An old man rolls over in his bed, straining under the weight of his eyelids until, with a grunt, he peels them back enough to see. His elbows pop and his knees crackle as he slides his feet to the floor. He sits at the edge of his bed, fighting the urge to flop back down and take another hour or two back from the day. Eventually, he agrees to stand up.
The old man shuffles his dry, sore feet across the hardwood floors into the kitchen. With the click of a switch that is too loud, and the flash of a light that is too bright, the last couple night roaches scatter from their crumb searching. The old man starts the drip coffee maker and pours himself a bowl of Cheerios and milk. As the crunching fills his ears and the coffee fills his nose, he finally dares to looks at the clock. 5:00 am. He woke up later than intended.
The Cheerios and coffee, accompanied by a glass of water and two Advil, help him shrug off the last bit of sleep from between his shoulders. He starts the coffee maker again and proceeds with his morning. Teeth brushed, face splashed and hair combed, the old man slips into a familiar pair of jeans and one of his many long sleeve, plaid shirts. A khaki vest and bucket hat finish off his ensemble, both festooned with hooks, baubles and the faint smell of bait and algae. He tucks his fishing rod under one arm, a thermos of coffee under the other, and heads to the truck with his cooler. His boat, Crooked Shore, is still hitched to the pick-up from yesterday. After checking that he has all of his supplies, the old man drives to his normal spot.
The marina is empty this morning so the old man takes his time as he launches Crooked Shore, humming an old Beatles’ tune as he works. He sets course for a hollow log he discovered yesterday. After dropping anchor and threading his line, the old man sits back with another cup of coffee and enjoys the sunrise. The light slides over the surface of the water, creeps over the railing of the boat and melts the tension from the old man’s neck. With his thermos empty, the old man finally baits his hook and drops his line into the water.
Almost immediately a fish takes his line. The old man sets the hook and reels in the fish with little struggle. As the fish is pulled closer to the side of the boat, the old man puts the rod down and lands the fish by hand. He always found it a nuisance yanking the fish into the boat and chasing it around the deck. With the fish in sight, the old man grabs it by lower jaw and pulls in a foot long silver trout. It is a good-sized fish with plenty of meat for a meal. The old man thanks the trout, removes the hook and kisses it before throwing it back in the water. He has no plans of going in soon and did not like the idea of the trout sitting in his cooler for the next few hours. Besides, his fridge was full enough that he could hold out for a bigger one.
For the next few hours the old man fishes: a couple of trout no larger than the first one, a large mouth bass that gave him a pretty good fight, as well as a salmon which was uncharacteristic for this time of year. He kept the salmon, anticipating smoking it to make it last, but threw the rest back. As the bites came fewer and farther between, the old man knew he had been spotted. Snag enough fish in one spot and the rest eventually catch on. The only fish he was landing now were the naïve adolescents. When his stomach protested loudly enough, the old man pulled up anchor and set out back to the marina for a quick lunch.
Ruth’s lunch wagon was right where it always was: under a tree on the near side of the parking lot. Ruth greeted the old man with a wave and a free tuna sandwich.
“Leftovers,” she said. “It was supposed to be my lunch, but Harry got me a breakfast burrito this morning and now I feel too fat to eat anything else.”
“Thanks, Ruth. You’re too kind to me sometimes.” The old man buys a coke and a bag of chips from her to round out the meal. He also didn’t want to feel like a freeloader. On the way back to the Crooked Shore, the old man bumps into Harry who shows him a picture of a large, three-foot long rainbow trout he caught yesterday.
“Sucker gave me a good fight, so I had to keep it.” Harry says. “Of course lord knows how long it will take me to eat.”
“Sounds like you’ll need help,” the old man says with a smirk. Harry laughs and slaps his back. The old man invites Harry over for a beer later that night, as long as he brings some of the trout.
At the dock, the old man notices an unfamiliar boat being launched by a young man in cut-off jeans and a tank top. The old man offers a friendly wave and is met with unexpected conversation.
