The grey-haired and bearded man sat on his "Walmart special" camp chair, tying his fly to the tippet of his leader. The last shot of Crown Royal had left a burning sensation in the back of his throat, yet he remained silent and at peace. He was alone, as far as being around human folk went. He liked it that way. The less human sponges around, stealing his fish and favorite spots, the better.
As he tied, he thought about why he had been coming here for 27 years, to begin with. Fontanelle, Wyoming wasn't anything special in terms of traditional beauty, you know, like foresty beauty. It was mostly grassy rolling hills and weather that could change any second. Yet to him, it was stunning. Peaceful, quiet, and you could stay there for a week and not see another soul. He had been coming here since he was a small boy with his father, then after his father passed away, he came as a father with his son. His son soon started a family of his own and had stopped coming along on these trips. He didn't mind the quiet of being alone, though. He felt it gave him time to think and reflect. Perhaps, to prepare him for the inevitable. How many trips like this did he have left in him, how much time?
Having finished tying the fly that mimicked a stone fly (that was what was hatching this time of year), he stood to wade back into the river. He pursued a ripple where he knew the rainbow trout were hiding and waited. They waited for the bugs to land on the surface and, like tiny sharks, they would jump up to snatch the poor drowning things. He never kept the fish. That was part of the philosophy of fly-fishing, in his opinion. It was about the hunt, and then releasing the fish back into the river so that they might live to be caught again someday.
Catch and release. He even had gotten the words "love ‘em and leave ‘em" tattooed on the skin of his right forearm when he was a young man. Now, the sun worn skin of his body looked more like a vintage leather couch in one of those trendy rich people furniture stores than it did skin, and the tattoo was a mess of blurry lines that looked more like illegible Arabic writing. Indeed, the elements had not been kind to his physical appearance, but he couldn't complain.
Wading in, he sent his first cast. The idea was to land the tiny fly right on the edge of the ripple and make it look like the fly had fallen in and was drowning. As the river moved the fly downstream, he would mend the line upriver and keep it so that the fly wouldn't drag. The fish in the Green River were smart and knew the difference between real bugs and bait, especially the bigger, older, and wiser ones; unless you were good, and he was really, really good. You had to be the bait, his father had always taught him.
With his third cast, he felt the nibble and tugged to set the tiny barbs of the hook. Immediately, the fish began to fight like hell. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he had felt a fighter like this one. Trying to keep the tip of the fly rod up to lessen the drag of the line, his thought was to let the fish tire himself out a little before reeling him in. But the fish didn't tire. He kept thrashing about like a child throwing an underwater tantrum.
That was the moment when a second fish jumped nearby and said, "Hello, Jim!" Had he heard that right? No, it had to be because he was hung over, or maybe the beating sun was responsible? Or maybe he was still feeling the after-effects of the quarter of hallucinogenic mushrooms he had eaten by the campfire last night? Fish. Don't. Talk.
"I said, hello, Jim!", jumped the fish again. Then another fish jumped and said, "he doesn't remember us, Bob." Incredibly, soon the water was boiling with fish jumping from all angles and heights, giving him dialogue in turn. Having completely forgotten about the fish that was still fighting on the end of his line, he felt a strange hesitation to even reel it in at this point. I mean, the fish were fucking talking to him. He didn't much want anything to do with them right now.
All the while the fish were jumping and greeting him like an old friend. He reached down with shaking hands to clip the line that held the fighting fish with his clippers and heard, "oh, you don't need to do that Jim. We like to play with you." Alright. Shit was getting weirder and weirder now. He must be dreaming. Yes, that had to be it. But then, how was he able to feel the coolness of the river against his waders? The sun burned his exposed flesh and harassed his eyes. No, this could not be a dream. You don't feel heat and sensations in a dream... do you?
All of a sudden the fish stopped. The water fell silent once more. Even the fish on his line stopped pulling. He had lost him. There was eeriness about the silence he had once so much enjoyed. Looking around, he pinched himself as he took in the ever-familiar surroundings. Wow. Those mushrooms that he had gotten off of one of those college students that frequented his favorite dive bar back in Salt Lake City must've been some really good shit. Convinced no longer that he was dreaming, he settled on the idea that he must be coming down from something he probably never should've taken in the first place. But at the time he had thought; how many days do I have left? Why the hell not?
