Joseph Scott Kierland
They headed north in the Chevy. The streets were still wet from the sultry air that had hung over the city for nearly a week. The kid sat silently nibbling at his blueberry muffin as they drove the long bridge into the mountains. He didn't see daylight until they were almost at the lake. The thin light lit the tops of the trees as they came down the dirt road to the dock where the solitary row boat bobbed gently in the cove below.
The old man waited for him to unwrap the rods and reels by himself and when he couldn't lift the bucket of bait he helped him get it into the boat. The early light began to move in fast and the old man took the oars while the kid shoved the boat away from the dock and jumped smoothly over the bow for a perfect start.
The old man nodded his approval and rowed smoothly through the glassy water toward the dark island that sloped in from the other side. The kid figured they were headed for the dead tree where the first light wouldn't hit for another half hour. As they drew closer the boat angled toward the trunk of the tree that had partially fallen into the water. They didn't say a word and the old man slipped the oars while the kid held the rod for him so he could tie his special bait just above the hook. Then the old man stood straight up and lobbed the baited line just below the sunken tree. He pulled gently at it, slowly drew it back towards him, and then let the line run out in a clear buzz. The fish swung away from the boat and broke the smooth surface of the water right in front of them.
"You got him, Grandpa," he said as the fish tried to go deep.
The old man grunted against the weight, pulled hard, and the fish flopped in against the side of the boat. The kid took the pole and the old man lifted the fish out of the water with both hands. Then he carefully angled the hook out of its mouth. For a long moment he just stroked the fish's golden brown colors and held it out so the kid could take it from him and let it slide gently back into the dark water again.
"If you have to catch them then you're not fishing," the old man would say each time they let one go. The kid would smile and watch the surprised fish slip into the deep water and disappear down into that secret world where they dropped their baited hooks.
The boat drifted out into the deeper part of the lake and the old man tied a weight on the line to work the bottom. The kid opened the canteen and they both took long gulps of the metal tasting water and then settled back to wait in the early morning silence.
The next fish hit hard and caught the old man by surprise. It cut in close and he let out more line. The hooked fish turned and the old man shortened his hold to keep it from swimming back under the boat. It fought even harder against the shortened line and the old man had to lean way out over the edge to stay with it. The kid lunged forward into the bow, stumbled over the bait bucket, and grabbed the old man around the legs to keep him from falling into the deep water.
"He still got a whole lot of fight in him, Joey," the old man said softly.
The kid could feel the tension in his grandfather's legs as he leaned out even further to keep the taut line from going under the boat. The fish came up thrashing and the kid let go of the old man's legs and reached out to catch the large wriggling bass in mid-air. The old man carefully turned the fish in the kid's arms and the greens and blues along its smooth body sparkled in the early morning shimmer that came off the lake.
"He's really big, Grandpa," the kid said as the fish flopped heavily in his arms.
"Looks like he's hooked bad though, Joey," the old man said and held the bass's mouth open so he could reach in to get the hook. "Can't reach it," he said. "It's a shame cause he's a beauty. We're gonna have to take him."
"My hand's smaller," the kid said. "Maybe I can get it."
The old man didn't answer but he opened the fish's mouth as wide as he could and let the kid reach down into it. Joey could feel the end of the line and the knot but couldn't reach the hook. If he jerked the line it would pull the fish apart so he slowly eased his hand back out of the fish's mouth and watched as his grandfather opened the jackknife.
"I could try again, Grandpa," he said.
"He took it in too deep, Joey. And you know we can't put him back like that. Wouldn't be fair."
"I know," the kid said softly and watched as the old man cut the line. "Does this mean he's gonna die, Grandpa?"
"We all have to die, Joey."
"The fish too?"
"All of us, Joey," the old man said and quietly began to pack the hooks and the fishing line into the old metal box.
"We leaving already, Grandpa?"
"I think so," he said and started rowing back towards the dock even before the sun had reached halfway across the lake. Joey listened to the big fish flop back and forth at his feet and watched the old man row steadily into the long shadows at the end of the cove. He sprinkled fresh water on the fish until they reached the dock where the sun still hadn't hit that part of the lake. It seemed peaceful there under the trees and quieter than he had ever remembered.
The old man cleaned the big fish on the dock and they stopped off in town to give it to the one-eyed cook at the diner. He invited them to eat with him but the old man silently declined and they got back into the car and headed home.
They had only gone just past the tree line when the old man said, "I'll be going away for a little while, Joey. I just want you to know that you can take the poles and go fishing whenever you want."
"Where you going?" the kid asked.
"Oh, not far. I just won't be able to go fishing for awhile," the old man answered softly. He started to say something else but stopped and they sat quietly like that for a long time just listening tothe drone of the old Chevy.
He'd always been haunted by that morning on the lake when they caught the deep-hooked fish because he never saw the old man again. He remembered the funeral, the family, the big car, the flowers, and his father handing him the old man's fishing poles. He kept wanting to go back to the lake but never seemed to get there. His father had taken him out on the ocean once or twice but somehow it never came up to fishing that deep quiet lake with his grandfather.
He put the old man's fishing poles in the dark corner of his closet and waited for a time that never came. And in those quiet, morning moments just before breakfast he would always think of the old man drifting on a quiet lake somewhere. Fishing the deep water.