Big two-hearted river
E.Hemingway. The Complete Short Stories.
N.Y,.Charles Scribner'S Sons, 1987, P.163-180
The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of
burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage
man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town,
nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that
had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of
the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and
split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the
surface had been burned off the ground.
Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had
expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the
railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled
against the log spiles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown
water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping
themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they
changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast
water again. Nick watched them a long time.
He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current,
many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far
down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and
swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the
bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them
at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to
hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand,
raised in spurts by the current.
Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A
kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into
a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the
kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle,
only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through
the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the
stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with
the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened
facing up into the current.
Nick's heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
He turned and looked down the stream. It stretched away,
pebbly-bottomed with shallows and big boulders and a deep pool as it curved
away around the foot of a bluff.
Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders
beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around
the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back, got his arms
through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by
leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was
too heavy. It was much too heavy. He had his leather rod-case in his hand
and leaning forward to keep the weight of the pack high on his shoulders he
walked along the road that paralleled the railway track, leaving the burned
town behind in the heat, and then turned off around a hill with a high,
fire-scarred hill on either side onto a road that went back into the
country. He walked along the road feeling the ache from the pull of the
heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His
muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left
everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It
was all back of him.
From the time he had gotten down off the train and the baggage man had
thrown his pack out of the open car door things had been different. Seney
was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter.
It could not all be burned. He knew that. He hiked along the road, sweating
in the sun, climbing to cross the range of hills that separated the railway
from the pine plains.
The road ran on, dipping occasionally, but always climbing. Nick went
on up. Finally the road after going parallel to the burnt hillside reached
the top. Nick leaned back against a stump and slipped out of the pack
harness. Ahead of him, as far as he could see, was the pine plain. The
burned country stopped off at the left with the range of hills. On ahead
islands of dark pine trees rose out of the plain. Far off to the left was
the line of the river. Nick followed it with his eye and caught glints of
the water in the sun.
There was nothing but the pine plain ahead of him, until the far blue
hills that marked the Lake Superior height of land. He could hardly see
them, faint and far away in the heat-light over the plain. If he looked too
steadily they were gone. But if he only half-looked they were there, the
far-off hills of the height of land.
Nick sat down against the charred stump and smoked a cigarette. His
pack balanced on the top of the stump, harness holding ready, a hollow
molded in it from his back. Nick sat smoking, looking out over the country.
He did not need to get his map out. He knew where he was from the position
of the river.
As he smoked, his legs stretched out in front of him, he noticed a
grasshopper walk along the ground and up onto his woolen sock. The
grasshopper was black. As he had walked along the road, climbing, he had
started many grasshoppers from the dust. They were all black. They were not
the big grasshoppers with yellow and black or red and black wings whirring
out from their black wing sheathing as they fly up. These were just ordinary
hoppers, but all a sooty black in color. Nick had wondered about them as he
walked, without really thinking about them. Now, as he watched the black
hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its fourway lip, he
realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land.
He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the
grasshoppers were all black now. He wondered how long they would stay that
Carefully he reached his hand down and took hold of the hopper by the
wings. He turned him up, all his legs walking in the air, and looked at his
jointed belly. Yes, it was black too, iridescent where the back and head
"Go on, hopper," Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time. "Fly
He tossed the grasshopper up into the air and watched him sail away to
a charcoal stump across the road.
Nick stood up. He leaned his back against the weight of his pack where
it rested upright on the stump and got his arms through the shoulder straps.
He stood with the pack on his back on the brow of the hill looking out
across the country toward the distant river and then struck down the
hillside away from the road. Underfoot the ground was good walking. Two
hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet
fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and dumps of jack pines; a long
undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the
country alive again.
Nick kept his direction by the sun. He knew where he wanted to strike
the river and he kept on through the pine plain, mounting small rises to see
other rises ahead of him and sometimes from the top of a rise a great solid
island of pines off to his right or his left. He broke off some sprigs of
the heathery sweet fern, and put them under his pack straps. The chafing
crushed it and he smelled it as he walked.
He was tired and very hot, walking across the uneven, shadeless pine
plain. At any time he knew he could strike the river by turning off to his
left. It could not be more than a mile away. But he kept on toward the north
to hit the river as far upstream as he could go in one day's walking.
