A Way Home

A Way Home

  • By: John Larison
  • Illustrations by: Fred Thomas
Steelhead Art

What was strange about that day, what caught Jim Mapleton off guard, was how hard he was working. At 59, he was no stranger to grief; he’d long ago learned how to pace the workday, how to parcel out his labor and save muscle for the next day. And yet here it was only noon and already his wrists were stiff, his elbows on fire, his shoulders wired with pain. Sweat soaked the front and back of his shirt, dripping from his brow and under his beard. He doused his baseball cap in the cold Oregon water and concentrated for a moment on the tendrils of river running down his neck.

He’d once guessed that his body had four-thousand oar strokes in it, four thousand times he could pull at those sticks before he began to ache. He’d made that calculation back in his thirties. Now he figured he had five-hundred, maybe seven-fifty if he’d not worked the day before.

Slowing the boat above the best lies was his silver bullet—even the worst caster could stall a fly in the bucket if the bucket was directly downstream. Back when he could oar all day, he could all but guarantee his clients a steelhead. Worst case scenario, say the dude couldn’t throw a floating line 30 feet and sun was overhead and the fish dour, he would hold the boat above a tailout ledge and suggest the client have lunch with the rod in his hand. Ten, 15, 20 minutes later, even the most apathetic fish would eventually strike. With his guide friends, he called this technique either “trolling” or “cheating”; with his clients, he called it Plan B. He hadn’t cheated in 15 years, hadn’t even considered it, until this moment.

No client ever deserved a fish more than Taylor Mitchell. Sergeant First Class Taylor Mitchell. Sergeant First Class Taylor Mitchell who stood on two prosthetic legs, whose face was so badly burned that his cheek had melted over his eye socket, and whose ring finger—Jim noticed at the ramp that morning—wore a pale indention where a wedding band had recently been but was no longer. “Do you think I could do better,” Mitchell said, “if I was casting the two-hander?”

Jim signed up for the Fishing For Vets Program five minutes after hearing about it on National Public Radio. It seemed the VA was trying any number of innovative techniques to help returning combat veterans recover from their mental wounds, which would remain open and infected long after their physical injuries scarred over. He’d talked to a military psychiatrist, told him he didn’t need payment of any kind, told him this was the least he could do. The doctor told him that the veterans in the program suffered from PSD. “Do you know about PSD?” Jim just said, “Yes, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” and left it at that. He didn’t tell the doctor about his own brother.

Jim had avoided Vietnam. He’d been just young enough—turned eighteen in ’73—to miss the draft. Sometimes though he wished he’d been two years younger. Maybe if he had seen combat, maybe if he had a few scars of his own, he might have understood his brother, he might have been able to offer him the help he needed. He would have understood when he found Dale sitting in his apartment aiming the old hunting rifle at passersby on the street. Or twenty years later when he found him asleep in the culvert near I-5.

Jim wanted so desperately to ask Sergeant Mitchell what he should have done, what it was that made men refuse the very help they so urgently needed, what it was about war that turned men and nations against themselves.

“The two-hander won’t change this weather,” Jim said instead, glancing at the Burkheimer laying along the gunwale, loaded with a compact Scandi head, a 14-foot leader and a riffle-hitched Muddler. His standard outfit for this section, this time of year. The rod wouldn’t change the weather, but it would allow Mitchell to swing larger swaths of water, meaning more fish would see his fly. But Mitchell couldn’t fish that rod, not in his condition. He was wobbly even in the boat and there was no way he could wade. Sure two-handers could be cast from a boat—stand at the bow or stern and send a single-Spey to the far shore—but only by someone who had mastered casting from knee-deep water. No, if Mitchell wanted to catch a fish, if he didn’t want to be reminded of his impairments, he should stick with the single-hander.

“You’re throwing perfect loops with that seven-weight.” Jim left it at that, and hoped Mitchell would too. He didn’t want to disappoint the kid. Anymore than he was already—blasted fish, choosing this day of all days to go dour.

Mitchell turned away from the Burkie, and said, “You’re the professional.”

Jim pulled hard on the oars to slow them and called out a rock on the far shore. “Drop one on the edge of the shadow. A fish came from there last week.”

