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A Man And His River

This book is looking for a home, and a publisher with an interest in the chapter below can get in touch with me.

Chapter 15: The Kings of the River

The king is dead. Long live the king.
– King Henry V

Seldom are we are given the privilege of seeing coho larger than 20 pounds. Even more seldom the chance of catching them. But I have caught the Kings of the rivers. Each year they come to me. Fish so large they fight like Chinook, and the depth of their bellies before the anal fin convinces me the fish in the air 100 yards downstream must actually be one.

And there is a ritual for the Kings: you must let them go. You must recognize them for who they are and release them gently. And in the many times I follow the ritual, I wonder if rituals are the brain’s way of making up for our loss of instinct, or a compulsion to make the events of our life take on higher meaning. I cannot kill these important contributors to the river’s gene pool, even though it is legal for me to do so. in most years.

It is early, with the rain coming down my windshield and the mud slapping it in the face. Then the squish through dying red ferns and down the mud gulley, across the broken cedar that has burst open its red song from so many boots to its ribs. Then through the willows that weren’t here at the Seam five years ago. Now they are a fretwork of branches, stumps as much as four inches thick and the tops as much as 15 feet in the air.

On this ‘wet coast’ day it is October and the rains have begun in earnest. Water runs down my neck and into my down vest. Grey clouds rush through rags of moss hung from limbs of Douglas fir. Downstream from where I stand, the summer river was a flat stretch of knee deep water. But now, in the late months, terra firma is under water a good eight feet. And at the Seam, I am standing waist deep on tons of gravel pushed down from the logging clear cut that 100 years ago loosed them from where they were netted by root and moss and salal.

The first cast and my rod tip receives the rubber jerk that identifies a coho. (They bite as you would expect). No charm. No subtlety. A smash and run so that in their turning, there is no mistaking that a fish has struck – it hooks itself, you hold on. And this the first cast into the grey of early day. And when it has swum to the other side of the river and turned downstream, and when the level-wind is cinched so tight as to strain 20 pound test, line is grudgingly gained. And it is lost again.

The first cast, the first of the Kings. I have been asked to bring one home for a soirée to benefit the local hospital. Closer now the King pushes water aside on his transit into the trees. I have to drop my rod in the water and yank on the line. The coho roll is perfected among willow, thigh deep in water; tangled before my stringer comes from the pocket of my yellow rain coat.

In my first attempt to put the metal needle through the gills and through the mouth, the fish coughs; like a human trying to rid its throat of blockage. I stand back holding the line, the eyes of the silver fish upon me. And I am ashamed for taking this fish, knowing that I will kill a King. The next plunge, the needle goes cleanly through gill and mouth, and then through the ring on the stringer. The blue line I tie around a willow, something that is contrary to the rules – if you catch a fish and intend to keep it, you must kill it at that time. You cannot keep it on a line as I am doing.

I am keeping it alive, this first fish of the day, because I want it in good condition at the end of the day. The sky keeps raining and the river keeps rising. Electricity is in the air, a period of hours the coho are so jazzed up I can feel it stir my own body.

I am managing the school. This concept I developed when I understood I could increase the number of fish caught – and carefully released – by forming a 3D image of the school within the 3D image of the bottom. And this works better for coho on a rainy day. It works better in coloured water.

It goes like this: once I have caught a fish I fish that vein until it goes dry. Then I cast inside the school for the ones that did not see the other fish bite. Then I cast behind, then to the outside and then in front. I change my position because these are coho; moving two steps down or two steps up is enough to bring my blade at an angle different enough that it will trigger a bite. And because these are coho, I change colours, once I have taken as many fish as I can take. In my river, the progression is silver, brass, gold, and, finally, chartreuse in the luminous winter.

One of the purposes of managing a school, though it works more frequently with chum, is to keep the school in a place that is easiest to trigger a strike. By casting around the school you can make the fish close in on one another and, as a group, move up or down the river, closer to shore or farther away. Part of the reason is also to keep some of the fish unbothered for awhile. So they forget they or their buddies are being slipped from the group. I keep in mind the water I have not cast to for, say, fifteen minutes and then come back to it. In this way I catch almost triple the fish that I would, if I only moved through the school on a beat down the river.

As the morning opens more of its grey, the willows behind me shake, for the Kings of the river retain full power and the bushes shake so visibly, a conservation officer would know there was a live fish within 10 feet of me. I am worried about being caught, but not as much as I am ashamed.

And then looking up, as I do so often, and saying, mentally, what, what is happening? Oh, yes, the bite has ended. I can feel it end. The river has risen so I have to wade the sweepered seasonal stream, holding branches, legs like scarecrows in wind.

I take my leave, walking through the forest, trunks so large I can only hold onto bark to pull myself up the muddy trail. Then the car beats up over the rain and the steam is on the windshield as I bump past Red Rock Pool, past the Road Pool and pull into the boat launch above the bridge. The gravel wash is evidence of days when the river spills its bank almost 10 feet above the summer water level.

I wade down into the cut for launching boats and stumble over rocks gathered, on a dryer day, to form a fire circle. Here the wash is almost chest deep, and I can get no farther than the willows that guard the entrance. There is a very wet guy on the rock above the back eddy, casting and casting his dink float and piece of orange wool, out into the speeding water, and swinging it into the circle of the back eddy.

Again and again his cast reaches out, the plop of pencil lead, the swirl of dink float like an orange human head being swept away. He has been casting this way – as I will find out -all morning. As I have mentioned in another story of this river, this back eddy is so pronounced you can stand ‘downstream’ from it and cast your lure into the branches where the water flows upstream near to the shoreline willows with their leaves turning silver in the wind.

