Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Warm River Trout

The photo is a picture of one of my favorite places in the world. Warm River where as children we'd pull out trout, take them home to gut and then eat them. The taste of Warm River trout summons up this place and this story: This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote.....

Gift Of Fish

Warm River wasn’t warm, but it wound through a place where the sun could find it, not in the trees but in a meadow of soft yellow grass that as a kid, I walked over like the wind. Waist-deep grasses grew around a pair of abandoned train trestles that ran through the place. The grass grew as wild as my dandelion-tuft hair that refused to tuck behind my ears. My family came with our pants rolled up, our gangly poles and cups of night crawlers from KOA. We came to pull rainbows out of the creek— as magical as pulling one out of the sky.

My mother brought us here as children. Dad spent the day raising houses along the edges of the Rocky Mountains, lifting pine two-by-fours with his arms that had become brown and bulged with the work of carpentry. Mom's work was to keep us with her and happy, so she took us fishing to Warm River often. The place never failed to produce; we always came home with a cooler full of new-caught trout. It was the anonymity of the spot that spoke most loudly. The stillness made me think that sunshine had been the place's only occupant until the Skoy family came to fish. We were like prospectors panning for the beautiful things of the river, standing with our hands in the stream and letting the small ones slip out of our fingers, waiting on the bigger rainbows, that were as good as gold.

I wasn't afraid of worm guts. I impaled the crawlers over and over with my hook and cast my line out to hold out for the nibble, nibble. I'd wait the magic wait, which lasted a few seconds or sometimes half-a-minute, then pull back, feeling the weight of a little life tugging at the end of my rod.

As children we only pulled things from the river that we loved and could hold in our hands and bravely watch die. When fish jumped through the water they were familiar. Catching them was like finding a rock that had been in the bottom of your pocket for a long time.

photo of my hippie family in my backyard. I'm the one in the middle. My mother made the dress I'm wearing.

When I think of fishing with my family, the memory pulls the slack of many years and brings them close, makes them tight in my hands.
Fishing at Warm River was easy, like a dream you'd have of finding hidden treasures buried right in your backyard. We knew Warm River would never let us down and that if you fished, you caught. But that was an Idaho dream, and maybe one only children have. I'm grown up now and live in Utah, and when I fish here without much luck, I tell people they've never really fished until they’ve fished in Idaho. . .

. . . When spring came, I fished with Chris, a new friend who helped me fine tune my technique. Chris appreciated my fiberglass rod and my father's hodgepodge fly collection; he said, "The fish don't know the difference.” Chris had a love of fishing that exceeded mine. During that time of day when the sun, the river, the fish, and the fly all line up—call it the angler’s eclipse—Chris goes crazy. He is aware of nothing except giving life to a fly through the swirl of his line and watching fish rise. He is known to keep flies handy by putting them in his mouth between his gums and cheek. During one such moment, he forgot the fly was there and kissed me. The hook got stuck in his gums.

After pulling in a fish on Blacksmith Fork, Chris knocked it on the head, killing it, then put his hand in the lower jaw and ripped it open.

"This is a beautiful healthy fish," he said. "Look at the pink flesh, one of the best I've seen on this river." He ran his fingers through the fish's wet entrails and pulled out the stomach, an oval-shaped pod. He opened the stomach and sorted through the flies and insects inside, slimy and covered with brown muck. He pulled out a large winged creature and said, "Look, this is a stone fly." Then together we looked through my dad's old fly box, found something that looked like what we had found in the fish's stomach, and tied it to the end of my line.

I had often gone to the river with questions about life there: What do fish eat? How do they move and grow and digest? I thought I’d need to go home and look it all up in a book; I didn’t expect the chance to ask the fish directly. Opening a fish on the bank of Blacksmith’s Fork was like asking it how it lived.

I felt a mixture of awe and curiosity but not revulsion. It was the same feeling I got when as a child, my dad told us to clean the fish we caught during Warm River trips. You gut your own fishes at the Skoy home. If you took the life of a fish, you saw that life carefully through until the end, till the fish was eaten. We’d lay the fishies, shiny and still, on our back deck, touch their fish eyes—which felt wet like skinned grapes—wipe the smelly slime on our jeans after we gutted them, took off their heads, slit them open, and lifted out the slippery organs.

To take a fish as a trophy may be cruel, but to catch a fish with the intent to eat it seemed natural, as though fish were created to be opened but not without a feeling something like love. Most of the time I release fish, thankful the river gives this gift so generously—this silver-dollar flash of fins; this small, red-gilled body. This piece of moving river, tugging on my line, wild in my hands.

This perfect fish that will be caught.


viking said...

Jen, after reading this excerpt my mind was immediately flooded with memories of that wonderful place. The smell of the mint growing creekside, the heat of the sun roasting pine needles and grasses, the feel of piscene slime on my hands which somehow always ended up being transferred to my balogna sandwhich. Magical times indeed. Thanks for posting that. Your stories act as a sort of diving rod for me, pointing me to the wellspring of my life. Thanks.

Jen said...


Thanks for posting that response. You're a wonderful writer! I love your response here! I can just see you as a kid with your bologna sandwich- the crusts slapped with yellow mustard in one hand and holding a styrofoam cup of nightcrawlers in the other... and a sunburn blooming on your cheeks and your tube-socks bunched up at your knobby ankles.

Love it!

Jen said...

By the way.... is that Jim's response... or Mark? Sure sounds like Jim!!