Poets talk about “spots of time,” but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment.
-Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It
Things did not start off like a typical Law fishing trip. For beginners, the outboard motor started on the very first try. Secondly, at some point during a Law fishing trip—usually somewhere between the first and third cast—someone’s fishing line jumps off their reel and falls to the bottom of the boat in a tangle that looks like a Gordian Sparrow has made a nest out of Celtic knots. This did not happen. Nor were we eaten by mosquitoes. Nor did we have to whittle a drain plug out of a willow.
No, this was not the kind of fishing we were used to. For us, fishing has been, and usually still is, equated with hardship, endurance and suffering.
To we Law fishermen, fishing was just one more character-building exercise in a long series of character-building exercises. Example: Our favorite fishing hole growing up was a beautiful little alpine lake called Mary’s Lake, home to an industrious family of beavers, and a family layabout, playful otters. I always sympathized with the otters, sliding down muddy banks and chasing the lake’s elusive trout.
To reach the beautifully secluded Mary’s Lake meant driving two hours over rutted, washboarded roads, which isn’t so bad if you’re one of the four riding in the cab of the truck. But since I am the youngest, I was always relegated to the back of the pickup where I, and the others who were too young to ride in the cab, spent two hours banging our bony butts on the wheel wells, with tackle boxes, coolers and fishing poles rolling and clanging around with us. Then it meant sitting in an alpine swamp until dusk getting bitten by mosquitoes and horseflies.
These high-altitude lakes – which were frozen over seven months of the year — produced fish that were, as my dad put it, “skinny as watersnakes.” But after two hours of banging around and suffering in the back of the truck there was no doubt that we were going to fish. Skinny or not. Heck, half the reason we went on these fishing trips was just to prove that we were man enough to do it. It wasn’t at all uncommon that the funnest part of the fishing trip was going home.
Comfort and camping simply weren’t words we ever associated with each other. Growing up, when we went deer hunting, we walked through thigh-deep snow wearing tennis shoes and Levi’s. This sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. We were taught that life was tough and if you were going to grow to be a proper man you might as well start getting used to it.
That’s why the Lake Powell fishing trip of 2005 was so strange and unfamiliar to us. Instead of mosquitoes and smoky fires, rather than thin sleeping bags and hard ground, we were in a houseboat encompassed in convenience, surrounded in comfort and warmth.
It happened like this: During the summer of 2005, I started working as a river guide for Wilderness River Adventures, based out of Page. Wilderness River Adventures is owned by the multi-national business conglomerate Aramark, and Aramark also runs the houseboat concessions for Lake Powell. My year-end bonus as a river guide was a free houseboat for a week, to be used any time at the end of the river season. They threw in a free powerboat, as well.
This meant that the boat was maintained by competent mechanics who had changed its oil and remembered to put in the drain plugs. This meant no sleeping in tents on the hard ground, no cooking over a fire of rain-soaked logs.
We had lights and electricity. We had a fridge. Heck, there was even a hot shower. Yes, it was all very strange and foreign indeed. It was the very opposite of a Law fishing trip.
It looked doubtful that we’d add even the smallest stitch of character to our character.
I woke up early on the morning of the Best Day of My Life not knowing it was going to be the best day of my life. It was barely light outside.
I woke up to my dad yelling, “Let’s go,” in his bright, encouraging voice. “Let’s get out there and get ‘em.”
Gettin’ out there and gettin’ ‘em meant getting in the boat and going fishing. We skipped breakfast. Our tackle boxes and poles were already in the boat where we’d left them the night before. Sleepily, we pulled sweatshirts over our heads and shuffled around finding anchovies and pocketknives. We climbed in the boat. Seven of us in a 22 foot boat. Myself, my dad, my two brothers, my two oldest nephews and Jose, who has been a family friend for so long he’s like another brother. It was perfectly cozy.
The boat started on the first try—this never ceases to amaze me—Tyler untied us from houseboat’s stern cleat and we pulled out into the bay.
“Where do you think we should go?” I asked my fellow fishermen.
