Friday, October 19, 2018

Dead Drift by James Hacker

Dave and Steve head into the remote river canyon to go fly fishing, but there's more than just fish in the river; by James Hacker.

Dave woke once, early, hangover pounding in his ears and the taste of cheap beer still on his tongue, to the soft sound of rain on the roof. He rolled back to sleep, a slight smile playing across his half-drunk face. If the weather held, a morning rain would keep the river canyon cooler and keep the air damp through to the evening. When he woke again, hours later, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and a dry wind blew down out of the north. He smiled again, knowing a big spinner fall was coming. Spinner falls meant dry fly fishing, meant trophy fish, meant magic sessions where big fish rose to every cast. He hoped it was tonight.

Dave finally rose around noon. Steve was already up and cooking breakfast. Once they were both fed and coffeed up, hangovers still sitting with awful weight behind their eyes, they loaded themselves and their gear into Steve's truck and headed into town.

They made straight for the local fly shop. High end gear was artfully arranged in the windows, $500 waders next to $2,000 fly rods set between high-def shots of anglers at work and trophy fish in nets. Inside, a handful of tourists ogled the equipment while one of the local guides tried to sell them on the benefits of the most expensive pair of boots in the store. Dave and Steve slid through the sales meeting to the back, where Ted, the wrinkled and wizened proprietor, sat next to the rows of flies and lures for sale.

"Morning boys," he called when he saw them, barely looking up from his paper.

"Morning Ted," they said as they started to paw through the shop's fly selection.

"You looking for anything in particular?" Ted asked after a moment, folding and putting aside the paper.

"Just some dries," Steve replied as he filled his hands with the tiny tufted hooks.

"Hoping for a big spinner fall tonight?" Ted asked.

They grunted an affirmative.

"In that case," Ted said, walking over to them, "I'd say grab a couple of Parachute Adams and a handful of the elk hair caddis, size 14 through 18. They're eating small this year. They've been biting on the October caddis too. We've got some actual spinner patterns over here, but they don't seem to be working that well."

"You don't say," Dave said, picking his flies without really listening to Ted. He knew how he liked to fish, and he sure as shit wasn't going to be throwing any October caddis in June.

Ted rang them up when they were done. $12 between the two of them, special price, locals only.

"By the way," Ted said as they turned to walk back out the door. "Did either of you happen to see Jerry Harrison out there last night?"

"We did," Dave said. "Heading upstream from us right around dark. Why?"

"Well," Ted said, leaning forward and dropping his voice into a conspiratorial whisper, as if afraid the tourists stocking up on high end gear would hear and thereby get wind of some great fishing secret, "he didn't come off the river last night."

"What, like they don't know where he is?" Steve asked.

"Not quite," Ted said. "His buddy waited by the truck for hours, waiting for him. He drove back downstream, figuring he must have gotten lost. Couldn't find him. Finally comes back into town around dawn, about to call the cops, when who does he see climbing out of the canal down the hill but Jerry, still in his waders, soaking wet."

"Dang," Dave said. "What happened?"

"No clue!" Ted said, cackling, enjoying his audience's interest. "He wouldn't talk! Never opened his mouth. His buddy said he had this wild look in his eyes, like he saw something he couldn't believe. And he smelled weird. Said he smelled like salty and musty or something, like he'd been in his waders all weekend without a shower."

Ted paused to let the details sink in. "You ask me, I think Jerry's always been a strange one. I figure he wandered upstream, couldn't catch a fish to save his life, so he took something, one of them new drugs the kids are getting into, and had himself a bad trip. We're not that far from Humboldt, you know."

"Yea," Dave said. "Weird shit happens out here all the time. There were those brothers, the what, Gintys?"

"The Gintys," Steve confirmed.

"Went fishing up above the rail bridge one night, never made it back to their car. Cops found their waders a week later, empty. No bodies."

Ted shrugged, glancing over at the tourists, who had stopped lining expensive gear up on the counter to listen. "Well, like you said, weird stuff happens out here sometimes. Add one more weird thing to the list."

They left the shop and stopped for lunch, sandwiches and more coffee at the diner across the street where all anyone wanted to talk about was what had happened to Jerry Harrison. Then they walked to the liquor store under the blazing afternoon sun to grab a six pack each, plus two tallboys for the approach, from the corner store before they climbed back in the truck to head to the river and start the evening's work.

