Book Excerpt: “It’s Only Fishing”

February 21, 2023 By: Joseph Jackson

I didn’t really awaken the next morning. I’d been tossing and turning and yanking the sleeping bag past my head all night, and I eventually decided to stop fighting it and make the coffee. It was around five. Plenty early to beat the other campers.

I ate granola drowned in milk, then I slid myself into cold, slimy waders. It was still raining when I crawled out and got to my feet, though the sky was glowing to the northeast. I remember liking the look of my shadow as I clambered down to the canyon, where the muffled roar of water escalated until I could no longer hear myself think. I was standing on the boulder from which I’d caught the first big(ish) trout of the day prior. Immediately in front of me was the giant rock around which a mammoth current plowed, and the two fans of whitewater it produced had to be Class III or better. A single Arctic tern divebombed from nowhere and entered the boiling space below the rock, then it emerged with a silvery tassel clamped in its beak.

And suddenly: trout. Everywhere. Their torpedo bodies gliding up, swallowing smolt, plunging back down to the floor of the cauldron. I wondered if they’d been there all along and I just hadn’t seen them, or if they’d just appeared out of thin air as they seemed to. Other fish emerged in faster water, scintillating like copper, so big and so impossible it made my head ache. The sun had risen above the spruce-tops and was making the whole canyon glow. I knew I was amid a spectacle; I was standing there watching it and listening to it, I was caught in an undertow of the corporal and the unbelievable. All I could do was cast.

The smolt hatch turned out to be too good. There were so many fish in the water that my fly was lost in the crowd, and though my casts eventually reached the right places, they rarely reached them at the right times. Trout would come and go on their own fleeting schedules, and it seemed like every time I flicked a new cast, they’d flash once and be gone. The whole thing lasted twenty minutes, and I didn’t even hook one. Maybe that was for the better.

Enlightened by what I’d seen, imagining trout in a million new places, I worked upstream. I crimped a bead of split-shot just above the knot to my fly, which made the whole arrangement cast about as well as a dumbbell but was enough to sink it in the torrential flows. By then the rafters were waking up, percolating down through the bushes and fishing with spinning rods from boulders strung along the canyon’s edge. To my right I perceived the breach of a fish. My move upstream was automatic, the first few casts struck true, and I watched the trout chase one, ignore the other. I got above its holding lie, flicked a new cast and threw a mend midair, and in the trembling blink following entry I saw and felt the rush of the fish. Next thing I knew it was hooked, exploding like a steelhead, striking me with the gut-wrenching fear of loss that comes with hooking a big fish in fast water. There’s no way I’m gonna land this fish there’s no way I’m gonna land this fish there’s no way –

It slid out of the water and crashed back down. It bulldogged below a logjam. It seared with the current, yanking first line and then backing, and I stumbled over myself in pursuit, remembering all too well the feeling of a slack line.

It’s a dangerous thing to chase fish. Sure, there are the bodily dangers of drowning and bear-maulings and infectious agents and getting detained under suspicions of espionage, but even those end at a certain point. By contrast, who’s to say that you won’t get too close, that you won’t chase the fish just a little too far, that you won’t climb the ephemeral reaches of thrill and elation only to lose what’s most precious to you and fall flat on your sunburned face? The emotional tugs that come with hooking a fish leave traces. The angst of losing them leaves scars. The whole affair is dangerous as hell because, who’s to say you won’t hook yourself?

Somehow, I brought the trout to the net. She was thick, full-bodied, strong, as gorgeous a trout as I had ever seen. The northernmost strain of her kind. As I watched her pulsate there in the net, a sprig of ferality corralled just for the moment, I was so happy and dumbfounded that I could’ve burst. Yeah, I know. More than one person has told me, “Geez, it’s only a fish,” which I must cede is true. Maybe that’s precisely why they’re enough for me.

If I didn’t have pictures of her, I wouldn’t believe it happened at all. I let her gather the oxygen back into her body and get her bearings, then only when she resisted my fingers did I let her go.

Excerpted with permission from “It’s Only Fishing” by Joseph Jackson.