For some time as he walked Nick had been in sight of one of the big
islands of pine standing out above the rolling high ground he was crossing.
He dipped down and then as he came slowly up to the crest of the bridge
he turned and made toward the pine trees.
There was no underbrush in the island of pine trees. The minks of the
trees went straight up or slanted toward each other. The trunks were
straight and brown without branches. The branches were high above. Some
interlocked to make a solid shadow on the brown forest floor. Around the
grove of trees was a bare space. It was brown and soft underfoot as Nick
walked on it. This was the over-lapping of the pine needle floor, extending
out beyond the width of the high branches. The trees had grown tall and the
branches moved high, leaving in the sun this bare space they had once
covered with shadow. Sharp at the edge of this extension of the forest floor
commenced the sweet fern.
Nick slipped off his pack and lay down in the shade. He lay on his back
and looked up into the pine trees. His neck and back and the small of his
back rested as he stretched. The earth felt good against his back. He looked
up at the sky, through the branches, and then shut his eyes. He opened them
and looked up again. There was a wind high up in the branches. He shut his
eyes again and went to sleep.
Nick woke stiff and cramped. The sun was nearly down. His pack was
heavy and the straps painful as he lifted it on. He leaned over with the
pack on and picked up the leather rod-case and started out from the pine
trees across the sweet fern swale, toward the river. He knew it could not be
more than a mile.
He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow. At the edge
of the meadow flowed the river. Nick was glad to get to the river. He walked
upstream through the meadow. His trousers were soaked with the dew as he
walked. After the hot day, the dew had come quickly and heavily. The river
made no sound. It was too fast and smooth. At the edge of the meadow, before
he mounted to a piece of high ground to make camp. Nick looked down the
river at the trout rising. They were rising to insects come from the swamp
on the other side of the stream when the sun went down. The trout jumped out
of water to take them. While Nick walked through the little stretch of
meadow alongside the stream, trout had jumped high out of water. Now as he
looked down the river, the insects must be settling on the surface, for the
trout were feeding steadily all down the stream. As far down the long
stretch as he could see, the trout were rising, making circles all down the
surface of the water, as though it were starting to rain.
The ground rose, wooded and sandy, to overlook the meadow, the stretch
of river and the swamp. Nick dropped his pack and rod-case and looked for a
level piece of ground. He was very hungry and he wanted to make his camp
before he cooked. Between two jack pines, the ground was quite level. He
took the ax out of the pack and chopped out two projecting roots. That
leveled a piece of ground large enough to sleep on. He smoothed out the
sandy soil with his hand and pulled all the sweet fern bushes by their
roots. His hands smelled good from the sweet fern. He smoothed the uprooted
earth. He did not want anything making lumps under the blankets. When he had
the ground smooth, he spread his three blankets. One he folded double, next
to the ground. The other two he spread on top.
With the ax he slit off a bright slab of pine from one of the stumps
and split it into pegs for the tent. He wanted them long and solid to hold
in the ground. With the tent unpacked and spread on the ground, the pack,
leaning against a jackpine, looked much smaller. Nick tied the rope that
served the tent for a ridge-pole to the trunk of one of the pine trees and
pulled the tent up off the ground with the other end of the rope and tied it
to the other pine. The tent hung on the rope like a canvas blanket on a
clothesline. Nick poked a pole he had cut up under the back peak of the
canvas and then made it a tent by pegging out the sides. He pegged the sides
out taut and drove the pegs deep, hitting them down into the ground with the
flat of the ax until the rope loops were buried and the canvas was drum
Across the open mouth of the tent Nick fixed cheesecloth to keep out
mosquitoes. He crawled inside under the mosquito bar with various things
from the pack to put at the head of the bed under the slant of the canvas.
Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled
pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike.
Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all
day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to
do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was
done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was
a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home
where he had made it. Now he was hungry.
He came out, crawling under the cheesecloth. It was quite dark outside.
It was lighter in the tent.
Nick went over to the pack and found, with his fingers, a long nail in
a paper sack of nails, in the bottom of the pack. He drove it into the pine
tree, holding it close and hitting it gently with the flat of the ax. He
hung the pack up on the nail. All his supplies were in the pack. They were
off the ground and sheltered now.
Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier. He
opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the
"I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry
it," Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not
He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a
stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into
the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan on the grill over the
flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti wanned. Nick stirred them
and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that
rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a
bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles
were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying
pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread
slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato
catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at
the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his
tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never
been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was
very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a
mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full
spoonful from the plate.
"Chrise," Nick said, "Geezus Chrise," he said happily.
He ate the whole plateful before he remembered the bread. Nick finished
the second plateful with the bread, mopping the plate shiny. He had not
eaten since a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich in the station restaurant at
St. Ignace. It had been a very fine experience. He had been that hungry
before, but had not been able to satisfy it. He could have made camp hours
before if he had wanted to. There were plenty of good places to camp on the
river. But this was good.
Nick tucked two big chips of pine under the grill. The fire flared up.
He had forgotten to get water for the coffee. Out of the pack he got a
folding canvas bucket and walked down the hill, across the edge of the
meadow, to the stream. The other bank was in the white mist. The grass was
wet and cold as he knelt on the bank and dipped the canvas bucket into the
stream. It bellied and pulled hard in the current. The water was ice cold.
Nick rinsed the bucket and carried it full up to the camp. Up away from the
stream it was not so cold.
Nick drove another big nail and hung up the bucket full of water. He
dipped the coffee pot half full, put some more chips under the grill onto
the fire and put the pot on. He could not remember which way he made coffee.
He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins, but not which side he
had taken. He dedded to bring it to a boil. He remembered now that was
Hopkins's way. He had once argued about everything with Hopkins. While he
waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked
to open cans. He emptied the can of apricots out into a tin cup. While he
watched the coffee on the fire, he drank the juice syrup of the apricots,
carefully at first to keep from spilling, then meditatively, sucking the
apricots down. They were better than fresh apricots.
The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds
ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. It was a triumph
for Hopkins. He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the
coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the
handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not
the first cup. It should be straight Hopkins all the way. Hop deserved that.
He was a very serious coffee drinker. He was the most serious man Nick
had ever known. Not heavy, serious. That was a long time ago. Hopkins spoke
without moving his lips. He had played polo. He made millions of dollars in
Texas. He had borrowed carfare to go to Chicago, when the wire came that his
first big well had come in. He could have wired for money. That would have
been too slow. They called Hop's girl the Blonde Venus. Hop did not mind
because she was not his real girl. Hopkins said very confidently that none
of them would make fun of his real girl. He was right. Hopkins went away
when the telegram came. That was on the Black River. It took eight days for
the telegram to reach him. Hopkins gave away his. 22 caliber Colt automatic
pistol to Nick. He gave his camera to Bill. It was to remember him always
by. They were all going fishing again next summer. The Hop Head was rich. He
would get a yacht and they would all cruise along the north shore of Lake
Superior. He was excited but serious. They said good-bye and all felt bad.
It broke up the trip. They never saw Hopkins again. That was a long time ago
on the Black River.
Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was
bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was
starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He
spilled the coffee out of the pot and shook the grounds loose into the fire.
He lit a cigarette and went inside the tent. He took off his shoes and
trousers, sitting on the blankets, rolled the shoes up inside the trousers
for a pillow and got in between the blankets.
Out through the front of the tent he watched the glow of the fire, when
the night wind blew on it. It was a quiet night. The swamp was perfectly
quiet. Nick stretched under the blanket comfortably. A mosquito hummed close
to his ear. Nick sat up and lit a match. The mosquito was on the canvas,
over his head. Nick moved the match quickly up to it. The mosquito made a
satisfactory hiss in the flame. The match went out. Nick lay down again
under the blanket. He turned on his side and shut his eyes. He was sleepy.
He felt sleep coming. He curled up under the blanket and went to sleep.
In the morning the sun was up and the tent was starting to get hot.
Nick crawled out under the mosquito netting stretched across the mouth of
the tent, to look at the morning. The grass was wet on his hands as he came
out. He held his trousers and his shoes in his hands. The sun was just up
over the hill. There was the meadow, the river and the swamp. There were
birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river.
