Victor and the Fish

A new short story imagines a grim future for western Montana.

 

This story was republished in Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, which can be downloaded here.

Flexing like a scale-skinned forearm, a large brown trout struggles
to free itself from Victor’s grip. A teenage boy, 14 or 15, stares down uncertainly from his seat in the drift boat’s bow. The father, ill-equipped for a float trip in jeans, polo, and cowboy boots, a knob of chew in his lip, snorts and brandishes a phone.

“Grab ‘er and hold ‘er up now.”

“Uh.” The son’s eyes dart from father to Victor, back to father, and to Victor again before resting on his catch. “Um...”

“Like this,” Victor reassures him, holding the trout half in the water, net beneath. “Keep him in the water. Getting hot, don’t want to stress him.”

Another male, 14 inches and pretty fat. Probably a belly full of salmon flies. It had been another early hatch, and though Victor’s clients had missed the tail end of it, the fish were evidently still looking up for big orange and brown bugs.

Pausing its struggle to rest, the brown mouths a silent, repetitive protest. A white belly peeks at Victor, light beneath a nighttime bedroom door that melts into gradients of low yellow, light brown, red-speckled mahogany stretching over the spine and around a flaccid dorsal fin.

Damn thing, he thinks.
“Naw, son. Hold ‘im up for the world to see,” the father counters. “Grip
‘im right in the middle.”

“That’s pretty hard on them this time of day,” Victor insists. “You can still get a good picture if—”

“Out of the water, son. Just like that.”

Son surprises Victor, taking hold of the fish and gripping it firmly around the midsection, holding it up with feigned bravado against a smoky afternoon sky. Fish mouth gapes and gasps, moisture evaporating rapidly from its back. In a last desperate effort, it flexes again. Splash.

“Ah, shit.” Father and son watch as the brown sinks briefly before taking refuge in a downstream eddy.

“Still got a good one, I think.” Father tinkers on his phone, son returns to his seat and Mountain Dew in the bow, and Victor hauls up the anchor.

Should’ve let them string it up and keep it for dinner, Victor thinks. It’s unlike him, a retired professor of stream ecology with a singular zeal for watershed preservation. But the browns had become what the lake trout had been in the Yellowstone—predatory, invasive, destructive. Nonnative.

When he was still with the University of Montana he’d worked with Fish, Wildlife & Parks on regulations that required anglers to kill lake trout upon catching them. Rock to the skull, knife to the brain, take your pick. For the good of the watershed.

Victor rows. Oars soundlessly skim water, an upcoming downstream riffle barely audible. It’s getting smokier.

He reaches into his dry bag for his air quality monitor. The AQI is 177 and rising. Probably a Stage 3 Air Quality Alert in Missoula.

“Might want to get out your masks.”

“Ah, hell, we’re fine,” the father replies.

One final wordless mile of Rock Creek, which is more of a river than
a creek. Light ash snows down silently, generally. A dark gray paste slathered across the drift boat floor. Father thumbs phone and spits. Son stifles a cough and dons his mask furtively, covering nose and mouth as he looks away from his father to listlessly smack the water with a newly fastened fly. Cadenced casts fall impotently in near-tangles of tippet.

Victor sighs and rows.

At the boat takeout, Victor backs in, eyeing the trailer and pickup Miles had driven from the put-in at the confluence of the east and west forks of the stream. He’s anxious to get off the water.

“Whoop!”

Somehow, impossibly, the son holds a bent rod. A trout leaps from the water once, then again. A third time. The boy reels hard, fast, greedily. Victor drops anchor for good measure and grabs for the net, but before he positions it under the fish he can see what it is.

Emboldened, the son reaches out to secure his bounty for a photo. Victor’s quicker. In a flash, forceps seize fly, reducing the pattern to thread shreds and foam bits and unpiercing the lip of what is unmistakably a cutthroat trout, the first Victor has seen caught by anyone other than him in his last six years as a full-time fishing guide in western Montana. Freed, it returns to the eddy from whence it was pulled.

“Hey—what the hell?”

Father stands, looming over Victor, the boat quivering. Victor wouldn’t be getting a tip.

