The setting is the dining room of a fishing lodge in remote northern B.C. It’s early morning on a gray, drizzly day during a very slow week. Levine, one of the anglers, is talking to the head guide before the rest of the camp has come in for breakfast.
“Okay. Look,” Levine says, choosing his words, looking over his shoulder to be sure they’re alone. “The Highlands Pool, you’re sending Smith out. Fine. He’s a good man, good caster. We know what he is. All I’m saying is, you look at the board, at his catch rate.” He points at the big white board on the wall, with all the catch records for the week. “Every run you put him in, you’re throwing those runs away. Maybe he can’t handle the wade, with the higher water. That’s all I’m saying, that you’re wasting runs.”
The head guide looks down at his coffee. “You blew the last ones we put you in…”
Levine holds up both hands. “No. Wait, let’s back up here. I didn’t ‘blow’ them. No. One kicked out, jumped and threw the fly—that was a solid fish, you saw it! And one I closed.”
“You didn’t close,” the head guide grumbles.
“Now listen to me. I closed it. It’s just, the leader broke, right when we were netting it. We had a hand on the leader! That was a landed fish!”
Now Levine is irate. “What is that? What? Bad luck. That’s all it is. I pray you will never find bad luck that runs in streaks. That’s what it does, that’s all it’s doing. Streaks.”
The head guide considers, then goes on. “What about the other run?”
He holds up three fingers. “Three. We put you in three runs. One the fish kicked out, one the leader, you say…”
“And I caught a fish in the third one. A coho, on the hang down. Slammed it, like a fucking freight train! And I landed it.”
“A coho?” Now the head guide is incredulous. “You caught a fucking coho and call it a fish worthy of this lodge? This is a steelhead lodge. Look, I have a job. And my job is to marshal those runs.”
“Marshal the runs…marshal the runs? What the hell, what jet sled did you get off of, we’re here to catch fish! Fuck marshaling the runs. Where did you learn that? In guide school?”
Later, the anglers are sitting around the dining room table, after breakfast, waiting to go out for the day. Rain is pelting against the lodge windows. At the sound of a helicopter landing outside, everyone looks up. A stranger walks in the lodge door, wearing an oilskin jacket and carrying a bag. He removes the coat, shakes it off and hangs it, and strides to the head of the table.
“Let me have your attention for a moment!” The Stranger looks around the table. “So you’re talking about… what? You’re talking about catching bonefish in the sunny Bahamas, that ‘epic’ mayfly hatch in fucking Wyoming, some hot cook in some pathetic fishing camp you’re trying to screw, and so forth. Let’s talk about something important.” The Stranger looks at Levine. “Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers, only.” He looks around the table again. “I am here from Marks and Murphy at the main lodge. I am right here, on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Levine?”
Levine looks up at him. “Yeah?”
“You call yourself an angler? A steelheader, you son of a bitch?”
Marsh pushes his chair back from the table. “I do not have to listen to this shit.”
“You definitely do not, pal.” The Stranger pauses. “Cause the good news is, you are all kicked out of this camp, you’ve lost your slots. The bad news is, all of you have received until the end of this week to regain your slots, beginning right now.
“Oh. Have I received your consideration now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this week’s catch contest. As you all know, first prize is a Sage X Spey 13-foot 8-weight with a Hardy Perfect reel. Anyone want to see second prize?” He opens his bag, reaches in, and holds up a plastic fly box. “Second prize is a set of soggy, black-and-blue flies. See them?” He shuts the box and puts it away. “Third prize is, you’re out. You pay to charter a helicopter back to town and you’re kicked out of this camp for good. You get the picture? You’re laughing now? You got runs, you got pools. This is a premier river. Marks and Murphy paid good money for exclusive rod days to 25 miles of it. You can’t close in one of these pools, then you can’t close shit.”
Levine shakes his head and growls, “The pools are weak, they’re all frog water.”
“’The pools are weak?’” Fucking pools are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been fishing this river fifteen years.”
“What’s your name?” Marsh asks, now suspicious.
“Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, mister? Cause you’re fishing a Cabela’s combo you bought from their catalog. I fish a Loomis six-weight switch that’ll out-cast your nine-weight in a driving wind. That’s my name!” He turns to Levine. “And your name is ‘you’re wanting.’ You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t land a steelhead.” The Stranger addresses the room again. “Because only one thing counts in this life! Come tight to a steelhead and get it in the net. Label him! Get him to sign on the line which is dotted!”
The Stranger goes to an empty corner of the white board and grabs a marker. He writes A, B, and C.
