Craig Wisner

On Killing Trout.


I didn’t know the names of many mountains or rivers then.  The winding drive seemed impossibly long and cold in the darkness.  The heater of dad’s Datsun 210 struggling to keep up, frozen vinyl of the seats sticking to any exposed skin.  I’d stay with him on some weekends, staying up and eating Fritos and cheese dip, the occasional can of Vienna Sausages thrown in for good measure.  Dad’s culinary tastes were not very sophisticated.  We’d wake early with junk-food and video game hangovers, make lunch, and pack our gear.  Matching fishing vests (which I still own) were pulled out of the closet, accompanied by ultralight Daiwa spinning rods that broke down to only a foot long.  I remember being very proud that I carried the same rod as my dad, that I didn’t have some cheap kid’s version.

Bologna, cheese, and mustard sandwiches on white bread and cans of RC Cola tucked into our pockets, we’d come to the river in search of trout.  My father could pull fish after fish out of a hole, working the current, drifting a salmon egg and tiny split-shot exactly where he wanted it.  I don’t remember ever catching any fish myself, but he’d hand over his rod to let me land some of his.  It took many years of fishing on my own after dad died before I realized what was happening; that he simply knew how to read things and be silent whereas I was charging through the river like a drunken buffalo and casting as if my rod were a bull whip.

Dad relished fried trout, filleted and coated in flour, crisped and finished with salt and pepper.  We’d savor the day’s catch that evening before retiring to the latest chapter in our quest to beat The Legend of Zelda.

Decades later, I’m still sneaking out of the house silently at 4am, my own family asleep, making the drive up the cold mountain.  Bluegrass on the radio, heater working, I can now name all the surrounding peaks, rivers, and forks…

I moved away from spinning rods to fly fishing, self-taught on the same river I fished with my dad, standing thigh deep in a cold December pool.  His ghost stands at my side, reading the current with me, trying to drift our line just so, easing it into a dark undercut on the opposite side…


I know how to catch fish now, probably better than he did.  But in my mind, dad remains a legendary fisherman on account of the magic I watched him work as a child.

It’s probably been over twenty five years since our last fishing trip together.  I’m out in the garage today, preparing for a week in the High Sierra, piecing together an ultralight Tenkara fishing kit, selecting and putting the finishing touches on a few hand-tied flies.

The last trout I caught brought tears to my eyes, summoning back the connection to my father, our time on the river together.  There’s a part of me that would rather not kill them; images of blood in the grass surrounding colorful scales haunt my dreams.  But I push it down.

Because I know he would’ve loved this, finishing a beautiful day over the hiss of a fry pan beside a stream.  I do it as much for him.  My father was a fisherman and I’m my father’s son, roll casting to a ripple in the shade.




9 responses

  1. Well written. Reminded of my dad and I fishing off the piers that are along the shores of Lake Michigan at Chicago. We sat together facing out into the vastness of such a large body of water the seagulls soar on the wind currents. We would forget the hustle and bustle of the city behind us…

    July 30, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    • Thanks Dan. I think it’s sort of a universal feeling for many of us…

      July 31, 2017 at 2:40 pm

  2. Tom

    A beautiful memorial for the one who planted the seed. I’ve written almost exactly the same in my head so many times. They would’ve gotten along, I think.

    July 30, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    • Probably so Tom. And here’s to their sons getting on.

      July 31, 2017 at 2:40 pm

  3. Jeremy

    A good read. Death can be especially confusing for me when my psychological aversion to reminders of it are mated with the instinctual satisfaction that is unique to catching and eating a fresh fish. It is always significant to become one step closer toward peace with Death, because we are one step closer to it every day, peace or not. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to congratulate you, but there should be some acknowledgement of the experience.

    I must also say the fish are more pure beings than I am, as it seems my psychosis dissipates into their lives and their environment as I enter it and become more at peace, as their vitality and satisfaction merge into mine through consumption. I recently watched a short documentary on the Tsukiji fish market in Japan. It was nice to see that there was a maintained shrine dedicated to the spirits of the fish who are caught and sold there; A large stone for each of the most popular species. What more can we do but remember the dead?

    July 31, 2017 at 12:38 pm

  4. There are some interesting ideas to unpack in that Jeremy. Let’s take a hike together and talk soon.

    July 31, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    • Jeremy

      I would like that, though I can’t promise I will be able to keep up with you for very long.
      I also work night shift, so a day time hike during the week is a good option for me if you are still out for the summer and would prefer to leave your weekends free for time with the kids/wife, etc. Though a weekend would work fine for me, too. Let me know if/when you’re free – I’m available any day except for this Sunday.

      August 1, 2017 at 8:14 am

  5. Colin

    I just shared this piece with my father, grandfather, and brother. We fish dry flies together as often as we can, here, in the American west. Every trout on line is a sacred and transitory thing. Every trout in hand is as close as any of us can come to being told who we are.

    These moments, waiting with our lines drifting the bubble and the riffle, crouched to cut the glare of the lowlight; these are the moments that hold, and quietly treat us, as ones well-beloved in our shared home under the sky.

    My dad still packs vienna sausages and bologna sandwiches with way too much mayonnaise. I still haven’t beat The Legend of Zelda. I still cast my hand-tied caddis flies like they’re glued to the end of a bull whip. Every brookie, bow, and brown that makes it to my net still brings tears to my eyes.

    Thank you Craig.

    September 5, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    • Thanks Colin, very well said. I’m glad this resonated with you, I know it’s a common story that many of us have lived in some form.

      September 5, 2017 at 3:21 pm

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