Matt Phan

Home is a sag-roofed cabin at mile marker 17 along Rock Creek Road, which runs parallel to its namesake. Victor finds that his air filter has stopped working. Motes of ash and particulate matter float suspended in a lone slant of light beaming from a skylight, its spot on the floor occupied by his old Australian Shepherd, Mollie. Thin gray wool coats desk, kitchen counter, bananas, windowsill. The dog’s water is wet cement.

He climbs to the roof. A yellow sky overhead has begun the nightly transition to brown, but it’s only midafternoon. The fires—British Columbia, the Cascades—are entering their thirteenth month of steady burning; a closer but younger, three-month-old fire has been spreading northeast in the Bitterroots. There isn’t much for him to worry about. The flames would have to jump a highway and the Bitterroot River, and even if they did they’d peter out at the foot of the Sapphires, bald and blackened from their own August inferno three years before.

He unscrews the side plate on the filtration system. Magpies, two of them. Dead, mashed and sizzling against the hot grating of the intake. Seeking cleaner air. A small avalanche shovel does the job, and the filter whirrs back to life as he holds the restart button. A bighorn ram and two ewes, eyes black and beady, look on from the scree and talus slope rising from his backyard.

Back inside, Victor finds a long text message from Miles.

A hoot-owl restriction is coming. Two weeks of upper 80s has spooked the FWP. A hoot-owl has only happened once ever in May, and that was the year before. The new norm? Business might be over for the season. The clientele had been thin, and not the type interested in rising early and quitting at noon. Better for the fish, he thinks.

Victor brushes off the table, warms a bowl of venison stew and nurses a bottle of homebrew.

He should be tired. Not just from the day, but from the years. He’s an old sixty-eight, having spent his first fifty-five years a sedentary academic and his next thirteen making up for it by going it alone seventeen miles up Rock Creek.

But he’s not tired. He’s excited. He’d stopped giving a damn about
his guiding business lately. The cutthroat that day might’ve been a sign of his efforts coming to fruition. It was the first he’d seen on the
end of someone’s line other than his, and miles downstream from the Microburst at that. First thing in the morning he’d head up Cougar Creek to check on his stock.

He calls Miles. He wouldn’t make the drive to Missoula for beers tonight. He wants an early start. He’d take six or seven more cutties tomorrow— the biggest, the hardiest, even if it takes him a few hours to get the right ones—and head for the Blackfoot River.

A knock at the door.

At the window, a man in Carhartts, tucked-in t-shirt, laptop bag, sweat- stained cap. A truck behind, sage green. FWP. He cracks the door.

“Can I help you?”

His name is Trevor, and he’s here for research. About cutthroats. Victor raises an eyebrow.

“As far as we know, they’re still extinct. I haven’t seen one myself and I do a lot of fishin’. But we’ve had quite a few calls over the past month or two. Twenty-five or thirty, I think.”

Victor should be excited. But here’s Trevor with red tape and bureaucracy not far behind.

“We’ve been getting some reports from guides and fishermen every other day or so. Wasn’t ‘til I saw a picture of a big one pulled out near Scotty Brown Bridge—you know, up the Blackfoot?—that I started to wonder. Could’ve been an old pic, but the guy who called said it was from that day.”

The Blackfoot? Victor blinks back at him, frowning.

“I dunno, could be like the way people report UFOs. Just for attention, that sort of thing. Kids toyin’. But then someone called and said they’d pulled out a few a day for the past month right where Rock Creek goes into the Clark Fork. They said—”

“Who?” interrupts Victor. “Who called?” “Some fellow named Reeves, I think.”

Victor doesn’t know a Reeves.

“Could’ve been Weaver. Don’t remember. I have an address in Bonner to follow up with him. I’m told you’re the man to talk to, though, being the only guide left up here.”

“That’d be me,” Victor said cautiously.

“Seen any cutties yourself?”

“Ain’t been out much. Business is slow.”

“Even when you have? You pull any in yourself?”

“Last one I caught was six years ago. Wish it weren’t so. All browns and bulls up here.”

It’s bullshit, but Victor doesn’t let on. Trevor declines a cup of coffee and heads upstream to Miller Gulch, where he’s staying.

Victor thinks about the events two months before. He’d been out wade- fishing at the Microburst access. It’d been a slow day, but unusually clear. Prevailing winds had pushed out much of the wildfire smoke and a pale yellow sun had shined down. Shined. Not the gauzy candlelight glow he’d grown accustomed to.

