Jake laid his fishin gear down in the bottom of dad's old, green canoe and then he slid the canoe quietly into the slowly moving water of the Aroostook River. The canoe rocked slightly as he settled himself into the seat and picked up the paddle. He paddled silently along the edge of the shore as he slowly made his way downstream to where the river divided and then he cut across the current in the middle and paddled until he reached the opposite side. He lay the dripping paddle across his knees and let the canoe glide along the edge of the riverbank.
Although he'd been cruisin this river ever since he was old enough to use a canoe and paddle, he never got over the feeling he felt when he saw the river again. He knew every crook and bend and where every sand bar was as well. It was just as much a part of him as the blood that coursed through his veins.
Just as the canoe started to go around a bend in the river he reached up and grabbed a low-hanging branch of a river birch and pulled hard to the left. He guided the canoe into the mouth of the fast flowing Trout Brook that emptied into the river from the Garfield side. He stood and pulled the canoe up along the edge of the brook until he reached his favorite fishing spot and then he quickly anchored the canoe.
He'd begun fishing here when he was five, over fifty years ago, when his father had first introduced him to this quiet place and he'd considered it to be his private fishin hole ever since. Dad was long gone now but Jake, somehow, always felt closer to him in this spot.
Jake reached down and dug through his fishin gear until he found his rusty can that held his angle worms. Withdrawing one, he swiftly threaded the twisting, pink worm onto his hook and dropped it over the side of the canoe into the clear, cold water.
He shook a Camel cigarette out of a crumpled package, stuck it in his mouth and lit it and let his mind slid back to another place, another time. A time when he was just a little red-headed freckled faced boy and both he and his father were sittin right here in this very same spot all those many years ago. His father had been the one to teach him all the fishin tricks he now used and he'd been just as happy to pass all this tried and trusted information on to his children. It's good to have rituals and customs, he thought to himself. It keeps a man on an even keel.
He snapped out of his reverie when he felt his fishing pole being pulled downwards. He leaned forward and looked intently at the spot where his line met the water. Ever widening circles in the water moved away from his line and he watched until he saw what had pulled on his pole. It was the biggest, most beautiful rainbow trout that he'd ever seen! Seeing the lovely creature swimming just a few feet away made Jake's heart jump and he felt a thin film of sweat break out on his sunburned forehead.
He didn't know what to do first! He scrambled to shift his pole over to where the large fish was lazily swimming around in circles and the canoe rocked back and forth. "Calm down, man!" He commanded himself and he loosened his grip on the pole and took an extra long pull on his cigarette. He let the smoke curl up out of his mouth, past his nose and tried to regain some of his composure. When he was calm again, he set about tryin to catch the fish.
He reeled in the sickly looking white, waterlogged worm and quickly stripped it off his hook. He looped a fresh worm on the hook and slipped it quietly back into the water. He jiggled the hook gently up and down a couple of times just to catch the trout's attention. Jake watched as the large fish floated over to his hook, nudged it a little with the side of his nose, slid past and kept right on goin. Son-of-ah-bitch! He swore to himself. He wanted that fish in the worst way!
Jake sat where he was for the better part of the mornin, watchin that fish go through every kind of teasing motion that was possible. It would come floating up to the top of the water, turn on its side and slip past Jake in a silent salute as if to say, Catch me if you can, sucker! Then it would slide silently away again into the swirling, blue water. Seein the fish, glide, slide, float and jump just out of reach reminded Jake of a finely choreographed dance routine. The fish would come up to the top of the water, turn on its speckled side and in a flash of sliver, slide past the canoe where Jake sat with one fin up in the air, in a silent salute as if to say, "Catch me if you can, sucker!" The large fish slid by and rolled over, just out of reach; in front of him so many times that Jake was able to memorize every colorful detail of that fish! Seein the fish, so close yet so far, made Jake's blood boil. Teases me just like a friggin woman! Jake thought to himself for the hundredth time.
This frustratin routine was repeated over and over again and at one point, as the sun rose higher and Jake grew hotter, he lost control. He jumped up, grabbed his fishin net and began thrashin the water every which way, to no avail. The trout was still free, swimmin out there in the peaceful cool water, just beyond his reach.
