By Sam Larson
The rainbow trout wouldn’t start swimming again. I faced upstream, with the current washing up over the thighs of my waders. I cradled the trout in my left hand, nose into the slow current, but it kept turning over, refusing to stay upright. I nudged it back with my thumb, but it listed to one side, like a drunk. I nudged it back and it tipped the other way. I knelt down further into the river, pushing my chest pack to one side so I could hunker down lower and shuttle the trout back and forth in the current. I waited for the gill plates to flex, or the fins to take up their fan dance. I wanted this trout to push its way out of my hand and back into the river but it wouldn’t cooperate. It spent all of the fight and energy that it had in a hat trick of tail-walking lunges across the pool. My fly rod slipped from under my arm and splashed into the water, trailing loose line. I switched the fish between hands and picked up the rod, gripping it tightly under my arm. Here in a slow pool on the banks of a narrow creek, on my knees in the gravel of the stream bed, I’d much rather this fish survived.
I’m ten years old again, standing on the shores of Morrison Creek. I hoisted a flopping brookie in the air, watching it swing back and forth on the barbed treble hook buried deep in its mouth. “That’s a keeper!,” my dad said from the bridge. He hopped down and his shoes crunched in the gravel of the bank. “If you want to keep it you’re going to have to clean it.” He dug his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and handed it to me, then walked off down the stream to check on my brothers. The fish flopped back and forth on the sandy bank where I laid it. I unfolded the big blade on the pocket knife. I’d seen my dad do this before. I was supposed to take this blade and slide it into the vent, the fish’s asshole my dad called it. Slide it in there and then pull it hard along the fish’s belly until I reaches the jaw. Then the guts would come out, a bare handful of intestines and slime. And then a palm full of grass in the fish’s belly to keep it smelling sweet on the walk home. The damp stream bank stained my blue jeans with dark smudges of sand as I knelt next to my fish.
I held the knife in one hand and tried grabbing the fish but it squirmed around, trailing a length of mono from the hook that’s still in its jaw. I started to get butterflies in my stomach, grabbing the fish and losing it, dropping it back to the gravel where it lay awkwardly, banging its tail and body along the rocks with a dark layer of sand and gravel plastered along its flanks. I needed it to stop squirming.
Once I stood by while my grandfather’s dog retrieved a pheasant, a barely injured bird that my grandfather took on the wing with his shotgun. The pheasant was very much alive when the black lab dropped it at my grandfather’s feet, not the usual limp mouthful of feathers that the dog brought back out of the brush. With a leather-gloved hand my grandfather grabbed the pheasant by the neck and spun the bird, trying to break its neck. The pheasant squawked and flapped even more. A second spin and then a third and the pheasant continued struggling and crying. Finally, swearing obscenely at the bird, my grandfather walked over to his truck, flipped the bird to grab its feet, and swung its head twice, sharply, against the chrome bumper. He gave it a shake just to make sure it was dead and then laid the bird in the bed of the pickup.
On the banks of Morrison Creek I lay down the pocket knife and grabbed the fish with both hands. Kneeling, I swung the fish at a softball-sized rock in front of me, trying for the same sharp, “smack!” I remembered from watching my grandfather. But the fish was slippery and I couldn’t hit the rock cleanly. I swung the fish three times and only hit the rock with a glancing blow. A deep panic settled into my stomach as I continued to come face-to-face with the gasping brook trout.
I was breathing hard. I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping that my dad would wander back out of the willows and solve this for me, but I knew he was down around the next bend with my younger brothers, likely putting worms back on hooks or untangling someone’s fishing line from the brush. I wanted this fish to stop gasping at me. I needed it to stop staring at me with its black, unblinking eye. I blamed my dad for taking me fishing, blamed myself for spending the week before the trip fantasizing about all the fish I planned on catching. For all the lies I told my school friends about fishing. I lay the fish down on a flat rock, and held the fishing line tight so the brookie can’t get away from me. I grabbed a fist-sized rock from the shore and, with my eyes closed, brought it down hard on the fish’s head. It jumped once and I started to cry. I smashed the rock down a second and third time, sobbing quietly. The brook trout wasn’t moving anymore. The fish was mangled, beaten and torn. Blood and fish skin were scraped and ground into the rock the fish lay on. I retched once when the knife blade caught behind the fish’s jaw, and a second time when I felt the gluey snap of its entrails coming free in my hand. I threw them into the willows and waded ankle deep into the river with the trout, rinsing it and my hands in the water.
But back in the present it wasn’t going to work out with my rainbow trout. I lifted the limp fish out of the water, and walked back to the bank where I laid the trout out in the grass. I removed my chest pack and hung it and my net on a nearby tree. I’m a believer in catch and release diligently, swallowing whole all the claims about fisheries management, about sustainability, about my responsibility to future anglers and the fate of wild fish. Somewhere, generations back, an ancestor, caught netting fish by the bushel to smoke, or store, or otherwise use as a crutch on the rugged path of survival, is swearing obscenely at my dilettantism, at the years I’ve spent perfecting a survival skill only to play at it. “Why do you catch them,” my brother asked once, “If all you want to do is make them late?” I pondered what others had told me, that a symbolic and periodic culling is necessary, ifonly to remind us of the blood and guts nature of what it is we’re doing out here on the water.
With the spine of my knife I cracked the trout sharply, twice, on the skull. It bucked and then went limp in my hand. The blade, sharper than my dad’s battered Swiss Army knife, slid into the fish’s belly and the job is done quickly. I pressed a scant fistful of torn grass into its belly, to keep it fresh like my dad always told me, and it’s ready to make the trip home tucked in my cooler, wrapped in newspaper stolen from a broken machine at the gas station.
I walk back to the car and somewhere behind me a a sniffling ten year old, red-eyed, with a seven-inch brook trout in an oversize creel, squelches heavily up a dirt road in black Converse All-Stars . I trailed behind my dad and brothers, listening to them talk about the minnows they caught, the average fish on Morrison Creek settling in below six inches, with dozens even smaller. While they chatted and bragged I slipped further behind, shyly sniffing the tips of my fingers and the clean trout smell I couldn’t wash off in the creek. The butterflies I felt before I cleaned my fish this afternoon take me 25 years back to the banks of Morrison Creek. Now there were hours left before sunset, a long piece of daylight left to fish and enjoy the river, but when I sat on the tailgate of my car I knew that my day was done. It was a good fish, and a good fight. The cast was clean, the strike was aggressive, and I played the trout as capably and quickly as I was able. I’ve been told to always end the day on a good fish, to make sure I left the water on a high note. The sun, tipping towards the horizon but nowhere near setting, slanted through the pine and aspen along the road. I hadn’t seen or heard another person all day, and the river was quick, bright, and cold, fresh from run off’s annual scrubbing. The scar from a forest fire snaked down the ridge opposite, with spindly burnt matchsticks standing every which way in a carpet or resurgent green. It was a good day, either here or on the banks of Morrison Creek.