The river was clear and smoothly fast in the early morning. Down about
two hundred yards were three logs all the way across the stream. They made
the water smooth and deep above them. As Nick watched, a mink crossed the
river on the logs and went into the swamp. Nick was excited. He was excited
by the early morning and the river. He was really too hurried to eat
breakfast, but he knew he must. He built a little fire and put on the coffee
While the water was heating in the pot he took an empty bottle and went
down over the edge of the high ground to the meadow. The meadow was wet with
dew and Nick wanted to catch grasshoppers for bait before the sun dried the
grass. He found plenty of good grasshoppers. They were at the base of the
grass stems. Sometimes they clung to a grass stem. They were cold and wet
with the dew, and could not jump until the sun wanned them. Nick picked them
up, taking only the medium-sized brown ones, and put them into the bottle.
He turned over a log and just under the shelter of the edge were several
hundred hoppers. It was a grasshopper lodging house. Nick put about fifty of
the medium browns into the bottle. While he was picking up the hoppers the
others warmed in the sun and commenced to hop away. They flew when they
hopped. At first they made one flight and stayed stiff when they landed, as
though they were dead.
Nick knew that by the time he was through with breakfast they would be
as lively as ever. Without dew in the grass it would take him all day to
catch a bottle full of good grasshoppers and he would have to crush many of
them, slamming at them with his hat. He washed his hands at the stream. He
was excited to be near it. Then he walked up to the tent. The hoppers were
already jumping stiffly in the grass. In the bottle, warmed by the sun, they
were jumping in a mass. Nick put in a pine stick as a cork. It plugged the
mouth of the bottle enough, so the hoppers could not get out and left plenty
of air passage.
He had rolled the log back and knew he could get grasshoppers there
Nick laid the bottle full of jumping grasshoppers against a pine trunk.
Rapidly he mixed some buckwheat flour with water and stirred it smooth, one
cup of flour, one cup of water. He put a handful of coffee in the pot and
dipped a lump of grease out of a can and slid it sputtering across the hot
skillet. On the smoking skillet he poured smoothly the buckwheat batter. It
spread like lava, the grease spitting sharply. Around the edges the
buckwheat cake began to firm, then brown, then crisp. The surface was
bubbling slowly to porousness. Nick pushed under the browned under surface
with a fresh pine chip. He shook the skillet sideways and the cake was loose
on the surface. I won't try and flop it, he thought. He slid the chip of
clean wood all the way under the cake, and flopped it over onto its face. It
sputtered in the pan.
When it was cooked Nick regreased the skillet. He used all the batter.
It made another big flapjack and one smaller one.
Nick ate a big flapjack and a smaller one, covered with apple butter.
He put apple butter on the third cake, folded it over twice, wrapped it in
oiled paper and put it in his shirt pocket. He put the apple butter jar back
in the pack and cut bread for two sandwiches.
In the pack he found a big onion. He sliced it in two and peeled the
silky outer skin. Then he cut one half into slices and made onion
sandwiches. He wrapped them in oiled paper and buttoned them in the other
pocket of his khaki shirt. He turned the skillet upside down on the grill,
drank the coffee, sweetened and yellow brown with the condensed milk in it,
and tidied up the camp. It was a good camp.
Nick took his fly rod out of the leather rod-case, jointed it, and
shoved the rod-case back into the tent. He put on the reel and threaded the
line through the guides. He had to hold it from hand to hand, as he threaded
it, or it would slip back through its own weight. It was a heavy, double
tapered fly line. Nick had paid eight dollars for it a long time ago. It was
made heavy to lift back in the air and come forward flat and heavy and
straight to make it possible to cast a fly which has no weight. Nick opened
the aluminum leader box. The leaders were coiled between the damp flannel
pads. Nick had wet the pads at the water cooler on the train up to St.
Ignace. In the damp pads the gut leaders had softened and Nick unrolled one
and tied it by a loop at the end to the heavy fly line. He fastened a hook
on the end of the leader. It was a small hook; very thin and springy.
Nick took it from his hook book, sitting with the rod across his lap.
He tested the knot and the spring of the rod by pulling the line taut. It
was a good feeling. He was careful not to let the hook bite into his finger.
He started down to the stream, holding his rod, the bottle of
grasshoppers hung from his neck by a thong tied in half hitches around the
neck of the bottle. His landing net hung by a hook from his belt. Over his
shoulder was a long flour sack tied at each comer into an ear. The cord went
over his shoulder. The sack flapped against his legs.
Nick felt awkward and professionally happy with all his equipment
hanging from him. The grasshopper bottle swung against his chest. In his
shin the breast pockets bulged against him with the lunch and his fly book.
