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GrayKnight
06-01-2020, 12:54 PM
Those of you who have hung on through the various incarnations of smallstreams.com may remember this piece. I think I first posted it about 20 years ago. My grandfather's birthday is coming up soon and I thought reposting this might be a way to commemorate it. I hope you don't mind seeing it again.

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When I rounded the last bend in the trail and saw what was left of my long-time favorite beaver pond my heart sank. I knew (at least intellectually) that it would happen sooner or later, but I wasn't prepared for it, as I have been unprepared for so many inevitable things in my life. I first discovered the pond seven years ago. I had hiked to a nameless lake I'd seen on a topographical map, only to find that it no longer existed (or never had). I was sure I was in the right spot, but there was no lake in sight. I climbed to the top of a nearby hill to see if I'd somehow missed it. I was sure I hadn't -- for one thing the hill was exactly where the map showed it to be. From that higher vantage point I confirmed that there was no lake in the vicinity, but I also saw a creek meandering through a meadow some distance off to my right, and a good-sized beaver pond. I'd rather fish a good beaver pond than any other kind of trout water, so I made my way down the other side of the hill and approached the pond cautiously. I watched from about thirty feet away for several minutes but saw no surface activity, so I moved closer. As I reached the bank two fish lying near the bottom about three feet off the bank bolted toward the middle of the pond, leaving panicky wakes behind them. So much for my stealthy approach...

I was in no hurry. It was early, I was only about 45 minutes from the truck, and the creek led back in that direction; so I sat down on a rock, ate an apple, and waited. After about twenty minutes I saw a rise, followed quickly by several others. I tied on a soft-hackle wet fly and cast near the closest ring. The fly had barely hit the water when a trout grabbed it. I raised the rod tip and unceremoniously dragged him in, hoping that a quick landing would keep him from spooking the others. It was a brookie, about 7 inches long, brightly colored as only brook trout are, and fat. As I released him I saw another rise ring, cast near it, and hooked and landed another brookie about the same size. I caught over a dozen fish from the pond that day, mostly brook trout but also a couple of cutthroats. They were so eager I may have caught some more than once, because all the fish were about the same size. It was unlikely I'd forget such a spot but I marked it on the map anyway, fished the creek back up to the truck, and headed for home.

Every year since, sometime around the end of June, I've walked in to the pond to have a look. For the first few years the pond grew in size and depth as the beavers built up the dam that formed it. Then it began to take on that "lived-in" look that well-established beaver ponds get as reeds and willows start to grow out of the mud backed up against the dam and the bankside vegetation starts to thicken because it has plenty of water. Weedbeds developed in the pond and the insect population steadily increased.

And the trout got bigger. Every year they were an inch or two longer and bigger around. Three years ago when a friend came out from back East for a visit I took him to the pond and he caught a cutthroat we measured at fourteen inches. Two years ago I bought a new 3-weight fly rod and fished it for the first time on the pond, wanting to start it off right. The fish cooperated enthusiastically. This spring I commissioned a 3-weight bamboo rod from Matt Schliske. It should be finished sometime in early July, so I went up to the pond last weekend to make sure it was in good shape for the new bamboo rod's inauguration. I've heard a lot of talk about high runoff in that part of Colorado this year. I guess the runoff was powerful enough to blow out the dam because there's now a gaping hole in the middle of it, and what used to be a pond is now a muddy hollow with a creek running through it. I threw my hat on the ground and let loose a string of profanity, obscenity and vulgarity that might have turned the bankside willows brown if I'd been standing closer.

I sat on the rock I'd first sat on seven years ago and thought about what had been and was no more. Then I thought about the next-to-last time I saw my Granddad. He was lying in a hospital bed, his normally sun-reddened face grey as the dried-up skeleton of the beaver dam in front of me. He was 78, had just had unsuccessful open-heart surgery, and his doctor had told us he didn't have much time. Granddad and I shook hands, as we had always done since I'd grown tall enough to look him in the eye. This time he didn't let go, nor did I. I said the same thing I'd been saying since he'd first gone into the hospital: "Get up, Methuselah, you look OK to me. The fish are biting somewhere!"

He smiled. When he was a young man he'd been in a car wreck and his jaw had been broken in several places and hadn't healed properly, so his smile was crooked. I loved that smile. It always made me feel as if, no matter what happened, everything was really all right. "Gonna have to go catch 'em yourself this time," he murmured, "I'm tired."

I'd walked in determined to be cheerful, no matter what, but that broke my resolve -- and my heart. I'd never before heard him say he was too tired to do anything he thought would make me happy. Try as I might to hold them back, the tears started to run down my face.