Mitchell couldn’t have been even twenty-five years old, though the burns to his face made determining his age almost impossible. He was a tall kid, lanky even, with blond hair. He wore a T-shirt that read on the back, “Semper Fi, Do or Die.” He didn’t talk much, seemed to prefer to focus on the fishing. When Jim asked, he admitted he had grown up fly-fishing for largemouth and stripers in California, that steelheading had always been a dream of his. He wasn’t much for small talk, but he did have a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. That sense of humor seemed to be one way he dealt with his injuries: he poked fun at them. But his jokes were less funny than they were strategic. He was trying to preempt Jim’s thoughts, voice the idea before Jim could think it. For instance, when his cast landed almost five feet short of its mark, he offered this headline: “Crippled Man, Over-Excited, Blows Cast.” Or when he lost his balance in the boat and fell backward over his seat (banging his head on Jim’s knee), he announced, “And the peg-leg goes down!”

So when Mitchell suddenly said something completely authentic, completely honest, Jim was caught off-guard. They’d had lunch an hour or two before, and were reaching that point on any trip when guide and client start to know each other well enough to anticipate each other’s actions. “One of my best friends over there,” Mitchell said, “a guy from Seattle, Justin Wiggins, got me all jacked about Spey casting. He came up doing it. His dad was a guide.”

Jim noticed the past tense, and hoped that Justin’s dad’s guiding was in the past—not Justin himself.

“Ever heard of him? Last name Wiggins, guides mostly on the West End, I guess.”

Jim admitted that he hadn’t heard of him.

“Anyway, Justin would practice his casting stroke with anything straight he could find. A broom. A tent pole. His rifle. He was obsessed.”

Was.

“For a while over there,” Mitchell continued some minutes later, “we were stationed not far from a section of the Euphrates. Wouldn’t call it a river, but it was water. Dangerous as all hell too. Bodies turned up weekly down there, but it was water, and Wiggins—that nut—couldn’t stay away. He snuck down any chance he got. He would bring this two-hander his dad had sent. Shipped it out the same day Wiggins e-mailed him about the water next to base. Within like a month, Wiggins was trading casting lessons for cigs. Showed me for free, ’cause we were tight. The tightest. He showed me the snap-T and the double Spey, I think that’s what they’re called.”

“Good casts to know.”

Mitchell sent a long, tight cast to a seam Jim suggested. The fly landed perfectly, already in swing, and any other day, they’d already have a fish by now. Mitchell was no novice. Though many of his casts went too long or fell too short—a consequence, Jim assumed, of having one working eye—his fly stayed fishing almost all the time. He never wasted time with superfluous false-casts.

Mitchell was dropped off by a uniformed man driving a federally owned Chevy. The same man would pick him up at “nineteen hundred” downstream. “Don’t be late,” the man had said. It was almost 3 p.m. now; they’d been on the water long enough for a fish.

Any other day, an angler of Mitchell’s ability could have expected at least a grab by now. Jim was seeing fish at all the usual spots, Prospector, Big Bend, Williams, Raspberry, Governor, Divide. A couple times, he climbed the bank for a better view and immediately saw the gray shapes of bright steelhead. Why must they choose now to become so apathetic? So selfish. Jim pulled anchor once again and pushed hard on the oars and swore under his breath, Come on.

For decades he’d had undeserving sports luck their way into fish. Mean people, greedy people, lazy people—people who lived ridiculously easy lives. Most clients were good folks, nice folks, people who knew what was important in life, but every year there were a couple that Jim wished never to see again. If they called and wanted another trip, he’d say he was booked. But the river always gave it up for these jerks, or at least it seemed that way in memory. Like the asshole who—unbelievably—sat on the tailgate expecting Jim to tie his wading boots; even that dolt got a fish, on a dry fly, and a 15-pounder no less. Taylor Mitchell signs up, has his youth and his legs robbed from him, and the river decides at this moment to shut off. Yesterday his client caught two. Tomorrow his dude would probably catch four. But today, the one day there’s an angler who really earned a fish, and the river goes cold. How could the world work this way?

It had been like that the day he’d gone and picked up his brother Dale and brought him up to fish. He’d found him drunk at nine in the morning, half-clothed and half-kissing some bleach-blond. He’d dragged him to the truck and stuck him in the bed; he smelled too toxic for the cab. It wasn’t until an hour later, when they were driving up the windy river road, that his brother finally sat up and banged on the rear window and said, “Jimbo, let me in!” Jim stopped and helped Dale climb in and buckle his seatbelt. Two bends in the road later and Dale puked all over the dashboard.

