It was a Saturday in May in the year before I got my first fishing car. I’d ridden eight miles to the trailhead, hid my bike in the woods, and walked a mile to one of the upstream branches of the Knife River. The water was clear and running bank full, and the air and the water were warming in the late morning sun. This was brook trout water, and I had half a limit of ten inchers when I got to the foot of the islands.
I was getting thirsty, but I planned to stop at Karen’s house on the way home and ask for a glass of water. Maybe Karen would give me a drink. Or maybe one of her sisters would. Or Karen. Or her mom. Or her dad. Maybe Karen would be home.
This was a small stream, and the threads of water on the sides of the islands were smaller. There were some good spots for trout, and I waded to the first island and fished the little pools on both sides from the bank. I was almost to the head of the first island when I saw the big fish in the current. One of the rare steelhead that made it that far from the lake was holding in the current, nose upstream. I was on the bank a couple feet above the water, standing next to a downed tree with broken branches, and I was looming over the pool. I don’t know why the fish had not run when I approached, but now I wasn’t going to make any sudden moves. I cut back my leader to a heavier point and tied on the biggest streamer I had, a green bodied thing with bear hair and jungle eyes that I bought by mail order from Herter’s, “a journal fly,” guaranteed to catch the most and biggest fish. I flipped the fly to the head of the little pool, and my line tangled in the overhanging branches of a bush and it wouldn’t come loose. I figured my chances were ruined. Then the fly fell into the water and hung over the fish’s head, the fish rose and grabbed the fly, hooking itself on the turn, and splashed on the surface. I couldn’t untangle my line, but the fish couldn’t pull the line free either, and the bush had enough flex to keep the line tight but keep the fish from breaking the leader. I did the only thing I could do. I dropped my rod on the ground, jumped from my bank to the opposite, lower one, waded out into the water and grabbed the steelhead with my hands. It was a fat hen fish, starting to get her rainbow colors after leaving the lake, and almost two feet long.
It would have been nice to show that fish to Karen when I stopped for a glass of water, but that didn’t happen. When I jumped across the stream, a broken branch on the fallen tree hooked my pants next to the pocket. When I jumped, the fabric of my pants gave way, and my pants were nearly torn off. I couldn’t stop at Karen’s wearing half a pair of pants. In school on Monday when I told the others I had caught a steelhead, they wanted to know who else had seen it. I told them nobody had seen it and they said, “Sure. You caught a steelhead. We believe you.” Then they laughed.