By Dan Small

Contributing Editor

The little river tumbles out of spring-rich glacial hills and
wanders through woodlands, towns and farm fields. Wild trout still
thrive in its headwaters, but for many years the state has stocked
the lower reaches with hatchery-raised browns and rainbows. Dad
often fished here with a friend now long gone who taught him the
ways of trout. When we very young, my brothers and I would lie
awake at night until he came home, then call downstairs and beg to
see his fish. He would bring his wicker creel to our room, and we
would drink in the pungent odor of wet ferns and marvel at those
wild gems tucked into a bed of green.

“This is a brown,” he would say, pointing out its golden flanks
and red spots. “This one’s a rainbow see the pink stripe? And
this,” cradling the smallest and prettiest trout in his hand, “is a
brookie. We’ll have him for breakfast.”

And so we slept and dreamed of someday visiting the magical
place with the mysterious Indian name and catching our own speckled
trout for breakfast.

Back then, a wide spot on the grassy road shoulder accommodated
one car, and a single trail wound through dense cedars to the
river. Today, there is a small parking lot and a wooden sign that
reads “Public Fishing Stream.” Now the path forks and wanders like
the veins on the back of an old man’s hand, as generations of
anglers have sought a short cut or detoured around a mud hole.

Dad struggled over the gnarled roots that snake up from the
ruts, as Mike and I followed close behind. “You see why I don’t do
this alone any more,” he said.

For nearly two decades since retiring, Dad made the 40-minute
drive several times a week, nearly always alone. A couple years
back, he found himself sprawled on the rocks along the river, blood
streaming from a gash on his forehead, his rod broken in his hand,
but he didn’t remember falling. After that incident, his regular
outings dwindled to one now and then when he could find someone to
go with him.

Through our grade-school and high-school years, Mike and I
fished with Dad nearly every week in the summer. Then college, jobs
and life took us both far away. Mike, who lives only a day’s drive
from our boyhood home, managed to rendezvous with Dad for a trout
outing now and then, but this was my first trip with him on a trout
stream in more years than I could recall.

When we reached the river, Dad stepped into his favorite pool,
deep and green below a narrow riffle, and went right to work.
Sure-footed here, he seemed to grow younger and stronger with each
cast. I waded upstream, but kept him in sight in case he needed
help, while Mike fished the bottom of the pool below Dad.

Where the stream turns and drops sharply in a deep run that cuts
into the far bank, I cast a nymph and flashed back to an outing
here many years earlier. Mike and I had our trouting initiation on
this same water, dangling worms in a side current from home-made
“fly” rods Dad had fashioned from one-piece cane poles. He had
fastened a couple of guides to the rods with electrician’s tape and
strung them with 20 feet of plastic-coated line. A bent piece of
coat hanger taped to the butt held the extra line. A short leader,
two split shot, a No. 10 hook, a coffee can of red worms and we
were in business. Then one Christmas brought “real” fly rods: a
solid glass rod for me, and a telescoping steel job we dubbed the
“buggy whip” for Mike. Brother Pete inherited our cane poles, which
may be why he gave up fishing a few years later.

Dad caught three or four trout from that first pool, then headed
downstream. I splashed out into the run Mike was fishing to tell
him I was going downstream with Dad. “I don’t know when I’ll get a
chance to do this again,” I blurted, as my eyes filled with tears.
Mike and I hugged each other, alternately laughing and sobbing, as
the river washed over our boots. “Powerful stuff, isn’t it?” he
said.

As the day waned, we regrouped to compare notes. Dad had caught
six or eight trout. Mike had taken one, the biggest of the day. I
hadn’t had a strike, but I had shot two rolls of film and soaked up
the company of my father on what turned out to be his last fishing
trip. As we stood watching the late-afternoon sunlight dance on a
riffle, Dad said, “You know, I’ve fished this stream for over 50
years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it look so beautiful.” I
know I hadn’t.

Dad died peacefully in his sleep last winter. Mike and I plan to
make a pilgrimage to Dad’s home water this summer. Maybe Pete will
come along.

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