As a boy, I dreamed of fishing before I went, and went fishing before I caught anything, and knew fisherman before I became one. As a child, I dreamed of finding remarkable fish so close to me that they would be easy to catch. And no one, in my dreams, had ever found these fish before me.
I remember the water as dark and clear at the same time — and by clear I suppose I mean clean. Sometimes it looked like gold or copper, and at dusk the eddies splashed silver-toned, and babbled like all the musical instruments of the world. I still think of it this way now, years later.
As a child I had the idea that the trout were golden, or green, in the deep pools hidden away under the moss of a riverbank. And that some day I would walk in the right direction , take all the right paths to river and find them there.
In fact, trout, I learned, were far more textured and a better colour tan just golds and greens. They were the colour of nature itself — as naturally outfitted in their coat of thin slime as God could manage. They were hidden around bends and in the deep shaded pools of my youth.
I had the impression from those Mother Goose stories that all fish could talk. I still do.
My first fishing foray was along the bank of a small brook to the northwest of Newcastle, on the Miramichi. A sparkling old brook that lord Beaverbrook took his name from.
My older brother and a friend took me along with them, on a cool blowy day. We had small cane rods and old manual reels, with hooks and sinkers and worms, the kind all kids used. The kind my wife used as a child on the Bartibog River thirteen miles downriver from my town of Newcastle, and her brothers used also, at the same time that I was trudging with my brother.
It was a Saturday in May of 1955 and I was not yet five years of age. Fishing even then could take me out of myself, far away from the worry of my life, such as it was, and into another life better and more complete.
We had packed a lunch an had got to the brook about ten in the morning. Just as we entered the woods, I saw the brook, which seemed to be no deeper in places than my shoe. In we went (a certain distance) until the sounds of the town below us were left behind.
Leaning across the brook was a maple, with its branches dipping into the water. At the upper end of the tree, the current swept about a boulder, and gently tailed away into a deep pocket about a foot from the branches. The place was shaded, and the sunlight filtered through the trees on the water beyond us. The boys were in a hurry and moved on to that place where all the fish really
are. And I lagged behind. I was never any good at keeping up, having a lame left side, so most of the time my older brother made auxiliary rules for me — rules that by and large excluded me.
"You can fish there, " he said.
I nodded. " Where?"
"There, see. Look — right there. Water. Fish. Go at her. We'll be back."
I nodded. I sat down on the moss and looked about, and could see that my brother and his friends were going away from me. I was alone. So I took out my sandwich and ate it. ( It was in one pocket, my worms were in the other. My brother doled the worms out to me a few at a time.)
I was not supposed to be, from our mother's instructions, alone.
"For Mary in heaven's sake, don't leave your little brother alone in the woods." I could hear her words.
I could also hear my brother and our friend moving away, and leaving me where I was. In this little place we out of sight of one another after about twenty feet. I had not yet learned to tie my sneakers: they had been tied for me by my brother in a hurry, for the second time, at the railway track, and here again they were loose. So I took them of. And then I rolled up my pants.
I had four worms in my pocket. They smelled of the dark earth near my grandmother's back garden where they had come from, and all worms smell of earth, and therefore all earth smells of trout.
I spiked a worm on my small hook the best I could. I had a plug-shot sinker about six inches up my line, which my father had squeezed for me the night before. But my line was kinked and old, and probably half-rotted, from years laid away.
I grabbed the rod in one hand, the line in the other, and tossed it at the boulder. It hit the boulder and slid underneath the water. I could see it roll one time on the pebbled bottom, and then it was lost to my sight under the brown cool current. The sun was at my back splaying down through the trees. I was standing on the mossy bank. There was a young twisted maple on my right.
Almost immediately I felt a tug on the line. Suddenly it all came to me — this is what fish do — this was their age-old secret.
The line tightened, the old rod bent, and a trout — the first trout of my life — came splashing and rolling to the top of the water. It was a trout about eight inches long, with a plump belly.
"I got it," I whispered. " I got it. I got it."
But no one heard me: " I got it. I got it."
For one moment I looked at the trout, and the trout looked at me. It seemed to be telling me something. I wasn't sure what. It is something I have been trying to hear ever since.
When I lifted it over the bank, and around the maple, it spit the hook, but it was safe in my possession a foot or two from the water.
For a moment no one came, and I was left to stare at it. The worm had changed colour in the water. The trout was wet and it had most beautiful glimmering orange speckles I ever saw. It reminded me, or was to remind me as I got older, of spring, of Easter Sunday, of the smell of snow being warmed away by the sun.
My brother's friend came back. He looked at it, amazed that I had actually caught something. Picking up a stick, and hunching over it he shouted, " Get out of the way — I'll kill it."
And he slammed the stick down beside it. The stick missed the fish, hit a leaf branch of that maple that the fish was lying across, and catapulted the trout back into the brook.
I looked at him, he looked at me.
"Ya lost him," he said.
My brother came up, yelling, "Did you get a fish?"
"He lost him," my brother's friend said, standing.
"Oh ya lost him," my brother said, half derisively, and I think a little happily.
I fished frantically for the time remaining, positive that this was an easy thing to do. But nothing else tugged at my line. And as the day wore on I became less enthusiastic.
We went home a couple of hours later. The sun glanced off the steel railway tracks, and I walked back over the ties in my bare feet because I had lost my sneakers. My socks were stuffed into my pockets. The air now smelled of steely soot and bark, and the town's houses stretched below the ball fields.
The houses in our town were for the most part the homes of working men. The war was over, and it was the age of the baby boomers, of which I was one. Old pictures in front of those houses, faded with time, show seven or eight children, all smiling curiously at the camera. And I reflect that we baby boomers, born after a war that left so many dead, were much like salmon spawn born near the brown streams and great river. We were born to reaffirm life and the destiny of the human race.
When we got home, my brother showed his trout to my mother, and my mother looked at me.
"Didn't you get anything, dear?"
"I caught a trout — a large trout. It — it — I —"
"Ya lost him, Davy boy," my brother said, slapping me on the back.
"Oh well," my mother said. "That's all right, there will always be a next time."
And that was the start of my fishing life.
That was a long time ago, when fishing was innocent and benevolent. I have learned since that I would have to argue my way through life — that I was going to become a person who could never leave to rest the idea
of why things were the way they were. And fishing was to become part of this idea, just as hunting was. Why would the fish take one day, and not the next? What was the reason for someone's confidence one year, and their lack of it the next season, when conditions seemed to be exactly the same?
Or the great waters — the south branch of the Sevogle that flows into the main Sevogle, that flows into the Norwest Miramichi, itself a tributary of the great river, What infinite source propelled each separate individual fish to return on those days, at that moment, when my Copper killer, or Green Butt Butterfly — or anyone else's — was skirting the pool at exactly the right angle at the same moment, and when
was it all announced and inscribed in the heavens — as insignificant as it is — as foreordained.
Excerpted from Lines on the Water by David Adams Richards. Copyright © 2001 by David Adams Richards. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.