|The Fish House|
Friendship is forever, they say, unless there’s an alligator in the logjam ool-pay.
by Trigg White
From the March/April 2011 Issue
Looking back, I think everything would have been okay if Riley just hadn’t winked like that.
After all, Lewis is ordinarily as mellow as a dark ale, and Lewis and Riley had been friends for more than 20 years. So each would have ignored the insults, and the broken rod and slashed waders could have been overlooked. Even the fire might someday have been forgiven. But when Riley stepped onto that log, shot a quick backcast up between the trees, cocked his head toward Lewis, and squeezed off that wink as his line reached toward the big brown trout, something in Lewis just snapped.
But I should start at the beginning.
I first met Lewis and Riley on the West Fork of the Big Willie. I was working upstream pool-to-pool when I heard their voices. They were both kneeling about three feet apart below a small plunge pool. Lewis was on the left, and cast with his fly rod tipped across his body, gentle little lobs that delivered the fly a few inches below the plunge every time: perfect drift after perfect drift, as the fly floated back over the middle of the pool. Riley crouched to his right, lifting his line in crisp backcasts that rifled through a cleft in the bushes and shot out over the pool with the precision of a sewing machine. In alternating fashion, they dropped a fly lightly on the water every four seconds.
Then the pale wavering form of a trout materialized below Lewis’s fly, drifting back and inspecting it before fading into the belly of the pool.
“Am-day!” Lewis yelled. (As I grew to know them, I learned the mildly-spoken Lewis swore in Pig Latin when ited.)
“Haaah,” roared Riley. “I got the little bugger now! He won’t look at that fly again, and I’m gonna catch him while you’re changing flies.”
Lewis already had the fly in his hand, but instead of reaching for his fly box, he slipped a tiny pair of scissors from his vest and deftly snipped off the hackle and wings. He lost only a single turn to Riley. And this time, the trout gently sucked in his surgically altered fly.
The fish was on the bank almost instantly. It wouldn’t have gone 10 inches, but I never heard such hoopla.
“Not fair,” Riley said. “You called him on an Adams!”
“That is an Adams.”
“Was an Adams! Adams got grizzly hackle wings. That thing ain’t got no wings at all. Don’t count! Don’t count!”
Lewis was laughing. “Eagle loses a few feathers, it’s still an eagle. Hell, old Joe Widcock lost a whole leg. That don’t mean he ain’t still a man.”
Riley erupted with laughter. “You old bait-fishing bastard, I got to find me someone else to fish with. Someone with better gear to borrow.”
I usually steer clear of other fishermen on the stream, allowing them the same solitude I seek, but curiosity prevailed. I caught their attention and scrambled down the bank to introduce myself. They were friendly and outgoing, not seeming to resent my intrusion on the little stream they obviously knew so well. That’s when I learned about the game.
They had fished together so much they no longer cared who caught the most fish, or even the biggest fish. Now, they fished each pool together, alternating casts. At each spot they took turns “calling” the pool, indicating the species and size of fish he would catch and the fly pattern he’d use. The caller got first cast. If he caught the fish as called, he won. But if the other caught the fish, or if the fish wasn’t the species or size called, he lost.
Their days ended with raucous disagreement about the final tally, and the talk usually drifted elsewhere with the matter unresolved. Over time, I realized the game provided the fodder for the good-natured ribbing and subtle gibes that they loved, and no one but them understood.
I’d never before seen a friendship so relaxed and so full, and I haven’t since. That’s why it’s hard to understand how things degenerated so completely once they bought the fish house.
The simple frame cabin stood near the end of the dirt road leading to the stream. Lewis and Riley told themselves and others that the cabin would be a shared retreat for their families, alternating summer weekends in the cool mountains. It would take some fixing to be habitable by wives and children accustomed to floor coverings and flush toilets, but they’d work on the needed repairs and upgrades together during the first summer.