Well, the last ten minutes had proved why the hell not! Here he was, in the middle of nowhere, in his favorite place, tripping balls. That's one for the bucket list! Lord, almighty! He realized he was still standing in the river after ending the rant that had been going on in his head, so he said ‘screw it', and cast back out again. It wasn't like that was likely to happen again, right? No sooner had the fly hit the water than the water began to boil again. He whipped the fly back out of the water in a panic and tripping over his own feet and the slimy rocks that lined the bottom of the river, he fell backward onto the bank in a clumsy pile of old man bones and clumpy waders. All went calmly once more.
His buddies would never believe this shit. You didn't hallucinate for over 16 hours- of that he began to be certain. This was no dream, nor did it have anything to do with whatever he had put into his body. Maybe sun exhaustion? He decided maybe a sandwich and some rest in the shade were in order. Clambering over the steep bank, all covered in moss and wrapped up in his line, he sloshed over to his nearby camp along the river. At least everything there looked normal.
He plopped exhaustedly down in his camp chair and placed his pole down onto the ground beside him. Surveying the vast landscape around him, he took a deep breath, as if it might be his last. He thought of his late wife, Margaret, and how much she had loved this place. When they were younger, she would lace up her running shoes and take off in some random direction, running for hours, and not caring where the adventure would lead her. As she aged, the trips had become less frequent. Then she moved onto the next journey; the greatest journey of all. Pulling himself back from her memory, he saw it.
The pole on the ground was not his old pole that had been passed down through generations on his father's side. No. It was a golden fly rod now. It sparkled and glinted in the sunlight. He had never seen anything like it before. This was beginning to be too much. Purposely looking away, he reached for his nearby cooler that contained his lunch for the day and the empty Crown Royal bottle that he had drunkenly thrown into it the evening before... or was it this morning? Eh, didn't matter. That was the least of his worries and his stomach was telling him that he needed to eat. Maybe that would help.
Dragging the cooler close enough that it wouldn't require him to get up out of his chair, he opened the lid and reached for the sandwich that he had packed before leaving on this journey. He was munching away contentedly when he glanced back into the cooler and saw that the once empty Crown bottle was once again full like he had never opened it. Closing his eyes, he thought to himself how wonderful life would be if he could wake up like this every day, a bottle that never runs dry and his favorite place. And the fish... Curiosity nipped at his chest and piqued the hairs on his neck. He finished the sandwich and poured a good 5 seconds worth of the warming stuff down his throat.
Gaining a new courage from his old liquidy friend, he rose again and picked up his new golden pole. Although it made no sense, he checked it to make sure that nothing had been damaged in the shit show that had occurred earlier, but the pole was glinting and untouched. The line was perfect and his fly was intact. He had come here to fish, hadn't he? Walking back down to the riverbank, he slipped himself back into the current of the river and waded in. Everything seemed normal enough. Taking a deep breath, he cast out.
This time there was nothing. Phew! He began stripping the line and waiting for the tug. Paying attention to the ripples and the tiny fly, he fell into a trance-like state. He felt warm and he felt safe. He knew that this is where he belonged. He was so relaxed that he didn't even jump when he glanced down around his boots and saw the hundreds of brightly colored rainbow fish, circling around his feet. He became even more mesmerized by the glints of color and light that they, his new friends, were creating.
Swimming and swirling, the fish went on with their glorious display, and a soft voice said, "welcome, Jim. We have been waiting quite a long time for you." Instead of fear, he felt, well, at home. He gathered more courage and asked, "where am I?" To which the voice replied, "you are exactly where you think you are." "And where is that, if you don't mind?" asked Jim politely. The voice paused and said, "Jim, you are where you belong, where you have always belonged, and where you will always belong." Feeling at peace, at home, and where he belonged, he cast back out into the ripple once more, with a contented smile on his face.