Finally, Jake caved. His stomach was growling so much that he couldn't tell if it was his stomach or thunder rumblin off in the distance towards Garfield. And his bladder was way beyond screamin. Normally, he would have stood and relieved himself over the side of the canoe but after seein that fish swimmin there all day, he just couldn't urinate where that fish swum. He just couldn't!
He untied the canoe and with a last, longing look at the magnificent fish, grabbed his paddle and headed upstream for home. Just as he rounded the corner, he turned, looked back at the mouth of the brook and yelled. "I'll be back Mr. Trout, you can bet your sweet ass on that!" He wiped the sweat out of his eyes and bore down on the paddle. "Maybe next year I'll cave in and buy myself a trolling motor." He said to himself. "Maybe next year!"
Preoccupied with the day's frustrating events, he ate his supper in silence, replaying in his mind the events of the day. His wife tried to make simple conversation but he only grunted an answer here and there and after a while she gave up tryin to talk to him. He spent the entire evenin in his den readin everything ever written about rainbow trout and their habits. He planned, he schemed and he prayed that just one piece of all the information that he'd read would be the thing he needed to catch that fish.
Finally, along about midnight, he lay aside all the fishin magazines, slathered some of his wife's moisturizer on his pickled face and neck and slid into bed alongside his sleeping wife. He fell into a fitful sleep and he thrashed and turned so much that his wife, tired of him pullin the sheets off her and getting kicked every couple of minutes, slapped him on the arm. He mumbled incoherently and fell back into his dream of catchin the fish.
Along towards mornin, when the moon was just a sliver in the western sky, he began talkin. "Oh baby," he moaned. "Come to papa, that's it honey!" He turned and threw a heavy arm across his wife's chest. Surprised and still half-asleep, she turned to her husband, wonderin what had put him in such a romantic mood so early in the mornin.
Just as she was about to put her arms around him, Jake sat up in bed and yelled, "I'm gonna get you, you friggin fish, if it's the last thing I do!" Hearin this, his wife cuffed him across the back of the head and this really woke Jake up. He rubbed his head and looked at her in the dim light. "What's the matter with you anyway?" he asked. His wife gave him one of her "if looks could kill" looks and snapped. "I might ah known that it was a friggin fish you was talkin to!" And she moved over to the far side of the bed. Not only was Jake getting the cold shoulder from the fish, now he was getting it from his wife too!
Jake watched the clock all day at work at Pinkham's Mill and as soon as the five o'clock whistle blew, he was out the door and down the Portage Road in a cloud of dust. He'd packed all his fishin gear the night before and he flew past his house and down over Sutherland's flats to the Aroostook River.
He slid his canoe off the truck and into the water and he didn't bother trying to be quiet either. He paddled like a man in a rowing competition. He could have crewed for Yale. He paddled across the current until he reached the Garfield side and then he floated down river until he reached the mouth of Trout Brook and it was only then that he finally breathed. "Oh please let him still be here." He prayed for the hundredth time. He slid up into the mouth of the brook until he was in the same position as he'd been in the day before and quickly tied up to the same branch of the river birch.
He sat where he was for a long moment and just looked at the brook where it joined the river as it flowed past. The water from the brook was so pristine and clear that he could see the green river grasses as they flowed and shifted in the bottom current. He watched as water bugs skated across the glassy surface and then he smiled as once again, he saw the huge fish, rise, open its mouth and feed on one of the insects that waited there on the top of the water.
Seein the fish, Jake's old heart jumped and danced in his chest and he had difficulty catchin his breath. He couldn't believe his luck! The trout was still here! He'd worried all night that it would be to hell and gone by the time he got back. But there it was! "Well, I'll show him who's boss this time!" Jake said to himself as he hurried to cast his hook into the water.
It was a repeat of the day before. The fish, as though sensing Jake's desperation, began the old teasin routine again and it had it down to perfection. He'd slide up through the murky river water and the settin sun would reflect off its silver belly into Jake's eyes. It would roll completely over and then it would slip away, as silently as it had come.
This appearin and disappearin act set Jake's teeth right on edge and he commenced to prayen with the fervor of a convert. He mumbled prayers to every deity he could think of and even a few he made up, like the "Fishin God of the Universe." "Oh, what tha hell," He thought to himself. It couldn't hurt.
