Mom sent me on those fishing trips with Dad in hopes my presence would curb his drinking. He had a penchant for country bars, often hitting every one between the stream and home. By the time he pulled into our driveway he reeked of alcohol and fish. He was staggering and, in my mom's Irish terms, "fighty."
Whether or not his drinking slowed when I started tagging along, I don't know. He'd stop at bars that had dollar bills posted on the walls with peoples' names written on them in black marker. The lighting was always dim and yellow, yet still bright enough that the bartender looked menacing as he said, "That kid can't be in here, Boyd."
Dad slid onto a stool anyway, laid a twenty on the counter, and told me to go wait in the parking lot. So I could never really monitor how much he drank, could only measure by the sway in his gait or how often the pickup swerved into the other lane —then he'd snap into awareness and say, "I'm just trying to give you a scare." Once he swerved too much and almost didn't correct in time. A horn blared and our pickup nearly blew apart from the rush of a passing semi.
I gripped the armrest so tight the muscles in my forearms ached. I didn't dare blink let alone sleep —every time I closed my eyes I saw oncoming headlights. Even at twelve years old I could think of better ways to die.
Dad found a second wind once we got home. I tried to slip upstairs unnoticed. "Where do you think you're going?" he said. "Trying to run away from work? A fisherman cleans his catch, Jim."
We each grabbed an end of the heavy cooler and carried it down to the basement sink. Dad flipped open the cooler lid. Three long steelhead, faded to silver, floated belly up in the melted ice.
Although I had caught none of them, it was my job to clean the fish. He handed me a fillet knife —dull but I never said anything in fear he'd try to sharpen it while drunk —and got himself a beer out of the basement fridge.
I gutted his fish by inserting the knife in the anus and slicing up to the gills. I'd then cut the head off and pull the head and guts out in one motion. Dad drank while I scraped away the fish's liver, the dark strip against the backbone, and rinsed the fish in clean water.
"That was the second one I caught," he said. "Probably the biggest damned fish in the whole place and I got him. Nobody else could've landed that fish. I know how to play them, Jim. I'm the best."
And I better never forget it.
But it was strange that he only caught fish when I wasn't around —a fact he blamed on my chronic bad luck. The big one, for instance, was landed while I was upstream trying to find a place to squeeze in between guys. Steelhead fishing was taken quite seriously in western Pennsylvania and fishermen numbers often rivaled that of the fish. Really good pools were elbow to elbow so that you could hardly cast without snagging each other's lines. Nobody was willing to let a twelve year old fish beside them and risk untangling lines all day. Often I found myself, like the steelhead, wandering upstream in search of somewhere better. And always, when I returned, Dad would have his limit of fish.
"It's not my fault you're never around," he said, cracking open another beer.
I lifted the next steelhead out of the cooler and placed it in the sink. Like the other two, it had a long gash on its side, back near the tail, and I asked why.
"How should I know! They're spawned out. Probably been rubbing against rocks all winter." He chugged his beer.
I didn't ask again, even though the fish he caught in October, fresh in from Lake Erie, had similar markings near their tails or dorsal fins or on their bellies.
By March I still hadn't caught a steelhead, which was no big deal in itself —I'd talked to many folks who had yet to catch one. Steelhead were a peculiar fish, finicky at times with no regard for fishermen. The best spot to catch them was Manchester Pool where they stacked up like cord wood and competition with each other over food resulted in their individual demise. Still, many folks resisted fishing Manchester Pool for that exact reason. They wanted to fish somewhere more challenging and where it wasn't elbow to elbow the entire length of the pool.
Not my dad, however. He'd wait an hour or more for someone to leave so he could take that person's spot. He fished Manchester Pool every weekend, clear through winter because the weather stayed unusually mild. Ice built up on the shores, but the water was swift and resisted freezing.
During the winter, Dad's shifts at the factory were reduced to four ten-hour days, which left him a three day weekend. He often had trouble getting up for work. Mom had to all but roll him out of bed and dress him to get him to work on time. It was the same if she needed him to go somewhere with her, to visit my grandparents or to church on Christmas, but the old man had no problems getting up to fish. No matter how early we left the house, four a.m. or earlier, we were always running late. You had to be walking up the stream in the dark to get a spot on Manchester Pool.
On the first Saturday in March, we headed north the two-hour drive to Walnut Creek. Darkness still flanked the interstate and only semis were on the road that early. The sky was clear and I could see the Pleiades and the string of stars that formed Orion in the northern sky. Soon, different constellations would fill the sky, and the steelhead would leave the streams —but both would return in the autumn.
