The Fisherman, 2012 First Place Winner’s Circle
By Les Tanner
Like so many members of the “over-21” set, he had a hard time recalling names and where he put his keys and what he’d gone out to the workshop to get.
But he remembered the very first time he went fishing just like it happened yesterday.
He was six, and the family had gone camping down at Farewell Bend west of Weiser.
Before they left, his daddy had dragged down some poles that had roosted in the rafters above the garage for as long as he could remember, and tied them to the top of the car. He’d often wondered what they were for.
It must have been a sight, their dusty old Model-T rattling down Main Street with a couple of kids hanging out the windows—and the ends of two ten-foot-long bamboo poles hanging off the front and back.
After they’d set up the big canvas tent, and got out the blankets and food, his daddy took down the bamboo poles. He tied strings to the tips and put on a couple of hooks he’d got from somewhere. He attached some corks to the strings, too.
Being October, it was too late for grasshoppers and too dry for worms, so his momma cut some slices off the baloney they’d brought for lunch and his daddy put it on the hooks.
He handed the poles to the boys. “Just flip the hooks out in the water, and watch them corks,” he said. “If they bob up and down, that means a fish is having hisself a baloney sandwich. Pull it out before he lets go and maybe we’ll have catfish for supper.”
The boys hadn’t been sitting there long at all before his cork suddenly disappeared.
“Yank it out,” urged his daddy.
And yank he did, so hard that the line and everything else went sailing up over his head, landing right next to the tent. He dropped the pole and ran up to see what he had—and there, flopping around on the ground by his momma’s feet, was a fish.
It wasn’t a very big fish at all, but that didn’t matter.
“I got one!” he cried. “I got one!”
It may have been his first fish, but it sure wasn’t his last.
Not then or for the next seventy-five years or so.
From that day on, whenever he had a chance he’d be off fishing somewhere. If he couldn’t talk his daddy into taking him down to the river, he’d haul one of the bamboo poles to whatever water he could find. Maybe it was a farm pond or a ditch or a creek or just standing water left after the river had flooded. It made no difference to him.
He didn’t catch much at first, but as time went by he found there were lots of things to know about fish, like where they lived and what they ate and how to sneak up on the spooky ones. He used string from flour sacks, and hooks he bought with money he earned helping a neighbor build a chicken coop. He exchanged the bamboo pole for a willow pole, and then got a metal rod with a wood handle, a used one his daddy bought him for his eighth birthday. But it was a real fishing pole, and he showed it off like it was made out of gold.
One thing remained constant, however. He just hated to stop fishing.
Even on that very first trip to the Snake, it was all his folks could do to coax him to quit.
“Supper’s getting cold,” his momma reminded him more than once.
“I’m not hungry yet,” he told his momma.
“Time for bed,” his daddy called. “How can you see anything out there in the dark?”
“I can feel them pulling,” he told his daddy.
And so it went, no matter who he was with. Even when he went by himself.
“Come on, son, I need to get back to town before the hardware store closes,” his daddy would say.
“Give it up. You ain’t caught nothin’ yet and it’s gonna start raining purty quick,” his chums would complain.
“I told you to be back in time to do your chores before supper,” his mother would scold.
His response was always the same.
“You never know when they’ll start biting. A few more casts, that’s all. Just a few more casts.”
By the time he was in high school, he’d learned more about fishing than most folks do in a lifetime. He now had a brand-new, hand-made wooden fly rod. He used a reel instead of wrapping his line around the pole. Baloney gave way to worms and grasshoppers, and they gave way to spinners and hand-tied flies.
He’d fished in lots more places than the Snake River and farm ponds, too. They’d lived all over Idaho, wherever his father could find a job—times were tough back then—so he’d fished in all sizes of creeks and rivers and ponds and lakes. He’d caught carp and catfish and crappies and squawfish and trout and bass. They’d come in all sizes, too.
Two things hadn’t changed, though. It seemed to his folks that he spent more time fishing than he did sleeping—or anything else, for that matter, including chores and eating. And homework.
And he refused to quit fishing just because it was cold, or dark, or raining, or because he might lose another part-time job.
Most of his fishing was done by himself. His father’s jobs didn’t allow him much time off, and his brother never showed much interest in the sport. His pals could only take so much of his “Just a few more minutes, guys, I promise.” Other fishermen he’d run into were really old, some as ancient as thirty-five or forty, and they couldn’t put up with having a kid hanging around. Especially a kid who caught five fish to every one of theirs.
“Don’t ever go with that guy and expect to get home on time,” said one of his acquaintances. “Anybody else would quit when it gets too dark to see. But not that nut. He just ties on a big black fly and keeps on fishing.”
One October day when he was twenty-three, he was walking along the Lochsa River road and came upon a parked car. He had often noticed women reading books or knitting while their husbands fished, but as he got closer, he could see the car’s occupant was not a woman but a young man, apparently asleep.
He rapped on the window. “Need help?” he asked when the fellow sat up.
“No thanks. Just waiting for my sister,” the man replied, pointing at a slender figure wading in the river up a ways. “Samantha doesn’t like to be out by herself when she goes fishing, which is almost all the time, so she drags me along with her. Gets pretty tiresome, let me tell you. Don’t know what she sees in it. She never quits, either. If I’m lucky, we’ll make it home before midnight, but I’m not taking any bets.”
It was love at first sight.
