How and why and when Jonas Ammitian caught the biggest rainbow trout in the world is in part because of the man he met in a bar in West Bench, Montana, but mostly because of the kerfuffle being made of his life at the time.
Jonas was not even a fisherman. He was a plain, salt and pepper middle ager, with a florescent-light, putty face the complexion of the belly of a fish. This made Jonas a flight risk, and this story begins with Jonas finally taking the risk, finally ‘doing a runner’ to become, for an all too brief two weeks, an anonymous tourista on a get-away-from-it-all. The all he was getting away from were a honey-and-spice but nagging wife (Betty Jean), three spoiled kids (Betty June, Jonas Jr. and Dorie) and a nine-to-five with all the thrills of lead poisoning. The nine-to-five was with Do-Re-Me Chemical, Inc. which had assigned him the job of writing a white-paper they could use for public relations. The white paper was suppose to ‘prove’ that the sixteen and thirty-two finned brown trout being caught near farms using Do-Re-Me herbicides had nothing to do with Do-Re-Me. Jonas was a man trying know the It of the Universe, as any good man would be. Writing a spoof on what, even Do-Re-Me scientists said, was happening to trout near farms using Do-Re-Me herbicide seemed to be drifting a bit further from the It-finder path than Jonas thought respectable.
So instead of commute slogging home that Thursday evening, Jonas drove to Dulles International Airport and called Do-Re-Me CEO Dorrina Bratdigger from the boarding gate lobby to say that he was on his way to Indiana to observe sixteen and thirty-two finned trout on farms using Do-Re-Me insecticide. This was a lie. He called Betty Jean to say that Dorrina had told him his word smithing skills were needed in Nine Vales, Indiana, (this too was a lie) and that he was leaving immediately (which was not a lie).
He stood in front of the boarding gate window, a shadow of himself, slump shouldered and putty faced, reflected in plate glass, and he lied. In one of his lying, sweaty fists was his cell phone, in the other lying, sweaty fist was a Delta Airlines Skymiles boarding pass to Bozeman, Montana—not Indiana. He expected the round shouldered shadow in the window to somehow rebuke him. But it did not, it was just a see-through shadow with the blank of overcast sky for eyes. It was a sometimes eyeless shadow that also did not rebuke from airplane windows all the five hours and Minneapolis-layover to Montana. Nor did it rebuke from the windshield shadow of his rental car, nor from the night-dark window of room 12 in the FishInn Motel in West Bench, Montana.
In the morning he was still completely unrebuked by any shade, shadow or reflection including the one in the room 12 bathroom mirror that reminded him he had fled without, among other things, a razor. He did notice, a sort of flash in his eye, and a subtle flush on his cheek that had not troubled him for quite a long time. He smiled. He shrugged, donned his slacks and his shirt, sans tie, sans cuff rivets, and walked across the gravel parking lot to the FishInn Bar and Grill.
He had no idea where he was going from here. Maybe he’d go looking for God in Utah, or maybe meditate of eternity on some high Colorado ridge. Maybe he’d just go with the flow, asking locals about the sights and places and eateries and sleep-easies and just let things happen. How else make a search for the big IT?
And so it was somewhat fortuitous that as he finished his Butte Burrito, a rumpled ruin of a man sitting at the bar turned to him and said, “You look like a man running from wife and law to me.”
At first Jonas believed the man’s eyes were on someone sitting at a table behind him. So he didn’t say anything.
“Yeah, you” the man said. He nodded at Jonas. “You, without the tie. You. You look fugitive to me.” Jonas thought this odd, then realized that he, Jonas, was the only one in the joint who probably looked like he should be wearing a tie. The rumpled man was holding a can of beer, one elbow on the bar, one gnarled fist on his knee. Though the beer in his fist may have been the first of the day, it was obviously just one in a long and unbroken string of pop tops and twist offs that perspectived back into the ancient days of his youth. His face was brown with sun, where it was not burnished red at nose, cheek, and chin from long acquaintance with pop tops and bottles. Small watery blue eyes peered from the shadow under the brim of a felt hat festooned with fishing lures and rabbit’s feet.
“Beg pardon,” Jonas said.
“I can tell a runner a mile away. You got runner wrote all over.”
“I’m on vacation,” Jonas said.
“Yeah, Yeah. All runners we see around here are on vacation. Vacation from all the BS back in DC or New Yawk or Philly or Minneapolis or Lost Angels. Whatever. You got the lost, what-do-I-do-now look of somebody with two weeks and no idea. Somebody looking for the once-and-for-all Big It.”
“I. . . I. . .” Jonas stuttered.
“Now if you was thinkin’ of fishin’ and this was a lucky day, maybe I could help.”
“Whut?” Jonas was just a bit annoyed, but he was in a strange country and he did not wish to offend, so his ‘whut?’ was polite and noncommittal.
“I said, ‘If this was a lucky day, I could get you into some monster fish.’”
Jonas thought this amusing. “And why isn’t this a lucky day,” he said.