They exited the highway ten minutes down the road, taking a seldom-used exit that quickly turned into gravel track. At a t-junction they turned right, heading downhill on a rutted dirt road, the trees closing into a bright green tunnel above them. The afternoon light became hazy, indistinct, gold tinged with green through the leaves of the birch and alders. Safely away from the highway, they cracked the tallboys, tossing the tabs out the window.

They followed the dirt road down the side of the canyon towards the river, which they could hear rushing below them through the open windows. The green tunnel abruptly opened, the road depositing them onto the cut of the railroad tracks. A small hill of bright gray gravel, topped with the parallel steel tracks of the BNSF, blocked further forward progress. They turned and drove alongside the tracks for half a mile until they reached their spot, a small cutout in the rampant undergrowth along the tracks that perfectly fit the truck.

They parked the truck and grabbed their gear from the back, donning their waders and boots and putting their fly rods together. Dave had paid a tidy sum for his, nine feet of perfect fiberglass, precision-engineered reel with bright yellow fly line set firmly in place behind the cork grips. They finished the tallboys as they set off down the train tracks, looking for the narrow cut in the thick woods between them and the river that would allow them access to the best fishing holes. Dave checked the sun as they walked - plenty of time until sunset, no need to rush.

They found their path and, crossing the train tracks, turned into the woods, letting the suddenly dense shadows fold over them. It was oddly muted in the woods, as if the sun had taken sound with it when it disappeared. As his ears adjusted Dave heard the wind sighing through the treetops above him, the thrush warble and trill on a branch somewhere nearby while a jay squawked in response, and under it all the nearby playful conversation of the river as it rushed past them, always running but never getting anywhere.

They pushed through the underbrush, the brambles clawing at their thick waders and doing their best to catch on their rods or the fly line strung along their length. Stumbling down an incline they passed through one last wall of bushes to find the river suddenly revealed before them.

The river sat at the bottom of the canyon, with steep banks, thick with birch, alder, and Douglas fir, rising on either side. Far to the south it turned into little more than a canal, a physical fact of human hands on the map, running in straight lines between tall levees nude of vegetation, taking 90 degree turns when it had to go around some farmer's property. But up here, in the far north of the state, it was natural, wild. It meandered here and there with the topography, unconcerned with the fastest linear path from A to B, the water running cleanly over the smooth rocks of the river bottom. It was mostly shallow, rarely more than two or three feet deep outside of the channels and holes that were full of the fish they would be throwing flies to soon enough. The sun, sinking lower in the sky, cast its low-angle light on the water as it giggled and laughed over its course, the river bottom visible through the waves and ripples as if obscured by a pleasingly natural kind of static.

They rock-paper-scissored to see who would have to wade across the river to fish. Dave lost, and shouldered his backpack (contents: six pack of beer, small pack of jerky, empty air), and began to cross. He stepped into the water and immediately felt its cool embrace over his feet as his boots flooded. He worked his way gingerly across the slick rocks of the river bottom, the current caressing his legs through his waders. He enjoyed the feeling for a moment, feeling at home in the rush and the rhythm of the stream, but he was well aware that a slip from him would turn the caresses on his legs lethal as his waders filled with water and trapped him under the shallow surface.

Reaching the opposite bank, Dave turned and walked down stream. At the first fishing hole he reached into his bag, pulled out a beer, and lodged it between two rocks, half-submerged in the river. The water would keep it cool until he returned for it.

He repeated this as he walked downstream, wedging a beer in the water at each fishing hole for future retrieval. He looked across the stream and saw Steve, slightly ahead of him, doing the same.

Finally he reached the last hole, or, more accurately, the first hole he would fish. He glanced across the stream. Steve had already reached the hole, and was busy casting his first fly into the top of a nearby riffle. The sun disappeared behind the hills, the light growing soft above the luminous ribbon of the river. It surged downstream from them, liquid gold between steep green banks under a clear and darkening sky.

A tiny fluff of light, looking almost like the white puff of a dandelion seed, floated through the air directly in front of Dave's face. He caught it in his hand carefully, slowly opening it to reveal a tiny, white-tinged mayfly slowly flexing its wings in his palm. Around him the air slowly filled with tiny motes of light floating above the water - the sinking sun glinting off the wings of the dancing, dying spinners. The surface of the water began to be marked by tiny spreading ripples - trout rising to the surface to feast on the slowly falling bugs.

