know he sees everything I do and more.

Maximilian Werner is a writer who lives in Salt Lake City.

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He frees his fly and starts working his line out into the water. I happily give him the entire run, both because he is my guest, and because I just happen to have the address of a large and wily trout just around the bend. A light rain starts to fall as I cross the river and make my way to the deep house, as I call it. Traversing the Weber can be tricky in high water, but with the low flows I make short work of it and I am soon standing on the bottom of the deep run.
I cross to the other side and sit on the bank with my feet in the water. I know I miss too much when I’m fishing, so while the run is resting I take a few moments to notice my surroundings. Today’s anglers can afford to have river vision, but I seriously doubt our early counterparts could give all their attention to a roughly one-inch dry fly riding atop the water. Rivers are resource-rich, and as such they would have attracted all manner of animals, many of which could kill an angler. Nowadays these threats have been largely eradicated from most of North America. Anglers can keep their backs to the woods for hours at a time without once turning around or looking over their shoulders. This is not to say that we don’t still feel the need from time to time.
I can’t see Metcalf, but I can hear him crossing downriver. I move my foot a little and the water striders—also known as Jesus bugs because they walk on water—scatter on either side of me. The run has been resting now for about five minutes. Waiting five minutes to angle for a huge trout is among the hardest things I have ever done; third only to quitting smoking and walking off the Fremont River in southern Utah, one of the prettiest and most challenging rivers I’ve ever fished. But I do the unthinkable and I wait another 60 seconds just for good measure. Then I stand and free my nymphs. Rather than alternately stripping and paying out line, I bank about 15 feet in preparation for a roll cast. I can feel the line as it slips cool and wet through my fingers. I roll my bugs into the headwater and watch for drag. I’m only 12 feet away from the hole, and with only a slight difference between the speed of the run and the water around it, I don’t have to do much. The river funnels into a trough against the bank, so all I do is roll my flies to the top of the run and let the river do its thing.
Within the last hour the water has cleared to a dark tea color. Earl Grey with a drop of cream. I still can’t see the river bottom, however, which is fine because it probably means that the trout down there can’t see me, either. I can think of a couple of things I watch as closely as my strike indicator, and they have absolutely nothing to do with fly-fishing. The moment the line dips out of sight, I’ve already set the hook and I know instantly that the resident brown, the fella I came to see, has answered the dinner bell. I’m using Kim’s rod, a locally made, 6-weight, two-piece Snow. I used to have one exactly like it, but it inexplicably shattered when I was trying to free a snagged fly. I loved that rod. Now I’m loving Kim’s as it does a fine job of balancing the trout’s power and my experience of it, which seems to me now a kind of vampirism. But today I do not want the trout’s blood. Instead I feed on his energy, his life force, his pulsing dash of light.
Weber River browns are surprisingly robust for animals that must endure the noise pollution of regularly passing trains, as well as the chemical pollution from the cattle ranches that line the river. When I finally bring him to hand, I find the lord of the pool is no exception. I lay him down my forearm to establish his length. Just over 18 inches and as round as a coffee mug. We look at each other for a moment, perhaps remembering, and then I return him to the river. He starts off slowly, then bolts right back to where I found him, and where—if he doesn’t get wise, caught or ousted—I will find him again. I notice my heart beginning to slow. Now that the rush of the fight is wearing off, I feel a little depleted, as the trout surely must.
For the moment, we are both emptied. But with no blood spilled, the circle is left open and we live into its improbable space. I have no problem taking a trout from time to time. If I get a hankering for trout flesh, I could find the most beautiful trout on the end of my line and I would still kill it, lickety-split. No second thoughts. I’m not saying killing a trout is easy, however. The last trout I killed, I took from this very spot. Before then, I hadn’t killed a trout in years, so I was unprepared for the sweet and sickening heat that washes over me whenever I hold that animal in my hands and take its life. Killing is not remembering, not quite forgetting, either. I know I have a killing self that is contained by whatever else I am. My body is its camouflage. But some things cannot be hidden. Once the decision has been made, the killing self does not judge or moralize: Impersonal, it steps forward and does what must be done. The dirty work.
