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An Unintended Hemingway Hero

by MoonWatcher

No one would ever have labeled late twenty-something Randy as being a Hemingway hero—that would have been oxymoronic. No one would ever have suspected Randy had even read any Ernest Hemingway novels—he hadn’t that anyone knew of. And certainly no one would ever have thought Randy could offer a life experience that could become a perfect fulfillment of Hemingway’s 1937 book entitled To Have and Have Not—but I think he did. You decide.

Ernest Hemingway’s heroes were always loners—Randy was gregarious. Hemingway’s heroes were always watching events and people from the outside looking in—Randy was always in the center of attention, reaching out to others and endearing and embracing them immediately with humor and interest. Hemmingway’s heroes were always stingy with opinions, seeking to understand events but never controlling them—Randy willingly shared his views with anyone and he seems to have always wanted to understand but never seems to have understood why life events happen as they do. Hemingway’s heroes accepted events as they happened—Randy never gave up trying to make things happen right. Never.

Randy had a friend—Walker. To anyone’s view, Walker was an outdoorsman; Randy was not. Walker backpacked, Randy hadn’t. Walker trout fished, Randy wanted to. It is the trout fishing that perhaps has best earned Randy the title of Hemingway’s Unintended Hero. One must wonder if Randy would have started trout fishing had he known that he would become the one to have and have not a trout. How can one both have and have not a trout? Only Randy seems to have figured that one out. Well, he didn’t actually figure that out—he just did it. How? Well…? Read on.

When Randy asked Walker to teach him to trout fish, Walker of course willingly agreed. Walker helped Randy get the proper equipment. Walker taught Randy fishing techniques of equipment handling, setting the hook, “playing” (as it is called) a hooked trout with a fishing rod, and landing caught trout with a hand-held net. In hindsight, the latter piece of equipment may not have been needed. Randy carried the fish net hanging from the back of his fishing vest for over two years, but nary a fish had had opportunity to deposit rubbed off scales on the strings of that net. Well, that is not quite true.

You see, Walker took Randy on overnight trout fishing trips fifteen, maybe twenty times a year. Each trip Walker would catch enough trout to serve as dinner for them both each night out, with enough trout left over to take home and share with several friends for their “fresh caught trout” dinners. But Randy never caught a trout—well, at least not the first year, nor the second year for that matter, and not until well into his third year of trout fishing. Oh, Randy would hook trout, and he would even have them on the line for what would seem like several minutes. But always something would happen—maybe the trout would jump out of the water and shake its head and seemingly “spit” the fishing lure back toward Randy, or maybe the trout would swim around a rock or sunken log and tear the hook from the soft tissue of its mouth, or maybe the trout would just get near the shore and look up at Randy’s big expectant smile and become so terrified of being Randy’s dinner that night that it would race away ripping from the hook, or maybe…, or maybe…, or maybe…. Well, you get the picture. Randy just did not net fish. Well, as I said earlier that is not quite true.

You see, Walker would frequently stay close to Randy on the stream, watching for coaching opportunities as if encouragement could enable Randy to “net the big one.” And that is what created that just mentioned “not quite true” statement.

One afternoon Walker was fishing maybe 60 yards up stream of Randy, keeping that ever-watchful eye on Randy’s rod handling, lure presentation, and stream approach techniques, when suddenly Randy’s rod bent in its frequent parabolic curve that indicated a fish was on line. And as was his custom, Randy seemed to focus great attention to the playing and handling of the fish. And watching Randy, Walker was expectant that this would be “the time” and sure enough Randy pulled the fish close to the shore with his rod and with great care lowered his net into the water and underneath the fish and skillfully pulled the trout from the water with his net held high and suddenly Randy jumped around with excitement and what seemed to be great joy. But something was askew. Randy’s jumping seemed other than joyful. In fact, it seemed, well, confused. And then Walker saw it.

Perhaps I should have told you that during those many months of walking a trout stream looking for good “fishin’ holes,” Randy would sometimes have to crawl on hands and knees or meander upright through thick brush, occasionally having his net snag on a briar or brush limb. And of course Randy had not inspected his net since he purchased it—after all, why inspect for wear and tear equipment that has never been used. Surely it will be there and ok when needed. And now you know what happened. Yep, Randy had a broken string or two in his net that the trout flopped through when raised from the water. Perhaps it was the weight of the trout suddenly dropping through the net that ripped the hook from the soft tissue of its mouth or perhaps it was a sudden jerk of the net caused by Randy’s excitement, but whatever the cause, the trout dropped through the net and was flopping on the shore gravel apparently, from Walker’s point of view, behind Randy, desperately seeking that solitary flop that would enable it to re-enter the water.

