First, I tried to ignore him. He was an old man, maybe 70, wearing warparound black shades and what appeared to be a homemade denim fishing vest or else the unholy product of an Orvis/Harley-Davidson merger. He was fishing 40 or so yards downstream from me on the Tellico River, a trout stream in eastern Tennessee where, as a neophyte angler, I'd come seeking solace and rainbow trout--and where, to my grating dismay, I was finding neither. The old man, on the other hand, was catching plenty. I don't wish to exaggerate here, at least not much, but the old fart was like a stream-side ticket-taker: Every passing trout seemed to be paying him--lip service, one might say, in a punning mood--to continue on their way downstream.
But I was hardly in a punning mood on that sunshiny morn. No, my moon that morning was bleak, even blackly murderous, and though I tried to ignore the old man an dhis catches, tried to pretend he wasn't there, tried to imagine it was just me and the river, man and nature and birdsong and solitude blah blah chirp chirp--nope. With every tenth cast, I tired on a new fly, and when I'd exhausted my inventory, I would start over, whipping the water as if struggling to giddy-up a recalcitrant mule--all the while seething at the old man's zip-a-dee-doo-day ease. Citizens, I confess: I was boiling in a hot cauldron of envy. At some low point, I actually prayed--as in, Dear God--that a black bear would tromp down the riverbank and pummel the old man into the water. I envisioned the bear donning the old man's wraparound shades and signaling me that all was clear, that the trout were all mine.
After a while, when it was too painful for me to continue, I reeled in my line and wandered down to where the old man was fishing. "Hidy," he said. He had a harelip.
"Hidy," I replied. Three dead trout were piled up inside a bucket near his feet; it was catch-and-release season, so this was a no-no. "Couldn't help but notice you were having a pretty good time of it down here."
"Secret's in the can," the old man said, plucking an open container of Green Giant corn niblets from beside the bucket. "Kern," he said. "For trout, it's like that crack cocaine."
I nodded dimly. The old man was fishing, and grinning, just spitting distance from a sign that read: Use or possession of any bait is prohibited. On my slow walk down, I'd been feeling pangs of guilt about my fish-envy--about that bear thing, mostly. But now I didn't know what to think. Do the laws of the soul--specifically the ones that say not to covet your neighbor's wife, ass, or trout--trump those of the Tennessee Game & Fish Department? Friends, I could not say. Politely, I refused the old man's offer of niblets and headed back upstream, reveling in my newfound virtue.
Jonathan Miles writes, fishes, and almost always released in New York's Hudson Valley.