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Witness to Glory

April 1, 2004

Published as:

“Witness to Glory”      Chicken Soup for the Fisherman’s Soul. April 2004

“The Passage”              North American Fisherman. March, 1998

Witness to Glory

By Perry P. Perkins

My first steelhead trip was wet, rainy and pacific Northwest COLD.  I was with my friend Paul, a diehard winter steelheader, and when I got my first glimpse of the bank of the Nestucca River, anglers were shoulder to shoulder as far as I could see.  We squeezed onto a parcel of mud, where I faithfully worked my postage-stamp allotment of water as the hours passed and the rain continued to fall. As the morning wore on, the streamside crowd thinned until, by noon, there were only a few of us left.

I had been watching the anglers around me, and a father and son had caught my eye.  Each silently worked his own water.  The father had released two fish that would have reduced me to tears of joy.  The son, decked in neoprenes, had seen a couple of battles himself, but had lost each.  Suddenly, the boy, perhaps 14 years old, was nearly jerked from his feet as his rod tip lunged for deep water, line screaming off his reel.

The first time the fish jumped, my jaw dropped. “He’s got a Chinook, and a big one,” Paul whispered. “Happens every once in a while.”

The boy stayed calm, but between the current and the huge salmon, he was slowly edging toward a deep shelf that cut across the river in from of a wide series of rapids. We knew that if the Chinook hit those rapids, it was all over.       The boy’s father had set his own rod aside, but never so much as shouted a word of encouragement. He just stood there, watching intently.

The boy reeled the fish in three times, and each time it blasted off downstream again, fighting it’s way toward the whitewater.  After 15 minutes, the fight was obviously taking its toll on the boy.  Even from a distance, I could see his arms shaking as he clung to the rod. The icy river had inched up to his ribs and was beginning to lap toward the top of his waders.  The Chinook had gone deep, fighting for all it was worth. The rod continued to twist and jerk…and then the boy was gone!

He emerged a second later, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes, his bluish fingers still clutching the rod.  Paul grabbed our net and jumped in.

“No!”

I spun toward the sound and saw the boy’s father pointing toward Paul.

“No,” he repeated. “when he wants help, he’ll ask for it.”

Paul nodded and stood at the bank of the river, net in hand. 

Then, the fish cut hard for the bank and slipped into the thick branches of a partially submerged tree.  We all waited for the rifle shot sound of the snapping line. Instead, the boy lunged forward, driving himself into the mass of tangled limbs. 

Everything grew still. The man called to his son, but his response was lost in the noise of the river.  Paul waded closer and called back that the boy had the fish, but couldn’t get both himself and the salmon out of the branches.  Paul began pulling back the dead limbs as the boy backed out of the brush, fighting to keep both his balance and his fish.  It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. That boy, shivering with cold and exhaustion, emerges clutching a 31-pound Chinook salmon to his chest with both arms. He waded a few feet, paused to get his balance, and continued, slowly working his way back across the river.

His father handed him a short length of rope to secure the fish, then reached down and helped him up onto the bank.   The boy lay on his back in the mud, gasping for breath, his eyes never leaving the huge fish beside him.  Paul had a portable scale with him and asked the father if he could weigh the salmon.  He looked at Paul and said softly, “You’ll have to ask my son.  It’s his fish.” 

As we drove home that evening, I realized that in the pride in the man’s voice, in the look of victory on his son’s exhausted face, I had witnessed a rite of passage.  The father had allowed the boy to take the glory, and the right to tell his won children about his first BIG FISH…and how he had taken it like a man. 

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