My fellow fishermen have done a lot of fishing together over the years and we grew up fishing on Joe’s Valley, Mary’s Lake, Pete’s Hole, Potter’s Pond, Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell. Mary’s Lake, Pete’s Hole and Potter’s Pond are small, deep-woods, secluded lakes, which was a major quality we sought on our fishing trips. When we fished the larger lakes of Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell, we preferred to fish in one of their quiet coves.
So I wasn’t surprised when my dad said, “Let’s go find a quiet little cove somewhere.”
We all agreed that this was a good idea.
I eased the throttle forward and we went hunting for a quiet little cove to go fishing.
We had anchored our houseboat in an arm of Lake Powell known as Warm Creek Springs the day before. Warm Creek Springs is located only a few miles from Wahweap Bay, the spot where we had launched. In typical Lake Powell fashion, it’s surrounded on seven of its eight sides by tall cliff walls. The sun was up, but still missing somewhere behind the cliff walls. In the false-dawn below the cliff walls the lake was still dark; it gleamed like oiled tarpaper. Its surface so flat and smooth it looked like it had been pulled tight and tucked in with hospital corners. The smooth, dark water made a perfect mirror, reflecting the dawn sky and the slowly brightening cliff walls. Watching the dark morning turn to day was like watching a dark Polaroid develop in your hand.
Lake Powell sits on the Utah/Arizona border. It’s a huge lake. Its shoreline is equivalent to the Atlantic seaboard. Looking at a map of Lake Powell you see that it has a thousand folds, serrations and crenellations along its edges. This means it has thousands of coves. All of which are quiet and secluded. It took us only five minutes to find the one we liked. It was long and narrow, tucked between sandstone cliff walls with sand dunes at their bases.
Prior to our trip, my dad had called his network of fishermen friends inquiring who among them had recently been to Powell — several had — and asked them what lure or bait had been the most effective. He’d been told that they were “knockin’ ‘em dead” with a small, green artificial worm. We had done a little fishing the evening before and our poles were still baited with these green worms. We cast them out into the cove’s placid waters. Kelly, who prefers spinners, was using a gold Mepps. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Kelly fish with anything but a gold Mepps. The one he had on that morning was probably the very same one he’d tied to his rod 20 years before.
After two hours of fishing we had caught only a catfish and a sucker.
Ah, now it was starting to feel like a Law fishing trip.
Someone suggested that we go in and make breakfast. We reeled in and went back to the houseboat. We hadn’t caught many fish but we had been out there to watch the desert wake up and put on its color, which is always worth waking up for.
Back at the houseboat we ate breakfast and then, feeling warm, fed and comfortable, took a long mid-morning nap, like any sensible mammal would do.
My dad and Jose, who were feeling more enterprising than the rest of us, continued fishing, my dad from the stern of the houseboat, and Jose from shore. Those of us who were napping – I among them – am happy to report, caught just as many fish as the fishermen did. But as the clock neared noon my dad and Jose started catching fish. First it was just a perch. Nothing too exciting. I’m not crawling out of my warm bed for a stinking perch. Then it was a catfish. Same goes for a catfish. But then my dad caught a big one off the back of the houseboat and then proceeded to do so much whoopin’ and a-whompin’ that we had to wake up and go see this monster fish he was yelling about. Then again, to a Law man pretty much any fish over seven inches is considered a big one.
We shuffled sleepily from our cabins and arrived at the back of the houseboat in time to see my dad pull an appreciable striper bass to the surface. One of us grabbed the net and helped him land it.
“Dang,” we said. “That’s a nice fish.”
And it was. It was at least 15 inches long and easily weighed three or four pounds.
Our desire to fish was suddenly activated to full strength. We ran around gathering shoes, making sandwiches for later and finding our sunglasses. I grabbed the anchovies out of the freezer. Fifteen minutes later we were all back on the fishing boat.
I started up the boat and guided us out of our little lagoon. And that’s when I broke with Law fishing tradition. Instead of heading for a quiet cove, I piloted the boat to deep water. Took it right out into the main channel.
“I think we should try deeper water,” I explained. I wanted to go after bigger fish and it just seemed to me that they’d be down deeper.
During the high tourist season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Lake Powell is heavy with the traffic of boaters, water skiers, fishermen and jet skiers. All that boat traffic chops and whitens the water. But this was the third weekend of October. Other than us, we saw less than 10 boats the entire weekend.
