The Fighter Still Remains
The previous evening the old man had sat on a bench while watching a black bear, a little one and most likely born the winter before last, wade into the pond beside his cabin. The young bear sought to escape the humidity and rising temperature. With water rippling around its neck, it also found temporary refuge from a cloud of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Earlier in the week the young couple who purchased a cottage on the same pond saw the bear tramping down the two-track leading to the old man’s camp while he discovered a pile of scat sprinkled with seeds from the wild red caps that had recently ripened along the rutted lane.
This morning the old man woke before the sun crested the ridge. The grass outside his cabin glistened with dew. Butterflies, mostly swallowtails, fluttered among the pastel waves of lilies, phlox, and bee balm his wife had planted when they first purchased the cabin. That was back when the old man was young and still full of piss and vinegar. Goldfinches flitted around the bird feeders hanging from a metal stanchion. A chipmunk, its cheeks full of fallen seed, scurried toward a rock wall alongside the shed where the man kept the tools necessary to maintain a camp in western Maine.
Driving along the two-track, he slowed for a line of deer that strode lazily across the road. He knew that the three does and two fawns would bed down once the morning heat began to rise. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” played on the radio as he turned from the rutted lane onto a logging road.
Twenty minutes later the old man turned again, this time onto a paved road where he passed a series of bluebird houses nailed on posts that held up a wire fence beside the two-lane macadam. In the adjacent pasture, a small herd of Holsteins looked up from their hay bin. Their sleepy-eyed calves lounged on the muddy ground around the wooden cradle where their mothers resumed chewing their cuds. Along the far side of the road, a flash of brilliant orange rushed through the mid-summer foliage. The fox hesitated, waiting for the man’s vehicle to pass. Looking in the mirror, he watched the spritely creature trot across the road.
The sun appeared as a milky smudge behind a thin layer of cloud. Between the clouds and pasture a hawk circled while a crow, bouncing up and down on one of the wooden posts, croaked an alarm. Across the road, perched in the branches of an oak tree, two others picked up the call. The trio of black-robed jurists proclaiming the raptor guilty without benefit of trial.
Turning north, the old man drove up another logging road after a short time climbing through a notch in the foothills of the Boundary Mountains. With the windows open, he heard a white-throated sparrow calling out for Mr. Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. After a rapid descent, the man braked on a wooden bridge that crossed over a small stream. The previous week, a passing storm had dropped two inches of rain. Now, staring down into the startling clear water, he was pleased to see the current running briskly over the brook’s bed of cobble.
Pulling alongside the road, the man hobbled around the back of his pickup where he slipped his wading boots over hippers, buckling them to the loops of his khaki pants. It took a bit of time for his arthritic fingers to work the four-weight fly line through the ferrules of the 6’3” fly rod he’d purchased from Ron Barch. The old man had waited over a year for the Michigan rod builder to construct the cane rod based upon a Paul Young taper.
Trudging through a wide field of summer grass sprinkled with daisies, black-eyed Susans, and Queen Anne’s lace, the man came upon a solitary deer, the nobs of its antlers coated with velvet. The young buck bolted in a series of leaps that Balanchine would envy. A few minutes later, he entered a trail that wound through another field where wild raspberries, low-growing blueberry bushes, buttonwood and service berry, autumn clematis and honeysuckle had grown up among spruce and arborvitae. The conifers were no taller than ten feet, having taken the place of mature trees previously harvested by loggers, and the verdant walls along the narrow path dampened the sleeves of his dark green work shirt. After a while the man found an opening in the brambles and climbed down to the edge of the brook a quarter mile or so downstream from the wooden bridge.
The old man found a boulder to sit on. He opened the tarnished lid of a Sucrets tin, and after staring down at the selection of ten or twelve flies, chose a #14 black ant. On the losing side of eighty, he required the use of reading glasses to thread a tippet through the eye of the fly.
His first cast went awry when he slipped on a boulder that wobbled under his weight. The man cursed, knowing he’d spooked the fish that resided in a nearby patch of dark water. Working his way upstream, he missed a strike when a trout rose to inspect the ant as it floated over the submerged roots of an ancient swamp maple.
