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King of the Stream
Three weeks ago I visited my grandparent's farm for the first time in 15 years. It was the day after my grandpa’s funeral. I had felt life had dealt me a “bad hand.” Now, I know the challenges and trials I faced were merely the result of wrong choices. I felt confused and lost. I didn’t know where to go, so I came here, my grandparent’s farm. Grandpa and grandma are gone now and all I have left are songs, stories, and memories.
I remembered summer bar-b-que's with corn-on-the-cob so juicy that, when you bit it, butter would squirt on the guy next to you. And watermelon so cold that you would eat it slowly so your teeth didn’t hurt. The mouth-watering memories were so strong I felt my stomach growl.
From the ages of ten to thirteen, I would spend one week a year visiting my grandparents. It was always during summer break and grandpa and grandma made sure it was the time of my life. We would roast marshmallows and hotdogs on an open fire, watching stars fall from the sky. You know, there is something about a “campfire” that seems to hypnotize me. I catch myself just sitting and staring into the orange and red flames, mesmerized by its dance. Sort of like a child when it sees a Christmas tree sprinkled with bright lights for the very first time. Campfires are great.
I remember Grandpa and me picking cherries from their cherry tree and eating them until we were sick. Now that I am older, I realize grandpa stopped after the first two or three and just pretended to have the “worst belly ache ever.” I have a lot of great memories of this place. All of the sounds, sights, and smells take be back to a time when “planning for the future” meant figuring out what time we would play baseball or where we would look for frogs, snakes, or bugs. But of all the memories I have, it’s the fishing trips that made me come back.
Each morning of my annual week, grandpa and I would walk the one-half mile to “our” fishing stream. Along the way, grandpa would tell me about the times when he took my Dad fishing and how my Dad would always fall in the water. They were the same stories year after year, but I didn’t mind. Even at my young age, I could tell that the stories were important to grandpa. So I listened. My favorite story was the legend of the “King of the Stream.” Grandpa’s face would radiate as he pontificated about the large brown trout rumored to haunt this river. He always told me that if we were ever to catch the King we would not keep him. According to grandpa, the King “had lived here for a one hundred years and what right did we have to take him.” We never caught the King of the Stream, but we had summers-of-fun trying.
The day of my return was a warm August morning. I could still smell the sweet scent of night as the sun rose, turning the morning sky “cotton candy” pink. I felt like the prodigal grandson returning from a life of immaturity and irresponsibility. This place seemed to posses the ability to rearrange all of your priorities and as grandpa put it, “put your head on straight.” As I looked in the distance I could see the meandering silver ribbon I had come to know so well. Dreams of trophy “browns” filled my head as I grabbed for my rod and headed for “our” fishing stream.
Before I reached the stream, I could hear the fish breaking the surface of the water like wild animals unleashed from their cage. My pulse quickened, as I imagined the imminent dual with one of the magnificent beasts. Grandpa would have been excited.
At the water’s edge, I slipped behind a large boulder. I reached inside my jacket and pulled out the size 6 grasshopper imitation I tied years ago. This “old stand by” has seen many battles. Scarred and bruised, it still proves successful. It is my own creation with red “fat and fuzzy” yarn to mimic wings and green pheasant tail to mimic legs. I thought of calling the pattern, “Christmas in July” but that cliché was already taken by furniture stores and car dealers trying to increase summer sales. So I decided to call it “Pete.” It’s simple and easy to remember. I did contemplate the name “Ralph," but that term conjured up images of my most recent bout with the stomach flu and kneeling before the porcelain God in the wee hours of the morning. I missed the most productive winter trout fishing in years. So Ralph was out and Pete was in.
While watching the stream for the next rise, I quickly tied Pete to my line using the clinch knot grandpa taught me years ago. Having tied this knot a thousand times, I can now do it blindfolded.