“A, B, C.” He looks at them. “A—Always, B—Be, C—Closing. Always be closing!”
Then he writes another set of letters. “A, F, C, A,” he says. “A—Attention, F—Fly, C—Cast, A—Action.” He starts tapping the board with the marker, loudly. “Attention. Can you read water? Do you have the first clue about where the fish are holding? Fly. Do you have any idea what to tie on? Cast. Can you put that fly where it needs to be, for Christ’s sake?! And Action. Can you handle a fish if you are so lucky to find one? A-F-C-A. Get out there! You got the whole river to fish; you think they will jump in the net for you? Sitting out there waiting to swim up to your boots and ask to eat your fly! Are you gonna take your shot? Are you man enough to take it?”
He looks at Marsh. “What’s the problem, pal? You. You’re Marsh?”
“If you’re such a hero,” Marsh says. “If you’re such a master angler. Why you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?”
“I can wader up, go out on the river right now, with the gear you got, your South Bend rod and mail-order flies, and catch a half-dozen before lunch! Can you? Go and do likewise! A-F-C-A! Get mad! You sons of bitches! You know what it takes to fish for and land a steelhead?”
The Stranger pulls something out of his bag. “It takes brass balls to catch steelhead.” He’s holding two brass balls on string, in front of his midsection. He lets them hang there for a long moment, then puts them back in the bag.
“Go and do likewise, gents. The fish are out there, you pick them up, they’re yours. You don’t—I have no sympathy for you. Bunch of losers sitting around in the lodge sipping Earl Grey, waiting for the rain to let up.” Then, in a mocking weak voice, he says, “’Oh yeah, I used to be a steelheader, it’s a tough racket.’”
The Stranger points at the lower left corner of the river map, posted on the wall next to the catch records. “We just opened up a new stretch of river, down here, below where the log jam blew out last winter. Half a mile of new access. These are the new runs. These are the Glengarry runs. And to you, they’re gold.” He looks around the room. “And you don’t get them. Why? Because to give them to you is just throwing them away. They’re for closers.”
Marsh stands up. “I don’t have to take this crap. I waited ten years for this slot. I put in my time all those years, fishing late November, ice in the guides, froze my ass off. I earned this week.”
The Stranger glares at him. “And look what you’ve done with it.” He looks at the board. “A five-pound buck and two bull trout. I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you had it. To answer your question, pal: Why am I here? I came here because Marks and Murphy asked me to, they asked me for a favor. I told them, “You want a real favor? Follow my advice and kick their sorry asses out of camp, because a loser is a loser.”
The next day, after another fishless outing, Levine is sitting in the cabin at the fly-tying table, working on a big pink marabou leech. “Know what I’m gonna do tomorrow?” Levine is animated, talking loudly to his cabinmate, who’s in the bathroom. “We’re not getting down, down to where the fish are holding. I know it. These guides tell us to go lighter because all they’re worried about is us getting hung up on the bottom and crying for help. When the guide—when he tells me to put on a T-8, I’m putting on T-11. He tells me T-11, I’m going T-14, fifteen foot.”
The door opens and Marsh walks into the cabin, visibly angry. “Smith,” he says, breathless. “Smith, he just got back from the Glengarry pools. You’ll never believe.”
“Believe what? How many or how big? Smith always gets the choice water.” Levine slaps the table next to his vise, raising a small cloud of pink feathers. “Smith is a putz.”
“No. Listen.” Marsh can barely catch his breath. “Smith pulled me aside. It was all crap water down there. No pools, all the runs are straight shots, too fast. No holding water. He wondered if that stretch even fishes in the lower water.”
Levine shakes his head. “So it was all bullshit…”
“And you want to know what else Smith said?” Now Marsh is yelling. “He said, he heard, that Marks and Murphy wanted to clear out our week so they can bring in some celebrity chef or golfer or some crap, and all their buddies.”
“Son of a bitch. Those craven gold-diggers.” Levine looks around the cabin. The sound of rain on the tin roof starts to fade. “So that’s it. We got gamed. After all this.”
“Ten years I’ve been working my way into this goddamn week.”
“I’m making a call,” Levine says. “I’m going to get on that satellite phone and call the main lodge and give them a piece.”
“To what end?” Marsh says. “You know how they run this camp.” He turns and opens the door, leaving it open as he stomps out. “I’m going to pack. It’s over.” Beyond him, the sun is breaking through the clouds and the river sparkles, already turning steelhead green.
S.R. Ferguson lives in the Bay Area but generally fishes elsewhere, like Utah’s Provo River, or B.C. in the fall if he can score a prime week.