Drunk on clear air and a semblance of sunlight, he’d fished casually through the afternoon, not caring much about catching. Puffy cumulus, long forgotten, had eased across the ribbon of sky above as he’d waded slowly along a narrow, ridge-encased stretch of water. He’d watched an osprey seeking the nest it had abandoned in October.

The whiz and click of fly line had brought him back to reality, and after a moment he’d stared down into his net in disbelief. A 16-inch westslope cutthroat trout. Supposedly extinct. Not a brown. Not a bull or a rainbow or a hybrid “cutbow.” A fat, healthy, pregnant female cuttie, the pink streaks, the charcoal blotches, the black poppy seed spots. A tinge of sunset yellow as a backdrop. Red slashes upon the chin.

I’ll be damned.

Thinking quickly, he’d netted it and taken it to a side channel, where he’d built two small dams and a makeshift reservoir. He’d returned to the Microburst, tied on a new fly, and within minutes he’d caught another, also female and pregnant. After three more—all female, all ready to burst with eggs—he’d realized he needed a different plan.

Using a cleaned-out backpack pesticide tank he’d found in his shed, he transported his catch in water roughly three miles up Cougar Creek, a tributary, and replicated his first reservoir twice. Two new, secret “hatcheries.” There was little danger of a snowmelt surge wrecking his setup. Of course not. It had been another dry winter.

By now, in early May, these cutties had become the most important thing in Victor’s life. Weekly sessions of furtive wade-fishing had become ritual. Always at the Microburst, always four or five from the same hole, always female and pregnant. During his fourth or fifth trip up, it had dawned on him. He’d read about it before, during his time pumping out research in Missoula. Asexual reproduction.

Endangered fish reproducing without mating. At the time it had been sawfish in Florida. He couldn’t be sure about these cutties, but he’d begun to suspect something similar.

Sure enough, all twenty-seven of them, caught over a span of two months, had been large with eggs. And multiplying in his hidden reservoirs on Cougar Creek.

He’d kept it from Miles, a wild, reckless on-again off-again “assistant” who’d once guided with Victor but found bartending in Missoula more lucrative. Perpetual fire season meant droves of wildland firefighters, and wildland firefighters could drink. He couldn’t blame them. Victor had been worried Missoula would turn into another Williston, another Bakken-style pit of vice, but it hadn’t. The crews were simply too tired to do much more than work, eat, drink, sleep, and sometimes die. And there was no sign the fires would go the way of natural gas.

Still, Miles had left guiding for financial reasons, and Victor didn’t trust him with something like this. Not that there was cash in it. But Miles had the gift of gab and a lot of FWP folks spent time in Missoula bars. Victor— the fish—couldn’t afford FWP involvement. Like Trevor.

The FWP had already dropped the ball on cutthroat management once. They’d let the cutties go the way of wolves, only public pressure hadn’t come from ranchers but from outfitters and guide shops, demanding friendlier regulations on fisheries to bring in out-of-state tourist dollars. The constant threat of flare-ups had scared people away from the outdoor playgrounds of western Montana, a ubiquitous ashy haze obscuring once-photogenic vistas. The FWP had relented, but unevenly: they lifted all fishing restrictions on cutties, but cutties only. Catch-and-release- only was abolished, and handling regulations, intended to limit out- of-water time for each fish and widely enforced through self-policing, were discouraged. The reason? Cutthroats were considered the most photogenic. Against a graying mountain landscape, the colorful cuttie would draw the eye and, with any luck, tourist money.

Stressed by overzealous fishing, an already vulnerable cuttie population had been outcompeted by the browns, hybridized beyond recognition with the rainbows and, improbably, devoured by a once-threatened bull trout population.

Victor had begun to believe that his discovery would be the species’ salvation. He’d muled them to safety, finding in each trip a sense of purpose in a burning pocket of the world.

He’d bring them back.

He arrives at the first pool before dawn. The water level’s low, and it worries him.

Donning a pair of old goggles and a waterproof headlamp, he slips in silently on the downstream end of his reservoir. Silver flashes. Ten or twelve cutties, healthy and about 12-20 inches apiece, hover against an upstream ledge, unconcerned by his presence. Juveniles and minnows everywhere. More than before. He clambers back ashore.