“Howdy! The name is Mark.” The young man extends his hand.
“I know,” Mark says, wrestling with the hitch on his trailer. “New guy, crowding up the water. Just trying to grab something for the barbeque tonight. How’s the water?” Mark pounds on the hitch trying to release the boat.
“Swell,” the old man says, reaching over to release the safety lock on Mark’s hitch.
“Thanks.” Mark shakes his head and lowers the boat into the water. “It’s actually my dad’s. Guess I have to get used to it.”
“No problem. Good luck out there.” The old man starts to walk away.
“Hey,” Mark stops him. “This is probably a pain of me to ask, but would you have any advice on where to catch a trout?”
The old man directs him towards the hollow log. Mark thanks the old man and sets off. The old man sets off as well, eating his lunch while he finds a new spot. He is happy that he had helped a new fisherman, while at the same time happy to get him out of the way,
The old man settles on an eddy a few yards above a small portion of rapids. The bigger fish tend to frequent this quicker moving water as they can catch any small fish caught in the current. With a new surge of energy from lunch, the old man switches to a spoon lure. He casts the lure to one side of the eddy, and then bounces it across the bottom as he reels it back. This is a more strenuous form of fishing than he usually uses, but he enjoys the challenge. With bait, fishing is just a chance and waiting game. With a lure, the old man is employing strategy. He must place the lure in the correct spot, work it to dupe the fish into biting, then set the hook at just the right time before the fish spits the lure back out. He works this way for another hour, missing a few bites. Annoyed at his lack of timing, the old man considers trying a new strategy. On his last chance cast, however, something takes the lure and he sets the hook perfectly.
The struggle the old man was looking for began. In calmer waters, the fish at the end of the line would have been easier to reel in. In this eddy, however, the old man must fight the current, not just the fish. The strategic battle is now is an endurance trial. The old man must outlast the fish. He lets the fish run the drag as it struggles. When the fish stops to recover, the old man reels it in. The fish runs the drag again, and the old man reels again. This ebb and flow continues for another fifteen minutes. While not the biggest fish the old man has ever faced, it was the biggest he’s felt in a while. The drag runs, then he reels it back. It runs again, he reels it back again.
At the thirty minute mark the fish seems resigned to its fate. The periods of struggle grow shorter and shorter. The fish’s tail breaks the surface before one final run. As the fish nears the boat, the old man slips on a pair of gloves to grab it. Hand over hand, he pulls in the line till he sees a wide, toothless mouth. He grabs the lower jaw and, after a few attempts, heaves the catfish over the side of the boat. The old man flops on the deck next to the fish, unconcerned that his butt is now wet. While he catches his breath, he admires the muscled beast he just hauled in.
The fish was nearly the length of his arm and twice the width of his leg. The old man laughs out loud. Even with the struggle, he did not anticipate it being this large. He pats its head and digs for his camera. He snaps a few pictures. One of just the fish, another with his leg in the picture for scale, and a third with himself in it giving a thumbs-up. He then takes his bail bucket and pours a little water over the drying catfish. It snorts a few times and flops around, apparently having regained some strength.
“You gave me a hell of a fight, old man.” He pats the catfish again and it snorts. After a few more moments of rest, the old man tells the fish about a catfish fry he once had with his kids. He even told the fish his secret rub recipe.
“So,” the old man stands up and hoists the fish onto the railing of the boat. “That’s what you have to look forward to the next time I catch you.” He lowers the fish back into the water and holds it till it swims away.
The old man looks at his pictures of the fish as he drives back to the marina. “You’re just lucky I have trout to eat tonight,” he thinks.
When the old man gets home, he changes out of his wet clothes, throws charcoal in the barbeque and puts some beer on ice. He grabs his pad of paper from in the house and plants a chair next to the grill to baby-sit the coals.
As the sun goes down and Harry makes his way over, the old man looks at the picture of the catfish once more. He stuffs it in his pocket and fishes out a pen. With his friend in route, and a cold beer resting in his hand, the old man sits down and begins to write.