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Angler's Heaven
By Kristen Huston

When I was younger, I used to plead to attend the all male fishing retreats that my cousin would get to go on. I resented the fact that Daddy and Uncle Mark took him along just because Stevie was a boy.

“Daddy, Mommy says that a girl can do just as much as a boy can do, even better.” My infantile pleas fell upon deaf ears year after year.

“Uncle Mark, why do you play favorites?” My deliberately annoying comments were met only with a grin time after time.

I would finally go to Stevie, “I will let you open my Christmas presents this year if you tell my dad that it's okay for me to come.”

Stevie's attempts at persuasion failed miserably, so he took it upon himself to teach me the art of fly fishing. Stevie passed away before he could show off the talents of his prodigy. He left behind an open spot in the family fishing retreats. It was my turn.

I carried my graphite rod, making sure to point it straight ahead of me so that I wouldn't spear one of the massive Spruce trees and get tangled up in the web of needles. I kept my head looking down, following the large footprints of the two large men who walked before me. There seemed to be no other sign of a trail. What could Mark possibly be following? We must have gotten lost. I could barely see through the thick haze of morning mist that had settled in the lush forest. I could only identify two colors as we walked along. The dew kept everything a gray color, but green seeped through in places where the early morning fog had dissipated. I carefully maneuvered my feet around the roots of ancient trees that seemingly clawed at my feet. Some of these roots stuck up out of the ground higher than my ankles. Dad and Mark yelled back warnings of these dangers. I bet they hadn't warned Stevie. I could just imagine the three grown men, walking side by side as they confidently stepped around the menacing roots with practiced ease.

My heart sped up as I heard the sound of water rushing over rocks, ruthless in its pursuit of a final destination. The canopy of trees cleared and my eyes were overwhelmed at the sight of the small river that lay almost hidden in the midst of the mountains. I noticed that Dad and Mark had stopped in their tracks too.

“If you lead an honest life, this is what heaven looks like,” Dad said to no one at all. Mark closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I could almost see him trying to picture his only son standing with him at the foot of such beauty.

“I can only hope this is what heaven looks like,” Mark replied.

I reached out to touch Mark's arm, to heal his pain, or at least let him know that I too hoped that Stevie would spend eternity standing in the middle of a stream, the brim of his hat pulled low over his eyes as his arms rhythmically threw the fly line back and forth in the water.

Dad set down the supplies that loaded up his arms and began to pull on his waders. I could see the change in him begin to take place. He was no longer a businessman who dabbled in workaholicism but a man who could sit back and watch life pass by. I couldn't remember a time that my father seemed more comfortable than when he stood up, looking ridiculous in the green neoprene waders that came up to his armpits which were supported by a pair of thick suspenders. As soon as I began to giggle, Mark threw a pair of my own into my lap. I knew they were Stevie's He had taken such pride in them. Many years ago he had worn them into the swimming pool to make me laugh. I had laughed. The memory of my cousin clung to the pair of waders like moss to a wet stone.

“It's going to be a beautiful morning for fishing. I am feeling lucky today.” Dad was staring up at the sky with hopeful eyes. The early morning clouds had settled on top of the mountains in the distance, shading the sun from our eyes. The mountains were Oregon's pride; taller and greener than any I had ever seen in another state. The air was damp from last night's rain. “Let's hope this good weather holds.”

We started to sort through the disguised hooks. Some had feathers, hair, and silk in a variety of shapes, made to resemble insects that would lure the fish onto our line.

Fly fishing is one of the most complex sports. I knew that there were hundreds of fly patterns. Stevie and I had spent countless hours standing in front of the television, letting the masters teach us how to throw a Bumblepuppy or Rio Grande King. Each fisherman would learn his own rhythm. Stevie had never had time to develop his.

I pulled on the black rubber pants. Stevie had been such a big boy, my feet slipped right into the two rubber shoes that were attached to the waders. I stood up, grabbed my pole, and walked carefully over the wet stones and into the river. The water rushed at my calves, pushing at me like a pair of strong hands, yet I remained upright. This was not the first time I had been fly fishing, but the first time that Dad and Uncle Mark would let me come along.