I throttled the boat up to 4,000 RPMs and we raced across Warm Creek Spring’s luxuriously smooth water. The boat slit an incision in the boat’s wake, splayed it open like a butterflied steak. Water speaks in a language of vowels and esses, right now speaking in a continuous hiss of water spraying off the hull. The red-gold cliff walls rush past.
I sat up on the back of the seat so my head and shoulders were above the windshield, so I could feel the wind blowing on my face. Few things in life are as exhilarating as piloting a motor boat across open water. I could feel my very soul expanding, my very body filling with it, like water rising behind a dam until it was so full it spilled over.
I drove for about 15 minutes. I didn’t have a specific destination in mind, I just kept going until my inner fish finder said, Brigham Young-like, “This is the place.” The place chosen by my inner fish finder was at the base of a cliff wall that rose several hundred feet above us. We were right in the main channel of the Colorado River. Glen Canyon Dam is only about four bends downriver of us. The water at that point in the main channel is several hundred feet deep.
Kelly, ever-ready with his gold Mepps, was the first to let fly his lure. My dad and Jose, who had caught fish throughout the morning with their green, plastic worms cast in their green, plastic worms.
“I’m gonna try an anchovy,” I announced.
From my line, I removed my own green worm that I had fished with that morning, attached a larger hook, attached to that an anchovie, flopped it over the side of the boat and let it sink. It was hard to know how far I should let the bait sink. I’d just have to experiment with different depths. After I’d released the bail, I counted to 15 while I let the weighted anchovy drop.
We are a close family. We are a fishing family. The people in the boat with me that day have spent a lot of time fishing together. My dad and two brothers were there on my first fishing trip. They witnessed the first fish I ever caught. My dad and I were there on Tyler and Kelly’s first fishing trips and we witnessed the first fish that they caught.
After 15 minutes of fishing no one had yet had a bite. Some of us reeled in to check our bait. I did the same. My anchovy was still there, undisturbed. I tossed it back in. Ten more minutes passed, and still no action.
“You guys wanna try someplace new?” I asked.
Yup. Everyone was ready to move.
Maybe we were too deep in this spot against the cliff wall. My feeling was to try a spot that was still deep, but not as deep as the main channel.
We reeled in, I started the boat and drove us north, back in the direction of our camp, out of the main river channel and back into the side channel of Warm Creek Springs, which was still deep, but not as abysmally deep as the main channel.
As I was piloting our boat up the channel, I caught a brief wink of the current line. The current line is difficult to see in water this deep. It’s as faint as a watermark on paper, and like a watermark on paper, it’s only visible when seen from certain angles. The current — the greater part of its force moving deep beneath the lake’s surface — is the primary agent moving food and oxygen through the water and because of this, fish often hunt along its edges searching for food. I slowed down and parked the boat right on top of it. Six lines cast off the boat in six directions. I put on a fresh anchovy and threw in with the rest. I let it sink until I felt it was deep enough, and settled in to wait.
The sounds were the tick of Kelly’s reel as he reeled in and cast out. My dad stripping line off his reel, letting his bait sink a little deeper. The muffled thrum of a far-off boat motor. The hollow thump of feet on a boat deck. Dallin turning the pages of the novel he was reading. The papery snap of dragonfly wings. And the fisherman’s sigh, as we wait for the fish. But this time we didn’t have to wait long.
I got the first nibble. I was just starting to slip into the fisherman’s daydream when I felt it. It was a delicate nibble. A mouth gently investigating the bait. On my end of the line it felt like fingers trying to carefully untie a knot. When next I felt the soft tug of the nibbler, I raised the tip of my pole in an effort to apply steady pressure from my hook to the fish’s mouth. But the cautious nibbler wisely released the bait. But a few seconds later it returned. I again felt the slight pressure of the nibble, I again raised the tip of my pole trying to apply steady pressure from hook to mouth and this time the pressure remained and I gave the pole a sudden jerk, setting the hook. I had it. The fight was on.
The fish fought and tried to run, stripping line off my reel in little Morse Code dashes with a sound like someone ripping a cotton sheet in hitches.
