THE CURRENT IS PUSHY and my brother, Michael, and I have waded deep. Our felt soles skid intermittently along the gravel bottom, but we stay where we are and continue to cast toward the opposite bank. We aren’t always as careful as we should be. We are slightly competitive, too — me more than him even though he’s clearly more skilled. Michael became a fishing guide out of college and now owns a guiding business. Awake or asleep, he dreams of fishing — and eighty percent of the non-winter months, he is fishing. His backhand and forehand, single and double-haul casts are perfectly timed, deliciously smooth and precise. Mine are less consistently so. His freckled hands hold the rod in a relaxed grip and he doesn’t get tired. I do. He tries harder and longer, and casts for, catches, and fights fish more efficiently. I’m his 29-year old little sister, feeling competitive because wouldn’t it irritate the hell out of him if I out-fished him just this once?
It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and the cloud-veiled summer sun casts a dull white light over the treeless, rolling plains of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego off the tip of South America. Across the fat, middle section of the island snakes the Rio Grande, reflecting silvery blue, as it winds west, converges in Argentina, and flows to the frothy Atlantic. It’s cold and rainy with wind gusting up to 60 miles per hour. To serious fishermen, it’s worth the weather — and as the old Spanish saying goes, “No hay mal de que bien no vengan” (‘there is no bad out of which some good does not come’). Swimming upstream every summer are schools of some of the largest sea-run brown trout on the planet.
Ten miles from the ocean, in the midst of the thickest trout traffic, we stand belly deep in the rain-swollen Rio, fishing a stretch as wide as a two-lane highway. Runoff has muddied the otherwise lucid water into a milky tea, rendering us blind to anything below the surface. The east wind whips at our rain-flecked jackets, so they luff like sails. Every so often, our lines snarl and land at our waists in tangled heaps. We cast backhanded to avoid beating our heads with our weighty woolly buggers. (Bruises are forming on my back from two such slaps.) It doesn’t matter. It’s our first day on the river and first days are big effort days. The doors open and we rush out to catch, fight, and feel the largest number of fish, the biggest, or the most beautiful — and then let them slide out of our wet fingers and swim free.
There are realities to our fishing together of which only I am aware: Michael doesn’t know that I compete with him, which is just fine; I am a private and lazy competitor, competing only when I feel like it — usually when I’m focused and casting well, generally after a snack, never in the morning; it is not an angry feeling, but a surreptitious one which makes me press my lips together in a tight smile and feel fierce; it doesn’t last longer than a half hour. There are also hours in a fishing day where I completely surrender to my imagination and couldn’t care less if I caught anything at all. Whether it’s a karmic reward for being noncompetitive and enjoying the moment or just dumb luck, it is often during these spacey, complacent moments when I catch my very biggest fish — a mildly embarrassing reality, but they’re exciting catches all the same.
In the morning, Michael caught four fifteen-pounders fresh from the ocean with writhing plump silver bodies, an exciting affirmation that the trout had arrived but average catches for the Grande. All afternoon there was not a nibble — not for us, not for our older brother, my father, or my mother thigh deep in the same water a river bend away. “Let’s keep fishing,” said Michael during our whisky-nipped coffee break, “I’m dyin’ to see one of these monsters.” I was warm and rejuvenated. “Yes, let’s.”
We’d come with our family in celebration of our father’s 60th birthday, fishing to catch, admire, and feel the weight of some of the biggest browns in the world, and fishing as we always have — to forget tensions, and feel together again. I relish the returns. They remind us of old orders while we build and accept new ones — and we fish. Over the years, we’ve fished for striped bass, brookies, browns, cutthroats, catfish, rainbows, redfish, tarpon, tuna, steelhead, snook, and four kinds of salmon. We blow paychecks, meet up for a weekend or a week, sleep in tents or lodges and every morning separate into pairs, and hit the river until we’re too tired or sore to cast any more. Yesterday, we’d flown the farthest we’d ever, soaring 1800 miles south of Buenos Aires, over the Strait of Magellan, landing outside the patchwork town of Rio Grande, our plane tires skidding and smoking to a stop before rolling off the crumbled end of the runway.
This evening, my casts are a force to be reckoned with. My spey rod generates and transfers tremendous force into my line, which slices straight through wind gusts 60 feet to the opposite bank. That’s where the Browns are, laying low along the bottom — though I can’t be certain. I can’t even see my knees. My line lands with a soft slap and I flip mending loops upstream. They sink and drift, trailing my wooly bugger deep into river pockets, passing fanning fins and tempting fish lips with the leach du jour. The line straightens. With jigging pulls, I strip in, gathering coils in my cold, wet fingers, glancing every so often at my brother down stream.
