Editor's note: this is part 2 of a 2-part story. Part 1 is here.
The spinner whirled beneath the branches of the hackberry and stopped. I reared back, irritated, knowing I would have to wade in and probably go under water to retrieve it. The hole would be ruined for the rest of the afternoon. The bass fisherman in me, always looking for the ultimate weedless rig, hook points embedded in the plastic worm, rubber frog with hooks out of sight inside, was disgusted by the exposed treble on the weighted Aglia. It was just a loss waiting to happen. A great fish erupted from the hole and shot over the shallows at its downstream edge, its multihued back clear of the water, spray flying from the swing of its tail. The spinner was stuck in the deep hook of its’ upper jaw. I gaped but kept the rod tip up and held on. The commotion was outrageous, totally out of place along this placid creek. I had then a Zebco Cardinal spinning reel which was the finest fishing reel that I have ever owned. The drag fed smoothly as the trout made a long run downstream, then turned and came all the way back, snagging the line in the hackberry and burning up current. I jumped in the water and freed the line, followed him. At another cattle ford not far away, after ten minutes of watching him circle the shallows like some dramatic aquarium show, I landed him. I had never fought a fish like that, had never seen a “run,” though of course I had read about them in the magazines. The fish lay on the gravels at my feet. I had never seen a big rainbow in the flesh. I was suddenly terrified that someone had seen the fight, and I looked around wildly at the empty woods and fields. The fish gaped, its huge hooked jaws working. I quieted the shaking in my hands and popped the spinner loose, and I turned him right side up in the water, which was so cold on my hands that it seemed a miracle that such a creature could live in it. I knew that if I picked him up, he would thrash out of my hands and hit the gravel and kill himself. I knew this for a fact. His body felt as cold and hard as a stone. His tail was large enough that I could grasp it in one hand and move him back and forth, reviving him, as I had seen it done in the magazines, and as I had done with bass. I figured him to weigh at least four pounds. He swam away slowly across the shallows, turned and disappeared into the shoalwater, heading back under the hackberry. I caught this fish once more, a month or so later, and many times he followed my spinners out into the open where I could marvel at him. I called him “trout under the tree,” and many nights, lying awake in my bed, I thought of him there, hunting, drifting in the hyper-aerated wash under the hackberry limbs, powerful and alive.
I guess I fished the creek twenty times that summer. Most days, I caught nothing, or only chubs, but there were those afternoons, mostly in the brooding low pressure hours before a thunderstorm, when I would hook and release two or three rainbows in the two to four pound range. There was a watercress farm upstream not far from where the trout ponds used to be, and a group of nomadic Mexicans worked there cutting the cress and banding it into small bundles. They talked as they worked along in the ponds, and the sound of Spanish, which I had never really heard before, was like a strange poetry coming through the woods. The watercress farm had a pipe that drained off warm water from the ponds into the creek, and for fifty feet downstream there was green algae and duckweed growing, and no trout. Just upstream from the pipe was a place I called “the slots,” where the creek passed over a huge band of moss covered rock, and was for the most part less than a foot deep. There were passages eroded through the rock band that were free of moss and carried about three feet of water. This was one of only two places on the creek where I caught small trout. I assumed that the biggest trout were original escapees from the ponds, but these smaller fish, found only in that one stretch, suggested that at least some of the escapees had successfully spawned in the years since the ponds had washed out.
Sometimes I would see big fish, twenty inches or more, in “the slots,” but they were exceptionally wary, and they disappeared under ledges or into the moss when I made my first cast. The smaller fish would follow the spinner, snapping at it, and would usually take it just as it passed up into the shallows from the narrow channels. It was in this stretch one day that I watched a snapping turtle, as big as the proverbial washtub, rise up out of one of the channels and swim gracefully past me downstream, the ridge of his shell sticking up out of the water, the rest of it trailing a six inch fur of black moss. How old would a turtle like that be? What could it have seen with its tiny yellow eyes in all those many years? Not far away was the town of Plevna, where Confederate and Federal forces skirmished during the War Between the States. I liked to think of the turtle then, small, new to the world, drifting along in this same cold water, diving at the approach of cavalry, the sound of shod horses bolting across the ford.
