Opening Day

We’d driven since 4:30 to get to Roaring River in time for the dawn siren, Jewell and I and Jewell’s dad crammed into the rattley old Mack. By lunch time I’d had no luck, although people all around were catching fish. Not that fishing was great, but two or three times an hour someone would fight a rainbow to the bank and hold it up for show. Most were wet fly fishermen, grown-ups using the kind of tackle I only dreamed about. I worked my weighted lure, a Silver Sparkle Rooster Tail, out and back, out and back, with the same Zebco spinning outfit I used for bullheads and sunfish on Yellow Creek. I was tired, hungry and getting desperate. Pastor Roy was always telling us at Youth for Christ that “If you truly believe, if your faith is strong enough, God will answer your prayers.” I tried praying, “Please, God, let me catch a fish. Just one.” But nothing happened. After a dozen more casts, I reeled in and went to look for Jewell and his dad.

I found them up on the hatchery dam, eating cheese puffs and drinking RC Cola. They hadn’t caught anything either and were as let down as I was. Jewell’s dad, a long-haul trucker with his own rig, said, “I’ve fished every state between here and Montana, and it’s not often I get skunked. This is a hatchery on opening day, for Chrissakes. We oughta be hauling ‘em in.”

He had promised us the trip the previous August, when the creek stopped running, and even the little fish wouldn’t bite. “Think you can get your dad to let you go?” he asked with a snaggle-toothed smile. My father didn’t like Jewell’s dad, but I contrived a story about working on a merit badge and got him to agree. “You’re old enough to make your own friends,” my father said, looking up from his newspaper. “Just be careful with that bunch. Keep your nose clean.” I said I would. But I’d have done just about anything to fish in a real trout stream instead of sluggish, clay-banked Yellow Creek. Jewell’s dad would take me there, a 90-mile escape from our monotonous fields to limestone bluffs and spring-fed rivers. My father never would.

Jewell and I lived for that trip all winter. We hoarded tackle and practiced casting in the snow. We ate peanut butter from a jar while pouring over Natural Resources brochures and frayed copies of Field and Stream. “Knotting the elk-hair caddis to the tippet,” we would read, “I waded into cold water that mirrored tamarack and pine. I cast upstream below the riffles and let the fly drift with the current. The brown struck on the third cast, swirling the glassy surface before she sensed the hook and headed deep. I knew I had a fight on my hands.”

“So, let’s go to Plan B,” Jewell’s dad said, leaning against the railing above the river, which was lined on both sides with anglers. He tossed back another handful of cheese puffs, and his voice fell to a whisper. “I brought some crawlers down with me. Just in case. They’re in the truck.”

“Isn’t this stretch artificial lures only?” Jewell asked. He had been embarrassed before, when his dad would show up in the Sentinel for speeding or “domestic disturbance,” setting off days of persecution at school.

“Let’s just catch some fish,” his dad said. “We’ll bait up back at the truck. Just thread some worm on the treble hook on your Rooster Tail. Walk back to the river with the lure in your jacket pocket. Nobody’ll pay any attention in this crowd.”

The next hour was a chaotic blur. Only later was I able to replay it, lying exhausted on a gravel bank outside the state park from which I had been expelled: The furtive walk back to the river from the parking lot, the quick cast, hoping no one would see. The almost immediate strike, the 12-inch rainbow gasping on the bank. The tell-tale worm hanging partway from its mouth, glistening and red. “Thank you, God,” I whispered. Then I saw the boots, and then the khaki pants, the belt, the windbreaker with park insignia on the pocket. The warden’s dark glasses held steady on my suddenly small, hunched figure as he asked to see my license.

I ratted immediately, like the coward I always knew I was. Soon Jewell’s dad was being written up in plain view of everyone. Jewell and I got off with warnings, though my parents would be notified. Then our day permits were taken. Only twenty yards or so separated the river from the asphalt parking lot. Jewell’s dad gunned the Mack good and hard as we left, blistering the air and turning heads.

Red-faced and angry, he hunted for access to the river outside the park boundaries, saying we could still catch some fish before dark. “There won’t likely be trout this far from the spring,” he said, “but we can at least try to go home with something to show.” He and Jewell baited up with night crawlers. I went out of sight around a bend and sat against a log on a broad gravel bank. I cried some, and felt miserable. I watched the water as it moved downstream, clear and unhurried under a high white bluff. Wind rustled the trees. Now and then a bird called. The river doesn’t care, I thought.

My father will care, and my mom, and I’ll have to face them. I care, I realized, though I don’t know exactly why. I lay back against the log in the late afternoon sun. Around the bend I could hear Jewell and his dad talking and laughing.

John Palen’s Open Communion: New and Selected Poems was published by Mayapple Press in 2005. Since then he has had chapbooks published by March Street Press and Pudding House, and poetry, fiction and memoir appearing or forthcoming in Sleet, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream, Citron Review, The New Poet, Lingerpost, Upstreet, Elder Mountain, Sugar Mule and other publications. His first collection of short fiction, Small Economies, came out from Mayapple in January 2012. He lives in Central Illinois.