The fish whacked at the fly but missed, bumbled out of the water, ducked out of sight. Neil thought he detected wide-eyed embarrassment but it might have been a red-rimmed yellow spot on the broad flank of the fish. It was a hefty brown trout even before the “got away” 20% markup. He didn’t curse, or even sigh. He cranked up, held the fly, and settled back on a buttock-perfect rock to rest the fish, and also himself.
The fly crouched in his hand, a sodden lump. He couldn’t remember what this one was called. Maybe Madame X, but that didn’t seem right. It was a brown-gold impressionist stonefly with antennae and rubber bluegill-bug legs. It was like fishing a twig, but the trout had been chowing it happily all morning.
The day was not perfect. You might stay home because the season was not advanced enough for dry-fly fishing. No steady hatches were expected. Critics might point out that cold windy rain was predicted by the meteorologists. And therefore fatal hypothermia by the Patagoniologists, who would argue that the weather was a one more good reason to order the hard-edge soft-shell hyperspecialized but versatile garment-of-the-moment. Those now-a-bed might point out that the creek was too close to campus, and would be thronged by non-anglers tromping around, earth-muffins with hiking poles and lean competent professors with well-seasoned hats. And maybe a drunken undergraduate who’d gotten lost last night en route to Shaggy’s, on account of her being too shy to piss between parked cars like 10,000 other drunken undergraduates who, combined on a Friday night, sluiced the streets clean with public urine and probably knocked the creek up a couple CFS in the bargain. So many woes for a college-town trout stream to bear.
In all events, it was definitely too something—too close-crowded-cold-cagy-cloudy, maybe--for six or eight stout brownies to thump the first fly you try on the first day you fish. In pretty clear water on a pretty clear day. Let those others stay away. Let them slave in a lab, or take a walk in their new hyperspecialized-but-versatile jackets. He would sit midstream, midmorning, woolgathering on a hunk of glaciated basalt with feldspar intrusions, resting a good fish and himself too. Alone, not cold, not wet, not far from a geology lab he was not in, not far from a polarizing microscope he was not staring through. It was a pretty good day.
He’d seen one other angler, an old man in a well-seasoned hat who did not look like a professor. They had walked together to the stream with a few easy words, comfortable because theirs were the only cars in the lot and the weather was surprisingly good. They had divided up like Pompey and Caesar: Neil downstream, Well-Seasoned Hat up, see-you-later, bye. He’d tied on one fly. Half the morning, five or seven trout. Neil sat happily on a rock and felt his edge slip away.
He’d never had the killer instinct. Like all anglers he groped through those Imperfect Mornings, fishing doggedly when the fish wouldn’t rise, calculating success with soft variables like Fun and Did My Best and Just Good to Be Out. On those days anglers all grumble the same grumble: Just once, just once I wish they’d be easy. But then, when they were easy, Neil slacked off. He couldn’t help it, and he didn’t resist. His father would have said, “That’s a lazy man in high cotton.” I do not care, Pop. The morning is fine. I own half this creek. Fish are biting, and I’m sitting on a rock. Why work so hard? Quoth Pompey: Trout, I pardon thee; eat stoneflies in peace.
Halfway through a grand trout-pardoning gesture he noticed that he had an audience. On the beach stood a crowd of people, holding signs, watching him make the Tertullian Cross with an 8 foot 4-weight. Not a crowd, exactly, but eight or nine sudden people where none should be, holding signs and scowling, standing on the empty creek bank, that’s a crowd.
“Fish Feel Pain!” said one sign. “Shame!” said another. Neil had a moment of horizontal vertigo as the people and messages slid liquidly sideways. Hot adrenaline pulsed in his gut. “No Catch! All Release!” “Fishing is Torture!”
He assembled answers to their signs but they asked no questions. They did not interfere with him. They did not sing “We Shall Kumbayah.” They stood.
He should think of them as protesters, he supposed, or maybe Protesters. He had never protested. He had never been protested, either. It wasn’t pleasant, but he could not say why. Aside from being startled, nothing happened. Neil continued to sit on a rock. The adrenaline subsided.
They were a tableau of stereotypes. Neil really tried not to see them as stereotypes. He’d attended Graduate Assistantship Diversity Training, which had been a very anti-stereotype training indeed. But as soon as the word “stereotype” entered his mind he was sucked in. A very tall man with the slope-shouldered hunch of the non-athlete wore a dense lump of brown beard on his chin like a pharaoh and held a sign which read “Fish Feel Pain” in careful heavy Sharpie. A pale, undernourished girl with long hair in complicated braids—and wearing a subspecies of that highly recommended soft-shell jacket—stood gravely with no sign at all. Four or five other faces and signs in the middle, most in glasses. On the end of the line a redheaded woman had been jostled into a small tree, obscuring her sign: “Be” something. Her Ghandian dignity was compromised by a branch poking at her face.