Jim knew his brother couldn’t be healed in one day. But he hoped that a day on the water, a day like all those they’d spent as kids, would help him see that life was, in fact, still worth paying attention to. By this point, everyone else had given up on Dale. The extended family, Dale’s old friends, Dale’s fiancé. There was some fiasco with the VA hospital. Jim got a phone call from Dale’s only friend, a buddy from his platoon who was now trying to bring Dale to AA. He’d told Jim, “I’m afraid time’s running out.”

But the day was a disaster. The fish wouldn’t take and Dale didn’t want to be on the water and he didn’t want to drink soda and he didn’t want to hear what Jim thought. “What the hell do you know anyway?” he roared. “You live in a fairy tale!”

If only the fish had been willing, Jim thought later, then maybe Dale would have gotten outside his own head for once, yanked out by the pull of a chrome fish fresh from the salt. As it was, the fish let Dale hitchhike home that night, pissed off as all hell, let him leave as sick and wounded as he’d been when he arrived. That was the last time Jim ever saw his brother: his thumb out, his shirt unbuttoned, his eyes pinched against the headlights of passersby.

Mitchell still hadn’t raised a fish by seven o’clock, and the take-out was right there. The Chevy was waiting, the camouflaged man leaning against the door. He nodded at them, but didn’t return a wave. “Well,” Mitchell said, “Fish one, gimp zero.”

Jim’s wrists and forearms and elbows and shoulders and neck all seized with strange slicing pain. He couldn’t open his hands; when he tried, they stayed curled as if around the oar. He’d worked harder than he had in decades, too hard. And yet, they had nothing but a skunking to show for it.

The sun set over the ridge an hour and half back, and now the last orange swaths of light climbed the mountain tops. If Jim were fishing alone, he’d go straight to Swiss Cheese, close out the day there.

He took a chance, there was no quitting this kid. “You got one more spot in you?”

Mitchell looked from the camouflaged man to Jim and then back to the camouflaged man. “Hell yes. What are they going to do? Cut off my legs?”

Jim pushed downstream and pretended not to hear the shouts as they glided past the ramp. Around the next bend, he slowed the boat and dug hard and told Mitchell to strip out 30 feet of line. Time for Plan B.

“Plan B seems a lot like trolling to me,” Mitchell said.

Jim dug and dug and dug, pulling now with his legs and his back and then his arms. He couldn’t drop anchor here, the bottom was too smooth, the current too fast. Beads of sweat found his eyes. He shook them free and pulled harder. Physical pain would go away, and if this was to work, the fly had to stall in that soft spot the guides called The Sponge, and there had to be one happy ending left somewhere.

Just then, Jim heard a shout from upstream. He turned expecting to find the camouflaged man on the bank, but was surprised to see another boat, a shiny new boat, this one oared by a Weekend Joe, no one Jim recognized. The guy was pointing at The Sponge and shouting something. Jim didn’t understand until the boat was passing by.

“Come on,” the guy howled. “Stop cheating and wade out there and fish it like a real man.”

Without a thought, Jim grabbed a lead-eyed Intruder off his fly patch and side-armed it. The Joe didn’t duck low enough and the fly tagged him in the hip.

“Hey!” the guy yelled. Then he caught sight of Mitchell’s face. “Oh.” He sat and started digging hard downstream. He disappeared over the lip of the rapid, without once looking back.

Mitchell muttered, “Other angler offers spot-on commentary.”

“No,” Jim corrected. “Just another civilian with a monopoly on morality.” He pointed at the Muddler as it skated and bounced. “This spot puts out fish.”

So for five minutes, Jim held the boat in position, four minutes longer than he thought possible, and finally his arms would have no more of it. He was gasping for a breath and just gripping the oar required more energy than he could muster. He quartered the boat and drifted into shore. He’d done all he could. He’d let Mitchell down.

Mitchell turned to face him as he reeled in the line. “Thanks Jim. I know you worked yourself hard on my account. I’m grateful.”

“I’m sorry,” Jim muttered, between pants. Maybe he should have tied on heavier flies or smaller ones or gone left around Barrier Island instead of right. There had to have been something he could have done. “There had to be something.”