Remember I told you that Randy’s jumping and stamping had seemed to arise from his joy in finally landing a trout. Walker now understood that Randy’s demonstration was prompted by frustration and the belief that once again he had lost his trout. So engrossed in his disappointment was he that Randy failed to notice what Walker now 40 yards upstream from Randy realized—the trout had dropped through the net and landed behind Randy, visibly flopping on the gravel shore, plopping ever closer to the water’s edge. And as Walker yelled what would be a final time to have Randy look behind himself and find the trout, the trout flopped his final time toward the water’s edge now behind Randy with a quiet plop into the water never to be seen by Randy again. So now you think you understand that that trout was Randy’s trout to have and then have not. But you are mistaken.

A few months later, Walker and Randy were fishing the same stream. Returning to camp for lunch, Walker came across Randy fishing a long run of water that curved around a large boulder toward Randy’s side of the stream. Walker watched Randy for a few minutes and then approached him. Asking how his morning had gone, a standard euphemism for “How many dju catch?,” Randy immediately responded with, “Whaddaya think? None.” Sincerely wanting to help his friend catch his first trout, Walker offered to show Randy a technique to use on this section of water. Explaining thoroughly each step of what he was doing and why, Walker took Randy’s fishing rod, cast the spinning lure upstream slightly beyond the large boulder, waited a few seconds to let the lure sink down and toward the boulder, then with short jerks made the rod tip bend sharply and rapidly. Within a few seconds, Randy’s rod gave the telltale sign with a large parabolic curve that a fish was hooked on the lure. Letting the rod tip flex from curve to straight to curve repeatedly and thereby wear down the stamina of the fish, Walker slowly reeled in the catch. As the fish neared the shoreline, Walker reached for his net and extended it into the water, scooping up the trout with one continuous action. Having the trout now in hand, Walker unhooked the fish and dropped it into his creel, a shoulder bag specifically made for carrying fish. Handing the rod back to Randy, Walker simply said, “Now that is how you catch a trout” and walked on toward the camp for lunch. Frustrated, perhaps even angered, Randy released a loud, “Damn.” So now you think this is Randy’s trout to have and have not. But again, you are mistaken.

It was the next trout season when once again Walker and Randy were fishing on their now favorite trout stream—well, Walker’s favorite stream that is. He caught more trout from this stream than from any other stream he fished. As for Randy? A bath tub partially filled with water or a mud hole created from a spring rain shower could serve as his best trout stream since he could catch as many trout in his tub or that mud hole as he had caught from any trout stream anywhere he had fished. Now well into two and a half years of Randy’s trout fishing experience and still “troutless,” Walker and Randy were this time fishing the stream together. Coming upon a long, slow, deep run of water, Walker let Randy make the first casts into the stream. As you might expect, several casts into calm water soon tend to spook fish into hiding, so making the first few casts would give Randy his best opportunity to catch a trout.

On either his third or fourth cast, Randy’s rod gave the ever-surprising and exciting sharp parabolic bend, signifying that a fish had been hooked. Either being so startled by the trout’s strike on the lure or so determined that he would hook and not lose this fish, Randy gave his rod a reflexive jerk so forceful that the rod snatched the trout from the water with ever-increasing speed directly upward and toward the surrounding trees. While the line, lure, and trout were slicing through the air so fast and far, from Randy’s point of view a tree limb seemingly reached out and caught the line and immediately spun the trout, lure, and line around itself. And there it was—Randy’s first trout landed (perhaps treed would serve vernacular better) and never to return to the water.

Randy finally had his trout—but how to get it? There the trout hung, jerking and spinning on the lure attached to the line attached to a tree limb attached to the remaining line leading downward toward Randy’s rod attached to Randy attached to utter frustration. The lure caught a trout that caught a tree limb far too high and far too distant from the tree trunk to reach. I think to this day that if Randy had had a chain saw, he would have cut that tree down to get his fish—national forest or not, against the law to cut trees in a national forest or not, Randy would have had his trout. After all, Randy had caught the fish; Randy had removed the fish from the water; the fish did not return to the water; ergo, the fish was his to keep. But the tree said otherwise and Randy was no fighting (or physical) match for a large tree. So there he sat for what seemed like hours, looking at that trout, thinking of how to get it, but to no avail. Maybe Randy’s first landed (treed?) trout seemingly was his to have and have not, but as he sat looking at that trout ever so imperceptibly a twinkle came forth from Randy’s eye and a twinge of smile at the corner of his mouth. Maybe he had an idea of how to get that trout down. Or maybe, like a Hemingway hero, he realized that sometimes when you get what you want, events determine that you not really get what you want. You decide.

MoonWatcher has been a teacher of young champions for over 51 years and first started teaching at CVCC in 1978.

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