At nine o’clock the sun begins its dip, casting champagne light across the river. The clouds flush pink. The wind subsides, as does the river chop. I’m dazed and singing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” because the only song lyrics I remember in full are those overplayed by my mother in carpool twenty years ago. I lean against the river rushing at my waist, watch the line straighten, and strip in, singing, “We’re all in the mood for a melody…” and hum the next line as I put neat coils in my mouth, pull my spey up and over my right shoulder and then loop left. My line lifts, rolls behind me, I pause, waiting for backward tension, and hammer forward, opening my chapped lips in time for the line to shoot through the steel rod eyes into the air toward the bank. It lands. I flip a generous mend up stream. Deep breath and, “Well it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete…” I jig strip and feel a tug. My heart jumps… and drops into thudding gallop as I set the hook hard into a stubborn, not-gonna-budge brown. I strip in line and then tug tug, the tip of my bowed rod nods, “Yes, a fish! A big fish!”
Rod tip high and reeling in excess line, I wade out, thrusting my legs through the river current. The fish runs and my reel screams down to my green backing and before long I’m running and slipping and splashing downstream. The fish holds in front of Michael. I slow and stop, breathing the cold air hard. Michael wades out and grabs the net to help as he always has. “Seen it yet?” he asks. “Nope.” We watch where the taught line disappears into the river, staring for a flash, a fin, any sign of its size.
Thrash. It surfaces, launching its huge flipping silvery brown body into the air. “Huhoh shit,” Michael breathes.
If I were a trout, I’d want to be a brown from the Rio Grande. As a fingerling I’d linger in the Rio for a couple of years and then I’d swim to the ocean and gorge in the nutrient-rich waters off Tierra del Fuego. Thanks to commercial fishing restrictions, I’d have a good chance of avoiding gill nets. A year or three later in the fall (November through March), I’d sniff my way back to my Rio, find a lover in the headwaters and spawn like salmon (without dying afterwards). If I were ever hooked in the river, I’d be pulled in by a fly-fisherman (there is a strict fly-fishing only policy); after admiring my robust body, he or she would let me go (it’s a catch-and-release river). Over the years, my friends and I would return to our Rio in ever-increasing ages, sizes, and numbers (a 1999/2000 scale study revealed that a ten-pound Fuegian brown was eight years old and was returning to spawn for the third time, and a 20-pounder was ten years old and returning to spawn for the fourth time.) The only predator we’d worry about would be the occasional six-foot-long sea lion that follows schools some seven miles up river.
I will pee in my waders if I spot a sea lion shows up for my fish, which muscles upstream, runs down, tail-walks, and holds again. Michael stalks in shin-deep downstream, holding the net inches above the water. I pull the fish closer. Michael stands ready… the fish drifts toward the net… and… Michael plunges it under the fish and up. Unhooking the fly from its jaws, we marvel and measure. A 37-inch, 24 pound, hooked-jaw male, fat as a football with brown pink and yellow-speckled skin. Michael hoots and runs for the camera. In a strange way, I wish he’d caught it. Such a momentous fish should have bitten his fly, not mine — he’s the one who’s made fishing his life. But any guilt washes away and is replaced by gratitude as the fish fins free from my numb wet fingers. I stand up, woozy from luck and adrenaline. Michael whistles. “Nice Lize,” he says, his face still bright from the biggest brown we’d ever seen. “Luck was on my side,” I say. “Nah,” he says, “luck is always in the mix, but so is skill.” Grinning, he shakes my hand. On the way back to our truck he says, “I think we won today. We definitely got the biggest and I think we got the most.”
“Yeah we did,” I say smiling at him. I liked that he said “we,” and I liked that the sun had gone down; that it was almost eleven at night and we were just returning from fishing, that warmth would soon needle its way back into our toes, that we’d eat dinner like hungry wolves, and in between bites, tell the delicious details of our day.
Later that night, I overhear Michael tell our older brother about my fish. “It was typical Eliza,” he says. “Looked like she’d gotten a little tired, wasn’t really trying that hard, but still casting well and BOOM! — a freakin’ huge one. It was gorgeous.” They share smiles and shake their heads — the last time we all fished together I caught the largest fish. But this trip, I held our family’s big brown record until the last day when my mother, having been skunked for two days in a row, hauled in a twenty-five pounder, shrieking as it flipped in her arms.
Michael caught the most.