River Bones

It was an early May morning. Clear, crisp air. Sun rising behind poplars on the riverbank. Mike Daniels stood knee-deep in the edge of the mountain river. For a silent moment, he remembered standing in water much deeper, years ago. He looked up, thinking, and listened as a hawk screamed kee-eee-arr in the distance. Holding his fly rod with one hand, not yet ready to cast, he watched the clear water move left to right downstream. Studying the rocks, and the logs and limbs and debris set down by nature jogged his memory again of other river waters—dark and murky. He shook his head, and looked around for spots where trout could be waiting. Breathing deeply, he caught the fresh, sweet smell of honeysuckle, and mentally traced the water’s southern movement from the mountains, to the Gulf of Mexico. Gliding over smooth places and rough places for five hundred miles or more.

He knew about trout. He had always wondered though, about their bad days and good days. Some days must be fine, with mayflies and all sorts of insects on the water; he felt sure there were days when no food at all passed by, and they had to forage on the bottom and under rocks and logs. Grubbing for a worm or minnow or lizard. Is that when they change locations? What determines the direction they move—upstream or downstream? Is there some signal or warning— unknown to humans— perhaps an inbred precursor from ancient ages that compels them to move, to seek out a new feeding location? A crucial decision for trout—and for man. Fundamental decisions, sometimes determining the whole of one’s journey, and sometimes even the final destination. For the trout, it can mean life or death—the same for man, too. And man, like trout, may change, may learn new ways of surviving the bad days, making the good days even better than previous good days. “It all depends,” he said aloud. “It just all depends.”

Mike started to move upstream, but changed his mind. Something told him this was a good place. He looked down at the water flowing around his waders. He was not cold, the day was warming. Shafts of sunlight slanted through the poplars and mountain laurel and sparkled on the river. He began to see the river better, places where trout could be. Seeing a small log across the river with water running over it, creating a good hiding place under the log. Then he studied a row of rocks to his left near the center of the river. Water cascading over them, creating a miniature waterfall. Another good place, he thought.

He caught a streak of silver under the water moving fast upstream. It disappeared quickly. He smiled, remembering the feeling, and anticipation, of knowing trout were nearby. Was it a big trout, or his imagination? Many times, he had caught trout and then wished they were fatter, longer, or prettier than how they had turned out to be. Like life, there had been times, and things, that he wished had turned out bigger, or better than how they had ended. He held the rod tight in his right hand and the slack line in his left. He had tied on a yellow and green dry fly. He had used it before in early summer, and it had worked fine.

He didn’t cast, for suddenly his mind took him back to an oppressive country on the other side of the world. Chest-deep in a river, in a jungle. Pitch-black night and pitch-black water, with swarms of giant mosquitoes and other tropical insects biting his head and neck. The only relief was to slide quietly under the water and hold his breath as long as possible. And hold his left arm with his weapon just above the surface. Knowing when he straightened up the mosquitoes would attack again. And wondering, if he might be face to face with an enemy. The enemy was camouflaged, too. Impossible to see, until almost within arm’s reach. But he had learned how to detect subtle changes in the river. Watching for unusual ripples and movement, and bird sounds and other changes in nature’s noises, and even smells. It took hard concentration—four to six hours each outing. He remembered waiting, eyes constantly shifting, searching. A shot, or better yet a slice across the enemy’s throat with his knife. Quieter—then holding the enemy’s head under water as he bled to death. Very efficient. His unit was one of the best ever at night river fighting. They had taken great pride in their skills, in their successes. Those that survived.

Another silver streak just under the surface moved quickly upstream. He looked to the row of rocks again. Some were barely visible. Others were above the surface several inches, maybe a foot in places. He liked the way the water flowed over them, falling steady, shafts of sunlight brightening the little waterfall. He felt the pool just below the rocks could be a fine place for trout. He remembered times past, when he had caught good trout in very similar spots. He cleared his mind. He was ready now.

The row of rocks was thirty feet away, slightly upstream, almost in the middle of the river. He cast three times before he got the fly where he wanted it. Centered above the rocks. He moved his feet for better balance, never taking his eyes off the fly as it approached the rocks. The fly floated effortlessly over and into the rolling water below, emerging a moment later heading downstream. He let the fly float for a while. “Not a nibble,” he said aloud as he reeled the line in. The first time doesn’t always produce a strike. Nor the second, or third. But, if it’s a fine place for trout, and the river contains a sufficient number of trout—which he knew for a fact it did—then you wait patiently, and try again and again before giving up and moving to another spot.

He never rushed, or made quick decisions when fishing for trout. Some people seemed to attack the river, moving around, stirring up silt and trying one spot after another. Maybe only two or three casts to a location, before moving to the next one. Not his way. He liked to move slowly, cautiously, picking spots carefully. Working the fly through different sections of the stream. Watching the fly, studying the water flow, working it to a precise area. With a few casts he could usually lay the fly within a few inches of his target. That is, unless the wind was up, or it was raining hard.

He cast the fly again to his original target. Moving the line slightly, he maneuvered the fly directly behind the largest rock. He visualized the trout beneath the rock. A rainbow or brook. His tail moving back and forth, keeping him steady, alert for any morsel. He heard the hawk again, closer this time. At the same moment, the fly dropped over the edge of the rock and his line tightened quickly. For a second, he thought the fly might be caught on the downslope of the rock. But no, the pull and movement of his line caused him to smile. His body tensed, he suddenly felt young and full of energy. He played the trout, letting him run downstream, before finally bringing him closer.

The pressure on the rod and line transferring to his arms was familiar. It had been a long time coming. Almost two years. His eyes misted a little. He had forgotten, and now felt a certain pity for denying himself this pleasure. This communion with nature…this solitude. It was a good rainbow trout. Maybe 22 inches. Yellow and green with the pink streak down its side. He took the fly gently out of its mouth, held the fish up in both hands for a moment, then bent over and placed it back in the water and watched it move slowly away. He supposed it would now move downstream, not back to the rocks.

Later, walking back to his pickup, Mike felt pleased with the morning. He had caught and released five nice trout, along with a few small ones. A good outing. He heard the hawk once more. For a moment he wondered if any of the body parts, bones perhaps, of the men he had killed were still lying at the bottom of the jungle rivers.

Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia, and is an award-winning writer from Southeastern Writers Association. He has had many short stories published, online and in print.

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