Neil had been ready to quit. He’d caught a bunch of fish, lost his edge, paused. He’d already begun to plan the rest of the morning in that lab with that polarizing microscope, which he had named “Spouse.” But he couldn’t do what a bunch of hippies demanded, even though he was half hippie himself. Of course, he wasn’t this kind of hippie; he was a more pragmatic and valuable hippie, one with an informed, hip hippieness. These people were fruitcakes. He couldn’t let them tell him what to do.
He was stuck on his rock. He did not want to wade out of the creek into that line of implacable, deadly, animal-loving eyes. He was especially afraid of the tall one with the hair-cube on his chin.
They stared solemnly out over the creek at odd angles. Only the tall man looked at him; the rest looked steadily at other angles, at other anglers who were not there. Maybe they’d learned this tactic at a trout-stream-protesting seminar. It made them look like Mount Rushmore recast for a Volkswagen ad.
So he yanked out fifteen feet of line, made a sitting roll-cast across the current, and ran the fly down the fat seam where the big trout sat. No show. He rolled it out again higher and further across and mended once. Five feet along and fish nailed it.
The rod bucked and he slipped to the reel and let it zizz away. Had he been unobserved Neil would have stumbled after, shocked again at the vigor and punch of a big pissed-off trout. But he was locked in another battle and stood or rather sat his ground, waving the bent rod insolently and grinning, trying for nonchalant contempt. They were all looking now. Mount Rushmore had come to him.
The two slim older women frowned; the pharaoh pursed his lips. A rumpled and hungover-looking boy smiled, and a middle-aged fat man wearing a macrame dog collar seemed fascinated. Dog-Collar’s sign said “Feel the Hook.”
“Do you feel the hook, Dog Collar?” Neil said. He didn’t say it loud enough to be heard.
The fish lugged across the current upstream then wavered closer. Neil cranked the reel dramatically, swept over in big Lefty Kreh side-pressure arcs. No jumps—too bad for the drama--but much loud drag-pulling, then in. Neil stood up, scooped, and raised the net in a priestly toast. A topper of a fish, easy 15 inches, a hen-headed brownie with a broad, deep body and red-rimmed yellow spots. The fish was not embarrassed, as far as Neil could tell.
The protest wavered. There was talking in the ranks.
With the trout filling the net bag, Neil waded over. They fell silent and watched him. Momentum shift. He was very careful not to stumble. Signs sagged.
“Come on, you might as well see what you’re trying to protect,” Neil said, this time loud enough.
They looked around like kids seeking permission. He knelt at the water’s edge. They leaned in. He wet his hands ostentatiously. They were already wet, but this was theater. He plied the hemostats with a flourish. The fish lay quietly across his palms, dense and cold. As brown trout go, it was pale and unremarkable. No spawning blaze, no deep gold, no kiped jaw. He examined it through their eyes—slant of mouth, white-edged fins, whimsical circle-spots, broad amber tail. It was very real, he thought, and well worth saving. Down into cold water a holding swish and she zapped off through the shallows and gone into the current.
The protest drew back, looked around, a bit embarrassed like a clutch of white guys caught admiring low-riders on an L.A. street. Dog-collar whispered with rumpled boy. The slim women looked annoyed, maybe at betrayal by a fish. Neil guessed they had never seen a trout unaccompanied by rice and parsley. The tall man just seemed weary. Neil idly wondered how they would have reacted if he had produced a real priest and clubbed the fish quivering, gutted it in a single crunching yank, eaten it raw like an ear of corn.
Somebody said, “Hey, there’s another guy fishing!” They looked at the tall guy and he nodded and they marched off up the path toward Gaul and Caesar. Neil wished them luck with another wave of his rod. From the sound of it, dense undergrowth along the path did not happily accommodate their signs.
Neil stood and hung the net and snapped the hemostat on his jacket. One sign remained. It said “Be Ashamed.” The redheaded woman, out of her tree.
“Hey,” she said. “I’ve seen you around Kent.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Neil said. “I’m down in first floor. Geo.”
She nodded. “Ceramic E for me. Third floor, east side.” She lowered the sign, rested it on her toes. The stream chuckled at them.
“There was supposed to be a lot of people here,” she said.
Neil looked around. “Here?”
“Yeah. First day of the season, something like that.”
“Oh. No, that’s on…this is, uh… Not here. This stream is open all year, catch and release and fly fishing only.”
“Yeah, it’s…like, natural. Wilder. Better. No stocking, only barbless hooks,” he said. “Not too many people. No opening day.”
“But it’s all trout fishing, right?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah, sort of. Those creeks, those other ones, are stocked, you know, and it’s a big deal on opening day. The fish are easy. There will be a lot of people, but, you know, kind of a different group…” he trailed off stupidly. The air changed.
She looked at the flyrod. “Don’t you think fishing is cruel?” she asked.
His turn to look betrayed. “I guess, yeah. They feel pain, I guess, that’s why they fight. Sure. And even if you put them back, sometimes they die anyway. Wild trout, they’re pretty delicate.” She nodded. She did not ask, Then why do you? Neil expected her to ask. He waited. He could see the question in her face, but she did not ask it. Downstream he heard indistinct voices.
