Caught my first trout. June 2012
I just finished writing a short story I’ve been working since early April. I’m submitting the piece to two literary journals’ short fiction contests. The word limit is 3000 and mine clocks in at 2892. What I’ve learned from this process: my brain is SLOW. It’s as if English isn’t my first language. It took me this entire month, working some weekends, some evenings, and this past week waking up at 5 am, to write and edit and ultimately settle on 3000 words that I believe in. Holy moly. Is that normal?
Anyways, the story is based on true events (although not every single part is true). My dad and I had a wonderful adventure at our cabin in Pennsylvania circa June 2012. He took me up there so I could (hopefully) catch my first trout. Spoiler alert: I did, but not without suspense. It’s become one of my favorite memories of us together, and although I want to move away from autobiographical stuff, this was a story I needed to put to paper.
Blogs aren’t the best forum for posting fiction – I skim pages with the best of them. But for those interested in reading a story about family bonds and the great outdoors, just keep scrolling (and scrolling).
The Smallest Trout
The .22 caliber rifle made a clack sound when Margaret pulled the trigger. She flicked the gun’s safe button on and gave the gun to her dad to reload. Jack had never let Margaret hold the bullets, something about lead and infertility in women. Barrel up, he handed the gun back to her. She pushed her cheek against the top of the stock, squeezing her left eye shut so her right eye could align the little divot in the middle of the gun with the tiny bead at the tip of the barrel. On her third exhale, she pulled the trigger. The bullet clipped the right edge of the bulls-eye, cut through the tree stump, and chipped a piece of bark off a tree, causing an echo in the back of the ravine.
“Alright, Babe!” Jack shouted. He loped down the hill to the stump where the target was fastened. His skinny legs looked like tree branches, bent and knobby at the knees. He unfastened the target from the tree and held it up to the sunlight. Light pierced through the bullet holes and cast white speckles onto his face. Jack grinned and jogged back up the hill to where Margaret was sitting.
“Not too bad, girl,” he said. He placed the gutted target in a plastic bag to take home.
“That gun,” Margaret said. “It’s so light and it barely kicks.”
Jack packed up the box of bullets and wiped the gun with a rag. “Yep,” Jack said. “I’ll be leaving this gun to you. It belonged to my dad first, and then he gave it to me. It belongs to you.”
Margaret smiled. Her dad had mentioned leaving the gun to her before, and it still came up occasionally when they were shooting together. She didn’t know what to say in return that could be any more meaningful, so she sat quietly, waiting for him to finish packing up.
“Ready to eat, Champ?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m starving. What’s for lunch?”
“Well, I thought we could use up the lunchmeat and make sandwiches. And there’s still some Pepsi in the cooler. I’d like to keep it simple if we’re gonna make it back out to the stream this afternoon. Put that stuff in the car for me, will you?” Jack asked, pointing to the gun and bullets.
Margaret picked up the shooting supplies and climbed the staircase to the car. Hard pine boards painted white had replaced the individual pieces of wet, puckered, rotting wood that used to be wedged into the side of the hill. Jack and Leroy, their next-door neighbor in West Virginia, repaired the stairs last summer. Margaret remembered arriving at the cabin in the early years, always at night and usually during a rainstorm. She would hardly be awake as she carefully chose which parts of the stairs to step on and which to avoid. Navigating the rotting staircase in the wet dark was the official introduction to a weekend in the untamed wilderness through the eyes of a little girl.
The cabin itself looked like a poor man’s White House with its four white metal poles holding up the roof over the porch. The sides were made of tan cement blocks, and the black shingles on its roof formed molten waves in the broiling mid-June sunshine. This cabin and the cabins next door were all originally built as hunting shacks. Jack and his buddies went in on the purchase together in the 1970’s. The walls inside the cabin were covered in old pictures of men holding up long chain links of fish hanging from their mouths and dead deer draped across their legs like lap dogs. Jack didn’t hunt deer, so while his pals were out, he stayed back at the cabin preparing the meals and drinking the bourbon.
Margaret walked down the steps to the cabin. She scooted quickly into the room so the metal storm door wouldn’t snap shut on her ankle. It was hot outside but the air inside the cabin was cool. Jack set out their salami and cheese sandwiches on the table and a can of Pepsi next to each plate.
“So, Babe, you ready to catch some trout?” Jack asked as he sat down to his sandwich.
“Heck yeah,” Margaret answered while chewing.
“If you catch one, I’m having it stuffed and mounted back home. I already talked to Tom.”
“Seriously?” Margaret asked. “Will I get to keep it?”
“How many did Jerry catch when he was here?” Jerry was Margaret’s older brother.
“I don’t know,” Jack answered. “Four, maybe five.”
“I can beat that,” Margaret replied with a smirk.