One twilight, late in June, I cut across through the fenced thicket to reach my truck, and I found out why the men in the Nova had followed me. After an initial concealing wall of greenery and second growth, the thicket had been partially cleared and tilled. A couple of five gallon buckets rested in the weeds beside an opened sack of triple thirteen fertilizer. Marijauna plants, about thirty of them, were planted in a kind of shotgun pattern on the cleared ground. The plants were already about five feet tall, and heavy with leaf. I stood stock still, surveying the thicket all around. It had rained hard in early afternoon, and then the sun had returned with fierce intensity. The smell of the dope and the wet thicket and the turned earth was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I eased back the way I had come, doing my best to cover my tracks in the red mud. After that I parked at a turnout far upstream, and walked down.
In parking upstream, I discovered another stretch of the creek that I had not reached before. There was a long, shallow flat, just above a shoal, and below the big shadowed pool where the cave added its waters. I had brought a friend with me, a boy who had showed me a remarkable spot to fish for smallmouths and flathead catfish in a small river nearby that I had completely overlooked. We had been bowfishing partners the summer before, stalking carp in the shallows of a creek that fed into the Tennessee River. He loved to fish, but, most important to me, he attached no special significance to trout. He was obsessed with big bass, and with the spotted gar that could be shot with a bow from the platform of his daddy’s bass boat. I trusted him, and as far as I know, he never told of the events of that day.
We went first to the big cave, because he had never seen it and like me was fascinated by the intricate systems of limestone caverns and subterranean waters that ran beneath the country where we spent all our time. It was another humid, glaring hot day, and the pastures that we crossed were full of hoppers, all kinds, the heavy red-winged kind, the delicate green, the ones with spotted wings that flew for fifty yards when you jumped them. In the hot sun it was almost impossible to catch them, though we tried for awhile, until the sun bore down on us like a load of iron, and we made for the creek. The banks were high above the water, and we could look down and see the bottom all the way across. The trees on both sides of the creek were engulfed in poison ivy, and poison ivy ran along the ground and grew waist high over old deadfall and a stack of rotted cedar posts draped with the remnants of a barbwire fence. There was no way to cast.
There were a half dozen rainbows in a kind of wolf pack scattered across the shallows. They were bigger than the ones that I had caught downstream, and one of them was truly a giant. My friend, bass angler and rough fish hunter that he was, was nevertheless struck speechless by the sight of those trout. We both made a couple of attempts to cast, and both of us either got hung up in the poison ivy or could not reach the fish. After I slammed a spinner down not three feet away from the largest trout, they all whirled upstream and settled into the dark hole near the cave. We cast into it, but without results. I convinced my friend to give it up for awhile, and let them get over their fright, and we set off downstream, wading up to our chests, casting, occasionally letting ourselves drop all the way under water to escape the heat. I set my spinning rod on the bank and lay down in the water at the head of a shoal near to where the “trout under the tree” lived, and I let the current take me down as if I were a dead man. I had on blue jeans and basketball shoes, and my feet bounced along the cobbles and sand of the bottom. I opened my eyes and let the shifting blue green world have me, rolling me against the bottom, until it dumped me into the hole under the hackberry tree, and spun me once, weightlessly, freezing cold, joyful, before I had to come up for air. I remember standing up on a ridge of shifting fine brown sand and the air being filled with the noise of katydids and cicadas, and the light so hot, so bright coming down through the trees, all an opposite to the cold, muted underwater realm. I loved that place, that creek, those thickets. Walking or swimming there was to travel a rich border land between two worlds. It gave me goosebumps, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up in a rush of joy and wonder.