The spinner fall was on.

Dave loosed his line into the water and began to cast his first fly. He played out his line, then began his motion. First he flicked his rod back over his shoulder with his right hand, accelerating the fly line, then leader, then tiny fly, past his head and behind him. He stopped the rod overhead, waited a beat for the line to finish its flight, then reversed direction, the rod flexing as it brought the fly line, leader, and fly back over his head towards the water. He waited a beat again as the line finished its flight, then repeated, pulling line from his reel to allow the flight to last slightly longer, the line to reach slightly farther with each cast. Finally he threw his final cast forward and lowered his rod tip, letting his line turn over in the air and drop gently to the surface of the river, fly followed by invisible leader followed by fly line.

The river gently took his fly and began to wash it downstream, over the riffle and into the rising fish. Dave mended his line, rolling it over in the water to ensure that the fly was being pushed solely by the current of the river, not pulled by the drift of the fly line. Only in this way could he make the fly drift naturally in the water. Only in this way could he convince a fish that his tiny tufted hook was actually a fallen insect, a perfect morsel for a hungry trout. Fishermen called this, not unironically, a dead drift.

His first cast floated calmly through the rising fish without so much as a second look from the trout swimming below, so Dave took several steps upstream and repeated. Again, no bites, so he took a few more steps upstream and cast again, feeling the weight of his line resist his backcast and flex his fiberglass rod on the forecast before shooting past his ear to place the fly gently on the water.

He mended his line again and let the current take over, his dry fly in a perfect dead drift through the riffle, past the humped-up water that marked a rock submerged just below the surface. He watched closely as his fly reached the tail end of the riffle and slowed, the small ripples of rising fish all around. Suddenly his fly disappeared into the rapidly expanding center of one of those ripples, as if it simply chosen that moment to realize its weight and drop through the surface of the water straight to the stones on the bottom of the river. He lifted his rod tip sharply, felt the hook sink home, and suddenly he was on the fish, his line a laser beam disappearing into the river and his rod a living thing, bucking and jerking with the desperate motion of the fish he was hooked into.

He let the fish run downstream, feeling his line rapidly unspool from the reel, and worked to reel the fish in only once it turned back towards him. Trying to reel the fish too early would mean a broken line and a delay while he tied a new fly on. As the fish finished its run and turned his way he reeled rapidly, cranking line in feet at a time, and he saw the fish, desperate for freedom from the stabbing hook in its lip, leap into the air thirty feet downstream of him, the falling golden evening light playing off the silver and pink and blue of its scales, a rainbow come to glorious flying life.

The fish landed with a tremendous splash, and he heard Steve whoop from across the river. He had stopped casting to watch Dave land the first fish of the evening.

The fish ran twice more before it was too tired to fight, Dave patiently wringing every last ounce of resistance from the animal before he reeled it, barely swimming, into his net. He reached down and wrapped his hand around the fish, lifting it out of the net to admire it in the evening light. It was gorgeous, a full 15 inches long, hefty enough that its tail drooped behind his hand. It was a riot of color, its scales picking up the golden light and returning it in shades of pink blue and silver, its lidless yellow eyes gazing back at Dave with a kind of mute horror, confused about its sudden and violent delivery into this strange dry suffocation.

He admired it for only a moment before he went to work, using the pliers he kept clipped to his vest to work the hook out of the fish's mouth. He placed the fish carefully back in the river, facing upstream to allow the water to flow over its gills and give the fish some much-needed oxygen before he loosened his grip. The fish stayed put briefly before it realized it was free, flicking its tail and disappearing into the relative safety of deeper water.

Dave headed back to the bank and grabbed his first beer. The rules were the rules, and the first fish of the evening meant first beer. He cracked the beer and drained it in three long gulps, crushing the can and stashing it in his pack. He waved to Steve, who was still working the first hole, and headed upstream to the second - and his second beer.

He found it about 50 yards upstream, buried in the rocks next to a beautiful broad riffle, the tiny wavelets gold against the deeper green of the water in the sinking twilight. He waded halfway to the riffle and began casting, repeating only twice before his fly again disappeared into a spreading ripple. He felt his rod tip dip and quickly jerked it up and back. His fly came shooting out of the water, sans trout. He had set the hook too quickly and caught nothing but the river.