I pulled out the small bottle of flotation solution and pinched it onto the brown mallard feathers of my tiny artificial fly. Scanning the river, I saw the spot where I knew fish were waiting. There was a large granite rock peeking out, and the water quickly separated to pass around it. I knew the trout would be waiting there for me. “Come to mama.” Dad and Mark giggled from their posts further up the river.

I threw my line towards the spot. The small fly was barely noticeable in the water. Pulling the rod back towards my ear, I let out more line before slamming my arm down again. 10 and 2, 10 and 2. Pick up the phone, slam it down, pick up the phone, slam it down. Instructions on how to throw your line had been the nursery rhymes of my youth.

Catching the first fish was more important than catching the most or largest fish. It took talent to throw your line in the water and pull out a gorgeous fish before your companion. You were revered, hailed as a conqueror of the river, and given free reign to embellish your story when you came home victorious to the womenfolk. A true fisherman would never brag about catching more fish than they would eat. Many times that day, I would watch my father and his brother carefully extract the hook from the fish's mouth and place it back in the water. There was an etiquette in fishing, a code that defined fishing for sport and fishing for survival.

As it happened, Mark was the first to pull a rainbow trout out of the river. It had pulled the line, bending the pole in an arc above the water. Mark gave the fish its head and let it tire itself out before reeling it in. I could see the round black markings on its body as it twisted, trying to escape the secure grasp of Mark's gloved hand.

“What a runt,” my dad observed.

“It sure didn't put up much of a fight,” I added for good measure.

Despite our jealous observations, Mark could hardly conceal the satisfied grin of sheer victory. The contest was over. The best fisherman had skillfully reeled in the first fish. I wasn't disappointed though, simply relieved that there were actually fish to be caught in the river.

As I watched my own line drift aimlessly along the river, I began to feel the sprinkle of light rain on the bridge of my nose. Looking out across the river, I saw hundreds of water droplets disturb the natural current of the water. We remained standing in the river since there was no threat without thunder and lightning. The shower lasted for only a few minutes, allowing enough time for the fish to begin to jump out of the water in delicious delight.

The three of us stared at the river in sheer amazement, dumbfounded at the sight of fish simply frolicking in the soft rain. Fish jumped on either side of me, so close to my body I knew that they weren't aware of my presence. Their long bodies had barely enough time to fully emerge before they plunged back into the water and headed for the gravelly depth of the river. None of us uttered a sound as we waited and watched. Those few minutes seemed like hours. I barely noticed that my rod itself was halfway immersed in the water as I held it limply in my grasp. The rain lightly massaged my body, and ran tracks across my face before dripping into the river. I felt like I was moving in slow motion as I turned my face to look at the two men who had brought me to this majestic place.

As the rain slowed to a halt, the fish ceased their games. “Was that normal?” My words cut through the silence that was left in the wake. It had been a miracle, I was sure of that fact. I remembered something that Stevie had once confided in me as he lay sick and dying in the hospital bed. He had been aware that he had little time left and desperate to make me smile, despite the concerned anguish that had clouded my mind at the time.

“Kristen, I am going to come back and visit you. One day you will look around you and know that I am there.”

I knew that this was the moment. Stevie had come back and orchestrated the entire show for the people he loved most to witness. Suddenly, I could see Stevie right in front of me. His lanky body was held taught as he fought the fish on his line. The muscles in his jaw working in concentration as he looked in my direction. I could see the joyous expression glimmer in his eyes before he winked.

“That definitely wasn't normal.” An answer to my question shook me out of my dream state. Confused and bewildered, I opened my eyes to reality. My hands were empty. I had let go of my rod. I crossed my arms over my chest and hugged Stevie's waders close to my damp body.

If your good, this is what heaven looks like, Dad had said. Imagine that. He was right.




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Document last modified on: 12/10/2000

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