Dad had gone the day before when I was in school and he had a hangover this morning. He didn't talk the whole way and he kept the radio off. He still smelled of fish and alcohol, having not showered since coming home from work Thursday evening. We stopped at a rest area and he got coffee out of a machine. Closer to Erie he stopped at a bait shop that opened at five. Sunrise was still over an hour away, but there were already four cars in the lot.
"Get the minnow bucket," Dad said.
I got the bucket out of the back of the truck and we went inside. Parker's Bait Shop was a place of wonder at any time of day, but particularly fascinating at five in the morning. People talked softly, eyes drooped and bloodshot, boots scuffing the floor as if they were too tired —or, as my mother would speculate, too lazy —to walk right.
The walls were covered with lures and plastic bags of fake worms, fake grubs, fake everything from Power Bait to salmon eggs of all colors and sizes. Most of the stuff was meant to attract fishermen rather than fish.
Behind the front counter, two old steel Coke machines were turned on their sides and filled with water. Filters aerated the water where a grizzled and hungover Bob Parker scooped netfuls of minnows into buckets.
I waited in line with Dad. To the left were racks of tee shirts with the slogan, "Steelhead is the best head," which I didn't understand completely but had a few ideas. Beside them were racks of fishing vests like the one my dad wore.
"Forget it," he said when he saw me checking them out.
Long-handled nets leaned in one corner.
"We need a net like that," I said.
"You have thirty bucks?"
"Then the net we have will work just fine."
Behind the counter, Bob Parker snapped the lid on someone's minnow bucket. "I can't believe what some guys will do to catch a fish," he told a customer. "Last week a guy threw a cherry bomb into The Falls. Fortunately there were only three or four fish still in the pool. But hell, I've even heard reports of guys resorting to snagging fish. They aren't good enough to make the fish bite and catch it fair and square, so they tie on a big treble hook and try to bury it into the fish's side." He shook his head pitifully. "The world is full of unethical assholes. That'll be $7.50."
The customer paid and Bob Parker made change.
When it was our turn, Dad asked for two dozen minnows —mostly for me; he'd use some of the salmon eggs —and grabbed a package of size 2 treble hooks. I'd never seen him buy treble hooks before. Steelhead had keen eyesight and usually smaller hooks worked best.
"Why do you need those?" I asked.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
Walnut Creek was low and clear. Temperatures had plummeted below freezing all week and resulted in miniature glaciers crowding the stream banks and islands of slush floating down the current. If it stayed cold much longer it would eventually freeze.
It was daylight by the time we parked and walked upstream. No chance of getting into Manchester Pool, which didn't bother Dad. He parked his butt on a glacier and waited for someone to leave. You never had to wait long, especially that early in the morning when it was coldest and everything felt like ice. Mostly it was the wind that beat you, always swirling in off the lake in a freezing madness. The river bottom was all shadow, an ice pit, and there was always someone who didn't dress appropriately for the cold and had to check out early. Dad would be there waiting.
"I'm going upstream," I said.
"What's the point? All the fish are here."
Looking into Manchester Pool, I didn't doubt it. Chances of finding fish upstream in March were slim. The fish were on their way out to Lake Erie with Manchester Pool usually being the last stop before total vacancy.
I shrugged. "Just to try."
"You're wasting your time."
"I want to fish."
"And I want to catch fish. But go ahead and go upstream. I don't care. Just don't drown. Your mother'd be pissed."
It wasn't hard to leave him or the roughly kazillion steelhead stacked into the long, deep pool. The fish were one mass of undulating fins, head to tail. There were hundreds of them, dark-bodied from the post-spawn, though occasionally a brighter, almost emerald-backed, fish fresh in off the lake —a late spawner. Sometimes, though very rarely, a fresh school worked up into the streams from Lake Erie in February or as late as March, but never stuck around very long before heading back out to the deep. Today all the fish in Manchester Pool were dark and wouldn't fight much compared to the fresh ones.
I tucked my chin against the wind and trudged upstream.
Walnut Creek got nicer the farther up I went. The lower half-mile was slow moving compared to the upper reaches. Farther up the stream began to bend more drastically and the silt bottom was replaced by large slabs of slate rock that looked like puzzle pieces snapped together beneath the water. Every pool was empty. I didn't even have to cast in a line to know that, the water was so clear.