One would not think that self-awareness could emerge in the throes of such abandon, but I remember moments when I would look up from my work and scan my surroundings. I am not sure why. I was within my rights to take as many as three trout if I had so chosen. Perhaps, because I was no longer concealed, I was afraid of what someone watching me would see: The ancient and artless me. Me hunched over this animal, grunting and cursing as I broke its head on a rock three or four times, once for each wave of nerves. Once was enough, of course, but I panicked. When the trout finally stilled, I laid him in a small pool someone had built with a ring of rocks. Then I tried to calm down. My hands felt plump with blood and were glistening with trout sheen and river water. I stood there beneath the rain-black clouds, a mindless and sweat-soaked killer.
A swirl of yellow line uncurls across the water and returns me to the here and now. I walk a few feet down the bank and call to Metcalf:“How are you doing?” The question hadn’t left my mouth and I was cursing myself for not asking a better one.
When Metcalf’s line reaches the bottom of the run, he rolls it to the top with the flick of his wrist, mends it and calls back:“I’m coming up.” I nod and take a seat on the bank. Serves you right, I say to myself. Next time you see a burning house, why not just ask the man standing in the middle of it how he’s doing? I shake my head and spit in the water.
A couple feet away from me, the Jesus bugs have congregated around a moth that has fallen into the water. They seem to avoid the wings and instead focus on the supple abdomen. Above me a pair of warbling vireos hunt the leaves for insects. And cancer cells raft the bloodstreams of the body. Eventually they haul out and grow like black grass along the banks. The rain stops and in the ensuing quiet I imagine rising into the stratosphere, where I settle in for a good, long listen to Earth. I close my eyes and I hear what I suspect is the far-off sound of burning. But deep down I know that what I am really hearing is the sound of chewing.
I cannot bear deception. It’s hard, though, because I want to say something helpful to Metcalf. I want to reassure him in some absolute way. But I can’t make any promises, so instead I pat him on the back. I note the thickness of his skin and muscle. Despite the chemo, there’s still a lot to him. He doesn’t look like someone with cancer.
The rain is falling again but I can still feel the sun on my face. I look at Metcalf and the sun is on his face, too.“It’s good to be here with you,” I tell him.
He drinks some water.“You too, man. This is a beautiful place.” He tips his bottle of water in a kind of toast:“Trout live in beautiful places.”
I raise my water:“Cheers. What happened down there?”
Metcalf looks downriver and then back at me.“What didn’t happen down there?” he laughs. I laugh, too, because Metcalf has a silly grin on his face. Despite our 20-year age difference, had we grown up together as children, I am certain we would have palled around.
“Touch any fish?” he asks, taking out a sandwich.
“I just put back an 18-incher I coaxed out of there,” I say, nodding toward the trough. Metcalf is about to respond when a train approaches from up the canyon. The tracks are just across the river, maybe 50 feet away. I could just barely make out the dark outline of the engineer as the train speeds past.
The train gone, Metcalf looks at the trough and smiles.“The trout are right where they should be.” When it comes to fly-fishing, Metcalf is not the kind of guy I like to contradict, but claims of what“should be” make me uncomfortable.
“Maybe so,” I muse.“But sometimes they are where they should not be.” I don’t believe a word I just said, of course. Trout are where they are. Whether they should or should not be there is sort of beside the point.
Metcalf doesn’t miss a beat:“You’re a real smart ass, you know that?”
I’m a little embarrassed, but I muster,“I guess that’s better than the alternative.”
Metcalf smiles and shakes his head.“Point taken.” Then he takes a bite of his sandwich and closes his eyes. I know this is a private moment, but I don’t turn away. Instead I note the calmness of Metcalf’s face, the neatly trimmed beard, and nostrils expanding and relaxing. And outside both our lives, the river and the day go by. He chews slowly, lovingly, his jaws working as he enjoys the richness of the flavors; perhaps remembering the slow burn of the moment—savoring its sweetness, bitterness and whatever else it is—while it lasts.