He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tight to
his legs. His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.
Rushing, the current sucked against his legs. Where he stepped in, the
water was over his knees. He waded with the current. The gravel slid under
his shoes. He looked down at the swirl of water below each leg and tipped up
the bottle to get a grasshopper.
The first grasshopper gave a jump in the neck of the bottle and went
out into the water. He was sucked under in the whirl by Nick's right leg and
came to the surface a little way down stream. He floated rapidly, kicking.
In a quick circle, breaking the smooth surface of the water, he disappeared.
A trout had taken him.
Another hopper poked his face out of the bottle. His antennae wavered.
He was getting his front legs out of the bottle to jump. Nick took him by
the head and held him while he threaded the slim hook under his chin, down
through his thorax and into the last segments of his abdomen. The
grasshopper took hold of the hook with his front feet, spitting tobacco
juice on it. Nick dropped him into the water.
Holding the rod in his right hand he let out line against the pull of
the grasshopper in the current. He stripped off line from the reel with his
left hand and let it run free. He could see the hopper in the little waves
of the current. It went out of sight.
There was a tug on the line. Nick pulled against the taut line. It was
his first strike. Holding the now living rod across the current, he brought
in the line with his left hand. The rod bent in jerks, the trout pumping
against the current. Nick knew it was a small one. He lifted the rod
straight up in the air. It bowed with the pull.
He saw the trout in the water jerking with his head and body against
the shifting tangent of the line in the stream.
Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping
tiredly against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear,
water-over-gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his
right arm, Nick stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held
the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the
barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream.
He hung unsteadily in the current, then settled to the bottom beside a
stone. Nick reached down his hand to touch him, his arm to the elbow under
water. The trout was steady in the moving stream, resting on the gravel,
beside a stone. As Nick's fingers touched him, touched his smooth, cool,
underwater feeling he was gone, gone in a shadow across the bottom of the
He's all right. Nick thought. He was only tired.
He had wet his hand before he touched the trout, so he would not
disturb the delicate mucus that covered him. If a trout was touched with a
dry hand, a white fungus attacked the unprotected spot. Years before when he
had fished crowded streams, with fly fishermen ahead of him and behind him.
Nick had again and again come on dead trout, furry with white fungus,
drifted against a rock, or floating belly up in some pool. Nick did not like
to fish with other men on the river. Unless they were of your party, they
He wallowed down the stream, above his knees in the current, through
the fifty yards of shallow water above the pile of logs that crossed the
stream. He did not rebait his hook and held it in his hand as he waded. He
was certain he could catch small trout in the shallows, but he did not want
them. There would be no big trout in the shallows this time of day.
Now the water deepened up his thighs sharply and coldly. Ahead was the
smooth dammed-back flood of water above the logs. The water was smooth and
dark; on the left, the lower edge of the meadow; on the right the swamp.
Nick leaned back against the current and took a hopper from the bottle.
He threaded the hopper on the hook and spat on him for good luck. Then he
pulled several yards of line from the reel and tossed the hopper out ahead
onto the fast, dark water. It floated down towards the logs, then the weight
of the line pulled the bait under the surface. Nick held the rod in his
right hand, letting the line run out through his fingers.
There was a long tug. Nick struck and the rod came alive and dangerous,
bent double, the line tightening, coming out of water, tightening, all in a
heavy, dangerous, steady pull. Nick felt the moment when the leader would
break if the strain increased and let the line go.
The reel ratcheted into a mechanical shriek as the line went out in a
rush. Too fast. Nick could not check it, the line rushing out. the reel note
rising as the line ran out.
With the core of the reel showing, his heart feeling stopped with the
excitement, leaning back against the current that mounted icily his thighs,
Nick thumbed the reel hard with his left hand. It was awkward getting his
thumb inside the fly reel frame.
As he put on pressure the line tightened into sudden hardness and
beyond the logs a huge trout went high out of water. As he jumped. Nick
lowered the tip of the rod. But he felt, as he dropped the tip to ease the
strain, the moment when the strain was too great; the hardness too tight. Of
course, the leader had broken. There was no mistaking the feeling when all
spring left the line and it became dry and hard. Then it went slack.
His mouth dry, his heart down. Nick reeled in. He had never seen so big
a trout. There was a heaviness, a power not to be held, and then the bulk of
him, as he jumped. He looked as broad as a salmon.
