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The Big Fish

By: Joshua Vandegrift

Within an hour’s journey of the harbors of Seattle, there survives a ‘world class’ Steelhead river. From her sprawling exodus into Puget Sound, unto her slender spring fed genesis, I have negotiated these pristine waters for the better part of my adult life.
As a transplant, I spent my youth wondering aimlessly around the Puget Sound region in search of my Promised Land. While still a young buck, I was introduced to these waters by two Pacific Northwest natives. My first pilgrimage to pay homage to this river was marked by the lingering scent of alder blossoms in mid-summer. Upon indoctrination, my purpose sustained me until the last leaves dropped from their trees in autumn.
While this journey typically ends for most transplants at the base of Angel Falls, those who know the terrain persevere eastward to the river forks. At this point, the southern route must be traversed before reaching the most coveted of destinations.

In this particular stretch of river, the force of gin clear water has carved a valley out of the basalt as if it were made from butter. In formations where granite sentries persevere in defiance, tranquil settling pools embrace cerulean blue waters. It is in this place where I have found my Nirvana.

There are many rivals that compete for these waters- all manner of life-whether it’s two legged, four legged, winged or finned- once they have stumbled upon this paradise, they are destined to return. Aside from Steelhead, on any given day you may encounter kindred such as Rainbow, Dolly Varden, Cut-Throat, and the occasional Brook trout. These waters also team with most varieties of salmonoid, including transplanted Atlantic salmon. Dependent on the season, any of the aforementioned species are worthy of pursuit in their own right. There are a few exceptions to this rule however that aren’t worth pursuing. I have personally been duped by these counterfeits in the past, so I include them for the sake of argument.

One of the most notorious of these imposters is known as the “Chub”. The Chub is a cruel joke of a hybrid- somewhere between a Carp and Walleye. Its origins are unknown, but it is believed to have been introduced into the Colombia River east of the mountains where it has become an invasive parasite. At first glance, they emerge sizeable and appear to be edible, but you will curse every swallow as you choke down each bite. This nuisance has a veracious appetite, and devours the food source, and the offspring of legitimate game fish at every opportunity. It has somehow managed to find its way into the west-side rivers and surrounding tributaries.

Because of their striking appearance, another pest invading these waters at an alarming rate has been aptly named the Artifish. They come in a variety of sizes, and all of them are pleasing to the eye. What sets these fish apart besides their deceptive good looks, is their foul synthetic taste. Anyone who has made the mistake of ingesting one of these creatures will tell you that as soon as their flesh is exposed, your first impulse will be to spit them out. Their other traits seemingly pale in comparison to the Chub- they don’t compete for food source, nor are they known for bothering the offspring. But what they are known for are subtle- yet laser sharp barbs. After sampling one of these vermin, you’ll be grateful for Chub. Aside from their beauty, the only redeeming quality they have is their vitality. Pound for pound, one of the most powerful species I have ever encountered, bar none. Where these fish come from, and how they arrived in our rivers, no one really knows. But rest assured, they are here to stay- and their pleasing appearance is not to be taken lightly.

I have my own exclusive kingdom in Nirvana- while my brethren occupy the territory between the boulder strewn tail-out, and the deep chasms scribed by seasonal flood water turbulence- I stake my claim in an area that is relatively free from Artifish and Chubs. With the exception of one conspicuous boulder, the river here is liberated from her obstacles. Although I value her transparency, I am often forced to seek refuge behind this rock in order to avoid detection from dubious eyes. I have wooed my share of trophies from various locations in this river. But nostalgia always brings me back to behind this boulder and to the glory days of enticing prized hens….but those are stories from faded memories. The tale I’m here to tell is still fresh in my mind:

After enduring a two-week onslaught of rain, sunlight triumphed over a somber veil of mist, prompting a hasty retreat into the mountains. The infusion of floodwater’s only restraint, was the fickle nature of hesitant banks. After a few days of sunshine collaborating with cool autumn nights, the river dropped into pristine shape. Coming off of an almost three year hiatus, it was under these conditions in mid-October that I succumbed to my instincts and returned to my Promised Land. Despite the fact that I am winding the downhill cycle in age, I make my ascension effortlessly, as the years have been kind to my memory. A life time experience navigating these waters trumps the efforts of the novice half my age. While my senses are being flooded with familiar sights and smells, I begin to question what possessed me to stay away for so long. But I quickly disregard any regrets. Things change, priorities shift, life happens.