In what has become ritual, he begins a slow and rhythmic roll cast. Thick willows and a lone huckleberry bush his audience, shouldered up to watch his crude method of collection. The fly, a Jay’s Golden Stone, settles on the surface, a light splash. A second passes, then two, then three, and he wonders if these fish are somehow smarter than those hovering in the current of the swifter stream below. Four seconds, five. Have they lost their appetite? Six. Maybe I should’ve gone with a size 12 or 14. Seven.

Eight. Nine.

He’s about to retract his line into a new cast when his fly is sipped under. Not like the first he’d caught, when water had exploded like a stick of dynamite and torn his fly to shreds. This time, the fly is taken with ease, relished.

He plays it out longer than necessary. Waits for the fish to get tired. No need to yank it flopping ashore like so many of his clients, hastening for a chest-puffed photo. He nets it respectfully and slips it into the opening in his plastic pack. He repeats this process until he has a total of six and brown dawn has become yellow morning.

His mask beeps twice, alerting him halfway down that it’s time for a filter change. AQI 188, air quality worse. He looks at his watch. Only 7:30. The smoke is thicker than it’s been in months, but it’s not an inversion. It’s warm, even down in the canyon.

Hope the cabin filter didn’t gum up again.

Back at his pickup, Victor takes special care with each trout, belting the tank into the backseat and disguising it in a plaid wool blanket.

He sits on his tailgate, sipping the remnants of coffee from a thermos when Trevor’s pickup appears, pulling up beside him.

“Morning, Victor.”
“Morning.”
“Clients today?”
“Nah. Just out trying out a new pattern.” “Any luck?”

“Not much. A few looking up.” “Ah.” Trevor eyes Victor. Silence.

“Well, I’m headed on downstream to start at the junction. Take some samples, maybe throw a line in, see what I can see. Work my way up. Maybe I’ll see you on the water?”

“Probably not. Headed to Missoula.”

“Alright then. Have a good one.” Trevor tips his cap to Victor and drives off.

Victor heads west to Missoula after his “restocking” mission up the Blackfoot. Just to be cautious, he’d avoided the fishing accesses, slipping instead onto private riverbanks to release his fish. He’d seen no one.

He pulls off the interstate onto Van Buren Street. Something’s different. It’s not the smoke; he still can’t see the hulking mass of Lolo Peak, which hasn’t been sighted from town for almost a year. It’s the chaos, the urgency, in a town usually laidback. Helicopters rise from the university grounds. Traffic’s thick and rattling with heavy equipment, FWP vehicles, fire rigs, semis. National Guard.

He parks downtown, seeking Miles and a beer. The brewery is empty. Victor takes a stool.

“Rye pale.” Miles, his back to Victor as he organizes the register, points to the flyer posted above the tap handles.

DUE TO EMERGENCY AMENDMENT TO 16-3-213(1), MCA, WE ARE UNABLE TO SERVE BEER ON-TAP OR BREW NEW BEER UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. DUE TO WATER SHORTAGE. SORRY FOR INCONVENIENCE.

“No can do, buddy.”

“Serious?”

“Yup. And we’re all out of our canned stuff. I can give you Keystone Light or Keystone Light. Three-fifty.”

Victor, incredulous, stares back at Miles and his enormous beard, filthy plaid shirt, bleach-blond hair pulled back into a bun.

“You’re selling that shit in here?”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with this. Plus, gotta keep business going.”

“Three-fifty? I’m guessing this was your idea? That’s gotta be a two-hundred percent markup.”

“More like a thousand,” Miles whispers, grinning. “But for you, buddy, because we know each other...three-fifty.”

“I’ll pass,” Victor tells him. “What’s happening around here, though? Choppers over the U, National Guard...”

“You haven’t heard? Aw, man—bad one moving fast over near Philipsburg. Another over on that BLM land southeast of Ovando. And the Bitterroot fire blew up last night. They evacuated Hamilton. Campus is headquarters, man. They even cancelled the graduation ceremonies today at the U.”

Shit. The fish.

