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Frank D.

Featured Fish TaleFrom At the River's Edge by Jerry Kustich

The river was chest deep where the bear crossed, but the bottom was smooth and the gravel gripped my wading shoes like the caress of an old friend.  The depth of flow dispersed the downstream push of water while the wading staff fashioned from a bleached-out, broken branch provided all the support needed to reach the other side.  After a brief rest, I first walked downriver and proceed to methodically fish through the lower third of the run.  Although the water felt "fishy," there was no sign of a cutthroat.  Preparing to trek back to the head of the pool, I stopped abruptly.  The focus of my mission was interrupted by the distinct crackling of a creature walking down the path utilized by the bear less than one half-hour beforehand.  Naturally assuming the bear had returned for an encore performance, I slipped quietly behind a willow, fumbled for the camera, and prepared to take an obligatory wildlife snapshot.  Usually, when developed, such photos appear to be a dark, undefined lump of something on an otherwise boring print.  This time, though, I was positioned nicely to actually shoot a great picture..  But when the creature came into view, my initial feeling of disappointment was immediately displaced by as sense of surprise.  Another coincidence?  Maybe.  Perhaps the bear really did remove its skin.  But when the elderly gentleman with a fly rod in hand stepped through the opening.  Again the Father Brandt story flashed as a possible explanation for the bear's transformation.  The senior angler then gingerly ambled over the round river rock to the upper bend where I was headed.  

In silence, still out of sight, I observed the man as he began to fish the water with the simplicity of an expert.  Clad in a vintage vest, his patched waders properly understated his presence while his skillful casts delivered a fly with a distinct sense of purpose.  Undoubtedly this fellow belonged there, and it was a fitting stroke of chance that I hadn't beat him to the spot.  In an attempt not to startle him, I voiced a greeting from a distance.  He smiled warmly as I approached, saying hello in the same gesture. 

"You didn't see the bear; did you?" I asked and then continued without stopping, "About thirty minutes ago, it headed up the very path you just came down."

"You don't say!" he replied with a chuckle.  "Nope, didn't see him.."

Since the camera was cocked and ready to shoot, I confided to him my disappointment that he wasn't the bear -- but if he didn't mind, I'd has his picture instead.  Chuckling once again, he pleasantly agreed to the offer. 

After the photo shoot, we talked for quite a while.  The man was a scholarly, gentle soul who knew a great deal about the local rivers.  Asking him several questions relating to the coastal cutthroat, he filled in many blanks about their behavior and run timing.  Although he had caught a very nice cutt upriver, he informed me that these fish just completed their spawn, so most had probably dropped back to the estuary with this last bump  of rain.  And though he detailed some good "holes" to sample immediately below our position, he concluded that the best opportunity at this time of year would be found in the lower pools, thus confirming my early-morning experience. 

The conversation evolved to a serious discussion about the issues facing West Coast salmonid stocks.  The man turned somber as he reflected upon the disintegration of the resource.  Though he considered the coastal cutthroat a bright spot, the populations of native steelhead and coho, particularly on the Oyster, have declined dismally.  His pain was clear as he described the way it used to be not very long ago.  He added that local sportsmen were trying to do something about the situation.  Pointing to the nearby live rearing pens in the river, he extolled their efforts designed to help coho get a jump-start before heading down to the ocean. In fact, it was his turn to tend to the pens that day. 

When I expressed my concern for this eroding resource along with a passionate drive to do something about it, he asked if I had yet visited the Haig-Brown house.  The wise old angler was genuinely pleased to hear that I had recently spent a day there.  He indicated that there was no better source of information for what I was attempting to do.  It was then I realized that the bear had led me to what I was looking for all along -- and this fine man seemed to be it.  We continued to talk about empty rivers and Haig-Brown's concept of simple morality: that is, preserving the last of our wild salmonids for future generations at whatever cost to the immediate present, because it is simply the right thing to do..

"It is in the history of civilizations that conservationists are always defeated..." echoes the words of Haig-Brown through the nexus of time lost, and with predictable certitude, the cycle repeats.  The trend he observed years ago continues, as if mankind is doomed to be incapable to anything about it.  Specious politicians make promised in order to get elected with no commitment whatsoever to matters of nature.  Even those most concerned with fishery resources -- sportsmen, biologists, commercial interests -- can't agree upon any plan that makes long-lasting sense.  And while "progress" continues to suck the lifeblood from the veins of the world that once was, I find it difficult to look into the eyes of today's youth knowing it is their heritage we have laid to waste.  Conservation!  That's all it would have taken.

It was a beautiful afternoon.  Likely, we both felt the pull of the river when I sensed that it was time to move on.  Compelled by the need to enter the silence of my own space, I expressed my sincere thanks for his shared knowledge.  I gave the gentleman one of my cards before heading down river, but that prompted another brief discussion about rod building and bamboo.  Finally, I said good-bye.

"And by the way," I added, somewhat embarrassed while reaching out to shake his hand, "I apologize for not asking your name before this."

"Oh! That's okay," he said with a twindle in his eye.  "My name is Charles Brandt."

In an instant, the consideration of coincidence, random event, destiny, or even fate flashed thorugh my mind.  Or maybe this was simply a portal in time back to when human, animal, and spirit were one, a primitive age when nature was life.  Whatever it may have been, for a fleeting, unique moment, everything significant converged into one notable experience.  Nothing made sense, yet somehow everything did. 

Reflecting upon the bear and the powerful force it symbolized in Native cultures, I walked down to the next run.  And just before casting my fly, I looked back upriver. 

The man was gone. 


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