Mitchell nodded at the two-hander. “Let me see you cast that. It’d mean a lot to me. Will you wade out there and throw some lines with it? Really, it’d mean a lot.”

Jim picked up the Burkie, passed a finger over the fresh Muddler hooked to the reel. “I brought waders,” he said suddenly. “I brought an extra pair for you.”

“I’m pretty unstable on my feet,” Mitchell admitted to the floor. “Cause they ain’t my feet.”

“What if I waded out there too? You know, just in case.”

Mitchell looked toward the water, his fingers absently touching one of the prosthetic thighs. He chuckled, then shrugged. “Do or die.”

He took several minutes wadering up, struggling to get the feet positioned in the neoprene booties, but Jim offered to tighten and tie the wading boots which helped, and eventually, they both inched their way into the current, Jim on the downstream side. Twice, Mitchell lost his footing and started to go, but Jim was there with an arm. “Thanks.”

When they were in position, Jim handed him the rod. “Show me what you got.”

Taylor Mitchell held the rod in his hand, feeling its weight. “Wiggins told me that when he got home, he’d never travel more than an hour from a steelhead river again.” He was looking at the rod in his hand. “His plan was to start working with his dad. ‘Big sticks, big fish, big water,’ he’d say, ‘To hell with sand, heat and burkas. To hell with other people’s problems.’”

At first, Mitchell’s casts were overpowered and hasty, the line landing in a pile 30 feet out. But he had a firm sense of the basics.

“Slow it down a bit,” Jim offered. “Continuous load, come over the top.”

Slowly, the D-loops improved, and the rod started doing more of the work. Clearly, Wiggins taught Mitchell well.

“Strip out another ten feet,” Jim said. “Give it a try.” He put them quartering above the Sponge, not because he thought there was a chance for a fish, but just out of habit. “The perfect cast will slap the fly to the surface on the far side of the soft spot. It will already be swinging when it lands.”

Mitchell loaded a snap-T and the line was off. “That felt good,” he said. The fly landed just where Jim would have placed it, broad wakes peeling out behind it.

“The VA doc heard I used to fish and signed me up with this program,” he said, watching the fly swing. “Fishing is supposed to take you way from your problems. Ironic, huh?”

Jim didn’t know what to say, if he should say anything. He kept quiet.

Now the fly was hanging below them and Mitchell was staring at the far bank, like he saw something there. “Wiggins was sitting in my seat,” he finally said, almost in a whisper. “Because I took his. I was joking around, that’s all.” His eyes were dry and cold, a man who had no use for tears. “Some f-ing joke,” he said and snap-T’d a new cast.

They were there in the water together, half an arm’s length apart, and the evening light was fading. A cast uncurled, then another. And then Jim surprised himself. “My brother killed himself. Came back in ’71, First Marines, Mountain Division. He wasn’t wounded but he wasn’t himself, and…and…”

Mitchell finished the thought. “And you couldn’t help him.”

“I tried.”

Mitchell turned away from the swing and looked hard at Jim, like he was seeing him for the first time. “I’m not your brother.”

“I know.” Jim turned, out of reflex, toward the fly—just in time to see a divot appear in the surface. Before he could say a word, the Burkie was bucking and the reel screaming, and the steelhead was cartwheeling across the pool. Mitchell, stunned, was watching the fish go.

“Just like that!” Jim shouted, laughing now. Then he remembered, in all the excitement, that Mitchell would need help balancing. He offered an arm, but Mitchell grunted, “I’m good. Get the net!”

When they finally got the 10-pound hen to shore, silver and gleaming, Jim held the rod while Mitchell unpinned the fly and turned the fish back into the current. The river bulged over its back, pulling at it, but the fish kept jerking toward shore. Mitchell cradled it there until its gills began working, until its fins began digging, until the shoreward jerks ceased. A fish like that didn’t so much need “reviving”—it had plenty of power for two lifetimes—but it did need a moment of support, a moment of attention, a moment to remember which way was home.

John Larison is a college professor and former fly-fishing guide who lives in western Oregon. His novel Northwest of Normal was published in 2009. Holding Lies, his new novel, will be published by Skyhorse in 2011. Read more award-wining fiction in In Hemingway’s Meadow and Love Story of the Trout, both from Fly Rod & Reel Books. Go to flyrodreel.com Book Store.