My companions turned to watch the action. The noble fish didn’t fight very long, but she fought valiantly. After I got the bail tightened down to the proper grip the fish began to tire and I won back some of my line. David stood beside me, ready with the net.
As I pulled the fish near the surface we saw sunlight flashing off its chrome flanks. “Looks like a nice one,” David said.
But the fish, though losing strength, still fought. It ran right, back to the left, like a dog in a dog run. I won a little more line, enough that David could lower the net into the water and capture the fish. And he pulled it aboard to the cheers of my companions. We layed the netted fish on the boat deck and admired it.
It’s a nice one, perhaps 16 inches, weighing a couple pounds; about the same size as the striper my Dad had caught earlier.
“Not quite as big as mine,” my dad said, with a chuckle.
“What were you using?” Dallin asked.
“An anchovy,” I said.
And before I even had the fish out of the net Jose, fishing from the bow of the boat, caught a fish.
“I’ve got one,” he shouts.
“What are you using?” my Dad asked.
“Anchovy,” he replied.
Everyone switched over to anchovies. Even Kelly, who removed his trusty gold Mepps for what must be the first time in his life.
I extracted the hook from the jaw of my fish, put it on a stringer and lowered it overboard.
The fish Jose caught gave him a challenging fight that lasted perhaps two minutes. Dallin netted it. We brought it aboard and spent a minute admiring it, and put it on the stringer next to my fish.
By then everyone has switched over to anchovies.
“How many sinkers were you using?”
“Three,” I said.
Within five minutes my dad has caught a fish.
“Fish on,” he shouts cheerily.
Then it was Tyler’s turn. Then Dallin and Kelly. Jose and I each caught our second fish. My dad caught another one. Within 45 minutes we have eight large fish hanging on the stringer. At one point four of us have a fish on at the same time. Netting becomes a full time job.
We are in disbelief over the size and amount of fish we’ve caught. And we were only an hour into it. This was definitely not a Law fishing trip.
“I can’t believe it,” my Dad said. “I’ve never seen fishing like this.”
In the hour since I caught the first fish everyone had caught multiple fish; everyone that is except David. When it comes to fishing, David has terrible luck.
We didn’t go more than 10 minutes without someone catching a fish. We filled our first stringer and had a good start on the second one. But then: nothing. Fifteen minutes passed and no one has caught a fish.
“I think we’ve drifted out of the fishing zone,” I said.
I fired up the boat and drove up lake about 200 feet, again parked us on the current line and stopped the boat. Seven lines baited with anchovies were cast into the pearlescent green waters.
“Alright, Dave,” I said. “Your turn.”
But it wasn’t Dave’s turn. It was my turn again. And despite Tyler’s later protestations, I was about to catch the biggest fish of the day. I was yanked from my fisherman’s daydream by a sudden jolt coursing through my fishing pole. There was no forewarning. The fish didn’t first nibble at my bait, alerting me to its presence. Nope. It just grabbed it, apparently while it was swimming past. Line peeled off my reel, screeching like a frightened cat.
The electricity pulsing up the line, continued into the pole, and from there was transformed into goosebumps that sprouted on my arms and found its terminus in my scalp, and dispersed back into the ether in a static tingle of electric fizz. My pole was bent like Orion’s bow. My line felt like it was attached to an elevator descending down a shaft. And I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop a dropping elevator with three pound test. All I could do was wait for it to reach the basement and come back up.
I did tighten my bail a little bit, slightly slowing the fish’s escape. It was very similar to tightening a plucked guitar string; the pitch of the screeching reel increased, and heightened into a new note as I tightened down the drag.
My fellow fishermen heard the urgent whine of my reel, turned to see my dramatically bent pole.
“I think this one’s bigger than the rest,” I said.
I watched the line on my reel growing thin and still the fish dove. This was going to be a great fight. If I didn’t lose it. The fish still dove and now also swam away to the south.
But I could also feel it begin to tire and slow down. I let it run a little longer, tire itself a little more, and at last dared to tighten down the drag another notch. The tension on my line increased a little but the fish’s escape was affectively halted.