I continued up beyond the place everyone called The Falls because a thick curtain of water rushed over a vehicle-sized rock creating a huge pool so deep you couldn't see the bottom. I didn't fish it, though. I walked farther on past where the houses neighbored the stream and beyond to where the houses stopped and there was only woods. The stream was narrower and more like a mountain stream that tumbled from high elevation. I could fascinate myself with the illusion of wilderness and being alone.
The water was loud, breaking over rocks —the current seemed to play a relentless, heart-breaking rhythm almost manic in its persistency, for couldn't one thin stream of water erode a rock over time?
Eventually I stopped. How far had I come? There was liberty there and I pictured my old man either still waiting or already on his way to another limit. How did he do it anyway? What made him so good? It had always been that way, since I was a kid and he brought home steelhead. Yet when he fished with his buddies from work he rarely caught anything.
"The beer," Dad said. "I got my limit of beer instead."
I tied on a hook and reached into the minnow bucket. A thin layer of ice crusted the surface and my hand felt frozen as I snatched a minnow and placed the hook through its lips. And then I looked up.
The pool was alive.
When you're young and listen to your father's stories of banner days —the times things worked perfectly and every fish was biting —you imagine a moment like this. It was impossible to count fish. They huddled together in a pool created by a flow of water over a downed tree, the tree fallen just since last week. The fish were spread out near the tail end of the pool and seemed to funnel into one uniformed mass of emeralds directly below the log. They nosed into the current but could go no farther.
I could only guess at their number, though one thing was certain: they were hungry. My first cast had barely touched the water before a sleek, fresh steelhead rose to inhale it.
Instantly the rod and reel came alive, twitching to its own pulse, line stripping out fast and steady. Without taking my eyes off the thrashing steelhead, I reached down and tightened the drag just a hair —not enough that it would be too tight and break the line. But resistance didn't matter, the line kept singing and my spool was almost empty, so I began working downstream with the fish.
Wading swift current is hard enough. Wading while fighting a fish is insane. The smooth slate rock bottom of Walnut Creek provided no footing. The current pushed me downstream faster than my feet could keep up. The result was a heavy splash onto my rear. Ice water instantly filled my hip boots as I fought the fish and slid downstream on my ass and the water rose up around my chest.
At some point of the battle, everything around me appeared angry. Or, if not angry, then jealous. The natural world conspired to take away my joy. In the water branches became fingers, rock edges turned to knives, and I gathered a sort of tunnel vision that processed out everything but those branches and rocks. They called for my line and the steelhead seemed to know every one of them.
Somehow the hook held and I reeled in slowly all the line he'd taken out. I coaxed him to shore and certain death. He came in halfway, weak and tired, saw me and bolted. Then I reeled him in a little closer and he bolted again, though not as far or as strong as before. I coaxed him to me. After two more bolts he was at my feet and I jammed my fingers into his gills and hoisted him into the sky.
The walk back took longer than expected. Perhaps the three large fish I was carrying had something to do with it. The other two were beautiful and long, but nowhere near as large as the first one. The first was a male with a big, rubbery hooked jaw and well over thirty inches.
I rounded another bend and Manchester Pool came into view. There was Dad in the middle of a line of fishermen. The bank on the south shore was about ten feet high, only the roots of an ancient maple keeping it from caving in. I snuck around behind Dad and sat on the high bank and watched. At last I could observe the master at work.
He already had one small fish on the stringer. He'd secured the stringer to a root that protruded through the dirt wall below me. The fish was dark and had a long bleeding gash on its flank.
Dad reeled in and cast out again. He waited and then worked the line in a way that contradicted the advice of every manual and expert. Instead of trying for a drag-free drift —where the line floats naturally in the current —he made long, sweeping motions that pulled the bait cross-current. About halfway in his arm stopped mid-motion as the line struck something solid, and he reared back on the rod.
"Fish on!" he cried.
It was customary to yell "fish on" so nearby fishermen could reel in their lines and prevent getting tangled with the thrashing steelhead. The guys on either side of Dad, however, ignored the warning and kept fishing.
"Come on, you bastards, I said, Fish on!"
They didn't reply.
The steelhead moved sluggishly out in front of Dad. The other fish in the hole didn't budge either as though they'd seen this so many times it no longer bothered them —even nature could become desensitized by brutality. And it really was brutal how Dad pulled the fish rather than played it. Even the expression on his face was cruel, as though he was happy not because he had a fish on but because he was going to kill it once it played out. The steelhead came in sideways against the current, rippling the water's surface. It hardly fought at all, but thrashed violently once netted, at last realizing its doom.
"Assholes!" Dad said to the fishermen beside him. They still didn't reply, except to one another when they said, "Where's a fish warden when you need one?"