“Didn’t say if it was or wasn’t,” the rumpled man said. “I just said if it was I could find good fish. Which is something I won’t know until April here,” he waved at the waitress, “tells me if my tab’s been paid. With a twenty percent for April, of course, to special the luck.” He lifted the pop-top and tilted his head back, his throat working to suck the can dry, the lures on his felt hat hanging and jangling.
To find an adventure all set up for just the cost of a couple of wake-me-up beers and maybe a breakfast, couldn’t be better if he had planned it. So when April arrived to take his card, he said, “And his tab too,” nodding to the rumpled man at the bar.
“You mean Nicky’s tab or you mean Nicky’s cheque for today?”
“uhh,” Jonas said.
“Cheque for today is two rug gut beers, seven dollars even. Tab for this and last night, which he skipped on, which he does oftener than he doesn’t, is fifty-eight dollars including dinner. He hasn’t had breakfast yet.”
“Uhh,” Jonas said. Seventy dollars seemed like a lot for some advice, but then this Nicky was apparently offering more than advice; he seemed to be saying he would guide Jonas on the adventure.
“Two beers is breakfast enough for any man,” Nicky said. He burped. He grinned. The paraphernalia on his hat jiggled.
“Well sure,” Jonas said, “The tab, the whole thing.” He handed April his Do-Re-Me card. The one that Bratdigger’s weasels kept tabs on. Until the moment his fingers brushed over the Do-Re-Me Card in search of his own First Potomac Card, he had not thought of how he would fund his adventure. But it occurred to him that fishing for large trout in Montana was, after all, something like researching the absence or presence of thirty-two finned fish in water of the Last Lost River. If Bratdigger’s penny pinching weasels squealed about expenses, well then Jonas would just have to see how loud the thirty-two finned fish whistle would blow.
As they were going through the convenience store annex of the FishInn Bar and Grill, Nicky touched Jonas on the arm and pointed to the wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor beer cooler. “Equippage of the fish hunt,” he said.
Jonas paused, he looked at Nicky and at the beer cooler. The face that looked back from the partially fogged cooler glass was shadow jawed and surprisingly cheery cheeked. The eyes were the blue color of the case of Montana Blue Ale behind the glass. He looked at Nicky again
“Specializing the luck even more,” Nicky said, “would be a case of Montana Bleu Ale. To cover lease of equipment.”
“And of course your time,” Jonas said.
“Oh, no. My time is twenty a hour or a hunnerd, whichever is most.”
“Fair ‘nuff.” The Do-Re-Me card was becoming interesting. Jonas could hear the Do-Re-Me weasels squealing and he could hear a choir singing about thirty-two finned fish and insecticide.
As it turns out, if it had not been for the fly rod, Do-Re-Me would have been really getting snookered on the equipage of the adventure. The boat’s haul trailer’s starboard tire needed inflating—about once every fifteen miles; the electrical hook up between pickup and trailer was ragged and taped and, as it turned out, only signaled right. The pickup itself smelled of dog and fish and burning oil and contained two resident mongrel dogs with snarls on their grins. And Nicky’s boat needed a good bail to stay afloat. The fly rod, however, was a whip of fine balance and dexterity. Even with Jonas’s heavy handed and inexperienced throw, it sent line and lure into distant and lovely waters.
One other thing besides the fly rod that Nicky kept in tip-top shape was the boat cooler. It held pretty much a full case of Montana Bleu with enough room for a pint of Hennessys and a quart of Last Lost River Lightning and half a sack of ice. And so the morning drifted by with a luxury that Jonas had seldom experienced. Swallows darted across the blue sky. Off in the hills Sand Hill Cranes warbled the air. Smells of wet willow, sage, and dry earth came to him in wafts. Water slapped the boat which creaked and groaned under them. Nicky bailed and rowed and held steady where particularly lovely water lay.
Lunch was buffalo jerky and beer and soggy chips chased by a plastic snifter of Hennessys on a grassy bank. The Last Lost River gurgled over stones and under banks, It tugged and let go low willow branches and the mosses and water weed snaked and fishtailed under the water. There were roses blooming on the verge between the grassy bank and the dry pasture; they were wild and their heady odor mingled with water and wild marigolds. Gophers trilled and crickets shirred in the grass behind them. Nicky talked about fish, fishing, fishermen, fly rods, line tapers and weights. He discoursed on the feather, fur, and floss imitations for each and every insect of fishy interest. He talked of hatches where water frothed with wing and fin and thrown line. There were stillish pools along the bank. The water weed and moss wavered and twisted under Jonas’s rippling reflection. The reflection seemed to be murmuring with the water ‘this is enough; this is It.’ Jonas believed he was getting Do-Re-Me Inc.’s moneys worth in spite of the rough state of the equipage. He didn’t need the fish that Jonas said they were aiming for.
“These you caught so far is minnow bait compared,” he said.
And so, Jonas should perhaps have been prepared. But it was late in the day. The sun was etching long shadows across the water and over the brown hills. The air was cooling, and the case of beer was no longer a full case—perhaps half that, maybe less.