But, there was no reeling it in yet. Though I had halted the fish’s run, it still kept my line taut as a harpstring. I could have spilt atoms with it. All I could do was carefully monitor the tension of the line and let the fish wear itself out some more. It made little runs to the right, then back to the left as it struggled to free itself. After perhaps 30 seconds of this, I could feel the tension in the line decreasing. Finally the tension decreased to the point that I had to start reeling in to keep the proper amount of tension on the line, to prevent the fish from throwing the hook.
After some consideration I realize that what made the day so great, so perfect, was the company I kept. If I would have had the same experiences but shared them with people other than my dad, my brothers, my nephews it would not have been the best day of
last, began the long, patient struggle to bring it in. This is the most critical point of the fight, the point where I am most likely to lose the fish. This is where the fish, if it finds a burst of strength or adrenaline, can suddenly turn and make another run and in so doing can snap the line. I lessened the tension of my drag a notch so that if that happened the pull, the tension, would be softened. I reeled the great fish in a little closer, a little closer.
It was one of the greatest fish battles of my life. My pole twitched like a witching stick at Niagara Falls. The muscles in my neck and shoulders grew tired. My dad, brothers and nephews watched with interest.
“I think you may do it,” my dad said.
Another minute passed and I had eased the fish in pretty close to the boat. Close enough that we now peered into the water expecting to see the first silver flash of it. David manned the net. And then, yup, we saw its silver sides flashing as it swam by from our left to right. And then it leapt from the water and my heart leapt with it.
“Whoa,” we whooped as we saw it.
And that was all the strength the fish had left. It was tired. I eased it closer, closer, Dave lowered the net into the water and I guided the mighty fish into it.
David lifted it aboard. We all gave a cheer.
Now that I had it aboard, now that the battle had been won, I let myself cheer too. “Woo-hoo.”
Dave lowered the net to the floor. The fish panted and thrashed weakly. We could tell the fish was exhausted by the way it thrashed on the floor of the boat. I knelt down and removed the fish from the net, the hook from the fish.
“Good fight,” I said to the fish.
And it was a mighty fish. More than three feet long, weighing eight pounds. Its mouth was as big as an open attaché case. Teeth like a ripsaw. It lay on the deck of the boat like a sleeve of chain mail; with Thor’s arm in it. It was so big that gravity shifted when I pulled it aboard.
During the time that I had been battling the fish, we had drifted a long way off the feeding zone again. I fired up the boat and brought us back onto the current line. Within 30 seconds, Kelly had a fish on. About five seconds later, Tyler had a fish on. Before they had landed their fish, Dallin and Jose had fish on. I picked up the net and started pulling in fish. They were honest, hard-working, blue-collar fish, ranging from 18 to 24 inches, three to five pounds.
My dad whooped and grinned at the sight of it all.
“Mary’s Lake never was like this,” he laughed.
His sentence was punctuated by Tyler’s screeching reel. We turned our attention to Tyler, who was leaning back against the pull of his pole, against whatever monster was yanking line off his reel at the rate of three feet per second. His pole bucked and twitched. To those of us watching it looked like Tyler had hooked, not a fish, but an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale.
Tyler carefully tightened down the drag on his reel. Still the fish ran and dove and pulled away.
“Dang Tyler,” I said. “Looks like you’ve caught a big one.”
Jose and I were standing on either side of Tyler and we reeled in our lines rapidly to prevent our lines from getting tangled with his and it’s a good thing we did because the mighty fish began zigging to the left, then came back to the right. After I had reeled in my line, I leaned my pole against the boats gunwale. I moved to his side of the boat carrying the landing net.
It had made a long run into deep water and after fighting it for what felt like the length of an Arctic night, it finally tired and Tyler began to reel it in slowly, carefully.
I felt the boat tilt to port, the side of the boat where Tyler battled the fish. The tilting of the boat was due to everyone moving to that side of the boat to get a look at the huge fish, but it gave us the impression that Tyler’s fish was so large it had a gravity all its own and had pulled the boat in its direction.
We all whooped and hollered when we get our first sighting of Tyler’s fish.
“I think it might be bigger than the big one you caught, Steve,” my dad said.
