Rivers fascinate me. When I was a boy I loved nothing better than solitary wandering along their serpentine lengths, studying the water, searching the places where fish would lie, watching the creatures that lived there and laying on their banks lost in thought under the seemingly endless blue skies of boyhood.
Back then a river was an opportunity. Within it lay the fish of my dreams or the magic passage away from the world that had me snared. I was an unhappy kid. Only in solitude did I feel safe and only in the aloneness that the land and rivers represented could I find the freedom to dream and create.
In my adopted home there were no fishermen. There were no outdoorsmen. Camping for them was a travel trailer parked on a cultured lot with a convenience store a walk away, laundry facilities and public showers. So I fished alone. What I learned on those solitary jaunts I kept to myself. No one was interested anyway so they never knew how much of life and nature and the universe I learned on the banks of the rivers of my youth.
We camped beside a river once outside a southwestern Ontario town called Tara. There was an iron bridge over the river and I stood there reading the water. It was shallow and weedy and warm. There wasn’t much current. It didn’t look hopeful except for the clumps of lily pads dotting the surface whenever it got deep enough.
They laughed when I said I would fish it. But it didn’t matter. It was a river. I remember casting to different parts of it. I wandered about a mile and reeled in a few small bass. It excited me. Even as a kid I understood that the presence of small predator fish meant the presence of huge predator fish. Then I rounded a wide curve in the river where the current carved a long deep trench that was dark and promising.
There was fallen timber that was submerged and angled into the depths. I chose a bobber and a long leader that would allow me to drift my bait along the entire length of that trench about three feet deep just over the top of those fallen trees. My first casts came up empty.
But on the fourth cast I watched a long shadow glide out of the darkness and aim for my bait. It was enormous. When it took the hook it simply gulped it and swam off almost casually. But the weight of it arched my rod and when it felt that pressure the fish exploded. It felt like it would tear the rod right out of my hands and I back-pedaled to get a more secure footing.
That fish gave me the fight of a lifetime. It breached the water four or five times, jumping clear and rattling the bobber in the air. The splash it made when it landed was awesome. When it sounded, as it did a half dozen times, I could feel the weight of it like a truck pulling away. Reeling it in took forever and whenever it got close enough to the shore to see me it took off again.
I had to step into the river finally. I couldn’t lift it over the edge without snapping the line. Standing there, thigh deep in the water, lifting a fish far longer than my arm I felt totally alive. It was a pike. It was huge and as I removed the hook and it rested its weight against my other palm I knew I’d landed a monster. I shook with excitement.
But something happened to me there, something that’s taken years to fully understand. That fish was the biggest fish I ever caught but seeing it gulping at the water, straining for life, the power of it ebbing, the beauty of it already beginning to fade, I lowered it, let it rest in my hands and watched it swim away.
I never spoke of it even though they laughed when I came back empty handed. Instead, I ate supper silently and when I went to bed that night I thanked that fish for the challenge. They would have never understood. They would have never appreciated the enormity of that encounter or how sitting on the river bank, after it was over, I could cry and feel incredible joy all at the same time.
For me, that river pike was freedom in my hands. To keep it would have been to remove the possibility of magic from the world. When I chose to let it go I chose life and for the Indian that still lived in me then, it was honour and respect and love. They never would have gotten that either.