He felt an odd disappointment in himself, in his unexamined habits. Then he shook it off. His habits were well examined. Purity was good, but it was not available. He looked away out over the creek, low for April, streaks of good holding water behind granitic boulders and lines of bedrock, probably greenstone or basalt. Then he looked back at the woman.
Her chin came up a little bit, a broad chin, not lovely but strong. Her hair was real red, almost orange, drawn back in a sloppy single tail that was pony or pig, Neil never knew which. No hemp, no jewelry. No ring. Despite disuse over fifteen years of high grades in science, despite the lingering buzz of adrenaline, despite the weird confluence of hempen politics and flowing water, Neil’s hypothalamus said “Ping!”
She looked in his eyes this time. “That other stream, the stocked fish. Is that cruel too, do you think?”
He was now definite. “Not for me to say. It’s different, that’s for sure. They keep them to eat, we put them back. These fish were born here. Those stocked fish are fresh off a truck. In the hatchery they eat Purina Trout Chow.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that,” she said.
“It’s true. And the guys fishing up there, they use corn for bait, canned corn.”
“Canned corn. I love canned corn,” she said.
He laughed. “They catch pretty much all the fish in a day or two. The truck brings more. Sometimes the guys will follow the truck from the hatchery right to the stream. They’re more like livestock than fish, I guess. Domesticated.”
“The fish? Or the guys?” she said, deadpan.
“Yeah, really. Both, of course, maybe the guys more. If the fish don’t get caught, at least they stay in the stream and kind of become wild.”
“I bet if the guys don’t catch any fish they get pretty wild,” she said. Her eyebrows were so pale they were invisible.
He smiled. “I don’t get wild when I don’t catch any fish.”
“Craig said,” she began, looking down the path. “He said we might be threatened, or even attacked.”
“Oh, probably not here,” Neil said lamely.
She looked over the empty stream, raised invisible eyebrows.
He stumbled on. “I mean, you would definitely get your message out to more people on those stocked creeks, opening day, it’s kind of a ritual thing, you know. Maybe there you would get attacked,” he added hopefully.
She nodded. “Make the news,” she said without irony.
They stood. Change moved in the air.
“Craig said the guys who catch the fish and put them back are worse. That they are the cruelest.” She said then, unconnected: “I’m Kelly.”
“Neil,” he said, but he was holding the rod, and shifting it he tangled the tip in an overhead branch. And she was holding the sign, and hesitated switching hands, like she wanted to hide the words. Then, a groping handshake. Too late he felt trout slime slick on skin.
She didn’t wipe the hand on her jeans. His hypothalamus again said “ping”.
“Well,” he said, “I’m not ashamed.” She blinked.
“Craig said you guys would be angry,” she said.
“I’m not angry either. Mainly just surprised, I guess.” Neil looked away, then cast again, higher and farther across. “Craig says a lot.”
Weak smile. “Yeah, he’s kind of an organizer.”
Neil made a half-gesture: Tall. “That’s Craig?”
Nod, weak smile. “Yeah. He’s postdoc. Mech E, medical. Prosthetics.”
“Oh. Wow. Sounds cool.”
“Lucrative. He says. You?”
“Uhh, I’m in the thesis grind. Crystalline metamorphics. But, fair warning--we may meet again. I’m thinking Big Oil. Got bills to pay.”
She nodded, looked keenly at him a moment. Ping.
Before he could say something else, the beach was full again. Craig was visible behind, herding, announcing. “This isn’t the right place, apparently. There’s another kind of stream, with more people. Up by Bristol, maybe.” He glanced at Neil, hostile.
Neil heard himself speak up. “Yeah, past Bristol, turn right, from the bridge on up. There will be lots of people there.” Everybody paused a moment. Neil pressed on. “They will just be bait fishing, you know, for stocked fish. Not as cruel.” It was supposed to be ironic, but it came out straight, and they took it straight and nodded and looked at Craig and he made the herding gesture and they started up the path.
Craig turned to Neil, more friendly now. “You going to join us?”
“No. I think you are an asshole, and the fish are biting, so I’ll stay here. But watch out. Those guys carry guns.” Craig’s eyes flickered. That one came out very nicely, Neil thought. Kelly’s mouth twitched.
Craig blinked again, hesitated, then turned to where Kelly still stood. “Kell, you ready? You okay, babe?”
She paused, looked guilty. Nobody said anything. Kelly looked at Neil, looked at Craig, looked back to Neil. Her hypothalamus went “ping.” Craig and Neil both heard it and there was a nervous group shuffle. They stood a long time in the oldest shape in the world. Neil’s mouth was dry but he said, “I’ve invited Kelly to stay and learn to flyfish.” Her eyes widened slightly. They were pale purple. Tectosilicate. Sodalite. Lazuli. Ping.
Craig’s mouth dropped open and he blinked. He did not look at Kelly. He did not look at Neil again. He looked at trees. “Cool,” he finally said, and walked up the path, stooping under branches. They both watched him go.
“I don’t really want to learn to flyfish,” Kelly said. “But I could use a cup of coffee.”
“Me too,” Neil said.