Of course, each day of labor should start with a little fishing. And as you might imagine, the fishing usually stretched to consume the whole day. As they approached the fall, the cabin was still rickety and rundown, had become cluttered with fishing paraphernalia and beer bottles, and was simply called “the fish house” by Lewis and Riley, and by their family and friends who were sometimes invited for the weekend.
But while the cabin itself offered little beyond a dry place to sleep and a stone fireplace to combat the mountain chill, the section of the West Fork of the Big Willie that flowed through the property was dark and mysterious in a way that keeps fishermen staring into the water. The stream narrowed and dropped into a sweeping bend that scoured an undercut bank. And as the stream had cut back the bank, the trees, one by one, had lost their footing to spring floods and toppled into the river, piling up in a monstrous and ancient logjam that backed up a deep pool spreading 30 feet bank-to-bank. It was the kind of place where a brown trout could lie among the tangle of roots and logs long enough to become an alligator—24 or even 28 inches long, with a hooked jaw and alligator teeth that snapped up any smaller fish within range.
In the summer and fall of the fish house’s first season, Lewis and Riley spent hours probing the logjam pool. Drifting a dry fly over those depths was pointless, so Lewis and Riley tied big stone fly nymphs to long, heavily weighted leaders. When that failed, they tied five-inch black leech patterns and purple marabou Woolly Buggers to sink-tip lines and drifted them right into the tangled maze.
They never got a strike, and they lost dozens of flies. But each time the line hesitated and drew tight, the fleeting conviction that the caster was connected to the fish of a lifetime flooded his synapses and fueled the greed that has led to the downfall of so many fishermen. For Lewis and Riley believed, as any fisherman would, that a hole so deep and wooded must hold something large and wonderful. Gradually, they lost all interest in the small brookies and browns that thrived in the pockets and slicks of the West Fork of the Big Willie. And they certainly lost interest in silly games.
A hard, wet winter closed off the road to the fish house and covered the logjam pool with a lid of ice and snow. Cold front after cold front dumped yard-tall snowfalls on the headwaters. When spring came and the snow began to melt, the river ran higher and fuller than anyone could remember.
In May, Lewis and Riley could finally drive up the slushy road to the fish house, and they picked their way through the last of the snow to peer into the depths of the logjam pool. Even in the heavy runoff, they could just make out the dim bottom.
Riley saw it first. Lewis might have missed it but for Riley’s involuntary gasp: a dark shape hovering over the sandy bottom right in the middle of the hole—the largest brown trout either had ever seen.
“Look at that!” Riley said in a rush. “What an alligator!”
“Coupla feet long,” said Lewis. “Maybe better.”
“And fat as a madam.”
“Fat as a madam.”
The rush of water had drawn the huge trout out of the log pile into the middle of the hole, where he lay near the bottom shifting gently left, then right, sucking in whatever the river brought him—stonefly nymphs, caddis larvae, dislodged worms, leeches, an errant brook trout. An angler would have to be superhuman not to covet a fish like that, and neither Lewis nor Riley was superhuman.
As I heard the story, they began in their customary gentlemanly manner with a flip of the coin. Each would get three casts, and would then relinquish the hole.
Lewis went first, and knotted a purple San Juan worm to a heavy tippet adorned with lead shot. Riley squirmed when he saw the rig. Lewis lobbed the fly gently up into the head of the hole, and they both imagined its tumbling trajectory through the dark water. As their gazes neared the center of the pool, the alligator shifted slightly to the left. Knowing the big fish was inspecting the fly, Lewis tensed, waited for the take. Riley felt a hot surge of jealousy. But then, the fish disappeared. No take, no second cast. Simply gone.
“It-shay,” said Lewis.
“Damn spooky,” noted Riley, not without relief. “Back into the tangle.”
The following day they crept to the edge of the hole, being careful to stay low and keep their shadows off the water, and found the big brown back in its lie.
Riley went first. Using a sink-tip line, he side-armed a big black stonefly with waving rubber legs to the head of the pool. This time it was Lewis’s turn to squirm as the fly sank toward the trout. But again, at the last instant the alligator recoiled so quickly it flushed a spray of sand, leaving behind nothing but a thin drifting cloud.
