April 9th, 2007

It Might Have Been You
By Neil M. Travis, Montana

The sun was pushing the tops of the trees on the western horizon as I eased my car through the pines down the narrow sandy road. The road is seldom traveled, and grass, sweet ferns, and huckleberry bushes nearly obscured the faint track that lead to a small clearing on a high bench above the river. Too far from any access site and far from any road, and in the evenings it was devoid of other anglers. The narrow track that leads to the clearing where I parked my car is unknown except to a very small number of people; most of them now too old to still fish the river. From this point it is about three miles upstream to first public access point, and about five miles downstream to the next one. Between the two points the river runs through a low, swampy area filled with bog holes, alder thickets, and dense stands of cedar. There are no roads and only a few trails that allow access to the river on foot. When I desired solitude I could always find it there.

There is a faint trail down the bluff, and through an alder swamp to the river. In the fading light of a mid-July evening it is tough to follow, and even more difficult to negotiate in the beam of flashlight. More than once I have found myself wandering around through the alders despite my familiarity with the trail. On this evening I maneuvered the trail with no difficulty, and arrived at the waters edge just as setting sun touched the western horizon.

This stretch of the river consists of a long flat that is overhung with cedar sweepers providing excellent cover for the fine population of resident brown trout. During the daylight hours they rarely venture out into open water, but under the cover of darkness they slide out to feed at the end of the sweepers. If a heavy spinner fall occurs the entire flat could be pockmarked with rising fish.

On this July evening I settled down on my favorite log to plot my strategy for the evening. There was an occasional rise, but from experience I knew that it would be nearly dark before the bigger fish would begin to move out to feed. From somewhere back in the forest a robin began to sing his night song, and the first bats began to skitter through the gathering gloom. By looking up though toward the glow from the setting sun I could see clouds of mayflies and midges dancing near the tree tops. In the gathering darkness all I could do was wait until they began to drop down to the stream. There certainly are less enjoyable ways to spend a summer evening.

As I sat watching the water the slightest motion at the edge of my peripheral vision caught my attention. Upstream, at the top of the flat, I could make out another person walking along the obscure game trail that meanders along the bank. As I watched he stepped out into the stream, and then waded over to a large rock and sat down. This was the first time I had ever encountered anyone else of this stretch of stream at this time of the day. I wondered to myself where he had come from, and if he had found my secret road through the woods.

The gathering darkness made it impossible to see my visitor very distinctly, but as I looked upstream to where he was sitting I could see the flare of a lighter or match as he lit a cigarette, and when the light went out I could see the tip glowing in the darkness. A whippoorwill started to call from somewhere in the piney woods, and the first trout made a tentative rise just upstream from where I was seated. My visitor was promptly forgotten as more trout began to rise and the issue at hand became my prime focus. Soon nothing occupied my thoughts but casting to the rising fish.

In such moments time is irrelevant, and exactly how much time passed before the action stopped I was unable to tell, but gradually the spinner fall ceased, the trout retreated beneath the cedars, and once again the flat was silent. Suddenly I realize how tired I was from pushing against the current, and I turned to reclaim my seat on the log before I made the trek back through the alder bog to my car.

As I settled back on the log I could hear someone approaching along the shore, and I abruptly remembered that I had not been alone on this stretch of river.

"Mind if I join you?" came a voice out of the darkness, a deep, low voice that was unfamiliar to my ears.

"No" I replied, "there is plenty of room."

"Cigarette?" he asked as he settled down on the end of the log.

"No thanks, I don't smoke."

The sudden flare of his lighter briefly lit up his face, but too brief for me to see him with any discernable detail. I could see that he wore a western-style hat, and that he appeared to be clean shaven. In the glow of his cigarette I could make out little more so he still remained a stranger; a fellow angler sharing the exhilaration of an evening spent on a beautiful trout stream.

"It was a good night" I said. "Did you get in on that spinner fall?"

He took a long drag on his cigarette and slowly exhaled the smoke. I wondered if he had heard me, and I was about to rephrase my question when he spoke.

"It was an excellent spinner fall, just as I remembered them."

"Been a while since you have been here?" I replied.

He took another drag on his cigarette then flipped it out into the stream. The glowing butt sailed through the air and blinked out as it hit the water.

"Oh yes, a long time, a very, very long time. My father and I used to come here back before the war. We would usually canoe down from the bridge and camp up on the high ground, but occasionally we would hike in like I did tonight. Sometimes we would spend several days here, camping and fishing. My favorite time to fish this flat was always just a dark when the spinners would begin to drop down, and the big browns would ease out from beneath the cedars. Yes, tonight was almost like I remembered it. "

His words trailed off into the silence of the night, and he lit another cigarette. We sat in silence for several minutes while I thought about his words. When folks spoke about 'the war' they were normally referring to World War II, but that had been nearly 50 years ago.

"Well," he said, "I have a ways to walk and I'm not as fast as I was years ago. Perhaps I will see you again some evening."

"I would like that," I said. "Can I give you a ride? It's a long walk to the road."

"Thanks but no I quite enjoy the walk."

He plodded away into the darkness and I sat looking upstream as his footsteps grew fainter and fainter. At the top of the flat I saw the flair of his lighter as he lit another cigarette. Looking upstream I could see the glow of the tip, and then it was gone.

Over time I returned to that spot many times but I never again encountered anyone else during my nighttime escapades. Who was that stranger? Perhaps it was you. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona

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