The Initiate

Fishing By Hand

  • By: Maximilian Werner

I recall one summer evening when I was 17 and my friend Nole and I walked down to the lake near his cabin in the woods above Heber, Utah. Each fall the spawning brown trout made their way up the small stream that fed the lake. Normally we would cast from shore, but that night we did not have our rods and we had a group of friends to feed, so we knelt in the tall grass that fringed the stream and fished for the fattened trout by hand.

I remember pushing up the sleeves of my wool sweater and the sweet and vaguely oily smell of the damp and beautifully woven hair as I crouched and watched the bubbling pool for the backs of trout. Nole was a few yards up and across the stream from me. He yelled something I could not quite hear and then plunged his hands into the dark autumn water. In one fluid motion he scooped a three-pound brown out of the stream and into the grass behind him. Then he rose from his knees, walked into the grass, looked down at the trout and then at me as he held his hands 20 inches apart. The bangs of his white-blond hair leaked water down his face and lay in strands across his forehead. In the failing light, he looked severe, as though he had just been born and had always been there. I caught glimpses of the big trout flopping in the grass. A moment later, Nole eased the fish into his open hands, turned it upside-down and then struck its head on a nearby rock.

Where I knelt, the stream flowed over a small waterfall that kicked up a fine spray. My face was numb with cold so I had trouble mouthing the words "One more?" to Nole as he sat streamside and chewed a blade of frosty grass. He nodded and I sank my arms into the bubbling water and, hands open, waited. A trout bumped the outside of my hand. I felt the tail of another sweep my wrist. Then a trout swam into my hand the way a key fits into a lock. I could feel the slight pressure of its gill plates opening and closing against my thumb and fingers. I clamped down on the trout and lifted it out of the water. Although I could not hear him, I saw Nole laughing and pointing to his forearm. A strand of deep orange mucus-covered roe had slipped out of the trout and down my arm. Nole brought his hand to his mouth and mimicked eating, but instead I scooped the delicate eggs into my hand and washed them into the devouring water.

We walked the dirt road back to the cabin. I had on light shoes and could feel the small stones. To the west it was total dark but a big moon was going to rise that night and the sky to the east was light enough to glimpse careening bats as they hunted for mayflies. Nole had threaded a piece of string through the gills of each trout and had given them to me and I enjoyed their heft. Back at the cabin, I made a fire in the steel-rimed pit just off the porch while Nole cleaned the trout. I held my hands over the young flame and thought about how good it was to have fire and shelter on a cold night. Nole dressed the fish in the light of a lamp on the porch table. I could see the roe spill from the trout's underside as Nole slid the knife down its length. He sliced through the gill cavity and then lifted the viscera and roe, flinging it into the woods. "Why should we be the only ones to eat well tonight?" he laughed.

Nole then placed the fish together in tin foil with butter, salt, pepper, and wild onion. While they cooked I took off my shoes and warmed my feet by the fire. I remember the sky was clear and it was very cold, so the bunch of us sat close and held out our hands to the flames. The aspen leaves had fallen and the ground was slick and fragrant with them. I stepped away to take a leak and I could hear the mallards panic down on the pond. I wondered what hunted them as smoke drifted and spiraled into the woods. I could not see what lay beyond the light of our fire, but I had walked right into it and it was there with us, like desire and flesh and hunger. As I walked back to my circle of friends laughing and telling stories around the fire, I realized how this life, with all its sweet, fleeting, and bloody richness, is the most precious thing we can bear.

Maximilian Werner is a writer and an educator who lives in Salt Lake City. His story “Anglers Ball” took second place in the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest. His book, Black River Dreams, is now available from Barclay Creek Press.