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“Brook Trout Blues”

Bob Romano Fly Fishing Books

illustration by Emily Rose Peeples

A series of snorts, grunts, and whistles emanate from behind a bedroom door that is set along the far wall of the large room where I lay. After drawing the short straw, or in my case, a short hackle feather, I’ve spent the last few hours tossing and turning on a lumpy couch that smells of mothballs. My head aches and my mouth feels like I ate a fistful of cotton candy minus the candy. My eyes are not yet accustomed to the growing light.

The room contains a rag-tag assortment of hand-me-down furniture that includes a La-Z-Boy chair the color of a baby’s blue blankie, an oak rocking chair that squeaks against the cabin’s pinewood floorboards when in use, and two wing chairs—one dark green and the other tan. Mice have chewed holes in the fabric of one of the chairs. I suppose their nests are lined with the stuffing. As my eyes adjust to the light, I stare at the cast iron stove that squats in the corner of the room. Judging from the temperature inside the cabin, the fire Jake started before we turned in has died out.

The couch I’m lying on faces a cherry-red table. Across from the table is a series of kitchen cabinets that are set on either side of a sink. The cabinets are painted the same color as the table. A refrigerator hunkers beside a short hall that leads to a bathroom. According to Jake, the fridge runs off of propane. A small generator out back provides power to pump water up from the lake. Jake’s grandfather owns the cabin. His current address is the Saint Vincent DePaul Nursing Home.

The ride up to camp was uneventful. Jake had stopped outside my apartment sometime around four the previous afternoon. Frank had given me a thumbs-up from where he sat beside Jake. I folded my five-foot-ten-inch frame into the backseat next to Sam, who was busy going through a fly box stuffed with streamers. Six hours later we pulled onto a logging road. Twenty minutes after that, Frank pointed to a two-track that led to the cabin. Jake braked at the metal bar spanning a dirt drive. Outside, a sliver of moon could not dim the universe of stars that spread across the sky.

For the last few years, we’d been driving up to the camp, taking our vacation time to spend a week each spring and another in the fall. Jake had been using his girlfriend’s birthday for the combination to the gate’s lock. On the way to the cabin, Sam had joked that Jake would have to change the combination now that Beth Anne dumped his sorry ass.

I stoop down to right the nearly empty bottle of bourbon that fell beside the couch when we stumbled to bed sometime before dawn. Our fly boxes remain open on the cherry red table flanked by a dozen or so empty longnecks. On one side of the table is an oak box containing supplies to tie flies. Jake assumes the box belonged to his grandfather since we found it on a shelf the first time we stayed at the cabin.

I hobble over to the woodstove, crumble a newspaper, and place it inside. After I add a few pieces of cardboard and then some kindling, embers catch the paper on fire. I add a few pieces of split wood and close the stove’s door.

Grabbing my fleece pullover, I walk outside. The smell of smoke is strong as it sweeps out of the cabin’s chimney. A sea of clouds has rolled in sometime during the early morning hours. It’s the third week of May. White birch and popples frame the lake below the cabin. Their branches have barely leafed out. Wavelets sweep across the lake’s surface. Judging from the chill in the air, the temperature hasn’t broken through the forties. I pull the fleece’s collar up around my neck.

We’d been tracking the weather on a webcam posted by a sporting lodge. Up until the previous week, the lake had been held hostage by a layer of thick ice. Now that the ice has broken up, we know smelt, western Maine’s principal baitfish, will begin their spawning run. Hungry after a winter under the ice, brook trout as large as you’ll find south of Labrador will be following the smelt out of the lake and up the river.

Jake’s Isuzu remains parked beside the cabin. The Trooper’s right headlight hasn’t worked since the accident. The bumper on that side crumbled like tin foil when it slammed into a spruce tree. It happened last September. We’d been driving back to camp after a long day on the water when a moose charged out onto the logging road. The bull stood his ground as the Isuzu rumbled toward him. His rack appeared to be as wide as the road. Jake turned the wheel, preferring to hit the conifer rather than the moose.

The vehicle’s dark blue paint has faded over the years. In some places, it has flecked off, leaving white patches that make it look like it has a bad case of psoriasis. Even so, the old girl gets us where we want to go, whether that be down a muddy two-track, or over a logging road pock-marked with holes that could devour a smaller vehicle, or over one of those wooden bridges meant to hold the weight of a snow machine rather than a rusty old SUV.

There is the faint odor of mouse urine coming from under the vehicle’s hood. I trudge down the steps of the cabin. Popping the hood, I use a stick to brush off a nest that the miscreants built overnight. In past seasons, red squirrels stored nuts in the exhaust pipe. One year, while we were driving out of camp, Frank began singing Nat King Cole’s Christmas classic as the smell of roasted acorns wafted through the air.

On a good day, the inside of the car smells like a high school gym and on a bad day, like Frank’s lucky socks, the ones he won’t change during the week we spend at camp. McDonald’s wrappers and Dunkin’ coffee cups litter the floor. Sam’s streamer patterns hang from the visors. The glove compartment contains a Thompson vice and is stuffed with feathers and fur he uses to tie flies when we’re streamside.

I light a cigarette and blow a plume of smoke toward the shroud of clouds. After a long pee, I swing open the Trooper’s back door. Each of us carries two rods. One is a five-weight used on smaller water, the other a six for the rivers that hold brook trout and landlocked salmon, some of which can measure upwards to twenty-four inches. The salmon will jump clear of the water’s surface. I’ve seen them dance across a pool on their tails. The brook trout are big and mean.

I push aside the rods. I’m looking for the bottle of aspirin we always carry on these bourbon-and-black-coffee-fueled adventures.

The previous evening, we sat around the red table checking our vests to be sure they contained the various tools with which every fly fisher is familiar. Breaking out the beer, we spent the remainder of the evening tying patterns to replace whatever was missing from our fly boxes. It was sometime after midnight when Frank opened the bottle of bourbon. That’s when the stories of women, mostly false, and fish, sometimes true, began.

Frank is into wet flies while Jake prefers nymphs. Sam and I cast streamers, especially when the big fish are chasing smelt. Sam prefers a Ballou Special during the spring run. I cast a Black Ghost. He says the white wing of these patterns attracts the fish this time of year. There was a time when Sam tied the shoulders of his streamers with either saddle hackle or bucktail, but a few years back he switched to marabou. Sam says you can’t beat the action provided by marabou feathers.

I find the bottle of aspirin wedged between a wading boot and an empty box of Cheerios. After closing the door of the Isuzu, I turn to walk back up the stairs of the cabin. A few drops spit down from the ashen sky. It should be a good day to be on the water.