The cramp hit about six in the morning, left hamstring seizing every time I bent my knee in the slightest, which was a real pisser as I’d only been in bed for a little more than an hour. Maybe that four-AM beer hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
As the leg began to loosen (or, it turned out, just teased me into thinking the agony was subsiding before cruelly cinching tight once again), I heard Jason in the other room, cursing softly as he tried to walk out a similar affliction. I regretted his pain, but deep down there simmered a guilty satisfaction that I wasn’t alone in my misery.
--- o ---
We squatted by the stream as the sun disappeared. Waiting. Waiting for nightfall. Waiting for the streamside shadows to lengthen and coalesce. Waiting for obscurity complete, when the big browns would slide out from under the deep cut banks, like trolls from a beneath a bridge, to begin their search for meat.
Nine-o’clock. My old eyes strained for details.
“It’s not dark enough yet,” said Jason.
--- o ---
As the sun turned its back and looked to the west, intent then on lighting the Orient and leaving us behind to founder in the dark, the Milky Way crept out, bolder each moment as its nemesis dropped from sight. While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it was on the mice that we counted.
With the arrival of starshine, an eerie netherworld unfolded, neither dark nor light. A monochromatic shadow box of blacks and grays. A rough fragment of grade school art, cut from ragged-edged drab construction paper and pasted in layers – stream, bank, tall weeds, tree line, horizon - with a dark, doleful palate, perhaps a red flag to the observant educator, but of cool cinereal comfort to the nocturnal predator; man and fish alike.
In time, we got started, pitching #2 rodents across the flowing slate ribbon to where we thought the far bank should be, threading backcasts through gaps in coal paper trees, as much by memory as by sight.
--- o ---
Jason said I’d hear the strike before I’d see it. The brain takes a moment to sort out the grays, but the ears don’t care how dark. I’d hear the splash as my skittering foam mouse swung across the surface of the unlit waters, then feel the weight. That lag would be just about right for setting the hook. I’d counted on that.
So when my drift was quietly interrupted in mid-strip, came tight in silence, I hesitated, puzzled. Then a subtle tug found its way up the line and I instinctively stripped, hard, in response. It stayed tight, but didn’t move, and I knew that I’d found that branch lying near the opposite bank; the one that I’d seen earlier in the brief reconnoitering sweep of my red-lensed headlamp.
“I’m snagged, “ I whisper-shouted, giving Jason the option of finishing the run before I spooked it completely. “I’m close,” he replied. “I’ll get it.” He slipped into the ink and waded towards the other side.
After a moment, I heard him chuckle. “It’s hung alright, but on a branch on the bottom. Something took you down. You’ve been mugged.”
“But I didn’t hear the take.”
“Yeah. Sometimes they’ll just sip it and it screws you up...”
“… but only the big ones do that.”
I suppose that was meant to make me feel better.
--- o ---
The ghosts approached. Wispy, ethereal illuminations bouncing quietly along the stream. Soft rustling in the deep weeds. Whispers - whether incorporeal voices or wind, unclear – drifted our way. On which side of the stream, also uncertain, as it, and the lights, wound serpentine through the overgrowth.
“Is that you Zach?” Jason queried in a low voice. We’d seen his FJ parked at the turnout.
“Yeah. Me and Trent. Had any luck?”
“We’ve moved a few fish. Mike got mugged by a good one.”
Thanks for reminding me.
For a while we held seance with the shades, invisible in the weeds and the darkness of the far bank, a mere thirty feet away. A minute, an hour, time didn’t matter even if we could get a fix on it. A wee-hour ouija with phantoms, shadows within shadows, with no visual context. Just voices, soft and quiet, muffled by murk, held to low tones out of respect for the night.
--- o ---
Around two came the moon, bright as day after the cold light of stars. Sight reconstituted, in a holistic sense, but details remained obscure and the trip back downstream was no easier for it. Even with our headlamps set bright, deep weeds hid beaver holes, tiny rutted tributaries, and fallen limbs. False steps plunged two feet and you listened, as you fell, for the snap of tibia or femur. I wondered if Jason would be able to carry me out if I broke.
Then, I wondered if I could carry him.
--- o ---
Trips back always seem shorter than the outbounds, especially when you’ve fished it hard, yet the hourglass flowed just a grain at a time as we stumbled towards the turnout. The knowledge that sunrise would arrive shortly lent a lost-in-time quality to the trek, while the pre-dawn darkness and headlamp's tight focus made the remaining haul bearable, showing us only the next step rather than the entirety of the final climb. A blessing of ignorance.
We arrived at the car, and the cooler, as the earlybirds were just waking for another workday. Soaked to the skin, legs beyond weary, ready for a shower and bed, though we'd have to pull the blinds tight by the time we got back to Jason’s place to hold in the darkness.
And while we’d pay for it later, the four-AM Oberon tasted mighty darn good.