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An Out-of-Towner’s Fishing Tale

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May 9, 2012 by wcobserver

river-and-71

The West Fork of the White River, following Highway 71, south of West Fork.

By Moksha Marquardt 

South of West Fork, Highway 71 follows the White River like a boy follows his father. Snaking along beside it with pride and admiration, with mimicry. Sometimes they drift apart, momentarily, but always gravitate back together, tumbling through billowing lush green trees of spring and summer.

The road probably hasn’t changed a lot over the years–maybe it’s paved now, and a bit wider than it used to be, but basically it’s the same old 71 it’s always been. The river on the other hand is a glacial moving-painting of texture and force. The banks are as liquid as the water, but they drift and roll at a pace undetectable. The salmon colored boulders lay in smooth flat arrangements like failed layer-cakes that slide into the water and dissolve in the thick mud, a billion years in the making. The pale green water is a perfect complement to the color of the rock and the dark shapes of fish can be seen swimming in the holes, marked by enriching shades of blue-green that darken and cool with depth.

It is a spiritual experience to wade into the White river with a fishing pole, and slowly work down along the bank, casting out between drowning stumps and the grey bones of trees that cling to the banks with ever weakening roots. The cool water running around your legs and through the fabric of your pants, down into your boots and through your toes. It is cold at first but soon you don’t even realize you’re waist-deep in the water. The current is gentle and coaxing, at times imperceptible, others firm but slow. The power here in the river is not to be taken lightly though. The same gentle push can turn in seconds to a deadly roar. Torrential rains bring water gushing into the basin like a bathtub filling up, bridges get swept away, and even a whole house could be picked up and moved down river with ease.

In my rubber boots–which come only just below my knees–I leave the van at the river crossing and begin to walk downstream. It’s late afternoon and already becoming cooler and mellow. The air is still and fresh and the water is just as peaceful as I wade into it. I knew that the boots would not be tall enough, but I thought that maybe I could stay close to the bank and not overstep their usefulness. Within minutes however, I have gone in past the top of the boots and water rushes into them making my step heavy like an iron robot, trudging down the river, mechanically casting out and mercilessly reeling in fish.

Not long after entering the river I cast out between two old dead trees in the water and catch a small but delicious looking bass. I run my tether through his gills and unhooked him. I always wonder what the fish see when we pull them out of their world and into ours, clamp down on them with big warm hands and work to pry the barbed hook from their lip. The bass has beautiful dark eyes with a ring of bright red like a NASA photo of a strange and distant ringed-planet. Do I see fear in his wide starring eyes? He struggles to get free, but in seconds I have him secure on the nylon cord that is tied to my belt-loop.

I continue down the bank, at times the water is to my waist but I’ve adjusted to it so that it’s easy to forget that I’m even in the water. I need to get my lure right up along the opposite bank and this would be very difficult to do if I were way back on the facing bank. Here in the middle of the river I can sneak my line through narrow passages and into the dark places where the wise old monsters live. I can see a group of fish swimming near the surface, calmly ignoring me despite several attempts to throw my line over them and then reel the lure back through their congregation. They don’t fall for it though and the fish I do catch are not ones that I deliberately bated. In the end I have four medium sized fish, all different varieties. One is a bass I know; the other is a type of sun fish. Another looks like a different type of bass, and the last, I’m later told is a large Shad. After an hour and a half of fishing I take my catch and leave the river with my boots full to the brim with water. It spills over the sides like a full tea cup on the way to the sofa. I hear it sloshing around between the black rubber walls and my denim-clad legs. If I had far to go, I might store my fish in there to keep them fresh, but it is only a short hike to the van.

When I lay the fish on the rocks by the water, all but one is still breathing. I start with the most recent catch, the bass with the interstellar eyes. I give him a whack on the head to end his suffering and then slice him open and clean him out. In a few minutes they have all had the same treatment and cease to be the amazing creatures that they once were, and now are merely dinner.

Back at the cabin I do a finer cleanup of the fish and scrape their scales off with the fillet knife. I decide against filleting them this time because it seems like so much gets wasted that way. Instead I want to try poaching them to see if they will separate easily from the bones. As I scrape them with the knife, their distinct patterns are removed and only show up faintly on their skin like the face of an ancient coin, or the remains of a thousand year-old Italian fresco. The clean fish go into a bowl of salt water as I prepare their warm bath of water, lemon, fennel and salt. When the water is just right, I slide them into the barely bubbling steamy water to cook. As their fat is melted away they plump and curl up at the ends and with a fork I try to push them back down into the water. After a few minutes I roll them over to cook the other side. Translucent flesh becomes opaque white and they are done. I scoop them out and onto a plate, squeeze a bit of lemon over them and a few cranks from the pepper grinder. I decide against a side dish–there is no need, the fish will be more than satisfying on their own and I have no guest to impress. They are a little difficult to eat with so many tiny bones, but they taste incredible and I am happy and grateful to have them. Quietly I thank the fish god.

But the fish god charges a fee. When I got back to the cabin, after catching the fish, the van had a massive puncture to one of the tires and was hissing loudly as the life blood drained from it and it slowly went limp like the fish had only five minutes earlier. I was too excited about my fish to think too much about the tire though, and I went about my business, leaving the tire at the top of tomorrow’s to-do list. I think of it as a kind of toll taken in exchange for my good fortune with the four fish I caught for dinner.

I have never had a fishing experience as deeply rewarding as I did in the White River, and I plan to go back often–at least until my license expires–and search for that one really big bass that has eluded fishermen since pre-history. It’s not just that we need to eat; it’s the thrill of the experience that makes us return to the river again and again. Or at least that’s why I’m going back tomorrow first thing in the morning.

Moksha Marquardt

Moksha Marquardt is an oil painter and writer from Seattle, Washington. After graduating from art school he spent 15 years working in the video game industry for many of the biggest publishers; most recently as a designer and writer for Big Fish Games. The last year has found him traveling and writing about his experiences.

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