They were married the following June. One memorable wedding photo shows the bride and groom decked out in fishing togs and standing thigh deep in the very pool where they’d first set eyes upon one another. They are holding hands and grinning at the camera. Beside them stands a very unhappy-looking preacher. His hip boots had filled with icy river water about halfway through the nuptials.
They had three children, born between fishing trips, and eight grandchildren. There were great-grandchildren as well, but he was never sure exactly how many.
Most of the bunch had inherited the fishing genes, of course. They, too, fished whenever they had the chance. They, too, had the knack for catching fish when no one else could. They, too, didn’t know when to quit.
Virtually all family outings took place near—and often in—an Idaho stream or lake. A majority of the words spoken during such events were of the sort “Got one!”, “Mama, make him quit throwing rocks where I’m fishing!”, “Grandma’s fish is bigger than yours! Is not! Is too!”, and “Time to eat, everyone. That means you, too, Dad.”
Only rarely did someone dare to say, “Can we go home now?”
And always, no matter what the situation, someone was sure to say, “ Hold your horses. They’ll start biting any time now. A few more casts will do it. Just a few more casts.”
In the beginning, outings were very frequent and involved just him and Samantha. As time went on, their frequency decreased and the crowds increased. The biggest of them all was a family reunion on the Fourth of July in 1989. No accurate count was taken, either of the human attendees or the fish that were claimed to have been caught, but there were a lot of the former and an unbelievable number of the latter.
The day inevitably arrived when it was just he and Samantha again who made the pilgrimages, who claimed to have caught the biggest and the most, who vied to see who would outlast whom. Children moved on, grandchildren and great-grandchildren had their own lives to live. It was something that he and Samantha had expected. They missed their family, of course, but they enjoyed every moment they had together, just the two of them.
He lost his beloved Samantha in 1997, but she was always with him, in spirit as well as in the photos and other things that had been so precious to her. He sold the Boise home they’d had for over forty years and bought himself a little piece of land at the north edge of Mountain Home. It had a three-room cabin on it, but that’s all he needed.
He bought an old Volkswagen bus, too. Got it for a song, mainly because it already had 100,000 miles on it. But it was in good shape, and the mechanic who worked it over for him said it was good for at least another 100,000. He tore out the insides and made it into a second home, with a bed and storage space and a little butane heater and other things a man might need to stay out overnight. Or over lots of nights. There were places for Samantha’s photos and knickknacks, as well, and the gear she’d worn and used on their last fishing trip together stood in one special corner.
Since then, he’d put another 200,000 miles on the odometer, and had dunked a hook or cast a fly in most of the waters in Idaho, north, south, east and west. Lately, though, he’d been sticking closer to home on his fishing trips. His old red-and-white bus was a familiar sight down at C.J. Strike or along the South Fork. The regulars all recognized the elderly gent with the white beard and the wide-brimmed once-green hat. It seemed that every time they saw him, he was hooked into a fish, too.
“Never seen anything like it,” said one fisherman to his buddy. “Just got through whipping one stretch to a froth without even a sniff, and here comes this old guy with a rod and reel that must’ve been as ancient as he was.
“‘Mind if I fish here?’ he says.’
“‘Be my guest,’ I says back. ‘Good luck.’ Danged if it weren’t no more than thirty seconds ‘fore he had an 18-incher on. Wish I knew what his secret was. And when he was letting the fish go, he says, quiet like, ‘Try and beat that one, Sam.’ There wasn’t no one with him, neither.”
October 20 dawned to one of Idaho’s typically beautiful fall days. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A touch of breeze stirred the willows lining the banks of the river and two mourning doves discussed the weather from among the golden leaves of the cottonwoods.
The sole occupant of the old red-and-white van stirred as a streak of sunlight fell across his wrinkled brow. He woke slowly, sat up and stretched. His watch told him it was after ten.
Should’ve been out hours ago, he told himself. Probably missed the hatch of PMDs. Oh, well, there’s always tomorrow.
As he was waiting for his first-of-the-day cup of coffee to brew, he gazed as he so often did at his favorite photo of Samantha, there on the wall above the tiny table. Decked out in her favorite fishing duds, she was kneeling at water’s edge about ready to release a magnificent steelhead and smiling at the camera, as if to say, “See, Dear, that’s how it’s done!”
How he missed her. And especially today, he realized. It had been exactly sixty years since that day he’d first met her up on the Lochsa. Sixty years. Impossible.
The coffee brewed and drunk, his oatmeal downed, his pills taken, and his remaining teeth brushed, he set about getting ready for another day on his favorite-of-favorites trout stream, the South Fork of the Boise.
It was a pair of hunters who found him. There was no telling how long he’d been lying there on the stream bank, beneath an alder tree. He was barely breathing and showed no signs of responding to the men’s efforts to rouse him. They got blankets from their pickup and made him as comfortable as they could, then one of them ran back to the road and flagged down a UPS van heading back to Mountain Home. The driver said he would call for help as soon as he got into cell phone range, and sped off.
When he got back to where the old man was lying, his friend told him, “I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“It’s the guy we used to see fishing up here all the time, isn’t it?”
“Sure looks like him. He’s even got that old fly rod, still clenched in his hand as tight as can be.”
He paused for a moment.
“You know,” he continued. “Just before he died, his eyes opened, and he smiled, and then he said the strangest thing. I could just barely make it out, he spoke so softly.”
“What’d he say?”
“I’m on my way, Sam. Be there in a jiffy, soon as I make a few more casts. That’s all I need, my Love. Just a few more casts.”