I looked up from watching Tyler’s fish to say something sarcastic to my dad but I stopped. Instead I saw everyone gathered in a line along the portside gunwale watching Tyler’s fish. David, Dallin and Kelly with Tyler in the center of the line, still leaning back against the weight of the great fish, reeling in the last few feet of line. And standing a few feet to Tyler’s right I see my old, bent, beloved dad, wearing his white straw hat, hanging onto the frame of the boat’s canopy with one hand, rooting his oldest grandson to victory. And Jose watching from the bow. It was a beautiful image. One of my life’s favorites. A mental photograph I’ll remember forever.
When Tyler’s fish slapped and splashed on the surface we gasped out whoas and whoos in the same tone of appreciation usually given to the man who has just hit the game winning homerun.
“Yup,” someone said. “I think that’s the biggest fish of the day.”
“No way,” I protested. “I’m pretty sure that mine’s still bigger.”
Dallin had gone to the fish chains and pulled up the one from which hung the big fish I’d caught earlier. We laid the two fish side by side. They were both huge. Long, fat, wide, heavy, beautiful.
Mine was a little bit bigger.
With the addition of Tyler’s and Dallin’s fish our two stringers are full of fish. Huge fish. There’s not a fish smaller than 18 inches in the batch. And still we caught fish.
By now we were deep into the afternoon. And it was there, right then, while I watched my Dad cast his hook into the lake, while I looked out upon the tan cliffs, blue sky and green water, while I smelled the boat exhaust and anchovies, that I became aware that this was the Best Day of My Life. I knew it. I knew it even as it was happening — which is very rare in life. It happened in the same sudden way that the barber spins the chair around when your haircut is finished, so you can see yourself in the three-way mirror. Up until that moment, I had been aware that I was experiencing a great day but suddenly the chair was whipped around and I saw that day from three different angles — the past, the present and the future — and I knew right then that it was the Best Day of My Life. And even as I looked in the mirror and admired it from three different angles I knew I couldn’t prolong it anymore than you can prolong the perfect haircut. All I could do was settle in with my dad, my brothers and nephews and be aware and appreciative of these last fine hours of the Best Day of My Life.
The sun was getting lower in the sky.
“This is the time of day when fishing is usually at its best,” my dad said, “but it’s hard to imagine it getting any better than what it’s been already.”
The fishing didn’t get any better for most of us, but it did get better for David, who was about to hook his first fish of the trip. I actually watched it happen. I just happened to be looking David’s direction when I saw the end of his pole twitch. I looked from the tip of the pole to David’s eyes. He was poised alertly, also watching the tip of his twitching pole.
Dave lifted his pole back slowly, and applied a small amount of pressure into the mouth of the fish. The tip of his pole changed from “twitch” to “steady pressure” indicating that the hook was pressed firmly against the fish’s lip — and Dave set the hook.
And the line ran off his reel like it was being pulled by a pack of sled dogs.
Dave is fishing on the boat’s port side and Tyler and I, who are fishing beside him, reel in our lines so they don’t get tangled in his. But, as I start to reel in, I attract the attention of a passing striper, which hits my line with the same sudden, jolting pulse of a dentist hitting a nerve. I can tell that it’s another big one. Or, at least, fighting like it one day intends to be a big one.
But as big and tenacious as my fish is, it is soon apparent that David’s fish is much larger than mine. Whatever fish I have on line has put a respectable bend in my pole but David’s pole is bent like a Sumo wrestler’s diving board. My fish makes an honorable run to the end of its strength and I begin reeling it in. I have it reeled in, netted and gasping on the floor and David’s fish is still extracting line from his reel which he has already tightened down as tight as he dares go.
“I think your fish is going to be as big as the big ones Steven and Tyler caught,” my dad said.
If you want to make the Gods laugh make a proclamation. If you want your big fish to get away, talk about how nice it will look above your mantel before you land it. But the Gods must have been preoccupied. David’s big fish tired, slowed down and we watched David bring in line. We watched him carefully lift his pole — like a kid trying to lift the lid off the cookie jar without getting caught — and reel in line as he then lowered the pole. In this manner, length by length, 18 inches at a time, David regained his surrendered line.