This little game of bate and switch was playin hell on Jake's nervous system, his heart, his stomach and his bladder. He was fallin apart and he wondered how long he could keep this up. He tried every lure and fly in his tackle box and every fishin trick he could think of and nothin enticed that fish!
When Jake finally looked up he noticed that the sun was hovering just above the horizon and he slid his cuff back and looked at his watch. It read eight fifteen and he knew that he should be makin plans to head for home in another half-hour or so. Suddenly, he became aware of a pair of loons that had paddled into his line of vision. He watched as they floated together along the top of the water. Every now and then, one of them would dip down into the water and come back up with a good-sized fish wriggling in its mouth. "Son-of-ah-bitch!" Thought Jake. "Loons! Now I've really got competition!" He watched them for a couple of minutes longer and then turned back to the task at hand, prayin all the while that the loons stayed where they were.
He reeled in and removed the fly that had been driftin along the top of the water and reached for his fishin tackle box. He poked around until he found the sandwich bag that he'd put in there the night before. He took out a piece of half-cooked elbow macaroni and a piece of hard cheese and he slid these on the end of the hook. Smilin to himself at the ridiculous bait combination, he sang a little song as he carefully cast the bait into the water. "Fishy, fishy in the brook, come and bite my great big hook!"
Resigned to the fact that it was a loosin proposition, he was shocked when he felt a slight nudge travel up the line and down the pole to his hands. His fishin reflexes kicked in and he gave a sharp tug on the line. The next thing he knew, he was hanging on to the pole for all his might! He'd caught somthin, by gorry, he had! What it was, he really couldn't tell and he really didn't give a dam! He knew that it was big and that was all that interested him.
He stood and braced his feet in the canoe and again gave a hard check on the line. Suddenly, he saw what he'd caught! It was a loon! He nearly fell out of the canoe in his shock and then he saw that he was wrong. He'd caught a fish and a loon! How could that be? He asked himself. He pulled on the line again and reeled in the some of the slack. The large bird, feelin the tug on the fish in its mouth, squawked and dug its feet into the water. It was a standoff! Jake wanted the fish and the loon wanted the fish! Somethin had to give!
Jake, seeing that the sun was makin a fast descent, knew that he had to do somethin soon and he began jumpin up and down in the canoe, hopin against hope that he could scare off the loon. To no avail. Jake began screamin and shoutin at the big bird but the loon still wouldn't let go of the trout. "That's my trout you stoopid ol bird! I caught it before you did!" Jake screamed until he couldn't scream anymore but it did no good. The loon just sat there in the water, lookin back at him with the precious trout held firmly in its mouth.
Desperate, Jake's brain and his common sense shutdown. He slid his fishin pole between his knees and he grabbed his paddle. He picked it up, turned it around in his hand and brought it back behind his head. Steadying himself, he threw the paddle, like a javelin, at the loon with all his might! The paddle flew through the air and hit the water with a loud smack to the right of the stubborn bird. Startled by the paddle hitting the water, the loon dropped the trout and took off across the river.
Jake, beside himself that his ploy had finally worked, quickly sat down and began reelin in his prize. As the fish came sliding up to the canoe, he reached over the side and grabbed it by its gill. He hauled it in and sat looking at it.
The loon may have been startled into releasing the trout but it had left its mark anyway. The once beautiful trout was all mangled and the skin was missin in several places. Jake sat where he was for the longest time and then he took the fish and slid it over the side into the water. Might just as well give it back to the loons, he thought to himself. I don't want to take it home lookin like that.
It was then that he realized that he was in a predicament. He had thrown his only paddle at the loon and had no way to get back upstream to where he'd parked his truck. Jake spent a long cold night huddled in the bottom of his canoe and when he didn't return home that night; his wife called the warden's service.
When Jake's story was told around town the next day, every body laughed and nobody believed him. Thereafter, whenever he saw a Bangor Daily Newspaper article about changin the lobster on the Maine license plates to a loon, he fired off a letter of protest to the Maine State Legislature.
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
Memories, Another Place - Another Time
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All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.