It was late afternoon when we started back upstream, on the opposite side of the creek from the marijuana plantation. At the edge of a close-cropped pasture, a cicada spiraled down from the branches of a big red oak and crashed into the grass, buzzing like a rattlesnake. I picked him up and carefully eased him into the back pocket of my jeans. When we got back to the flats, the trout were back in position. A grasshopper or katydid drifted above them, and three of them moved on it, though only the largest actually rose. His nose broke the surface and he took in the big bug, then dropped back into place. My friend had a small leather fly case, like a wallet, that he kept his spinners and small plugs in. There was also a chewed-up red plastic worm, a Mann’s strawberry, texas -rigged on a #4 light wire hook. He pulled the worm off the hook and gave the hook to me, and I carefully tied it on my line. “I’ll stay here and spot,” he said, “see if you can get one on a drift.”
I went up to the cave, where there was a path that led down through the poison ivy to the edge of the water. There was an old gourd dipper hanging from a nail driven into the bark of a locust tree there, and plastic jugs scattered around where somebody had been hauling drinking water.
I took the cicada out of my pocket and threaded him onto the hook, putting the point directly through his thorax. The cicada made a short buzz and spread its wings, and I felt bad for killing it. I waded out across the mouth of the cave, and there was something very spooky about the ferns and moss that overhung the entrance, the carpet of moss that obscured the bottom, where my feet sank out of sight, and a tan mud squished out at every step and drifted like a cloud of light smoke behind me. I felt better when I got away from the cave and out onto the gravel bottom of the flat. I gently tossed the cicada onto the surface of the water, and opened the bail on my reel. The current was slight, just enough to keep the cicada moving against the drag of the line.
My friend was standing in the greenery, watching intently. “Almost there,” he said in a loud whisper. I didn’t want him to talk anymore. The cicada was about forty feet down stream from me, and I could still see it as a blob if I kept my eyes on it. A ripple appeared in front of it, then it disappeared and the slack whipped out of the line. “He’s got it!” my friend yelled, “Hit him!”
I had been live baiting for bass alot that summer, and had missed a lot of strikes by setting the hook too soon. I left the bail open, and stripped five feet of line, then closed the bail and got ready. When that slack came out the fluid weight of the fish came into the rod and I reared back and set the hook.
The first run of the trout cleared that stretch of the creek. Trout came by me like arrows, shooting for the shelter of the cave pool. The drag hummed, and I just held on until I realized the fish was taking the last of the line. I put the rod up straight and tried to turn him, but he kept on running downstream. I began to flail along, running in the thigh-deep water, reeling like a madman. I fell, and he turned at the lip of a shoal about sixty yards away. I gained twenty feet, and then he just stopped, feeling like a sunken suitcase on the line. I waded toward him, reeling, slower and more controlled now. If I spooked him down that shoal, he would be gone for good. “He’s going under the cutbank!” my friend yelled and I eased on more pressure, trying to turn him away. I could see the overhang that he was under, curtained with tree roots and hung with flood trash. I assumed then that he was gone. My friend plunged into the water in front of the cutbank, trying to scare him out. I guess it is clear that we wanted that fish bad.
It worked. The trout left his sanctuary of snags and took off towards me, heading for the cave pool, but I kicked and stomped my feet and turned him before he came past me. I waded very slowly down to a gravel bar at the lip of the shoals and, after a stalemate of maybe fifteen minutes, landed him in three inches of water.
He looked like pictures I had seen of salmon in Alaska. The hook was in the roof of his mouth, easily accessible, and I already knew that I was going to let him go. “Man, I’ve never seen the like of that in my life,” said my friend. We squatted beside the fish and marveled. “What are you gonna do with him?” “Turn him loose,” I said, “I don’t think I’d ever sleep another night in my life if I killed something like that. And besides, everybody and his brother would want to know where it came from.” I glared at my friend until he spat, indignantly, “I sure as hell ain’t gonna tell anybody. What do you think I am, anyway?” I twisted the hook out and got my hands under the fish and lifted him, just for a second, to see how heavy he felt. “I say six pounds,” I said, but I would not let my friend hold him. As bass fishermen, we didn’t think about how many inches he was, but if I were asked now, I would say twenty-eight. He was enormously thick behind the head, I assume because he lived in a place where food was pretty much always available, twelve months a year. I worked him back and forth until he shivered in my hands and swam forward, very slowly, and disappeared under the cutbank.