It was quite suspenseful. We were all rooting for David to land his mighty fish. I stood beside him, ready with the net. We were watching for the first flashes of silver sides as Dave pulled it into surface water, and we soon saw them. Someone took some pictures. My dad did his best to jinx it, saying, “You’ve got him now for sure.”
I lowered the net into the water. No one spoke now as we watched David reel in the final 30 feet. The big fish, sensing the fight was in the final stretch, gave one last surge of resistance; the pole bucked and surged. In the last seconds that Dave fights the fish, he looks like he is holding the reins of a freshly broke Mustang that suddenly remembers it wants to be free, and is trying to pull away.
I stood on David’s left side and he now, still leaning back against the weight of the fish, guides the fish the final three feet into the waiting net. And it was in and I lifted it from the water. It laid in the net, still, exhausted to its last. We brought it on board, laid it on the floor of the boat and we all roared with raucous delight.
David had fought his great fish for quite a while and during the battle we had, once again, drifted down the current line, out of the zone of heavy fish traffic. As I looked at the shore on our west to regain my bearings I had to hold up my hand to shield against the sun. I was very surprised to see that the sun was near setting, perhaps only 30 minutes away from setting. I looked at my watch. It was almost five. The afternoon had passed quickly, the minutes flying by like dashmarks on a highway. We had looked off at the scenery for what felt like a few minutes and a hundred of them flew past us. We had been on the water since just before noon. Five and a half hours had passed by in what felt like two hours.
Dallin noticed it, too.
“Wow,” he commented, he too holding up his hand against the lowering sun. “The afternoon has really gone by quickly.”
Then we all commented about how quickly the day had passed. I guess the cliché is proved true, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” The best, happiest day of my life, it only makes sense that it should pass by the quickest.
“What do you wanna do?” I asked. “Keep fishing — we probably have time for one more round before it gets dark — or go back to the houseboat and clean the fish and make dinner?”
We all agreed that it had been a good day of fishing, in fact for the Law clan, none had ever been better. We had caught plenty of fish and with David catching the last fish, we decided that was the perfect note to end on.
“Alright then,” I said. “Let’s go make dinner.”
I fired up the boat and aimed our boat for camp.
Our arms were tired. Like we’d spent the day hoisting engine blocks up flag poles. To a fisherman there is no better feeling than arms that are tired from a day of reeling in big fish.
Inside the houseboat, David washed the dishes we had left from breakfast while Dallin, Tyler and Kelly started prepping dinner. Jose and I filleted the day’s catch at the back of the houseboat. We had a lot of fish. It would take us more than an hour to complete the job. By the time we were done filleting our catch, dinner was well on its way. Sliced onions sizzled in a frying pan, potatoes boiled in a bucket, the steaks were on the grill, the plates were on the table. We were all gathered in the houseboat’s main room – its kitchen/living room – and we laughed as we recounted the day’s events. We were still in awe at the size and amount of fish we caught and we couldn’t stop retelling the wonders of it all. Who caught the first big fish? Who caught the first really big fish? Who caught the most fish? Well, therein lay our mirth.
“It was me,” everyone claimed.
I was still well aware that this was the Best Day of My Life and I just tried to soak it in, be observant and appreciate it while it was happening. I sat down in a chair beside my dear dad and watched.
My whole being was suffused with a deep, satisfying happiness. The conversation ran in a continuous circle: We talked about the day’s epic fishing. We talked about it terms of the miraculous, the way the Israelites must have talked the night after they walked through the parted Red Sea. We talked about the adventures of years past, deer hunts and other fishing trips. We talked about future fishing trips.
And even as we laughed and joked and argued good-naturedly about who was the best fisherman, we watched the sun set on this perfect day. This is my favorite part of the day, when the earth begins to cool, when dusk removes the harsh glare of the day, when the colors of the earth turn more dramatic. It would be nice to step outside and take in the glowing cliff walls, the darkening lake.
I know what it looks like, the desert transitioning into cool night. I have spent a lot of time out there watching rivers, lakes, forests and deserts grow dark. It’s beautiful.
I’ve watched enough to know that right now, outside, the stars are twinkling like fish scales. I know without looking that the lake is black, wavy and glossy as a vinyl record. I know that the moon, when it rises over the cliff walls, will coat the beaches and cliff walls with vanilla dust. But, as beautiful as that would be to see, tonight I prefer to stay inside with these people I love most.