He cast twice more before he hooked and landed his second fish, a small rainbow. He released it and waded back to shore, retrieving his second beer and downing it before heading upstream.

At the third hole he paused to switch flies, his first fly looking a little threadbare from its two close encounters. As he tied it on a glint in the water caught his eye, something metallic riding the current past him. He paused, leaning forward to get a better look as it drifted within a few feet of him. It flowed over a rock in front of him, briefly cresting the surface of the water to reveal a can of Rainier beer, unopened, floating freely downstream. It rose again briefly before being pulled under by the current, disappearing into the darker water downstream of him.

"What the hell?" he said out loud, wondering if some tourist had lost hold of his cooler upstream. He wondered how many other cans were floating the length of the river.

Frowning at the thought of flashing hunks of aluminum littering the banks, he finished tying on his fly and began casting. He cast close to a dozen times, moving a few feet upstream each time, before he finally hooked up with a fish, a disappointing six inch rainbow. He quickly landed it, freed it, and moved upstream, trying to stay ahead of Steve, who he could distantly hear splashing up the shallows across the river and downstream of him.

He was halfway through the fourth hole when he heard a sharp, flat sploosh from upstream, as if someone had dropped a rock into the river from a great height. It echoed against the looming shadowed trees before fading into the background murmurs of the river.

Dave paused his fishing to look upstream, spotting another can of beer, PBR this time, unopened, floating towards him.

He turned fully upstream, positively angry now. "Hey asshole!" he shouted upstream into the falling dark. "Cut it out! You're scaring the fish!"

His voice echoed back out of the falling dark, fish... fish... fish... repeating over the mocking laughter of the river. The thrushes and jays fell silent as his voice faded until only the river still spoke. A second, faint voice seemed to follow behind it, but Dave couldn't tell if it came from upriver or if Steve was calling from downstream.

The silence swelled around him until it was its own kind of deafening, the river rising to an unsettling static undertone. He shuffled uneasily. For a long moment the silence and the lengthening shadows seemed to physically press down on him. Then a jay screeched, the thrush warbled, and a fish jumped into the evening air, landing with a soft and pleasant splash. The canyon seemed to grow suddenly lighter. He grabbed his beer and turned, quickly, for the fifth and penultimate fishing hole.

By the time he got there he had finished his fourth beer, and the alcohol was starting to hit. He felt light, disconnected. His feet struggled with the riverbed, finding the gap in the rocks on the river bottom and picking the slipperiest patch of stone to put his weight on, constantly threatening to dump him into the river.

He made a few half-hearted casts and somehow managed to hook a single small rainbow, landing it after a brief tussle with an overhanging tree branch. He clumsily unhooked it and let it swim free.

As he watched it turn for the safety of deeper water he glanced upstream and saw another beer floating his way. He reached out and unsteadily pulled it from the water as it passed. It was a Budweiser, not his favorite beer, but it was ice cold, unopened. He stared at it for a long moment, slowly trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for its presence in his hands.

"Well, somebody's gotta drink 'em," he said, making a decision. He went to open the beer, resolved to profit from whatever compulsion was driving someone to litter his river with aluminum. He had just grabbed a hold of the tab when it felt like the can gave a tiny jump, slipping out of his hands and landing back in the river where it washed between his feet, disappearing downstream into the deepening shadows.

"Well shit," he said, suddenly thirsty.

He wavered in the current for a moment, barely noticing that the light had faded from the warm glow of sunset into the soft blues and purples of twilight. He could still see the trees on the opposite bank, but the river disappeared into the thickening gloom as it narrowed and ran downstream. The jays had begun to quiet, the thrush warbling less frequently. Back behind him a cricket began to chirp. The breeze had died down, the trees no longer sighing at him. Only the laughter of the river stayed constant, unmuted by the descent into night.

He realized he hadn't seen Steve for a while.

He turned and shuffled unenthusiastically to the final fishing hole. He had buried his final beer in the pocket water behind a small boulder near the bank, level with a small riffle that ran into a startlingly deep hole in the middle of the river, revealed only by a deepening of the shadows beneath the surface.