I was seized with a destructive restlessness over the course of that next winter, and I skipped so many days of high school that I finally just dropped out altogether. I got my driver’s license and spent a lot of time in town, and then, when my license was taken away for too many tickets and other infractions, I left for Florida, to pick oranges and try to see something of the world.
I didn’t come back to fish the Mountain Fork for almost three years. By then the county had already built a concrete bridge across it, just above the cave, and they had cleared about ten acres of thicket and timber beside it so the sun fell flat and harsh on the mouth of the cave. The cleared place was a mire of red clay, and when it rained the upper creek was stained with red mud. The culverts on the new bridge had washed out a nice deep hole on the downstream side, and I caught two medium sized trout there, both about a foot long. The mystery was still there, as to whether there was a self-sustaining, spawning population of rainbows in a creek that everyone ignored.
I thought maybe the trout had spread much further downriver than I had suspected when I first fished the creek, and I spent a few days fishing downriver from the bad bridge, which had been torn out and replaced with a straight white concrete model that could be driven over at any speed. On these trips I caught only chubs and a few brim on my spinners. That part of the creek was full of trash tossed off the bridge and carried downstream, bright plastic bottles, baby diapers, whole Hefty bags stuffed full and bursting. One dismal afternoon I snagged a small drowned dog, bloated and hairless, with a rope tied around its neck leading away to some heavy weight, a concrete block maybe. After that I gave up.
It has always haunted me that if I had told people about the record rainbow trout, some wealthy sportsman of Huntsville, Alabama, might have tried to buy the land on either side for his or her own private trophy trout fishing, and though I would have been barred from it, the creek would have been saved. Secrecy proved to be a dangerous power in this case, closely aligned with a simple odious selfishness. I might do it differently if had it to do over again, and then again I might not. There would be people wanting to stock the creek with more and more fish, people wanting this, wanting that. The banks would be stomped down, the big snapper shot, the queen snakes chopped with the shovels of worm diggers. The wild haired marijuana farmers would have to move further into the hills. Of course, these things will probably happen anyway, as the new pumping station is built.
The most careless reader of history will tell you that every generation of mankind has had some ruinous burden to bear. There have been plagues and wars and economic disasters, and the afflicted generations mostly weathered them all. For me, and for the many men and women whose souls are most at ease when their minds and bodies are closely involved with the natural world, the ruinous burden is the destruction of places like Mountain Fork Creek. The list of these destructions is endless, growing exponentially with the burgeoning and voracious human population. People like us do not figure in the ridiculous computations of economists, in the headlong worship of Mammon that holds our governments in such thrall. We may be in rapid decline, just like many of the wild creatures and wild places that we love. It is true that I left behind the honorable fight for the wild places of my home state, and settled in the West, where the hunting and fishing and landscapes that I loved were more close at hand. In my settling I have, of course, diluted the wildness of the place I have come to, and I must bear witness to the thousands of people coming here as I did, seeking the things that I seek, and diluting it still further.
In all this lamentation there is a simple hymn, sung in faith and optimism. It is a song of rich waters, and fish, and the love of them. Its refrain is the sound of the world—the roar of winter wind through bare branches, rain falling on green thickets, a cacophony of insects, water pouring through the spaces between stones. The human voice is not absent. What fool would deny the place of man? What other creature looks upon the patterns of a trout and sees there a distillation of all that is wonderful and mysterious about that other nation whose affairs are conducted beneath the shadowed waters? Deepest green, marble white, the entire spectrum patterned on the side of a fish, take this gift, listen to the hymn. Sing. Find the words within the song that honor your own Mountain Fork Creek, and know that the song goes on forever, if it exists now it exists for all time. Colliding asteroids and collapsing suns and Armageddon are mere concepts, nebulous and irrelevant, tricks of the same gift that allows the appreciation of color and light. Pick a stone from the bottom of a creek, any creek, anywhere, clean, polluted, it does not matter. Study the stone as it rests on the flesh of your hand, the transient and the ancient together. Your task, the song that will be sung of you, is to perceive the glory and the beauty of creation. Look carefully, make the song as powerful as possible. Bear your burden. Sing.