I leave behind the trestle hole, and ascend the upper staircase. Under the high bridge, I bypass the Reiter ponds and shoot through the log hole. My adrenaline increases with each familiar bend in the river. As I travel east, I take inventory of my competition. There are plenty of young bucks in the river this day, with an occasional hen here and there- all drawn by the same forces that compel me. Generally, I don’t bump into anyone of my season up here, as their needs can be fulfilled with a lot less effort downstream. But for me, it’s not just about getting my needs met. It’s about the journey…..the experiences…and ultimately, the final destination.

With the exception of a predictable dull ache in my spine, I arrive into my element no worse for the wear. I spend a few moments in the tail-out where I take stock of my surroundings. The only refuge that sunlight hasn’t exposed is the shadows cast from a distorted outcrop. I advance cautiously to the security of my rock, where I rest in the brilliance of the author of my domain. The river bed is a labyrinth of woven earth tones. Riffles over mottled cobblestone separate the reflection of advancing evergreen trees from the forest tapestry. Maples and Alders vie for attention ablaze in their glory. My paradise is just how I left it- down to the ancient cedar snag, deposited no doubt by flood waters of historic proportions.

While meditating on my good fortune, I am startled by movement from the corner of my eye. I compose myself and discretely assume my position. When I’ve worked up enough courage, I peer wishfully around the security of my boulder. I recalibrate my focus and scan for the object of my desire. At first glance my aim is high, creating the illusion of mistrust. I adjust my sights to filter out everything except for the organic. A sudden flash divulges my target and I zoom in on location.
Appearing nervous and vulnerable, her splendor is revealed.
I back off and feign disinterest, as I begin to devise my strategy.

I am impetuous by nature. My history is riddled with failures in life where zeal (without knowledge) has gotten the best of me, limiting my success. But I’ve learned to grow from my past mistakes. They have taught me how to scrutinize my prospects, consider my objectives, and place value on the virtues of patience as well as perseverance. I now measure my potential by knowing when to advance, when to retreat, and when to rest in the knowledge that my prize will be delivered by providence. I study my objective for behavioral traits that would justify an aroused suspicion. I look for subtle nuances, barely recognizable to the untrained eye. Whether it be a head toss, that seemed a little forced, or the distance in a gaze- I evaluate every aspect of body language for authenticity. To some, this may be considered over analyzing- but to those who have been duped by counterfeits in the past, it is considered good practice.

Before I am satisfied that my aim is true, the seductress beguiles me with her allure. I strike impulsively without hesitation. The river boils with my fervor. By the time my senses catch up to my adrenalin- it’s too late… I instantly feel the needle sharp spine piercing my flesh and penetrating through soft tissue and old scars. I shake my head in disbelief which sinks the barb even deeper. I am forced to reckon with my impending doom, which I fear will include a piercing of my heart. Realizing that I am hopelessly snared, I am resistant to the brute force drawing me towards the shallows. But in my desperation, I begin to reflect in the way at which I have been brought out of my tribulations in the past. With a renewed found confidence, and all the strength I can muster, I propel my body towards the direction of the opposing force. I ascend towards the heavens increasing my velocity and break free from my earthly constraints. The initial shock to my system adapting to an unrestricted environment, is offset by the instant gratification of an atmosphere rich in unfiltered sunlight and oxygen. In that moment…. frozen forever in time….. I see my world from a new perspective. I reenter my domain in a torrent of uncertainty, but surrender in spirit to the mercy of my Redeemer. It is only then do I feel at peace, despite the self-induced affliction caused by my own recklessness.
My body goes limp and flows with the current…..devoid of despair…..

Defying the laws of gravity, in a twilight state I am lifted up by a familiar force. I feel the thorn being plucked from my flesh which releases the unseen tether that bound me to my pain and suffering.

I am placed back into my realm, as if nothing ever happened, and I am only left to glean…..

Another lesson to be learned…

Another memory to fade…

And a familiar scent…

…of fresh lavender and soap.

Artifish…when will I ever learn?

 

   After accepting the gift of salvation in 1982, Joshua Vandegrift wondered the wilderness for 16 years while he vacillated on the unconditional terms of surrendering his will. Upon allegiance with the author of his life, Josh was liberated from the bitter ranks of slighted victims and has since become a dignity shedding professional- profoundly trained in the art of swallowing his pride. In addition to raising two teen-aged boys, the Lord has bestowed upon him a ministry of compassion- as well as a love for the great outdoors.

 

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