The Big Catch

May 29, 2013

I could hear Tony tearing up the trail from Squirrel Creek toward our campsite in the middle of a blueberry patch in remote Avery County, North Carolina. All the forest creatures could hear him, too.

Tony was anything but subtle when he’d caught a fish and he wanted every thrush, every gray squirrel, every white-tail deer, every groundhog and—most of all—me to know he’d hooked a penny-bright, native, feisty rainbow trout.

I’d been fishing with Tony before and the detail that always burned at the front of my mind was that Tony always fell into the water. He dressed in about $6,500 worth of gear, including waders that stopped at his neck, but he simply could not stand up in all that glitter. His rod was imported from Indochina—before we knew it by the more sinister reference as Vietnam—and his reel was straight from a craftsman named Bill Carter at Cabella. Bill didn’t make them for Cabella. He made them for Tony Petrella in his off hours. I guess he figured Cabella and Petrella rhyme so that was a good enough excuse.

I was never an avid fisherman because I was 1) lazy, 2) impatient and 3) I could generally find something more interesting to do with my time in the woods. On this day it was eating ripe blueberries. We’d entered this campsite off Squirrel Creek Road—a dusty, narrow path just wide enough for my small pickup—the day before, ignoring multiple “No Tresspassing!!!” signs, each more urgent than the last, each carrying an increasing number of exclamation points. The sign at the entrance to what we determined to be our settling-in place was 4-by-4. That’s feet. It was written in red. I hung my hat on it as I put up the tent. A bird landed on my hat and pooped.

While I put up the tent—stopping occasionally to stuff blueberries into my face—Tony spent a goodly amount of time getting ready to fish. It took 20 minutes just to get into the waders, preparing for a stream that was probably three feet deep in the biggest holes. The water was swift and cold, but I could see kids sitting on rocks, using corn as bait, catching trout after trout. Tony’s mouth watered. His hands shook with the fishing version of buck fever. He carefully lined a group of hand-tied flies across his vest so he could get at them easily and cocked his fly rod, whipping it three times by his head. “This,” he said gravely, “takes a lot of skill.”

“I can see that,” I said, as the line tangled in his waders.

I saw a large grouse in a nearby bush looking intently at Tony, tilting his head the way a curious dog would. “Strange being,” he seemed to be saying as he nodded his head. The grouse went back to pecking the ground after a few minutes, his head still shaking.

Tony trundled off toward the rushing creek, drool in the corners of his mouth. He looked like he was moving, be-decked with all manner of fishing gear—all aimed at catching a rainbow trout, the same fish the 10-year-old boys were pulling in by the dozen with hand-cut poles, string, big hooks and corn.

Tony’s hooks were barbless, making it harder to hold the fish. He said it was the fishing version of hunting deer with a bow and arrow. You gotta be sporting about it. His line was one-pound test. That meant he had to work any big fish and not just real him in. It was a test of who would get tired first—in theory.

So, now, Tony had caught a rainbow and he was screaming bloody murder, tearing up the path toward the campsite, disturbing my tranquility and taking limbs off bushes as he tore past them. His voice was big and booming, urgent and animated. The boy was going to burst a carotid artery, I thought as I shifted from my back to my side and pulled down another handful of blueberries.

“Whatcha got,” I shouted as he rushed the campsite.

“Got a rainbow,” he shouted. “A beauty. Look at this.”

He held out his right hand, holding tight to his fly rod with his left. “Jesus,” he said. “What a fight.”

I looked intently and didn’t see anything. As he approached, a small flash emitted from his hand and I could see he was holding something.

He held it straight out as he neared and I could tell it was a fish. Of a sort. I would have categorized it more along the line of a minnow. “You catch that all by yourself?” I asked, grinning.

“You bet your ass,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how this little bugger battled.”

“Yeh, but you won out,” I said. He didn’t catch the sarcasm.

“So what are you going to do with it?”

“What am I gonna do?” He was incredulous. “I’m gonna filet it, cook it in honey and eat it. You want some? Where’s the pan?”

“You sure you don’t want to mount it?” I said.

Dan Smith is now writing four books that he says “have been hanging over my head, waiting for me to spend a little time with them.”