He squeezed my hand. "Never mind, now," he said. "It's time and past time, and I'm ready. Everybody and everything passes. I appreciate you comin' to see me."

"Well, "I said, taking a couple of tissues from the box on the bedside table and wiping my face, "I just happened to be passing and I didn't have anything better to do. Thought I might stop and see if you wanted a ride home."

"Got one," he said, and seeing me start to tear up again he squeezed my hand harder. "Listen, I know this is hard for you. It's harder for you than it is for me, because you're not ready for it. I reckon the ones who get left behind never are. But I'm wore out and it's time for a long rest. Besides, I'm hoping that thing you told me once about heaven being where, when you go there, every dog you ever had comes out to meet you is true. I've had a lot of good dogs, and I'd like to see 'em again. And your Grandma," he added softly. Grandma had been gone for three years by then and he'd missed her sorely every day of every one of them.

Out by the beaver pond two red-winged blackbirds cruised in and lit in the willows. They looked at the hole where the water had been, "chinked" at each other disgustedly, and flew away. I closed my eyes hard, thinking that, if I could picture it perfectly in my mind, when I opened them the pond would be there just like always. Instead I saw Granddad's grey, tired old face again and remembered...

We talked about fishing for a while. I was just learning to tie flies and he wanted to hear all about that. When I told him that my "first try at a Royal Wulff looked like a robin that had flown head first into the side of a chimbley" he laughed out loud. I know it's "chimney", but I always think, and about half the time still say, "chimbley", just like he used to. I said I'd bring him some more successful efforts to look at the next time I came if he promised not to laugh, and he said he'd do his best. Then, unable to help myself, I started babbling about the places we'd go fishing when he got better. He let me ramble on for a few minutes, then he squeezed my hand again and said, "Honey, you need to let it go. Find another old man to go fishing with. Better yet, find a kid and teach him what I taught you. But if the preacher hasn't been lyin' to me and this ain't the bottomless end of it, wherever you go and whatever you do I'll be around somewheres keepin' an eye on you.

"I wish I had some elegant way of sayin' this, but I don't. Everybody and everything dies. There ain't no way around it. Remember the time we went to North River on opening day and that old tree had give up the ghost and fallen into your favorite pool? I recall you used some words I hope you didn't learn from me. Well, life always has been like that and always will be. That's where memories come in. You didn't give up fishing that stretch just because that pool wasn't there any more. I like to think you just remembered all the fish you caught there whenever you passed it." He grinned. "I mostly remember how you used to fall in it pretty regular when you were little.

"Anyway, remembering can get you through a lot. I like to think we'll see each other again sometime. Until then, remember all the fine times we've had together and the ones you'll have after I'm gone. But most of all remember I'm proud of you. You growed up better than you had a right to, considering my questionable influence."

I had to drive the 300 miles back home that night, Wednesday, to take care of something less important but more urgent, but I told him I'd be back on Friday and bring some flies to show him. I was back at noon on Friday like I promised, but I was two hours too late. At the funeral home the next day I put the little box of flies into the casket. Wherever he went, I hope he took them with him. Mostly they weren't too bad.

The afternoon sun was lighting the reed tips with gold and a couple of squirrels were cussing at each other back in the pines when I got up to go. I looked once again at where the pond had been, trying to picture it the way it looked when I'd last visited it back in the fall. In a wide spot in the creek just below where the inlet to the pond used to be I saw a splash. I tied on an orange Stimulator and, standing well back, cast it a few feet above where I'd seen the splash and let it drift down. The fly disappeared in a flurry of spray and I set the hook. It was a nice brookie, about nine inches long and healthy. I hurried a few yards upstream to a bigger, deeper pool and released him.

Then I closed my eyes and turned my memory loose. Like morning sunlight, warm and glowing, seven years of discovery and delight poured over me. I remembered the time a paunchy cutthroat had leaped a foot into the air and kamikaze'd down onto my dragonfly imitation. I remembered the time I'd hung a fly up in the willows on the dam and made my way precariously out onto the dam to retrieve it. Just as the fly came free my feet had shot out from under me and I'd slid into the icy water over my waders. I'd managed to hang onto my fly rod, and when I'd squished out onto the bank and started to reel in my line I'd found a nice brookie had hit my fly and hooked himself. I remembered the time a storm blew in suddenly and my hair had started to prickle, so I'd dropped my rod on the bank and thrown myself face down on the ground two seconds before lightning blasted the sky apart right above me. And I remembered lots of other things that had happened at that beaver pond. And I began to smile.

"Thanks, Methuselah," I said aloud. "I reckon I learned most all of my best lessons from you."