For the next few days, I am publishing some very short, memoir-ish travel tales that have been swimming around my files for years. They aren’t necessarily about trout fishing though our hero goes trout fishing in them. Together, they form an odd, little book. I hope you like them. This is the fourth.
The stream was a feisty body of water, about four feet deep in the middle and thirty or forty feet wide. You don’t find this kind of creek much in Missouri. There’s Crane Creek, but the forest hangs over it so you can hardly cast a line without catching elderberry. There’s Roubidoux Creek, which is a strong, beautiful stream that reminds me of a clueless teenager. The Roubidoux’ way too far from Kansas City and we could only fish that stream if we wanted to spend the night. You can go to the trout parks if you want to beat up hatchery fish with hardly any sense. So, we considered ourselves lucky to find Rainy Creek on a Department of Conservation map, and even luckier because we were the only people trying to do anything with that stream.
All the trout floated near sycamore roots that held the far bank together. O’Kelley knew how to fly fish better than I did. I flopped my line over the breadth of the creek. He waded through the middle of the creek. He whipped funny little roll casts the trouts’ way and wove his sinking flies parallel to the bank and past the roots. I fumbled about with stiff fingers. My ego was sore, tied up in tree limbs with my flies.
We had driven down from Kansas City to this bony crack in the Ozark Plateau in the middle of the night. My daughter’s mom told me I had only a half day to fish. “You have to be back by mid-afternoon,” she said, standing in the kitchen when I had asked the evening before. The child played in the living room, cooing and giggling. I had been late before, and it wasn’t what I’d consider the best of times. I wanted trout, but the only way to do some fly fishing was to make a four-hour drive. It would be tough.
“I got the same orders,” O’Kelley said when I called him. “It’s our mission now. If we leave by two in the morning, we’ll get there in the dark at 6. That’ll give us decent fishing time. We’d be able to fish a good four of five hours and be back by 3 p.m.”
I set the alarm and was out the door, lack of sleep afflicted, by two. O’Kelley was outside in the cold under his porch light when I got to his house. Once in the car, he sipped coffee from Ol’ Shep, a tin coffee cup covered in chipped porcelain, then fell asleep. I watched road stripes and reflectors set themselves flat on the windshield like comets and stars on a postcard. I shook myself repeatedly and managed to keep the car on the road.
We arrived around 6 a.m., according to the clock in the dash of the car, at the stream sequestered in a rarely used Missouri state conservation area. For O’Kelley and I, it was succor from work and family. We didn’t come often, but when we did, it was cold. The sky always seemed to be a deep gray. We donned our waders, readied our rods, and were on the creek by about 6:30. Neither of us had watches, but we depended on being worn out in a couple of hours.
The day was one of those perfect late-winter days when the clouds hang low to the ground. The temperature reached freezing around mid-morning. Snow fell silent on the stream, which ran cold from limestone pockets in the woods. The springs never froze, even at this time of year, when the winds could get downright arctic.
Half in a trance, I watched O’Kelley as he tried to pluck green and red and silver trout from the sycamore roots with a woolly worm. Snow fell lightly. The forest under the gray sky was quiet, with only woodpeckers knocking and trilling from time to time. Once, deer swished the wet carpet of leaves on the forest floor. I could hear the hiss of tires occasionally on the wet highway about a half mile away. The constant splash of the water deepened my trance. I let my line flow downstream and flutter, and I watched O’Kelley.
I thought of the mangy man named Bill who owned a bait shop on an empty stretch of road in the valley. “Trout been danglin’ from the roots of that sycamore since 1867,” Bill told us on one of our previous trips. He sat behind the counter on a tall stool, minnow tanks bubbling behind him. He spit his tobacco in a coffee cup. O’Kelley was looking at the flies in a plastic compartmented box on the counter. “A Confederate soldier from Arkansas bought the land with the springs and the stream after the war. The Confederate didn’t have much, but he carved a farm from that Ozark limestone, living on cornpone and hickory nuts.
“He decided his stream needed better fish than them bug-eyed rock bass that occasionally swim up toward the springs. They come in high summer and never stay long—they like clear, cool water but not constant cold. Their muscles ain’t strong enough to fight the stream when it starts rainin’ in late summer; their googly eyes can’t see the stream has plenty of grooves, sycamore roots, and broken limestone plates to hide from the red-tail hawks.”
Bill said the former Confederate bought trout fingerlings from a German storekeep near Waynesville who believed himself a fish expert. “The German was a real snob who believed no fish but trout should pass a man’s lips, or at least his,” he said. “He liked profit as much as trout and he preached trout. He thought everyone should buy the fingerling rainbows and browns he raised in the spring pools behind his store.”
The former Confederate hated the German but liked the idea of trout flitting around his springs, Bill said. “Rock bass are lumpy, dark fish. Trout are pretty. The Confederate’d seen them in books. So he bought the German’s fingerlings, hurried them to his stream and watched them disappear. Two months later, he found they had grown and were quite happy in his springs.”
Every now and then, O’Kelley and I pushed our rods beneath the water to thaw ice in the eyelets and free our lines. It made our hands cold, and they hurt for a while then became numb stumps. We stood in that creek until our feet felt like fuzzy clumps of sand. I was sure my waders had sprung a leak but figured I wouldn’t freeze since the stream hadn’t.
After a while it began to snow so heavy we couldn’t see the next bend in the stream, and we were about to give up. O’Kelley skipped a brown across the riffles with his last cast, though. He played the fish a time that was fair. It was about ten inches long—about as big a trout as that Confederate ever saw. Its body wore scars of hawk talons like bramble scratches on the side of a shin. O’Kelley pulled it from the water. It stared at us with a certain kind of longing and flipped now and again.
O’Kelley slipped the woolly worm from the trout’s lower lip. We admired that fish without talking. I noticed beyond the constant plash of the stream, the snow had muffled the woods silent. I don’t know how long we stood there, but I think it was too long for the fish. It took a while to get underway after we put it back in the water. Perhaps it was colder out of the water than in it, but it didn’t feel that way.
That one trout kept us going another good long while. I caught one rainbow and two browns, tiny fish next to O’Kelley’s first brown. He reeled in another three, all smallish browns. The day turned a deeper shade of gray. We’d had enough of the Confederate’s stream. I shivered uncontrollably, and O’Kelley’s lips were blue. We pulled our waders off and wandered around in the snow a while because we could. Our bare feet were red as rhubarb stalks.
We thought we had been in the stream about four hours, which was enough. We changed into dry socks and shoes, and climbed into the car. O’Kelley was going to drive home and he turned the key. “Shit,” he said, looking at the clock. The dark had not come from thicker clouds and more snow, it was early evening. It had taken us ten hours to catch seven fish.
O’Kelley’s wife and my daughter’s mom were going to be livid. I lie back in my seat and watched the limestone cliffs and darkening woods. My feet began to burn and sting. I thought we should have at least kept his first trout—the biggest—or packed an arm of that stream into the trunk as a peace offering to our women. It wouldn’t save us, but it would have been something.