Dad never looked up at me as he stumbled to shore. His eyes were fixed on the fish writhing in the green net that was meant for small trout, not steelhead. Before he slipped the stringer through the fish's gills, he pried the hook out of the thick skin near the steelhead's dorsal fin.
Then he looked up.
What I saw in his eyes was hard to describe. A mixture of embarrassment and anger —now, years later, I think it was mostly anger —and his face got a deep ember red.
"What the fuck are you doing here?"
"You snagged that fish," I said. "That's illegal. You snagged it on purpose."
He gritted his teeth. "Keep your voice down, you son of a bitch. I don't see you with any fish."
I stood up. I lifted my stringer of three steelhead. The last one I caught still flicked its tail.
"Jesus, kid!" someone in the line of fishermen said. "Where'd you catch that?"
"Upstream," I said.
"Above The Falls or below?"
"Don't tell them!" Dad hissed.
A few guys at the head of the pool were already reeling in. If I told them where I caught my fish they were going to take off on a bee line for the spot. I thought of all those fish, brilliant in the water, and how, all ganged together, they formed one living creature.
"Below," I said. "But there aren't many in there."
Two guys immediately headed upstream with two others who'd been waiting to fish Manchester Pool. They'd get up to The Falls and maybe they'd fish all day before realizing my lie. The Falls was deep enough that you couldn't see if fish were present. And I knew they'd never walk up as far as I had.
Dad shook his head. "You idiot. Look what you did. We coulda went back and had it all to ourselves."
"Hey, kid, maybe you can give your old man some lessons," the guy who'd been fishing next to Dad said.
Dad's face turned even deeper, purplish red, as though someone dropped an extremely heavy weight on his big toe. He reeled in his line and grabbed the stringer of fish. Great walls of water sprayed out to the sides as he splashed downstream. He looked like a man gone crazy, shoulders hunched up around his ears, stringer of fish dragging in his wake.
"Good riddance," the man said.
I turned to follow, hesitated just long enough to say, "Fuck you, mister," and then hustled to keep up.
He didn't talk the whole ride home, but he didn't stop at any bars either. Mom greeted us at the door but stopped smiling when Dad, grumbling to himself, brushed by her without a hello.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
I reached into the truck bed and lifted out my stringer of fish. Her hand reflexively lifted to cover the huge, surprised grin spreading across her face.
In the basement I gutted all the fish, even his, and even the big one. It almost killed me to slice its belly, it was so perfect. Even gutted, it was still bigger than any of the others were whole.
Mom came downstairs, looking sheepish in her pink robe and hair pulled back. She peered into the sink at the fish. The basement was warm but she hugged herself against shivers. "How about I cook that one up for you for dinner?"
She moved efficiently through the upstairs kitchen, making only the slightest noises of clattering pans. She could cook as well as Dad could drink. Soon the fish's fillets were frying in a cast-iron skillet, their edges curling in butter as though it were still alive.
I gorged on steelhead until midnight and only bones remained. Only then, stuffed and tired, did I trudge upstairs to bed. I'd just turned out the light when the door opened and I was hit by the stench of beer. He staggered and found the edge of my bed. He tried to balance himself —he'd been pounding the beers since we got home —and he belched and when I got a whiff of it I almost gagged.
"You lied," he said.
"About where you caught them. It just dawned on me that you lied. Where did you catch those fish?"
He stumbled forward, backlit by the hallway light, and pointed at me. "Don't lie to me, dammit. I'm not them. You lie to them but don't you ever lie to me. Got it, boy?" He waited, lowered his arm. "Tomorrow me and you are going back up there and you're going to take me to that pool." He stumbled even closer, more threatening. "Got it?"
He straightened up, surprised I'd agreed so quickly. He left without saying goodnight and slammed the door. A few seconds later I heard the door to my parents' room also slam. It was one of the few nights he didn't give Mom an argument.
No country bars, no arguing —things were looking up.
I might have worried about those fish but there was no need. Most likely they'd already moved from that pool, gone as quickly as they'd come. They probably headed back to the deep lake until the fall season called them forward again and Orion and the Pleiades took their place in the northern sky. He could fish that pool all he wanted and probably never catch one as big as mine. For some reason, that thought made me smile.
BIO: Ralph Scherder lives in Herman, PA. His book, The Taxidermist's Son, was published by Rock Spring Press in 2005. He also co-hosts the tv show Pennsylvania Back Country on the Sportsman Channel. Visit him online at www.ralphscherder.com or read his blog at www.ralphscherder.blogspot.com.