“You didn’t know? Man, I’m like, your only source.... Yeah, they might close I-90 east of Bearmouth. You might want to stick around Missoula until it’s under control.”

“Gimme one of those beers. I’ll give you two bucks.”

Miles obliges, refuses Victor’s cash. Two gulps and the beer’s gone. Victor’s out the door as Miles calls after him about sleeping on his couch.

Victor slogs through traffic to the interstate. Missoula’s a refugee camp, not a headquarters. Tents huddled on the university oval, shivering in a hot breeze; convoys of personnel trucks; young men hunched in the shade, backs bent from toil, beards bleached blonde and tipped with ash, eyes sunken in retreat from the sight of homes and habitats razed, life snuffed out.

Victor finds Trevor’s FWP pickup parked outside his cabin. Trevor creaks gently in a rocking chair on the porch, reading underneath the porchlight. He doesn’t look up until Victor slams the driver’s side door.

“Evenin’.”
“Trevor. What can I do?”
“Beer?” Victor declines, but takes up a second rocking chair next to him.

Trevor fingers a page in the book, silently mouths a final few sentences, claps it shut with finality.

“Caught two cutties today.” Victor’s chest thumps.

“Oh?”

“Two females. Both pregnant. About 14 inches. One near Valley of the Moon Trailhead turnoff, the other on up.”

Relief. He hasn’t been up Cougar Creek.

“I’ll be damned. What’s the plan?”

“Oh, not much. We’ll have to find more first. If I do, then we’ll
probably talk management. Restrictions on browns and bulls. Not sure exactly. We’ve never dealt with something coming back from the dead.” Laughter as he says this.

“Huh.”

“Heard about the hoot-owl. Can’t be great for business.” “Things’ve been slow anyway,” Victor assures him. “I’ll make do.”

Trevor opens a beer can, working the tab between a broad finger and thumb until it comes free.

“If we do find some cutties, though, I can tell you I’ll be up here awhile.” Trevor pauses. “Maybe we could do some fishing?”

“Sure.” Victor doesn’t do much to hide his annoyance. “I’m hitting the hay. I’m old, need my beauty rest.”

“Surprised you haven’t seen any cutties yourself, Victor.” Trevor holds Victor’s gaze. Hard to tell what this is.

“G’night, Trevor.”

“Say, I wanted to ask you a few questions before—”

The front door slams, and Victor extinguishes the porchlight.

Victor wakes to a world of fire. From his bed he sees flames, clinging to
a grove of charred trees on the ridge opposite his cabin, across the water.

A deep breath tells him his filter remains operational.

He bolts out of bed. It’s 6 a.m. Still dark. Out the front window, red taillights recede. He finds a note on the porch.

Headed up some of the tributaries. Have an idea about these fish. Read this thing about asexual reproduction in stressed/endangered populations. We’ll see. Not worried about fires. Supposed to be less windy. Will stop by this eve. Got ?s for you, and some beer. —Trevor

Why would he head up the tributaries? Victor wonders. Unless he knows. Unless he found those pools the day before but didn’t want to scare Victor off.

Victor spends the morning on his porch watching the adjacent forest burn. Thinking. Deer, frantic, flushed from the forest, cross the water and take the roadway downstream. The ash is thick, and he observes the occasional orange ember float past him. He’d have to evacuate today, but he feels calm about it. He doesn’t own much, or much worth taking, beyond his fishing gear, his books, his drift boat.

But self-preservation does not occur to Victor. It is no longer important. It has not, in fact, been important to him for many months. No, he thinks of his fish. Of where to take them, where they’ll be safe. If he can make one last effort at repopulating the hallowed streams around him as the world he knows is reduced to smoldering wreckage.

Mid-afternoon arrives and Victor collects his things, hitches the boat trailer, locks his doors. Says an unceremonious, muttered farewell to the squat, drafty cabin he’s lived in for six years.

At dusk, he strides upstream along Cougar Creek, fly rod in hand, pesticide tank strapped to his back. Flames blanket the opposite ridge and inquisitively brush the pebbled shoreline of Rock Creek. It had moved faster than he’d figured. Faster than he’d thought possible.

It was decided: he’d haul as many fish as he could safely store in his pack up the North Fork of the Blackfoot River. It’d burned up there years before; there’s nothing left, no fuel, no people. No chance of discovery by anyone. He’d release them all and hope for the best.