“There’s lovely water,” Nicky said. “There’s water I took fish from.” He lifted his bail hand and pointed, ruddering the boat with the port oar, so that it drifted out of mainstream toward an eddy that looked deep and almost ominous. A heavy limbed willow hung out over it and branches caught in the water, swung down with the swirl of water, lifted and flipped back sending droplets of water across the width of the pool.
“There’s water has took a man, too,” he said just as Jonas sent his line, and dropped a grasshopper imitation into the edge of the light detritus that turned in the center of the eddy. But it was too late, even if Jonas had considered the words. The line was out, the hopper was drifting in the gyre of pollen, flower petals, and willow leaves.
Then the water lifted as if pushed by a muscled fist. The hopper imitation vanished and just before Jonas felt the first heavy, unyielding nudge coming up the line to him, Nicky began screaming, “set it set it set the goddamned thing Jesus set it.” Jonas lifted the rod, but it did not lift easily. It arced and leaned down toward the dark water. And stayed like that. Until it didn’t. The line slacked and then Jonas saw her. Not quite as big as a man, but coming out of the water, wavering as if dancing on the surface, the yellow of the large hopper less than a gnat in the rose hued hinge of its mouth. Then she was slammed back into the pool and Jonas felt the weight of her again, like a log pulling him, and Nicky was screaming “Jesus. Jesus. Release, give her. She’ll break. . . . Give’r line. Give’r. Keep’r close.” He was trying to maneuver the boat so Jonas could take in line.
And then the boat went over. Too much beer, Too much Nicky excitement. Too little baling. Too much trying to hold the fish that did not want to be held. The boat flopped.
And Jonas felt the water engulf him, he went under, could find no bottom in the slow swirl of the eddy, felt the water weeds waver, tangle his knees, felt the uncompromising pull of the fish. Light sparkled where the sun touched the water surface above him. The dull smell of water filled his nose. And for a moment he wanted nothing but release. Then he was above water again, gasping, the rod still in his hand, drag whining, still leaden with the weight it held.
And Nicky was screaming, “Don’t lose my goddamned rod. Jesus, land the son-of-a-bitch. You lose that rod, you’ll fry in hell. Jesus. Land that fish.” These were all things Jonas was trying to do. So Nicky was not being much help.
Jonas went under again. The weight of his wet pants tugged against his legs. Water weed pulled his arms and added to the lug of the rod and its game. The sparkle of water seemed distant and hard to get too.
And then Jonas was up again, this time feeling the grit of the almost solid sand bar under his knees. The drag was still keening and it was deep into the backing. Jonas staggered onto the sandbar that had somehow found him and began a shambling, water heavy, staggering, run to retrieve line, to work the fish. She came out of the water again, twenty yards out, tailing and wavering over the water, then slapped back and became a moving bulge in the shallower water of the current. And it would have been over then, there was nothing in Jonas’s experience except some vague notion that fly line and leader was pretty light to hold a fish the nearly size of a man. The weight of the water on his shirt and pants, the tangle of water weed and on his arms and knees slowed him and he could not follow her fast enough to retrieve.
It would have been over except that Nicky was somehow there, ahead of him, down stream in the current water, a net held in the water, in the deeper current. And she went into as if it were made for her.
Jonas floundered, flopped and swam to where Nicky held her, gasping in a small rivulet among wet rocks. Nicky was throwing water over her, and holding her in the net, a net that in fact did not entirely hold her, but had only been enough, just barely enough, to pause her until Nicky could guide her to the shallows of the rocks.
There all three of them took gasping breaths, all of three of them wet with water and air, gasping in the verge between. Jonas knelt and touched the large heavy body. She seemed heavy and powerless under the frame of the net and in the snarl its web. Jonas shook the tangle of water weed and moss from his arm and hand and felt his fingers along the rosettes of her slick skin. He saw himself in the silver-gray shine of her, a wet man on his knees and trembling. Then, his fingers shaking, he leaned to the grasshopper lure in the hinge of her mouth. He unhooked it and said, “let her go.”
“This’s as close to It as you’ll ever get,” Nicky said.
Coda: Of course Bratdigger did not believe Jonas when he told her that his trip to Indiana required a detour to Montana that involved fishing for the largest trout in the world on the Last Lost River. It was, after all, a fish story and who believes fish stories. Bratdigger certainly did not. She did, however, believe the undercurrent of their conversation related to songs about Do-Re-Me insecticide and fishes with thirty-two finns.
All expenses paid.
Betty Jean didn’t even listen to the fish story.
This is inspired by three words of the day from the Ragtag Daily Prompt. Sunday’s, Saturday’s, and Friday’s. I think it’s a perfect fit for all. Please do not suppose I have landing a large trout with a fly rod and line right. But I’ve done the best I could with what I have available. Will eventually talk to a real fisherman to see if I can improve. Also, remember: this is a fish story. And nobody brought the damned thing back for measure.