The most stupid thing I did on that day, other than let Tom have his way with me, was following my intuition. I had barely gotten back to clearing the rocks from the motor and pulling the impeller when I heard an excited; “Oh, geez!” It was easy for me to tell that the guy closest to me had a fish on without even looking up from my project. His “Oh, geez!” wasn’t loud or imperative enough to signal an impending bear encounter. So in true guide fashion, I pretended not to hear the angler’s elated cry.
There was one last testy piece of Katmai bedrock wedged in the pump that I needed out of the way of the jammed impeller before I could test the motor. This made a trout a very low priority. Tom, quite expectedly, started yelling instructions to his buddy from 50 yards away on how to fight the trout. The second I looked up to tell him to shut-up the long screwdriver I
was using to pry the last rock out of the impeller slipped. The knuckles on my right hand were already cut and bloody but this last hard whack on them caused lightning to shoot up my right arm. “Dammit Tom! Shut up! Remember what I said? I am the guide!”
A very large trout flew head-long out of the water right next to where I had been working. I let the echoes of the loud “slap” from the fish belly-flopping back into the water dissipate before I calmly started walking up to the very excited fly fisherman. “Start walking towards me;” I said to the joyously distraught angler. He was frozen in the thigh-deep water, hypnotized by the sight and sound of the backing screaming off of his Abel. “Martin!” this time I yelled; “Move your ass!” This snapped him out of his daze. He gave me a big smile and a thumbs up as he started reeling and moving down the stream towards me. On his first step, he slipped on a dead salmon and almost went ass-over-tea-kettle. We both looked at each other and laughed across the fifty feet of water between us, his cheesy grin of unadulterated joy made me forget my torn up knuckles.
There were six boat lengths of bright yellow backing stretched over the water that was singing in the light breeze when I made it to Martin’s side. His Winston was bent into a perfect crescent as it strained to overcome the trout’s violent instinct to survive. Martin had the rod’s fighting butt buried so deeply into his belly that the reel was spinning against the Gore-Tex of his waders. “Relax, loosen your grip a bit;” I said as my customary fish fighting smoke hit my lips.
“This is the biggest fish I have ever caught. Here get my camera ready;” he panted as he frantically tried to reach into the front of his waders for the Ziploc bag that I had given him to put his camera in before we left the lodge that morning.
“Whoa! Slow down Mart, you still have 200 feet of line out. You aren’t even close yet to needing the “C” thing;” my superstition about saying the word ‘camera’ betraying the ascension my soul had made into the world of guide-dom. The trout gave a savage headshake the millisecond after I finished speaking. It was if he had heard Martin say the “c” word. Then the large fish tore downstream parting the waters as it accelerated with every stroke the broad tail that was breaking the surface with every stroke.
“You had better stop him or you are going to lose him!” Tom yelled as he came splashing up. His camera sounded like a gangster’s machine gun from an old movie as he clicked away. “Palm your…;” is all Tom was able to get out from behind his camera before I cut him off.
“Shut the fuck up Tom!”; there was an implied threat in my voice as I openly rebuked the man who was now kneeling in the water to get an “artistic” angle on Martin’s epic battle. Martin’s panic grew with every inch of backing that was pulled from the spool. I slapped his left hand hard, probably too hard, when he started to slide it under the reel to apply more pressure. My eyes had never left Tom the entire time that this little melodrama transpired. He knew that deep down I was hoping that he had no heirs to continue his bloodline as he tried to hide behind his Minolta.
“What the hell!? That hurt;” Martin said to me as he shook his left hand in the air. His anger with me brought a quiet calm over him as he focused on the pain in his left hand. He wouldn’t realize for several seconds that he was slowly walking downstream with me. The fish had slowed enough that he knew it was time to start cranking in some line. Taking a deep drag on my smoldering cig I pretended not to see the grin creep back onto Martin’s lips. “Damn you, I see what you….;” his words trailing off into laughter.
“Your reel has a drag, a very good drag. I have seen more fish lost by people trying to palm their reels than anything else;” my words came quietly now. Tom had heard them and had backed away. For the next five minutes, I would speak only so Martin could hear me. I might not have been holding the dark green rod but I was fighting the big Rainbow as much as he was. The other two fishermen had joined Tom to watch Martin. I would have never noticed them if Martin hadn’t turned his head to smile at his friends. My mind was 150 feet away.
Our festive little entourage was heckling us with things like; “Who’s caught who Martin?” and “I bet you butt-hooked it.” They were right, Martin and I had let the surging fish drag us downstream long enough. I didn’t say a word, I just didn’t move when he started to step down when his rod bent a little more than his comfort zone allowed. Martin couldn’t see my eyes through my scratched up Costas but he knew they had seen the battle turn well before he had felt the first hint the fish was tiring. His hand that held the cork grip relaxed, instantly turning pink again from the rush of blood that had been exiled for the last 15 minutes. Martin’s looked at me with placid understanding. He knew we were winning.