On my first cast, only ten feet, the pentangle kype of a splendid coho whacks the shiny lure. On the second, I cast another five feet farther back and another coho intercepts the thumping lure. Then another five feet, and then closer to shore, and then into the far branches and then at the feet of the angler. Here a minty, ten-pound, silver coho leaps into the air in front of his face. His eyes penetrate mine, and he is wet, in his wool toque, water down his face.

I haul myself up among the branches and take the up and over route, around and under the branches of a cedar tree. My feet descend steps of root polished by boots. I am told he has caught two fish this day. And I see why: he is performing exactly the same cast and has been doing so for five hours without much success – even though the coho porpoise with excitement. In my first half hour here, I have taken three times the number of fish, some right under his feet. He pulls his tether up on his shoulder and squelches up the path to his car. He turns the key not realizing he could have taken a dozen coho had he just understood a bit more of their behaviour. I stand on the rock with the river sweeping around the corner and over my boots.

In my time there, the water keeps rising. It comes with the sound of trees from above, a kind of boiling without heat. Water billows from bottom rocks and when it hits the surface it is breath let out by a magnificent, invisible animal. Behind me water spills over the rock and I am left on a red iron-oxide chunk as the river continues coming until I need to brace myself across the current to keep from being carried away. The river has now almost reached the wheels of my car on the gravel above the launch. It has risen another two feet in three hours.

It is late and I have a date to keep. The sun is filtering from the sky like the way life leaves a person lived long and died gently, died with the knowledge that he or she is dying, and has surrendered to that without belief in resurrection, or with belief… that hardly matters, matters only that resolution with the end has been achieved.

I drive back down to the little bridge above the Seam and pull myself up and through the branches, down the muddy gulley, over the burst-open red log. The river has risen here, too, and the light is retreating. I cross the seasonal stream, holding branches so it does not push me away. I stand right in front of the last willow, up to my belly button, backed into it as far as I can be.

Coho increase biting in the time when the greatest rain comes down. They do so in preparation for moving up the seasonal creek to sex and death. Instead of casting out into a seam that is being pushed over by the main river flow, I put my rod tip down directly beside me. Less than 3 feet from my leg, it is here that the coho will begin their move up the creek even though I cannot see my feet and cannot see the fish. The lure is three feet from my boots when yank, it is pulled away and into the greater current by a red regalia coho that I release with my red handled pliers held, as I have said, at ready in my mouth.

When I let the fish go, I rest my rod on the surface, river moving up my left sleeve to my elbow. The spinner twinkles, inches from the rod tip when there is a splash and the line tugs out into the river once more. When this fish is released I leave the lure spinning on the surface at the rod tip. Behind it a seal pops up – 20 miles from the ocean – giving me a heart attack. It is now I think of my gonads, underwater, unprotected, the seal less than a body’s length from them that cannot be seen.

Spooked, I turn in the wind of water, reach across to the willow on the other side of the creek and my feet leave the bottom as I hang on drifting among the stumps. There are perhaps 30 of them, and I cannot see the one where I left the tether. In fact I can not even see the tether. The river has, over the hours, pushed in branches and woven them together in a tight glumph. I lift my neoprene leg over some and start at the beginning. My arms reach down the first stump.

Then I move among the branches to the next stump and my hands reach down until my face comes down to water level. The rising water has taken my tether from the surface and put it down so far I cannot feel it the length of my arm. I am crawling under and over the branches and logs and flotsam in the dying light of day. When I contact the tether, I can feel it but not see it. My body is half floating on the branches caught there and my head is underneath a long yellow pole pushed in and held against a wooden fencepost and tumbleweed flotsam.

The 4:30 light leaves only grey. With one hand and arm down into the water, my waders begin shipping the cold that gasps my body without will. I feel for the first knot and untangle the needle through it, then the next and the next and the next.

The fish pushes against my knee, but I cannot see down through the vegetation, the wood, the branches – the endless branches. Heaving on the line achieves nothing. The fish has wound so completely in the dozens of stumps, I can pull as hard as I want and not retrieve it.

It occurs to me I could die here when the branches push against me so hard I will not be able to move. Then the river will rise until it is above my lips and even before my eyes disappear I will be choking on the river that is my own – for the last time.

My gutting knife is pulled from the pack on my back, and I reach down into the unseen water, holding my breath. The fish I bump upon and seize its gill through to its mouth. With my left hand the knife saws the blue tether that I cannot see, until it breaks and I break the surface, waders filled with water, tugging at the fish with both hands.

We could have died there among the willows, but as it is, I walk away from danger – again. Waders the size of Alley Oop, holding the gagging fish in both fists, I stretch from the water and fall with my heavy breath into the forest full of rain. This is how a King is retrieved. This is when he dies.

Jittery success follows me all the way home. Turning in on the wet forest road called Linnet Lane, I come from the dark two hours to offer up my portion of charity. A 20 pound coho, from its long green garbage bag into the sink. Then the leaves are washed away, the head removed, the tail, so the King is simply meat, flesh that another animal consumes. And the only animal that can raise the death of another, because we can think it, and speak upon its death.

My niece of the brown eyes and blonde hair, Amanda, sits with her graphs and text books. Economics. And in my excitement I offer my assessment: “Economics has no heart. It is based upon models that do not obtain in the real world. The assumption, for instance, that a rational consumer will buy more of a commodity if he has more money.”

“Well,” Amanda says without looking up, “Every room of the mind has within it the seeds of its own rationality.”

“Ah,” I say, “Post modernism meets the science without a heart.”

And later, driving home dark, my body in the wetness of my clothes. I am ashamed, for I did not know my niece was majoring in economics and will be getting her degree and has the highest marks in her class and is thinking of working at the Bank of Canada, and thence a masters, at MIT. I have rained upon her parade. I have also killed a King. Long live the King.

2,837 Words.