I finished tying the knot, and began to strip line from my reel, taking out the curls and swirls from the leader. I quietly stepped out from behind the boulder to make my first attack. I started my cast, back and forth, back and forth. I was lured into deep relaxation by the familiar “swoosh, swoosh” of line dancing above my head. Its kava kava for the soul. I did one last forward cast and slowly laid the four-weight line down onto the surface of the water. Even after years of practice, I still find it difficult to perform a perfect cast each and every time. But, as Grandpa had reminded me so many times, that’s the beauty of fly fishing, each trip is an opportunity to learn something new.
As my fly rested on the stream, I quietly crouched in the tall grass trying to camouflage myself from my prey. Brown trout are famous for being cautious. Anglers twenty-five feet away have been known to startle weary fish. I looked up to see another fish roll at a large, unlucky grasshopper. The noise quickly brought me back to reality. I brought the rod back and started yet another cast. As I was about to lie out my line, a large brown trout ferociously broke the surface of the water farther down stream. I brought my line in and silently made my way toward the spot where my giant friend has just had his last meal. When I reached a comfortable distance, I firmly raised my rod to make my next cast. If there was ever a perfect cast, this was it. The fly landed confidently on the water, less than a foot from the bank.
My fly continued its course, floating drag-free over the spot where I last saw the large fish. Just then, my foe made a heroic yet fruitless attempt at good ol’ Pete. Habitually, I tried to set the hook. As I brought in the slack, I looked around and took a deep breath. I crept out of the water and sat in the shade of a group of aspen trees. I listened to the birds sing their calming melodies and remembered the times grandpa and I would break for lunch in this same spot. We would eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches grandma packed in our special paper sacks. Grandma always used chunky peanut butter and I would spend the rest of the afternoon picking peanuts out of my teeth. For dessert, we would eat the pumpkin cookies grandma and I made the night before. I loved those cookies. Grandpa always gave me his share of dessert.
I tediously stepped back into the stream; the frigid clear water bit my legs with a thousand razor-sharp teeth. I then strolled to a spot about 10 feet from the bank. The water is only “knee deep” where I stood so I crouched low, as to not startle the weary fish. I made my cast and mended my line upstream. I cautiously watched my fly float toward the infamous spot. Then, with all the fury and power of a wild animal, a massive brown trout broke the surface of the water and devoured my fly. I pulled my rod back and set the hook. The reel squealed from the fight with the water-born monster. I stumbled on the stream’s mossy floor while trying to shorten the fish’s flight. I regained my footing and noticed the water was getting deeper. The fish pulled me further and further down stream. Soon the water was up to my waist. My legs were becoming “comfortably numb” from the still-moving water. I raised the rod above my head to keep it out of the water. I have never had such a fight. This is a strong, intelligent fish.
I was finally able to secure solid footing and entered into a “strength and mind” stalemate. Power is important, but outsmarting your opponent will be the difference between winning and losing. The fish made a mad dash for a tree enveloped with water. I know he will try to throw the fly amongst the twigs, branches, and thorns. I pulled back on the rod in an attempt to keep my friend out of inevitable trouble. The large brown leapt out of the water high into the air. He truly is a beauty to behold.
The battle with the large trout continued. My rod bent and my reel squealed under the weight of the fish. We both were tiring from the struggle. I remembered the words of wisdom grandpa once gave me, “The race doesn’t go to the fastest or the strongest, but to the man who can endure to the end."
After what seemed to be an eternity, I finally brought the beast into my net. I stared in admiration at the splendor and magnificence of the King of the Stream. I did it. I caught him, the King of the Stream. I slowly reached my trembling hand around the middle of the fish. Wow, I wonder if grandpa ever saw him this close. He truly is a trophy fish. But this trophy will not appear on my wall. Just as grandpa had told me, I released the legendary fish to its home. Who knows, maybe our paths will cross again.
I made my way back to my grandparent's house through the tall grass. Crickets began their familiar symphony as the sun set behind the distant purple mountains. My thoughts turned to the many fishing trips my grandpa and I had made. As I climbed the last hill I could hear his laugh and see his vibrant smile. I looked across the azure field to see the last rays of day give way to the first stars of night. A familiar warm feeling came over me. I smiled, glanced up at the moonlit sky and said, “Grandpa, I’m home.”
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