And this was how it would go. Each day they’d have only one try. And because the water dropped a little each day as the snow bled from the mountains, they knew it would be only a few days before they peered into the pool to find its sandy bottom empty.
“If we don’t get him now, we’ll never get him,” Lewis said. “He’ll be gone to trout Nirvana before we see this kind of high water again.”
As they stood on the bank and watched the sandy cloud dissipate, each man felt the fish of a lifetime slipping away.
I suppose what followed was predictable. Most anglers will succumb to the dark grip of fish greed, though I never expected it of Lewis and Riley.
The next morning it was Lewis’s turn to go first. He stood on the porch pulling line through his guides, but then it slithered through the loops and piled onto the stone floor—cut in half 10 feet back from the tip. “Bastard!” he said. “Lousy sonofa….” He abandoned his Pig Latin as he grasped for the right word.
He turned to see Riley running down the bank toward the logjam pool. By the time Lewis got there, Riley’s big black leech was already drifting toward its target. Lewis watched, horrified, as the alligator saw it, too, and actually seemed to sniff at it. Then Lewis quickly searched the ground, and heaved in a large stone.
According to all accounts, that day the fish house became a cage housing two hostile tigers, each expecting the other to attack, each man keeping his corner and planning his next move. Neither would leave, and risk abandoning the big brown to the other. And neither was willing to give the other a chance.
For six days it was a standoff, and each day brought an escalation: the cut line, the missing fly box, the slashed waders, the broken rod.
The morning of the seventh day, Lewis smelled gasoline, and he caught the yellow flash of flames leaping from his old truck parked outside. Then he saw Riley heading for the river, and he raced to follow.
He found Riley perched precariously atop the logjam on a wobbly log no more than five inches thick, the water surging through the tangle of roots and limbs below. He’s crazy, Lewis thought. Gone totally off his rocker.
But in addition to insanity Lewis saw genius. Casting their flies from the bank, the current tugged on the line just as the fly neared the fish. Riley had realized that this tug, barely perceptible to them, was huge to the fish, transforming the fly from food to threat. By casting his line at a different angle from atop the pile, Riley had ensured an easy and natural drift right into the alligator’s waiting jaw.
He couldn’t miss, Lewis realized. And because Lewis saw the genius of the move and respected Riley’s insight and skill, not to mention his willingness to scramble across the rickety logjam, Lewis didn’t pick up a rock to spoil the hole, even with the flames from his truck glaring behind him. He simply watched as Riley steadied himself and worked out line for the cast.
But then Riley winked.
They say every man has his breaking point, and no one knows what will happen when he’s pushed beyond it. The log that Riley rode so carefully extended right through the pile to the bank near Lewis’s feet. Just as Riley drove the rod forward for his cast, Lewis kicked the log, and the focused concentration in Riley’s eyes turned to terror as his feet slipped from under him.
I’m happy to report that Riley didn’t drown, although a broken leg kept him off the water all summer. I’d like to report that this final act of treachery opened Lewis’s and Riley’s eyes, and stopped them from squandering a solid friendship over a fit of fish greed. But this story, like many, doesn’t have a happy ending. At least not for Lewis and Riley.
In the agreement the lawyers worked out, Lewis and Riley sold the fish house. They took a loss, but I found it a bargain.
I’ve completed the repairs and made the improvements they talked about. I got most of the work done last summer, so this spring, another high-water year, I’ve been free to fish the river and enjoy the cabin.
The rooms are bright and homey, and I’ve added some modest decorations. The most notable is the stuffed brown trout hanging above the mantle of the fireplace. It’s a real alligator—28 inches long, and fat as a madam.
Trigg White lives, writes, guides, and fishes near Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. He and his wife, Linda, moved full time into their own fish house eight years ago. He knows of one alligator living in a deep hole of a nearby mountain stream. Soon he will creep through the willows and the snow to peer in and see if it has survived another winter.