Nick's hand was shaky. He reeled in slowly. The thrill had been too
much. He felt, vaguely, a little sick, as though it would be better to sit
The leader had broken where the hook was tied to it. Nick took it in
his hand. He thought of the trout somewhere on the bottom, holding himself
steady over the gravel, far down below the light, under the logs, with the
hook in his jaw. Nick knew the trout's teeth would cut through the snell of
the hook. The hook would imbed itself in his jaw. He'd bet the trout was
angry. Anything that size would be angry. That was a trout. He had been
solidly hooked. Solid as a rock. He felt like a rock, too, before he started
off. By God, he was a big one. By God, he was the biggest one I ever heard
Nick climbed out onto the meadow and stood, water running down his
trousers and out of his shoes, his shoes squelchy. He went over and sat on
the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.
He wriggled his toes in the water, in his shoes, and got out a
cigarette from his breast pocket. He lit it and tossed the match into the
fast water below the logs. A tiny trout rose at the match, as it swung
around in the fast current. Nick laughed. He would finish the cigarette.
He sat on the logs, smoking, drying in the sun, the sun warm on his
back, the river shallow ahead entering the woods, curving into the woods,
shallows, light glittering, big water-smooth rocks, cedars along the bank
and white birches, the logs warm in the sun, smooth to sit on, without bark,
gray to the touch; slowly the feeling of disappointment left him. It went
away slowly, the feeling of disappointment that came sharply after the
thrill that made his shoulders ache. It was all right now. His rod lying out
on the logs. Nick tied a new hook on the leader, pulling the gut tight until
it grimped into itself in a hard knot.
He baited up, then picked up the rod and walked to the far end of the
logs to get into the water, where it was not too deep. Under and beyond the
logs was a deep pool. Nick walked around the shallow shelf near the swamp
shore until he came out on the shallow bed of the stream.
On the left, where the meadow ended and the woods began, a great elm
tree was uprooted. Gone over in a storm, it lay back into the woods, its
roots clotted with dirt, grass growing in them, rising a solid bank beside
the stream. The river cut to the edge of the uprooted tree. From where Nick
stood he could see deep channels, like ruts, cut in the shallow bed of the
stream by the flow of the current. Pebbly where he stood and pebbly and full
of boulders beyond; where it curved near the tree roots, the bed of the
stream was marly and between the ruts of deep water green weed fronds swung
in the current.
Nick swung the rod back over his shoulder and forward, and the line,
curving forward, laid the grasshopper down on one of the deep channels in
the weeds. A trout struck and Nick hooked him.
Holding the rod far out toward the uprooted tree and sloshing backward
in the current. Nick worked the trout, plunging, the rod bending alive, out
of the danger of the weeds into the open river. Holding the rod, pumping
alive against the current. Nick brought the trout in. He rushed, but always
came, the spring of the rod yielding to the rushes, sometimes jerking under
water, but always bringing him in. Nick eased downstream with the rushes.
The rod above his head he led the trout over the net, then lifted.
The trout hung heavy in the net, mottled trout back and silver sides in
the meshes. Nick unhooked him; heavy sides, good to hold, big undershot jaw,
and slipped him, heaving and big sliding, into the long sack that hung from
his shoulders in the water.
Nick spread the mouth of the sack against the current and it filled,
heavy with water. He held it up, the bottom in the stream, and the water
poured out through the sides. Inside at the bottom was the big trout, alive
in the water.
Nick moved downstream. The sack out ahead of him sunk heavy in the
water, pulling from his shoulders.
It was getting hot, the sun hot on the back of his neck.
Nick had one good trout. He did not care about getting many trout. Now
the stream was shallow and wide. There were trees along both banks. The
trees of the left bank made short shadows on the current in the forenoon
sun. Nick knew there were trout in each shadow. In the afternoon, after the
sun had crossed toward the hills, the trout would be in the cool shadows on
the other side of the stream.
The very biggest ones would lie up close to the bank. You could always
pick them up there on the Black. When the sun was down they all moved out
into the current. Just when the sun made the water blinding in the glare
before it went down, you were liable to strike a big trout anywhere in the
current. It was almost impossible to fish then, the surface of the water was
blinding as a mirror in the sun. Of course, you could fish upstream, but in
a stream like the Black, or this, you had to wallow against the current and
in a deep place, the water piled up on you. It was no fun to fish upstream
with this much current.