Jack and Margaret had been coming to the Pennsylvania cabin for two decades, but always in the fall, and never to fish from the Lenox Run stream. Jack came each April for opening day of trout season but brought his son, Jerry, instead of Margaret. Jack said the stream that weekend was not the place for a girl. This mid-summer trip was a special effort on Jack’s part to get Margaret out on the stream while the fish were still biting, but the men were not.
After lunch, Jack set the dishes in the sink and grabbed two shot glasses and a small bottle of bourbon from the cupboard.
“One for luck,” he said, pouring the liquid into the glasses.
Margaret put the glass to her lips and felt the dusty burn of old bourbon spread down her throat. She thought bourbon and the outdoors belonged together, like mignonette and oysters. After another round, Margaret and Jack zipped up their fishing vests, and Jack put the bourbon inside one of his pockets.
It was a three-mile drive up the mountain to the fishing hole. They parked the car along the shoulder of the road and carried the fishing poles and tackle box through the woods. Tree branches snapped under their feet, and Margaret watched her dad lose and regain his balance as they made their way to the stream’s edge.
“Alright, kid, lets get you set up,” Jack said as he crouched down to dig through the tackle box. He pinched the fishing line of the pole between his fingers and worked it delicately through two treble hooks.
“Uh oh, it’s double-decker time,” Margaret said. She called fishing lines with two hooks double-deckers. Jack let out a short laugh and set the pole down next to Margaret.
“Bait ‘er up,” he said.
Margaret dug her hand into the Styrofoam container filled with wide-eyed, motionless minnows. She picked up a skinny one and pushed a barb from the top hook through the minnow’s stomach, then looped the minnow back over the barb a second time. She reached back into the container, this time for a fat one, and looped its stomach through the barbs of the bottom hook.
“I’m gonna show you how to do this now,” Jack said, taking the pole from Margaret.
“So, you bring the pole back, make sure there’s nothing behind you, and just flick your wrist out over the water, but not too hard.” The line went airborne and dropped into a deep part of the stream. He reeled it back in and handed the pole to Margaret.
“You give it a shot,” Jack said. Margaret wiped the minnows’ black guts from her hands. She pulled the pole back slowly, imitating her dad’s motion. She let go of the reel’s button just as the line swung over the top of her head. It sailed free and landed just upstream from his.
“Okay, Babe, looks like you got it. I’m gonna get set up on the other side.”
Margaret tried to find a comfortable position. Her waders were too wide around her legs to sit Indian-style, and they drooped at her knees because she couldn’t hook them to her gym shorts without the waders pulling the shorts down. The size of the boots was a man’s eleven, and her feet were a woman’s eight. She still felt as authentic as any sportsman on a fishing show and decided to stand in the stream like she’d seen on TV.
The sun inched its way down the west side of the rolling hills, igniting a prism of color. Sideways light through the trees lit up the leaves in a yellow-green glow, and the water reflected the light in stars. This place Margaret had been coming to for more than twenty years was rendered new in a different season. She could recognize the fog of cold October mornings and the smell of decaying leaves, but until now she had never seen the stream so deep or the trees fluffed like peacocks.
Margaret hadn’t gotten any bites after an hour of standing. She scanned the water and noticed a fallen log and a small group of trout underneath, completely stationary and facing upstream. It took her only a second to realize what they were doing. The trouts’ mouths were stretched open in the laziest yet most efficient display of hunting Margaret had ever seen. They were never going to pursue her bait, but rather just use their mouths as nets for morsels that flowed downstream. Margaret watched the fish tread water and wondered how an organism with a notoriously small brain relative to its body size could be so calculating. When she moved her feet in the water, the trout swam away in all different directions, but then pulled back into their formation under the log as if magnetized.
“Dad, why aren’t they biting?” Margaret asked loudly so he could hear her.
“Looks like they’re just staying put and catching what comes down,” Jack answered.
“What if I don’t catch one?”
“Then you don’t catch one.”
After several minutes had passed, Margaret felt a questionable tug on her pole. She stared at where her line met the water. The pole dipped in her hands again, and this time she jerked it hard into the air. She didn’t feel much resistance but thought the trout could be small. When the line emerged from the water, both hooks had been stripped clean of their bait.
“Damn,” she said under her breath.
Out of the corner of her eye, Margaret saw Jack pull up hard on his pole, ensuring he hooked the lip of whatever licked his bait. As he reeled in the line, a shiny brown trout broke through the surface of the water and flung its body tail-first back and forth on the hook.
“Alright, Dad!” Margaret yelled from the other side of the stream. Jack swung the trout towards him and caught it in his grasp. He wrapped his thumb and index finger in a tight circle around the trout’s gills, removed the hook from the its mouth, and put it with the others he had caught during the trip in the little red cooler next to his feet.
“Well at least one of us caught something this afternoon,” Margaret shouted to Jack. “How did you do it?”
