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Still Trout Fishing in America

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michaelwolcott | Aug 28, 2009 02:27 PM

I catch fish with my hands. In the Wyoming Rockies, where I have spent my best summers, the high meadow streams are thick with brookies, cutthroats and rainbows. I hide behind willows and boulders, spying, greedy to catch, kill and eat them.
 
The fish hang suspended in liquid moments then shear off like startled birds, crowding the shallow meanders, hiding beneath the undercut banks. I kneel, slip my hands into the streaming snowmelt, and wait. The water is icy, but the waiting is important. I ease my hands toward the hiding place, fingers splayed, until I feel the first brush of the trout’s life against my own—the liquid silk of its skin, the bony head, the muscled curve of its body.
 
Fins and tail flutter against my outstretched hands. The twists and turns grow frantic. I tighten my grip until the trout runs out of room, then slam it against a rock. The pectoral fins give me something, but not much, to hang on to. I probe with numb fingers, finding a grip behind the gill flap. The trout flogs itself against my hand until it lapses into a spasm that tells me I’ve won.
 
This is not sport fishing. It may not even be legal, but I don’t care. I’m comfortable with how I fish, and why. This practice takes me back to a moment I need to remember:
 
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It is October, 1974. I have hitchhiked away from the wreckage of my freshman year at an Eastern college to see the Rocky Mountains. After the predictably stoned and desultory road trip, I wander for five days along the Continental Divide alone, with no map and no clue, pretending to be Jim Bridger. My Day-Glo backpack contains a Sterno stove and a Boy Scout mess kit. A dull buck knife rides in a leather sheath on my hip.
 
Days unfold, sun-splashed and dreamlike. I walk the trails, putting distance between myself and the ivy-strangled campus, the lost scholarships, the shamed telephone calls home. I step around steaming piles of bear scat and scramble on granite boulders stamped with hieroglyphs of orange and green lichen. At sundown, purple shadows slide off the ridges. Dense cold air fills the glacial basins. The night is full of stars and possibility.
 
I wake one day in a frosted meadow to a sound I’ve never heard and could not have imagined—a shrill, compressed whistle so urgent, so full of longing, that it presses against my chest. When I see the elk straining against its own desire, neck muscles bulging, I know that I am where I belong.
 
When the food runs low, I wonder how quickly I can get to town and back, how much oatmeal and peanut butter I can buy with my last six dollars. I wonder if I could live like a shaman, on sunlight and mountain water. I do not consider how I will feed myself on the trip back East.
 
I walk up a tiny stream in the Indian summer afternon, boots scraping rock, spooking pan-sized trout. I wish for a hook and line. When a brook trout grounds itself on a gravel bar, I realize that I don’t
need fishing gear. I build two rock dams, take off my shirt, and start catching dinner with my hands. I’m completely happy, doing what boys always say they will do someday: I am living off the land.
 
But boiled trout tastes a lot like hot water. You can only eat so much of it, even when you’re 18 and on a magic journey. I hiked out of the mountains two days later, spent the last of my money on a giant breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, walked up an east-bound entrance ramp and stuck out my thumb. I was broke, filthy, and returning to the scene of my first failure. As I hitched toward the gray Northeast, I vowed to come back, and soon. I would learn the edible plants and live in the mountains, maybe year-round.
 
Back in my hometown, I bragged up the mountains to my buddies as we passed around the bong. I was going back, I said, but could never seem to get it together.  It would be 12 years before my next trip west—a vacation from a Manhattan desk job—and another five years before I finally moved here. The tingle of that afternoon stayed with me, though. There would not be a day in all those years that that I didn’t think about the Rockies.
 
In New York I would sometimes sit on a basalt outcrop in Riverside Park with a paper cup of coffee, staring across the West Side Highway and the Hudson River at sunset, past New Jersey all the way to the Continental Divide, where the streams were full of treasure. Trout swam in my dreams, or flew.
 
I didn’t fish in the east, though. There were trout in the Adirondacks, where I spent my outdoor time, but it wasn’t the same. The humid closeness of that country always left me longing for what I had touched briefly in the Rockies.
 
The human population out here has doubled since I first caught trout with my hands, and the place was feeling the crunch even then. For a time, though, I was innocent enough to believe that the spoiled world could be left behind. The newness of the West would free me from history—my country’s, and my own.
 
I was ignorant of natural history, too. I didn’t know, for example, that the brook trout I caught with my hands were transplants, an Eastern species that outcompetes native cutthroats in the West. To me, the trout were merely beautiful. They promised a meal in the mountains—a meal of the mountains—and so gave me the purest kind of joy. Somehow, contrary to all that I know and can never unlearn, they still do.

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