Through the windows of the houseboat, we watched the pink cliffs, the green lake, the blue sky turn dark. We watched this perfect day come to a sweet, satisfying end. And I think we appreciated what a good and perfect day it had been. We felt it as a group, a kind of psychological contagion.
Appreciation, in its various forms, is a quality most often possessed by older men. Young men simply haven’t lived enough yet. A man’s life, sad to say, has a lot of gray, boring, non-descript, muddle-through-it kind of days. But the young man doesn’t know this yet, and maybe, he doesn’t need to be told this. This is best discovered as you go along. But my dad, Dallin, David and I knew it and we were awake and aware of the rare trophy day we were experiencing.
We were all together and we were smart enough to realize that it wouldn’t always be this way; not forever. We knew that my father, who was 75 at the time and battling Parkinson’s Disease, would one day lose that battle. But on this day, he was still strong and able. And we knew enough to appreciate it.
In the days since the Best Day of My Life I have thought about it a lot and I have tried to define what exactly made it the Best Day of My Life. It was a great day; no doubt about it. The fishing was great. The food was great. The scenery was spectacular. The weather was perfect. But that’s not what made it the best day of my life.
After some consideration I realize that what made the day so great, so perfect, was the company I kept. If I would have had the same experiences but shared them with people other than my dad, my brothers, my nephews it would not have been the best day of my life.
It was the fellowship, and brotherly camaraderie that hung in the air as thick as Louisiana humidity that made it the best day of my life. The very atmosphere would have been different. These were the people with whom I had suffered through mosquitoes and bugs and frozen toes on other fishing trips. These were people who got it. These are the people who know me best and love me most.
Part of what made that day so great were the stories we shared. I love our family stories. I know my brothers’ stories and they know mine, and my story goes deep into their stories and their stories go deep into mine. We are family. We have a shared history, and we’ll have a shared future. Many of our stories have the same DNA. They’re knit from the same fibers, and I think it’s safe to say that some of those fibers are three pound fishing line.
What is it that a family has that no other group has? A family has a different glow, a different warmth, a different commitment, a different energy than any other kind of relationship. That then, was the crucial ingredient. It was the shared commitment, the encompassing glowing warmth of brotherly love, and brothers, fathers and sons sharing a grand day of adventure. That then was what made it the best day of my life.
It had, in fact, been a perfect day, but, as Norman Maclean writes in A River Runs Through It: there are varying levels of perfect. And really, we decided that evening in the houseboat’s living room, there is only one way to top this year’s trip and that is, for next year’s trip — and every year after that — to bring all the boys, not just the adults. The room will grow brighter, warmer, richer with the addition of every lamp brought into the room. And that is why we must bring all the boys in future years.
It was such a perfect day. So sad to turn out the lights on this perfect day. So sad, to see the end of the best day of one’s life. If only we could we mount this day, like a trophy fish, and hang it over the mantel to look at, love and wonder upon.
Well, in a way we can. Through the power and magic of language and story. That’s the true power of language and stories. You can end them wherever you want to. They are the amber that captures and holds the moment.
And that is what I will do.
But I don’t want to freeze the moment, no, I want something warmer than that. I want to build a warm, safe place for this day. I want to give this day a home.
Right there. Right then. That is where I will finish the story of the Best Day of My Life. Surrounded by my father, my brothers, my nephews, let us end the story — or better yet capture it — at its height, at the moment I am most aware, when I am fully appreciative of its magic, while we are gathered together in the room, still laughing, still happily arguing about who caught the biggest fish.
I don’t want to take this story all the way to the end of the day, when we say goodnight and turn out the lights. With language and story I will create a room where we can keep and preserve the story of this day. In this room we’ve been building all our lives. Inside these safe walls, within the warm glow of brotherhood.
Its home is going to be right there, in the open room of the houseboat.
So it is there where I’ll finish the story. When we’re about to sit down at the dinner table, about to start joyfully telling the old stories – yet again – about to immerse ourselves in laughter and the glow of family love.
About to bow our heads and give thanks.