The layer of clouds that had rolled in earlier had grown moody, the fish sullen. The old man drifted the ant pattern down riffles and cast into plunge pools no wider than a foot or so without raising another fish. After half an hour, maybe more, he hooked his first fish—a six-inch brook trout—in a pool formed where a slip of water tumbled off the far bank. Through the gin-clear water, he was able to watch the little dynamo dart this way and that before erupting through the surface. The old man chuckled when after twisting in the air, the riot of color splashed back into the stream, leaving his fly fluttering in mid-air.
Soon afterward, another brookie, this one a bit larger than the first, grabbed the ant with predacious intent. A third rose through a seam running along the edge of the current. The man released both fish without raising them through the surface.
Over the next hour, the clouds turned surly, punctuated by the occasional sound of distant thunder. The smell of ozone filled the air, which had become heavy with humidity. Over that time, the man’s hip acted up as it often did whenever it rained. He took two fingerlings, each no more than four, maybe five inches, and a larger fish that measured nine inches against the cork base of his fly rod, the fish darting under a boulder before conceding defeat. The wind had picked up by the time the man approached the wooden bridge. A flash of lightning north of the stream momentarily brightened the ashen sky. A few seconds later, the man heard thunder rolling over the northwest hills.
Notwithstanding the frequent application of floatant and his attempts to dry the fly with a chamois cloth, the black ant was no longer willing to ride the surface. After struggling for a number of minutes, the man was able to tie an improved cinch knot securing a pheasant-tail dry fly with a parachute wing and a calf-tail post to the end of his tippet. This was the old man’s go-to pattern when fishing the little ribbon of water. He knew that the smaller freestones of western Maine did not contain significant hatches of mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies. Although these aquatic insects might be present, their hatches were not as dependable as those on more fertile streams. For this reason, the trout of the little brook weren’t as selective as those found in spring creeks, tailwaters, and larger more easily accessed rivers. These fish were willing to grab a pattern that might be mistaken for any number of different mayflies.
The long run that flowed under the bridge washed over a set of large boulders before sweeping under the wooden structure. The current ran along one wall, widening as it came out from under the abutment. In the past, the man had taken fish along the edge of the far wall where the current had dug out gravel. He’d also found trout along the lip of the pool as it flowed out from under the bridge.
Through the canopy of swaying branches, another flash of lightning streaked across the rapidly darkening landscape, freeze-framing the stream. The clap thundered over the stream before the man could count to two. On his first cast, the fly bounced off the bridge’s wall. As it floated along the edge of the wall, a trout rose up from the bottom. The old man could see the blue halo spots along the fish’s side as it turned to inspect the fly. He could barely control the impulse to strike as he watched the brook trout slowly sink from sight. As it did, a shard of lightening raised the hairs on the back on the man’s neck. A moment later a massive clap of thunder broke above him.
On his next cast the fly landed a few feet higher up the run. As if in slow motion, the fish once again rose from the cobble bottom. The old man’s hand trembled, the fish once again following the pheasant-tail. He was unaware of the next lightning bolt, but the crash of thunder nearly drove him into the pool. When at the last instant, the trout took the fly, he raised the rod.
A few drops of heavy rain preceded the downpour that within moments soaked the man to his skin. This fish was larger than the others, its jaw taking up a quarter of its body. While removing the hook, the trout’s bottom teeth drew a tiny bead of blood from the man’s thumb. Holding the fish in the moist palm of his hand, he noticed a tear in the caudal fin, the remains, he assumed, of an encounter with a mink, osprey, or perhaps a larger trout or some other predator. It had been nearly fifty years since he first cast a fly to these fish that were native to these waters. He still marveled at their grit as well as their unparalleled beauty. Those spots along their flanks were why the man continued to call them speckled trout.
After releasing the ten-inch bruiser, the man climbed out of the stream. He cringed as a final bolt of lightning flashed across the sky while he tramped back along the narrow trail that wound through the open field. The rain had stopped by the time the old man came in sight of his truck, leaving behind the smell of lush vegetation and damp earth.
On the drive home, he found himself humming, “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.”