“I don’t know, Babe. I just stayed really still and watched my line.”
Late afternoon turned to dusk in the moment the hills blocked the last rays of the sinking sun. Only the trees at the top of the hills were still glowing; those at lower elevations were cast in shadow.
Jack and Margaret packed up their gear and headed to the local bar for dinner. They talked about fishing the next day, their last day, and Jack brought up again the plan to have Margaret’s first trout stuffed and mounted. After dinner they returned to the cabin, washed up, and got into their bunks. As she listened to her Dad’s tranquil snores, Margaret prayed that God would help her catch a trout the next day.
Margaret was first to wake up the next morning. It used to be Jack who puttered around the kitchen before sunrise, but now he slept a little later. She turned on the coffee pot and scanned the interior of the cabin. It still looked and smelled like a time capsule of the 1970’s, except for the fat pink birthday candle wedged into the mouth of a stuffed bass to commemorate Margaret’s eighteenth birthday at the cabin seven Octobers ago.
She heard her dad roll out of bed and dress himself. He emerged from the back bunkroom with webs of sleep still in his eyes.
“Hey-ya, Babe,” he said.
Jack groped the kitchen cupboard for a coffee mug and poured himself a cup. He took a few gulps and sat down on a stool.
“It’s supposed to rain later this afternoon,” he said. “I figured we can pack up camp and hit the stream once more on our way out of town.”
Jack and Margaret cleaned the camp for good and drove back up the mountain to the bend of the stream they had fished from the previous evening. As she pulled on her waders and snapped up her fishing vest, Margaret thought about how she would change her tactic. Fish are sensitive to sound and movement, and these trout in particular were highly suspicious of foreign objects in their vicinity. She was going to treat them the same as if she were hunting big game: practicing silence, stillness, and speed. Margaret took her thumb and dragged it through the mud. She wiped a stripe of dirt under one eye and smeared a matching streak under the other. Jack saw what she was doing and joked, “You’ve lost it.”
Margaret climbed on a ledge overlooking the log lying across the stream. The trout had once again clustered themselves in its shadow. Just to her right was a tree with a large trunk she could hide behind. A big, flat rock sat below the front of the tree under the surface of the water. Margaret baited her hook, and being careful not to catch the line on the leaves of the trees, she cast it into the water. She reeled the line in until the minnows on her hooks rested on top of the rock. Instead of re-casting every few minutes, Margaret sat on her knees, hidden behind the trunk of the tree, her hand hovering over the handle of the pole. Every few seconds she would peek her head to the side of the tree and check the movement of the fish. Her minnows lay motionless.
She watched in surprise as a small trout broke away from the group and started swimming slowly down her side of the stream, grazing comfortably like a cow. The fish approached the rock with her bait. It swam up to the minnow on her bottom hook, leaving just a few inches in between. Margaret lowered her hand over the handle of the pole and formed a grip, one finger at a time. Within a second the fish took a sharp turn to its left, then swung back to its right, and bit down hard on the hook, causing the rod to quiver in Margaret’s hand. In a reflex she pulled the pole straight up into the air.
“Dad! Dad!” Margaret yelled. Jack came flying through the woods doing high-knee kicks to keep his waders from unsnapping.
“I think I got one!” Margaret yelled. The pole formed a promising arc as she frantically spun the handle of her reel. When the end of the line broke through the surface of the water, the body of a fighting trout was attached. Margaret prayed the delicate skin of the trout’s lower jaw would hold under the opposing force of gravity as she reeled it high into the air. In a last breath, Margaret swung the fish over the ledge to where she was standing. She grabbed the line in her hands and held the flapping trout next to her face. Her dad took out the video camera he had kept at his side during their trip and started recording.
“Here’s Margaret, it’s June 20th, 1994, and she’s just caught her first trout.”
Margaret grinned for the camera as she held the fish in the air. The trout was small, approximately ten inches long, with a thin body. It had a brown spine with black spots, and its belly faded to gold.
“How’s it feel?” Jack asked.
“From the way they were acting, I can’t believe I caught one,” Margaret said as she looked back and forth between the camera and fish. “But I put the line down on a rock and hid behind this tree, and the fish swam over on its own and took the bait.”
“Well, alright, Babe! You got your trout!” he said, excited.
Margaret and Jack stopped at the gas station on their way out of town. Margaret walked over to the pay phone to check for messages on her answering machine at work as Jack filled up the tank and went into the store to pay. She was sitting on a parking block thinking about her job the next day when she heard her dad’s voice from inside the store.
“She got one,” he told the store clerk. “I’m gonna have it stuffed and mounted when we get home. She just sat behind a tree and let the bait sit on a rock! Tricked the little devil.”
It would be the smallest trout ever mounted, and that couldn’t have mattered less.