“Let’s get our feet dry;” were the words I had ritually spoken from my very first half-day trip that I had guided so many years ago. Today they flowed from my mouth with the same natural ease that always made me feel like someone else was speaking through me. There was no sound of the jaded complacency that guides battle to hide from their fishermen. At that moment I vowed to myself not to say the ultimate words of guide boredom when the trout was in my hands. Today Martin wouldn’t hear; “Nice one!” from my lips.
Tom clicked away from a safe distance above us on the gravel bar. The two other men were laughing at their own dumb jokes besides the photographer. The three men watched Martin move his rod tip to the right exactly as I told him to do. We were a rod’s length from the line of dead fish that defined the water’s edge by now. The soft swing of Martin’s rod caused the exhausted trout to swing like a silver pendulum towards the rocky shore below us. “Keep doing what you are doing;” were the words I left him with when I started to go the few steps to land the trout.
When our peanut gallery saw the translucent gray-green tip of the trout’s tail and its dorsal fin poking from the water there was silence. Martin uttered; “Holy Shit!” This was the time for the guide to shine. The next few minutes would make Martin’s fish an experience that these men could take home to their offices and club. I knelt in the creek beside a fish that I had probably seen caught before. Grabbing the fish just in front of the tail with my right hand as my left slid under the fish’s body I got ready for the picture but first I had to get everyone into order.
Martin was fumbling around inside his waders looking for his camera, Tom was taking pictures of me holding the fish as told me how to hold it and the two other guys were high-fiving as they drank from a flask. “Mart get over here! Let Tom take the pictures so we can turn him loose;” I finished gently. In seconds Martin was kneeling beside me in seconds trying to take the large Rainbow out of my hands. “I’ll hold him. You smile;” I said knowing what was to come.
“But it is my fish!” Martin said almost crying.
“He paid to hold that trout!” Tom bellowed from behind the camera, his teeth glowering like fangs underneath the plastic box.
“Shut up Tom! Martin, Tom will get good pictures and then I can measure him for you. This will get him released a whole lot faster than if you hold him. Besides, you don’t want to drop him on the rocks do you?” I finished looking into his eyes and smiling.
Tom had apparently gotten used to me telling him to shut up because he just nodded at me when I told him to start clicking away. When I laid the fish on its side in the shallow water to measure it, I made sure Martin was the one holding the tape. “Wow!” is all he said when he stretched the sewing tape that I used tight and it read 31 1/2 inches. Then I stepped in to take the girth measurement. It was somewhere around 18 inches or so, I don’t remember but it was big.
“Martin, come over here and kneel by your fish. You let him go;” I said as the big male trout started to get enough energy to try to free himself from hands. Martin splashed me in the face he dropped to his knees so hard when he got to his fish. I told him to slide his hand under the fish’s pectoral fins and move it towards the deeper water. As he did this I let him grab the fish around the tail, a concentrated grin drifting across his face as the fish felt Martin loosen his grasp when I told him too. Two swishes of the big tail turned the fish into nothing more than a dark shadow that was rapidly disappearing in front of the man. He stayed on his knees in the water for a couple of minutes staring at the spot where he had last seen the last glimpse of his trout.
“Aren’t you glad Martin I made us park the boat here? If it weren’t for me you would have never caught that fish;” Tom said with a tone serious enough sounding that to this day I am not sure he was joking. For a second there was anger, then silence and the rest of us psychically must have decided to laugh him off.
“Shut up Tom!” Martin, the two now somewhat drunk other anglers and myself half-laughed and half-yelled at the big man.
The End of The Day
The impeller on the motor was toast. This meant there was no going further upstream. But we made a day of it anyway. Everyone caught fish, not as big as the first one, but they were all trophies anywhere else in the world. Tom got to take lots of bear pics and was relatively manageable for the rest of the day. Martin and the two other fishermen had “The best day ever.” They told my boss this while the engine on the Beaver that came to pick us up slowly turned to a stop.
I made Tom hand him the impeller. My boss looked at it and shook his head. “You sit in front;” he told Tom and then asked me what had happened.
My boss was on Tom before the Beaver’s engine had fully come to life. He lit into poor Tom who thought it was a big deal when he was picked to sit in the copilot’s seat. For 20 minutes Tom was told that the way it was going to be for the rest of his stay, with no uncertainties left out. I managed to stay awake for the first half of Tom’s verbal spanking, the droning Beaver always seemed to sing me to sleep after a day on the creek.