Nick moved along through the shallow stretch watching the banks for
deep holes. A beech tree grew close beside the river, so that the branches
hung down into the water. The stream went back in under the leaves. There
were always trout in a place like that.
Nick did not care about fishing that hole. He was sure he would get
hooked in the branches.
It looked deep though. He dropped the grasshopper so the current took
it under water, back in under the overhanging branch. The line pulled hard
and Nick struck. The trout threshed heavily, half out of water in the leaves
and branches. The line was caught. Nick pulled hard and the trout was off.
He reeled in and holding the hook in his hand, walked down the stream.
Ahead, close to the left bank, was a big log. Nick saw it was hollow;
pointing up river the current entered it smoothly, only a little ripple
spread each side of the log. The water was deepening. The top of the hollow
log was gray and dry. It was partly in the shadow.
Nick took the cork out of the grasshopper bottle and a hopper clung to
it. He picked him off, hooked him and tossed him out. He held the rod far
out so that the hopper on the water moved into the current flowing into the
hollow log. Nick lowered the rod and the hopper floated in. There was a
heavy strike. Nick swung the rod against the pull. It felt as though he were
hooked into the log itself, except for the live feeling.
He tried to force the fish out into the current. It came, heavily.
The line went slack and Nick thought the trout was gone. Then he saw
him, very near, in the current, shaking his head, trying to get the hook
out. His mouth was clamped shut. He was fighting the hook in the clear
Looping in the line with his left hand. Nick swung the rod to make the
line taut and tried to lead the trout toward the net, but he was gone, out
of sight, the line pumping. Nick fought him against the current, letting him
thump in the water against the spring of the rod. He shifted the rod to his
left hand, worked the trout upstream, holding his weight, fighting on the
rod, and then let him down into the net. He lifted him clear of the water, a
heavy half circle in the net, the net dripping, unhooked him and slid him
into the sack.
He spread the mouth of the sack and looked down in at the two big trout
alive in the water.
Through the deepening water. Nick waded over to the hollow log. He took
the sack off, over his head, the trout flopping as it came out of water, and
hung it so the trout were deep in the water. Then he pulled himself up on
the log and sat, the water from his trouser and boots running down into the
stream. He laid his rod down, moved along to the shady end of the log and
took the sandwiches out of his pocket. He dipped the sandwiches in the cold
water. The current carried away the crumbs. He ate the sandwiches and dipped
his hat full of water to drink, the water running out through his hat just
ahead of his drinking.
It was cool in the shade, sitting on the log. He took a cigarette out
and struck a match to light it. The match sunk into the gray wood, making a
tiny furrow. Nick leaned over the side of the log, found a hard place and
lit the match. He sat smoking and watching the river.
Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth
and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks dose
together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a
swamp like that. The branches grew so low. You would have to keep almost
level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the
branches. That must be why the animals that lived in swamps were built the
way they were. Nick thought.
He wished he had brought something to read. He felt like reading. He
did not feel like going on into the swamp. He looked down the river. A big
cedar slanted all the way across the stream. Beyond that the river went into
Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep
wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in
places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big
cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in
patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be
tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it.
He did not want to go down the stream any further today.
He took out his knife, opened it and stuck it in the log. Then he
pulled up the sack, reached into it and brought out one of the trout.
Holding him near the tail, hard to hold, alive, in his hand, he whacked him
against the log. The trout quivered, rigid. Nick laid him on the log in the
shade and broke the neck of the other fish the same way. He laid them side
by side on the log. They were fine trout.
Nick cleaned them, slitting them from the vent to the tip of the jaw.
All the insides and the gills and tongue came out in one piece. They were
both males; long gray-white strips of milt, smooth and clean. All the
insides clean and compact, coming out all together. Nick tossed the offal
ashore for the minks to find.
He washed the trout in the stream. When he held them back up in the
water they looked like live fish. Their color was not gone yet. He washed
his hands and dried them on the log. Then he laid the trout on the sack
spread out on the log, rolled them up in it, tied the bundle and put it in
the landing net. His knife was still standing, blade stuck in the log. He
cleaned it on the wood and put it in his pocket.
Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging
heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank
and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to
camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were
plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.
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