Dave considered the water for a time before he slung a sloppy roll cast upstream of the riffle, watching his fly float lazily through the water to no effect. He repeated a handful of times, but he had fished often enough to know that his cast was all wrong - weak wrist, too much line, no clean drift. But he had also fished often enough to know that he was far too drunk to fix things now. Besides, the light was fading, the trees disappearing into the gloom, the evening breezes dying down, the air no longer thick with falling spinners. Hardly worth the effort, he thought.

He waded back to his final buried beer, fished it out, and cracked it. He sat on a likely looking rock and began taking long gulps, looking downstream for Steve. Beneath the haze of the alcohol he felt a twinge of worry at his friend's long absence.

He finished the beer and moved to put the empty into his pack when he heard another splash upriver. He glanced up, but even knowing it was coming it took his drunk eyes a second to pick the floating beer can out of the shadows as it bobbed its way towards him.

It drifted to a stop against his boot. He reached down and plucked it from the water. "Here's to you buddy," he said, cracking it and, with a cheers towards his nameless benefactor, lifting it to his lips.

As soon as the cool aluminum hit his lips he knew something was wrong. He quickly tried to pull the can away from his face - and found he couldn't. The can was stuck fast to his lips.

Panicked, he stood, and found himself suddenly pushed backwards, the can crushing against his face forcing him back. He stumbled briefly before righting himself and trying to struggle his way to the bank. He made it a step or two before the can redoubled its efforts, twisting him around and forcing him back towards the deeper water at the center of the river. He took one step, then two steps backwards before his heel caught against one of the stones on the river bottom and he fell, flailing backwards into the rushing dark water.

He landed with a shout and a splash. He briefly managed to keep himself afloat, paddling frantically with his one free arm, before his chest slipped under. He felt the cold water of the river rush over the top of his waders, filling with dark water from his chest to his neoprene booties. With a gargled shout he disappeared into the rushing current.

His last strangled cry echoed off of the river and rocks and bounced back onto itself. For a moment the birds and crickets went silent and the canyon was quiet, so that only the burbling satisfied laughter of the river could be heard. The ripples circled out from where Dave had disappeared until they were swept away by the current, disappearing downstream. All was still and the river, unperturbed, continued on its way. Then a jay sounded off in the woods, followed by the hoot of an awakening owl, and the river came back to life. A fish jumped above the riffle, flashing briefly in the evening light before landing with a soft splash.

Later, once the last light had almost faded from the sky in a subdued riot of purples and oranges, Steve rounded the river bend, working his way upstream on slightly drunk, unsteady feet. He paused, scanning the river. No sign of Dave. He must have wandered upstream, he thought. He retrieved his final beer and picked a likely-looking rock to sit on. He set his rod aside, cracked his beer, and waited. He watched the woods grow dark until the river was a narrow ribbon of gold between the trees. The spinner fall had ended, and only a handful of rising fish rippled the surface of the water. The birdsong quietly ended, replaced by the soft sounds of the night, the sighing of the night breeze through the trees.

His took his last sip of beer, crushed the can, and placed it in his pack.

He heard a heavy splash from upstream as he stood. He paused, looking up the river, his eyes straining against the darkness to see what had fallen into the water. A glint in the darkening water caught his eye as a can of Rainier beer floated towards him out of the murk. What the hell, he thought. One more can't hurt.

10 comments:

  1. A strong story, with delightful details about a world that is strange to me (fishing) and good characterisations. In the careful realisation of the context, unease starts to push through - it barely perceptible at first then builds to a rush. What will Steve face next? Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I don't think it's going to end well for Steve...

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  2. This is nicely done, with, as Ceinwen points out, some great details about fly fishing and wonderful characterizations, all of which "reel" you into the story. And the slow subtle build of the "other" fisher makes the story all that much more fun.
    Thanks
    Jim

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it - thanks for reading!

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  3. Creepy with excellent pacing that allows the dread to build steadily and naturally. Good descriptions of the surroundings drew me in as well.

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    1. Glad you liked it! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  4. Is Rainier beer still available? It was a common brew when I was just a pup in Oregon. Hipsters now drink PBR and many us drink local miros - Terminator Stout and Black Butte Porter (called Dark Hill Stout in "Dark).

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    1. You sure can! It's a little hard to find, but it still haunts the freezers in some places in the intermountain west. I'm a big fan of Black Butte, but Rainier and Coors are my on-the-river beers of choice.

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  5. Replies
    1. Thanks! Hope you enjoyed it!

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