Pause. A human silhouette on the false summit ahead. Beetle-killed ponderosa pines, needles red and brittle, sway and creak in the hot gusts overhead.

It’s Trevor. Victor steps out of sight. Does he know? Did he find them? Victor wonders. And then: What the hell is he doing up here? Why hasn’t he left?

An air tanker rumbles overhead, a cascade of retardant in its wake, Kool- Aid red and drenching, impotent against the wind-fanned flames.

Victor’s fish should be fine for a bit longer, but Trevor might be a problem. He heads west along the open ridge face, flanking Trevor, to beat him to the first cache of fish. Another plane dips, closer this time. More retardant, most of it splashing errantly into the stream. Victor frowns. Jesus.

He arrives at the first pool, but Trevor has beaten him there and lies prone on a flat boulder, peering down, staring intently, legs bent at the knees. Victor stays still, invisible behind the huckleberry bush. Trevor reaches into his pack and retrieves a plastic freezer bag. Corn. He sifts it through his fingers into the water below, and in seconds Victor’s little private reservoir comes to life.

“I’ll be damned,” mutters Trevor irreverently, intrigued only by what his discovery means for his work, already deciding how to analyze and document it, his mechanical brain churning out graphs, charts, target numbers, management plans, memos and press releases, regulation language and job promotions. And he knows. Of course he knows. The reservoirs are crude and temporary. Man-made. Victor-made.

Victor sits, thinking. His phone buzzes with a text from Miles. No calls are going through. He’s in Missoula and things have gone to
shit. Mount Jumbo’s on fire and a dozen homes are burning in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. The town’s being evacuated, and to the east, Philipsburg’s gone. That’s the word Miles uses.
Gone. And they’re not letting people east of Drummond on I-90, which means Victor’s effectively trapped, sandwiched between two burning Montana towns, with only the Blackfoot River corridor for an escape route.

Victor stares through the brush at Trevor, crouching, absorbed in note taking. He watches Trevor for half an hour, longer, before he packs up his things and heads upstream, oblivious to the burning world around him. He should call out to Trevor, warn him. Ash snows down.

Nope. Damn him.

Victor approaches the pool and brandishes his fly rod.

He’s pulled twelve cutties from the pool when a blistering gust of wind nearly topples him. Time to head for the truck. Making his final descent, he spots Trevor’s pickup parked on the side of the road, just upstream and around the bend from his own.

It’s unlocked, just as he’d hoped. Shifting it into neutral, he spins the tires towards the stream and gives it a push and turns away, ignoring the spectacle. Victor leaves Rock Creek for good.

Victor drives.

He passes droves of evacuees. Great Falls has fallen, or is falling, or will fall. He’s the only one headed towards it. He drives through pockets of thick smoke and ash, against the glow of headlights. Past Ovando traffic thins, trickles, disappears. Occasional bleary-eyed headlights squint through a world smudged.

Alone, small, streaking east, Victor delivers his fish to safety. But he can’t see safety. The razor ridges of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the north have melted into the smoke, the world now only a few feet of asphalt
and the glint of roadside reflectors as Victor pushes on. The turnoff for the North Fork of the Blackfoot sneaks up on him and he has to make a U-turn.

Now, across what was, before the smoke, a vast plain. Toward mountains that are now merely hypothetical, feeling his way across rough earth, a frantic finger after a missing light switch.

Up. Cracked pavement crumbles into graded dirt, the uniform rattle of a cattle guard, more dirt. A horse trailer on its side. Flames like embers behind ashy fog. His truck coughs as he rattles across the bridge and turns left and onto the cracked concrete ramp of the boat takeout.

Deep breath. He retrieves the tank gently, methodically. Like he’s done it before, because he has. It’s heavy as he carries it to the river’s edge. He unscrews the plastic lid and heaves, tilting the opening towards the low water flowing past.

Out float Victor’s fish, stiff and still, white bellies up.

Matthew Henry is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Literature program at Arizona State University, where he has taught several courses in the environmental humanities. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, and river-runner who loves to spend time with his wife, Jessica and their dog, Abbey. You can find his work here and follow him on Twitter @MenryAZ.